We are not worms, we’re children of God

One of the songs I do not like singing in worship is Isaac Watts’ “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed.” The song original written really helps us feel as wicked as possible and even compares us to a worm.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

I came from a family system that might actually enforce that worm image in me, that shame that plagues so many Middle Easterners (and Central Pennsylvanians). I already feel not good enough and now God thinks of me that way too? That he would burn me in hell like a spider dangling from a thread about a flame, just like that, if he felt like it? I’m like a maggot?

It took me a long time to believe people when they told me that God loved me. I didn’t believe I was created to be loved and I didn’t believe that even if God restored me that my carnal nature would ever be solved.

I really thought that I was totally depraved, unable to do anything good without a total submission to God. That haunted me as I kept sinning as a teenager and I could never seem to get out of the crippling pressure I received from the people who were supposed to love me and God, the Father.

The negative self-image that can be so often tattooed on us by well-meaning Christians is a challenge to undo. Sometimes we try to be perfect to fix it. Or we judge someone else as harshly as we do ourselves when we are not perfect. We just become indifferent and don’t even bother to be pious because we’ll never be perfect anyway. We might develop a false image of self-confidence and spread our narcissism on others, demanding their support and affirmation, and forming nothing of our own within ourselves. Might as well drink and smoke until we can just forget the pain.

But, I believe that God restores us. Restores us to who we were created to be. Restores back to his image. Our sin is not greater than the one whose image we are created in. God is still alive. Jesus conquered death. And we can live and do good today through Him. Edwards and Calvin and all those other guys are right–without God, we can’t do any good. But without God, we’d be dead, not just evil.

Being made whole and complete, turning away from our fallen nature or carnal selves is something that Jesus does in us right when we follow Him. He restores us. He recreates us. Paul makes this clear in Romans 6.

Paul is making a major philosophical argument here. In this famous passage he utters a phrase that we often need to hear now. If it’s free, won’t people take advantage of it? If it’s abundant, doesn’t it lose its value? If I don’t have to be obedient and follow all the rules to become redeemed, won’t people just act evil? If I’m too gracious, won’t someone take advantage of me?

Paul argues that without grace, we are slaves. Slaves to sinning—our own selfish desire and pleasure. Or slaves to obedience—making sure we follow every law and rule perfectly. We are going to fail and fall short, yes.

Paul thanks God that we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to Righteousness, slaves to God. We have been set free. This notion is that we are freed from the curse of our sin and the curse of our carnal selves. We are made pure. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us again.

And no! It isn’t an excuse to sin, but in time and through a process, our desire won’t be to sin. We can become perfected through Jesus, because we are the perfect vessels for his Spirit and the perfect laborers for his Kingdom.

A few weeks ago, when we were talking about atonement theory, there were a few ideas that described Jesus freeing us from our captors. This image is clearly seen here as Paul utters it: we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God. Who has bought us, freed us, and leads us. We are no longer shackled to ourselves, and that is true freedom.

In the U.S., we often think of freedom and liberty as doing what we want to do. But the self-centered hollowness of libertarianism is costly. Being a slave to ourselves corrodes our soul and ultimately leaves us dissatisfied. There is not enough to go around. When we aren’t shackled to God and connected to a community, when I take, you lose and when you take, I lose. But in the new system, we are attached to God, we’ve gained holiness, and eternal life. In eternity, there is nothing to lose as we share all in common. We are beginning to do that now.

For me, the greatest evidence that we are not worms and that we are made pure and whole is that gift from God through Jesus. It is so powerful, it changes and transforms who we are! We are children of God, who ran away from him like the Prodigal Son, but when we returned he embraced us with wide open arms. We aren’t worms! God loves us.

Yes, Jonathan Edwards is right: the wages of sin is death. But that’s not the end of the verse.

The gift of God is eternal life! LIFE! Eternity starts now, right in you, right in the community. The curse has been lifted, we can be made whole and complete. We don’t have to work so hard to be good, and feel so bad when we fail. Our conscious alone probably indicates that our carnal nature never really took over, because God’s grace is bigger than our own sin, but it is hard to fight. Our upbringings embolden our false selves and made our true selves seem more distant. And pretty soon we are operating with hard hearts, bitter souls, and injured bodies. We can be vengeful, spit vitriol, and just be plain mean people. I suppose we can act like worms sometimes. But the first step to changing that is by thinking you aren’t, by letting God enter you and redeem you, and offer you that gift of eternal life.

To protect ourselves, we have developed false selves. These false selves form because of the wounds we feel when we are younger, current pain and damage in relationships, and yes because we are not born whole and complete. We need Jesus to find our true selves. But the assent to salvation alone won’t be enough. We need to be intentional and conscious, digging up why we are, who we are. As we do that, we will know who God is more, and we’ll know how to follow him more.

So go to therapy. Talk to a professional all about your pain and difficulties, your worries and desires. Learn about yourself and the woundedness that has come to define you. Become more than that. It will take a lifetime to really do this process well, and a good therapist and your intentionality can go a long way.

Pray and mediate. Practice a spiritual discipline, or turn your regular disciplines (diet, exercise, reading, or whatever) into a spiritual one. Strive to be one with God. Read the Scriptures prayerfully. Center on God in prayer. Be alone. Contemplate. Ruminate. Carve out time for just you and God and see how you can get closer to the one who made you whole, and see if that doesn’t make you better.

Know how you are limited, but don’t be afraid to push past your limitations. Don’t judge yourself for your shortcomings, but embrace them, and be healed by the wounded healer. Become aware of who you are, what your tendencies are, and become friends with them. Then proceed past them holding on to your new nature in Jesus, but know your boundaries and know that you are still limited even as you slay the dragons in your life. Join a cell even if you don’t feel like you have time to. Come to a PM even though it makes you anxious. Give to the common fund even though you think you’re broke as a joke. Don’t break up because the relationship isn’t filled with fireworks. Talk to someone you don’t know even though you are an introvert. Stay in on Friday even though you’ll be missing out (if you’re an extravert).

Finally tell someone about it. About your process of hope and redemption. How you were made whole. Love them and embrace them. Share your hope of newness with the world. We need you.

We are all beggars, but Jesus just wants us to ask

A lot of the ideas I get for writing these blog posts come from the weekly  four- to five-hour pastors meetings. This week, we got to talking about becoming a society of beggars. Joshua, on his newly revamped blog, wrote his thoughts about how to share resources together. I want to offer some of my own thoughts that I think compliment his.

We are all beggars it seems. When I grocery shop at Reading Terminal, I see people panhandling all the time outside of the market. Many of my friends have started crowd-funding campaigns to start their businesses. On top of that, schools are individually raising money, there are people who are trying to raise support to take care of public property, and there are people trying to start non-profits that make our communities safer and more affordable places to live.

On one hand this kind of “begging” has always been a part of society. In ancient and medieval times (and all over the world, including the U.S.) there are people on the street who are begging for their livelihood. For the most part, the beggars were not really “blamed” for their problem, but it was just part of life. In the U.S., we often blame our poor for being that way, and we hate to be disturbed by the beggar at all, because how dare some stranger talk to us.

It seems to me that there are people begging not just for funds to start a new business, but to keep basic social services alive and going. We are all privatized and individualized, that there is no longer a notion of “public.” The inflation hawks and anti-big government lobbyists have told us so frequently that taxes and big government are the problem that many effective government programs and resources (like, say, public education) are just being cut, meanwhile we are all still paying taxes to our local municipalities, states, and federal government but with nothing to show for it. It is like we are living in the time of Jesus where Herod would just tax the hell out of everyone, but with no end result (at least in other nations where taxes are higher, so is the quality of life).

The concept of mutual care and love that a community could previously rely on is quickly eroding as the one percent gain more and more wealth, and the rest of us are left to struggle in our debt and joblessness. We are increasingly isolated, left even to beg for relationships, at times, hoping our next Tinder connection is “the one.” It’s a bleak time to be advocating for creating a new public and a community. The public meeting is better consumed at home via a podcast. A cell is too personal to be a part of.

Just the other day, when I was talking to some of our cell leaders about attending a retreat we are planning, a few thought the price tag was too high for them, so they opted out. I wondered why they wouldn’t ask someone else for the help or even their parents, or something. We are a very individualistic society, committed to serving ourselves, and sometimes too self-conscious to rely on the public services or help that is plainly evident to us.

The cost of being so individualistic is ultimately feeling alone. How can someone ever be one with God if they can’t even talk to their neighbor? How can we even be Christians without having a sense of mutuality or community? If we are all begging to get our needs met, both interior and exterior needs, we might be doomed.

In the church and in the Kingdom of God, we operate out of generosity and abundance. These ideas are foreign to those who think stinginess and scarcity are prudent. We operate out of love and safety. For those who are afraid that there won’t be enough to go around—try me, there will be. Our whole Network is based on the idea that there is enough love to go around. Not only do our cells provide a space for people to love, care, forgive, and expand themselves, we have lots of other opportunities for people to be resourced and be given an opportunity to resource others. Our Common Fund is a great way to let go of the resources that we begged for and use them for good—we use a percentage of our income to help people in need in the community (with rent, bills, car problems, and other emergencies), as well as helping dozens of people get high-quality psychotherapy. Compassion teams like the Good Business Consortium, the Debt Annihilation Teams, and Development Without Displacement practically meet people’s needs in forming good businesses, getting people out of debt slavery, and advocating for decent legislation that protects residents of neighborhoods instead of pushing them out.

Jesus intentionally hung out with people who were poor and down-and-out. He also hung out with those tax collectors (who are a different kind of beggar, I suppose) He got criticized for doing it. Jesus loves to take those who are need and give them what they ask for. He even tells us all we need to do is ask, not beg, and he will fill us with the Holy Spirit.

Adrian Peterson can become whole, just like all of us

After a very discouraging Phillies season, my ears are wide open to hear what the sports talk radio people are discussing regarding the NFL season. Unfortunately, as of late, the discussion has not been about the games, but the violence of the players. I’ve written about Ray Rice, but this week another star running back is getting the spotlight. This time it is Adrian Peterson, arguably the best running back in football who tips well. He was indicted for child abuse after he hit his four-year-old with a switch (I didn’t know what a switch was either until someone told me it is a Southern term for a tree branch).

I’ve only been a parent for eighteen months, so I don’t have a lot to say about how someone might discipline their child. I was spanked as a kid. My mom later confessed to me that she probably would not spank us if she had another go at it. Of course, Mom and Dad were both spanked in Cairo, where they grew up, so it’s not surprising that we experienced the same thing. But I don’t ever remember being hurt, it was more of a symbolic act.

Adrian Peterson’s son has the scars and bruises to show it was more than just punishment. So he has been indicted, and was released from jail on a big bail. He was deactivated last Sunday against the Patriots (a bold move, considered the magnitude of the opponent). The Vikings have actually decided that their star won’t play all year.

The violence of Peterson and Rice are troubling for a couple of reasons. The first one: the media reports on these crimes in a way that helps us form the way we think about athletes, and black athletes notably. Secondly, loud-mouths like Charles Barkley (local hero, yes, but also not the most guarded talker) defend Peterson in generalized ways: “I’m from the South. Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the south is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

Um, what? Charles, please stop generalizing about black people or an entire region of the United States. Are black people more violent than other people? Are Southerners more violent? I don’t know about all that, and I don’t assume that many of these things are cultural.

It’s appropriate to consider where we come from and how that has influenced us. Systemic racism and poverty affect how we all act and respond to a variety of circumstances. That does not excuse domestic abuse. Nor does the fact that a violent sport like football teaches violence, and repeated concussions have been shown to alter people’s temperaments. Those things are all factors and they need to be addressed. But even if they are, hope isn’t found in making football less violent, or protecting players against concussions, or even radically revolutionizing old cultural habits.

Hope is found in Jesus. We all need to be clothed with the armor of God as Paul puts it in Ephesians 6: Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. Jesus compels us to rid ourselves of our false self and be restored to our true selves. At some point, it is crucial to know why we act the way we do, and how our upbringing and our culture affects us. That self-awareness, left idle, isn’t enough. As Richard Rohr says, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” The pain of our upbringing, culture, neighborhood—all of these things that affect us, all of these things that need endless empathy—needs to be transformed into something greater.

Adrian Peterson needs to become a whole person, like all of us, even if he was raised with the idea that hitting a four-year-old with a tree branch is OK. I’m not sure he was, and I think Barkley’s response is way too defensive. But there is hope for Peterson, and he may already know about that hope and be working toward it (faith in Christ is another black Southern tradition). He isn’t forever a child abuser. He can change. Forgiveness and redemption are possible.

I hope we learn to empathize and love, while also instructing and transforming people. We need to be lovers and truth-tellers. The cost of not doing one is turning a blind eye to when a child get abused. If we go to the other extreme, we might indict and stereotype people and perpetuate our society’s numerous problems.

The creator not only created us, he created hope

Do you remember what happened this February? Bill Nye the Science Guy debated “young earth Creationist” Ken Ham. The debate lasted nearly three hours. It was the perfect reason not to discuss creation and evolution. To me, debates of most kinds end up being more divisive than helpful. They crush people and don’t build up.

The debates like this often caricaturize the “sides,” and leave most of us feeling isolated. Dialogue is more important than doctrine and that is what keeps us united.

Our society loves this. Politics teach us to be on a side. Sports do the same thing too. Bad marriages end up being that divided too.

There are debates that I think are worth having, don’t get me wrong. But I hesitate to be too dichotomous or didactic when it comes to these kinds of things because I want to be open to the Spirit and open to you all as well.

But I am still compelled to ask a question about creation. Instead of how, let’s start with why. Why creation? Why should one to bother to think that we are created?

I’m going to go for practical answers here, not necessarily rational or scientific. If our judgment and decisions are based on rationality, my worry is that the powers that be will be the ones who decide what is rational and what is not rational.

The pattern is dangerous, and the things that are so-called rational so often make up our world, that I simply do not trust them. I do not really believe that there is an objective rationality. But I’m convinced that there is truth. I just get it from different sources—Jesus, his body, his Spirit, and his creation!

Moreover, there is more to the world than just the physical. If we simply believe that all that is in the world is the material, there is a cost to it. Materialism is the belief that matter is the main thing in the world. All things that happen—including what happens in our minds, hearts, and souls—are the result of the material. I think we have a hard time justifying many things we believe in if physicality is all that exists.

For example, when we start thinking about things like the environment. For me, the best argument for caring about our environment is creation care. With that said, if we don’t believe that we were created, our best environmental argument is anthropocentric. Our main reason for protecting the environment is just to perpetuate our species. “Nature” is going to win ultimately. The polar bears will eat us if we melt the ice caps. And then everything will keep going. The ocean will recover from the oil spills. Eventually, all the carbon emissions will filter out. And nature will keep churning on. The tide of nature is stronger than the will of humans. Our best argument without a creator and creation is just keeping ourselves alive until we inevitably go extinct, like 99.9 percent of all organisms thus far.

The world is bleak without a creator and without creation. We’re left to our own devices, our own morality, and our own thought patterns. Without a creator, I can’t make an argument for being moral, I can’t make an argument against war, I can’t make an argument against human suffering. Well, I might be able to, but it can quickly be deconstructed. Just like everything will be. We’re all moving into entropy and chaos. To those who don’t believe in creation, the world as we know it is falling apart. So we’re left with the philosophies that dominate us: capitalism, nihilism, postmodernism. And why bother convincing me anyway? What’s the point of the truth? Without creation, there is no truth, no meaning—only the material, so you may as well acquire as much as you want and feel good all the time.

Look at this debate between the capitalist and the anarchist—without a creator, the argument for morality seems futile. It’s from Mad Men.

Don Draper is right: without God, the universe is indifferent. But God is alive! So he is actually wrong.

Ultimately, though, why don’t my cynical arguments about the futility of progress and morality make sense? Why don’t they sit right with you? Because we’re created. We are made by God. You can debate the how all you want. But I don’t need to debate it, because I have been restored.

The universe isn’t indifferent. God isn’t indifferent. He compels us to do more than just serve ourselves. Paul says it best to the Romans in the first chapter of his letter to them. Of course, the Roman Empire has formed the thought that has ultimately led us to this nihilistic, narcissistic world. Paul calls it out right away.

We are created to care for others and the whole world. There is hope on the other side. We have an undisputed origin. A place to revert to. An order of things. We have true authenticity. God sees us in the way he created us. We are more than our trauma, more than our wounds, more than our insecurities. God made us to be more than that.

What do we do with the fact that we were created? How do I live like I am created? How do I not fall into the indifferent nihilism?

Be a creator. Mimic the creator and create yourself. Make your art more than self-expression.

Be a worshipper. Sing a new song to the Creator. It’s worth celebrating the beauty that is around us in the created world. If we really want to convince the world of the creation, we need to start with our praises to the creator.

Be a relater. Relate as if you were created. Love your neighbor. Make a new friend. Share the positive message and meaning you have behind your life. Show the world that there is more to it than just self-service. Do it in love and in hope.

Be intentional. Do everything on purpose. You were intentionally made and created. So take care to be that real and that genuine and that authentic everywhere you go. Take nothing for granted. God made you with a purpose, so find it and intentionally do it. Do things on purpose. (Find out what the purpose of your random actions are too).

Be a world-changer. Redeem the whole creation. Clearly, it has been fractured and injured. Be a part of the restoration process. Justice, peace, creation care. All of these things are the responsibility of the created. Don’t serve yourself, serve others. Join or serve a compassion team.

Be recreated. Change again. Be transformed again. Be recreated. Get rid of your old self and clothe yourself with your new self. The false self you have: all of the trauma and difficulty and woundedness that defines you—reject it and find your wholeness as the beloved created child of God. A great way to be recreated: spend time in the creation. Swim in a lake. Take a hike in the woods. Do something outside.

Without the creation, I’m unsure if we have a purpose, and I think we might just be left to our own devices. That bleak indifference is soul crushing. Belief in creation leads us to know that we are loved and to spread the love to others.

Five reasons to care about development without displacement

“How do we make our neighborhoods good places to live, without making them expensive places to live?”

That’s the question that the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities is trying to answer. Circle of Hope, through our compassion team Development Without Displacement, is part of this coalition. We want to make Philadelphia a great place to live Our team has about a dozen of people on it, and we are on a coalition with dozens more people and organizations. We’re doing good work together. We are working in line with our proverb: generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.

We want to love our neighbors and touch our neighborhoods. We want them to be good places to live, that the poor among us need. We want to expand and protect affordability in neighborhoods impacted by gentrification. We are using every tool at our disposal, and that includes the politicians in City Hall. We have developed a good relationship with them after our manifestly successful Take Back Vacant Land campaign which put the 40,000 vacant parcels into the biggest land bank in our nation. We’ve got a hot fire, so we’re gonna keep cooking!

Practically, we are trying to get more money into the hands of people who are going to advocate for affordable housing. We want those committed to and invested in the neighborhoods to stay in them. We have them to be diverse, healthy, and equitable. We need your help!

Here are my top five reasons why you may want to support the work of our team:

  • Jesus would and does! Are we really following Jesus if we don’t advocate for the least of these? For the widows and orphans, as James notes. Jesus tells us that, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” He is interested in people following Him, both being and doing. In Luke 6, he asks the rhetorical question, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” He goes on to say in the same chapter, “the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.” The call from Jesus is clear: we need to do more than profess his name and assent to the right theology. We need to act for justice and do it in His name. This kind of work transforms the whole world.
  • Doing it with others emboldens are witness too. We often get asked about how we are working with other churches and other organizations. This team is exhibit A. We aren’t reinventing the wheel, we are getting on board with a group of people. It’s fun to meet new friends and do something together.
  • We need our legislators to consider those in the greatest need. Too often our city gives tax breaks and green lights to corporations like Comcast and big developers. Our officials need to consider the city’s seemingly intractable problem of poverty as well. The need is great too. Philly is one of the poorest cities in the country with a 27 percent poverty rate, and a 45 percent poverty rate among women-headed families. Meanwhile, in 2013, 2800 new housing units were developed.
  • When neighborhoods become good places to live, everyone benefits. Let’s start with the children. Our public schools improve when our neighborhoods are built for actual life—the neighborhood I live in is nearly amenity-less. We have a surplus of student housing and not much else. When they are built for families, they tend to get more expensive, but if we balance that development with affordable housing—public services, like schools, improve and everyone gets in on it. Moreover, if schools are good, there won’t be a rush to move out once junior turns five.
  • We are more than principled, we’re thoughtful. With more and more Philadelphians moving this town—which is great!—we want to make it a hospitable place to live for everyone. Gentrification is a complicated subject—good schools lead to more expensive neighborhoods, almost invariably. Sometimes the benefactors of it are homeowners in a depressed neighborhood. The legislation we advocate will take those nuances into consideration.

This is a process, so get on board and stay on board. We think it will take three years to form the legislation, and pass it through City Council. Here’s what you can do: join our team (contact me personally), join us at our next event, pray for us, and tell your council person you care about the issues.

It is only wrong if you get caught: Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and consumerism

One of the reasons that this generation feels so dis-empowered to do anything: protest the new war in Iraq, make a big enough fuss to change the dialogue about racism in the U.S., or even feel strong enough to advocate for themselves as they drown in student loan debt, is because the message that’s always delivered is that you don’t matter, but how you spend your money does. To the one percent, what you consume defines you. The response from the generation? How I construct myself and the world around me defines me. In a sense, the response from the millennials makes some sense because they have been so marketed to that they really must rebel. The latest example of this is the Ray Rice ordeal.

Here are the basics: over the summer, the Baltimore Ravens star running back in the prime of his career was caught on video at the now-defunct Revel casino dragging his then-fiancé (now wife, Janay Palmer/Rice) out of an elevator after he knocked her unconscious. The NFL suspended him two games.

Fast forward to September, the day after the opening Sunday of the 2014-15 season, and TMZ, the celebrity gossip website, releases a video of Ray Rice beating his Janay directly (for the record, TMZ is no savior–all it cares about is traffic to its website as it endlessly encourages the worship and defamation of our new royalty: celebrities). It did not take long, but the Ravens cut the star, and Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, banned him.

The outcry from the media and activists is clear: the response was too late. Roger Goodell and the Ravens did not act decisively when it mattered. So why did Goodell respond the way he did? My take is that he did not want his product to be damaged. Everything the NFL does has one thing in mind: its bottom line.

The consumer economy creates a world where the only thing that matters is how we spend our money. Our humanity is stripped from us because all that matters is what we consume. We consumed the video of Ray Rice beating Janay. Now the NFL is afraid we won’t consume their product. So they banned Ray Rice to save face, not because it was just. Goodell should have issued the strongest blow he could when the trouble rose up (he should have copied Adam Silver’s decisiveness with Donald Sterling).

Another message we receive is that it does not matter what one does, it matters what one is caught doing. It seems to me that we aren’t often judges of character when we hire people to work for us, we only care if their conduct is leaked. So, ultimately, the emphasis we place in the future may be on not getting caught. So rather than becoming better people, we’ll just become shadier people.

If Goodell was the only one that knew about this, Rice would be employed, and we would not hear about it. Not that we need to hear about it, but the ethical dilemma is that immorality only matters when you are caught, or rather, when it affects your company’s bottom line. So we are taught not to get caught, not to be concerned about the content of one’s character. Our employers are concerned with protecting their company’s privacy more than they are concerned with the kind people their employees are.

Jesus transforms all of us. So as we follow him, what we do in private, in public, and everywhere else should be transformed. The culture we live in is so superficial, that the only thing that matters is what you are caught doing. Because we do not want to judge people for their individual decisions, we put ourselves in a position of needing to judge them when their secret sins are made public.

A better way to live is to fully submit yourself to the Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ. Creating a culture of accountability where sins are confessed, and not admitted to. That is why I am glad to be a Christian. Dialogue is crucial to our trust system. A culture where everyone is afraid of being found out because they have led secretive lives without anyone knowing is corroding our souls and selling the theme that all that matters is what other people think of me, what I look like, and what I buy. The cost for the church is people who are slow-to-trust and quick-to-cover-up; that kind of anxiety does not create fertile ground for the church to thrive. So we are up against it.

Truly, we need to be saved.

Viewing the cross as a way to reach the next person

The pastors have been thinking and writing a lot about atonement lately. What is atonement exactly? Well, it’s a word that actually has English etymology. If you break it down, you can see it as “at-one-ment.” Being one with God. The act that makes us one with God. I love this definition from our pastors: The at-one-ment, propitiation, the expiation, the act that turns away wrath, the exhalation after inhalation. You could call it the calming. The payment. It is what saves us. How the cross of Jesus works. Why his death and resurrection free us. It works with meaning, interpretation, and story.

How we think about Jesus’ work on the cross creates different ways of how we relate to him and each other, and what he calls us to do and be. It’s easy enough to get: God has provided us with a way that helps us overcome death and sin, to make us one with him. But the action itself is so profound and full of meaning we cannot expect to understand it in its entirety or formulaically.

So as I offer you a few basic ways to understanding the redemption of Jesus’ work, let’s move out of our minds and into our bodies, spirits, and hearts, as well. The images I am offering you help us see a complete picture of Christ’s salvation.

Picture1I want to go roughly in chronological order, so we’ll start with Jesus the example.

This was initially developed in the first and second centuries by the Apostolic Fathers—the first Christians, really. The logician and theologian Peter Abelard developed it further. This explanation basically says that Jesus’s life and death is a moral example to humanity. He inspired us to leave our sin behind and his main work is leading everyone toward repentance and faith. Though God’s work may demand “compensation,” the Lord doesn’t ask for it. God’s endless love overrules his need for justice.

Israel has long needed a moral example, so the root of this theory is in Jewish history. Through many means—the law, prophets, sacrifices—God tried to get his people to do the right thing. Eventually he had to send his son, the perfect example, to show the way. The crucifixion is a selfless act of sacrifice, and the demonstration of the highest virtues of the moral life.

Of course, the opposition to this is rooted in the fact that this theory downplays the crucifixion. Is the crucifixion necessary at all? Does Jesus just need to be moral? Isn’t he like Gandhi then or something? But proponents argue that Jesus isn’t just an example, or just anything, God is simply not coercive; he merely models and invites and beckons.

The next image is called Jesus the ransom.Picture2

The image focuses on the devil and God’s holiness. Formed, in part, by Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa and then, of course, by the beloved but too-influential-for-our-own-good Augustine of Hippo. People in this school of thought see Jesus dying as a ransom paid to Satan for saving humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, and then Satan gained control and dominion over the whole world. It was only through God’s sacrifice of his son that Satan’s dominion ends.

This view was widely taught in the 1100s and it is still influential. Children who read The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe may find it in the story.

People have had trouble with this explanation because it’s a theory for how atonement works. It isn’t a story or a revelation, it’s a technique that can be articulated. It’s too systemic for some.

It’s also unusual that Satan seems to benefit from the death of Jesus. Did Satan’s satisfaction have a role in world redemption? Scripture never articulates that Satan was the entity to whom the ransom was paid. Others have argued that God wasn’t the receiver of the ransom, but he accepted it because in how redemption works it was fitting that humans should be redeemed through the human one God provided.

Picture3Next we have Jesus the satisfaction.

This theory famously comes from Anselm of Canterbury and it focuses on Jesus and honor. It’s not surprising that it comes from the feudalistic honor society. Thomas Aquinas elaborated further on it.

It is similar to ransom theory, but Satan has nothing to do with it. Humankind has sinned and defiled God’s handiwork. So, because God is self-respecting, he does not allow His purpose to be thwarted. God, simply put, was offended by human’s sin and needs to maintain his honor. This is totally borrowed from the feudal culture that surrounds Anselm. A sacrifice or repentance or any sort of penance isn’t enough because God has been infinitely offended, so he needs an infinite sacrifice.

Humankind needs to be punished, and the only way out is through an infinite sacrifice. That is why God brought about the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus is the reparation through which humankind is redeemed. Aquinas agrees with Anselm and says that after absolute repentance, humans can receive satisfaction through penance or punishment.

Critics argue that it is not God’s honor that is injured, but his justice. Furthermore, God is too much like a king whose dignity has been offended. How insecure is he? How defensive can he be? Can’t God forgive who he wants when he wants?  And even though not many hold to Anselm’s view precisely, it paves the way for other theories down the line.

Jesus the Substitute is one of those theories that it influenced. Without a doubt, this is the most dominant explanation in the Picture4Protestant church. It’s rooted in Isaiah, and many other places, in the scripture. Arguably it is the most manifestly Biblical of all the explanations.

The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin are the main teachers of this theory. It borrows a lot from Anselm’s satisfaction theory, but it altars it significantly. God doesn’t need to be satisfied, but his punishment needs to be justified. The reformers talk about Jesus taking the punishment God has intended to give us. He absorbed the wrath intended for us.

Some consider this a holistic view of the whole scripture. His work fulfills the law and prophets. Sin invokes God’s wrath, and his wrath must be satisfied. Put another way, God’s law has been broken, his wrath needs to be quenched. God’s punishment needs to be paid. God is just and can’t overlook your sin. Sin requires a just answer. Christ took the justice from God instead of us, the payment was obtained vicariously through Jesus. He died for us and on our behalf, once and for all.

This theory has been severely criticized by many. They argue that punishment and forgiveness aren’t compatible ideas. If a person is punished, forgiveness is impossible. The point of forgiveness is that punishment is curbed. That punishment, furthermore, if it must be satisfied, is not transferable.

It is also more judicial than explanatory. It doesn’t illuminate the other views, it stands on its own. It doesn’t play well with others, because it tries to explain how atonement works. Others say, it’s simply too violent, and uses medieval images of violence. It makes God look like a wrathful father exacting revenge against his Son—so it leads to coercive preaching, as we find in the Puritan tradition.

Finally, we have Jesus the victor.

This image focuses on Jesus and his power over evil. Gustav Aulen in 1931 wrote a book called Christus Victor, but its origin might be even earlier. Jesus is a God who wins.

Jesus is literally doing battle on the cross to defeat sin, death, and hell—all of the “powers” out of this world. He rescues us from sin, death, and hell. The key is to focus not on a payment to the devil but on the liberation of humanity. Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin. It is like the ransom story, except the good guys don’t pay the ransom, but save the hostage.

It isn’t about substitution or satisfaction. Jesus entered into the misery of humanity and redeems us. The crucifixion according to Aulen is not rationally necessary to reconcile God and humanity. It is not a rational theory, in fact. The crucifixion is a drama, and a passion story of God triumphing over the powers and liberating us.

Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan by transforming the very means employed by the Evil One to deform. Thus, the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love. God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death. For Jesus-followers who are robustly Trinitarian, this explanation maintains an egalitarian view of the Trinity—one in which the Son and Spirit are not junior partners in the atonement.

Critics argue that it takes too much away from substitution, and substitution is clearly more in the New Testament than this theory. Even when Christus Victor language is used, substitution follows.  Also, under this theory, Americans, who often feel victimized and entitled to be personally irresponsible, might undercut their personal guilt which Jesus assumes to be elemental to their character.

I personally subscribe to a kaleidoscopic view of the atonement. The work of Jesus is far too big for our finite minds. A theory isn’t going to explain it. And, frankly, it doesn’t need to be explained. But it needs to be believed and people need the story. They need narrative that they can relate to. Maybe you’ll invent the next atonement theory that leads us to a radical revival. These theories are nothing if they don’t evangelize. They don’t work if we aren’t using them to help people follow Jesus. So find out who you are talking to and ponder which of these ideas works best for them. Find out which theory moves you and tell that story. Find out what will move others and use that one. Just like example worked for the early church, the ransom for its time period, satisfaction for the feudalistic culture, substitution showcasing medieval violence, and even Christus victor showing us that we can overcome the evil powers today–one works for our time period, and it might need to be a new one. So let’s ponder that together and see what happens.