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Book Jacket

0805442987
Trade Paperback
182 pages
Jun 2006
Broadman & Holman Publishing

Not a Safe God: Wrestling With the Difficult Teachings of Jesus

by Tim Riter

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

He’s Not Safe

Warning labels abound in our litigious society. Cigarette packets caution that smoking can kill us. Food packages inform us of the fat and carbohydrates they contain. Many stores have signs indicating the presence of cancer-causing agents. Construction sites advise: “Wet Paint: Do Not Touch.”

Typically, we read these warnings and blithely proceed with what we had planned. We still smoke, we still eat unhealthy food, we still enter stores with carcinogens, and we always test the wet paint. These warnings strike little or no fear into most of us because the dangers don’t seem imminent.

Too many of us read the Bible in the same way that we read these signs and labels. We read the admonitions, warnings, demands, and instructions in God’s Word, only to pass them off as inconsequential or irrelevant to our lives. But such an attitude might prove perilous.

We like to think of God as a safe harbor, a loving father figure who only wants to help us reach our goals. We misread him, with grave consequences.

God is not safe. His demands will disrupt our carefully planned lives. The journey of faith includes risks to our safety, comfort, possessions, and self-determination. Early believers never saw following Jesus as the pathway to success, prosperity, self-actualization, or ease. Jesus never spoke casually about the cost of discipleship. We never hear him say, “Well, just hang out with me and the guys for a while, and see if it resonates with you. We don’t want to put any pressure on you. We’re here to answer any questions you may have.”

Instead, Jesus confronted seekers with the most difficult area in which they personally would have to change. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had (Matt. 19:21). He told Nicodemus, perhaps the primary teacher of Israel, to start all over like a young baby (John 3:1).

We read passages such as these and we typically choose one of two options. Either we ignore what Jesus said, claiming he exaggerated to make his point, or we turn these into rules for everyone to keep. The first option disregards Jesus’ teaching; the second establishes rules impossible to follow. Both options lead us to lies and bondage.

A third alternative exists. Take Jesus seriously. Realize that he meant what he said. He fully intends to seriously disrupt our lives. We face risks when we follow him, and we should know that going in. Listen to just some of what Jesus requires of those who follow him.

    • “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

    • “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

    • “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

    • “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

    • “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:5–6). Jesus asked for total commitment from his followers, and the apostles echoed that call for radical change.

    • “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).

    • “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16).

    • “Pray continually” (I Thess. 5:17).

    • “Give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thess. 5:18).

    • “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt. 6:34).

The demands from Jesus, and the apostles’ description of the Christian life, all express absolutes. Unless we do these we cannot fulfill our calling as a disciple. Why? Disciples always do this. The conclusion? God disrupts our lives. He defines the authentic Christian life, and he’s strongly opinionated about it. He requires major changes in us.

God is not safe if we want to live in spiritual complacency. We’ll explore the risky faith described by Jesus and the apostles. We won’t whitewash their teachings, and we won’t spiritualize them away into comfortable platitudes. We must address them squarely if we want to fully follow Jesus.

This chapter will briefly survey some of these demands to highlight the degree of disruption God intends. Then each will be explored more in-depth in its own chapter. What unites these? What do they share in common? Each is absolute. To be a disciple, we must . . . A disciple always . . . God is good. But he’s not soft.

God Intimidates

Jann discovered an intimidating God. A European who immigrated to the U.S. in his teens, he dedicated himself to career success. Then a cousin gave him a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. His analytical accountant mind grappled with what he read, and came to these logical conclusions: The Bible accurately recorded the life and claims of Jesus and, as the Son of God, only Jesus could provide access to God.

Jann became a follower of Jesus and started to explore his new life, beginning with some deep study of the Old Testament. When I asked what he’d learned about God, he pondered a moment and said, “God is one tough guy. You don’t mess around with him.”

Too many of us have overlooked that truth. We take God lightly, and minimize the passages that reveal the hard edge of God. But those tough passages demand our attention and they refuse to fade into insignificance.

The Old Covenant recognized the intimidating side of God. Just before presenting the Ten Commandments, Moses warned the people of the consequences of lightly entering into covenant with God:

    Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deut. 4:23–24)

Moses might have said, “If you don’t carry through, you’ll get burned.” Six other times the Old Testament writers refer to God as a “consuming fire” (Exod. 24:17; 2 Sam. 22:9; Ps. 18:8; Isa. 30:27, 30; 33:14). But the image spills over into the New Testament as well. The author of Hebrews revives that powerful image to encourage the followers of Jesus to live the transformed life: “for our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

This concept appeared earlier in Hebrews 10:30–31, as the author urged Christians to persevere, to help each other grow, and to avoid sin. Why? “The Lord will judge his people. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Why should we dread God? In part, because his nature intimidates us. He is nobody’s fool. When sin encounters holiness, or disloyalty clashes with faithfulness, or selfishness meets selfless love, then confrontation ensues, not consolation. Apathy repulses Christ.

God is a consuming fire. His nature surpasses ours. He’s 220 volts and we’re only wired for 12. Experiencing God in his fullness would blow our circuits. That’s why God told Moses that no one could look on him and live (Exod. 33:20). It’s an awesome experience to find ourselves in the overwhelming presence of God. The disciples discovered the same thing when they saw Jesus calm the gale on the Sea of Galilee. Previously in fear for their lives from the storm, they now became terrified, intimidated by the presence of a person with power over the storm (Mark 4:35–41).

When angels appear to people, they usually begin by saying, “Don’t fear.” Even angels intimidate us. But God intimidates angels, as Isaiah testified:

    In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. (Isa. 6:1–2)

Not even angels could look directly at God. But God also intimidates us because his demands push us out of our comfort zone and into radical transformation.

God Demands Total Transformation

Several times the apostle Paul exhorted believers to experience radical transformation. He wrote to the Galatians that what really matters is “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Later he wrote to the Corinthians that if anyone follows Christ they become “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). Our old self disappears and we become a new person. God’s goal for us falls nothing short of total transformation.

Paul wrote “flee from sexual immorality”. So, have we really grasped the radical principle behind it?

    Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor. 6:18–20)

God can demand our transformation because we have transferred ownership of our lives to him. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” Since God saved us and paid the price for us, we no longer own our lives. We belong to him. Therefore, each act must bring honor to God. We live to glorify God, not ourselves. This ownership issue changes our core identity. Rather than valuing God as a peripheral option in our lives, we place him at the very center. Each decision we make must be based on the simple question, “Which option will bring the greatest honor to God?”

This ownership change results in the radically different life that Paul described in Romans 12:1–2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

To state the obvious: A sacrifice involves sacrifice. We lose something; we give it up. And we sacrifice our lives to God. We live for him, not ourselves. But Paul’s last phrase adds to this radical dimension: transformation. We are transformed from being a natural person to a spiritual one; from self-centeredness to God-centeredness; from gaining honor for ourselves to gaining it for God. We become a different person and choose to live differently. Our values change. Our choices expand. Our goals shift. Our purpose in life becomes freshly defined.

Let’s eliminate the notion that God exists to help us reach our goals, maximizing our potential and talents. God offers a radical agenda. We serve his goals. We honor him. We use our talents for his purposes. It’s not about us, but about him. Discipleship is not about striking a deal that will be good for us, but surrendering to the one who has graciously reached out to transform our lives.

TOTALLY NEW PRIORITIES

Consequently, very specific admonitions fill the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles expressed a number of radical requirements for believers. We’ll explore each of these in depth in the following sections, but we want to scan them now to provide an overview of how truly radical a life for Christ could be. Again, we tend to either turn them into impossible and legalistic requirements, or to completely minimize their meaning. But Jesus meant what he said, and his teachings reveal crucial truth about the Christian life. When we discount his call to radical discipleship, minimizing the depth of transformation he desired, then we ignore the warnings at our peril.

Let’s survey some of these radical demands. For now, simply allowing them to percolate within, permitting the sheer number of demands to pound against the hardened rock of our lives like waves against the shore, turning it into sand.

Disciples Must Die. Changing from a life without Christ to a life for Christ is more radical than those diet posters promising that 300 pounds of blubber can change to 180 pounds of chiseled muscle. Listen to Jesus: “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Jesus was utterly emphatic. The cross symbolized death, so we cannot be a disciple unless we die. Jesus didn’t leave very much room for compromise. To follow Jesus, we must put our old life to death. Period. Nothing less.

Disciples Must Imitate Jesus. We yearn for role models. I patterned much of my ministry after Herb Read, the senior pastor where I reentered the vocational ministry. Not that I copied all that Herb did, but I learned great practical insights from him. We read books on mentoring, how to find and act like mentors, to share the wisdom gained by others. But Jesus gave another pattern: “A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:40 nrsv). Notice the little phrase will be. Not that disciples should be like Jesus, or may be. The Master expects that his followers will most definitely imitate him.

Do we use Jesus as our pattern for the spiritual life? Do we, like Jesus, use our talents, resources, and time for God’s purposes? Are we prepared to die for God’s cause, like Jesus? That’s part of what being a disciple means.

Disciples Must Hold to Jesus’ Teaching. A book David Timms and I wrote explored how easily we embrace the values of our culture rather than the values of the kingdom of God. Josh McDowell has produced statistics claiming that 75 percent of Christians don’t accept the concept of absolute truth. But the counter-cultural teaching of Christ leaves little room for the rampant relativism of our day. We tend to craft our values based on our experiences, family teaching, preferences, and the culture that surrounds us.

But Jesus called for absolute and uncompromising allegiance when he said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). If we don’t hold to Jesus’ teachings, we’re really not his disciples. We may hold the name and play the game, but we just don’t qualify. Authentic disciples must hold onto Jesus’ teaching. We don’t have the right to craft our own values and claim to live as a disciple of Jesus.

Disciples Must Give Up Family. God created the family as the centerpiece of society. He intended a safe environment in which to bring children into the world and to prepare them for it. In the set of covenant standards called the Ten Commandments, the first to deal with interpersonal relationships told us to honor our father and mother. That came with a promise of long life to those who obeyed.

But Jesus turned that upside down in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

Once again, strong words. Did Jesus literally mean we must hate our blood family? We can’t doubt the seriousness of the call to be his disciples.

TOTALLY NEW LIFESTYLE

We begin with a radical restructuring of our priorities, but that leads to a radical change in our lifestyle and behavior. Again, let’s survey some of the demands.

Disciples Must Pursue Purity. Authentic grace and forgiveness do not allow us to continue in impurity when we choose to follow Jesus. “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Do we continue to sin? Disciples cannot.

Disciples Must Rejoice. We all face difficulties. Few people see their dreams develop into reality. Yet, followers of Jesus must respond consistently to these frustrations with joy. Very simply, Paul tells us: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Paul could have stopped with that word always; that’s absolute enough. But then he repeats himself to place even more stress on our always rejoicing.

Not sometimes. Not when we receive good things. Always.

As we tremble at the seeming impossibility of Jesus’ demands, we can be tempted to rationalize them away. They can feel overwhelming.

The only conclusion we can draw, then, is that God isn’t safe. He desires the total transformation of his people. When we embark on the Christian journey, God warns us of the risks we face. Losing our lives. Losing our families. Handing over ownership. Being utterly changed.

So, together, let’s explore those impossible, radical demands that Jesus made. Let’s explore how we can become the person Jesus wants. Let’s take God seriously, and enjoy the unsafe ride he takes us on!