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I think most of us have a hard time wrapping our heads, much more our hearts, around how much God loves us. For years I found it hard to receive love, to believe that I was loveable. I more easily felt that I was defective, awkward, unworthy, that I didn’t quite measure up. God’s extravagant and unrelenting love made sense for others but not for me. Several things have changed that perception over time: contemplating the gospel and Jesus’ love for us expressed in his sacrifice on the cross; the reliable love of other people; and, surprisingly, the experience of being a father. The love I experience as a father is different from any other kind of love. It’s not something you fall into or grow into. It just shows up, overwhelms, and changes everything. It brings out the best in you by making you long for what is best for your child. It challenges selfishness by putting you in a position to serve, to set aside convenience. It’s this crazy thing that makes you willing to die for someone you hardly know. The day Ciara was born began such a journey. Almost four years ago, we were contacted by an adoption attorney and talked a number of times by phone with a young woman who was eighteen, pregnant, and already had two children, one of whom was in foster care. We made a commitment and began four months of waiting. Several months passed and one day we got the call. The biological mother was to
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be induced the next day, so Carole and I flew to Tulsa. When it was time for the delivery, we were not allowed to be in the room, but the months of waiting and the love and attachment produced in us the same feelings of excitement and concern we felt at the birth of our biological children. But there were complications. When Ciara arrived she was in respiratory distress and rushed past us to the ICU. We waited anxiously for hours at the windows of the unit. Prematurity, a heart defect, and other issues meant she required a ventilator. As potential adoptive parents we had no status, and information was hard to come by. Finally we were allowed to see her. Carole and I sat on each side of her. There it was. That love. The same love that showed up with our other children. That crazy kind of love. For the first few days she showed little improvement. On day four we had the added concern of a hearing in court in which a judge would make a key decision based on feedback from the biological mother that would determine the course of the adoption. We knew better than to think this was just a routine process. We had been through a failed adoption a year earlier. We were there for Aaron’s birth, named him, fed him, took care of him from the day he was born. Five weeks later he left our home. The biological mother told us she needed him back because she needed the child support. We were crushed. As we waited to hear from the social worker on the court decision about Ciara, her situation suddenly worsened. She was transferred to a nearby medical center by helicopter and we waited there in a small waiting room. We were told that it could be hours before we would be able to see her. Eight hours passed with no news. Meanwhile, the court hearing had been hours earlier, but we still hadn’t heard from the social worker. Those hours of waiting were some of the most emotionally challenging hours of our lives. Ciara’s nurse finally emerged from the unit, letting us know that she was stable, but that we would not be able to see her until the next day.
We found a hotel nearby and for the next few hours I lay on my back, phone on my chest, in case a call came and in case I fell asleep. About one thirty in the morning the phone rang. The social worker had checked her cell, heard the litany of messages. She had forgotten to call us. Describing herself as “the devil, worse than the devil,” she explained that things had gone well in court and that it was just a matter of time until we would be Ciara’s parents legally. There are some things we can know through reason, the utilization of our senses, the application of scientific method. But the most basic and important questions of our existence will never be answered this way. Unless God speaks to us, unless he reveals himself, we cannot know who or what we are, the purpose or meaning of life, the depth of his care, and what he has done to reveal his love and address our needs. Unless he shows up, there are no answers. God’s Word functions to tell us that we were made by him, in his image, for relationship with him, and that he loves us with that phoneon-chest kind of love that cannot leave us ruined and helpless, that longs for our well-being and that causes him to come for us. About a year later, I was swimming laps while having a Tevye-like conversation with God about a few things. Why the earlier failed adoption? Why all the complications surrounding Ciara’s birth and her physical problems? We knew we were adopting in response to God’s call, but why did it have to be so hard? There in my friend’s pool, God spoke to me, not audibly but clearly. It sounds like you’re beginning to understand just a little bit of what it means for me to be a Father. Something shot through me. I was transfixed, almost paralyzed. I knew that God loves his children exponentially and infinitely more than I am able to love the ones he entrusts to my care. Yet I began to understand at a deeper level something qualitatively different about God’s love for us, for me. It’s costly. It’s painful. And yet he pursues us. God is our Father. He wants what’s best for us. And he willingly does everything necessary to make it happen.
Love Written in Stone
T he Best Possible Life One of the main questions always before the philosopher is simply: What constitutes the good life? What is the best possible way to live and how do we find our way to such a life? In the field of medicine, the question is essentially the same: How can we help people achieve health, wholeness, and happiness? I think if you asked most scientists, they’d tell you that they pursue discovery and knowledge not just for the sake of knowledge itself but with the hope of improving the human condition. Jesus often expressed a similar concern for our well-being. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). But finding our way to such a life is no simple matter. As a family physician, my study of medicine has been rather general, and along the way I have chosen to focus time and energy on improving certain skills—things like wound closure, wound management, and the care of diabetic patients, for example. Acquiring and maintaining both the breadth and depth of knowledge to practice medicine well is a challenge. Beginning with medical school, I felt like I was drinking from a fire hydrant. But knowing how to live well is a matter far more broad, difficult, and complex than human physiology. Both science and faith have a lot to say on the subject of lifestyle choices and quality of life. Today, science is producing a growing body of evidence supporting much of what the Christian faith has been saying all along about a way of living that leads to a better life now, what may be described as one more place where science appears to be catching up with God. One can hope that the effect of such evidence may prove to be a changed perspective on the character of God, who is often painted in one brand of contemporary literature as harsh, vindictive, or nonexistent. G o d ’s Inst r uctio ns There are aspects to living well that are counterintuitive to us because of the effects of sin on our hearts. These effects reveal themselves in a number
of ways—in our lack of insight into our own motives, in our inability to connect and maintain relationships, in our blindness to our real condition, in our tendency to be guided by short-term gains without concern for long-term effects, and in our self-centeredness, to name a few. We need help. We need direction. This really is the point of what the Bible refers to as “law,” “commandments,” and “instructions.” When understood in this way, we see God’s commands as something more than awkward, guilt-producing, and burdensome rules. These directions for living reveal his grace and his passionate concern for our well-being. In fact, the introduction to the Psalms, the songbook of the Bible, tells us that people who do things the way God wants them done, who delight in the ways of the Lord, will be uniquely happy. This promise of well-being has both a natural and a supernatural explanation. The natural explanation is that people doing things God’s way experience positive consequences, growing and thriving “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). The supernatural explanation is simply that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6), that he pays special attention to those who pay attention to him. The promise here is not the promise of an easier life, a problem-free life, but of a richer, more satisfying life. The law and God’s instruction also reveal things about our true condition. By setting a standard for a life that is beyond our own ability to achieve, the law helps us recognize our limits, our need of help, and our need for grace. We are moved away from independence and toward healthy dependence. We begin to understand some things about ourselves we did not understand before. Think of it in terms of the importance of proper diagnosis. Christianity claims to be the answer to the human dilemma, but if we don’t know what the problem is we may not recognize the answer even when we find it. Without an accurate diagnosis, we may choose to treat our condition with things that will only make it worse and in the end destroy us.
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In addition to diagnosing the problem, God’s instructions also function to protect us, like a guardrail on a mountain road, providing a limit, a barrier that keeps us from plunging over the edge into disaster. Apart from the guardrails and occasional warning signs, we live within a vast creation with tremendous freedom. As people created by God, in the image of God, for relationship with God, we need his help. We need the instruction manual written by the one who designed us. John Calvin wrote, “Scripture contains the perfect rule of a good and happy life.” Evaluati n g the Ev ide nce How can we know that such claims about the kindness of God demonstrated in his instructions to us are true? And in what sense are they true? The approach to this discussion involves three parts. (1) Examining the teachings of the Bible itself. How does it instruct us to live? Is there any rationale provided as to why such a life is best for us? Is there any internal evidence that these guidelines might serve our best interests? (2) Looking at the writings of some people who have done a lot of thinking about life and the nature of things from various disciplines—theologians, philosophers, scientists, physicians, sociologists, psychologists, and others. (3) Reviewing some of the evidence from scientific research relevant to the ideas and themes that emerge from the Bible regarding its instructions for living. The claims made in such a discussion are necessarily claims about the quality of life that emerges as we respond to God. Just as science cannot reveal ultimate truth about questions like who we are and life’s purpose, scientific methods cannot be used to test the validity of Christianity’s claims about ultimate truth. Science may be able to describe the relationship between variables like forgiveness and happiness and their impact on emotional and physical states. But science cannot tell us whether such things are ethical, moral, or virtuous. And it is not necessarily the case that doing what God asks will always impact us positively. Discipleship is costly. Paul often described the
loneliness and suffering that came with his obedience (see 2 Corinthians). And yet his losses were always accompanied by joy and contentment. Christians believe that doing what is good, virtuous, right, and meaningful, even when these choices are costly or stressful, has outweighing benefit here and now. They may not lead to health and ease, but they produce character, integrity, and hope because God can be trusted in every situation facing us. We do not do what he asks because it benefits us. We do not forgive, for example, because we might feel better about things. We forgive because we have been forgiven ourselves, because God demands it of us, and because of our desire to be like Jesus, to do what he would do if he walked in our shoes. But we are not surprised, when all is said and done, to discover the benefit. Where are we going as we weigh these matters? What ideas shape the direction of this book? What we find as we wander down this path is another way of telling the story of a Father’s love. The story begins with love and hope but quickly turns to tragedy. The children choose a path of life characterized by self-interest, what the Bible calls “sin,” which leads to the destruction of all their most important relationships—with God, others, self, and creation. The Bible is the story of what God has done to remedy this situation. Starting down this path requires that we begin with our relationship with God and this problem called “sin,” because the effects of sin and loss of relationship with God are the source of all the other problems we have. As we look at what God has done to address this problem, we are faced with the importance of forgiveness—our need of God’s forgiveness as well as the role of forgiveness in our other relationships. And returning to God—our heart’s true home—produces joy. Joy is characteristic of children who know they are loved by their Father, bringing with it by-products like gratitude and contentment, and these characteristics transform our outlook and our approach to life. The Bible not only addresses human reconciliation to God, but
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the working out of grace and reconciliation in all of our relationships. One powerful aspect of our human relationships is our sexuality, and the expression of our sexuality is vital because it has many potential consequences both positive and negative. Also, God’s faithful, reliable love worked out in human relationships provides a context for emotional and physical health. Why does God want us to live in the context of family and community? What are the roles of love and commitment in healthy relationships? The movement from connection with God to isolation impacts our relationship with ourselves as well. Some aspects of God’s instructions to us regarding our own health and wholeness provide key pieces to the puzzle, offering a fuller understanding of God’s restorative work in response to our brokenness. We cannot fully grasp the goodness of God’s instructions and directions to us without considering our relationship with the created order. The sheer volume of material on this subject within the Bible is impressive and for many may be surprising. This is one more place we discover that God’s intentions in the project of re-creation, making all things new, are more vast and generous than anything we may have imagined. Finally, we discover as we move along this path the unfolding of the answers to the ultimate questions of life—the ability to understand and participate in the kind of purpose and meaning found nowhere else. These things will not be learned by reading a book. They can only be recognized and realized by living out the instructions in the Book, the one our Father has written out of his concern for our well-being. The things we will explore together in the course of this book are intended to map out a journey in which we might discover with deepening clarity more about the way God cares for us. One note of caution: This book is not a call to law and legalism away from grace, but is instead an invitation to find tremendous grace in what God asks of us. Legalism kills. It is our effort at saving ourselves and it cannot reverse the mess we’re in or remove the problems caused by sin. It gives us a false sense of control over our spiritual destiny. It can be a
means of manipulation by which we guilt people into compliance. The heart of the problem with legalism is the condition of heart it produces, the failure to be for the other person. In legalism we end up comparing ourselves with others to feel morally superior to them, setting up the rules in such a way that everyone else always loses. What Jesus loathed most in legalism was this failure to be for the other person. One of the things that drew the sinful and broken to him was the way in which he was pulling for them—longing for them to turn from the mess they had made, to choose grace, forgiveness, and a new way of life, and to find their way home. What people today refer to as religion, what Paul referred to as “works,” is human effort. It is what we do to earn favor, recognition, and acceptance. On the other hand, Christianity is motivated by love and a settled recognition of God’s grace, what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. I cannot imagine my life apart from God’s grace, his revelation of himself, his choice to speak and to come to us. For someone as damaged as I am, to live with no awareness of his love, with no hope of deliverance from guilt and shame, no reasonable basis for hope in the face of death, no possible sense of purpose and meaning—for someone like me such a life would be hell. As a parent I want the best for my kids. I pour into their lives out of the hope that they will do better than I did, avoid some of my mistakes and failures. In my early twenties I had the privilege of being mentored by an amazing man named Mel Friesen. Mel, along with his wife, Helen, spent his entire career on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, working with students. He had white hair, sharp features, and a fierce, unyielding devotion to Jesus. Soon before Mel went home to be with Jesus, Helen told me a story that for me captured so much about Mel’s character. Their son Paul had been faced with a difficult decision in his work, and the choice he eventually made was costly and demonstrated great character. In reflecting on their son’s decision, Mel said to Helen,
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“He’s a better man than I am.” Helen told me that she replied to Mel by saying that he shouldn’t say that, that she didn’t know a better man than he was. Mel said, “If he’s not a better man than I am, then I failed him as a father.” His attitude epitomized a godly longing for the well-being of his children. God’s law and instructions demonstrate a Father’s passionate concern for our well-being. His guidelines for living are not intended to cramp our style or make us miserable. They are shaped by a Father’s love. They are there to point us toward the best possible life.
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30:19–20) The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life. (Proverbs 14:27)
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