God began to discuss with me this morning the real meaning of the concept of His righteousness. The implications that flow from a clearer understanding of this are profound even though I feel like it is just starting to dawn on my consciousness. This word in particular has been one of the most nebulous concepts in religion that I have ever grappled with, so to have a new understanding that actually makes sense, fits in with everything else I am learning about God and has real effect on my own life is exciting to me.
About as close as I have come to making sense of this word most of my life was to believe that when Jesus lived on earth He didn't ever commit a sin. So when people talked about the righteousness of Christ, about all I could think about was that I was supposed to believe that Jesus was a perfect man.
Well, that has never been hard for me to believe, but it seemed totally disconnected from having much of anything to do with me. So what that Jesus lived a perfect life on earth, what was that supposed to mean for me? That I too am supposed to follow His example and live a perfect life too? That was the strong implication conveyed to me, but the results of that kind of logic only produce attempts toward perfection that leave me discouraged and despairing. Even begging God to help me to be good never really had any satisfactory results in producing righteousness in my own life based on that definition of the word.
Righteousness seems like such an imposing word, such a theological word, a word that can mean so many things depending on what you want it to mean. It has been used to beat people over the head, to produce enormous amounts of condemnation in the heart, to avoid focusing on the real problems and pain and fears deep inside that prevent us from trusting God very much. I have sought for years to pry into the real meaning of this word but it has largely remained elusive until rather recently.
For some time now I have been hearing and thinking about what is really true about how God feels about me and how He relates to sinners. This has been the most radical part of my thinking that I have been challenging for a number of years now and the Holy Spirit has been pushing me in this direction consistently. As my thinking and feelings change about my perceptions of how God feels toward me, my concept of the righteousness of God has slowly been transforming into something more sensible at the same time.
The real question that is starting to open this up for me is a bit different. When I ask myself questions like the following, my real gut beliefs begin to reveal my true opinions about God if I allow myself to be completely honest about my answers.
- Does God actually like me?
- Does He really want to bless me all the time or does He enjoy putting me into hard times to balance out the good times?
- Do I feel like He is going to take care of my needs all the time or just when I can beg or impress Him enough?
- Many people say that God is good all the time. But what does good really mean? My mind may feel compelled to say that God is good because it is the religiously correct thing to say publicly, but how does my heart really feel about that?
- Given the mainstream ideas about how God conducts His business with sinners, waiting to severely punish all who refuse His arrangement for saving them in the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross, does my heart really believe without wanting to admit it, that God is saying to me, “Love me, trust me, believe in me or I will kill you”? What about the torture of hell that nearly everyone believes in, how does that affect my heart's opinions about how good God really is?
- And in more immediate terms, is God looking for excuses to punish me now when I make mistakes or disregard His rules? My heart and mind seem hard-wired to assume that if I do something wrong that God is waiting to condemn me, to serve out some level of punishment, to discipline me (think corporal punishment), to give me the silent treatment or the cold shoulder until I repent and come begging for forgiveness. But is all that really the way He treats me or are those ideas about God a fabrication, a caricature of Him that comes from somewhere else?
To the extent that these questions reveal the opinions of my heart and expose my fears of punishment rather than thoughts of compassion and kindness, to that same extent I am realizing that I don't really believe that God is all that good. What has typically been applied at this point in the sequence is that many of the words are suddenly forced to change in meaning to fit the fear-based legal model of religion.
The word love is forced to mean something significantly different than what my heart yearns for, it is sometimes presented as nothing more than a sterile principle or is twisted to mean that whatever God does to me must be considered love no matter how irrational or harsh it may seem.
The meaning of good also suffers likewise. Joy and peace and faith and so many other religious terms are caught up in the massive redefinition process to all mean something significantly different than what I am now finding out from the Bible. God has typically been presented as being justified in hurting people, in torturing sinners for rejecting Him, in conducting ethnic cleansing against millions of people throughout history while demanding that we do not question His fairness.
What I am starting to realize is that I must come to be totally honest about the secret opinions that my heart holds about just how good God really is deep inside of me. When He challenged me this morning as I talked with Him, I discovered that my feelings about His desires to bless me are seriously riddled with doubts. My logical mind has always come up with excuses as to why He might not be willing to bless me based on all sorts of things that I have believed most of my life. But the bottom line is that my heart does not fully believe that God really, really intends and desires to bless me, to care for me fully, to only do good to me and never to harm.
'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11 NAS95)
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (NRSV)
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (NIV)
As I have been examining myself closely over the past few years and seeking to enter into real belief, the kind that is talked about so much in the gospel of John, it has become clear to me that believing in Jesus and believing in the righteousness of God is quite simply believing that God is consistently good and that the above verse applies to me fully and personally. To the extent that I struggle to believe that this is actually true and that it applies to me personally is an indicator of the level of unbelief that still permeates my life. And the gut-level reaction that I feel about how God is going to react to my unbelief also betrays even more what I really think about His righteousness. For the righteousness of God is simply a summary of all the good things about His character that the Bible teaches but that has been denied by His archenemy, the great accuser.
I grew up with a concept of religion largely based on the legal model of thinking. This has permeated all the definitions of terms and has kept me largely in confusion and fear in my relationship with God. Sin is defined as breaking the rules, God's commands. The cross is presented as an appeasement offering to prevent me from suffering the wrath of an angry God who was offended by my breaking of His rules. Through some legal magic Jesus was able to live a perfect life of rule-keeping as a human and then died a mysterious death that is somehow considered an atonement to take my place and keep me from receiving punishments (at least to some extent).
When all of this is only viewed from a legal standpoint, it never makes a whole lot of sense without a great deal of heavy twisting of definitions for many of the words involved. But no matter how it is spun, in the end my heart feels that God's goodness and kindness and compassion are limited and that given enough sin and enough time He is going to reveal a darker side and lash out against those who refuse to cooperate with Him. So much for God being good all the time. And now we have to even question the very idea of good.
What God is presently challenging me to do is to rethink all of my assumptions about Him and to believe that He really is good, that He really does care about me and that He never changes. He has also been radically bringing into question many of the legal ideas that reinforce false ideas about Him, and He has been showing me a whole different context in which He wants me to relate to Him. For many it sounds like nothing short of scandalous, but for those who are willing to believe in the consistency of the goodness of God it comes as a breath of fresh air, of hope, even of joy.
My gut-level opinions about how God feels about me and treats me is the bottom line of my relationship with Him. If I am unwilling to let Him discredit my ingrained religious assumptions about Him, then I find myself remaining in confusion and fear. But as I allow His Spirit to interpret His Word in a whole new setting and context and see new, more accurate definitions that fit together so much more consistently, I am beginning to see a picture of God emerge that my heart responds to positively and I long to know Him much more intimately. And this new view of God is really what the whole idea wrapped up in the word righteousness is really all about.
So, for me to believe in the righteousness of Christ means my heart needs to come to believe that God likes me, that He always has and that He will never change His opinion about me. He is also eager to take care of me no matter whether I get my act together or not. And I am learning that the bad things that happen to me happen very often for quite different reasons than what I have assumed in the past. God is not in the punishing business but is in the salvaging business. He may have to use tough methods at times to get my attention, but beneath it all His kindness and compassion and forgiveness are unconditional realities that never disappear or diminish.
The legal model says that believing in the righteousness of Christ is to engage in legal gymnastics, to believe that Jesus died as a perfect, righteous substitute for me to appease an angry God and get me into heaven (to live with that same God).
The new larger view reveals that God is not angry at sinners but is very deeply hurt and has passionate feelings about the damage that the lies about Him have done in the hearts of His children. They have alienated so many of His children from trusting His heart and feeling safe in His presence. Sin is not so much breaking arbitrary rules but is the violation of the very principles of reality within which we were designed to thrive. To disbelieve that God loves me in the truest, most passionate sense of the word is to live in unbelief and actually blocks Him from being able to nurture and care for me to the extent that He longs to do. With God, the most important thing in the universe is for all of His children to live in absolute and total freedom while thriving in a trusting, loving relationship of joyful dependence on Him.
I know that my heart has many suspicions about God. I still harbor a lot of fear about Him and His ways and am afraid that since I don't fully trust Him to take care of me that I have to step in and help Him out at times. I tend to want to do things based on my opinions about what God might want and then ask Him to bless my plans for His work instead of living in trusting peace and seeking to see what He wants to do and how I can participate.
I am tempted to be fearful that my finances will fail and that I will come to disaster and that God will not care for my needs and my family. So I begin to become desperate and try to figure out how to work harder, to scheme and plan and struggle to stay ahead of my bills while wondering why God is not blessing me the way I want Him to.
I feel anxious and offended when people mistreat me, slander my reputation, speak shameful things about my integrity and gossip about me to others. In those times I react in attempts to defend myself and look for faults in those who mistreat me because I am still believing that their opinions about me affect my value and identity. But in these very things it is exposed that I do not feel secure in what God feels about me and my true value. I am still trapped in the lying beliefs that value comes from performance, rule-keeping and conformance to expectations rather than in the unconditional passionate love that my heavenly Father has for me.
Do I really believe in the righteousness of Christ? Now I am starting to see what that really implies. It has little to do with believing that Jesus lived a perfect life while on earth, though that is important. What it really means is, do I actually believe deep inside that God cares about me personally, that His love is unconditional and forever, that nothing I can ever do will ever cause Him to value me less or dim His desire for my companionship with Him?
God, I believe, but I also doubt. Please, heal me of all my unbelief and cleanse me of all the lies about you that still infect my heart and cloud my perceptions about You. Continue to reveal Your incredible righteousness to me and fill me with reflections of the truth about You in my interactions with others today.