Preparation for Heaven
Now the serpent was more astute than all the animals of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Has God indeed said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
(Genesis 3:1 JB2000)
The link between the vulnerable and the exploiter is something I explored a few months ago. Yet it is a truth that keeps coming back insistently to my mind as I see how it applies pervasively to nearly everything I think about. In fact, I am coming to believe that the temptation to exploit may involve the core issue of our fitness for heaven. This may come as a shock to some of the pious and religious, but I am starting to see this as possibly the central issue for living in the presence of God and holy angels. Can we be trusted to live around the delicate balance and beauty of creation found in the rest of the universe?
This may be the real issue when Jesus said we will be judged by our works. We have too often assumed that by works He meant doing good deeds in order to earn entrance into paradise. But what if the works we are judged by are more along the way in which we treat the most vulnerable that we meet?
Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' (Matthew 25:37-40)
God has been bringing a number of scenarios to my mind lately that highlight this temptation of exploitation in practical ways so I can see better what is really going on.
- How do I feel toward a woman when I see her as sexually vulnerable, whether or not she intends to make such a statement in the way she dresses or acts?
- How do I react when I discern a fault in someone's character and am tempted to expose them?
- How do I feel when I see a homeless person dressed poorly or begging on the street? How little compassion do I have and how much disgust or disdain do I feel towards them? How do I feel about people who exploit government assistance or seek to con me into giving them charity?
- How do I react when I am accosted by a person who is certain that keeping the rules is the highest expectation of heaven and tries to use fear or shame to compel me to believe as they do?
- How do I come across to little children who are weaker than I? Do I use my superior size and strength to intimidate them to comply to my wishes?
- How do I relate to animals, whether pets or ones I happen across on the road or anywhere else? Do I exploit their weakness or use them simply to get pleasure for myself?
- Do I in any way use any of my advantages to intimidate or compel anyone to do or believe in ways that I want them to in order to get my way?
- Do I feel it is more important for me to be right than for the love of God to be seen in me?
In all of these situations and many more, the singular issue involved is my disposition toward vulnerability. This is the temptation to exploit vulnerability, to gain something for myself at the expense of another. I am starting to see that this is the real issue that is exposed during experiences of judgment; what will be revealed when the light of true selfless, other-centered agape love suddenly exposes my hidden motives. Have I have allowed God's love to transform me into a reflection of His attitude toward the vulnerable or have I harbored a spirit of selfishness while seeking to appear righteous by keeping the rules or keeping up pious appearances?
It is easy to point out the faults of those we readily identify as extortionists, pedophiles or even misogynists. In fact it is becoming quite popular to jump on the bandwagon of any number of movements to condemn some group of people we deem as a threat to us, to society or even to God's work on this earth. I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this and I have my opponents that can make me upset when I am confronted by them or observe who they abuse others in the name of God. But Paul had something quite disturbing to say to people like me who feel justified in pointing out other people's obvious faults.
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (Romans 2:1)
Years ago I puzzled over this verse trying to grasp why Paul would insist that if I feel strongly over issues of evil such as he had just listed previous to this verse, that I am practicing the very same things. How could it be possible that if I am opposed to homosexuality that I am a practicing homosexual? How could it be that if I get upset over someone who murdered that I am a murderer? Is it possible that if I condemn someone who is deceitful that this somehow makes me a deceiver? If I judge someone as a being arrogant or a gossiper or rebellious against authority that I am judged as doing those very same things? This line of logic simply didn't make sense to me.
So I decided to open my mind simply accept that Paul knew something I didn't yet and try to figure out what he was really saying in this disturbing statement. If he was revealing a truth, I decided it would not be safe to ignore it because it didn't make sense to me and go on reading to look for something that sounded better. If this is a serious warning to people who are seeking for true righteousness (which is hopefully the case for those reading the Bible), then maybe I needed to give myself enough time to soak in this passage and discover what was missing in my understanding about this warning.
What I discovered was that Paul is absolutely right in his assessment of human nature. What I was missing was a proper understanding of what he was referring to specifically when he said that if I condemned others I was practicing the same things. As I carefully analyzed the entire passage previous to this to locate what might be the same things I could be guilty of doing, I discovered that he was referring to the originating reason behind all the symptoms of evil that he later listed. It was the cause that is the same thing, not the outworking of the symptoms resulting from that cause.
What I saw in these two chapters is how Paul was actually setting people up who were confident that they were better than the open sinners that they liked to condemn and shame and marginalize. In addition, what I discovered was that there are two main classes of symptoms: one class is found in the list given in the last half of Romans 1 and the other class is found in Romans 2 where the same root produces evil fruit of self-righteousness, religiosity and pride.
The real shock came when I discovered to my horror that in reality I was not any better off than the open sinners listed such as murderers or God-haters. In fact, it could be seen in the end that we who are filled with religious knowledge and who love to instruct others about spiritual topics and who enjoy the attention of being affirmed for our superior religious acumen, may in the light of heaven actually be the ones with a greater disadvantage. I recalled that those who seemed most attracted to get close to Jesus when He was here on earth were most often the open sinners while the religious folks had the most problems with Him and ended up the most hostile to His version of God.
So, what is the original cause Paul mentioned that results in the fruits listed in both of these chapters in Romans? What did Paul say earlier that is key to understanding how we are really tempted rather than what we have assumed are the temptations we face? What is the common issue that each of us face that results in either behaviors that most people see as sinful or in behaviors that many consider pious and good and righteous but actually masks a spirit of pride and self-dependence?
The common sin is found in verses 18-20 of chapter one. This is the root cause of all sin, whether the open kinds or the religious versions. This core cause is how we relate to the revelation of what God is actually like as impressed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit and also is seen in the world of nature where we see His principles that govern all of creation. It is this core issue of how we perceive God and what He is like that affects how we live life. And because we have all been infected with the virus of sin by lies about God, we are all predisposed to believe lies about the evidence He has provided to reveal His true character of selfless love, purity and – get this – vulnerability!
I know, this came as a shock to me as well, but I am starting to see more and more clearly that an important part of what Jesus came to reveal about the Father is His aspect of vulnerability. Of course this seems to contradict nearly every religion on earth, but then religion has been the cause of more problems and violence and trouble than anything else ever invented. The very belief that God resorts to violence to get His way betrays the fact that we are already deceived by Satan's accusing lies about Him, and these insinuations were only fully exposed by the witness of His Son.
Belief in an appropriate use of violence is really an endorsement of the satanic principle of exploitation. Violence is an attempt to force someone to do our will against their will. Violence always seeks to exploit vulnerability in another, whether it is successful or not. And get this – no one could be more able to exploit their superior advantage that the Almighty God of the universe who has all power and knowledge at His disposal. The fact that we think God uses His advantages to exploit anyone through the use of violence only goes to show how permeated we have become by the subtle insinuations and accusations against Him circulated by His archenemy.
But if God is all-powerful and all-knowing and superior in every way to all of His creatures, how can it even be possible that He could at the same time be vulnerable? This seems impossible in our view, that God could be vulnerable in any way that we could take advantage of to hurt or exploit Him.
The answer is found at the very origin of sin, for when Satan was previously known as Lucifer, the light-bearer and covering cherub for the very throne of God, the one who knew God better than any created being, Lucifer discovered the vulnerability of God and was the first who chose to practice the art of exploitation. It was Lucifer who invented exploitation and in so doing he transformed himself into a being now known as the greatest exploiter who has ever existed.
If Lucifer's sin really involved exploitation of God and His creation rather than breaking God's rules as most people think of sin, how did he do that and what were the vulnerabilities he exploited that he 'discovered' in God and His government? More importantly, what might we learn that is relevant for us who are just coming to understand what happened in the origins of this cosmic war?
The pattern of satanic exploitation can be seen both in Romans 1 as well as in the vivid descriptions of Lucifer's fall in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as well as other places. Lucifer identified what he considered liabilities in the government of God, weaknesses in the way God chooses to relate to His creatures. Then Lucifer chose to exploit these perceived weaknesses in God instead of embracing them for what they truly are – the greatest strengths of God's character of pure, selfless love.
Is it true that God is much more vulnerable than any of us have ever imagined? It seems to be an oxymoron to imagine that the Almighty God could be vulnerable in any way. Yet it is this very arena where Lucifer gained such widespread leverage of his proposals to introduce a new and improved form of government to address the 'problem' of the weak governing style used by God.
Because God's government never involves force or intimidation or fear but relies solely on love, respect, freedom and joy to guide the universe, Lucifer found fertile ground for his revolution among the angels of God who had never been exposed to such notions before. Indeed such notions had never even existed up to this point and the entire society of heaven was extremely vulnerable to the accuser's subtle insinuations and suggestions about God's vulnerabilities and weaknesses. In this way Lucifer became the first and highly successful exploiter.
This is the original exploiter who leveraged his advantages to gain power for himself at the expense of God's reputation. And because God never resorts to force, never demands to have His own way, never seeks revenge or anything else that Satan invented to get access to power, He and His government became an easy target for the cunning machinations of the enemy. As compelling insinuations about the weakness of God's government seemed to be confirmed by the apparently weak response from the throne, Satan was emboldened to expand his slander and make increasingly harsh charges against God, realizing that God's selfless nature was Satan's greatest leverage to exploit for his own advantage.
Having an intimate knowledge of God's character more than any other created being, Lucifer knew the most vulnerable aspects of God's government. But when he chose to exploit them along with God's reputation by spreading false reports about God's heart, there was no one but the Son of God who had enough inside information to refute his insinuations. But because Lucifer felt free to resort to deception and slander and devious methods that God would never use, he thought that he had discovered a whole new arena of potential that he could exploit for his own advantage to achieve more power. Very soon he felt emboldened that he could leverage his new-found popularity to take over God's entire government with his new system based on hierarchy, law and force, so he set up a competing kingdom based on principles very different than what God relied on to govern His subjects.
The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God's original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy, to the great consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will or not, he is even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found. (Ed 190)
It is key that we grasp the differences between Satan's method of governance and God's system based solely on love, respect and freedom. It is because we are confused about how God governs His universe in contrast to the kingdom styles we are so used to living under that we fail to grasp the stark difference between these two systems. Yet the difference might well be defined as the difference between living life in joyful vulnerability versus living life controlled by motives of self-protection and exploitation seeking to control and manipulate others to get what we want for ourselves.
It is this core difference between agape love and selfishness that determines whether we will be prepared and allowed to live in the extremely vulnerable atmosphere of heaven. The real question is not whether we are 'good enough' or not, but rather whether we are safe or not. Entrance into heaven's society is not based on how much merit we can accrue here on earth or even how much merit we may derive from an appeasing death of God's perfect Son on the cross. Contrarily, acceptance into the society of angels and other perfect beings is determined on whether we are willing to be transformed to have a disposition that will be safe never to exploit any vulnerability anywhere.
Sin originally entered the universe through exploitation by the one who first came up with this idea; and sin will exit the universe when at last every being has chosen which side of this issue they wish to live on, either exploiting others for their own benefit or serving others through selfless love and service and respect, protecting all vulnerabilities anywhere.
As I am beginning to see more clearly, the entire war going on that began in heaven and now swirls around us here on this planet revolves around this issue of vulnerability and exploitation. When viewed through this paradigm it becomes clear how our daily choices and our temptations revolve around this one issue. As I listed a few examples above, every temptation is really over whether I will exploit my advantages in relation to other's vulnerabilities or not. This is very different than viewing temptations in relation to keeping or breaking a long list of rules and prohibitions.
In this light it makes perfect sense that keeping the law of God is summed up simply as love for God and for those around us. Love is the opposite of exploitation when you really think about it. Therefore it might be re-phrased this way – never exploiting God's vulnerabilities or anyone else's is to live in perfect harmony with the way God designed His universe to live and thrive and makes us safe to save.
It is one thing to begin grasping this truth with my mind; it is another thing entirely to be delivered from my fallen nature that constantly tempts me to exploit vulnerabilities where I encounter them. I am reminded increasingly of the selfish nature inside of me each time I am confronted with various temptations. But when I reinterpret these temptations in light of exploitation instead of about breaking some rule, I find myself very vulnerable to the power of sin to exploit me and drag me into hell. The clearer this truth comes to me the more vulnerable I feel to being overwhelmed, for I perceive that in me cannot be found any good thing. I really resonate with Paul frustrations expressed in Romans 7 as he laments his desire to do good while the compulsion to do evil – to exploit the vulnerability of others for his own advantage – is ever present deep inside.
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)
So in reality I am the one being exploited and manipulated by this agressive law of sin and death. When I find myself desiring to exploit others, what is really happening is that I am being manipulated against my own desires to live only in love. That is the definition of exploitation – forced to do something against my will. This is why God will never resorts to force to win this war, for to engage in violence and force He would be confirming the very accusations of His enemy that He is an exploiter.
Satan has long painted himself as the victim in this controversy while making God out as an all-powerful, distant disconnected deity never allowing Himself to be vulnerable enough to be exploited. This was a compelling argument that worked with many of the angels, and even those who chose to remain loyal to God retained troubling questions along this line until the death of God's Son exposed the true nature of Satan's character. It was only then that it became unavoidably obvious to the watching universe that far from being isolated and insulated from the disadvantages of His created beings, God Himself was willing to make Himself fully exposed to allow both demons and humans to exploit Him to the point of death itself. In doing so God fully unmasked the lies of Satan about God's disattachment from the concerns of His creatures and revealed that not only was He willing to make Himself available to be exploited by sinners, but He would never waver in His love and would forgive consistently all the way to the end.
The life and death of Christ proved conclusively that no matter how much anyone may exploit God's vulnerabilities to bring Him pain and suffering, He will never waver in His unfailing love and even His respect for our freedom to hurt Him or damage His reputation. The cross proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one can do anything wicked enough to make God love them any less. Not even Satan himself can insult, shame or hurt God enough to lessen in the slightest the passionate love that God has had for him since the first moment he was created. This is the stunning revelation of the nature of the kind of love that God uses to run His universe, and herein is found the power that is superior to all the inventions and counterfeits of His enemy.
At the cross violence was proven to be ineffective to diminish the selfless love of God.
At the cross it was proven that God's vulnerabilities actually do exist and we are able to exploit them. Or we can choose to live vulnerably in solidarity with Him, for really He came to live in solidarity with us in our vulnerability.
The entire war between light and darkness can be summed up as a competition between an exploiter and One who always identifies with the vulnerable. The problem is that as victims of exploitation we most often wish that God would at times switch over to using more force to inflict punishment or violence on those who exploit us. Because of this intense desire to have a super-god willing to resort to violence to get even for us, our theology has come to reflect these cravings and we weave into our belief systems doctrines that make God out to be a part-time exploiter. Like one famous pastor recently said, “I could never worship a God who I could beat up!”
But the truth is that God did come and let us beat Him up, and He did so for a very important reason, to show us the real truth about how He chooses to run His universe. He has made Himself publicly vulnerable and all throughout history He has reminded us that He identifies with the vulnerable. (see Deut. 16:11,14; 26:12; Jer. 22:3; Zech 7:1) We must be willing to accept the conviction of the Spirit of truth sent to lead us into the truth about how to live God's way. If we resist allowing the vulnerability of God becoming part of our own lives, we resist preparation for living in the society of heaven.
Given the problem that we are born vulnerable and unable overcome the power of selfishness in our own heart, God in Christ created a new version of humanity into which all have been adopted. As we choose to embrace the way of God which involves living from a new heart and allowing God's Spirit to transform us into His likeness, God teaches us how to live in vulnerable love. This prepares us to live safely for eternity around those who are vulnerable without ever exploiting them, but this kind of life must begin now. This is only possible through the work of the Spirit in our lives preparing us to live in the delicate and incredibly rich atmosphere of heaven.
It is the work of Christ through His Spirit in this life to prepare us to live in a vulnerable atmosphere of pure love and joy. Without vulnerability it is impossible to enjoy the intense, bonding experiences of receiving and giving love. Thus we can begin to see that what we are really seeing is a competition between exploitation and vulnerability and that the two attitudes are fundamentally incompatible.
The work necessary in our own hearts takes place as God brings us into relationship with others here on earth who are vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. Then we can start to see that temptations to exploit are actually opportunities for us to learn how to be safer for the vulnerable. When we arrive in heaven where vulnerabilities are likely much greater, we must already be trained not to exploit, for this would re-introduce the infection of sin and selfishness into that pure and vulnerable atmosphere of trust and openness and transparency.
If we wish to live in heaven we must cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives here on earth as He trains us to recognize and appreciate the society of heaven as it relates to vulnerabilities. We must come to realize that vulnerability is not our real problem. We must also realize that sin itself is exploitation. All heaven and even God's reputation was extremely vulnerable before sin existed, yet it was never a problem because love was the only attitude that prevailed. Only after a being chose to begin exploiting vulnerabilities did evil even begin to existence, so it makes sense that to reverse the curse of evil necessarily involves restoring us to living safely around vulnerability by refraining from all exploitation.
Exploitation naturally elicits desires for revenge exploitation. This is one of the brilliant strategies of the enemy and is a mechanism whereby he keeps us in bondage to his kingdom of fear and force. Consequently if we want to live in God's kingdom of love we have to let go of all desires for revenge.
Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, in due time their foot will slip; for the day of their calamity is near, and the impending things are hastening upon them. (Deuteronomy 32:35)
How can I cooperate with God's desire to transform me and make me fit for heaven? How can I know how to properly relate to the vulnerable around me the way God would do? How does God deal with both the vulnerable and exploiters? Does He get even with those who abuse their advantages, or does He allow the natural principles He designed into creation to simply take their course over time without His artificial intervention?
What I should take time to do is study more carefully the life of Jesus and particularly pay attention to how He related to the most vulnerable.
- As I notice how He treats with utmost respect and kindness a woman still fresh from a sexual tryst, being condemned and threatened by scheming religious people eager to make an example of her, I begin to see an incredible kindness of God that leads me to repentance.
- As I see how Jesus relates to a despised woman of a different race who is viewed as an outcast even among her own people and who even subscribes to a competing religion, I encounter the kindness of God that leads me toward repentance.
- As I ponder how Jesus firmly but kindly deals with a Pharisee too embarrassed to be seen with Jesus during the day but very curious to discover why this Man is so compelling and authentic, I feel the kindness of God leading me to repentance.
- As I note how Jesus refuses to expose even those who openly exploit others, who heap shame on prostitutes, condemning those around them whom they view as inferior and who even steal money from funds donated for helping the poor, I begin to appreciate a little more a kindness that has real power to lead me to repentance.
Is God really vulnerable? Just take a short look at Paul's description of love keeping in mind that God is love.
If God speaks with the tongues of men and of angels, but does not have love, He becomes a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If God has the gift of prophecy, and knows all mysteries and has all knowledge; and if he has all faith, so as to remove mountains, but does not have love, He is nothing.
And if He gives all His possessions to feed the poor, and if He surrenders His body to be burned [or crucified], but does not have love, it profits Him nothing.
God is patient, God is kind and is not jealous;
God does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly;
God does not seek His own advantage at the expense of others, He is not provoked and does not keep an accounting of wrongs suffered.
God does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;
God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
God's love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-11, 13 adapted)