In a (now not so) recent post I said that everyone should stop everything until they know and understand their place in relation to God. I want to expand on that because I think it's absolutely critical that we get this. Most of us, if we're honest, do not live lives that are full of peace, joy and love. Oh we might have moments of bliss, brought on by a moving song, a great movie, or some religious ritual. We might have the occasional feeling of satisfaction when we've done a good deed or reached out to a hurting person. We might catch glimpses of glory in nature, or in a moment when a relationship is actually working well. But, by and large, most of us, in the words of Thoreau, lead lives of quiet desperation. Let's face it, heroic moments in a movie, complete with stirring soundtrack and professional editing, never seem quite so heroic when we're the ones facing sickness or debt; a looming temptation to sin, or a relationship that brings much more pain than joy.
When faced with these realities of life, what do we tend to do? If we're not inclined to any sort of spiritual faith, or belief in some sort of god, then we might, like Sisyphus, simply hitch up our pants and start pushing the boulder back up the hill. Grab some happiness where it can be found and just get on with the business of living. If we're of the Christian persuasion, or, I imagine, of most any other religious persuasion, I think we do the same thing. We hitch up our pants, get on whatever religious treadmill we happen to currently be in possession of, and start getting with the program. And, if you hadn't noticed, there are a lot of different treadmills.
There's the treadmill of right doctrine. There's the treadmill of right living. There's the treadmill of healthful living. There's the treadmill of theology. There's the treadmill of political action. There's the treadmill of church attendance (or avoidance). There's the treadmill of good works. There's the treadmill of a daily devotional and Bible reading. There's the treadmill of family values. There's the treadmill of Sabbath keeping. There's the treadmill of obsessing over end time prophecy and last days events. There's the treadmill of rediscovering and restoring long lost "truths". There's the treadmill of spiritual formation (the spiritual disciplines). There's the treadmill of missions. There's just no end of treadmills. Many of them are perfectly fine (and necessary) things, as long as we don't expect them to actually take us somewhere. Funny thing about treadmills is that, great as they are for strengthening and toning our bodies, they don't actually get us to any real destination.
So here we are, huffing and puffing along on whatever treadmill we happen to currently be on, and one day we look around and realize we haven't gotten anywhere. Oh, we might have conquered a particular sin, or discovered some new (or long lost) religious truth. We might have established a habit of regular church attendance, or we might have set ourselves free from the chains of the institutional church and started our own house church. Hooray! Hallelujah! But when we're quiet, when the trials of life hit, we realize we're no more peaceful or happy or at rest then we were when we started on the treadmill. And, just maybe, we're actually a little less hopeful, a little more questioning, a little more cynical.
So what do we do? We start looking around, we might do some Google searches, we might read another book, we might find another spiritual teacher, we might find a different church, we might start our own church, in short we get a different treadmill. And then we're back on there huffing and puffing and working that treadmill for all it's worth. Because this time, by golly, we've found it. This is the holy grail, this is the secret, this is the pathway to God. Maybe, just maybe, if we work this treadmill hard enough God will finally stop being disappointed with us. Maybe we'll finally stop feeling guilty and condemned for not being good enough. Maybe our dad will finally think we're a beautiful young lady or a brave and strong young man. Maybe our grandpa will finally think we're a good enough Christian. Maybe our mom will finally get off our back and stop nagging at us all the time. Maybe we'll finally stop being terrified that when we face the judgment seat of Christ he's going to shake his head sadly and turn his face from us forever.
Tell me something. Has it worked for you yet? How many treadmills have you tried? What treadmill are you currently working? Did you just start on this treadmill all bright eyed and hopeful, or are you getting ready to get off your current treadmill because it just doesn't seem to be working like it used to?
Think about it. Really think about it. And then think about this.
A parent considering adoption gets a picture and description of a little child from some other country. In their hearts they know this child belongs in their family. So they set into motion the legal proceedings to complete an adoption. Nothing that child can do can prevent those legal proceedings from taking place. In fact, before that child even knows the parents exist that child might already be legally adopted and have a place in the family. It might still be weeks or months before the child is actually brought home. It's not the child's choice, there is nothing the child ever did to earn that adoption and there is nothing the child could do to prevent it from taking place.
That's you. You're the adopted child. There's not a treadmill in the world that could get you adopted in the first place, and there's not a treadmill in the world that can keep you adopted (or get you unadopted for that matter). It's not up to you. In fact it happened before you were even born. Here it is in black and white from the pen of Paul:
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He's the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.
Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we're a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
Ephesians 1:3-10 (The Message)
And just in case you don't like The Message, and also because there are some cool things highlighted by another version, here is the same passage from the TNIV:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Ephesians 1:3-10 (TNIV)
In the light of this passage let's think about some of the reasons we might get on a treadmill.
- So God will bless us? We've already been blessed with "every spiritual blessing in Christ".
- So God will accept us? He not only accepted us, He CHOSE us before the creation of the world.
- So we can be a part of God's family? We've already been adopted. It's a done deal.
- So we can be holy? Well, that's exactly what He chose us for, "to be made whole and holy by his love" as the Message has it. We don't make ourselves holy, as should be obvious to anyone who's tried that treadmill for any length of time.
I wish like everything I could just end this right here. If I could end it right here, and if you actually believed what I'm telling you, then that would be wonderful and no more would need to be said. But of course the believing bit is the hard bit isn't it? Some of us, if we're honest, just don't really believe it. It seems too good to be true. And some of us immediately start thinking that if it's true then everyone would be saved (I wonder what that says about us if that's our first thought?).
So to wrap this up let's look at one of the most excellent summaries of the gospel in the whole Bible.
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. -2 Corinthians 5:14-20 (TNIV)
Holy Spirit, give us ears to hear the truth. Help us to finally accept who we really are and stop trying to get somewhere on our own steam. Help us to get off our treadmills. Open our eyes so we can see that we're already in the lap of our Papa. Jesus dove headfirst into the darkness of our alienation, grabbed hold of us and brought us back into the circle of love, the other centered dance of the Holy Trinity.
- Who does Christ's love compel? Us (that includes you).
- Who did Christ die for? All (that includes you).
- Therefore who died? All (that includes you).
- Who can be regarded in the same old way? No one (that includes you and everyone else).
- Who was reconciled to God in Christ? The world (that includes you).
- Whose sins are not counted against them? I'll leave that one up to you to figure out.
This is not something you actively do. This is not some frustrating game God is playing where Jesus fulfills a legal transaction but it doesn't actually become real until you reach out under your own power and take the promissory note from his hand. In that model, even though it reveals a lot of beautiful truth, your reconciliation is still dependent upon something you actively do (reaching out under your own power and taking the promissory note).
The difference is so subtle that it's almost invisible, but the ramifications are huge. So huge in fact that we have entire faith traditions (i.e. Calvinism and Arminianism) built up over the centuries due to the natural outgrowth of philosophical paths which started out just a little bit off the mark on this point.
No, being reconciled is not something you do, it is in fact the cessation of doing anything at all and the acceptance of the fact that the "doing" has already been done. Yes, I know the word "acceptance" has an active component to it. I think the English language simply fails us here. A student of Greek might help us out by talking about the different voices (active, passive, middle). I'll just wrap it up by returning to the original metaphor of the treadmill. Instead of slogging forward trying to obtain something that's always just out of reach, and instead of stepping off the treadmill and chucking the whole thing altogether (Atheism), just stop and let yourself fall off the back of the treadmill where you'll finally discover that you are right where you've always been, in the embrace of the Trinity.
Then and only then, only when you know who you are and where you are, will you be able to start truly living. Then and only then will repentance and baptism and forgiveness and taking up of crosses and discipleship actually start making sense. Only then will you be able to actually get back on some of those treadmills, not as a way to find inclusion in the triune life of God, but as someone who is held, with every step, in the unfailing embrace of the Trinity.