This month: 184 - Grace and truth
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Falon Barton

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In my work and ministry with college students, their biggest questions are: Why am I here? How am I gifted? Where do I go next? What should I do with my life? Who am I? Most of us have the same questions — regardless of age or stage of life — and they are all questions of discernment.

For the first 10 years of my journey as a follower of Christ, I associated the word “discernment” almost exclusively with the need to find the “right” path in order to end up in the specific life circumstances that God had in mind for me. Working with that definition, I was skeptical of discernment, because I am skeptical of the belief that God has a detailed life plan for each of us, with each relationship, each job, each destination, each meal planned out, leaving us to figure out which one is “correct.”

But discernment does not start with discerning the will of God for our lives. This facet of discernment is important and good, but it is not the starting place. Discernment starts with discerning the presence of God all around us. We come to know the character, thoughts, and preferences of a person by paying attention to their daily, ordinary words and actions. God is no different. We study to learn about God — just as we might read a biography about a historical figure — but knowing about someone does not equate to knowing them. To know God, we must first discern God’s presence in our lives, in our surroundings, and in our relationships before we can discern and obey God’s will for us. We must ask God, “Who are you?” before we are able to hear the answer to the secondary question, “What do you want me to do?” The good news is that God is eager to be known.

I use these four criteria for my own discernment processes and for helping college students discern where God is in their own lives. These criteria are not a formula for certainty, but are more like the four legs of a sturdy chair that we can be confident (if not certain) will support us as we seek God: (1) the indwelling of the Spirit, (2) the example of the Scriptures, (3) the voice of the community, and (4) the fruits of the judgment.

The Indwelling of the Spirit

Paying attention to the work of God in and around us helps us to know God better. It also helps us to become more Christ-like. As we seek to know God and open ourselves to the Spirit, we not only come to recognize what reflects the Spirit of God outside of us; we also come to recognize the Spirit of God within us. As our relationship with God grows in breadth and depth, we may trust our inner promptings and desires to reflect the character and will of God, too. No longer do we necessarily need to ask God everything and wait for an explicit answer; we can trust — like adult children of a loving parent who has shaped us well — in our own judgments.

However, as broken people, we must constantly maintain a healthy dose of skepticism that what we’re sensing is really from the Spirit of the Lord. This doesn’t need to be a shameful reality. Instead, our own limitations constantly redirect our attention back to the point of discernment: seeking to know God and opening ourselves to be known by God more. Like discernment itself, welcoming the Spirit into our lives and selves is primarily a relational process, so there is no destination to be reached, no moment at which we can claim arrival. There is always the potential for more, which requires a constant, radical openness to the indwelling of God. This is primarily an opportunity to deepen our experience of God; nevertheless, our own deceptive capacities necessitate three other legs of discernment so that we may move forward with decisions in confidence.

The Example of the Scriptures

One of the most important ways we come to know God and discern the Spirit in and around us is by immersing ourselves in the self-revelation of God through Scripture. We read Scripture in part because we want to know about God’s actions in the history of God’s people. We also read Scripture because we passionately love God, and the living nature of the story somehow prompts us to experience and know God’s self. As we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, and as we accept the invitation to participate in that story through the indwelling of the Spirit, we develop an intuition for what God values and where those values are or are not manifesting in our lives.

In cases in which we are discerning a specific path to take or choice to make, we must take the time to measure our inclinations and assessments against Scripture. This does not mean taking isolated verses or passages from the Bible as our “answer” from God. Proof-texting is an exceedingly dangerous method of discernment. Instead, we must look to the overarching themes, values, and principles that permeate the Bible and God’s nature as it’s revealed in Scripture, especially in the person of Jesus. Since even understanding and applying the Bible requires discernment, we clearly need three other legs to stand on in the discernment process.

The Voice of the Community

The third leg is listening to the input of a loving, trustworthy, and intimate community. As members of the Body of Christ, we not only have a responsibility to the community to which we belong, but we also have the opportunity to greatly benefit from the diverse experiences and perspectives of others. As we discern wise, healthy, God-honoring, and neighbor-loving decisions, the voices of those who are farther along in life than we are and who have different gifts than we do can help guide and affirm our decisions, and they can help us execute our decisions once we discern what to do.

Relying on communal voices is a vulnerable process. In an unhealthy environment, relying on others can lead to misdirection at best and abuse at worst. So relational discernment is also necessary to ensure one’s community is qualified and trustworthy: Does the community reflect Christ-like qualities, like love, hospitality, generosity, mutuality, humility, and peacemaking? In the context of a community like this, vulnerability is a gift rather than a liability.

The Fruits of the Judgment

Even with the sturdiness and reliability of the other three legs of discernment, making a decision is never a 100-percent certainty. No matter how confident we may be, God’s guidance and purposes are often only evident with hindsight. We are therefore responsible for looking back at the discernment process, the decision we made, and whether our choice bore the fruits of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. After all, both Jesus and Paul encourage us to examine the fruits of a choice to discern whether it is from God. In short, past decisions and experiences inform our character, which informs future decisions and experiences, so looking back on the fruits of past decisions in our own lives and in the lives of others can help guide us in present and future discernment processes.

Looking back on discernment and realizing that we made a wrong turn should not be a source of shame, even if it is painful, and even if it requires repentance. God can redeem all things and work any situation for good. Disobedience is instead an opportunity to cultivate obedience. First, a poor decision is an opportunity to gain wisdom. This wisdom will serve us well in future discernment processes, and, if we are integrated into a community, that wisdom can help others avoid similar mistakes as well. Second, discernment gone awry is an opportunity to draw close to God. God is uniquely present in our struggles and sufferings, and God knows full well what it means to be human, which means God knows how difficult it is for us as we struggle to discern and obey. Finally, misperceptions of God’s will can be a hopeful reminder to us that God desires for us to flourish. As people of hope, we can stand firm in the love of God, even when we recognize the moments when we have failed to do just that.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is difficult to read. The Hulu-original series based on the novel is even more disturbing.

And I think all adult American Christians need to watch it.

The Handmaid’s Tale is about the country of Gilead, formerly known as the United States, in the very near future. Pollution caused a rise in infertility in the U.S., and extreme fundamentalist Christians propagated that it was God’s punishment for women gaining too many rights — you know, like owning property, being literate, and wearing pants.

They replace democracy with a regime in which women are no longer allowed to go to school or have a job, gay men and lesbian women are murdered, and Gilead’s horrific version of Christianity becomes the state religion. The main part of the story, however, is this:

Some women serve as handmaids for Gilead’s leaders — called Commanders — and their infertile wives. (Infertility is never a man’s fault in Gilead). During “the Ceremony” once a month, the Commander rapes the handmaid while his wife holds her down. Just before “The Ceremony,” the whole household gathers to hear the Commander read Genesis 30:1-5 (from the KJV):

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.

Genesis 30:1-5 (KJV)

Of course, the Bible has been used throughout history to justify a lot of horrible acts, usually with a verse or passage taken out of its literary and historical context. The persecution of the Jews, the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans all received passionate biblical justification from some religious leaders.

No matter who you are, The Handmaid’s Tale is gut-wrenching to read or watch. But no one should find it more heartbreaking — or compelling — than its Christian audience.

At least a few times every episode I want to scream at the screen, “That’s not what that means!” That goes for pretty much every biblical reference and Christianese turn of phrase that the characters use. But I want to tear my hair out whenever they discuss or depict “The Ceremony.”

“The Ceremony” uses the text about the birth of Jacob’s sons (and his oft-forgotten daughter) to justify the role of handmaids as “walking wombs,” just like Bilhah and Zilpah. The excerpt they read, however, is such a tiny glimpse into the story. The full text (Genesis 29:31-30:24) is much longer, much more complex, and communicates a very different message than Gilead would like.

Just like we wouldn’t imagine the Son of God to be born in a manger, we wouldn’t imagine that the birth of the 12 tribes of Israel would be filled with polygeny, jealousy, and strife. Throughout the narrative, Rachel and Leah are competing for Jacob’s and God’s favor, all while Jacob appears to do and say nothing to mediate tensions. Bilhah and Zilpah — two women who we know and hear nothing about except their names — are compelled to bear children who Rachel and Leah claim as their own.

The story is not joyful or peaceful. It’s definitely not an example of marital bliss or familial unity. It mirrors the struggle between Isaac and Ishmael and between Jacob and Esau, and it foreshadows the struggle between the 12 tribes of Israel.

Ultimately, the passage is not a model for our behavior. It’s about how God responds to hatred, ugliness, and evil with love, beauty, and righteousness. It’s about how God can redeem bad choices and bad circumstances, even in the midst of chaos and strife. It’s about how God loves us and cares for our needs despite the ways we hurt ourselves and others.

In other words, Bilhah and Zilpah are handmaids despite God’s will, not because of it.

If Gilead had the self-awareness to read Genesis 29-30 for what it is and not what they wanted it to be, “The Ceremony” would never exist, which means Gilead wouldn’t either. But the thing is, Gilead isn’t actually concerned with the will of God. Gilead is concerned with the will of Gilead.

What passages do we read that way as American Christians?

The Handmaid’s Tale compels us to ask that question, which is why I think all American Christians need to watch it. It begs us to look in the mirror and ask where we are hurting ourselves and others in the name of God’s will, when in reality, we have “God’s will” all wrong.

There’s another reason I think all American Christians should watch The Handmaid’s Tale: The show — and Genesis 29-30 — remind us of the hope we have in God’s promises. Just like our hope doesn’t rest in our spouses or our children, our hope also does not rest in the political power of Christianity or in the cultural influence of the church.

Our hope is in God and God alone.

So if we only interpret The Handmaid’s Tale as an attack on the church, we miss out on what it can teach us. And mirrors — well, they teach us a lot. Go watch it and see.

As our religious convictions become increasingly filtered through blue- or red-colored glasses, Christians in the United States seem to be more of a force for division than unity.

The problem isn’t the disagreement. The letters of the New Testament reflect that the church has been rife with disagreement since the ascension of Jesus. Paul and Priscilla, James and Junia — the early church leaders in the Roman Empire grappled with issues just as contentious and diverse as the questions with which Christians in the United States struggle today.

Taking our cue from the early church leaders, we should definitely care about how theologically sound orthodoxy reflects justice, righteousness, and mercy in our personal actions and in our national legislation.

But as we consider how to move forward as a politically divided body of Christ, we shouldn’t start with specific legislative or ethical questions about abortion, the death penalty, gun ownership, climate change, the wall, or whatever else. Starting here will only lead to more resentment and disunity.

First, we need to answer a more fundamental question about identity: Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?

The question may seem semantic, but it is fundamental to everything we believe, especially when we make those beliefs law. Are we Christians who happen to be American, or are we Americans who happen to be Christian? Which do we value more: our citizenship in the United States or our citizenship in heaven? What is more important to us: the blood we share with fellow Americans because of a shared ethnicity and history, or the blood we share with humanity because Jesus Christ died for all?

What is it: America first or kingdom first?

Paul certainly asked himself and the church in Philippi the same questions. False teachers had told the Gentile Philippians that they needed to become like Jews to inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clarified that these false teachers had it backward: They saw themselves foremost as Jews who happened to believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Instead, Paul says, when you make following Jesus the core of your identity, your earthly citizenships — the circumstances and affiliations into which you were born by chance — are of secondary importance:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Philippians 3:17-21 (NRSV)

“What is it?” Paul is asking. “Where is your citizenship?”

Sure, your earthly citizenship might be in Rome (or the United States). It might be in a specific denomination or biological family.

But your heavenly citizenship — if you take the call of Jesus seriously — is in God’s kingdom. Not just in the future, but right now. Both are important. But which one is the core of your identity?

There are Christians of all political persuasions who place their political, ethnic, denominational, or other “citizenships” over their kingdom citizenship; people who identify more closely with non-Christian Americans than with Christians of other nationalities; people who relate more to non-Christians who also happen to be fellow Republicans or fellow Democrats than Christians of a different political party.

So next time we see a news story or enter a debate about legislation, let us remove the plank from our own eye: Let us examine how we are placing our earthly affiliations over our heavenly identity.

Only then will the name “Christian” in the United States become less associated with political affiliations and legislative preferences and begin to reflect the radical choice that is following the ultimate citizen of God’s kingdom, Jesus Christ.

Tony didn’t have any friends.

At eight years old, he didn’t know what it was like to play soccer or climb trees. In fact, he didn’t know how to relate to other kids at all. Except with his fists.

Tony was born with a hernia on his genitals that caused severe deformation. His parents couldn’t afford to dress him, so he ran around naked in the Ugandan village where he lives. Kids teased and bullied him for his deformity. He learned how to fight, because his peers didn’t want to play.

Tony was convinced he was unlovable, that something was fundamentally wrong with him and that he would never experience the love from his parents or peers that he so deeply desired.

Tony didn’t know it, but God saw and loved him right there, as he was. No one had ever told him that. But even if they had, what good is the love of an invisible, intangible being when all an eight-year-old kid wants is a hug?

When staff members of Kibo Group (a development nonprofit that works in southeastern Uganda) saw Tony, they didn’t say, “Don’t worry about the bullies, because God loves you.” Instead, they saw that God had placed them there to be the hands of Jesus and to show the love of God.

Tony couldn’t feel the hug of God without feeling the hug of God’s people.

So the Kibo staff gathered together their personal funds to get him to the nearest town, Jinja, so he could get the medical treatment that his parents couldn’t afford.

In Jinja, Tony received the kind of love he had never before experienced. The Kibo staff gave Tony three meals a day. He watched TV for the first time. Everyone greeted him when he walked into a room. He dressed in new, clean clothes to prevent infection after the surgery. He played with his peers in Sunday school. He went back to his home village a hero, with a quickly healing wound and lots of stories to share with the kids that would soon become his friends.

At one time or another, we are all Tony-with-a-hernia. Something that has happened or something we have done leads us to believe we are unlovable.

In those moments, you are loved. Even if no one tells you that, even if you can’t see it for yourself, even if you don’t feel that it’s true, the truth is that you are loved with the unimaginable, inexpressible love of the eternal God. My prayer in those moments is that someone tells you that God loves you and shows it.

This, after all, is what Jesus meant when he said:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:34-40, NIV)

The second greatest commandment isn’t to tell people about your love for God or even God’s love for others. The second greatest commandment is to be the love of God to others. In other words, the natural manifestation of love for God is showing the love of God to one’s neighbor.

So this is my second prayer: In the moments when you are Tony-after-surgery, I pray you will be the person who sees when someone needs the love of God and doesn’t just tell them about God’s love, but shows them what God’s love looks like.