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DUST AND BONES: THE DIFFICULTY OF HUMAN LIFE
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I am a huge fan of infomercials. I have a friend who specializes in producing the half-hour sales pitches that appear on my television in the middle of the night. What is so fascinating to me is how the product in question grows in my heart from "the dumbest thing I've ever seen" to "I need this" in the course of thirty minutes. My friend tells me that what looks like an extended low-budget commercial is actually a well-thought-through and intentionally crafted marketing experience designed to erode every potential objection a buyer may have for not purchasing the product. And it works!
When my wife and I were first married, we were taken in by something called the Ab King. The promise of the commercial was that the Ab King would send gentle currents of electricity through a belt and into my abs, causing them to constrict as if I were doing a sit-up. (If you have ever seen me, you'd understand why such a product was attractive.) Worn long enough, the Ab King promised to turn my stomach from a pony keg into a six-pack.
Once lured in, we were suckers for the promise of all gain and no pain, so we quickly called the 800 number. Two easy payments of $19.99 later, we awaited the brown package at our front door that signified the introduction of my abs to the King. Alas, we were bound for disappointment. Instead of a gentle electrical current, the Ab King delivered a jolt of electricity to my gut that felt as if a red-hot fork were being repeatedly jabbed into it. Needless to say, my abs still need work.
I have resisted the siren call of infomercials ever since, though I do enjoy learning their tricks. I am sure it is more nuanced than this, but advertising seems to work best when it follows a simple formula: create a need and then fill it. Create desire, then offer satisfaction. Sell fear, then offer hope. Even when I know this is what is happening, it still almost works. That is the promise of every new product: that somehow, some way, my life will improve if I buy what they're selling. My life is incomplete, so the story goes, and this will help me look/smell/feel/live better. Gadgets promise to be smaller, faster, lighter, and able to do more. Waiting in line to buy the next big thing is now commonplace.
It's true, of course, that most of what we're sold doesn't live up to its promise. It is the rare product that actually makes a real difference in the lives of consumers. If we're lucky, we enjoy our stuff for a season, then discard it to make room for more. But, inevitably, most of our stuff disappoints, leaving us perpetually in search of the next new thing.
This is the story of the American consumer. This is the free-market, commercialized language and environment we hear and see every day: there is something wrong, something empty in our lives, causing us to feel incomplete and unsatisfied. If we buy or experience product X, we'll never be the same again. We'll find joy and fulfillment, and our ordinary lives will be transformed into something glorious. Rarely are marketers that obvious about it, of course. But that's the basic premise. We are the most commercialized people on the planet, and we'd be fools to think the language and concepts of the free-market economy haven't made their way into our churches and our view of God.
How many times has the Christian story been told like this:
There is a God-shaped hole in your heart, a sense of alienation and incompleteness that you try to fill with sex, drugs, money, success, or whatever. None of those things have worked; they haven't filled the void in your life and only leave you wanting more.
Jesus promises to fill that hole; He is the only thing that fits. He'll come into your life and give you meaning, significance, and purpose. You'll feel complete. He's the only one who can satisfy what your soul truly longs for.
There are dozens of variations of this version of the gospel, but they all essentially take the language of the free-market economy and offer Jesus to us instead of product X. Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Jesus becomes simply another consumer option, offered to us as a way to gain fulfillment and satisfaction, except this time on a cosmic scale.
The problem, obviously, is that this version of the gospel isn't really true. Jesus never made these promises. How many of us still feel incomplete, inadequate, or unfulfilled, even with Jesus? I've learned that Jesus is like the Ab King—full of promise—but He fails to deliver. We get this huge guarantee of how Jesus will complete us, then we find out He's just like every other product we've tried. We may enjoy Him for a season, but sooner or later, He disappoints us, just like everything else.
Unless Jesus isn't a consumer product.
Unless this consumer gospel isn't the real gospel, but only a free-market translation of something that is, in fact, not biblical at all.
Unless Jesus never really promised to remove our dissatisfaction, emptiness, or uncertainty.
Whether or not we know it, most of us relate to God in the same way we relate to the Ab King or any other consumer product. The church is often a willing accomplice in this. There is a void at the core of us that causes us to imagine that there is something somewhere that will fill us and cause us to be whole. That much is true. Whether we call it sin, brokenness, weakness, or simple human limitation matters not. The empty space in all of us is what drives us to turn to something to make life better and make us feel more complete. The church steps into the public square proclaiming the impotence of every other object to fill that space in us apart from God through Jesus.
Certainly there are many ways in which entering into a relationship with God does fulfill us; but so often the appeals we make in the name of the gospel use the same logic that drives the sales of the Ab King. Create a need, then show how Jesus (or product X) meets that need.
The problem is that God rarely cooperates with our sales guarantees. There is no place in Scripture where God promises to meet our needs, fill the hole in our hearts, or make our life easier. In fact, God usually does just the opposite. That is one reason why so many are disappointed in God. We've made promises for Him that He doesn't make for Himself. Using the language of free-market consumerism to bring people to Christ actually hurts them in the long run for the simple reason that Jesus often introduces difficulty, tension, and uncertainty into our lives. If we've promised people that Jesus will remove the bumps and bruises of life, then they'll be unpleasantly surprised to find He'll frequently introduce bumps and bruises as part of the journey of faith.
And that is the crux of this book: so many of the things we look to God to take away are things He wants to use to draw us deeper into His kingdom.
God will use all of these and more to draw us to Him. God isn't the author of all the pain that comes our way, but I do think He values what this kind of pain does. Those things listed above effectively put us into the kind of spiritual soil out of which faith, trust, and love grow. God takes us to places where we can't figure it out or depend on our resources or intelligence. He does it because He wants us to trust Him, not our formulas, spiritual disciplines, or knowledge of the Bible. He draws us onward, using the acute sense of limitation and sorrow we feel, to bring us to the place where we "don't know" and "can't see" so that we'll reach for Him and grab hold of Him, after there is no other place to turn.
DIFFICULTY AND FRUSTRATION
The opening chapters of Genesis are quite remarkable. We meet God as Creator—a being so powerful He simply spoke the universe into existence. We learn that the universe was the product of intelligence and design, specifically created for human life. We see that human beings stand alone in God's good world as those who are unique bearers of the divine image, created to cogovern as God's representatives over the earth and its inhabitants. Our rulership over the world and everything in it was to be done with God's help, according to His design and for His glory and honor. Human beings were to be signposts and representatives of God's wisdom and creative goodness on the earth.
In Genesis 2, further details emerge about the creation of man and woman. Adam was created first. The man (adam) was made to work and care for the garden God called Eden. We are told that he was made from the dust of the ground (the Hebrew word is adamah) and was named in relation to it (the adam was named after the adamah). He was connected to creation because he was both made from it and designed to cultivate and care for it. He was made to find meaning, purpose, and significance in his labor in the garden.
Later in the same chapter, the woman was created out of the side of the man. The man named her, saying, "she shall be called 'woman' ['ishshah], for she was taken out of man ['ish]" (Gen. 2:23). Like the man, the woman was named in relation to her origin, and this name gives us clues as to where she was to find purpose, meaning, and identity. As we have seen, the man was named in relation to the ground. He came from it and was to work it, finding in his labor purpose, meaning, and significance. The woman was created because no "suitable helper" was found for the man. In English this sounds like the man needed an administrative assistant or something. It is important to note that helper (ezer) was a word used of God in the Old Testament when He would rescue or help Israel. It was also used to describe the sending and receiving of military aid. A better translation of ezer is "ally." The point is that helper is a strong word; no trace of inferiority is implied.
Because the woman was created to be a complement and companion to the man, she was made from the man's side. It is significant that she was created from the side (not head or feet) of the man. She was to be an equal and a complement. It was in and through her relationship to the 'ish that the 'ishshah was to derive meaning, purpose, and significance, in the same manner as the adam's relationship to adamah. It is important to understand the relationship between the man and woman and their names in order to fully appreciate what God did to each of them when they rebelled in Genesis 3. God created the man to work and find significance, meaning, and purpose in his labor; and He created the woman to find significance, meaning, and purpose in her relationship to the man. The way they were each named reflected this reality.
As the story continues, our first parents were not content to be made in the image of God; they desired to be like God Himself. That was the essence of the serpent's temptation: that they could be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Adam and Eve abandoned their trusting and intimate relationship with God when they disobeyed God's direct command to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Immediately their eyes were opened, and they hid from each other and from God. God soon discovered their rebellion and, in response, issued judgments against the serpent, the woman, and the man. Note how God spoke to the woman:
To the woman he [God] said,
"I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you." (Gen. 3:16)
Notice the two judgments given to the woman. The first was increased pain in childbirth. While this may strike us as a bit random or arbitrary, this "curse" is related to the command given the woman and the man in Genesis 1:28: "God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'" The first command given to Adam and Eve was to fill the earth and increase in number. The woman was the vessel through which the earth would be filled. Childbearing was central to her purpose and identity. God frustrated her ability to joyfully "fill the earth." Obviously she was still able to give birth, but now there was (more?) pain and sacrifice involved.
Second, God said that her desire would now be for her husband and that he would rule over her. The word desire doesn't refer to sexual desire but rather the desire to master or exert control over something. It is the same word used in Genesis 4:7 when God confronted Cain about his anger toward his brother: "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it." Here desire is used to describe sin's desire to control Cain.
Under the curses of Genesis 3, the woman would "desire" to control the man, and the man would "rule" over her. The word rule is the same word used of kings who reign over their subjects. Whereas Genesis 2 ends with the man and woman married, naked, and unashamed, living in complete intimacy and union, their relationship in the Genesis 3 world was now a struggle for power. They blamed each other for their disobedience; they were now in competition with each other for control. This was never God's intention for male/female relationships but is the reality after the fall.
Note again the strategic nature of the judgments. God frustrated the impulse and capacity of the woman to fill the earth in the first judgment. Then the "suitable helper" relationship between the man and woman was frustrated. Again, God created the woman to find meaning, purpose, and significance in both her role as child-bearer and "suitable helper," but God introduced difficulty into both roles. Instead of trusting intimacy, the man and woman would fight each other for control of their relationship. The point is that God frustrated the woman in exactly the places he designed the woman to find fulfillment.
Consider the judgment given to the man:
To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree
about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat from it,'
"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return." (Gen. 3:17–19)
Here God frustrated man's relationship to the ground. Adam was created to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in his labor; God knew exactly where to frustrate the man so he could not find the significance he longed for. Far from being random, the judgments of Genesis 3 are incredibly strategic; God frustrated the very impulses He gave the man and woman so that life for them in the fallen world would no longer be easy. He introduced difficulty and futility into human life. He thwarted their attempts to find life apart from Him. Why is it that no matter how much money we have, we always want more?
Why is that our desires—for sex, food, love, or anything else—are insatiable? At best, our enjoyment of what we crave is fleeting; we know we'll be hungry again for more in a short time.
Why is it that our most intense pleasures suffer from the law of diminishing returns so that it takes more and more to experience them less and less?
Why is it that no relationship will be perfect, no job ultimately fulfilling, and no accomplishment permanently satisfying?
The answer is in Genesis 3.
EMPTINESS AND LONGING
In response to the disobedience of our first parents, God frustrated the man and woman precisely in those places He designed them to find meaning, purpose, identity, and significance. Childbearing is painful, relationships are power struggles, and fruitful labor becomes "painful toil." Creation no longer cooperates with the wishes and work of the man and the woman. As we have seen, God was very intentional and deliberate in His judgments. He made life difficult for human beings.
This comes as a bit of a surprise to those who are convinced that God's love for us means He would never do anything to make our life harder. But this is precisely what He did. Not just to Adam and Eve but, by extension, to you and me. And the key point, the even more surprising point, is that He did this as an act of mercy in order to drive us back to Him. His judgments were calculated to ensure our continued frailty and dependence so that His now-fallen and rebellious creation would be driven back to reliance upon Him. By introducing difficulty into human life, God heightened humanity's sense of vulnerability while at the same time introduced a hunger and thirst for significance and meaning that only He could supply.
Excerpted from ASTONISHED by MIKE ERRE. Copyright © 2014 Mike Erre. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 16, 2014
"Are there bushes burning all around us all the time, but we are too distracted to notice? Am I asleep to the God who is right here, right now?"
~ Mike Erre
This is one disturbing book. And I mean that in the best of ways. It shook me a little, and it made me look at things again that I had been ignoring.
Mike Erre is pointing us to the God who spoke about Holy Ground and the Gates of Heaven, where the humans thought that it was all just "plain" earth and sky. The God who told us we must worship in spirit and in truth, who definitively moved the debate right away from what we could control- our outsides and appearances and locations.
The God who told us that citizenship in the Kingdom is a free gift that costs us everything.
And who described that Kingdom in terms of "smallness and hiddenness" and yet established it to over turn all the orders of the world.
A God who says that His strength lies in our own weakness, and when we are frail he is mighty to save.
A God who allows desperation, instead of shielding us from it, and who draws faith out of that.
A God who is reliable- we can trust Him with everything, but who is never predictable.
A God who is everywhere present and always with you, but who allows lengthy stretches where you will feel nothing but empty and dry.
He is a God of truth and paradox and mystery and whimsy. And we need Him desperately.
Thank you David C Cook for my review copy of this book. It is well worth your time.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." 2 Cor. 4:7
Posted May 10, 2014
Posted April 29, 2014
I am a Christian woman, and I need to grow. I need to learn MORE, and more, and more. I need it in my face, every single day.
I NEED GOD.
This book comes along right at a perfect time for our society. We should have started thinking and acting this way long ago, but at least Pastor Mike has brought the thoughts to us now. We need to be in GOD'S world. Not ours.
BUY this book, and READ it. And then....READ it again.
Posted April 17, 2014
This is hands down one of the best books I have read regarding the walk of a Christian. It is a call back to the truth of God's Word and the walk of the Christian is not to gain all of heavens blessings here on this earth. This is not our home. Yes, there are blessings....namely Jesus Himself. He is our reward. More than eternal life, peace, joy or anything else...it is Him.
I found myself highlighting every page. I start rereading as soon as I finished the first time and I am sure I will read many other times. It is loaded with scripture passages...not proof texts....passages in context.
Going through a server time of trials and purifying in my life through suffering I found myself calling God into the court of my judgement. How thankful I am for his goodness and mercy that restrained his justice. He most certainly is God and I am not. If you have found yourself not wanting to follow unless you can understand or spending too much time trying to understand as if you can't follow until something is "clear" to you, this book is for you. If you need to have sight correction to see God as a Holy God full of mystery and awe, this book is for you. He is not a tame God. He is dangerous, in a safe way b/c He ALWAYS has our good in mind...our eternal good not our temporal good.
He is God. I am not. He is worthy of my praise, my adoration, my worship, my service and my life. He first loved us.
I pray this book finds its way into your hands and directs your passion back to the worship of a God you cannot control and you lose all desire to even try and control Him or your life.
Posted April 12, 2014
No text was provided for this review.
Posted May 1, 2014
No text was provided for this review.