One of the coolest things about leading a community like Evergreen is getting to see all the different people at all the different places on their spiritual journey- whether still in a place of questioning or seeking, or having decided to throw in and follow Jesus and trying to figure out what that means and looks like, or coming back after a long time away and trying to take it slow and struggling to leave out the unnecessary, hurtful parts of past church life, or being all in and growing and interested in contributing as much as possible to the growth of others. I love seeing all of that.
With the knowledge that we’re all in slightly, and sometimes greatly different places, and that where someone is in regards to an issue isn’t necessarily where I myself need to be or even can be right now, let me pose a question: In your journey of discovering God, or walking with Jesus up this point, what’s been something God has changed your mind about- what intellectual or belief-oriented change has occurred in you? And how?
Here’s what I want to suggest to you: The Gospel shapes our thinking not just by changing our mind about certain things, some that matter, some less so, but by drilling down into the deepest part of who we are as human beings and changing our hearts, which works itself out in changed values and so changed thoughts. What do I mean by “the Gospel” and how does it change our values and even thoughts?
Put a pin in the first question- we’ll get to that in a minute- and for the second question, listen to Is 54:1
“Sing, O childless woman,
you who have never given birth!
Break into loud and joyful song, O Jerusalem,
you who have never been in labor.
For the desolate woman now has more children
than the woman who lives with her husband,”
says the Lord.
If we’re going to really get this passage (and how changes our values & thinking) there are a few things we need to understand culturally. What was the significance of bearing children in ancient cultures? Why was it important? It’s hard for us who actually practice birth control and talk about overpopulation to really get this concept and to hear how radical this passage is. In ancient cultures, and in many traditional cultures today, it came down and comes down to this: The more children you have the better your family did, the better off you are. The more children you have the more your farm or your flocks or your business would produce because the more workers you had- the more income you had. So the number of children had a direct correlation with the amount of wealth you had and status you had. Children represented security, not just because it meant more hands to work the family business, but because when you got old, if you didn’t have enough children, you would starve. Talk about privatizing Social Security! In agrarian culture, you don’t save your retirement- you procreate it.
And here’s the hard truth of life in this kind of society- if you wanted to have 3 children when you reached old age, you had to have 8-10 in your youth, because most wouldn’t make it.
Take that individual pressure to have children and add in this corporate one- if your tribe or village wasn’t having lots and lots of children, the tribe a few miles away was, and eventually, their army would be larger and they would come and take your land and possessions and kill you. Children weren’t just the Social Security program, they were also Homeland Defense.
So picture this- a group of women taking a minute in the shade of the morning by the well at the center of town, talking, and one says: “I think we’ve decided to stop at 2.” What do all the rest of the women say? Are you insane? This isn’t just about you and your old age- this is about us– unless we have as many children as possible we are dooming our village, our people- militarily, economically. So- the woman who had many, many children, in ancient cultures, was… a hero.
But here’s the funny thing about the human heart that’s the same whether we’re talking about thousands of years ago or today: We always, always tend to take good things and make them into ultimate things.
And in ancient cultures and non-Western traditional cultures today, the family is the ultimate thing. It’s what we could call an idol. Women who either don’t have children because they weren’t married or can’t have children because of some physical reason felt worthless and were thought of by nearly everyone around them as worthless.
This is why in the book of Genesis, Jacob’s wife Rachel comes to him in anguish and says, “Give me children or I die!”
And right about now some of you are thinking “I’m glad I didn’t live then, because those ancient cultures really oppressed women.” And you know what? Absolutely right. They did. But here’s a question- and I want to be as sensitive as I can here… Why do you think that in ancient cultures and non-Western traditional cultures today, women didn’t struggle with eating disorders? (Actually, that’s a rhetorical question.)
The biblical picture of culture is that all cultures are broken. Fallen. And all of them, without exception, oppress. And here’s how: All cultures put in front of both men and women, certain objects or states of being and say: Without this, you are nothing. Without this you have no worth, no significance, no value. Your very existence isn’t justified. Without having this/being this/looking like this, you don’t really matter.
Ancient cultures/Traditional Non Western cultures/ and all cultures whose god is Dr. Dobson- their idols are collective- your worth depends on the family, you’ve got to have a family, be in a family. Modern Western culture has more individualistic idols- worth determined by individual assets- appearance, career, money/houses/possessions.
So, when Rachel says “Give me children or I die”- she’s just working off her culture’s and her own personal script that childlessness means psychological and social death. I’ve said this before and I‘ll say it again: Build your identity, your sense of worth on anything temporary, anything hard to get or easy to lose, anything but God… and fail to get it? That’s psychological or social death.
The problem is, every culture that has ever existed, theirs, ours, tells us to build our identity on something other than the One who made us, loves us, gave Himself up to save us- God. And so every culture oppresses, every culture pushes down, crushingly on women and men, by playing off that part of the human heart that wants to save itself, justify itself, find its satisfaction in something besides God.
Every culture does it- just in different ways. And it’s almost impossible, when everyone else is chasing something, even something that crushes them under the weight of trying to get it, to maintain it, not to go along and chase the same things… Almost.
But God excels as providing a way out- and this part of the human dilemma is no exception. There is a way out- to emotional inner freedom and external social and cultural freedom. What is it? Back to Isaiah… Into the middle of the culture we’ve just described whose idol is children and childbearing God says “Sing, O childless woman.” That’s not just pie-in-the-sky-buck up camper and be happy… that’s freedom. He’s calling women to an inner emotional freedom from shame and an external freedom from oppressive cultural structures and expectations.
He’s saying- I can set you free. I can give you a freedom from men, from others’ expectations- You can be free. You can sing. Even without children. Then He says
“’For the desolate woman now has more children than the woman who lives with her husband,’ says the Lord.”
On the surface, that makes no sense. It’s paradoxical- and deliberately so.
The woman who has never had any children has more children than the woman who has had a lot of children. It makes no sense until you understand that in their mind children represent something. Honor. Value. Worth. And God is saying that there is an honor and value and worth available to you apart from having children. Utterly radical in their culture. Where does it come from?
“For your Creator will be your husband;
the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name!
He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel,
the God of all the earth.” –Is 54:5
Your Maker is your husband. God is your husband….
All through Scripture, whether we’re talking OT or NT, there is this metaphor of God as the husband, of Christ as the groom and the Church as the Bride. The whole metaphor is meant to point to a simple truth.
Every religious system- whether we’re talking about atheism (which is a religious system) or Islam, Hinduism and its offshoots or fundamentalisms of various stripes all say the same thing: Life is about one thing- Trying hard. Try, try, try… and at the end of your life, if you’ve done fairly well, whoever is doing the judging whether god or history or the universe: you’ll have a positive verdict and enter heaven, or Nirvana, or escape the wheel of suffering or be judged as having lived a worthy life or whatever…
But the Gospel says something unique. Something absolutely and fundamentally different. It says you can have a standing before God, and come into something NOW. And the perfect metaphor is marriage- which is two things: the most intense and close physical and love relationship possible and yet, also something defined legally. A status you enter into where the moment before you say I do, you have nothing- no shared property, rights of inheritance, etc- but the moment after you say I do, you have… everything.
It’s not try, try, try and hope God accepts you. Say yes to God and your Maker is your husband. When you enter relationship with God the verdict is in: Now, NOW– you have the acceptance, the praise…the delight of God.
So what is God saying here? To them, to you, to me? Don’t look to anything else to be your value. God says “I can be your value.” And what greater value could you or I possibly have than to have the God of the universe, the creator of everything delight in and sacrifice Himself for you… to win you… to save you?
He says- I see you taking all these things, good things, and turning them into ultimate things and trying to derive meaning and significance from what can never provide it. Don’t try to get your value and significance from what you get or what you do. Don’t do that. I will be your meaning, your significance, your value and your worth. Me- the One who made you. We need freedom from those things so that we can finally love them as we should, in right proportion, and not be enslaved by them, and only in loving God can you or I truly find that. God says you will be fully free in this way only when your heart rests in Me, the way your body falls into and rests in a soft, warm bed after a long hard journey or incredibly hard day. Only when your hearts thirsts for and is satisfied by Me the way you thirst for and are satisfied by a cool glass of water in the middle of the hottest day of summer. Have Me, God says, and you have freedom. A completely different identity. Cultural freedom.
Every culture says has its themes, its strengths, its idols… but they won’t enslave and crush you anymore when God becomes in your life what He is meant to be. When the Gospel begins to work its way down into the recesses and restructure from the inside out, slowly changing how you see everything.
Do you see how the Gospel, through setting us free, changes, shapes and molds the way we think- not just about things, and relationships and cultural expectations and idols… but about ourselves? Our own identity?
So- to the real question: How does the Gospel shape our thinking?
Isaiah was written to a people in exile, whose city had been torn down, whose lives had been upturned by having everything taken away from them. And God says, Sing oh barren woman. And later in the chapter he says,
“O storm-battered city,
troubled and desolate!
I will rebuild you with precious jewels
and make your foundations from lapis lazuli.
12 I will make your towers of sparkling rubies,
your gates of shining gems,
and your walls of precious stones.
13 I will teach all your children,
and they will enjoy great peace.
14 You will be secure under a government that is just and fair.
Your enemies will stay far away.
You will live in peace,
and terror will not come near.” –Is 54:11-14
What’s the picture of a walled city made from diamonds and rubies? Other than being architecturally very challenging and a real pain in the rear for the contractors… it’s a picture of economic prosperity, of strength and security, and great beauty as well.
And here’s the thing… God promises them this, and yet- though Jerusalem was rebuilt, it was never rebuilt like this. So what’s He saying? To really get this, we need to go to the final chapters, the last words of the book where God draws us a picture of where He’s taking this whole thing- where we have a picture of a heavenly city coming down to earth whose walls are made of precious jewels and where there is peace and everything else He’s describing here. Basically, a picture of God putting the world right, of a redeemed community of people who have been forgiven, who have been brought back into relationship with God, living together in a world that has been healed and set right.
God didn’t want disease and suffering and death, poverty, racism and injustice, and in the end He’s going to make the world the way it should be. Sounds like a pretty good plan- How does He do that? And how do I get in on it?
Through Jesus. Through the Gospel. Why do you think God always seems to pick the least likely characters in the story? Why does He work so often with the barren, and the poor, and tiny David over his bigger and stronger brothers, or these poor fishermen instead of all the well-learned religious scholars… why? To point to what God would ultimately do in Jesus.
Christ wins our salvation through losing. The people thought Messiah would come and overthrow the Romans and set up a military kingdom. But instead, He was killed. He defeated death, and hatred and sin through dying- through taking the worst they had… and then rising again. He achieves power through weakness and service, He comes to wealth through giving everything away. And so those who follow Him, those who want what He’s offering, get it not through strength and accomplishment, but through admitting they are weak and lost, through dying to themselves, giving it away.
And so, “salvation”- that is, what God wants to do in your heart and soul and in the heart and soul of this word as a whole, because it is achieved through weakness… and received through weakness… ends up pulling off a complete reversal of the values of this world- whether we’re talking about money or power or recognition, status- whatever.
When we finally get that we are saved through the sheer grace of God through Jesus, we stop seeking salvation in all those other things- recognition, relationships, status, wealth, power… The grace of God displayed in the Gospel sets us free from those things and creates a people with an upside-down set of values. Why else would we have seen in our years together things like nurses and engineers from Evergreen who could be making fantastic money right here in PDX heading off to incredibly dangerous places like Sudan to work for nothing? It makes no sense, until you begin to see how the Gospel changes the way we think about things like money, and our time… and our lives.
Whether we talk about our tendency to see ourselves as superior to others, the accrual of money and power, yearning for popularity and recognition… We get pushed toward all these things by our culture but all of them are completely turned around in the Gospel.
When God becomes your highest good, and the Gospel does its work in your heart, you look at people of other races or classes or cultural subgroups differently than before because you no longer make an idol out of your race or culture, or cultural subgroup. You look at money and jobs differently than before- you don’t have to obsessively climb the ladder, get lots of money, lots of stuff, because that’s not how you get your security and significance any more. The Gospel pulls us out of the traps all human culture tends to set for people and starts and sustains us on the road to bit by bit by bit to building that city that God is building and eventually will bring about fully and completely at the end of time.
Does the Gospel change and shape our thinking? Absolutely. By changing our hearts and changing our values at the deepest level. By giving us what we really need it sets us free to think in more healthy ways about all those things we merely want, about our own suffering, about all of life. So the question, back to the beginning is this:
In your journey of discovering God, or walking with Jesus up this point, what’s been something God has changed your mind about- what intellectual or belief-oriented change has occurred in you? And how?
If your list is short, a good exercise to do over this season might be to start asking yourself questions: Do the politics I embraced before Jesus still make sense to me in light of the massive paradigm shift of Jesus? Does the way I view other people, those I tend to agree with and those I don’t need to be reassessed? Is how I spend my money, my time, my effort, even my sexuality congruent with life in Jesus’ Kingdom, of is it simply a holdover from an old way of thinking, an old way of life?
If Jesus changes anything, He changes everything.
(This was originally part of a sermon from a series we did at Evergreen in 2009 about how the Gospel changes us. Also, in reading this, it’s clear much of it was cribbed from Tim Keller 🙂 )