Serving the God We Know, Knowing the God We Serve

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: "What does the shape of my service look like? If I cannot save the world, what can I do in it?"

Life Belongs to God

The moral of this story is not about right or wrong, but about rights—to human life, and who has them. The terrible passages of Scripture teach us that human life belongs wholly and only to God, full stop. And none of it—not a cellular micrometer or temporal millisecond—is ours to take.

This does not mean that humans can never kill. The Bible is replete with instances of divinely sanctioned life-taking—in the theocracy of the Old Testament, for offenses against the covenant and in the political proto-theology of the New (for example, Romans 13:1-7), for human government’s rightful restraint of wickedness. The history of Christian theology is also profoundly concerned with how to love one’s neighbor in the face of violent threat, which can lead to justifications for killing (for example, the just war tradition).

The common thread in each of these is that no human ever possesses the authority to take life. We may be delegated that authority on a situational and temporary basis. Because all life belongs to God, those who take it must always be acting as God’s proxy, for God’s purposes—whether in the holy wars of the ancient Israelites, to advance God’s salvation history, or in human government, as the ministers of God’s wrath against injustice. You can see why this is a weighty responsibility: to get it wrong is, literally, murder.

To kill outside the boundaries of God’s justice is to take from God, in a way, the time and place of a person’s death. For this reason, there can be no quarter and no compromise between Christians and pragmatists on the ethics of life and death. In World War II, commanders justified the bombings of civilian centers like Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that is, taking lives that they had absolutely no right to take—with the claim that doing so would save lives in the end. The theological error here is assuming that God’s primary concern is numbers, as if God met with the generals at the start of the war and said, “Here’s the balance sheet of everyone living. Get this back to me, and keep the bottom line as high as you can, would you?”

At stake is the God-given, inviolable right to human life. This is not to deny that questions of quantity matter. It means something that nuclear weapons kill on an unimaginable scale. But the degree of destruction simply serves to magnify the categorical transgression: that we have trespassed against God to “save” a thing that wasn’t ours in the first place. This is the lie of the devil, who has, since Eden, told humanity that life and death are ours to adjudicate. We know Scripture’s answer to the proposal that we do evil so that good may come: “May it never be!” (Rom. 3:4 NASB).

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Only in the recognition of God’s complete right over all the world—salvation and damnation, life and death, blessing and disaster, joy and suffering—can we understand our utter lack of authority over life. The commandment against murder—which is to say, any act of taking human life outside the judgment and justice of God—is absolute.

The working of God is often terrible. But God may be terrible because he is holy, and holiness is fearsome to behold. So, what do we name it when we, who are so deeply profane, arrogate to ourselves the right to ape God, to plant our unholy feet in his sacred place and wreak terror and horror? This is abomination—because the world is not ours.

Loving the Supernova

Christian faith has given me the perception that I exist in God’s own time, not my own. It means the standard by which I measure my life has been transformed from the efficacy of what I might accomplish to fidelity to the only one whose accomplishment truly mattered.

This has not been easy. It challenges, for one: I have moved through enough spiritual peaks and valleys to recognize that the way is hilly, with attendant highs and lows.

Even more, I have been called to a God—El Elyon, God Most High—whose living holiness does not easily fit in polite company or in my North American, middle-class morality. The deity of a dead and unthreatening civil religion capable of reducing theology to ethics would be a far more attractive conversation partner. But I have not heard the voice of that god. The voice that I did hear has led me in a surprisingly direct fashion to the God known by the author of the letter to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God . . . for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 10:31; 12:29 NRSV).

If I did not perceive him through mortality’s “glass, darkly,” it would mean immolation. A consuming fire—a supernova, more like! Yet there was also that voice in a concrete stairwell. How does the supernova speak so softly or a voice burn so fiercely? If I seek to serve a God whose purposes are so far beyond mine, but which encompass mine in my own salvation, what does the shape of my service look like? If I cannot save the world, what can I do in it?

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How positively unbelievable, then—how astonishingly incomprehensible—that in the man Jesus of Nazareth, the supernova heart meets us as love. And in him we find the character of service in a world that is not ours to save.

 

Taken from The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Copyright © 2013 by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL,  60515-1426. IVPPress.com.

Order The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good from IVP Press or Amazon.com: The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.