We hear the word “rhetoric” tossed around a lot these days so it’s important to know what it means. Webster’s correctly defines it “artificial eloquence.” Rhetoric permeates the phrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” and it’s one of Satan’s favorite tools because what’s being said is rarely the truth. But a follower of Christ can refuse to succumb to slick talk and thereby honor their commitment to God’s uncompromised truth. I can’t even glance at Facebook without having to wade through reams of vapid rhetorical statements of not-necessarily-well-thought-out opinions regarding the mess this world’s in. Obviously, it’s much easier to re-post an “I’m right, you’re wrong” quip than to engage in a rational, face-to-face debate over an issue. Having said that, if the person I’m “friends” with is not a Christian I know there’s only so far I can go in a discussion with them before what’s implicit in God’s Word becomes an impasse. Truth and rhetoric are like oil and water. They’ll never mix.
Now, don’t put me on a pedestal. Like many believers, when the insanity of killing sprees, radical Islamic terrorism or unforeseen natural disasters attack my belief that God’s got this planet under His control I get nervous. Sometimes I become sated with uncertainty, beleaguered by doubts and/or frustrated by questions that have no neat and tidy answers. I’m still a dedicated, loyal soldier in the army of Christ 24/7 but I do struggle from time to time with conundrums of conscience and wonder why God would grant us free will if so many folks are so eager to abuse and employ it to further their self-centered agendas. Deep down I get it. I know from studying the Bible that God won’t force Himself on anybody. But often I kinda wish He would. It’s difficult to stand up before a group of lost, depressed, hurting people and tell them “You just have to trust in the Lord.” That’s because trust doesn’t come easy. And sometimes it doesn’t come at all. However, I bullishly hold myself accountable to God and I’ll not fake my faith in Him. Come what may, I’ll continue to believe in the eternal implications of the death and resurrection of my Savior. To paraphrase a rock classic, “I won’t stop believin’” even if society considers me stupid for not stopping. Yes, I have doubts but they’re never as strong as my trust in Jesus. My Holy Spirit-fostered faith empowers me to walk through the valley of the shadow of death that is the “existential loneliness of the human condition” and not be defeated by fear. For those who feel like God’s not listening to them I can only urge you to stubbornly keep at it. Brennan Manning wrote, “The mysterious love of God is fierce enough to penetrate even those who think that they cannot receive it.”
God says in Hebrews 13:5 “…I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” He didn’t say there wouldn’t be days when you’ll feel like He has, though. The fact is, if trust isn’t tested it never graduates. Sometimes we have to let go and let our souls sink into “the silence of infinite mercy” where, if we patiently wait, we’ll hear our Lord whisper gently, “I’m here. Don’t be afraid. No matter how loony things get on this fallen orb, I live and continue to reign supreme.” I take great comfort knowing that many of the most heralded theologians, writers and preachers in history have endured seasons of doubt. The renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once confessed, “…I’m no one assured in God, rather a man endangered before God, a man wrestling ever anew for God’s light, ever anew engulfed in God’s abysses.” He penned that statement when he was 40. He died at 87. Thus it’s possible he grappled with spiritual conflicts most of his life. Seems God intentionally gifts those who have a tendency to entertain doubts about His plans with an uncanny ability to express themselves. Remember, Paul spoke of God using “fools” like him to shame the wise while, at the same time, encourage the faithful. “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
In the prologue of his highly recommended book, 66 Love Letters, Dr. Larry Crabb tells of the sleepless night when he griped to God about things in his life not going all that smoothly. He opened his trusty Bible to Hosea 5:15 and read, “…in their misery they will earnestly seek me.” He sought, yet he still felt miserable. This led to his seriously questioning what the great I AM was attempting to tell him in the Scriptures, if anything at all. He pondered, “God, why did You write Genesis? What do You want me to hear You say in Leviticus? Could you tell me why I should bother to read, let alone study, Obadiah? I think I have some idea what Romans is about, but how are You talking to me in Jude or Revelation? Now that I’ve brought up Revelation, do You mind if I ask You something? Couldn’t You have finished off the Bible with something a little easier to understand? I know scholars call it apocalyptic literature, but all that means to me is that it’s intentionally confusing. God, why did You write Revelation? Come to think of it, why did You write each of the sixty-six books?” God responded by inspiring Crabb to quit looking at the Holy Word as a collection of sentences and view it as a complete, beginning-to-end story. This epiphany changed Crabb’s whole outlook. He explained, “I visualized each chapter as a love letter from God to me, His fickle friend, His cheating spouse, His spoiled child. He still wants me. He paid a huge price to get me. He’s already found me. And now He’s telling me the whole story of how I messed up our relationship and how He’s putting it back together. And He’s letting me know how it’s all going to turn out. Every word in the Bible I could now see as a word of life.” Had Crabb not had doubts, his thought-provoking book may have never seen the light of day.
Back to rhetoric. Atheists use it to make their case. So do agnostics, humanists, bigots, communists, religious legalists, secularists and hot-air-filled politicians. If we pay unwarranted attention to them we’ll place ourselves in danger of falling for their propaganda. The media delights in feeding us rhetoric, too. When several of those running for president said they were praying for those killed or wounded in the tragic San Bernardino terrorism incident the New York Daily newspaper boldly exclaimed on its front page, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS” and implied that those indulging in prayer to Him were “cowards hiding behind meaningless platitudes.” And, sadly, lots of Americans concur with that opinion. They’ve either given up on God’s claim to universal sovereignty (or they never believed in His existence in the first place) and now support openly ridiculing Christians for continuing to trust in their Heavenly Father. Manning wrote, “Ruthless trust is the courageous confidence that despite suffering and evil, terrorism and domestic conflicts, God’s plan in Jesus Christ cannot fail. We’re neither boozy dreamers, hopeless idealists, nor cockeyed optimists. We’re not playing ‘the religion game.’” What we are doing is what Jesus instructed us to do. He said, “Do not let your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). Because we believe in Him we also believe in what He tells us in the Bible. There He made it crystal clear we’re in for floods of troubled waters. While we must do our best not to be part of the overall problem we must also acknowledge that the only permanent solution to it is Jesus Christ’s triumphant return.
The author of Hebrews got it right. I’ve been going through Eugene Peterson’s impressive “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language” in my daily readings this year and just today I was struck by the remarkable relevance of his interpretation as exemplified with Hebrews 11. “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see. By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice” (Hebrews 11:1-4). The passage goes on to highlight the faith of Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah and then states, “Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that – heaven country” (Hebrews 11:13-16). It then brings up even more folks who trusted unconditionally in God and then ends the chapter with this: “Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one complete whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours” (Hebrews 11:39-40). Like Dr. Crabb, I’ve come to realize that we Christians aren’t outside God’s story, we’re inside it. We’re an intricate part of its magnificent unfolding!
In Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “…Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). The next day He carried all our sins with Him up on the cross and there suffered an excruciating death for our sake. We have no greater example of absolute trust in God than Christ’s. Whether He knew precisely what awaited Him on the other side is information we’re not privy to. What we do know is that He was wholeheartedly confident that somehow His Heavenly Father would vindicate Him. Manning wrote, “Jesus’ voluntary disengagement from life is His supreme expression of persevering trust, and it wins for Him and every one of us fullness of life. And His blessed, obstinate, importunate trust ravishes the heart of His Abba.” The goal of every believer should be to possess the trust of Christ. We understand we can’t plant the seed of trust in ourselves, nor can we water or fertilize it. God does all that. Nonetheless, we can drink freely from the river of trust that constantly flows through the Holy Spirit into our hearts. We can remind ourselves of the awesome love of Jesus that never faltered, even as His precious blood dripped onto the cold, scarred rocks of Golgotha. He loves us just as much now as He did then because His is an everlasting love. He’s our Messiah, not just another heroic figure in history. As we’re told in 1 Corinthians 1:18, He’s “…the power of God,” able to transform our prideful, wicked hearts into hearts “strong in the trust that they are loved.” Incredibly, to be saved we don’t have to do anything except abandon all our self-defense mechanisms and let our undeserving, conceited selves be loved as we are. No hoops to jump through. No exams to pass. Just total surrender to the King of kings.
Jesus proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). That’s the crux of the matter right there, ain’t it? He’s asking every human being for their trust. Trust that He’s nothing less than who He said He is – God – and that, accordingly, His promises can’t be broken. He staked His life on us. We must return the favor. There’s no grey area when it comes to Christ. Either God raised Him from the dead or the whole shebang’s a hoax. One either puts his/her trust in Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel He preached or they must consider Him a master charlatan whose bones have now long since dissolved into terra firma. If Easter is a fairy tale we who strive to follow in Christ’s footsteps should be wearing dunce caps. Manning put it this way: “Either we trust in the person and promise of Jesus and commit our lives to both, or we do not.” God graciously allows every individual to make that choice for themselves. But can you think of a decision that has more profound consequences? Yet too many today don’t even want to consider the question, much less their answer to it. It’s our job to emphasize to our neighbors that the choice will still have to be made and ignoring it is the equivalent of saying “no” to the only chance they’ve got. Some say that’s not fair. God begs to differ. Ravi Zacharias said of Jesus, “Those who hurt Him hated Him. Those who hated Him, He loved. Those who killed Him wanted to be rid of Him. By allowing Himself to be killed, He made it possible for them to live.”
Jesus offers something we all long for – home. Admit it, we don’t feel at home here on earth because it’s turned into anything but. We were created to live harmoniously in a beautiful garden. However, because of Adam and Eve’s embrace of sin, no one has seen hide nor hair of it since those two got the boot. Crabb wrote, “Beneath the surface of everyone’s life, especially the more mature, is an ache that will not go away. It can be ignored, disguised, mislabeled, or submerged by a torrent of activity, but it will not disappear. And for good reason. We were designed to enjoy a better world than this. And until that better world comes along, we will groan for what we do not have. An aching soul is evidence not of neurosis or spiritual immaturity, but of realism.” Still, because of Christ living in us, we believers can catch glimpses of home because it’s, indeed, where the heart is. Jesus personifies all we yearn for in a warm, welcoming home – love, acceptance, mercy, friendship, comfort, sympathy and a place to rest our heads. He said so Himself: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you” (John 15:4) and “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). In 1 Corinthians Paul asked, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (3:16) and stated “Your body, you know, is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit” (6:19). In a way, being labeled a spiritual homebody is a sign of trust in God. As a born again Christian you should feel comfortable in your own skin because you know God Almighty is comfortable in there, too.
When it comes right down to it, all we can bank on unreservedly is the promise that Christ is coming back and He’s bringing paradise with Him. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist… And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: ‘Look! The residence of God is among the human beings” (Revelation 21:1-3). We don’t have to go home. It’s coming here. In the interim learn from my mistakes. I wasted decades of my life trusting in myself, other people and material things. They all let me down. I finally started trusting in God and ever since then “it is well with my soul.”