Category Archives: choice

Why would Jesus talk about hell?

Jesus talked about hell more than all the other Bible authors combined. Hell is mentioned explicitly 23 times in the New Testament and in 16 of those times, Jesus is the one who utters the words.

He pronounces “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destiny of persons who see the hungry in helland give them nothing to eat or see the sick and don’t care for them (Matt. 25:41-46). He warns that those who give into sin are in danger of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48). Normally when all the flesh is consumed, any maggots die; but the decomposition in hell never ends—their worm does not die. Normally something on fire gets burned up and the fire goes out; but in hell the burning never ends.

Why would Jesus—the Lord of Love, the Author of Grace—talk about a fate that horrible?

Our minds tend to go toward worst case answers:
●  Jesus was not as compassionate and wise as us.
●  He allowed the brutality and barbarism of his day to rub off on him.
●  Or maybe he himself never spoke threats of hell but over-zealous followers put them in his mouth.

But there are also best case answers available:
●  If we choose evil we cannot enter the heavenly City.

Out of respect for human dignity, Jesus does not force his values on us—does not force us to behave as residents of heaven behave, to love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So if we reject the values of heaven, we must go to the “other place.”

C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” (The Great Divorce). Henri Nouwen wrote: “God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to refuse God’s love, even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours” (Bread for the Journey).

●  Misery is the out-working of a choice against God and for self.

The agony of hell-fire may be a metaphor for something infinitely worse than fire. We see that self-centeredness brings misery in the long run. The more self-absorbed and self-focused a person is, the more they tend to grumble, complain, and blame others. Relationships break down. Even physical well-being lessens. If we see that amount of misery in this short life, imagine these souls in a billion years. As we start out, we are distinct from our grumbling mood. We may even criticize it in ourselves and wish we could stop it. “But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

Jesus’ images of horror and agony may simply be a description of a chosen path of sinful selfishness going on forever, on a trajectory toward abject misery. Jesus, more perceptive and wiser than any other prophet or teacher, was more aware of this danger than any other. And so he in compassion warned us of it more than any other.

Turn wounds into mere finger pricks

In our hurt and anger after someone wounds us, showing forgiveness is the last thing we want to do. Give them love before they deserve it? No! Chose to let go of any payback? No!love and forgive even when wounded Our natural reaction is anger and retaliation, even if the one hurting us is a close friend or family member.

Yet most of us admire those who follow Jesus in loving and forgiving and doing good to those who hurt and offend us (Matt. 5:43-45, Luke 6:27-28). We are drawn toward these persons as we see lives filled with a sense of peace rather than bitterness and hatred. Further, we see their inner calm and love making them more productive as they work at nudging the wrongdoer to turn from their behavior.

For those of you who want to be able to forgive, I have a tip: do it as the Bible prescribes: forgive out of the knowledge that God in Christ has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32-5:2, Col. 3:13). Sometimes we can’t forgive others until we are forgiven. Or love until we are first loved (1 John 4:19).

Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p. 323-324) has an analogy that helps us see this. What’s it like when someone steals a hundred dollars from us when we only have two hundred dollars to our name? In contrast, what’s it like if someone picks our pocket of a hundred dollars and we have a billion in the bank?! The same crime feels like a knife in the heart in one situation and like a prick in the finger in the other.

Now imagine two Christians, both feeling offended by unfair criticism. As we watch them, it is clear that one is able to sort through what is said and admit to what is true and patiently explain what may be unfair; the critical remarks are little more than a prick in the finger. In contrast, that same criticism leads the other person to sink into depression or to respond with anger and blame-shifting. The words of disapproval feel to them like a knife in the heart.

Why? Willard suggests that the one person may know how rich they are in God’s love through Christ, whereas the other may not have yet had that truth sink deep within them.

When we begin to see and feel how much we are loved in Christ in spite of our flaws and how fully he can fill us, we develop the same inner resilience and healthy confidence that a child enjoys when growing up in a family that gives unconditional love. When we are forgiven by God—and when the truth about the riches of love and grace that is ours in Christ Jesus begins to permeate us deeply—then unfair criticism or some other hurt begins to feel less like a knife to the heart.

One caution: don’t wait to forgive an offense until it feels easy to do so (i.e., until it feels like we’re only forgiving a mere irritation or finger prick). Yes, our ability to forgive depends on our experience of being forgiven. But the opposite is also true: our experience of feeling God’s love and forgiveness depends on us showing whatever love and forgiveness we can. Until we forgive another, we will have a hard time believing that God is forgiving us. Why? It’s because we instinctively assume others do what we would do if we were in their position. Consequently we do not fully believe that God forgives us until we forgive another. Somehow us choosing to forgive someone else sends God’s forgiveness deep into our heart. In fact, Jesus implies that us-forgiving-others happens before God-forgiving-us: “If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). When we don’t forgive others, it reveals that we probably haven’t really believed God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 18:21-35).

Love invites us to change

How does healing and transformation come to broken people?

In her novel, Crooked Little Heart, Anne Lamott writes about Rosie. Those watching her play tennis saw a girl “thirteen years old and seventy wiry pounds, hitting the ball as hard as almost any man they knew, thick black curls whipping, Siamese blue eyes steely, impassive, twenty bullets in a row, over the net and in, frowning almost imperceptibly if she missed.”

But Rosie has a secret. tennis line callShe has been cheating on close line calls to win crucial tennis matches. Her shame grows as she is unable to stop herself— she’s trapped by her compulsion to win.

Another character in the book is “a man named Luther who had started following the girls from tournament to tournament.” Rosie soon realizes that Luther sees her cheating but that he will not tell. Instead he identifies with her: “I did what you did.” And invites her to change. As they continue talking, Rosie calls herself a cheater. “No,” he says, “you cheated.” Her identity doesn’t need to be one who cheats. She is one who makes choices and can make different choices.

She begins to change. In a championship game, Luther sees her call a line shot correctly and stands up to leave. “Aren’t you going to stay and watch Rosie win?” her mother asks. “I already have,” he responds.

All of us have places where we are broken, ways we fudge the game of life for our favor at the cost of neighbors. Things we want to hide. Into our world comes one who spends even more time watching us than Luther. He sees all, and the sin in our life. He knows how easy and natural it is, and how destructive and hurtful, and calls us to change, to “repent.” Not with a threat to bring in the sportsmanship committee—“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” But like Luther to Rosie: in love, inviting us to turn from choices that diminish life and turn toward the life that will be lived in the coming new heaven and earth.

Our tendency when someone does wrong is to pressure them, to face them with consequences, make it so they are forced to change. But Jesus looks deeper and takes an opposite tactic. He wants persons to choose the new, to want it from their heart. Love forced is not the love he desires. So he continues to come, even to us sinners. He gives us his Word, teaching us. And gives his Spirit, prompting us toward right choices. When we spurn him, he keeps on reaching out to us. When we turn and confess our sin, he forgives us. And then if we sin again, he in love tries again.

That’s how Jesus brings healing to broken people like us. So should we.

Room for what really matters

I have been mulling over a memorable object lesson that Stephen Covey tells in his book First Things First. I’ve seen various forms of the story over the years; perhaps you have too. Below is a collation of some versions I collected. Even if you recognize the story, it’s one that is good to hear again! As Peter said, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them” (2 Peter 1:12). At least I know that I have needed to reflect on it again as this New Year begins.

     During a lecture on time management, the instructor set a wide-mouth gallon jar on the table next to a platter covered with fist-sized rocks. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
     Class members offered several guesses. He put rocks in the jar until no more would fit. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”
     Everybody agreed. The jar was full. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of gravel, rocks in jar and started dumping the gravel in the jar. It filled the little spaces around the rocks. The instructor grinned and asked, “Is the jar full?”
     “Probably not,” the class said. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of sand and started dumping the sand in the jar. It filled in the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”
     “No!” the class shouted back. With this he started pouring about a quart of water into the jar.
     When he asked the class for the point of his picture parable, someone replied, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things in it!”
     “No,” the instructor said. “My point is, put the big rocks in first. Think of the rocks as the important things in life. The bits of gravel are things that matter but on a smaller scale. The sand and water are everything else, the truly small stuff. It’s true that you can often fit in some smaller stuff. But if you put those things in first, you won’t have room for as many rocks.”

What are the things that really matter in our life? Time with loved ones? A relationship with God? Our education? Our health? A worthy cause? Teaching or mentoring others? Nudging persons around us toward Jesus? If we don’t deliberately plan to make room in our week for the big priorities, all kinds of smaller things will quickly fill our days and we may never get to some of the truly important things.

Each morning, or perhaps each night, it’s good to examine one’s life: What are the ‘big rocks’? Am I putting those in my jar first?

Arranged marriage and an arranged life

Philip Yancey, one of my favorite authors, wrote about a friend from India. When Vijay was 15 years old, his parents decided to find Vijay a wife. They considered all the young girls they knew in their social circles and decided that Martha was the one for Vijay to marry. At this point Martha was 13; she and Vijay had met, briefly, only once.

The four parents got together and agreed on a wedding date eight years away. newlyweds in IndiaOnly then did they tell the two who they would be marrying. During the next eight years, Vijay and Martha saw each other only twice, with close supervision. They moved in together, husband and wife, as virtual strangers. Yet, Yancey says, their marriage is as secure and loving as any he has known. Many marriages in Asia and Africa are like that.

I read that story while preparing a couple sermons on suffering. And the thought struck me: is Vijay’s trust in his parents a picture of the trust we can have as God arranges our life?

We Westerners tend to approach life the same way we approach marriage—we act like we should have the final say in choosing our life circumstances as well as our mates.

Indeed, we do have control over much of our life. We make many real choices which determine much of our life situation. Nonetheless, much of life is out of our hands. Elections may or may not go our way. We may not be able to stop accidents or loss of health. We cannot always get the job we want or the income we need. In those moments is our attitude one of trust in God? Do we approach life placing the kind of trust in God that Vijay placed in his parents?

It’s not that God directly orders all the things in life that we don’t choose. People around us also shape what happens. And the Bible talks about Satan affecting our life (think of the story of Job). Yet God somehow remains in charge (again think of the story of Job). In some way, God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). We read many stories of this in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27-28), many examples of God working all things, even horrible things, together for good (Romans 8:28).

Can you and I have the same attitude of trust in our heavenly Parent that Vijay had in his parents? When we are permitted to make a life choice, we will seek to choose well. But when our life situation is beyond our control, we will trust in the One who oversees all and is able to arrange our life to fit into the plan that is best.

Marriage we’re willing to die for

There’s a marriage stat I’ve told many people.

In 2002 a research team based at the University of Chicago presented an analysis of data on 5,232 married adults from the National Survey of Families and Households. That sample included 645 who said they were unhappy in their marriage. These persons were interviewed again five years later. Those who divorced were on average still unhappy or even less happy. But two-thirds of those who stayed in their marriages reported that their marriages were happy five years later. As the USA Today headline put it: “Unhappily wed? Put off getting that divorce.” The odds are that divorce will not bring happiness, but that toughing it out in an unhappy marriage until it turns around just might deliver.

There are always seasons in married life when our spouse is not serving us, being attentive to us. Perhaps they’re sick, discouraged, or absorbed in their own problems. Can we choose to love our spouse during times when we are getting very little, if any, love back?

Tim Keller in The Meaning of Marriage points out that we parents do this with our children. We give and give to a child, forgoing much of our freedom and life for the child. Sometimes we get hugs or thanks in return; but by and large we give and the child gives very little in return. Even when we don’t feel any love for the child, we choose to give to them—we come home, we sacrifice for the child.

In contrast, what happens when our spouse is not loving us? We tend to think, “You’re not being the spouse you used to be, so I won’t be the spouse I used to be.” We pull back, risking a loveless, downward spiral. At the end of 18 years, even if our child is a mess, we still love the kid. But with our spouse, after years of choosing to not love when we don’t feel them loving us, there’s no love left. The child goes off to college and the marriage falls apart. And it’s our fault. What we practiced with our child, we didn’t practice with our spouse: during the times of not receiving love, we didn’t choose to give love anyway.

So let’s cherish each other—even when the other doesn’t signal love to us. And more than just on Valentine’s Day. Every day let’s do things like prioritize the first four minutes together after work: listen to the other, observe them, ask specific questions about their day, show affection. The potential return is huge every time we invest time and energy into an act of love toward our spouse. Be willing to die for our marriage—and we just might get a marriage to die for!

Choose our kind of day

We cannot control what life brings our way. Nonetheless, we can choose our response to what comes. Here are some examples from an unknown author that can inspire you and me as we make those choices today, this week, this year…

Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive and be excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight.

Today I can feel sad that I don’t have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste.

Today I can cry because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses.

Today I can mourn my lack of friends or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships.

Today I can whine because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do.

Today I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new tidbits of knowledge.

Today I can murmur because I have to do housework or I can appreciate that the Lord has provided shelter for my mind, body and soul.

Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping.

What our day will be like is up to us. We don’t get to choose what life will bring; we do get to choose what kind of day we will have!