April 28, 2016

What is our true worth as humans?

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12345678910, 11.

Rembrandt: Return of the Prodigal Son
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In our me-centered world, people ground their sense of worth (and thus their dignity) in all sorts of things. But according to Ron Highfield our true worth as humans is found in one place only---the love the triune God has for us all. But doesn't reliance on something external to ourselves compromise our dignity? Highfield comments:
[Human] dignity in its most basic form is a relation of being loved by another. And God is the only "Other" whose love can establish our dignity beyond dispute... The relationship of being loved and favored by God is the... fundamental basis of human dignity. (p. 192)
Highfield goes on to review the writings of various Christian authors who assert that humanity's highest dignity comes from the fact that, being created in God's image, we are able to share in all that is excellent. While that may be true, the problem is that many of these excellencies are finite. But as Highfield notes, being loved by God bestows a "dignity of belovedness" on us that far surpasses any excellence that we might achieve or experience (p. 198).

Counterfeit dignity

In contrast to the true human dignity grounded in God's love for us, there are all sorts of sources of counterfeit dignity. Highfield points out two: pride and shame.
Pride rises out of an insecure wish to be significant given fantastic form by imagination. In relation to others, wish becomes assertion in search of confirmation. Pride desires to experience admiration or envy from others so that it can relish its own worth.... Pride breeds falsehood, and falsehood sooner or later will be dashed against the rock of truth. (p. 199)
Shame is a defective sign of unworthiness. Shame is a feeling of unworthiness not before our own consciences, which is guilt, but with reference to others. On the surface it seems opposed to pride... [But] shame agrees with pride that our worth must be grounded in our inherent qualities. We are ashamed when we look at ourselves because we do not see the qualities others admire. Shame and pride also concur that the thoughts of others reveal the truth about us.... Finally, both shame and pride think of dignity in comparative terms. (p. 200)
"Worth" is a relative and relational term. Something has "worth" because it is worth something to someone. In our me-centered world, people have worth because of what they can do that benefits someone else. But true worth (and thus true dignity) values people not as a means to something else, but as the ends. Highfield elaborates:
The highest dignity we can bestow on another person is love, and the purer this love is from selfishness, the greater the dignity we give to the object of our love. (p. 200)
But as Highfield goes on to note, "Human love cannot serve as a secure foundation for human dignity." Why? Because as we all know, human love is unreliable and is not universal. "We cannot be satisfied with dignity that rises and falls with others' feelings about us," says Highfield (p. 200). Human dignity thus needs a foundation that is relational, unchanging and universal, and that brings us to the foundation of the triune God and his love for us.

The nature of God and his love for us

Fundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity is the understanding that the triune God is relational in his very being. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a triune communion of love. God loves because he is love. Inherent in God's triune nature is "the dignity of belovedness" (p. 201). It is this love that is the ground (basis) for human dignity. Why? Because it was in love and for love that the triune God created us in his own image. Infinite value was thus attributed by God to people because of the eternal love he has for us. Highfield comments:
God's love for his dear children creates a real dignity relation. We must recognize human dignity as relationally inherent in our fellow human beings; that is, each and every human being exists and possesses a dignity bestowed by God. They are worthy of our love because God makes them worthy of God's love.... We love God because God first loved us and we love our neighbors because God first loved our neighbors. (p. 202)
If we locate dignity in personal attributes and powers (what one can do), then it follows that God has dignity far beyond our own. However, it is belovedness that is the ground of true dignity, and with that in mind we can rightly assert what Highfield goes on to state:
God bestows on us the same dignity that God bestows on himself, for God loves us no less than God loves himself. The Father loves us with the very same love with which God loves the beloved Son. No higher dignity can be imagined of conceived. (p. 203-4, italics in the original)

Look to Jesus

We thus understand that our dignity, and God's dignity have the same ground: the love of the Father, Son and Spirit. How do we know this is true? Because we see Jesus---the divine Son of God become human---a human upon whom is bestowed divine dignity. And in Jesus we see the true nature of all humans as beloved children of God.

Remember a fundamental precept of Incarnational Trinitarian faith: What happens to Jesus happens to us all. He is our representative and substitute. He became incarnate to show us the Father (to reveal the triune God of love) and to show us our true humanity (who as beloved children of God by adoption possess infinite worth). As Highfield notes, "The Father treats each of us as if we were the Father's own dear Son, and that is why we are God's children" (p. 205). He continues the thought in this stunning concluding statement:
We know that God loves us no less than God loves himself, because God does not love us for what we are. God's love for us is grounded in the Father's love for the Son. The Father does not love God's human children less because they are not God's equal in excellence of being or character. God loves us just like, and just as much as, the Father loves the Son. Even though we were by nature nothing, by deeds sinners and by affections enemies, God loved us. There is and can be no higher dignity.... By loving us with the love of God, God bestows on us the highest dignity conceivable and frees us for the most perfect freedom possible. (pp. 205-6)

April 22, 2016

Discussing the Nicene Creed

Incarnational Trinitarian theology is sometimes referred to as "the Nicene faith" because it is grounded in the precepts of the faith of the Christian church set forth by the patristic fathers in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (commonly called the Nicene Creed). For a post that looks at Thomas F. Torrance's Trinitarian perspective on the Nicene Creed, click here.

A helpful resource for discussing the Nicene Creed in small groups is the I Believe video series, produced by the If: Gathering organization (for an article about them, click here). Because these videos are generally (though not in every detail) aligned with Torrance's Trinitarian theology, they would make helpful discussion starters for fellowship (small) groups and Bible study classes that wish to study the Creed. Those groups could then refer to the Surprising God blog post noted above for additional information (click here to download a copy in Word format).

Here is the introductory video in the I Believe series. The others are linked below.

April 15, 2016

The freedom of the children of God

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12.

Joyous freedom (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In previous posts we've noted that true human freedom is found in the identity that is ours in union with Christ---a union that makes us, by the grace of adoption, God's dearly beloved children. This time we'll look further at that freedom.

Referencing 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Galatians 2:20 and Philippians 1:21, Highfield states this about our identity as God's children and the freedom that goes with it:
We are dearly loved children, created in the image of God to reflect God's character by loving. This is our true self, our deepest identity, our ultimate destiny. Hence we can act freely only when we exercise the power to live as God's created image and arrive at a state in which we possess only our own properties, that is, properties that image God. Freedom understood in a Christian way, then, is the power to live as we were created to live and to be what we were meant to be. It is the state of willing and acting as God's dear children. (pp. 183-4)
This, of course, is a decidedly God-centered perspective on freedom, which flies in the face of the ways personal freedom is typically defined in our me-centered Western cultures. True freedom originates with God, and becomes ours by grace---the grace that unites us to the glorified humanity of Jesus, the Source of our being and the freedom that goes with it. As Highfield notes, referencing Paul's epistles, true freedom cannot be achieved on our own:
Christ and the Spirit free us from the impossible requirement that we achieve our freedom from sin and death by our own power. In this respect we are not "under the law but under grace" (Romans 6:15; cf. Galatians 5:18). (p. 183)
Thus we see that the greatest obstacle to true freedom is our fallen nature, which seeks freedom on its own terms, through its own efforts, thus placing itself under the impossible burden of the law, seeking to "earn" its own freedom. In contrast, Paul sees freedom as a gift that originates with God and is ours by grace, including the Spirit's enabling power. Paul refers to the glorious state by which we truly are free as "adoption," "salvation" and "redemption" (Romans 8:22-25). Highfield comments:
The freedom Christ makes possible embodies the perfect realization of human nature, the unambiguous manifestation of the true self, and the revelation of our destiny as children of God (Romans 8:19). (p. 184)
God never coerces us into this freedom. Rather he "moves us and liberates us to will his will through deep spiritual persuasion and enlightenment. Spirit to spirit (Romans 8:16).... God's is the freedom that frees!" (p. 185, emphasis added). Of course, we do not yet possess this freedom in all its fullness---that is yet to come in a new heaven and new earth in which we will dwell in glorified (free, unencumbered) bodies. But that freedom already is at work in us, for God by his Spirit dwells in us.

True human freedom thus is for us a present reality---existing as it does in the representative (vicarious), now glorified Son of God who remains forever on our behalf fully human, while also being fully divine (the Incarnation is a permanent reality!). The Spirit unites us to the glorified humanity of Jesus and in that way makes of us who we, in Christ, truly are---beloved, truly free children of God. Hallelujah!! And so we seek to be who we truly are. But in doing so we come up against our fallen selves, as Paul notes in Romans chapter 7. Highfield comments:
When we take ourselves into our own hands to will and do the good by our own power, we have already failed. But as we look not at ourselves but at Jesus Christ, confess our sins and rely on the Spirit's empowering power, we will experience his power liberating us to will and do his will. (p. 187)
When we are liberated from a me-centered search for freedom, and rest in Christ, the source of true human freedom, we are free indeed. As Highfield notes, "In that freedom we are what we would create ourselves to be if we had the power" (p. 188).

The false and enslaving goal of "self-determination" (I decide what is right; what is true freedom), leads not to freedom but to the worst possible bondage in that it is based on the worst sort of delusion as Highfield notes: "We can wish we were God and attempt to play that role. But we cannot succeed" (p. 189). Highfield then offers this important concluding thought:
The Christian hope envisions a state in which we attain freedom to become fully our true selves. We were created to image the character of God and to reflect his glory to all creation. Through Christ and in the Spirit, God empowers us to overcome the "other" [including our own me-centeredness] so that we become truly free, that is, we become in our actions and existence what we are in our true being. (p. 190)
Next time we'll look more at the related topic of human dignity.

April 8, 2016

I am who the GREAT I AM says I am

In our continuing series in Ron Highfield's book, God Freedom and Human Dignity, we've noted that true human identity, freedom and dignity are found in the vicarious, glorified humanity of the God-man Jesus Christ (the Great I Am). Singer and song-writer Rachel Barrentine (pictured at right), in her song, Says I Am (watch the music video below), puts it this way:
I am who The GREAT I AM says I am.
To read Rachel's story and listen to more of her music, go to http://rachelbarrentine.com/.

On YouTube at https://youtu.be/6TFwwhd4S_0

April 4, 2016

Freedom and our true self

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456, 7, 8, 9, 1112.

Last time we saw how, in Christ, we have been made God's dearly beloved children by the grace of adoption. Our identity and thus our true freedom come from our sharing, by the Spirit, in Jesus' own relationship with the Father. In this post we'll look at what Highfield says about how this perspective defines true human freedom.

Freedom and the self 

In His Light by Greg Olsen
(used with artist's permission)
As Highfield notes, "Every theory of freedom includes an understanding of self" (p. 171) and that understanding then shapes one's behavior. As we have seen in this series, the modern sense of self is fundamentally "me-centered"---self-sufficient, self-defining; relating to things outside the self only as they are seen as benefiting the self. In contrast, Christianity defines a "God-centered" self---the self defined in a relationship of love with God and others. Highfield comments:
Our origin lies hidden in the love of God who gives us life continually because God wants us to know love and love in return. Living in awareness of [this] truth requires us to acknowledge that we owe our being, with all its powers and possibilities, to God. The self that knows itself truly, lives in joy and gratitude, for joy is the natural response to good, and gratitude is the fitting response to the giver of the good....
Whereas the modern [me-centered] view considers the self pure will without natural direction nor ends, Christianity sees the self as having a nature and an end. We were created by God to enjoy certain goods, to pursue certain activities, to love certain things and become something in particular. Some activities and ends work against our nature and cause self-alienation and suffering. We were not created to love only ourselves, we were created to know and love God. We were created in the image of God, and our nature can be fulfilled only by becoming like God as his dear children....
If we consider the self the mysterious self-creative will at the core of our being, freedom will be understood as the natural power of self-determination. But if we think of the self as the created image of God revealed in Jesus Christ, we will think of freedom quite differently. In every view of freedom the self acts freely when it puts itself into action. In Christianity, the self is defined as a certain kind of relation to God, as God's image. This image is not an accidental relation that the self may or may not possess; it is its essence. And our lack of awareness of our true identity does not change the fact. But to experience true freedom the self must transform this objective God relation into it own subjective act.... We can enact ourselves freely only by willing God's will for ourselves and in this way imaging God's character. Refusal of this act is the self's refusal to be itself, that is, its refusal to be free." (pp. 172-3)

True vs false self

True human freedom and dignity are thus found in the truth (reality) of who we actually are in Christ---God's beloved children. But what keeps us from knowing that truth and living in ways that correlate with it? Scripture shows that the answer is found in the contrast between who we are in Adam (our old/fallen, false self) and who we are in Christ (our new, true self). As the apostle Paul tells us, the old self was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6-7) and by the power of the Spirit we are to put off the old way of thinking and behaving that go with the old self (Ephesians 4:22-23). Indeed, we are to "take off" the false self and "put on" the true self that is found in Christ (Colossians 3:9-10).

The false self was buried in the waters of baptism with Christ (thus dying in Christ). But as some have noted, the false self is a good swimmer! As Paul makes clear, though the old self was put to death, it is not yet fully dead. Highfield addresses this paradox this way:
[We live in the] transition from the old age of Adam to the new age of Christ in which we now live by faith. The power of the new age works effectively to re-create and reorient the lives of believers... One [age] is past though still able to trouble the present, the other is future, though powerfully active in the present. The believer feels the "eschatological tension" between the two.... [Paul] underlines the fact that the transition from the old to the new self occurs decisively in the historical events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ... For Paul, the new self is not merely one of many possible selves as if new meant "currently fashionable." The new is also the true self that conforms to the "image if its Creator" (Colossians 3:10). Without the redemptive work of Christ and the renewing and empowering work of the Spirit, the human person cannot think, act or feel in conformity to the image of God, which is our created being. For Paul, the state of self-alienation is the old self, an identity that has been and should be left behind. The new self is the very same person who, because of the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, now acts and feels and thinks consistently  with their true being. We can know our true selves only by looking at Jesus Christ. (pp. 174-5)

Union with Christ

A key concept here is the reality of our union with Christ. We are God's children only because the Son of God, through the incarnation, has united our human nature to his divine nature and as one of us, putting the old self to death and giving humanity its new and true self found in his perfected (glorified) humanity---humanity that we now share with him by the grace of adoption. Thus "union with Christ" is not a mere metaphor---it is the reality of our true human being. Paul urges us to be who we truly are in union with Christ and thus to act out of our true identity as children of God (rather than acting out of the old identity that is now dead).

But how do we find the ability to both see and act out of that true identity? In Romans 7, Paul makes it clear that this ability does not come through our own efforts related to keeping the law. No matter how well disciplined we may be, we are utterly unable to find the truth, believe the truth and obey (live out of the reality of) the truth. In Romans 8, Paul shows that this enlightenment, this faith and this obedience are all gifts of God. It's the Spirit of God, through acts of grace, who "makes us children of God"---which is to say that he enables us to be who we truly are---children of God who, in freedom and for freedom, cry out "Abba Father" (Romans 8:14-15). Highfield comments:
Because the Spirit unites us with Christ, his very identity becomes ours; we share in his death and resurrection. His righteousness becomes ours. His Father becomes ours. His Spirit becomes ours. He is our true identity. (p. 177, emphasis added)
And it is from this true, God-centered human identity (the reality of Jesus Christ), that comes our true human freedom.