This is the text of my address at the Global Missions Experience, hosted by Harding University at Camp Tahkodah, Sept. 17-20, 2015.
The theme for the experience was “Relentless.” We reflected on God’s own relentlessness, serving and pursuing him relentlessly, the relentless cry of the world, and the relentless advance of the kingdom. My contribution was the final keynote, focused on our participation in God’s relentless mission.
There were a few extemporaneous additions and subtractions in the presentation, but this is the essential content.
Let’s stand up for a moment more. I invite all of you who are willing to take off your shoes. I suppose we sometimes resist with this symbolic act for good reason. We are, after all, the people who believe that, by the Holy Spirit, God is everywhere always present with his people. Scattered from the temple, scattered as the temple, as the reimagined tabernacle in which God dwells not among his people but through his people among the nations—the church may well struggle to grasp what it means to stand in the presence of God and experience the holiness of a particular place. Yet, I invite you by this bodily act not to make a statement about where God is or how God is here, but to open your imagination to why God is here just now. Step into the story of Moses, and stand alongside a sinful, resistant, fearful man, but a man who, nonetheless, is about to be sent. The ground is holy because from that ground the God who sets the captive free is going to sweep this man into his redemptive purposes.
We are standing here, on this ground, at this time, another chapter of the same story. We are here for consecration, holy purpose, and from this ground we will be sent—sent for the first time, sent once again, but sent from this ground, if we will step into God’s purposes.
Go ahead and have a seat, and let the simple fact of your bare feet be a reminder to listen for that voice.
Now, let’s put cards on the table. I’m supposed to persuade you here at the end to commit to becoming long-term, full-time missionaries. And let’s be realistic. Long-term, full-time missionary is a category of commitment that requires a lot more than a moment of conviction. In fact, it requires relentlessness. But here’s the catch: our perseverance is only derivative. The mission is relentless, and the mission is not ours. We stand as witnesses to God’s relentless love and justice and perhaps hear a call to step into it, are swept along, and participate in it, by grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s not to say I can’t tell you stories of witnesses who have participated God’s relentlessness. I can even tell you stories of how my wife and I have chosen to do so, because it’s a choice. But I hesitate to do that. In regard to my personal stories because I find it awkward. But in general because it risks getting things the wrong way around. Those examples are helpful, but they can’t compel you, and they can’t sustain you. I want you to be compelled and sustained by God’s own relentlessness. I want you to make a choice to step into that holy purpose and be carried by something beyond our determination.
Here’s what we’re going to do. First, I’m going to ask a question that we’re all going to hold onto until the end. Then I’m going to tell you a story you’ve heard before, and then we’ll talk about geology a bit (no we can’t skip to that part now, just calm down), reflect on the resurrection, I’ll awkwardly share some of my experiences, and hopefully it will all make sense by the end.
Here’s the question to hang onto: What is the opposite of a scar? Not the absence of a scar, but the opposite of a scar. We have these scars on our bodies, these marks of damage done. What is the opposite of that?
Story 1: God’s decision to be relentlessly redemptive
Back to relentlessness. Have you noticed that the only way you can characterize someone as relentless is by telling a certain kind of story. You can claim, “Abe is honest,” by telling a story about a time that Abe told the truth. You can only say, “Abe is relentlessly honest,” by telling the story of how Abe told the truth time after time, whatever the cost.
We love these kinds of stories. They’re usually classified as “inspirational.” The Rocky movies probably capitalized on our main idea more than any other story in pop culture: will Rocky relent when he’s outclassed, will he relent when he’s been beaten to a pulp, will he relent when his health is at risk, when his wife won’t support the rematch, when he’s been defeated, when his beloved trainer dies, when he faces a Soviet boxing machine, when he has brain damage and goes bankrupt at the same time, when his protege betrays him, and finally, will he even relent when he’s arthritic? And we feel a rush when he doesn’t give up. But whether it’s Rocky’s fights, little Rudy’s struggle to play football for Notre Dame, or homeless Chris Gardner’s pursuit of happiness, such stories, though they move us, are not our story. We are not the heroes who persevere by willpower, determination, and grit. Sure, we are capable of tremendous tenacity—so these stories ring true. Of course. But that is not what is at stake when we stand on this ground and speak of relentlessness. For we are called into God’s story as participants in his relentless mission, carried along by his faithfulness, with an endurance sustained not by willpower but by hope in his promise.
In order to catch one more glimpse of God’s own relentlessness, I want to focus on the moment early in the story when God decided to be relentless. Like all stories of relentlessness, this one hinges on a moment of decision, a resolution to take a path and follow it to the end. Let’s get a running start.
Creation and Commission
The Creator orders the chaos, and from that order springs life. The ancient authors of Genesis 1 are interested in making one point exceedingly clear: it was good, it was good, it was good, it was good, it was good, it was good, and it was very good. You got that? It was ____. Very good.
So when vv. 26–27 says that humankind was created in the image and likeness of God, if we’re reading the story from the beginning forward, we are working with a very limited but unambiguous couple of characteristics. God the Creator is creative and ____. Precisely. Creative and good. He produces things that are beneficial for life. The 1:28 mandate to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and rule it, is therefore about the multiplication of this image, which is to say, it’s about filling the world with agents of creative goodness who would do for the world what God himself would do. And the astounding implication of creating co-creators is that God has left the work of creation unfinished. In its goodness, it is not yet what he wills it to be. His purpose, his vision for the future is good creation filled with good people doing good. And it is to humans that he says, “Be responsible for creating the goodness of which you are capable.” The Creator chooses to make us instrumental in his purposes!
Notice I didn’t say he chooses to “let us participate.” That word, participate, is the right word, but the phrase “let us participate” suggests the wrong idea: it suggests that our is an optional contribution, should we so choose. That is not the case: good creation filled with good people doing good hinges upon human participation. We have to open our hearts to the fact that from God’s perspective, our participation is the only way his purposes proceed, because if that doesn’t sink in, we cannot perceive what tonight is really about.
We know that the story goes wrong with human rebellion. But contrary to our tendency to talk about sin and guilt abstractly, the biblical text portrays the very specific problem that humanity’s spiral into violence presents. Listen to the language of Genesis 6:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.
Do you hear the echo of the 1:28 mandate? Humankind was to multiply and fill the earth with goodness (that which benefits life), and instead it has multiplied and filled the earth with violence (that which destroys life). In this way the flood story is one of deeply ironic symmetry. “If,” God says, “you insist upon destruction and violence rather than order and life, then let’s take this to its conclusion. The separation of waters above and below and from the dry land that make life possible in the first place will be removed. If it’s chaos you want, it’s chaos you will get.” So our heartbroken God nearly scraps the whole project. He nearly relents. And at that moment we come to the most important “yet” in the history of the world. (I was going to say the most important “but” in the history of the world, but that could be misheard, so we’ll go with “yet”) It’s this one little contrastive conjunction. Listen to it in context: “So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Yet, Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.” Yet, Noah! A single image bearer. A single agent of creativity and goodness who chose to participate in God’s purposes. Just one! And all of us are alive today. Nearly, God relents, but he is so absolutely committed to the participation of humankind in the fulfillment of his purposes, that one alone is enough. I don’t know where God is going to send you, but contemplate that math.
The word used to describe Noah’s participation in God’s creative goodness appears here in Scripture for the first time. That word is ṣaddîq. Say it with me. Ṣaddîq means just. It’s also translated as righteous sometimes, and we’ll deal more with that issue in due course. What we must see here, though, is that a flood of injustice and violence threatens God’s creation and thwarts his intentions, and God’s decision in that moment is to depend on the justice of a human being in the middle of that overwhelming force. If that sounds scandalous, fine. If that sounds crazy, I kind of agree. But that is our story!
So now, in the aftermath of the flood, we come to the pivotal moment when God decides to be relentless. As Noah worshiped God on dry land, “the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.'” This eternal covenant is the moment when God permanently rules out abandonment of the project. Giving up will not be the solution. Violence will not be the final response to humanity’s violence. Even though our hearts are inclined to evil, God will not wipe the slate clean.
Some of you are artists. Do we have any painters or photographers here? You know how negative space works. When the area around the main subject is actually the main subject. The implication of this passage is the epitome of textual negative space. You see, if God will not destroy us, then what option is left? He has not given up his intention to see a good creation filled will good people doing good. And he refuses to give up on human participation in that purpose, even though our hearts are inclined not to participate. All that remains is redemption. The covenant with Noah is a decision to relentlessly pursue the redemption of sinful image bearers and to relentlessly rely on human agency. And the plot has thickened. Now human participation in the redemption of humankind must precede the restoration of creation to its original trajectory. This is God’s decision to depend on human participation in his relentless mission, despite our sinfulness, despite our weakness. He will transform us into a people of justice, for the sake of the world, whatever it takes, however long it takes. This is God’s sacred promise.
How do we wrap our minds around the scope of this commitment? Knowing the inclination of humanity, knowing how slow and possibly disastrous would be the process of re-creating a just people starting with a single family, and knowing how much longer still until this people would become a blessing for all nations until, finally, a worldwide kingdom of justice is established, how do we conceive of such relentlessness? Inspiring sports stories and tales of astonishing perseverance simply cannot capture the meaning of a thousand generations of mercy and grace, patience, steadfast love and faithfulness, and forgiveness.
Story 2: A parable of God’s relentlessness
I don’t know if there is an analogy for such a thing. But I’m going to take a page from Jesus’s book and try to let nature represent the almost unfathomable.
The Parable of the Grand Canyon
5.5 million years ago, a massive lake, larger than Lake Michigan, overflowed and began to pour tremendous amounts of water across a plateau. This volume, combined with the steep grade of the flow (10ft./mile), created an incredible erosive force. In the course of that 5.5 millions years, the river cut through 5300 ft. of rock. That is 1 ft. per 1000 years, a little more than 1 in. per century. That is relentless.
You may have guessed that I’m talking about Grand Canyon.
[images of Grand Canyon]
What is the relentless mission of God like, or to what shall we compare it?
It is like an unceasing river that reshapes the earth one inch at a time, one century at a time, until it takes our breath away.
This relentlessness is the love of God rushing across the face of creation. It flows, not as a destructive flood, but as a torrent of justice. I imagine it in the poetry of the prophet Amos: “let justice (mišpāṭ) roll down like waters, and righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ) like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
This second word, ṣĕdāqâ, translated as righteousness, is the noun form of the adjective that described Noah. It would be bad composition to translate both words as justice, of course, and each word does carry its own connotations, but as Amos’s imagery indicates, they are essentially two streams of the same river that, once merged, are difficult to distinguish. Whereas mišpāṭ is usually justice in terms of evaluating what is right (judging justly), ṣĕdāqâ is usually justice in terms of doing what is right (acting justly). Call them justice, call them righteousness, but either way, when the two flow together, this is what happens according the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the LORD: Act with mišpāṭ and ṣĕdāqâ, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer 22:3–4)
Perhaps this description, which could be multiplied if we had time, suggests why I started off talking about God’s relentless justice but ended up referring to his relentless love. We know that care for the poor and the vulnerable, compassion for the stranger, and peacemaking are deeply rooted in the love that Jesus reveals as the heart of God and teaches us to practice. But these acts of love are also what the prophet clearly describes as justice. Because the raging, surging love of God sets the world right. It does justice. Justice is the labor of love. This loving justice is our God’s relentless mission.
Story 3: The story of our participation in the resurrection life of Jesus
Justice and Love
Now hear the apostle Paul’s words in those terms:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38–39)
Relentless love! But did you catch it? Neither death nor life! Not even death. Put death before the onslaught of God’s love, and it will be ground into sand and swept away. For by the love of God, Jesus Christ is raised. Resurrection is God’s relentlessness in the face of death, and it is his final act of relentlessness, beyond which there is no more violence and destruction.
But Paul says we “were also raised with him through faith in the power of God” (Col 2:12). When we’re in Jesus, that future invades the present. We live resurrection life now. We are able to participate in that ultimate relentlessness now. The full extent of God’s relentlessness breaks into the present through our lives in Christ and carries us relentlessly onward. This unstoppable love of God is what makes God’s people persevere.
The apostle’s participation is breathtaking:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. (2 Cor 11:24–27)
Why? Why would he persist? What makes it possible? Nothing less than the love of God that carries him beyond death into the resurrection.
So it is with all the martyrs. What does martyr mean? Yes, witness. Someone might mistake them for being especially relentless, but they are simply witnesses to the resurrection—the fact that the love of God does not relent at death, and so they give their lives.
The thing is, most of you won’t face death as you bear witness to God’s love in the world. Most of you will face life—the long unfolding of years. Your call is not to give your life but to live your life. And in the face of life, the question is no less, does God relent? Not, will you relent? But, does God’s love relent? And if in fact it doesn’t, then you may be carried on as witnesses to that relentlessness, even when your resources have run dry, even when you courage is gone, even when your sin persists, even when the evil and corruption and violence around you is by every conceivable measure insurmountable.
I would like to stand up here and give you stories about how Megan and I were relentless—but that would be nonsense. Look, when I was at Harding, there were over twenty students meeting regularly as a Latin American missions interest group, working on a timeline and a plan. By the time we had researched cities on the ground in South America and selected a city my junior year, everyone who had graduated was no longer a part of the conversation. It seemed like everyone talked about mission until it was time to move on with real life. But there was a dozen of us who committed to go. By the time I graduated, there were nine. And there was plenty of opportunity along the way to doubt. Maybe God’s not sending us, and we’re just insisting on our own plan. Maybe this is a failure of leadership. Maybe I’m the problem.
Then there is the call to graduate work. God is preparing us for mission, or at least that’s the assumption. Maybe not—maybe it’s just four more years for things to unravel. Within a year, we’re down to three couples and a single woman. In the next year, she’s married and gone, and it’s just six of us who embark on the trial by fire we call fundraising.
Now, when you ask the question, how do you know God is calling you to full-time, long-term mission work, there is a way to know. If you don’t hear the voice of God like Isaiah or Paul, then you turn to the church for discernment. Those with whom you worship and serve, those who disciple you and shepherd you and pray about you are in the best place to help you answer the question. And unfortunately, it’s easy to mistake fundraising for that process. See, fundraising feels like congregation after congregation saying no not to funding your work but no to your calling. And when it seems like God isn’t providing a way forward financially, it’s easy to think: maybe this is God’s no. Maybe this is how we finally come to terms with the fact that we’re not meant to go.
In our case, the message was a little more pointed, though. After some major “not interested” letters, all three couples had a chance to be funded together by a single large church. But this big church, obviously serious about missions, had a serious process for candidates. So we went through their intensive three-day screening. And when we finished, they told us not only that they had decided not to support us but also that we shouldn’t go. At what point do you give up? And if not at that point, when a group of God’s people literally say, “You’re not ready,” then why not at that point? (By the way, if you’re wondering what to do at that moment, you call the people who have discipled you. You call your mentors. Or in your case, you text your mentors—but you get the idea. And if you don’t have a mentor, find one. Tomorrow. More than one, if possible.)
Well, one of the three couples did give up after that experience. Once more than twenty university students, now two young couples remain. Of course, you pray, and you question, and you decide whether to go on. And we did. And we lived and served in Arequipa, and saw God do amazing things. But I’m telling you, this is not the story of our relentlessness. This is the story of God’s mission in Arequipa—his relentless love for the people there. Our decision was not whether to be relentless, but whether to be God’s loving justice, which is already relentless, already surging past our financial needs, our inadequacies, our fears, and our challenges.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
Do you hear resurrection life?
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Actually, Paul gets so excited he stops bothering with complete sentences. He says: “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” Do you think Paul had the story of the Creator’s purposes running in his head?
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the ____. (2 Cor 5:14–21)
So that we might become the ____. Righteousness of God. I told you we would come back to the translation problem. Righteousness is one of those words that seems to have lost its flavor. Through all kinds of theological debates and cultural influences, for many of us it has become bland. It communicates something like piety or the absence of immorality. Or maybe just saved-by-Jesus-ness. So here, where Paul speaks this heart-stopping truth, it doesn’t hit us with the force of a claim that changes the world. The claim that the loving justice of Noah’s life, the loving justice of Abraham’s faith, the loving justice of the prophets’ vision of the the way things are supposed to be, the loving justice of Jesus’s way in the world, the loving justice of God that sets the world right—the claim that God’s loving justice is what we become in Christ. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become God’s justice.
This is not an explanation of how we get saved. This is where Paul explains how the whole creation gets saved because we have been reconciled with God and raised with Christ. When we get swept into resurrection life, we become the justice of God in the world. We become the fulfillment of God’s relentless love now, in the present. And we participate in the realization of God’s longsuffering dream to see his good world filled with good people doing good.
Will you choose to be the justice that rolls down like waters, and the righteousness that rushes like an everflowing stream? This is what it at stake in our decision. This is why we commit to the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is why we sow the kingdom and establish communities of God’s just people—because the church must be the justice of God in the world.
The church is not Noah’s ark, saving people out of the lost world. No, we are the flood. We, God’s people, are the waters that reshape the face of creation. We are the justice of Noah multiplied to fill the earth, and we do not retreat from the violence and destruction in the world, because the relentless love of God in us and through us will overwhelm it.
What is the opposite of a scar? I don’t know. What I do know is that the resurrected body of Jesus bears the scars of his crucifixion. Whatever our transformed bodies are, they share enough continuity with our present bodies to be scarred by violence. Think about it: those marks of damage done are eternal. But here is the punch line: whatever is the opposite of a scar is eternal too. All the good we do in the world, every mark our justice makes on the world, gets resurrected. So Paul finishes his fullest discussion of the resurrection with these words:
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Your labor is not in vain! Your work in the Lord will be vindicated, resurrected, and made into the stuff of new creation!
And every mark we don’t make will be absent.
God doesn’t need you to do no harm, to make no scars. The absence of damage is not enough. God needs you to wage peace in the world, to wreak justice upon the face of the earth, steadily, relentlessly. You are the relentless righteousness of God in the world, the relentless resurrection already lived in the present, reconciling and restoring in the face of corruption and death, whatever the cost, however long it takes, because the love of God in us and through us does not relent.
They’ve called us generation justice. Yes, us. I’m not that old. And it’s probably true that we dream more about making the world the way we think it’s supposed to be than some other generations have done. But they’ve also said we’re afraid of commitment. All talk and no follow through. Big dreamers who can’t handle anything but instant gratification. We might say that Millennials seem to love justice but relent when it comes to the hard labor of it, the grueling pace of it, and the ungratifying incompleteness of it. We have to decide, in the words of the great contemporary theologians Mumford and Sons, to “love with urgency but not with haste.” We must choose to participate in God’s relentlessness.
Will you commit to go into the world, into the midst of what looks like godforsakenness in order to say and show that God has relentlessly refused to forsake us? Will you point to the cross and say that there in the mud and the blood is the love of God that will not quit. Will you make followers of that Jesus and nurture new creation communities whose loving justice relentlessly reshapes the world around them? Will you choose to step into the current of God’s relentless loving justice as it flows into every nation. Will you choose to participate?
The same passage that describes Noah as just and upright in his generation uses another phrase, a parallel thought, to summarize his creative goodness: “Noah walked with God.” How tangible, how concrete, this image of walking, of our feet treading the earth in company with God as agents of his justice. Those who are ready to make a commitment tonight are going to share in a symbolic act. . . . Wherever in the world your feet tread as you walk with God, there you are God’s loving justice. Will you walk with God toward a place?