by Randy Heffner
"You can't trust your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." – Mark Twain
Lenses Remember old-school 3D glasses? The ones with red cellophane for one eye and blue for the other? If you watch an old 3D movie without them, an excellent thing happens: You immediately know something's wrong. The image is doubled, the colors are off, and it looks all wonky. But this is much better than something being be wrong and you don't know it. Else you might sail along in 2D, never knowing you're missing a whole other dimension of richness and joy. So quick, grab those old-style glasses so you can properly see Buzz Lightyear fly off beyond infinity.
Whether physically or spiritually, seeing clearly requires using the right lens at the right time. Different lenses – or frames of reference or worldviews (see my earlier post) – bring different things into focus. They prioritize what's important and where to spend our energy. And the most important thing about it is that, spiritually, you are always seeing through a lens, whether you are aware of it or not. We always have assumptions and purposes, which like 3D red and blue lenses, will change how we see reality.
The Rule-Giving-God Lens When I first learned about God and Jesus, it ran something like this: God is big and powerful. God sets the rules and is very concerned for you to follow them. So you'd better – or else. But guess what? You can't. You're a rebel and a failure like all of us. Don't worry though, God loves you, so Jesus came and died and God forgives you. Follow him and you're okay. But even then, God is concerned that you follow the rules, but now it can be from gratitude rather than fear. Ready? Go. That was the lens I was given for my journey down the road with Jesus. Not that I knew about it – I just absorbed it from the world of Christians around me. Key features of the Rule-Giving-God Lens include that it:
Centers on the behaviors that God demands of us, focusing major attention on sin and righteousness and obedience.
Emphasizes God's authority and power as rule-maker.
Emphasizes the truth of God's rules and God's judgment based on them.
Points to faith in Jesus as the key to God's love and the undoing of God's judgment (but not of God's focus on sin and righteousness).
Encourages viewing society and the world from the perspective of God's truth and judgment.
I figure this view of the Christian life has origins in The Fall. We fail at keeping one little command and get kicked out of The Garden. Life gets hard: divine judgment, toil, weeds, pain, fire from heaven, global flooding, exile into slavery – that sort of thing. If we want things to go well with us, we need only hold to a short list of ten rules (when we couldn't do one). Or, we can double down with the 613 Levitical Laws. Or add on our own framework of “reasonably inferred” rules based on all that. And always hanging over our heads is that if we step the wrong way or touch the wrong thing, God's omniscient eye is there to catch us. To burn us. Unless we have Jesus.
Year over year, week-in, week-out, I did Sunday church, Bible studies, Wednesday extra-church, retreats, and my own reading. It all reinforced the Rule-Giving-God Lens as guide to my certain, upward path of confidence in the Lord. I studied the Bible to extract the rules and bend my actions to them – forcibly, if necessary. I sang “how great are your ways, Lord” and “I am righteous.” The “righteous” bit was particularly easy to sing when I had followed a rule to-the-tee or felt particularly forgiven.
Often enough, the lens would tell me I failed, and it also brought into focus other peoples' failures, especially those of my enemies. But, enemy or not, following the rule, I would force-love them – and force-forgive them 490 times if necessary (Matt 5:44, Matt 18:21-22). I knew God loved me, so I fought to take every thought captive. I punished all my disobedience (2 Cor 10:5-6).
Scratches on My Lens After many years, there came a time when I began to notice things in Scripture that my lens couldn't bring into focus. Don't get me wrong, the Rule-Giving-God Lens is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12), but despite this, it seemed to be getting chinks and scratches. Here are some of them:
1 Corinthians 4:3-4 :: Paul says that he doesn't examine himself and is conscious of nothing against himself. ...Wait a minute. If you're centered on following the rules, you've got to examine your behavior and know where you fall short. Something doesn't line up.
Psalm 89:14 :: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” Hmmm. This says rules and righteousness are a static, unmoving foundation, and that, first, God comes out to meet us with faithful love. With the Rule-Giving- God Lens, God meets us first with the rules – and our failures. Something's wonky.
Romans 7 and 8 :: In Romans 7, Paul paints a woeful picture of himself as a God-loving rule- follower – and dead from entanglement between the Law and his flesh. In Romans 8, he corrects his Romans 7 self by setting a spiritual center point in Jesus and turning away from entangled Law-flesh rule-following. This doesn't fit the lens.
Galatians 3:1-5 :: Using the language of Romans 7 and 8, Paul strongly chides the people for falling back into being rule-followers, having made a start as Spirit-led and focused on Jesus. It's looking like we need to rethink the lens.
Jeremiah 31:33 :: Describing the new covenant that will come with Jesus, God says, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” This puts a changed heart at the center of relationship with God. And rule- following doesn't require a changed heart. Something's gotta give.
As the chinks grew in number, I felt more and more like I was watching a 3D movie in 2D. I had the wrong lens. There was a richness and joy I was missing.
The Garden Lens Gradually, I became more aware how worldview lenses play within Christian thought (versus simply Christian versus non-Christian lenses). Then, reading one day in Genesis, I paused at the end of chapter 2. I wondered: How would Adam and Eve have thought about their world at that moment? Just before The Fall, what would have been their lens for thinking about God, life, the universe, and everything?
Let's imagine life in the garden. God breathed and Adam woke up. God sets him up as caretaker of the world's first and best ever arboretum, river walk, and wildlife safari. It had every kind of good tree, the river was so big it fed four rivers downstream, and Adam gets to name the animals. It's a big job, so God makes a woman, who is dear to Adam. And then there's the tree. The amazing, wonderful, beautiful tree in the midst of the garden: The Tree of Life. Eat bountifully and live forever in beauty and peace. Take walks with God in the cool of the day.
This was the world in the status quo ante, before The Fall: relationships and love and joy in the direct presence of Creator. This is the heart and desire of our God. Life to the full (John 10:10). Daily life centers on God, people, horticulture, fur, and feathers. Thorns, thistles, clothing, lists of commandments – these are not things yet. And to anything Adam and Eve know, neither are sin and righteousness and judgment. It was a fantastical time to live: free and joyful, with little to worry about and less to be afraid of. God is personal and charitable. Life has an easy country charm. Thank God I'm a country boy.
What an amazing lens through which to view the world. The Garden Lens.
Yeah there was that other tree, too – the one that, out of love, God made sure we knew the danger of and tried to divert us from. The one whose fruit looks good but is poison. Eat, and suddenly you know about good, you know about evil. You unleash the dogs of sin and righteousness and desire and shame and morality and flesh and death. All waiting for you on the other side of a bite.
When God warned us off of knowing good and evil, it was like saying, “Don't worry about the rules – there be dragons. Just enjoy the garden and take care of it.” Had we gone with God's heart and desire, the Bible would have taken a very different turn after Genesis 2, with a much different trajectory from The Garden to The City of God (Rev 3:12, 21:2). Unlike the Rule-Giving-God Lens, the Garden Lens derives from a point in time where, in our relationship with God, we were much closer to, and had much richer experience of, God's heart and desire. God heart has not changed since then. The Garden Lens focuses our spiritual sight to see and live from God's heart for us as it has always been. It:
Centers on God's desire for love and relationship with us and for our well-being.
Emphasizes the Spirit's work to grow our capacity for love and life to the full.
Encourages heart-level transformation through living in the presence of God, and especially contentment, wonder, and gratitude in the beauty of daily life.
Bypasses a righteousness mindset, instead treating “the rules” as a tutor for living richly through alignment with God's heart, trusting the Spirit's work to that end.
Encourages viewing and embracing society and the world as beloved, if wayward (like us), family members.
Living The Status Quo Ante The Garden Lens doesn't entirely undo The Fall – it's not time for that yet – it encourages us to pursue the richness of relationship that God originally desired with us, desires now, and will continue to. Paul calls Jesus “the last Adam,” hearkening back to the garden (1 Cor 15:45). Jesus restored our relationship with God (Rom 5:10). For us, the Law has died (Rom 7:1-4) and God has restored us to the
Genesis 2 status quo ante. Though physically we are here and now, spiritually and in our relationship with God, we are the way it was back then.
And so, spiritually, at the core of our being, we can live that status quo ante. Through the Garden Lens, we can better see the full 3D richness and joy of living this life. With a new lens to focus the Bible and shift our perspective, Scripture is colored with God's love and desire for relationship instead of God as exacting rule-giver. Here are two key examples:
Galatians 3:24-25 :: The Law is “our tutor to lead us to Christ, ...and we are no longer under a tutor.” Living spiritually in the love and relationship of the garden, the rules have no authority over us – but they may help us to focus spiritually and thereby learn how to better live and love.
Romans 8:3-6 :: Paul turns us away from the weakness of Law and its deathly entanglement with our flesh, saying that we fulfill the Law and access life and peace by walking “according to the Spirit.” In other words, it's not about the Spirit helping us to better follow the rules, but rather, like in The Garden, focusing past the rules, merely using them to grow hearts that can better live and love.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Gal 5:1) Not freedom as in “do whatever you want” but freedom as in “living with free-spirited, unburdened, joyous hearts.” May that reality infuse and enliven us from the heart out. Like in the status quo ante of The Garden.