Obedience Through Suffering

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7 While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. 8 Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. 9 In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. Hebrews 5: 7-9, NLT

Hebrews 5:8 is an interesting verse, isn’t it?  We tend to think of Jesus as fully-formed, fully-mature, all-knowing God. And he is. So why did he need to “learn” anything?

I think the answer lies in Christ’s humanity: Jesus needed to learn things because he was fully human, and learning is an integral part of being human.

When Jesus came to the Earth, he didn’t just dip his toe into our humanity; he dove right in. He was like us in every way (Hebrews 2:17). That meant he wasn’t exempt from passing through the normal developmental checkpoints of life.

Luke 2:52 says that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Jesus grew mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually. He memorized the Torah like other Jewish boys. He got big enough to help with household chores and work with his dad out in the shop. He learned about his culture and how to interact well with others. He became what grandma might call “a fine upstanding young man.” And as he did so, it was pleasing to his family, his community, and his heavenly Father.

But why did Jesus have to learn obedience? If he was the perfect Son of God, shouldn’t his obedience have been a given?

In a sense, yes. As God, Jesus came to Earth in human form already in a posture of full submission and obedience to the Father (Phil 2: 6-8). But as man, he had to wrestle with his fleshly will to avoid the pain and suffering of his mission (Luke 22:42). His obedience wasn’t automatic; he had a choice.

It’s easy to think of obedience purely in moral terms, but obedience is largely a matter of training. It’s something we learn how to do.

Dogs learn how to obey their masters through obedience school. Soldiers learn how to obey their commanding officers through boot camp. Kids learn how to obey their parents through instruction at home.

Our son Leo is at the very beginning stages of learning how to obey. It’s relatively easy for him to obey us when we ask him to do something he enjoys. It’s when we ask him to do something he doesn’t enjoy – something difficult – that things begin churning inside. He learns what it really means to obey us when it’s hard.

Which brings us back to Jesus. The reason why Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered is because suffering is the context in which we learn what obedience truly means. Of course Jesus learned obedience through suffering. Is there any other way?

Like Leo, we all like to obey when it’s enjoyable and struggle to obey when it’s not. But it’s only in those times of “churning” that we have the opportunity to really grasp obedience. We can either resent the difficulty, or like Jesus, say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

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Learn and Live / Live and Learn

For most of my life I’ve had a “learn and live” approach: learn these subjects/skills/ideas so that you can live them out and have a better life. After all, that’s what’s drilled into us through our educational system, isn’t it?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s hard to live well if we haven’t learned well. Knowledge equips us and others to lead more enjoyable and productive lives. For example, aren’t you glad your doctor went to med school before opening a practice? Way better than if they just started cutting people and seeing how it went!

But the “learn and live” approach can only take us so far. In fact, it can be downright stifling. There’s a lot we can’t learn apart from first living it. So much of life is experiential.

Take walking. Your parents didn’t make you sit through four years of instructional videos before “releasing” you to try it on your own. You just did it, and you got better through practice, and now you do it without thinking about it. You lived and learned.

Think about it: if someone were to try to learn everything before ever doing it, they would never leave the library/internet/classroom. AND, they would still be woefully under-prepared for the real world.

Jesus invited his disciples into both forms of learning. Sometimes, he sat down and gave them instructions and then released them to go do them. Other times, he invited them to first do/experience things and then reflect on them afterwards.

The point isn’t that one’s better than the other. Both are needed. It’s about knowing when and how to move between the two.

Traveling through downtown Chicago lately has been a great opportunity for me to practice both. Coming from a relatively small town, there’s been a lot to learn. Of course, there are pamphlets and websites everywhere, and I check that stuff out sometimes. But I’ve also gotten more comfortable with the bus/train/hostel/city simply by trying it out and learning as I go. That’s been freeing.

How about you? Are you more prone to a learn and live approach or a live and learn approach? Do you agree that both are necessary? Which one are you weakest in and why might that be?

The Healthy Middle

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So, I FINALLY finished Battlestar Galactica. It took me like a decade (life happens) but it was worth it.

It’s a great show. Geeky name? Yes. But it won a lot of awards (critics are NEVER wrong) and it’s ultimately more about the story and the relationships than the peripheral stuff like space or special effects, as any good show should be.

It deals with a lot big themes like good vs. evil, what it means to be human, who/what God is, racism, etc. But the thing which stood out to me the most was how the characters dealt with their emotions. Talk about a mess!

When it came to working through feelings like regret, grief, anger, fear, and loneliness, they almost always either tried to ignore them or express them in unhealthy ways. They would either abuse themselves (alcoholism, drug addiction, self-harm, promiscuity, etc.) or abuse others (violence, abuse, slander, etc) – sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Eventually, many of the characters DID get to the other side of what they were feeling but only after leaving a trail of destruction behind them. All in all, a good clean Christian show.

Some of my greatest life lessons have come through examples of “what NOT to do”, and I’ve gotta say that watching the characters on Battlestar deal with their emotions might have made the list. Probably because it hit so close to home.

I grew up in an emotionally unhealthy environment. I got to see lots of stuffing and exploding, but rarely witnessed the healthy middle. The healthy middle refuses to ignore difficult emotions while also refusing to vent them in harmful ways. Instead, it seeks to surface raw emotions constructively, with God and community, toward the end of wholeness.

Pete Scazzaro did some good work in his own journey with this. He wrote a book called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality which I recommend picking up sometime if you’re interested. It’s a great primer for thinking through, “What DO I do with this fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, etc. I’m feeling?”

As it turns out, God is actually the author of emotions and our very best outlet for them. I often think about how incredibly real David was with God in the Psalms. It’s like the ultimate permission-giving book for surfacing difficult things. I think about 1 Peter 5:7, which says, “Cast all your anxiety on him [God], because he cares for you.” Think about that. God actually wants us to bring him all our emotional junk, not so that he can judge or condemn us, but because he loves us and cares about what we’re going through and wants to help us work through it like the perfect father would. That’s a pretty incredible invite and a pretty incredible God.

The fact of the matter is that we always do SOMETHING with our emotions. When we stuff or explode negative emotions, we lose and others suffer. It’s only when we surface them in healthy ways that we win and others are blessed.