Can we know Jesus’s mind?

e6b06feae55279cfb5023848b530e14eI was having a conversation the other day about some “liberal versus conservative” issue when I found myself quoting something Jesus did, as if I knew his mind perfectly. That got me to thinking — how much do I really understand the mind of Jesus? Or better yet, how much can human beings understand the depths of God’s mind and motivations? Some Christians say that the Bible contains what God teaches us about his way of thinking; other Christians add tradition. But both groups imply that, somehow we Christians know the mind of God. Our Jewish ancestors in faith never believed that. So when did we become so well informed about how God thinks?

The simple answer is, by observing Jesus and informed by the Holy Spirit, we have come to understand God’s mind about some aspects of life in God’s presence. Over 2000 years, we have discussed and pondered Jesus’s teachings and example and, since he told us (and Philip) “if you see me, you see the Father” we see God’s actions and understand what they signify for us. That is enough, for now. We are on a journey to full understanding but will never reach that fullness until we are face to face with God in heaven.

Implications

So far so good. We understand the basics but there are mysteries in the depths of God that elude us. What are the implications of this?

  • There are certain things that we can assert that brook very little contradiction. One of these is “God is love.” We may not understand the depths of God’s love but it’s certainly very clear that God commands us to love each other as he loves us. Working that command out in our daily living is certainly connected with what it means to be Christian.
  • There are other things that are mysterious by their very nature. One example is the balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Since God is perfect, his justice must be perfect at the same time that his mercy is perfect. God’s mercy and justice are only concepts until we apply them to people. What about a terrible criminal who repents on the gallows? Worse yet, what about the same criminal if he doesn’t repent? It’s too simple to say, one is saved and the other isn’t. Such dichotomies and judgments are human not divine. In the depths of God and the human soul, no one, not even the criminal himself can be perfectly confident in his understanding of God’s justice and mercy as it will be encountered at the Last Judgment.
  • Then there is how God understands human choices and success/failure.  By our nature we are fallen, inclined to sin. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do yet not do the things I want?” Human freedom and sin and God’s view of human freedom and sin is an unfathomable mystery because God is infinite and our human soul, being God-like, is also beyond our grasp. Yes, each person has a basic sense of right and wrong built in, and there are clear commandments from God. But — and I think every adult has experienced this — when one makes moral choices, the execution often is flawed and falls far short of what we wish we could achieve. I have often said to myself that, if it wasn’t for God’s mercy, I’d give up. My hope that God’s mercy is there to balance his justice is what keeps me going many times.

All this is meant to point to one thing. When we Christians proclaim we know God’s mind in discussions or arguments, we are going a step too far. The other person may have an equally clear (to them) idea about what God is thinking and we may both be wrong. Lesson: It is better to be humble than proud when it comes to understanding God.

 

In and beyond time

We live in a century when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technology that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Biblical time

We have become so ‘scientific’ in our view of time that it is very difficult for us to imagine that Biblical time transcends past, present, and future. God is timeless, yet God created time. God entered human history as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit — and gives us hints of a different kind of time.  The Gospel of John says that the Word “was in the beginning with God.” [John 1:2] “The Word became flesh and lived among us” as Jesus. [John 1: 10] And Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not not come to you.” [John 16:7b] Besides the usual time dimensions implied in these references, there is God’s timelessness that exists beyond created past, present and future, which touches us and shapes us. We are already but not yet completely in God’s timelessness because we are transcendent beings. These are difficult ideas to grasp. So what does the “last days” mean in God’s timelessness?

Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people in the last days, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10]  God has performed a second great act of creation, after the first ‘Big Bang’ and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role in God’s time?

In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world.

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”  Many scientists and Psychologists don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe, in their scientific view of time.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. He is the eternal timeless Word and the man Jesus in time. God’s purpose is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state through Jesus and his brothers and sisters — us. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan, both in ordinary space-time and in God’s reality of timelessness.

Extraordinary everyday time

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious distance from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to fly like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafte.” [Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps]

As Chesterton might put it today, there is ‘divine music’ in the world in the last days – and a musician more wonderful than we dare imagine is playing a love song that many in the world cannot hear, as yet. We Christians have not been left alone to teach the world to sing that love song. In the last days, the days of the church, we are learning to sing in harmony; we are ‘one’ as God is one. We have been given the glory that Jesus received, which brightens our singing, and attracts and lures the world into singing God’s love song. All this is what Jesus promised. The critical question is what will we do, right now, here in our local church, in the light of this astounding reality in the last days?

 

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B. Where Does Our Church Need to Go? — A New Model for Local Churches

In my consulting practice I usually try to get business people to think about what their organization does (driven by its primary purpose) before they think about its structure. This follows the ancient Roman architectral design principle of ‘Form follows Function.’ It is better to design the functions of a building, an organization (or a church) before you decide how to organize the people doing these functions.

Most people find this very hard to do — their natural tendency is to want to know the ‘pecking order’ first. Who is the leader? Who is my boss? Who wields the power? I was part of a team many years ago that invented a way to get people to think in fresh ways about what their organization needs to do, without worrying about its structure. We called this method Value Streams.

Simply put, a Value Stream describes all the work necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular type of customer. For example, if a business has both large corporate customers as well as individual consumers, they would like to design the work for these two types of customers differently because their needs may be very different. You don’t worry about how the work is structured; you worry about what work must be done to meet needs. Value Stream thinking puts a premium on satisfying the needs of customers. [You can also have Value Streams focused on internal ‘customers’ too, such as a People Value Stream that is all the work that must be done to meet the needs of employees.]

I have used Value Stream thinking to create a fresh model of  a local church. This model has the following advantages:

  • It focuses on the needs of diverse people, whom the church is meant to serve.
  • It takes into account the differences between people in different situations, making the church sensitive to their different needs
  • It look at all the activities that a church might do and asks the question, “Who is this particular activity in service of?”
  • It provides a way to assess whether, and to what extent, a church’s current activities are meeting the needs of their key ‘customers.’

The following diagram shows a simple Value Stream model that fits any church.

Here is a brief explanation of the model. In the future, I will publish a more detailed model together witha Guide to the design process required to customize the model to meet the specific needs of any local church.

The Primary ‘Customer-facing’ Value Streams

  • The People ‘outside’ the church — non Christians — are served by the Connecting Value Stream. This might include activites like welcoming, evangelizing, initiation into the church, Baptism, and others. This value Stream responds the the Great Comission of Jesus.
  • The Members of the church — Christians, whether members of the local church or not — are served by the Belonging Value Stream. This might includes activities like liturgy, education, Bible Studies, community-building and others.
  • Poor and Needy people — whether Christian or not — are served by the Serving Value Stream. This might include activities like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing, visiting the imprisoned, and other activities by which Christians fulfill the most basic command of Jesus of loving our neighbors.

The Supporting Value Streams

  • The people who do the work in the Conecting and Belonging Value Streams are support by the work of the  Spiritual Value Stream. This might include activities like preparation for ministry, creating or enabling liturgies, coaching, retreats and others.
  • The people who do the work in the Serving Value Stream are supported by the Equipping Value Stream. This might include activities like special training, program creation, collaboration with other agencies and groups and others.

The Enabling Value Streams

  • All the work in the other value Streams is served by the Leadership Value Stream. This might include activities like parish council, recruting and organizing volunteers, transformation and others.
  • The financials and church building are served by the Stewarship & Facilities Value Stream. This includes fund raising and management, build programs and maintenace and others.
  • The professional employees of the church are served by the People Value Stream. This might include hiring, training, and other traditional HR activities.

This model can used used in a variety of ways

  • As a way to assess how effecteively a church’s current activities are linked to the needs of primary customers.
  • As a means to help everyone in a church see where their particular activity fits, and how it supports the overall church community
  • As the starting point for rethinking how a church might better prioritize and apply its resources.

 

 

 

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.