Tag Archives: power

Reverse the Curse

debateRecently released footage of Donald Trump boastfully describing his sexual domination of women has prompted many Christians to revoke their support of his candidacy for president of the United States. But his remarks, as well as the public outrage they have provoked, beg the question: why is it so wrong for a man to speak of (or treat) women as objects to grab, use, and dominate at his leisure? Is this simply an embarrassing case of “boys being boys,” or is it indicative of a fundamentally flawed attitude towards women and towards power?

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission.

But among Christians, the same people who would decry such sexual exploitation of women, a not-altogether-different attitude often comes to the surface. Men are often assumed to be right in exerting dominance over women, particularly husbands over their wives. Though the church would teach against abuse of this power, the necessary call for men to step up to leadership in their families is sometimes mistaken for an encouragement for men to treat women in controlling ways.

Laying the whole question of male headship aside for a later post, the problem I would like to highlight here is the competitive, controlling approach that has infected our relationships ever since the fall. Genesis 2 paints a beautifully cooperative and harmonious picture of the relationship between the first man and the first woman, in which the woman gloriously fulfilled the man and the man honored and gave himself to the woman. Just like the Trinity in whose image they were made, man and woman found their satisfaction in using their personal power and position to promote the cause of the other.

Then another sign appeared in heaven …The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
Rev. 12:3-4
…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:7

Into the garden slithered another creature who had already traded in service for competition. Satan’s goal was to break up everything good that God had created, pitting humans vs. God, women vs. men, and man vs. earth. Poised in ambush awaiting the birth of a new creation, the serpent played the babe-like humans off of each other and off of God, successfully injecting his poison into all their relationships.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Genesis 3:15-16

Worse than the scam pulled off against the man and woman, the serpent’s poison effectively turned his victims into perpetrators. He no longer had to strike at the woman’s glory—the man would subdue her under his thumb. And he no longer had to undermine the man’s strength—the woman would reallocate her power to compete with him rather than to complete him. She would start behaving towards her husband with all the mastering attempts that sin uses to control weakened human flesh. And her husband would start using his strength, properly directed against sin, to overpower and dominate her instead. (Note the identical language of desire and rule used both in Genesis 3:16 of husband and wife in Genesis 4:7 of Cain and sin.)

Far from being a prescriptive statement of God’s new intent for husband-wife relationships, Genesis 3:16 describes the painfully devastating effects of the fall. It stands in sharp contrast to the joyfully abandoned marital bliss of Genesis 2 (which is found again in the garden-songs of mutual delight and empowering love in the Song of Songs). What some Christians use to substantiate their claim that God has given husbands dominion over their wives should stand out to us as a clarion call to resist the curse, not to perpetrate it.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…
Husbands, love your wives…
Ephesians 5:21-22, 25

As Christians, we don’t hesitate to fight back against weeds and drought or to overcome the dangers and pains of childbirth. If anything, we consider these efforts an extension of our faith in God’s resolute commitment to restore a broken world. And yet we fail to see the importance of resisting the human tendency to dominate and control each other. Is this not the very essence of Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership and of Paul’s teaching on mutual submission? God’s statement to Eve should jolt us into resisting the urge to exert our power over each other, not give in to it as our new normal.

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Genesis 3:20; 4:1

And amazingly, this is exactly the effect God’s statement had on Adam and Eve. Adam took up his power and used it to bless his wife with a noble name. And Eve exerted her God-given power to give life to another man. Hand in hand they faced down the curse, taking the first steps in overcoming their common enemy by surrendering themselves to each other.

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission. Each time we empower and promote each other, we deal one more blow to the serpent’s scheme. As counterintuitive as it may seem, women empowering men and husbands submitting to wives is a crucial part of our Christian task to reverse the curse.

And-It-Is-Not-You

IMG_0919

When our childhood rhyme ended with the finger pointing at me, that final verdict always left with me with a sense of “not good enough” (unless, of course, our lot-casting was over some unwanted task). It dashed my hopes of being the chosen one, singled out for some special privilege or honor.

In our life-long quest for significance, we dread that moment of being passed over for someone else. We want God to pick us for some major contribution to humanity or some significant kingdom work. It becomes increasingly disconcerting as life unfolds and we feel we have little to show for it. What happened to ending poverty by the time we were thirty, saving North Korea by forty, and publishing books on it by fifty? But perhaps we are looking at our lives from the completely wrong angle.

David was not It.

They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before God. …

Ascribe to the LORD, all you families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. …  Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”

1 Chronicles 16:1, 28-31

After years of dedicated service to God by the power of the Spirit, David longed for nothing more than to build a monument to God’s name. This would be the culmination of all he had worked for. Zeal for God’s house had compelled him to complete the unsavoury task of purging the land from those God had commanded his predecessors to destroy, to set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace, and to retrieve the ark from its shed and bring it up to the highest point in his new capitol city. The final step would be to build a glorious temple in which it could be properly honored, a house of prayer to which all nations could come and from which God’s blessing could flow to the ends of the earth.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in.

‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. …

1 Chronicles 17:4, 11-13

Consulting the prophet on this plan almost seemed like a formality. After all, God had already anointed David as His chosen one to rule the nation. It made perfect sense that God would pick him to build the temple, too. But He didn’t. Instead He made some promise about David’s offspring getting the honor.

David said, “My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the LORD should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it.” So David made extensive preparations before his death.

1 Chronicles 22:5

While David could have thrown up his hands in frustration or withdrawn to lick his wounded pride, he instead embraced the grander vision that God had laid out for him. After all, this wasn’t all about him. It was about being a small part of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. He still longed to see that earthly replica of God’s heavenly dwelling built in its rightful place, so he dedicated himself to equipping others to do the work that he couldn’t. He threw himself into raising funds, organizing resources, identifying talent, training leaders, and casting vision for his successor to lead the nation in creating the masterpiece he would not live to see.

Solomon wasn’t It, either.

After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?

Acts 7:45-50

As much as it might have seemed that the climax of history rested on Solomon’s crown, he was merely a stepping-stone to the next phase of God’s dwelling among men. Yes, he fulfilled the prophecy about building a temple where God’s Spirit would live and respond to the needs of His people, and the glorious structure that he completed surpassed even David’s expectations. But it was only a miniature version of a greater one to come. In fact Solomon in all his splendor was only a shadow of another King who would build the biggest temple of all.

But even Jesus wasn’t It.

After His bodily “temple” was destroyed and raised again on the third day, He might have sat back and finally enjoyed the recognition of all those people who had doubted and derided Him. In a very real sense He had arrived at His destination, conquering renegade powers, delivering His people, and establishing His reign of righteousness and peace. But His vision was much bigger than that. He wanted to build a temple that would encompass the whole cosmos, one which would include Him as the chief cornerstone, but only be complete along with the rest of us, too.

 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

John 16:7, Ephesians 4:7-10

Like the Spirit who lived within him, Jesus found greater satisfaction in distributing power than in holding on to it. He moved out of the way so that the Spirit could come transform each believing body and our corporate Body into His sacred dwelling place. And the Spirit is still in the process of doing just that: distributing gifts to different ones of us so that we can have something to contribute to the building of this same Temple.

When I am tempted to think that my significance rests on single-handedly achieving some great feat, I need to look again at the story I am living. This is not a story about me. It isn’t even really just a story about God (though He is certainly the Author and Main Character). It is a story about us: God, humans, angels, cosmic bodies, and even the earth with its plants and animals. The temple we get to be part of is greater than the sum of its parts, filling Heaven and earth and filled with the Spirit of the Infinite God. No one of us could complete it in a lifetime. But with the Spirit’s help, each one of us gets to play a significant role in helping out.

What a relief not to be It!

What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

In the Palace of the Sun King; or Why Sheep Stealing Isn’t the Problem

IMG_0002I experienced one of those “zoom in, zoom out—aha!” moments this weekend. I was wandering through the rooms of Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of its splendor that it was numbing me. The ache in my feet and the smell of the crowd became a more noticeable reality to me than the priceless works of art or the astonishingly sumptuous architecture. I left the Hall of Mirrors and veered off into a corner of the King’s Chambers, really just looking for a space to mentally regroup.

And there, with my back to the rest of the grandeur, my eyes fell on a small section of intricately carved wood paneling, slightly chipped and worn from centuries of being bumped against, but exquisite just the same. I marveled at its elaborate design and wondered about the long-gone hands that had carved it. And just as this tiny piece of golden beauty began to spark my wonderment, I noticed that it was only one of three strips of identically carved paneling arching over the same door. I turned around to see their overall effect, only to be awestruck by the vision of countless windows, doors, and an entire ceiling crisscrossed with the same carved panels, their golden patterns fading into a ribboned effect that draped the room in brilliance.

It struck me that the Church is much the same as this palace. We are the magnificent residence of our glorious King, developed and expanded over the centuries since His coronation. Each room, each section of paneling is a tiny but significant piece of its overall grandeur: no more, no less.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John 1:35-37; 3:26

John the Baptist lived and expressed this tension in an incredibly admirable way, especially when his ministry began to rapidly dwindle as a result of the New Guy in town. Initially He had just shown up as a visitor in one of John’s services, but even then John’s public affirmation of Him resulted in two of his associate pastors walking out and joining this start-up ministry. When this Visitor set up a seemingly identical ministry just down-river, John’s remaining associates got really nervous. They felt threatened by all the people going over to Jesus, worried that His presence would put their leader “out of ministry”.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:6-8, 23, 26-27

But John wasn’t threatened. From the beginning of his ministry he had known and proclaimed that he was merely the forerunner, the one who had been sent by God to get things ready for Jesus. This was no small role, and John knew that, too. He embraced his assignment with all the gusto of someone who recognizes its prophetic significance and its practical importance. But pouring his life blood (literally) into that particular ministry did not cause John to amplify its significance at the cost of valuing the bigger picture of which it was designed to be a contributing part.

To this John replied, “…You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:27-30

When Jesus’ increase in fame and followers caused John to decrease, he welcomed it. John rejoiced that his overarching goal was being accomplished, even if that meant he was being made redundant. He gladly faded into the background of the grandest of structures, fulfilled in the knowledge that he had gotten to play a supporting part in something way bigger than he was. Jesus’ success was sweeter to him than his own. It had always been his highest goal.


Whose sheep are they?

The challenge for all Christian leaders is to maintain this big picture of Christ and His Church. Our tendency is to build our church, denomination, or organization to the exclusion of the whole, defining our “group” by its distinctives (what sets us apart from all the others) and seeking to draw and keep the greatest number of people within our particular fold. While we would insist that we are doing it all for Christ’s sake, the way that we cling to “our sheep” and zealously (or even jealously) promote “our group” betrays us. As John so wisely reminded his disciples, the church is not our Bride.

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

When I step back and gaze at the Church from across the room of time and space, I see how all these segmented ministries are really tiny sections of paneling set side by side in a gloriously diverse, complex pattern that fills the walls of God’s temple. Each one has its distinctive place and particular role, but no one comprises the focal point of the structure. As one rises and another fades, we should all be able to celebrate the way they each contribute to the grandeur of the whole.

In light of the big picture, perhaps migrating sheep isn’t our big problem, after all. Possessive under-shepherds is.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

Breathe.

iphone wallpaper
iphone wallpaper
Burn out. Exhaustion. Stress.

I remember as a teacher in inner-city middle schools having to remind my slightly hormonal, emotionally out-of-control students to stop and breathe. Somehow the extra oxygen to the brain was just what they needed to refocus and regain control.

Some days I need the same reminder: stop, take a deep breath, focus, let it out.

But more than oxygen, my soul craves the life-giving breathe of the Spirit.

How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from God?

Sometimes the burdens of life, the non-stop demands that pile up into days and weeks start to squeeze the life out of me. I look for reprieve, but as soon as I manage to carve out a little space some other urgent responsibility pushes in. And no wonder! The lifestyle that Jesus calls us to is impossibly intense.

Take every thought captive. Pray without ceasing. Bear each others’ burdens. Share with those in need. Entertain strangers. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Work. Teach. Serve. Proclaim. Disciple. Listen. Weep. Rejoice.

If I am to take this impossibly great commission seriously, I am going to need a lot of help. And that’s just the point. I need the Holy Helper.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 1:2, 2:7

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30

He is the One who hovered over the face of the dark, unruly waters in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos and beauty out of emptiness. He is the Air that God breathed into the lungs of the first man, pouring life into dust. And He is the renewing force that restores worn-out souls, that reinvigorates exhausted minds, that reignites burnt-out bodies.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
John 20:21-22

Of course Jesus knew we couldn’t manage carrying this workload on our own. And He never intended us to. Along with a commission He gave us His Spirit to do the job with us, or more accurately, to do the job through us. But as much as I may theologically acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s existence, I too often fail to live as if it is true. So no wonder I end up where I am now: worn, spent, and running on empty.

I need to stop and breathe.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me
to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate
for more of the Spirit.

I need to open my spirit to His presence, to clear some space in my “get-‘er-done” mind for Him to have room to work. How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from Him?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 3:16; 4:3

The Holy Spirit may be omnipresent and omnipotent, but His power at work in me is not automatic. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and developed, given the time and space to grow up in me. I can’t fake its fruit. I can’t force its results. But apart from an intentional, ongoing connection with the Holy Spirit, I know that my spirit will shrivel and die.

So what does it look like to be in a relationship with the Spirit?

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. …Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25

I suppose it’s not too different from nurturing any close relationship, only in this one co-dependency is a good thing. If we want to be close to Him, we have to pay careful attention to His gentle promptings, allowing Him to adapt our preferences, opinions, and habits to His. We will do whatever it takes to avoid grieving Him, which primarily entails not shutting Him out of any area of our lives. Far from perpetuating a performance mentality, seeking to please the Spirit means laying down our over-weaning sense of responsibility and letting Him take the controls.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:21

And this is what I love about Him. He doesn’t take over in some degrading, depersonalizing sort of way. He doesn’t make us His insignificant sycophants nor does He use us merely for His own self-centered purposes. Instead He pours His infinite Spirit into our mortal frames, making us more gloriously human than we ever were before. His Spirit interacts with our personalities to create a perfect spark, a renewing, creative force that sends us back out into the world to create as He creates, to beautify as He beautifies, and to love as He loves.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate for more of the Spirit.

Breathe.

Messy Cosmology

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
My teenaged daughter (an avid Marvel enthusiast) dragged me to the second Avengers film this past weekend. As she took in the clever comments and creative combat sequences, I pondered the cosmological implications of the story line. Apart from revealing my overactive analytical tendencies, the film raised my ongoing questions about my place in the broader range of cosmic beings.

In a tense argument with his fellow avengers, Tony Stark pithily pointed out that they were not merely fighting the evil within a closed system. They were up against powerful external forces that they could neither predict nor control. “We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”

How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are?

When I stop to consider the reality of the spirit beings that inhabit our cosmos, I can’t help but echo Tony Stark’s sentiment. How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are? Who are we in the pecking order of created beings, and what’s our role in the overall story of the world?

what is man …? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:2-8

In the beginning God set us up in the garden, male and female, with orders to govern and tend everything (and everyone) in it. He put plants and animals, water and earth under our feet. And though His Spirit set us above the rest of the earthly creatures, He didn’t set us over the heavenly ones.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 2:15-16

As much as our Enlightened assumptions and humanist culture may deny it, we are neither the center of the universe nor the top of the evolutionary chain. We were created lower than the angels, under the rule of spirit beings who were created by God for His good purpose. Call them angels, call them gods—whatever they are, they, like us, stand accountable to God for the way they govern and tend what He entrusted to them.

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed…
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Psalm 82:1-7

So far, they, like us, have done a pretty lousy job of performing their assigned role. Far from upholding justice and promoting peace on earth, many of these spirit rulers have used their position to pervert, oppress, and extort the peoples of the earth. And we thought the mess on earth was all our doing! But what goes on unseen by us has been keenly observed by God.

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos.

In response to the cries of His saints and in keeping with His own heroic justice, God came down to deliver humanity from bondage to these spiritual tyrants. No wonder the demons worried about what Jesus was going to do with them. They were the stewards who had been caught mistreating His servants, and He was the master who had come to judge them.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.
Hebrews 2:5, 8-10, 14-16

The puzzling bit of the story, though, was why God showed up wearing human flesh. He didn’t have to become one of us to rescue us. But what no one had anticipated was what God would do with His unruly world. He hadn’t come simply to reestablish the cosmological status quo. He had come to mess it up.

In the new order of things, humans would no longer be stuck beneath the heavenly beings, completely vulnerable to their oppressive whims and dependent on their arbitration between heaven and earth. Instead we are being made one with His Son, raised from death but also raised in status.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
…far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:6; 1:21

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos. We are being given a seat along with our older Brother at the very top of the command chain, above all those powerful creatures that He had originally placed over us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Ephesians 6:12-13

Although our mortal bodies still dwell on earth, engaged in that age-old wrestling match with the powerful spirit forces that seek to enslave us, our heavenly status is sealed. We are the children Jesus came to raise up to glory. We are being groomed to become co-regents with Christ, reigning with Him over a new heaven and earth. This is the hope to which we raise our eyes, the ground on which we are called to stand.

Now that’s epic. Even Marvel couldn’t come up with a cosmic story ending this good.

Promoting Power

power-in-hand-300x200Power is definitely out of favor. It may have been yesterday’s fad, but today it is synonymous with egomaniacal villains, brutal military dictators, and decomposing nuclear reactors. Generations of abusive leaders and corrupt systems have trained us to fear power, automatically accepting the belief that power corrupts.

Our solution? Democratic processes. Separation of powers. Limited terms. Public accountability.

Who elected God eternal autocrat of the cosmos?

All of this falls apart when we try to apply it to God. Who elected Him eternal autocrat of the cosmos? What happens when public opinion polls plummet in response to the way He is running things? The idea of an indeposable, unlimited, self-appointed ruler should terrify us if absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But what if the corrupting component of power could be overcome? What if someone were able to use such power purely for good?

In spiritualized, Sunday-school mode we nod our heads and sing “My God is so BIG…”, but in cynical, real-world mode we shake our heads and mutter, “When pigs fly!” No wonder we have a hard time taking the parts of Scripture seriously that talk about God as King, not just over demons, cancer, and eternal souls, but over every piece of earth, every law of nature, every whim of man.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. …his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him… All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
Psalm 2:4; 72:8-11

The Psalms describe God as the mighty King over all the earth, laughing at any opponent who would seek to be His rival. He instates and deposes rulers, making His enemies eat dust and His captives pay tribute. He comes across as a hard-core ace who knows what He wants and never fails to get it.

For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
…the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Psalm 72:12-14; 68:35

But what does He do with all that power? The same Psalms describe Him as the hero of the poor, the champion of the broken. He uses His power to help the helpless, protect the defenseless, and pick up the devastated. Better yet, He holds His power lightly, passing it on to His people with astonishing ease and in lavish portions.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…
…”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Matthew 28:18; Acts 1:8; 2:33

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jesus’ redistribution of power just after His resurrection. Having taken on death and won, He had just achieved authority over all of heaven and earth. But rather than flexing His muscles and showing off the full extent of His awesomeness, He celebrated by dumping buckets of Spirit-power over His disciples’ heads. He took the power and authority that had been given to Him and used it to empower them. Their commission? The same work He had been doing: help the needy, heal the broken, and tell everyone the good news that He had set them free.

..his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given…
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” …It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…
Ephesians 1:19-21; 4:7-12

God is no Juan Peron or Mao Tse-tung, using His power to help the poor while clinging to it at all costs. He delights in sharing His power with His people. Yes, He is in the process of taking all His enemies down, but that is only a part of His greater effort to build us up. As He hands His power over to us one gift at a time, we are enabled to participate in developing and strengthening our corporate selves: the Body of Christ.

This is no one-man show. It’s true that history is all about God. But He turns it around and makes it all about Us.

God’s is a power that empowers.
With His power, ours can be the same.

As someone who has personally suffered and closely walked with others who suffer from abusive uses of power, I am initially tempted to recoil from the idea of God’s absolute power. But when I look at the track record of what He does with it, I am inspired to give myself to promoting His power.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…
Ephesians 3:16-18

And I have to believe that as humans are increasingly filled with His Spirit’s kind of power, we too will be able to hold power in this way. Of course we will do so imperfectly, with selfishness and corruption forever tugging at our sleeves. God has built accountability and the division of gifting into our system, providing necessary checks on our use of power. But I am no longer afraid of power. It is, like any other gift from God, able to be used for great harm or for great good.

God’s is a power that empowers. With His power, ours can be the same.

When Kingdoms Collide

“Oh, I already know how this story is going to turn out.” My all-knowing seven year old leans back from our history lesson with an air of exaggerated patience, rolls her eyes, and rattles it off. “The guy becomes king, conquers all the other kings around him, builds a big empire, and dies all of sudden. Then everyone argues about who should be in charge and the kingdom falls apart. Then another king takes over.”

And, when I look at it, she’s right. With a major exception.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11

Jesus came to earth to establish His kingdom. Forerunners prepared the way. A messenger told the people to get ready for their new king. And after Jesus’ grand entry before the crowd at the Jordan, God Himself anointed Him, pouring down His Spirit and thundering out Heaven’s affirmation that Jesus had every right to be king.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Luke 4:5-6

But this King had competition. The kingdom He was claiming was already ruled by a prince and his legions of allies. Jesus’ first step toward conquest was a trip to the wilderness for a face-to-face confrontation with their overlord. Grueling test. Proven strength. Trick questions. Overcoming answers. The negotiation ended and Jesus left the room triumphant, but His opponent wasn’t going to quit that easily. He would wait for a more opportune time.

Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”
The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”
Mark 1:23-24; 3:11

As Jesus moved about the territory He was claiming, He constantly ran into His opposition, legions of smaller, local tyrants who oppressed their subjects and resisted His reign. When He entered a synagogue, they screamed out their terrified questions about what He planned to do with them. When He walked through the countryside, they fell at His feet in resistant obeisance. And when He stepped off the boat into a new region, they stormed at Him, first threatening to drive Him out and finally begging Him for permission to stay.

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. …
Then he rebukes them in his anger… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance…
Psalm 2:2-8

Jesus slowly but surely spread the kingdom of God, confronting the renegade rulers of the earth with His words and with His very presence. He was the Son of God come to reclaim His inheritance, and they knew it. But that didn’t mean that they would give up without a fight.

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. … He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
4:37-39

Raging fevers and deathly pallor. Shrieking voices and shaking frames. Lashing winds and violent waves. Wherever Jesus turned His enemies opposed Him. But at His rebuke, they had no choice but surrender. Convulsing bodies gave way to perfect calm. Writhing seas settled back into life-sustaining eco-systems.

“If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? … But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.”
Matthew 12:26-29

Driving out demons and healing the sick were at the core of what Jesus had come to do. With each oppressed captive that He liberated, He was transferring one more subject out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God. His method of conquest matched the mustard-seed growth curve of His kingdom: slow but sure, small but unstoppable.

Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me. … Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:12-16

Each confrontation ended in victory for Jesus, in one more person or bit of space added to His growing kingdom. But His enemies didn’t quit. They rallied to turn one of His own disciples against Him. And when they actually succeeded in nailing Jesus to the cross, all Hell broke loose to torment their vanquished foe.

The surprise twist in the story is us.

For a brief moment in cosmic history, it looked like Jesus’ kingdom would go the way of all others. Shepherd struck. Sheep scattered. After all, fierce competition had always plagued Jesus’ disciples. Who was the greatest? Who would inherit His kingdom?

…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church…
Ephesians 1:20-23

But God intervened in this story. He resurrected the King, raised Him off the earth, and gave Him an even higher throne. Enemies scattered. Lost sheep gathered. A kingdom without end. Heaven and earth brought in line under His righteous reign… almost.

…you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:2, 6-7, 10

The surprise twist in the story is us. Jesus handed over the keys of His kingdom to His Church, delegating to us the role of finishing what He started on earth. Through the power of His Spirit, He has called us to continue His work. Liberating political and spiritual captives. Healing the physically sick, emotionally wounded, and mentally ill. Preaching the kingdom. Loving our fellow heirs of the kingdom. Advancing His kingdom where darkness still reigns.

And there is the rub. The battle for God’s kingdom isn’t over. His enemies are still at work, and we are an active threat to their power. We all know who wins in the end, but the end hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, we fight His battle, exchanging blows with the powers of darkness. And this will be our lot until every knee in heaven and on earth bows in its rightful place before the throne of Jesus the King.

Godly Abusers?

When we were kids we used to talk about the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys were heroes who got everything right; the bad guys were villains who reveled in doing wrong. That simplistic paradigm works in the world of Superman and Inspector Gadget, but when we try to read the Bible that way, it gets really confusing.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

Sarah was a good guy, right? She was the beautiful, beloved wife of the ultimate hero of faith, Abraham. She herself was the model of submissive faith, held up by the Bible as the example for all Christian women to imitate. So how could she be an abuser?

Abusers are bad guys. They use their strength to hurt other people. They use their positions of power and authority to keep others under their control. And when their superiority is questioned or their control is threatened, they respond in ways carefully calculated to put those under them back down in their place. Whatever it takes, no matter the damage, they will maintain their precarious position of power.

Treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not loved and valued by Him, is abuse.

When I used to read the story of how Sarah treated Hagar, it messed with my tidy paradigm. Even if it did seem a bit extreme to me, I wanted to find a way to explain Sarah’s actions other than as abuse.

So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.”
Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert.
Genesis 16:3-7

But God had no such qualms. When He told the story from His perspective, He called it what it what it was. Abuse. Sarah treated Hagar wrongly. Whether that involved physical violence, verbal assault, or some other form of demeaning treatment, the word the Bible uses indicates an overpowering, oppressive, possibly even violating humiliation. And lest we try to justify Sarah’s behavior by pointing out that Hagar had been misbehaving, God follows up their little incident by showing up to comfort and affirm Hagar, not Sarah. Yes, He directed Hagar to go back and to submit to her mistress (until He later freed her properly), but He did not defend Sarah’s behavior. Nor did He cover it up. He named it and recorded it for the world to read.

Abuse at the hands of godly people, especially spiritual leaders, can be too confusing to identify. We either want to see them as total bad guys, or we want to keep them in our good guy category by explaining away their abusive behavior as somehow good and right. But no matter how hard we squint or from how many angles we look at it, treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not valued and loved by Him, is abuse.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28

Belittling comments. Silencing tactics. Intimidation moves. Power plays. All of these are efforts to push down and control, the very opposite of how God builds up and empowers. When we accept or justify such behavior within our families or churches, we perpetuate a system antithetical to God’s. Sacrificing the dignity of His image-bearers for any agenda, no matter how good, is a corruption of His charge to serve and tend His people.

The good news is that when God’s representatives get it wrong, He shows up to make it right. The rest of Hagar’s story goes on to show that God does not tolerate any form of abuse, even when the abusers are the good guys.