the implications of joining up with the kingdom of god

in our dcla program planning meetings, we had a very interesting theological discussion. it actually surfaced out of our opening time of prayer, when we first gathered. and it continued, in one form or another (serious dialogue, childish teasing) for the three days we were meeting.

several people joined in, but it was primarily one other guy (a good friend, whom i love dearly) and me who were strongly disagreeing.

now, i’m going to lay it out here, to the best of my ability, and would love to hear input, feedback and response. i say “to the best of my ability”, because i’m sure i will, to some extent, create a caricature of both his input (in a negative way) and my own input (in a positive way).

also, i should say, it was a really fun disagreement, healthy dialogue, and made us both wrestle quite a bit (and, i think, the others in the room).


it started when he prayed something like, “God, we know you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and we are unnecessary to your plans….”

after the prayer, we started talking about the dcla content, and i interjected that i’d like to have a bit of a discussion about our perspectives on the implications of us joining up with the active work of god in the world, because that’s a big theme of the dcla content we’re developing. i asked my friend to restate and unpack what he’d prayed. he explained that he used to be driven by obligation and guilt, but that he doesn’t see god that way anymore (good so far). he said he’s so deeply come to believe in the sovereignty of god (still good) and the idea that god doesn’t “need” us (yup, still good) that he believes god will accomplish what god is going to do in the world whether we join god in this work or not (hmmm).

we had a bunch of discussion about the difference between being guilted into obedience and viewing joining god’s kingdom work as an opportunity, or invitation. all good. he explained that he thinks the reason for us to live in a kingdom way is that it brings congruency to our lives, as we live into the way we were created to live (i’m great with that, but it brought a nagging question).

i wondered, “does that mean you think we don’t actually play a role in adding to the work of the kingdom?” “no,” he said, and went on to share this illustration:

when his daughter was 2, he was doing some work in her room. and he noticed that she was standing off to the side, mimicking his movements. he thought this was sweet. then, he started painting some trim work, and she wanted to paint also. he said, “no honey, you’re a little kid, and painting is adult work.” she started crying, and his wife piped in, “just let her paint.” so he gave her a little brush, and a little bowl of paint, and she went to it, messily painting a small section of the wall. he kept telling her what a great job she was doing. he moved to a roller, and gave her a tiny roller also. while continuing to tell her what a wonderful job she was doing, he painted over the portion she had painted, so the end result was what he had always planned.

he said that this is what god does with us.

i tried to restrain myself, but said something like, “that’s horrible! it’s manipulative and a lie!” i went on, “i was hoping you were going to say, ‘when i got to the section she’d painted, i painted around it, framing it. it wasn’t as smooth as the parts i’d painted, but it was her contribution to the plan i already had to paint the wall. the wall was going to get painted either way, but i allowed her to contribute. AND, the wonderful thing is that, for years after that, we cherished that little less-than-perfect portion she painted, which made the wall something our family valued even more.”

my point is: while i agree that our joining up with god’s kingdom isn’t about guilt or manipulation or “duty”, i think that god invites us — gives us the opportunity — to participate in god’s kingdom work in a way that implicates the outcome. this doesn’t change the idea that god is sovereign, or that god is capable of doing what god intends to do. but we are — i believe — really and actually participating in the outcome. in other words, i think we are given the opportunity to play a participative role that changes the outcome, or, at least, becomes a part of the outcome.

we didn’t come to agreement on this, but it was a great and spirited dialogue.

so, what do you think? am i nuts? am i a heretic?

31 thoughts on “the implications of joining up with the kingdom of god”

  1. nuts ?
    without a doubt

    heretic ?
    no way

    Let me take a whack at prasing what seems like the central pivot:

    the all-knowing God sees past, present, and future simultaneously from the perspective of eternity – our sense of time is like a flowing river, God’s sense is more of the very nature of water itself

    God created human beings, crafting us in the image of a God who described God’s existence as us – the very essence of God is relational, a dance rather than a linear power model

    The nature of our being human & divine is that we have the subjective reality of making choices in the present that have consequences for themselves and others in the future

    so – stay with me, this comment feels like an episode of a LOOOOONNNGGGG PBS show –

    God is ultimately sovereign – what the early Jesus followers knew as “the power to decide the state of exception”

    That God must have at least permitted any choice that a human could make – the nature of our relationship with God is co-creation, rather than a short-order cook

    and at the same time God is right to hold humans accountable because from their perspective within the confines of serial time, humans make moral choices between good and evil

    wwwwhhhheeeewww – I am tired just re-reading that

    One other randomizer – in your parent/child example – what if God is the child and we are the water in the bowl ?

  2. Not sure about this. I agree that God is soverign and in control of all things. I think the bit I’m most in awe of is that he chooses to work through us and that we are the point of what he is chosing to do.

    Interesting post. I think I’m going to be pondering this all day.

  3. greg boyd talks about this quite a bit. it sounds like open theism. the future is still open in a sense and God soveriegnly knows our choices, and all outcomes. but our participation plays a role in determining the present and future. i am warming up to this idea. i personally believe we have an active role in God’s kingdom.

    i believe scot mcknight calls us “cooperative friends of Jesus”. i got to believe that. i would rather have him not just humor me and let me do some meaningless task he doesnt need me for. it wastes my time and his. but we are called to be his light bearers to the world. we are salt.god chose us to be his representatives to the world. we are to model who God is, by his grace.

    with the other point of view, why pray, why do, why bother?

  4. God normally works through us, but if necessary he will accomplish in spite of us. (See Jonah) He normally works through our participation in the kingdom, but if necessary he will intervene.

    Jesus said in Lk 19:40 that if these people are silent the rocks will cry out. He cannot be denied.

  5. You essentially just described the Eastern Orthodox concept of synergy. It’s also a variation of a theme I’ve heard N.T. Wright use riffing off the last verse of 1 Cor 15 and the movement on into 16. After the glorious chapter on the Resurrection, Paul basically says, as a result, that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work because we know our labor is not in vain.

    Heretic? Hardly. You seem to be right in the center of the most ancient streams of Christian thought.

  6. I suspect we need to distinguish between the sovereignty of God and the Kingdom of God. Everyone lives under the creation and sovereignty of God, but everyone does not live in the Kingdom of God. It seems that the painting metaphor describes the former state, someone trying to act like God, without the Spirit, the gifts and guidance of God.

    We have the same problem in the church. We have Kingdom people, and we have church people. I’m currently reading a book by Ray Ashmore called “Thy Kingdom Come, Just don’t Bother Us with it”. He makes some very valid points about the kingdom and our place.

    Jesus called us to be His disciples; followers in training after Him. That means that we listen, obey, and sometimes get it right.

    Maybe in the Kingdom, God wanted a perfectly blank painted wall that would provide a perfect backdrop for the 2 year old’s wonderfully expressed portion, which He then uses to show the world His grace and truth.

    Jesus came and established His Kingdom, He then sent the Spirit to dwell in the people of His Kingdom. God can do it all Himself, but He seems to want to work through His people. He sets the stage for our good works through which He then shines through.

    I feel bad for your friend, he has a sad view of our great God.

    Grace and Peace

  7. bob carlton — nice. but either i didn’t communicate well, or you mis-read what i was asking. you wrote about sovereignty, but my friend and i had no issue there. you wrote about choice, but we had no issue there. the issue, or central pivot as you say, was the question of the implications of our kingdom-oriented actions.

    joe, i don’t think what we’re talking about is about open theology at all (that’s an interesting discussion, but not the tension i was intending to describe here). the question here wasn’t whether or not we can change god’s mind, but whether or not our kingdom-oriented choices and actions contribute to the kingdom in a shaping way.

  8. Mark,
    I couldn’t agree with your perceptions and observations more. I really view myself as a participant in God’s Kingdom and not a puppet.

  9. I kind of think it would be nice of God to go back over the parts I screw up. I don’t really think that’s what he does, but who am I to put words in God’s mouth, really?

  10. Maybe you both can be correct to an extent…

    – There are times when no matter what we do, God’s Will shall be done. Examples from scripture could be Jesus’ death on the cross, allowing Gentiles into the covenant (even if Peter had ignored God, this still was gonna happen), etc… So, we can join in with God’s Kingdom, but even if we fail (or to a lesser extent are not perfect), God’s Will is still gonna happen.

    – But, there are other times when it seems clear that God is using us to get the job done. We are now the “body of Christ” in this world. We continue on his ministry of reconciliation (through the power of the HS of course). We are the ones he works through now. Not just up to us…we are a team together. Theologically this makes sense to me.

    If God is still doing everything himself, what’s with all the talk in the bible of us being the ones who are doing his work in this world?

    Also, it seems that the guilt issue is important. We should not feel guilty about our failings as though we prevented the work of God’s Kingdom and it’s all our faults. This is one extreme…but we should not swing to the other extreme and imagine that nothing we do really matters anyway.

  11. First off, I think it’s wonderful that you allow these kind of conversations to permeate your programming and planning. Our views and beliefs in this really do change what we say and how we challenge and lead students. Awesome stuff!

    It seems to me the whole thing gets even messier when you take Jesus’ words and examples into view. When he is asked what it takes to receive eternal life, he answers that with the story of the good samaratin. That our engaging in loving our neighbor is a part of what it means to belong to Him. Let’s also consider Jesus picture of the the sheep and the goats. Again, engaging in Kingdom work is shown as the defining characteristic of a follower of Jesus. Not out of guilt but out of a heart that reflects the heart and purposes of God.

    Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that God needs us to do the work, but Jesus never seems to give us an out that if we don’t act it’s OK.

    Maybe the image is that of God painting a beautiful room that has a small section for each of us to fill in…

  12. my point was that our POV of choice & outcome, sovreign & kingdom, as somehow separate

    well it is just seeing thru a foogy mirror

    btw, leadership journal has a great, great piece along these lines in their current issue

  13. Paul, the problem I see with the statement that “God’s Will” is always accomplished arises from the very different conceptions about God and his ‘will’ that people seem to carry with them. It’s one of many places where people use the same words, yet mean entirely different and often opposing things by those words.

    For instance, many who talk about the ‘will’ of a ‘sovereign’ God have in mind a God of perfect order who has this perfect tapestry encompassing all of creation and who maintains that tapestry, that perfect picture, against all encroaching forces. Some are farther along that path than others, but many would find themselves somewhere along that spectrum. I would suggest that there is a problem in thinking about and trying to relate to God on these terms. It doesn’t match what he has said about himself, what scripture says, or what we have seen in the world around us.

    He is not a God of perfect order who stands apart from his creation and maintains its structure and ensures that every thread lies in just the right place. He is a God of perfect love who inhabits, indwells, and fills his creation. His will is very well expressed in Scripture. It is his will to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. It is his will to conform us to the image of his Son. And so on.

    Amanda, I don’t think God ‘goes back over’ the parts I screw up. However (and I draw here again from Bishop Tom), the dynamic of 1 Cor 15 (and other parts of the letter) is something like this. Those things I have done in the Lord, however imperfect they may seem to me, will somehow be continuous into the new heavens and new earth. Somehow, and we don’t really know how, all such efforts will be incorporated into the Kingdom by God in a manner which both honors and transcends the particular work. Meanwhile, those things which were not done in the Lord, which are not part of the work based in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, will be ‘burned’ and ‘consumed’. (Remember, our God is also a consuming fire – though perhaps that’s just another way to describe perfect love.)

    As Wright says, he doesn’t really know how the five year old’s Sunday School drawing (done in love for Christ and his kingdom), a 6th grader’s effort to stand up for a peer who is being crushed, or his own theological and pastoral work will be worked into the fabric of new creation. But in the power of the Resurrection, he is absolutely certain they all will.

  14. It sounds like you both agree that we participate in advancing God’s kingdom, but disagree about what that participation looks like (?).

    I thought of this random metaphor: in your friend’s view, we’re like hammers that God uses to accomplish His plans–we participate fully, but in a static way, only participating because God, in a way, makes us. In your view, we’re more like horses God is riding and steering–we participate fully, but in a dynamic and moving way, being directed by God because we’re in tune with where He is leading.

    Horses and hammers. Random, I know. I think I’d rather be a horse.

  15. i like to think that no matter what my human-ness screws up on a daily basis, that God will redeem it for His glory.

    because i do screw up on a daily basis, even when going about kingdom work. and I trust that God is going before me, and coming with me, and bringing up the rear, with a paintbrush.

    I search for His will in my life, for His will in the choices and things that I do, and trust that even if i dont hear his voice clearly, or veer off, that He will redeem it. He is a God of grace..

    heres another question: how arrogant is it to think that God needs us? Jesus said, carry out the work of my Father in heaven.. its God’s work.. not ours.

    just some thoughts. love the discussion and conversation.

  16. Sweet! Marko, and several of you guys, I think your theology is sounding rather Catholic!

    (from a happy Catholic :-)

  17. Arminians and Calvinists had been discussing that for centuries and truth is: there is bibiblical ground to defend both thesis. I personally lean towards Responsability because through your friends thinking you reach to a God that decides who goes to hell or if you don’t believe in it, who lives it on earth…and that denies the central declaration of the gospel.

  18. Very interesting conversation. I once heard the story of a famous pianist who was about to do a concert. A little boy wandered up from the crowd and started playing chopsticks on the beautiful grand piano. The parents of the boy were mortified. But before they could remove him from the stage the pianist came, leaned over the little boy’s shoulder and whispered “keep playing.” He then extended his arms on both sides of the boy and played a beautiful song that fully harmonized with the simple chopsticks that the boy was playing. Every few seconds the pianist would whisper “keep playing” and the boy continued and so did the pianist. At the end the crowd went wild. Why did they cheer? Was it because of how beautifully the boy played? No. It was because the maestro took that simple little song and made something amazing out of it. The little boy was cheered for playing his part.

    I don’t know if this story is true but I believe that it is a picture of how God makes a beautiful song out of our chopsticks…and He will receive the standing O someday. We will be rewarded for playing our part on the stage He allowed us to wander on.

    If you think about it the Holy Scriptures are a perfect picture of this. You see the unique personality imprint of David, Moses, James, Paul, Matthew, etc in their writing styles (very unique and very different) but you see God sovereignly using their chopstick styles to make something beautiful, something magnificent, something God breathed.

    I believe God doesn’t paint over our drawings. I don’t believe he frames them. I believe he blends it into his kaleidescope of a masterpiece and that he will receive the glory someday and that we will be rewarded for playing our part in his masterpiece.

  19. I like this conversation. I also like what Greg Stier just said. I feel like I have been struggling with questions of these sorts lately.

  20. First of all, of COURSE you are a heretic, Marko. Heretics bring about progress in the kingdom, so you should always strive to question orthodoxy. At least that’s what I think.
    I really like how this conversation is dependent on all kinds of crazy metaphors. I think metaphors are a great way of developing the dialogue and framing it in a way that more people can identify with. I mean, I am practically swept away by the horse and hammer thing! I was just about to agree with anything and everything Joel could come up with just because I liked his metaphor so much.
    The reality is the metaphors don’t make or break the argument. This may be one of those issues we have to struggle with because we don’t have enough information to wrap our brains around it. We might only get to have theories and metaphors.
    Here is what gets me: a central argument of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that to believe in God, you believe that God is all-loving, all good and all powerful, simultaneously. They counter that if he is both of those things he could not allow bad and terrible things to happen, so he is either not all-powerful or not all good. I think the idea that God is not using us as a hammer,not painting over our wall or dictating everything we do makes the most sense in this light. Of course we can screw up, of course we can turn people away from God, of course we can preach God incorrectly. Everyone can think of an example of this, probably from their own lives. There are also so many examples of God seemingly working in spite of times like that. At the end of the day, I have to believe that God is using me, but not controlling me. I have to believe that the direction of the kingdom depends on the people of the kingdom, or it just doesn’t make any sense. i think the idea of the passage that says the rocks and the trees will cry out is that praising God is our calling. Then again, maybe I’m wrong

  21. Didn’t somebody already right a book about this…I think the title was “Messy Spirituality”…ring a bell?

  22. I think this plays into the guilt and pressure some people feel while simultaneously understanding (or maybe hoping) that they are fully accepted by God.

    What if I screw up?
    Do my mistakes have eternal consequences?
    Or worse – can my mistakes have eternal consequences for someone else?
    Does God really need me at all?

    The more neurotic among us, in other words most of us who take our faith seriously, I think spend at least some time bouncing between the loneliness of thinking that God doesn’t need our help and the guilt of not feeling like we can live up to the standards set by God.

    In truth, all I know is that I don’t know the answer.

  23. Read an snippet of your blog from the journeyman’s blog and replied to it on his blog – got told I should really paste it on your blog rather than his… funny thing is I’ve only just read the whole of your blog but the analogy I thought of fits!! – promise I didn’t read the painting bit before I wrote this… anyway my thought was:

    hmm, while I fundamentally agree with the point that yes while God does not need us to make his plan’s come about I think he uses us to help us grow physically and spiritually, and because he’s a proud father that likes to include his children, if you did everything on your own because you could & it was quicker it wouldn’t have any greater benefit then the task being done but if you use it to help / teach / support others? – its like if your painting a room and you have a small child, it would be quicker and easier to get someone experience to do it or do it yourself, but you give the child a paint brush and let them have a go, and as he gets better and bigger you give him more responsibility and the child develops skills learns about life, about finishing a job, doing a good job, that maybe his talents don’t lie in painting… but at the end you stand back and there is a sense of pride at the accomplishment from both the child and the parent – and there closer because of it – the job has got done but something far more important has been accomplished than just the job….

    Just a thought….

  24. Marko — I really appreciate your willingness to ask tough questions and to listen to different perspectives. I’ve really enjoyed working through you post and all the great comments. Who says youth workers aren’t deeply theological?

    I know analogies are inherently limited in what they intend to illustrate, but I think your friend’s painting illustration really breaks down when we move beyond an individualistic concept of our relationship with God into a more communal, global vision of God at work in the world. Imagine what a total control freak God would look like if we imagine 6 billion people screwing up their wall paintings, and God with either 6 billion arms and rollers or moving really, really fast to cover over all those mistakes in order to achieve a massive perfectly painted wall.

    The idea of connecting love and “need” is troubling as well — isn’t that what codependency is all about?

    I love where you would have taken your friend’s story. To me, that captures the reality of the mess of our lives and our attempts at participating in God’s work in the world and the beautiful heart of God.

  25. Having just read “The Shack” this topic reminds me of one of the teaching points from that book (a book you should all pick up and spend time with). I tend to lean more toward what you’re saying here, Marko. Take a look at our shortcomings and our sins. Throughout scripture God takes our mess-ups and our mistakes and still creates good out of them. The results of those are not that they are “wiped away” so that there is no consequence. Rather, the consequences are often brought into the whole picture of God’s plan.

    One example: was it God’s intention that Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery? I don’t believe so, but God used that (painted around that and framed it – I love that idea) and allowed it to be a way to move Joseph to a position of power in Egypt so that his family could be safe.

    I often wonder what God’s will was for Joseph in the first place. Perhaps he and his family were going to be the ones to store up grain for years and then feed the nations around them. It didn’t happen that way, though, yet God used it to continue toward God’s kingdom plan.

  26. Honestly, I guess I’m not sure why it makes a difference. Of course, we should all strive to understand theology as much as possible, but from a practical standpoint, shouldn’t we strive to serve Him to the best of our ability either way?

    Your friend’s perspective certainly pricks our sense of personal significance (pride?) in the Kingdom while remembering that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

  27. taking the painting analogy another step…
    What if its not that God paints over our little part, and its not that God simply leaves what we have done in appreciation of our contribution to the work.
    What if the picture is of God gently guiding our hand while we paint with him? Taking our desire to work with him and accomplishing things through it that we never could have imagined

  28. My first thought was: “He should’ve given her the same paint color as the color on the wall instead of the trim color (if I’m reading the story correctly). That way, no one would be able to tell where her work ended and his began because it’s for the same purpose.” It’s as my mentor likes to ask me, “What did you do today for someone so that they forgot your name but remembered Jesus’ name instead?”

    My second thought was, “I wonder what color God likes the best. He uses blue a lot for the sky, but the colors at sunrise/sunset are more striking.”

    And then, “You can tell these are comments made from youth ministers because everyone is instantly trying to take an abstract concept and connect it to something we all understand so it will stick with us for days and we can wrestle with it.” And then I smiled and was happy.

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