Upside-Down Kingdom: Why Everything You Think Is Wrong, and How Jesus Can Make It Right


In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, this is the typical response I’ve seen on Facebook from Christians:

“We need to send in our troops and let them send those evil men in ISIS to hell.”


I’ve been a Christian for almost 40 years. I don’t pretend to be a very good Christian, by the standard of examining one’s sins and one’s ability/inability to live the Bible perfectly. Still, as I grow older, I cannot escape the truth that the Kingdom of God runs antithetical to just about everything you and I think.

Let me restate that: I guarantee that if we have a thought, it’s likely counter to the Gospel.

There’s a reason Jesus can’t just remake us and that we must die instead to be truly born again. Everything we do and think is wrong. A makeover won’t fix anything, because our entire being is tainted to the most granular level. We will never live in the Kingdom of God if we don’t die to ourselves and to the world’s ways.

Case in point:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Matthew 5:43-48 ESV

Jesus comes into the world and turns it upside down. His Kingdom is the opposite of the conventional wisdom, the status quo, the way things are and should be. He messes with everyone’s thinking.

Upside-down churchIn the Gospels, whenever we see Jesus starting with “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…” we know His upside-down Kingdom is on display.

Do we love our enemies and pray for them? Do I need even to ask that question?

I want to unpack the strange aside in that Matthew passage because it plays into another of our wrong thoughts.

Jesus talks about good and evil and how the same daily events happen to both. I want us to think about that a different way. Not that there are two groups at all, but only one. That nature itself reveals only one, those who get wet with rain and then dry in the sun. Those who receive one justice. Those who are, at once, both insiders and outsiders. There are no true distinctions between men.

Why is the Gospel offensive and scandalous? In part because it crashes into our notions of good and evil. Because it says the sinners get into Heaven and the religious get locked out. The peacemakers blessed, not the warriors. The poor raised up and the rich brought down.

The scandalous Gospel goes on to say that the worst bastards the world has ever known are forgiven. Pedophiles, murderers, sex traffickers, pimps, whores, assassins, terrorists–you know, the evil people. And we good people hate that. We want justice.

But wait a second…

Jesus concludes His statement on loving one’s enemies by reiterating that we must be as perfect as God. And suddenly, all these labels of who is good and who is evil, who is neighbor and who is enemy, are pointless, because compared to a holy God, even the greatest of our saints is a feces-encrusted douchebag.

With the Gospel, Jesus defenestrates all this talk of who is good and who is evil. The “good” man who calls another a fool murders his victim just as readily as the “evil” ISIS commander does. Because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Jesus shows us that it isn’t just that we love our enemies, but that we are the enemy as well. Enemies of God. Enemies of each other. Evil down to the core, even the so-called best of us. One mankind, wickedness personified.

The Kingdom of God is here, and everything we think becomes darkness against its light.

When we are born again in Jesus through grace, He burns “us” down because we can’t think anything but darkness. The only way to get right is to start over inside a Kingdom with rules utterly incomprehensible to normal thought.

When you and I think X, the Gospel is likely saying the opposite of X. To think rightly is to go against everything that makes sense within a fallen worldview and to embrace what seems like foolishness.

The Bible supports this:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
—1 Corinthians 1:22-29 ESV

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
—1 Corinthians 2:7-16 ESV

People who are not in Jesus cannot comprehend the upside-down Kingdom He rules. Only those who have His mind, because they have His Spirit, can.

The unbeliever cannot comprehend “love your enemies.” The unbeliever will only see justice against the wicked enemy—and yet will also miss that the wicked enemy is the face staring back from the mirror of God’s perfection.

In conclusion, I offer this…

We live in confusing times, when the foolishness of the Gospel in the world’s eyes will only grow in contrast. People who call themselves Christians will be deceived by the message of the world’s fallen way of thinking. Christians will support ungodly responses to the world’s problems. Christians will use the Bible to back up those fallen ways of thinking. This is happening even now.

More than ever, I think we Christians need to do what the early Church did. When that Church encountered seemingly intractable problems, it convened meetings, and with Scripture, personal experience, and the speaking of the Holy Spirit, worked out answers as a group. See Acts 15, for instance.

I don’t believe we do this. We certainly do not do it in our local churches.

How should we Christians think about X in a confusing world? Our answer most likely will be the opposite of the way the world thinks, and getting on board with that countercultural thinking among the assembly of Spirit-filled believers is the only way we will navigate the confusion that now lies before us.

Otherwise, we stand ready to run down the world’s wide path, mistakenly thinking Jesus is waiting for us at the end.

_My Utmost for His Highest_ —A Critical Look at the Classic Devotional


Oswald ChambersMy Utmost for His Highest is one of the best-selling Christian books, if not the outright champ of devotionals. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after its author’s death, and has never been out of print.

That author, Oswald Chambers, was coverted in part through the ministry of Charles Spurgeon and later went on to be a chaplain in the military. Chambers passed away in his early 40s from a ruptured appendix, and his wife was the one who compiled some of his writings into the devotional book we know today. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after Chambers’s death, and has never been out of print.

I wanted to write about My Utmost for His Highest because I decided this summer to look through an old copy that has been sitting in our library for years. Aware of the reputation of the devotional, I thought it might be a good adjunct for me over the course of the next year. I have used A.W. Tozer’s Renewed Day by Day as devotional reading in the past and thought it helpful.

I am no expert on the history of Christian devotional works, so I don’t know if My Utmost for His Highest pioneered the layout of contemporary devotionals, but it adheres to the now typical form of a short Scripture passage followed by thoughts by the author, all arranged into 366 entries that fit on a page each.

To begin, I want to say that whatever Christian Oswald Chambers was, he was certainly a more noteworthy one than I am. For that reason, readers are invited to disagree with what follows, if for no other reason than as a testament to Chambers and the sheer number of this tome that have been sold, and in 39 languages.

But in reading My Utmost for His Highest (hereafter MUfHH), I wonder if the legacy of this devotional hasn’t set the stage for some of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity in the West.

1. While Bible text opens the daily entry, there’s often just a few words of it—followed by a lengthy exposition.

The one thing a casual glance at MUfHH reveals are a lot of ellipses. Scriptures are often cut down to their barest essentials. The June 30 entry is nothing more than “Agree with your adversary quickly… (Matthew 5:25).” Believe it or not, some Bible text for a day is even shorter than that.

My concern: Unpacking such a short passage out of context can lead to reading one’s agendas and presuppositions into the text (AKA eisegesis). Chambers does not equivocate on anything in MUfHH, so he has a forceful voice. This acts against people questioning his interpretation of the limited text and what should be done with it. This also sets up a tendency in readers to accept “little text with big explanation” as a norm for Bible exposition. But should it be?

One could argue that many devotionals follow this format, but I wonder if it doesn’t contribute to a wider problem of saying more about a text than the text supports. Of course, this can lead us into error, especially when the context has no similar exposition.

2. Keswick.

An unfamiliar term for many, Keswick is/was the location in England of a notable Christian Holiness conference and movement dedicated to the “higher life.” This movement is marked by the following beliefs:

  • The baptism of the Holy Spirit (or “second work of grace”)
  • Mystical union with God
  • Holiness through Christian perfection

Some will recognize Wesleyan theology in these distinctives, but Keswick has been ecumenical in its reach. Nor was it an isolated theology, as many notable late 19th century Christians (including Andrew Murray, D.L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith, Hudson Taylor, and R.A. Torrey) were proponents.

Readers know I have written in support of the baptism of the Spirit and the positives (to a point) of Christian mysticism. However, it’s that third element of Keswickian theology…

My concern: MUfHH definitely shows the influence of Keswick on Oswald Chambers in that it is rife with Christian perfectionism. In fact, most of the entries contain some reference to the Christian working to perfect himself or herself to better experience God.

Some examples of how this manifests:

July 13: “My vision of God is dependent upon my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me.”

July 31: “Not only must our relationship to God be right, but our outward expression of that relationship must also be right. Ultimately, God will allow nothing to escape; every detail of our lives is under His scrutiny.”

August 2: “God does not give us an overcoming life—He gives us life as we overcome.”

August 9: “Are we living at such a level of human dependence upon Jesus Christ that His life is being exhibited moment by moment in us?”

August 24: “Don’t faint and give up, but find out the reason you have not received; increase the intensity of your search and examine the evidence. Is your relationship right with your spouse, your children, and your fellow students?…I am a child of God only by being born again, and as His child I am good only as I ‘walk in the light.'”

August 27: “The moment you forsake the matter of sanctification or neglect anything else on which God has given you His light, your spiritual life begins to disintegrate within you. Continually bring the truth out into your real life, working it out into every area, or else even the light that you possess will itself prove to be a curse.”

Does anyone else recognize how exhausting that perpetual self-examination is?

This kind of “I must strive to be perfect in order to receive anything from God” thinking extends from the idea that such perfection is possible this side of heaven. Sadly, it also counters the more biblical reality that Christ alone is the perfection of the born-again believer, and that Christ’s perfection is finished.

Even the title of the devotional itself offers a hidden conditional, that to get God’s highest requires one be perfect enough to deliver one’s utmost. MUfHH contains a LOT of this kind of idea, which leads to the next issue.

3. Talk of Grace, but followed by Law.

MUfHH talks much about God’s grace and how the believer can grow in it. In this, it reads like an instruction book on how to be a better Christian.

My concern: To talk of grace and immediately suggest something the believer must do to better his or her spiritual state isn’t the Gospel. Our sanctification is driven by God, not by relentless examination and working harder to be better Christians. Jesus alone is both the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is He alone we trust to finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). If anything, our striving only gets in the way of genuine sanctification through God working His work in us.

MUfHH is loaded with striving. Almost every entry tells us what we’re not doing right and what we should do to fix it.

I offer the following little check of my own accord. You can take it for what it is worth. I believe it is in keeping with the Bible’s understanding of both Law and Gospel.

When I feel discouragement or despair in reading spiritual works, it is likely I am encountering the Law. The Bible makes it known repeatedly (and I will leave you to examine the many verses in support) that the Law illuminates every way in which I am deficient before God. How can one not feel despair in such a case?

But grace provides the opposite feelings: hope and joy. Christ overcame the curse of the Law. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Rather than being encouraged by much of MUfHH, my personal reaction has been discouragement in the form of “well, there’s just another spiritual discipline I’m not doing or not doing correctly.” Considering that nearly every entry in MUfHH consists of some way in which you and I are not being the best Christian we should be, it feels very Law-based, no matter how much grace is supposedly espoused. To begin an entry with talk of the grace of Christ but then to talk about how poorly I’m doing in apprehending it and what I should do to fix things, is not the best way to encourage Christian growth or the kind of freedom the Gospel delivers.

This is my greatest apprehension regarding this Christian classic. It’s not that it doesn’t encourage readers to go deeper in their faith in Christ, but it has a tendency to make a millstone out of this path to a deeper life in God.

To be entirely transparent, I’m unclear how most people can read My Utmost for His Highest and not despair at their inability to pull off the many solutions Chambers requires to counter the average Christian’s myriad failings. One day tells of what you are doing wrong, only to be followed by the next day telling something else you are doing wrong, and on and on. How this proves helpful to Christian growth is lost on me. What I come away with instead is a large burden that is my terribly practiced Christian life, which I appear to be performing atrociously despite God’s grace.

If anything, I see the striving that results at the heart of American Christianity. Do better. Work harder. Fix, fix, fix.

But where is the freedom of the Gospel in this? Where is the rest, in that a Christian can lay down all the striving, all the self-made righteousness and perpetual examination, and know that Jesus said on our behalfs, “It is finished”?


I’m always willing to consider that perhaps I’m not reading My Utmost for His Highest correctly. Still, I cannot escape that it feels like just another set of Christian rules and suggestions that I will inevitably fail to do perfectly. Beginning each day that way—well, I’m not sure how encouraging that is.

If you have differing thoughts, please comment below.

Why the Christian Must Model Slow


I used to live in a little cabin in the woods. Just me. I would walk there after quitting time, cook my meal for one, hand clean and dry my dishes, and settle in for the evening.

That simple housework amid solitude proved to be some of the holiest times I’ve experienced in my life. To this day, I can think of few mountaintop experiences with God that matched the simple joy of making food and cleaning up afterward in His presence. It was slow work, never hurried. While it asked for concentration on the task, I never felt overwhlemed. I did, however, feel holiness in the moment.

Something in those basic, careful actions in a quiet cabin in the woods centered me on God. He was there. Always. I could feel Him connecting with me in my doing.

I don’t believe most people today ever experience that kind of focused yet unhurried connection with God in their work. It’s one reason why so many people see their jobs as soul-inhibiting. Paycheck, yes. Personal meaning, no.

Much has been written concerning the recent New York Times piece on the frenetic atmosphere at Amazon. Frankly, I think many people will wonder at the singling out of Amazon, given how blender-like corporate life has become for everyone.

People in a blenderWhat’s the most commonly used phrase in job postings today? I’ll cast my lot for fast-paced environment. It’s ubiquitous, a badge of corporate honor. Businesses stopped pushing the blender’s Stir button and progressed with boasting to Liquify.

What’s being “liquified” is people.

Let’s get real here: Fast-paced environment most likely expresses itself as a needlessly disorganized workplace that is understaffed and poorly managed at all levels due to horrendous forecasting and unrealistic expectations. Companies use that phrase with pride when they should instead be soberly calling it failure and correcting it.

Yes, I went there.

I’m not alone, though, as the NYT Amazon article and this one, “Work Hard, Live Well,” show us. Our harried work lives are getting noticed as a negative. Finally.

Beyond our jobs, the general pace of life is killing us as well. Too much incoming data to process. Too many commitments. Too much striving to stay on top. Too much structure to maintain. Too much need to control. Too much.

We can’t live in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed and still maintain our mental and physical health. It’s time to stop lying to ourselves about what we can and cannot do.

We were not created by God to be little flesh-bundles of process optimization. Being counts as much, or more, than doing.

The blur that is our daily existence leaves no room for God. This lie that we can cram an entire day’s spirituality into a 15-minute quiet time is just that: a lie. And it always has been, despite whatever some nationally recognized pastor, spiritual leader, Christian author, or life coach says.

Why? Because God is to be found in EVERY moment. In something as basic as cooking dinner for one. Or in handwashing the dishes.

Julie, a friend and essayist in the vein of Annie Dillard, rebooted her Lone Prairie site and elected to hand code the HTML and CSS. Most would say that’s the hard way.

But some would contend it’s the way God connects with us in our work. It’s slow. It may even be tedious. Yet I think that pulling back from the most optimized, GTD-approved way is how we can reconnect with the holiness of our professions. It’s how we can slow down enough to find not only ourselves but God.

If we Christians are not the people who stay off the dance floor when the world says mambo or who cannot laugh in the face of demanded mourning, who will?

Christians are supposed to be the most countercultural of all people, yet more often than not, we American Christians, through a grace-less misunderstanding of responsibility, instead lead the parade toward dis-ease.

Slowing down enough to find God in more than just the “holy moments” but in ALL of the day will cost us. It must.

If lost people are going to find God, we Christians must be the examples of how to connect with Him. If we’re racing around like headless chickens, we will have no time for perception and observation, either of the natural world which God created or of the spiritual one, where He is found. Neither will we have time to process the crucial connections between the two, where wisdom dwells. We will instead become blind guides. There won’t be any counterculture left, only concession to the deaf and dumb spirits of the age.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead” is no statement of integrity but of stupidity. Christian, find ways to slow down or risk losing everything that truly matters.

Once off the highway and on the backroads, we’ll find God on the curves, near that spot with the stunning vista. Take time to stand there and breathe. That’s where redemption abides.