Upside Down

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, the late Dallas Willard gives the analogy of a fighter pilot becoming disoriented and flying upside down without realizing it[1]. In that circumstance, even thoughtful and well-intentioned actions can yield catastrophic results. It is a powerful reminder that we as people can become so disoriented in our fundamental conclusions about life that our behavior yields destructive havoc on ourselves and those around us, no matter how sincere our intentions may be. Our protests that we “meant no harm” can ring hollow, and often do little to restore damaged lives and relationships unless forgiveness and grace are extended by those whom we’ve hurt.

sky loop-righting upside down thinkingJesus had a knack for turning people’s thinking upside down, which he explained was really righting their already upside down thinking. He notably came to a people long-expecting a Messiah promised of old— one who would be a King, God’s Son, who would crush their adversaries and establish a never-ending kingdom in which righteousness and justice would prevail—and told them that their thinking about the kingdom was all wrong. The kingdom, he said, was not something you could look at and say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because it is a spiritual kingdom within and among you (Luke 7:21). That makes sense for, as he put it, “God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24 NLT), and one cannot see or enter God’s kingdom unless he or she is spiritually reborn (John 3:3-8).

Nobody’s Perfect

He also flipped some common conceptions that people have about how we are accepted by God. The oldest one in the Book is that expressed by Job’s friend Eliphaz, when he asked his suffering friend, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” (Job 4:6 NIV). That idea that we can depend on our own goodness to win God’s favor is sincerely held by many, including probably many in Jesus’ audience, that is, until they heard him say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Most of us, no matter how good or moral we may think ourselves, have little trouble admitting that we are not perfect.

Empty Words

Jesus doesn’t stop there, however, debunking another common view, namely that people are accepted by God by simply believing and saying the right things about Him, with these chilling words:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

That Which One Lives By

Yes, Jesus turns upside down our common thinking about how we can approach God by saying God loves people—all people— not because of who they are what they’ve accomplished, or whether they claim to believe certain propositions about Him, but because of who God is. And, said Jesus, that’s why He came, sent here because of God’s love freely offered to all (John 3:16). If we really believe that, he said, it will be reflected in how we live our lives, not because what we do earns us God’s favor (one could never do enough), but rather because what we really believe is inevitably revealed in how we live.

If we are sober observers of life, we will see that is always the nature of faith, whether one claims to believe in anything or anyone, and whether spiritually themed or not. As the 19th Century Scottish preacher and author George MacDonald put it, “A man’s real belief is that which he lives by.” [2] To conclude otherwise is truly upside down.


[1] Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco: Harper (pp.1-2).
[2] MacDonald, George. 1990. Knowing the Heart of God, compiled, arranged and edited by Michael R. Phillips. Minneapolis: Bethany House (p.20).