Showing posts with label Theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theology. Show all posts

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Praying Threats Against Evil Men

This week, I saw evil, clear and real and personal—the kind of evil that enrages, that enflames the kind of deep and violent anger that I rarely experience for any reason. I learned of circumstances that touched a friend's life, and wrath burned in me.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.

Of course, I have been angry many times in my life—but nearly all of those were times I was angry on my behalf, or even selfishly angry on the behalf of those I was close to. Rarely, I have been angry because of injustices or people's apathy toward the things of God—but even those, I am afraid, were tainted by self-righteousness: that sort of smug pride in how I cared more or was doing more than they were. This was different. There was nothing about me in it—simply fury that someone could do such a thing, especially to someone so deeply vulnerable and helpless to resist.

For the first time, I think I glimpsed a little bit of the fiery, righteous anger of God at sin and injustice and evil. He hates it. Time and again the Scriptures affirm that God abominates injustice, abuse of the poor and weak, and those who take advantage of those with no defense. He is incensed by murder and rape and torture and every unnecessary violence of this world.

Driving home, yesterday, I was praying for God to show His grace in this circumstance. All week, I have thought about what that prayer means. The God we serve, after all, is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

That's a wonderful and terrible passage, the foundation of all God's subsequent revelation of himself. It calls us to stand in awe: he is slow to anger; he overflows with steadfast love and faithfulness; he is merciful and gracious; he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin but he does not clear the guilty; the sins of the fathers have deep consequences in their families.1

God's great mercy on display here is sobering. You see, the way my wrath remained unrighteous and unlike God's, at least initially: it was not tempered by loving kindness and mercy. I simply wanted God to strike dead the man who did this evil. Now, in part, that is a righteous desire: it reflects just how deep God's anger burns against those who sin—all those who sin, more on that in a moment—and how fierce his judgment against evil is and will be. Nevertheless, there is more to God than his righteous anger.

The same who God who pulled me out of my sins and opened my eyes to the light of his glory and goodness when I was six or seven can save this man from his sins and open his eyes to the light of the glory of God. Had I committed smaller evils? Yes, of course: I was a child. But I was a sinner, through and through. I was selfish, self-righteous, angry, and prideful, to name but a few of my many faults. God is still saving me from those sins and more besides; they may no longer have dominion over me, but I certainly run back to them frequently enough that you'd think they and not God were my true heart's desire.

All of that to say: God's mercy to me is no more deserved than it would be toward this man who has done this great, wrath-enflaming evil. God's anger does burn hot against this man, far hotter than my anger burned even at its hottest. His anger is a searing, destroying flame that punishes evil violently and completely. Lest anyone complain: that is a good thing. Think how outraged we would be if a human judge sentenced a convicted serial rapist to a stern talking-to and a few weeks of community service! The abortion of justice is a terrible thing—not something we really want in God. Our tendency in the other direction is ultimately because we don't want to acknowledge that his justice necessarily includes all of our sins—not just Hitler's or Dahmer's.2 No, God's anger is a good thing, as is his judgment against sin, precisely because it is fierce and terrifying.

But God's mercy is a good thing, too—and here, too, we run off into the weeds, because we think his mercy should only be offered to those above a certain moral level. In other words, we think we deserved God's mercy by being better people than the Stalins or Ted Bundys of the world. We are wrong, and praise be to the God who makes no such distinctions in his offer of grace. All of us are undeserving wretches, saved only by grace of God in the death of Christ, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Not one of us has a better claim on the forbearance and loving kindness of God than this evil man does, because every one of us is evil. We have no grounds for self-righteousness; our rightly angry prayers in circumstances like this must always be tempered by the unmerited favor God poured out on us in all our wretchedness.

So yes, we can and should pray for God to do justice against evil, but we must also pray that in his mercy God would redeem those who do evil. Over the course of the week, my prayers about this unquestionably evil man became, "Oh God, restrain him from evil. Save him, send to him to jail, or strike him dead: let him do no more evil. In your mercy, please draw him to you and redeem him, restoring the many relationships he has destroyed. But protect those he has hurt, and never let him harm them again." It is not a perfect prayer, but it is the best I can do at summing up the tensions that run so deep here. It is a prayer for mercy and salvation, but also a prayer for justice, and above all a prayer that evil would be ended—in whatever way God chooses.

How would you pray here?


1For some helpful discussion of the hard parts of this passage, see John Piper's sermon, The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious [transcript available]. He concludes: "[God] simply lets the effects of the fathers' sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible."

2Note that I have in view here not those who object at a deeply thought through philosophical level their opposition to hell, etc.—though they are still wrong—but the general population's outlook on hell, which essentially reduces down to, "But that would make God mean!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Baptism, Communion, and the Human Body

Communion and baptism, like the Passover feast and circumcision, are powerful reminders of the work that God has done for His people. They are also material in nature—substantially so. In each case, the actions we take are not merely some sort of mental affirmation, but a physical action corresponding to our verbal affirmation of truth and our commitment of will to the truths affirmed. In baptism, we proclaim ourselves dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ—all by his grace. In the Lord's Supper, we proclaim two beautiful paradoxes: the power of his blood to wash us clean of sin and the power of his body, broken to heal us of our brokenness.

Baptism involves body and water; the Eucharist consists of bread and wine. These are normal parts of our existence put to a spiritual use. The water of immersion and the elements of communion are sanctified: set apart for holy use. Our tendency is to think that they are thus set apart in spite of their mundane nature; I wonder, however, if the reality might lie somewhere in the opposite direction. Is it possible that God instituted these practices as fully physical experiences to prevent us from running off in the direction of Platonic dualism's disdain for the body and glorification of the spirit? After all, if the body is taking part in such important spiritual activities, it too must partake of that same spiritual life. The two cannot be so separate as we Westerners are wont to make them.

Over the past year or so, I have been mulling over the questions raised by these two ordinances—questions that have begun to come to a head in my mind. How we treat them, and what we believe about them, is important. The ordinances are not as important as the good news itself, of course, but they are so closely tied to it that they nonetheless deserve our attention—far more attention than we are typically willing to give to them. While I remain unconvinced that they are worthy of the denominational splits that controversies over them have historically engendered, those splits had at least one thing in their favor: the men and women of that day at least recognized that these are important. Generally speaking, I fear we trivialize them in one way or another—rare is the evangelical church that places sufficient importance on the Lord's Supper, either in stated intent or in practice. Many Baptist churches do well to practice and preach baptism, but all-too-often that is simply a denominational distinctive, rather than a carefully thought through practice of one of the most important aspects of our faith.

Even when the ordinances themselves are done well, I think we often miss some of the heady implications offered by them—particularly in the "ordinance" mindset so prevalent in America today.

There are two dominant views of Baptism and the Lord's Supper: that they are sacraments, and that they are ordinances. In the sacramental view, these acts are understood to be means by which God actively imparts grace into the life of the believer. (Don't go running off the rails here; this is a theologically well-developed view, and when a Lutheran, for example, suggests that God actively gives grace through the elements, he does not mean that we are saved by partaking of the Table.) In the ordinal view, the two are held to be remembrances and proclamations of how God's grace has been given in the past. Baptists (and I) hold to the latter view.

We stand in danger of losing something that is hard to miss in the sacramental view, though. If you believe that when you take the elements, or when you are baptized, God is actively pouring his grace into your life, it is very difficult to lose sight of the goodness of the material world. God acts in and through it in your life in a meaningful way—and if you take Communion regularly, these spiritually significant material acts are regular. By contrast, when we see these actions as simply remembrance and proclamation, we can more easily be fooled by subtle jabs at the physical world. We can be fooled into thinking that our bodies are basically bad, that the earth is most of all in need of being destroyed, and so on.

The reality could not be more opposite. Though twisted and corrupted by the fall, our bodies are good, as is the earth beneath our feet. The earth will be burned up by fire, yes—to cleanse it and ready it for new, holy inhabitants (see 2 Peter 3:1-7, often taken to indicate the world's destruction; actually, it points to a final cleansing by fire to which the "cleaning by water" of the Flood was but a precursor). These bodies we have will fall away for a time, yes—but we will take them up again, renewed and transformed in ways we cannot fully imagine.

In the final reckoning, we ordinance-oriented folk really need to do a better job holding on to our theology and teaching carefully on the ordinances. For while they are not present-day means of grace, they point to a past means of grace that was physical through and through—and also spiritual through and through. Just as the Passover was a remembrance of an act, so is the Lord's Supper—but in both cases, the original was as physical as death itself. Real blood was shed by an innocent, unblemished body, and through it, God's justice was satisfied and his mercy revealed. So too, baptism (like circumcision before it) declares our entrance into the covenant community of God, and it does so physically. Why? Because it points at a spiritual reality that occurred in thoroughly material ways: the death and resurrection of the human body of Jesus Christ. It points us forward to the physical death and resurrection of our own body.

If we actually understand our own view thoroughly, we will be equipped to have just as complete a view of the goodness of this world as our sacramentally oriented brethren. We can point to the inherent physicality of the means of God's grace poured into the world, even as we remember that grace in inherently physical ways. We can look back to what He has done in the world with gratitude, and look forward to what he will do in joyful expectation. But we must get our theology here clear!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Head-Knowledge and Humility

Over the course of the last week, I've had several conversations about humility. It's always an interesting topic for me, as pride is probably the area I struggle most. Today, I had a couple realizations that were humbling—and a neat analogy to help fit it all together.

I try to work out fairly regularly. It's important for staying healthy—I have a desk job, so if I don't work out, my body will deteriorate. My employer provides access to a nice gym nearby (five minutes from the building I work in), so I have no excuse not to exercise, and lots of reason to. After all, my body is a good thing, a gift from God that He calls "very good." I need to take care of it. Given that, I make a twice-weekly pilgrimage to the gym, where I buckle down for some running and weight training. (I also add in Ultimate a few times a week—but that's fun, so it requires a good deal less discipline.)

I have been working out at least twice a week almost every week since May—the longest stretch I have ever gone since I stopped training for football in high school. (Yes, readers who have been with me a much briefer time, I played high school football—not very well, but I played.) I enjoy the fact that I'm substantially slimmer, more toned, and—dare I say it?—even a little bit well-muscled in a few places. Or at least, I like to think I'm well-muscled in a few places. Alas for that idea, I go the gym twice a week—where I am surrounded by people who work out far more frequently, and who have been at it for far longer, than me.

It is humbling, to say the least, when despite your best efforts, you're constantly surrounded by people who are simply bigger, faster, and stronger than you are. (That, in fact, is a very nice summary of my high school football career.)

When it comes to head knowledge, I probably have a better grasp on the essentials of effective conditioning than many people my age—including some in the gym with me, and yes, including some of the guys who are in substantially better shape. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, though: I can be as chock full of good information about how to run faster and build more muscle mass; if I never actually run or lift, I won't get better.

The same is true, in many ways, of our Christian walk. On the one hand, I have a good deal more theological knowledge than many of my peers—and for that matter, than many people who have been walking with God much longer than me. However, that knowledge does not itself make me a better Christian. It doesn't automatically make me closer to God. It doesn't somehow transform me into a super-Christian just by dint of having it. No, despite the fact that I know more than many other Christians, I have a lot to learn from them. The Christian walk, like exercise, progresses not merely by knowledge but by practice. We grow closer to God (and thus, more like Him) by walking with Him, not treating Him as merely the subject of academic study.

Don't get me wrong: that knowledge helps. Understanding the mechanics of the human body and having good form help me train more effectively—but the knowledge is effective only when applied. So too, theology is incredibly helpful, but only when it is put to practice in our lives. Knowing in the abstract that I am saved through faith by grace alone is good—but do I live like it, or do I rely on my own abilities to carry me through? Knowing that men are to lead their wives sacrificially is essential—but do I actually lead, especially in ways that are costly to me? So it goes. I can have all my theological ducks lined up in a neat little row, but if I'm not practicing the knowledge, it doesn't matter.

That's why you can meet people who know very little theology and are nonetheless seriously Godly—they've walked faithfully with the tools they do have. Just as one can get a long ways athletically just by working hard, even without the best tools and knowledge, we can grow very close to God indeed simply by walking with Him. After all, sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit, not our own abilities. That doesn't diminish the importance of theology: the more we know God truly, the better we are able to walk with Him faithfully. Getting our theology right is important; there is nothing more important than knowing the living God as He really is. We need to know Him as well as we possibly can, and that means having good theology—but it means having good theology that we live out.

If we're not living it out, we're just getting flabby as we sit on a couch reading about exercise techniques.

All of that brings me back to the original point of the post: humility. Just because I have more theological training than others—indeed, even if I am more theologically accurate than them—doesn't mean I do not have a great deal to learn from them. People who have been walking with God 20 years may have less head-knowledge than I do, but if they're applying what they do have better (and let's be honest: they've been doing this 20 years, so they almost certainly are), then I have something to learn from them.

Taking that a step further: seeing as everyone grows differently and struggles differently, every believer I meet understands something about God better than I do. If I am teachable enough, I will learn from them. If not, I'll miss out because of my own pride—pride, no less, in something that does not itself produce righteousness, however necessary an ingredient it may be.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Worship "Experiences" (A Rant)

One of the great dangers we face in the modern worship music setting is a tendency to overemphasize our emotions. Because we (rightly) recognize that we are to worship God not only intellectually but with our feelings, we have esteemed music that moves our emotions highly—and this is a good thing. However, it can also lead us astray very quickly. We begin to evaluate our worship services purely in terms of how deeply moved we felt. We think that because we had strong emotion, we were close to God (and accordingly, He was honored)—even if the songs we offered did not honor Him or make Him look great to anyone, even if, as is too often the case, the songs were really all about us.

Eventually, we become junkies, always looking for the next fix of emotionally satiating sound. Power chords, the kick drum, and evocative solos come to define our worship more than well, worship does. We stop seeking to honor God and start seeking cheap thrills. If left to run unchecked, emotional worship becomes worship of emotion—the idolatry of self-worship.

I suspect it is not a coincidence that the advent of churches offering "worship experiences" (as opposed to the traditional wording, "worship service") has come in a distinctly non-creedal time, as ties to history are cut off and the theological grounding of worship is cast aside. A people who will not take the time to speak God's word aloud together, or who categorically refuse to link themselves to the Great Tradition on the basis that creeds are somehow stuffy, are in danger of running off into the weeds. Yes, the creeds and corporate reading of Scripture can both become worn-out traditions.

So can Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, and David Crowder.

The problem—always—is not so much the particular elements of our worship, as whether it is in fact worshipping God, and whether it is doing so properly. Worship is not something to be offered cavalierly, it is not about self-gratification, and it requires reverence. A look at the header of my blog points us in the right direction: we are to offer God an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe—because God is a consuming fire. The reference is to God's promise to the Israelites in Deuteronomy if they offered Him an unpleasing worship—a fire that destroys. God takes worship seriously, and most Americans simply don't.

We need to return to a theological grounding for worship. Not at the expense of technical excellence—though, frankly, more theological excellence would make up for a great deal of technical failure: remember that we are worshipping God, not performing at a concert. In the end, though, our goal must be to make our technical excellence serve one and only one end: turning the congregation's eyes away from themselves (and away from us) and toward Christ on His throne.

That means including Scripture more actively in our service, and actively calling the congregation to participate in reading it aloud together. That means incorporating the creeds—at least time to time. If, for historical reasons, the creeds are uncomfortable to people, bring them back in slowly and with a lot of introduction—but don't leave them by the wayside; they are too valuable to waste because of our discomfort. We all need to grow up out of our pasts, difficult and slow though that process may be.

Most of all, it means setting aside the constant desire for emotional highs and seeking to glorify God. The worship service ought to be just that: a time of self-sacrificial service to God, not a time of self-serving experience-creation. I am not saying that we will not have strong emotions at time—grief and repentance, joy, adulation, etc. are all good and right parts of worship. But the one emotion we must stir up in ourselves is not any of those but deep, abiding affection for God (for from it come all the others)—and that is stirred in us not by power chords (though they have their place) but by knowing Him more deeply and praising Him more truly. So it is that the most important emotion of all can be inculcated through some of the very means that evangelicals have cast off in the quest for more emotionally charged experiences.

We should keep singing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, the Gettys, Hillsong, and a dozen more besides. Yet we should not stop there: we should also remember that we stand in the line of a great many thousands of believers who have affirmed the faith through the Apostles Creed, with its magnificent proclamation of God's Lordship. We should also remember that God's word is the most appropriate source of worship, for all it says is true. Every song we write that does not quote the Word directly, however good it is, can never measure up to the truthfulness of saying God's word back to Him in praise.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't Play Chicken With Sin

It's a typically rash high school adrenaline move. Two cars, headed directly toward each other at high speed—and whoever swerves first is the "chicken." If no one swerves, both people die. It's all about pushing as long as you can before fear takes over and compels you turn the wheel—about the thrill of nearing the cliff's edge and skating along it as it crumbles.

I never played chicken with my car. The whole idea seemed dumb to me—why risk life and limb for that sort of pointless thrill? I wonder though, if this isn't exactly what we do with sin, all the time.

Christians who are dating love to ask one question more than almost any other: "How far can we go without it being fornication?" In a broader sense, I think that's often the question we're asking: "What can I get away with?" These are, of course, completely the wrong questions. We're playing chicken with sin, but there's just one problem. Sin never swerves. Either we swerve soon enough—and the temptation to swerve later and later is always growing, because the thrill of almost doing something wrong is so powerful—or we hit the other car, and sin wins.

The approach is dangerous, fool-headed, and one we need to break ourselves of. The longer we play chicken with sin, the more likely we'll fall. People who toy with lust end up in adultery. People who toy with greed end up embezzling from their company. People who toy with gossip destroy friendships and tear apart churches. Pick your sin; the consequences are inevitable. When you play with fire, you get burned.

The question we really ought to be asking is not, "What can I get away with?" but "How can I best glorify God?" You see, it's more than the fact that sin will win every time in our games of chicken. It's that asking "What can I get away with?" is itself sinful. It betrays the real attitude of our hearts: not a desire to honor Jesus Christ as Lord, but a desire not to be punished. It shows that we do not understand the gospel or know God well. In Christ all our sins are forgiven; God's mercy is very great and his love beyond our understanding. If the only question we are asking is, "How much before God punishes me?" then either we are still very immature in our faith, or we are not believers at all.

The more we know God, and the more we understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and the more we seek the wisdom given by the Spirit, the more we will learn to love God—heart, soul, and mind. We will do good and hate evil not as a means of avoiding punishment but out of love, and because—more and more every day—we truly do love doing good and we truly do hate evil. We will treasure the things God values and cast off the things God despises not out of some misguided attempt to curry favor but because increasingly we are like him. That sort of radical transformation marks the difference between real gospel transformation and therapeutic moralism with a Christian imprint.

And most of us are playing chicken with sin. God help us.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Exercise, Sex, and the Trinity

Today I ran three miles and then lifted weights and did core strength exercises for half an hour. I felt wonderful at the end—the sort of wonderful one can only feel after a good, long workout that leaves the body tired but satisfied.

When I left work at 2:40, I had zero interest in working out. I was tired, wanted to come home and relax, and simply did not look forward to the experience. Fast forward an hour, and I was glad I had gone. That, in no small part, was why I went. I never regret going, even when I don't feel up to it beforehand.

Exercise can become an idol, of course. I have seen many people go down that road, and it's one I'd prefer to avoid. (Given my personality, I don't expect I'll have a lot of trouble with it: my struggle has always been finding the motivation to go work out, rather than slowing down when I need to.) As with any activity, it can take a higher place in our affections than it should, until exercise is all we think about. Whether it is because of some culturally-imposed (or self-imposed) ideal of attractiveness—that is to say, vanity—or an unhealthy obsession with "health"—that is to say, irony—exercise is one of the chief acceptable idols of our society.

After all, when was the last time you heard someone criticized for working out too much? It's pretty rare, and usually only when it's a health issue.

Every idol, it turns out, is something good twisted to evil. Sex, perhaps the single grandest idol of our culture, is a glorious thing—but only in the proper bounds. By that I mean not only marriage (though certainly that is the first boundary) but also boundaries in our hearts. Lust isn't the only problem we face with sex. When we seek personal fulfillment, self-worth, or intimacy only or primarily in sex, we have gone astray. In other words, yes, Christians make an idol out of sex, too—even the "good" ones who've never slept with anyone but their spouse.

In both sex and exercise, we see a good use of the body that can be perverted and put to wicked ends. In each case, we see a place where God has made our bodies for delight: exercise, especially in sport, is one of the greatest sources of physical pleasure we have (and yes, so is sex). Yet in both places, we see that people quickly begin to find their value in these physical pleasures.

How in this sex-soaked, exercise-crazed culture are we to avoid making idols out of these two very good things? As ever, our hope is in the effectual work of Christ on our behalf. Christ's death paid for our sins, but His work did not end there. His resurrection began the most climactic change in men's hearts in history: regeneration. We who were dead are now alive. More than that, we are filled with divine power, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

How do we apply this reality to our lives? First, we must recognize that we can do nothing of ourselves. We strive after our sanctification, but God accomplishes it in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Second, we must seek to grow ever closer to God Himself. The more we love God and treasure Him above every other thing, the more we will be able to value every other thing as they ought to be valued: highly, but never supremely. Note that this is the opposite of asceticism: we do not throw away the good things; we learn not to overvalue them and to put God where He belongs in our hearts: first, foremost, over and above every other desire. Then, and only then can we enjoy His creation as we ought.

Finally, we must remember who we are—heirs of the kingdom of God, bought with the incomparable price of the blood of the Lamb, sealed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

There is a common thread here: the Holy Spirit. He is the one who enables us to know God, who guides us into truth, who gives us the power to overcome sin, who even prays for us when we do not know how we should pray ourselves.

That highlights a terrifically important question, one that I anticipate I will be returning to over and over again in the weeks and months ahead: just how Trinitarian is our theology really? Do we actually understand that the God we love is Three-in-One and One-in-Three? Of course we cannot grasp the depths of this profundity, but it matters whether we walk with God as He is—and He is Triune. Do we come to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit? Do we understand that we hear the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit? Because if we do, our ways of relating to God will change.

We will recognize that we cannot understand Scripture without the Spirit, that we cannot see the Father apart from the Son, that the Son is revealed in His glory by the Spirit and exalted in our hearts by the Father. This interweaving, intermingling, slowly growing grasp of Trinitarian reality changes everything.

Including sex and exercise.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Video Games

One of the consequences of adding commitments to my life—like blogging every day—is that there is correspondingly less time available for other leisure activities. Like video games.

Halo: Reach came out a few weeks ago; I've invested a fair amount of time in it, but haven't actually even opened the game up since Friday, October 1st. Too many other things I've been working on. Interestingly, and perhaps a bit controversially in some circles, I find video games can be a very profitable way to spend my time—sometimes. While I know a number of Christian leaders decry all video games as wastes of time, I have found theym to be invaluable in at least one area: keeping up the "fun" aspect of relationships with long-distance friends.

Xbox LIVE allows me to connect with the guys I grew up with for an hour or two here and there and spend time just "hanging out." Is it as good as being in the same room? Not even close. Is it far better than not getting to spend some pure fun time with them at all? Absolutely. So, over the last month, I have spent a fair amount of time doing just that. Once my dad picks up the game, it will be a good connection point with him as well (it's fun being able to play video games with my father, and even more fun being able to do so even though we live 750 miles apart).

Perhaps surprisingly, it's also a great way for Jaimie and me to spend time together as a couple. While our definitions of spending time together differ at times, Jaimie and I deeply value the hours we can spend with each other. I am uniquely blessed with a wife who enjoys playing video games almost as much as I do. (Aside: she's taking a nap at the moment, and I just watched her distinctly nod her head as though in conversation with someone. She's quite a dramatic napper.) In fact, playing video games is one of the ways she most enjoys spending time together—along with watching movies and taking walks. So again, video games can be a great benefit to me.

(If you're curious, her favorite games to play are those in the Halo series and Lego Star Wars. Strangely, at least from my perspective, she also gets a pretty big kick out of watching me play through Mass Effect—she commented that it's something like watching a 30-hour-long, action-packed, well-written sci-fi movie. And she likes sci-fi movies, so that works out well for her.)

The catch with video games, though, is the point that makes so many Christian leaders eschew them. They can be serious time wasters. While I don't play nearly as much as many of my friends do, I certainly can fall prey to the same urges: to sit down and go at it for hours on end. Games like Reach, which have some brilliantly conceived built-in reward systems, can be particularly addictive. They make me want to keep playing. The trick for me is to enjoy them in moderation—neither feeling guilt for relaxing by playing a game for a few hours, nor being sucked in and doing nothing else. It's much easier to be productive when I have relaxed at times as well, but it's also easy to fail to be productive by spending too much time relaxing.

Somewhere in here is a thought about honoring God not only by being productive but also by enjoying the lives He has given us. I suspect that American culture's emphasis on achievement can bleed over into our faith in strange ways, leading us to think that relaxation is bad, or that simply taking time to enjoy the good things in life together is somehow sinful. (Whatever you may hear, these aren't the ideas of the Puritans, who in fact valued times of enjoying life far more than most modern believers do. Blame hatchet jobs like those pulled off by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Arthur Miller for our skewed and caricatured views of the Puritans. They had their flaws, but generally they were different flaws than later thinkers have tended to ascribe to them.)

God made this world and called it good. Though it has since been subjected to futility, much that is in it remains good—just as there remains much that is good about fallen people, and just as those fallen people produce much that reflects God's goodness. Taking time to enjoy life, even by playing video games, can honor God, if it is done in moderation and with the right understanding.

On which note, I think I'm going to go do something productive for a while, so that I can confidently enjoy some Reach later tonight.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Musings from the Month

I have blogged a good deal less this month than the previous few. The transition into fall is always interesting. I have on the one hand been working on another web design project (which, to my annoyance, has stagnated through creative blocks, but hopefully will continue to come along soon), and on the other spending a great deal of time enjoying Halo: Reach. Most of my remaining writing-oriented time has been taken up with Pillar, whether actually writing or editing others' articles.

A few things I've been chewing on recently:

  • The necessity of the Holy Spirit in Bible study. I was reading Psalm 119 on Sunday (I'm working through it with a younger guy I'm meeting with) and a number of features caught my attention. Foremost, however, was that the author of the psalm repeatedly asks God for understanding and to be taught. This plea for instruction is the most topic with which the psalmist most frequently addresses God, at least so far in the psalm!

    So, here in a psalm which is filled with references to the author's delight in and love for God's commands, law, word, and way, are constant pleas for help in understand those very things. Striking, and convicting. I need to rely more thoroughly on God for wisdom as I approach his word. While I know that to be true, it's a good reminder.

  • The appropriateness of "personal relationship with Jesus" language, especially in the context of evangelism. [This one is still very much in the early phase of thinking about it, and so subject to immense revision.] While Scripture clearly speaks of our interactions with God in relational ways, and even goes so far as to affirm that eternal life consists of knowing Him (John 17:3), I find it interesting that none of the evangelism (or any other discussion, for that matter) in the New Testament comes anywhere close to using this phrase.

    While restored fellowship with God is occasionally in view, the primary ways that the New Testament writers speak of the good news is in reference to the Messiah who has come and given himself in payment for our sins. The call the apostles offered was not, "Come have a personal relationship with Jesus," but rather "Repent and believe; call on the name of the Lord and be saved!" Even in the discussions of sanctification, the relational aspects of the restoration are rarely the focus—whereas faith and the Spirit's active work are.

    I am not suggesting that we drop this language entirely. I think it is biblical in much the same way that the word "Trinity" is: that is, it depicts something that is true in Scripture in an accurate way, despite being external to Scripture itself. However, I am pondering whether it is the most helpful way of describing conversion and all it entails to nonbelievers, and whether it should remain our primary means of characterizing the Christian walk.

    What do you think?

  • One can learn a lot of things from a book that have nothing to do with the point of the book. This has come at me from two very different angles: one, the massive and incredibly important The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, and Joyce Meyer's The Confident Woman. The two books could not possibly be more different, on any level. The first is a massive, scholarly treatment of its topic, while the second is a brief, popular treatment of its. Wright is (at least in this area) thoroughly orthodox, while Meyer is heterodox throughout.

    What have I learned from each, then? From The Confident Woman, I learned a great deal about communicating the faults of a book and a writer graciously. No doubt I still have much more to learn, but I spent hours wrestling through my review of the book, striving to be gentle, courteous, and kind while being sufficiently firm with her myriad errors. From The Resurrection of the Son of God, I have learned a great deal about exegesis and exposition of Scripture. Wright does a masterful job of situating passages in the context of their author, and authors in the context of their cultures. (I am aware he sometimes argues for positions outside historic Protestant orthodoxy in other books; here he is on so foundational a point that his arguments are profitable to everyone.) In turn I have been able to start doing the same in my own study of Scripture—most notably in my final treatment of alcohol in the series I wrote at Pillar.

    From both, I learned perseverance: from Wright's book because it is simply long; from Meyer's book because it is simply bad.

I have of course also continued to learn a great deal simply from being married to my beautiful wife—not least that I still tend toward arrogance and unteachability. God graciously points out our folly and our sin consistently; where I would be without His sanctifying work I can only imagine.

Grace and peace be with anyone reading! If you are reading, do me a favor and leave a comment to say hello. Sometimes it's nice to know that people are actually reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting Real with Bible Study

An important principle has jumped out at me time and again in recent months: context is air in studying Scripture. People need more than air to breathe to stay alive, but without air, life is impossible. You need context to understand Scripture—and other things as well, but without context, you don't understand the passages at all.

This point has been made often, but perhaps not as thoroughly as it needs to be. People have a bad (however natural) tendency to think that examining the context means reading the verses immediately preceding and following the verse studied. That's a good start, and far better than reading the verse without those surrounding it. It simply doesn't go far enough.

A recent post on Evangel helped crystallize this thought for me. Sarah Flashing was spending a little time and thought critiquing some of Beth Moore's approach to Scripture, and noted, "Beth does not explain the meaning of the passage as derived from the context, she reads the passage in isolation, an elementary Bible study error" (emphasis in the original). That's precisely the issue I've observed in the little of Moore's writing I've read, and more importantly, it's also one of the biggest blunders I see Christians (and Christian teachers!) making.

Around the same time, I was writing the last article in my series on alcohol at Pillar. The first two articles were relatively straightforward: one was a quick summary of Scripture's teaching on alcohol, and one was a rebuttal of a common but very flawed argument against consuming alcohol. The last article, Tripping People With Beer, took me hours longer than the first two. I had to work my way carefully through four chapters of dense, Pauline reasoning on general Christian liberty mingled with his own apostolic actions. I had to get his argument as a whole before I could begin to tackle just a few short verses.

The answer to the questions raised by 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (should we always abstain from anything that might make our brother stumble?) don't get totally answered until 1 Corinthians 10:25-31. The two chapters in between are a mix of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian church to serve one another and his own example of sacrificing to serve others. Without following the argument all the way through, you might be inclined to think that Paul was urging the Corinthians to permanently forsake meat and many other freedoms. Without considering that Paul's statement at the end of chapter 8 that he will never eat meat is a transition into his lengthier discussion throughout chapter 9 of the way he forsook his own prerogatives to serve them, one would think he was suggesting it sinful for others not to follow his example.

But in tracing through his thoughts, it becomes clear that Paul was defending his own apostolic work without condemning the other apostles or the Corinthians. His final, resounding conclusion is that whether people eat or drink or whatever they do, to glorify God—proclaiming their freedom loudly immediately after he has spent two chapters tempering it with the need to serve others. In other words, the context—the whole, broad context, not simply the few immediately surrounding verses—informs our understanding of a few specific words. We cannot understand the part without having at least some grasp on the whole.

This has fairly radical implications for how we ought to expect preachers to handle Scripture. It has equally important ramifications for our Scripture study. We cannot simply approach the text, grab a verse and maybe the verses immediately above and below it, and assume we understand the point fully. We need to look at the entirety of the context.

Obviously, that's a lot of work. I am not suggesting that every time we sit down to read the Bible, we read an entire book. In some cases, that would be frustrating—in others (I'm looking at you, Jeremiah) it would be entirely impossible. However, I think it is important that as we study the Scriptures over time, we make a point to read as much as possible. Plans that take us through the whole Bible in a year are a great tool for helping grasp the greater flow of the Bible. (I know of a few that take you through even faster; Tim Challies recently referenced one that covers the whole Bible multiple times in a year, for example.) Then, when we do sit down to study particular chunks of Scripture, it is helpful to familiarize ourselves with the full context. That has two applications.

First, whenever I sit down to study, it's usually a book. Instead of just grabbing random places to read at any given time, I pick a book and go. I'll start by reading the whole book, front to back, to get as good a handle on the flow as I can. Then I start taking it in smaller chunks. The size of the chunk depends on the book in question. Narratives, for example, beg to be read large chunks at a time, while Paul's letters might demands that I slow down and tackle a sentence at a time. Doing this allows me to slowly pull apart the connections in a book. (Look at the various ways that "appearing" happens in Titus, for example. It's pretty interesting.)

Second, if I'm only planning to study a particular passage, I will read as much of the book around it as possible to familiarize myself. For example, when I was tackling 1 Corinthians for my alcohol posts, I actually skimmed the whole book, which is part of what took so long. Then, I try to ignore verse and chapter breaks. One handy way to accomplish that is to use a tool like esv.org, where you can disable verse and chapter markings. I read sentences, then the surrounding paragraphs, then the surrounding arguments, and finally the whole book (except for the Psalms, where the flow caps at the top of the psalm, at least for me). If possible, I try to understand the passage in the broad flow of all of Scripture. (To be honest, that's often beyond me, but I try when I'm on my game.) This is what II d in dealing with the Pauline passages on surrendering one's freedom for others.

So that's the practical. Returning again to the reason for writing the post: why does this matter? First, it matters because if we don't take the time to work at Scripture, we miss much of what it has to say. God certainly can and does speak to us even as we simply skim along the surface. But there is a great deal more to be had. Second, it matters because if we don't study carefully, we'll flat out misinterpret even more than we missed—or be led astray by those who have misinterpreted it themselves. We can hardly be faithful listeners if we cannot hold our teachers accountable to teach the word correctly. (That's also an argument for clarity of teaching—anyone who intentionally obfuscates Scripture is dangerous, as is anyone who acts like Scripture is generally too difficult for anyone but trained theologians to understand. It isn't.)

I challenge you, even as I challenge myself, to step it up in this area. Wherever you're at, go a little bit farther along. If you're still in the grab-one-verse-and-apply-it-to-my-life-immediately phase, that's okay. Try stepping out in your perspective a bit and see how the sentences around that one help explain it. If you're already doing that, start trying to grasp paragraphs at a time. If you're there, start trying to wrap your head around whole arguments, and maybe even whole books. Wherever you're at, seek to be more faithful with the text. In so doing, you'll see God more clearly. Since eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3), you couldn't have a better goal.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Letter to a Homeless Man

Dear sir,

I apologize: I do not know your name, or almost anything else about you. I know you were walking. I know you were tired, hot, and alone. I know you were hungry, that you wanted money for food, not beer. I know you were homeless.

I got you a meal, tried to point your thanks to where they belong, to the one who gave everything for me, gave everything I have to me. I am glad I fed you lunch today. But I wanted to do more. I wanted then and I wish now that there was more I could have done—that somehow I could have been more a debit card swipe, more than some well-made rice and shrimp. (I hope that plate was as good as it looked.)

I wish I could have helped you more.

Jesus told us that if anyone asked something of us, we should give it. I have wondered, over the last few years, what that looks like—whether I should keep cash with me to give to people who ask, or whether I should buy them what they claim they need, or whether I should stop at all. You made it easy: you just wanted some food. I could give you that.

But I wondered as I sat down to eat my own meal with family a few minutes later: will you have food to eat tonight? Or will you be trying to use your two dollars—those meager two dollars, too little for a meal—to buy some more sustenance on your trek to somewhere unknown? Do you know where you are going? Do you have any hope at all, or are you just trying to survive another day?

I wish I could have helped you more.

But I don't know you, I don't have your name, you don't have my number, and even as I sat with those unshed tears in my eyes, you walked out of the restaurant and out of my reach. I moved on, ate my meal, laughed at my father-in-law's jokes, and could not forget the sorrow in your eyes or the depths of your gratitude for a meal that cost $7.05. Less than an hour at minimum wage. But I spoke with you, and I think I understand. What jobs can you get? Where will take you, and more than that: where will keep you?

We have left you alone, wandering through this life like you are wandering through Fort Worth, on your own.

Do you know that there is hope beyond the prison bars of this life? Do you know that there is one who can help you more than I ever could, who loves you, who died to take your sins and give you life? Do you know him?

Should I have somehow told you more? Should I have sat with you as you ate? Should I have found you a way to where you were going? Should I have done more?

I don't have the answers. But I know yours is the face I will remember as I keep chewing on this thorny problem in front of all of us. Yours is the face I will see when I hear politicians use the homeless as a talking point, when people talk about poverty in America, when discussion flares about starvation. You are a person, not a statistic, talking point, or problem. Yours is the face of the downtrodden and lonely ones that Jesus came to save.

However poorly I showed it, I saw for just a moment His love for you (and even, a little, his love for me: as poor compared to Him as you are). The feeling will fade, but I will remember.

I hope you get where you were going, and I pray that someone feeds you more along the way.

I wish I could have helped you more.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Living Eschatologically

Over the last few months, I have been increasingly compelled to think and live eschatologically. By this I do not mean an obsession with the particulars of end-times prophecy, but rather a continuous remembering that we are not of this world but sojourners who eagerly await a city with foundations. If you've read my posts or poetry, you may have picked up on this thread in my life. In the past month alone, the following have all touched on our expectant waiting for Christ's return, the already/not-yet tensions of the current age, and so on:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of this comes out in the form of poetry or expressive non-fiction. There is something of the longing and hope of our eschatological desires that can hardly be expressed in simple essays. Great depths of emotions demand expressions that go beyond the didactic.

Our hearts long for more—and what they long for is real. The Holy Spirit uses that longing to remind us that we were not made only for here and now, not only for this fallen, broken ruin of a world, but for eternity. We were not made for dying and death, but for life. We were made for a world that does not end, that entails no suffering, that sees no hopes crushed by the weight of disappointment. We were made for more.

And that more that we wait for is already here and now—though only in part. As I wrote at 52 Verses today, the sky is brightly lit long before the sun actually rises. So too it is with us: we live in a world illuminated by Christ's coming, and the way our future hope has broken in on this world and begun its renewal, even as we wait for Christ to come again and finish what he started in his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.

Eschatology is not merely a secondary topic. The particulars are more secondary, I think, but the fact that, as Rich Mullins put it, the old world has started dying and the new world has started coming in is perhaps the most important thing for us to realize, after the gospel itself, as we walk out our Christian lives. The world will not remain as it is, and the new version will break in, triumphantly and conclusively.

(Perhaps it's simply from reading N. T. Wright. In which case, a lot more people need to be reading him—even if we differ on some conclusions, that's a remarkably helpful emphasis in his writing.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Songs With Anchors

Over the last few days, I have been listening to a collection of astoundingly beautiful music. Arvo Pärt is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He started his musical career at the height of serialism's popularity, and his earliest works bear the imprint of the era. Despite the deterministic influences, Pärt even then distinguished himself as having a particular talent for composing particularly compelling, melodically rich and harmonically powerful music.

In later years, he left behind the serialism and kept the impressive force with which he communicates ideas. Whether in his instrumental or his choral works, emotion of the deepest sort tugs at the soul. He somehow pulls reality into the shape of his notes, leaving the soul aching with joy at the beauty of all that is and longing for all that we wait for.

Pärt's music carries such power because it bears the imprint of an influence beyond serialism. The Estonian composer writes from the rich cultural depths of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Whatever its theological troubles (and it has a few), the Eastern Orthodox church has remembered the power of mystery, and has held onto the already/not-yet tensions of this age far better than the Protestants generally have. The liturgy provides both template and mold for Pärt's writing: its history and weight have given shape to his thought and language, and it is for the church that he often writes.

Part's music soars with joy because the world is good, and God delights in what he has made. It strains with yearning because, for all that the kingdom of God is among us, we still wait for its fulfillment. Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but Christ will come again. We live in the age of inauguration, when the world to come is breaking into this one, like light shining through the cracks into the dark of our eggshell.

Others have often observed that the liturgical traditions have done a far better job producing world-class artists than the evangelical movement has. Among the various hypotheses offered, I think two bear the mark of truth.

First, the liturgical traditions are inherently loaded with narrative. Indeed, whatever its weaknesses, the church calendar and litany continually remind parishioners of the sweeping work of God—and emphasize that his work is not yet done. The triumphalism that has marked evangelicalism, especially evangelicalism in its culturally and politically ascendant moments, is continually held in check by the weight of tradition. (That weight carries a cost, as well, but evangelicals should pause to learn from it nonetheless.)

Second, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have continued to understand themselves to be part of the Great Tradition. Their words and their understanding of the world are, at their best, continually informed by their relation to the rest of the story. Thanks to a sometimes healthy distaste for tradition, evangelicals have tended to jettison this connection to history. Evangelicalism floats, buoyant, on the tides of the time. The liturgical churches are anchored—sometimes more firmly than we might like, but always at least enough to provide stability and context for the artist's imagination.

The two go together, of course: there can be little weight to narratives that are abstracted from the grand tale of history. Without an anchor for the reflecting soul, we are left simply grasping for a way to speak at the current trends of our day. We lose our sense of the eternal—of the glory that is this world, of the way it is shot through with dark horror, of the impending eucatastrophe (to borrow a term from Tolkien) that both has come and will come smashing into our world to end it and begin it all in one. We lose our ties to reality.

For the evangelical artist, the temptation is to run to Rome or Greece as a refuge for drifting souls. We dare not, though. Our convictions are too important to sacrifice for the sake of their anchors, however beautiful. We cannot relinquish the solas, and we dare not minimize the anathemas of Trent. Our differences are serious and substantial (if perhaps still not definitive).

No, we must reforge our own connection to the Great Tradition and remember what the Reformers understood: tradition is an enemy only when it trumps Scripture. Further, we need to align ourselves on Scripture itself. Too often, the Bible has been nothing more than a series of principles to apply to our lives or a ground for theological discussion. It is both of these things, but it is also more. It is the very grounds for understanding our existence. It is the context for our lives, and thus for our art.

The Bible lets fly the most epic and the most mundane aspects of our days. Its poetry sounds the depths of despair, pauses in the struggles of the ordinary day, and clambers to the pinnacles of the twin mounts of triumph and joy. Its doctrinal pronouncements are shot through with streaks of urgency and eschaton, like slabs marbled with fire.

If art, as is so often claimed, is our attempt to communicate transcendence, it must have as its ground the source of transcendence, the Transcendent One. It cannot stand on its own, weightless, any more than evangelicalism can remain stationary in the shifting sea of culture without an anchor. But evangelical art, like the evangelical project on the whole, will succeed when it is captivated by the liberating bonds of Scripture and history—and it will triumph when it sinks its anchor on the priest who sacrificed himself in our stead.

Friday, July 23, 2010

3:01 am

I have been up most of the night. Duty called. The hours have gone relatively quickly; the silence and solitude have been pleasant.

I was driving a little after midnight, a gibbous moon hanging low in the southwestern sky, pinprick stars dotting the sky even with city lights all around, and thinking of the night ahead of me. I am almost done with the night now, the sun is rising outside, and grayscale tones of night are coming aglow with color. I am still thinking about the night, though.

When awake in the middle of the night—when 3 am rolls around in the quiet darkness—we watch with the sort of expectation that strains to see the slightest hint of color in the eastern sky. We wait for black velvet to ever-so-subtly turn blue—because that means the night is ending. That first moment grows and spreads imperceptibly until the whole sky is aflame with color, clouds blazing orange and pink and the sky a stunning mix of gold and white and blue, until the sun itself comes burning over the horizon in a spray of fire.

That first hint of changing color is a long time coming at 3 am, though. The glimmers at horizon's edge are illusions or tricks or false hopes: city-shadows cast skyward, or moonlight shining on the tops of faraway clouds, or imagination coloring the darkness. Weary, middle-of-the-night minds see dawn long before it comes, are disappointed at how it tarries. Daylight comes in its own time, not the schedule set by a heart longing for an end to darkness. But it does come.

We who follow Christ wait in the dark. When the clock reads 3 am, it is easy to ignore the glimmers on the horizon: we know they are illusions. No clock measures down the hours till he comes again, though; no almanac proclaims the time of his arrival. Christians always wait urgently and hopefully, because the dawn could come at any time. Time and again someone cries out, "Look! First light!" Time and again we strain our eyes to see, and realize that no: this is no second coming, no dawn to end the night forever. The cry was a mistake. Still: the dawn could come at any time.

When it comes, it will not be a glimmer, barely perceived. The age of darkness will not end like nights do, slow and subtle and sure. The sun will leap over the horizon in one blinding moment, darkness crushed out of existence in an instant.

It is 3 am, and we wait with baited breath. He could come at 3:01.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hills to Die On

Two Johns are among the most well-recognized and respected voices of the Reformed stream of Christianity in America today: Dr. John Piper and Dr. John Macarthur. The two respect each other, and have occasionally partnered together in various ministries (in particular, Piper’s invitations to Macarthur to speak at Desiring God events). Both are gifted expositors; both are passionate about God’s word; both are dedicated to the good of the church.

In my listening to both of them, one distinct difference comes up—one that is probably as much personality as anything, and which I am not going to make too much of, other than as a starting point for the rest of this post. John Piper is a good deal kinder to those who disagree with him. Macarthur and Piper are both firebrands; that is a significant part of what I like about them. But Piper draws his circle in the sand a good deal more generously than Macarthur does.

He has encouraged the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd not to make the mistake of separating too quickly or easily from other believers with whom they (we) have disagreements. Macarthur, by contrast, is quite happy to pronounce that others are in serious, dangerous error over what I believe are secondary (if nonetheless important) issues: the exact timing and means of creation and a Calvinist soteriology being the two strongest examples I can think of. As I said, a great deal of this is probably personality, and I do not mean this as criticism of Macarthur, whose ministry I respect.

Even so, I appreciate Piper’s even-handed and courteous treatment of those he disagrees with—his strong but generous treatment of N. T. Wright in their ongoing discussion of justification being a prime example.

As I was thinking this through earlier, I realized that it goes to the heart of an issue I have mentally chewed on a great deal recently: the question of where we ought to condemn and where we ought to disagree. For example, I would argue that Open Theism fits in the first category, along with modalism, works salvation, and other major heresies. So do cultish views like those espoused by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These views fundamentally and irreconcilably distort the nature of God, our relationship to him and the gospel itself.

By contrast, I think the Calvinism-Arminian discussion fits squarely in the second category. While I disagree with the Arminian view, that makes little difference fellowship: my Arminian brothers stand well within the circle of orthodoxy. I might say the same on a number of other issues, including baptism, eschatology, and church government. In each case, I have strong, carefully thought through views—but I recognize that in those cases, they are not grounds for sundering Christian fellowship. However important these issues are, and they are very important, they are not irreconcilable differences on the gospel and the person of God. That, I think, is the difference.

(Whether they are grounds for splitting churches in another, although closely related, topic. I will be taking it up at Pillar on the Rock sometime in the next few months, so keep an eye out.)

A few months ago, I led our small group in a discussion of Titus. One of the themes of Titus is contending for sound doctrine. The elders Titus appointed were to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Titus himself was to “rebuke [insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). Paul reminded him, “Declare these things [the gospel], exhort and rebuke with all authority” (2:15) and later reiterated this point, writing, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things [the gospel], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8). Immediately following, though, he continues:

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Titus 3:9-11

The gospel summaries Paul offers stand as the foundation of the rest of the letter—and in stark opposition to the divisiveness Paul opposes. He allowed no room in the church for bickering and squabbling over secondary issues. People who stirred up division should not be tolerated. There is a hill to die on, in Paul’s mind—but it was not the hot-button issues of the day (genealogies may sound boring, but to a 1st-century Jew, they were as significant as many of our theological controversies today). He defines “these things” rather simply:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Titus 2:11-14
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7

This is the hill I will die on. On every other point, I will be as peaceable as I can, doing everything possible to preserve the bond of peace between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I will argue strenuously for my views, I will not ultimately break fellowship over them. But on the gospel itself, and on the nature of God himself, I will not budge.

Here is where I have learned from Dr. Piper: he is deeply, passionately committed to getting Jesus Christ and his gospel right. As passionate as he is about believer’s baptism, church membership, and a host of other issues, he is first and foremost committed to the gospel—and when he rebukes another view (or even more rarely, publically rebukes another leader), he does so graciously and kindly, doing his best to preserve peace. Would we were all so committed to making Christ known by loving unity even in the midst of disagreement.

Our differences will not go away, and we should not attempt to trivialize them; yet neither should we allow them to divide us and so obscure the unity that Christ bought us with his blood.

Monday, June 28, 2010

An Evil Heart

I saw again today the evil that lurks in every heart—I saw it in my own. One little thought, but it quickly made the point. I looked at a coworker (one I’ve never seen before, never met) and thought, “Wow, somebody’s hair got stuck in the wrong decade.” And then the thought echoed in the silence of my mind. How cruel is that? How vile and despicable is it to so swiftly scorn someone on the basis of their hairstyle?

Praise God who does not leave us in our sin.

When I thought that cruel, despicable thought earlier, he graciously let it echo in my mind for several seconds. What an ugly thought. Self-congratulatory, other-belittling, and simply sinful. It was disgusting. I was ashamed.

It strikes me now, though, how very typical that mental exchange was. We look at others and see ourselves better than them. I do it all the time, in small ways and big. I count myself a better writer, programmer, composer, thinker, person. It is, as I realized this morning, disgusting. I am not a better person. Even in areas where I may be more talented or more skilled, two salient questions remain: what does that matter, and who made it so? To which I must answer: it matters not a whit, especially as a person’s worth is concerned; and God made it so, not I.

Such comparisons are always sinful. The only aim I can have in comparing myself to another person is to puff up my own pride. The only possible results are always bad: I will either count myself better and pride myself in it, or count myself worse and forget that my worth and value are found in Christ alone.

Nor was God done exposing the evil of my heart.

For a very long time I have prided myself on seeing people beyond their surfaces, seeing who people really are. That sentence alone should give me pause; too often it has not. Whatever we pride ourselves in is folly. We have nothing from ourselves; there are no self-made men. Every one of us was born into circumstances outside of our control, given breaks (hard or easy) outside of our control, given a personality outside of our control, and given talents (or a lack thereof) outside of our control. My wife, talented woman that she is, did not somehow conjure for herself the ability to write; the talent she has carefully honed were given to her.

Yet pride in my talents or abilities is not the worst of its siblings. More dangerous by far is pride in our moral standing. Humility, as Ben Franklin quipped and others have often echoed, the hardest of all virtues: whoever thinks he has it almost certainly does not.1 When I begin to pride myself on seeing others truly, on not failing to miss the deeper aspects of people’s character and personality, I am running a very dangerous course indeed. I run the course of religious people the world over—Christian and non-Christian—who put their trust in their own moral competence rather than in Jesus and his finished work. I become a legalist,a Judaizer, a fool.

Again: praise God who does not leave us in our sin.

I, who pride myself in judging others well, at seeing deeply, at looking beyond the surface—I scorned a woman for her hairstyle. How very misplaced my pride is. I do not judge as I ought. I do not see as I ought. I do not look at others as I ought. These grounds I thought I had for boasting prove instead to be in fact a cause for shame. The light of grace shows up my moral excellence for what it is: failure and ineptitude.

More than that: even if I were as righteous as I thought, I would have no cause to boast. I have no holiness to call my own. God works in us to sanctify, God delivers us from sin’s consuming power, God overcomes our resistance to his grace, God provides the strength to follow him, God accomplishes our salvation.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:12-13


1 When I was much younger, I once ponderously responded to my youth pastor’s question, “Who is the humblest person you know?” by saying, “You know… honestly, I think I am.” The irony was lost on me; I don’t know how anyone in the room managed to keep a straight face.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sacrificing God on the Altar of Culture

I just stumbled across a particularly graphic example of one of the worse trends that came out of the emergent movement in a post from about a year and a half ago. I'll let the blogger speak for himself, then offer some comments. The author is writing on the topic of homosexuality and our response as Christians. I'm not even touching that one here; there is a much bigger issue at stake. I recommend you read the whole thing; the parts that caught my attention follow:

But presenting a coherent biblical argument for why homosexuality is not a sin and why our gay brothers and sisters should be fully welcomed into all areas of the church and ministry is not my point here. I think many people have done just that (Jack Rogers and Stacy Johnson come to mind), but they are easily dismissed by many because they apparently don’t have a “high enough view of scripture.”

Well – if that’s the problem – then I say, “Enough with the Bible already!”

...

If it is truly the Bible that is causing some to hold these discriminatory beliefs, then perhaps we need to set the Bible aside for awhile. Perhaps we need to not construct a belief system about LGBT folk built on the foundation of a couple verses in scripture. Perhaps that isn’t healthy, fair, just or Christian.

For some, I believe the Bible has become an idol. Some place the Bible above Jesus’ compassion and love, Jesus’ radical inclusivity, and hold steadfast onto what they believe to be the correct interpretation of a small amount of verses that speak about same-sex relations. To those who repeatedly start quoting Leviticus and Romans verses as soon as anyone brings up the topic of homosexuality, I’d suggest perhaps you stick your Bible back up on the shelf for awhile. Perhaps it should collect a little bit of dust. And maybe, just maybe, you need to go out and grab coffee with someone who’s gay. Maybe you need to hear their story, learn about what they’ve been through, how they’ve experienced Christians and the church.

That sounds really nice, in some ways. Let's ignore a couple of verses that are somewhat controversial these days, and just live out Jesus' example of radical love, right down to inviting people into the kingdom who are rejected by society, religious and otherwise. He has a point, too: there are a lot of people who love their theology, their knowledge, their rightness over Christ. They've made an idol out of the Bible. Many Christians should just go hang out with some gay people and remember that they're people, just like you. There's just one huge problem with the whole argument, though.

If you do what he says—if you put your Bible up on the shelf and let it collect some dust, say "Enough with the Bible already!"—then who is this Jesus you're professing to follow? He's a mystery. Jesus is the point, of course, not simply knowledge. Eternal life is not the recitation of a few rote facts; it is not being straight; it is not paying your taxes or fulfilling the law of God as well as you can. Eternal life is knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he sent, and we know them through the Holy Spirit they sent (John 17:3). But we do not have any knowledge of Christ apart from that Bible that we just put up on a shelf to collect some dust.

God has chosen to reveal himself through Scripture—not through our mystical experiences, our beliefs, our culture, or our circumstances. We do not get to pick and choose what it means to walk with God. This is how we know that we love God: we keep his commandments (1 John 5:3). If we say we know him and do not keep his commandments, we are liars (1 John 2:4). But how do we know his commandments apart from his telling us? We can't! Where has he told us what he requires of us? Scripture!

Setting aside for the whole issue of homosexuality, we must recognize that we have no ground to stand on at all apart from Scripture. We do not, cannot, know Christ if we put his word on our shelf, to be ignored until we feel comfortable in our culture. The idea is ludicrous: if I suggested that the best way to show that I really understand my wife and want to demonstrate my love for her is to stop listening to her until I have it figured out for myself, everyone would rightly call me a fool. Is that not the suggestion being offered, though?

We know God because he has revealed himself to us. Let us be humble enough to recognize that we have no wisdom of our own, and thus to never dare to set aside his word. And yes, let us go build relationships with nonChristians of every kind, including gay people. Let us love them with the love of Christ—but let us let God tell us who he is and how he would have us live, not the changing winds of culture.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"The Importance of Not Studying Theology"

The Gospel Coalition regularly posts a journal of evangelical theology called Themelios. In this issue, Carl Trueman writes a helpful corrective to the tendency to become overly absorbed by theological study for its own sake:

But this is not the whole story. One of the great problems with the study of theology is how quickly it can become the study of theology, rather than the study of theology, that becomes the point. We are all no doubt familiar with the secular mindset which repudiates any notion of certainty in thought; and one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that intellectual inquiry is rather like trying to get a date with the attractive girl across the road with whom you have secretly fallen in love: the thrill comes more from the chase and the sense of anticipation than it does from actually finding the answer or eliciting agreement to go to the movies.

This plays out in theology in two ways. First and most obvious, there is a basic question of motivation which needs to be addressed right at the start of theological endeavor: am I doing this purely and simply for personal satisfaction? Has the study of theology become so central to my identity that the whole of my being is focused on it and seeks to derive things from it in a way which is simply unhealthy and distorts both its purpose and the person who I am? That is something with which all theologians will, I suspect, wrestle until the day they die, being part and parcel of who we are as fallen creatures; but there are also things we can do which ease the situation.

The whole thing is well worth your time, especially if you're someone who spends any amount of time studying theology.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Two rants (sort of)

First, I was listening to Mercy Me the other day, and I generally enjoy their music. Not the most amazing thing in the world, but solid, and enjoyable when I want a break from sermons and classical music and soundtracks. (Occasionally, I do get in the mood for vocal music. Not often, but occasionally.) One of their tracks from Undone has an annoying innacurate statement in it, though: sung to God, "You are everything illogical, and that's okay." Well, beyond the fact that God being everything illogical would mean he would, among other things, be himself and not himself, etc.—I'm willing to grant poetic license some room to work with here—it's just a terrible line. God is not illogical.

Beyond comprehension? Absolutely. Not capable of being reduced to terms described by mere human reason? Certainly. Not merely logical? Without a doubt. But everything illogical? I know, it's not what they were trying to say (they were trying to get at his incomprehensibility and the greatness of all he has done, and how it defies human expectations or understanding)... but it is what they did say. And what we say means something, sometimes even the opposite of what we intend it to mean.

Anyone who has been in any kind of committed relationship—a deep friendship, a romance, you name it—understands that what we mean is not what the other person hears: what we say is. How we choose to phrase things is important. So, when dealing with songs, we should be careful in how we string words together, not merely saying things because they sound cool and sort of communicate what we are thinking or feeling. (That, as an aside, is part of what makes Jon Foreman so solid as a songwriter: every line clearly has some thought behind it, and it is not haphazard. The same can be said, in a totally different style, of Brooke Fraser. If you're not listening to at least one of them, you should be, so follow those links and get some good music.)

In part, this is frustrating because I am deeply committed to saying true things about God, and think that all of us ought to be far more careful in how we speak of him. That responsibility is only heightened when one has a large platform and an attentive audience—which Mercy Me certainly has had! It is also annoying because the song gets stuck in my head... and then I'm left with words ricocheting around in my brain that are not only theologically imprecise (which would already be sufficient to produce considerable annoyance) but deeply inaccurate. In other words, as egregious as their error was, it is made far worse that it was married to a sufficiently catchy tune and sufficiently well put-together background that it is a memorable inaccuracy.

Music is dangerous, people. Remember that. (But remember that dangerous can be synonymous with good. Think Aslan...)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Scripture, Missiology, and Trying Too Hard

Sometimes, I try too hard. Like right now. I've been trying to think of something to write for Pillar on the Rock for the last two hours. Tried a few things... they did not work. I took a break, read my Bible for an hour, studied Titus in serious detail.

There are depths and profundities and riches in every book of the Bible, but I certainly gravitate toward the New Testament. I like words, and I like digging at the way they are layered together to form coherent arguments. The Epistles normally attract people because they are the most eminently practical aspect of the Bible, apart from Proverbs (another perennial favorite). Not me. They attract me because of the depths buried in the flow of authorial thought. I tend toward the gospels and the prophets when I am hungry for longer passages to read, but when I want to dig in on a text, I tend to sit down with an epistle and try to get in as close to the author's thought process as possible.

It is good for me to read the long narrative sections of the Old Testament on a regular basis (as it is good for all of us: that is why God included it). I see glimpses of God in the narratives that are not present in the same ways in the tightly constructed argument of Romans or the sermonic structure of Hebrews. Narratives and numberings are just as important as epistles and gospels. When I read through all of the Bible last year, I was incredibly challenged and blessed. Seeing the entire flow of history laid out in the biblical narratives, complemented by the proclamations of the prophets and the explications of the epistles, was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. That said, I am glad to be able to sit down and study Titus!

Last week, Jaimie and I were discussing missions, contextualization, and the importance of narrative and storytelling in many cultures. Many missiologists have suggested that missionaries need to shift the focus away from the western preoccupation with argument and toward the broader interest in story—not least since the Scriptures are filled with narratives. I think they have a good point; western Christianity has certainly been overly preoccupied with argument. However, I also think it is entirely possible to overcorrect, and I fear many missiologists are doing precisely that. Though we should certainly not emphasize reasoned argument more than Scripture does, neither should we emphasize it less. Certainly, when engaging other cultures, we ought to look for the God-built openings for the gospel already present. Sometimes those will be narrative; other times they will be argument; yet other times they will be poetry.

What is important is that the gospel is clearly communicated, and that the people do not stay where their culture is comfortable. Just as westerners often need to grow in understanding of the importance of story in Scripture—and not merely as analogy for our lives!—so people in other cultures may need to grow in understanding of the importance of argument, or poetry, or prophecy. These may not come naturally. Certainly I don't think that the prophets or Leviticus naturally seem immediately helpful to most American Christians, and so we must learn to think in the ways that the Bible thinks. The same is true in every culture.

And now I'm trying too hard again. Part of the challenge of writing for Pillar on the Rock is that I tend not to let my thoughts move naturally anymore: I am constantly looking for ways to tie the package up neatly. This is not entirely a bad thing—but then, a blog post is not exactly an article, and it should not be treated as such. Somewhere along the way is a balance, a clear expression of my voice. I will find it eventually—but like reading the Old Testament, it may require some work. It does not come naturally.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Observations about Billboards

Since I went back to work a week and a half ago, I have been seeing the strangest billboards on my commute. Three of them are funny enough, odd enough, or thought-worthy enough that I decided to write them up.
  1. [Picture of a cat, ad for humane society] Too bad there's no soup kitchen for her. There are so many things wrong with this. We have soup kitchens because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being—regardless of poverty, mental illness, or other reason for being homeless. While I'm all for helping take care of animals, I'm just not convinced that animal homelessness is nearly the problem that human homelessness is—nor that the comparison is warranted. By all means, encourage animal adoption... just please don't be silly while you're at it. Also: last time I checked, very few cats die of malnutrition on the streets, seeing as they're natural predators for other non-domesticated animals. The cats don't need soup kitchens.
  2. "There's no such thing as an unwanted, adopted baby. —God I could not agree more deeply with the message being presented here. Abortion is not the answer to "unwanted" children: adoption is an infinitely better alternative when, for whatever reason, a mother is simply unable to carry a child. That said, I have been bothered by this billboard for months, and the reason struck me forcefully last week. It's the attribution: making it a quote from God. (Incidentally, that's why it took me such a long time to put my finger on the source of my unease: I kept looking for problems in the quote itself, but there aren't any!) The message itself is very good... but God never said anything of the sort, even he undoubtedly agrees. I do not think we ought to attribute to God anything outside of Scripture itself as "speech." The word of God is sufficient, as I have argued before, and we ought not add to what God has said. So it is a good poster that would have been better without the "—God" tagged on at the end. The attempt to add moral authority to what ought to be an obvious and compelling statement, in my case at least, ended up being a source of distraction. I may, however, be a unique case...
  3. Let's go out for ice cream after you get us all paralyzed! [Picture of a girl holding a sign in a rearview mirror] —Don't let your friends drive recklessly. This one was just plain funny. It was clever, somewhat sarcastic, and incredibly well-done visually. Given the sad state of the drivers around me, not to mention the frequently dangerous antics of many high school and college students, it is a much needed message, too. Normally, I find advertisements of the "Friends don't let friends do drugs" variety to be executed poorly at best and worthy of mockery and derision at worst. This was a pleasant change.