Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Blessed Life review

Expect to see significantly increased blogging output over the next several weeks. I'll explain why in a future post. You'll just have to wait and find out.

A small aside: I'm trying very hard to be more concise. Twitter is helping: having 140 characters to say something meaningful certainly makes me think harder.

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I'm going to try to update my book review format. I've been using the same basic approach to book reviews for three years, and while it's worked all right, I want to have a bit more freedom in approach.

The Blessed Life by Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, is about God's financial blessings for your life. The basic message of the book is accurate and worth hearing, but it's clouded and there are enough issues that I can't really recommend it. It's relatively short, and even reading it carefully for the purposes of a review, it probably only took me about two and a half hours to read from start to finish. Even with the addendum at the back, the book is just 217 generously formatted pages long: 12 short chapters and a brief afterword.

Morris' thesis is that God wants all of His children to lead a blessed life. In particular, he writes that the blessed life is very definitely financially blessed. I should immediately clarify that this isn't prosperity gospel, per se. The book has issues, some of which I'll describe below, but it isn't just another "Give and you'll be rich!" scheme. There are some very good biblical principles laid out throughout the book, and it's clear that Morris opposes the prosperity gospel.

Morris focuses on giving generously and sacrificially, and he emphasizes that God is our provider. He repeatedly emphasizes how God takes care of His people's needs. The book issues a call to stop believing that if we just budget carefully enough we'll always be secure. Instead we should relinquish our tight grasp on our money and give freely as God leads - up to and including every last thing we own. It's a bold challenge, and an important one. Morris points to Jesus' reminder that if God cares for birds and flowers, how much more can we rely on Him to provide for our needs? So then, we should give without holding back; we should give to whoever asks and expect nothing in return. We should gladly give everything we own when God calls us to. He has provided all we have, and He can provide more as we need it. Morris backs this up both Scripturally and evidentially from his own life. (The evidence is good, but it has a downside. See below.)

Mr. Morris and I part ways in two places, however. First, his use of Scripture throughout the book varies between good and very bad. In one chapter, he does an excellent job of developing Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, using sound expositional teaching. Elsewhere, though, his use of Scripture is more questionable. (Some of them are simply strange, like his completely decontextualized quote from Song of Solomon.)

Second, he takes his thesis that God will reward those who are generous givers - with which I fully agree - and then moves forward to say that giving leads to "Guaranteed Financial Results" (the title of the last chapter). He writes, "... I can tell you without hesitation that if you will apply the principles I've outlined in these chapters, you will get remarkable, positive financial results—guaranteed." He has a more Biblical framework in mind than it might seem: he follows by arguing that giving is important because it does work in our hearts, which is what God is really after. I agree with that, but I do not think that we will always find ourselves financially blessed simply because we give. I believe God will meet our needs, but the overwhelming poverty of many generous believers throughout history and Scripture runs contrary to his argument.

The Psalms frequently cry out that the wicked prosper and the good do not. The prophets repeatedly make much of the fact that wicked rich men are crushing the poor. The widow in her generous giving of two mites did not suddenly become wealthy, and Christ never said she would.

How then do we reconcile Jesus teaching that when we give we will receive with the reality that we do not always receive greater money than we have given? I don't know the exact details, but I know that the rewards we are promised are not merely earthly, but heavenly. Morris notes this, but only once. The book repeatedly emphasizes financial rewards in this world, and the lack of a heavenly perspective is a sore loss.

On a different note, Morris repeatedly denies any pride, but spends the book recounting all the ways and times he and his family have been used mightily by God. If there were a more even balance between these and other stories, this might not seem so bad, but every chapter has several examples of his generosity. By contrast, I am reminded of Jesus' teaching in the same Sermon on the Mount passages that Morris frequently quoted:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

Scripture's emphasis is on secrecy, not boasting. Morris says "Believe me, I'm not [boasting]" (p. 125), and I believe he meant it. If so, he needs to recognize that he would seem lest boastful if he focused less on himself, more on others, and above all more on Scripture.

Perhaps the oddest part of the book was his elaborate discussion on the Spirit of Mammon. For most of a chapter, he discusses an individual spirit of Mammon that he claims is "on" money unless the Spirit of God is, referencing Luke 16:13. He claims there is an individual spirit named Mammon that prevents money from multiplying for the kingdom unless money is actively submitted to God. The first problem here is that he builds his case for a "spirit of mammon" not from Scripture but from Milton's Paradise Lost, which is fine poetry, and not always terrible theology, but hardly an authority. Second, the use of the word "mammon" here is misleading. All modern translations generally use "wealth," as that's all the word means. Finally, there is no Biblical basis for his claim that there is an individual Spirit of Mammon. I don't doubt that there are demons that specialize in leading people astray via greed and money. That being said, I see no warrant at all from Scripture for Morris claim that "[in] the Biblical sense of the word, mammon is the spirit that rests on money. Did you know that all money has a spirit on it? It either has the Spirit of God on it or the spirit of mammon" (p. 77). Men's hearts are led astray by demonic lies or led rightly by the Holy Spirit. Money and electronic numbers are just paper and electrons.

Strangely, Morris almost immediately contradicts his previous argument by quoting Jesus teaching that we are to use "unrighteous mammon" to win friends for ourselves to serve the Kingdom, and that we are to be faithful in the unrighteous mammon if we wish to be trusted with real treasure. Jesus would certainly never command us to make use of an evil spirit to accomplish anything. Given how direct Christ is here, just verses after Morris' proof text for his Spirit of Mammon, he ends up backtracking and agreeing with Jesus' message. The result is a confusing mess. While this points to a need for good editing, it also shows his failure to build his case on a good theological and Scriptural foundation.

This and other misuses of Scripture were nearly the worst problems. Scripture speaks clearly about finances; there is no need to add or invent more evidence for what it says. This failing is all the sadder because so much of this book is good. We live in a church culture that often throws tithing out with ceremonial washings, so his emphasis both on tithing and giving beyond our tithes was refreshing.

My greatest disappointment here was that Morris never took a moment to point out that, financial blessings aside, no reward will ever compare with knowing Christ. This was a book on the blessed life, but it completely misses what Christ calls blessed: knowing God. Abundant life, eternal life, is knowing God and the one He sent. Finances are petty distractions in comparison. They are important, as Morris rightly notes, as a gauge of our hearts. But Morris never stopped to note that Jesus Christ is our real reward for faithfulness in this life.

I find it very difficult to sum up my thoughts on this book. Morris' passion for people with gifts of giving is evident. His love of the body of Christ is clear. His love of God is plain to see. His message is important. Christians do need to value and practice generosity and giving more, and God does delight in our joyful giving. He does reward, though most of the rewards are eternal. If Morris were simply another preacher of the prosperity gospel, it would be easy to dismiss his missteps as part of his misguided theology, but his underlying theology regarding finances is not the issue.

The real problems here are over-application and a lack of Christ-centeredness. What has been true in his life is not universally true. Many Christians will give generously and live in relative (or true) poverty some or all their lives. Paul's life alone is evidence of that.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

The antidote to this problem is simple: a deeper reliance on Scripture itself, without recourse to anecdote and misinterpretation.

More importantly, we must always find our joy in Christ alone, no matter whether we are richly blessed or utterly destitute in this age. Our reward is knowing Him, above any other blessing He gives. That is the point that must be made, and it's the point that Morris completely missed. The real blessed life is to know Christ, no matter our circumstances.

Theological perfectionism = bad

Good reading for the more theologically minded among us:
I suspect many Reformed people will find it difficult to sympathize with my claim that theological perfectionism is a problem. Most Reformed people would argue that lack of concern for theological precision is a much bigger problem facing the church today. And when one looks at the state of modern evangelicalism it is hard to disagree. There is too much error, not merely on the finer points of theology, but with regard to the very foundations. How many evangelicals can articulate the gospel clearly and accurately? But without denying the dangers of theological imprecision, I have come to believe that theological perfectionism is another problem we should be concerned about, especially we who are Reformed.

You should read the rest of the article. I highlighted the first paragraph because I think he nails his point there. There is immense need within the church for a deeper commitment to theology, but there is also a danger of swinging so far in the direction of valuing theology that we value it for its own sake. When we start to care more about being accurate than about knowing God and sharing His incredibly good news with those who need it, we've completely missed the boat.

HT: Justin Taylor

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Marriage

I find it difficult to put into words just how much has changed since last I sat and began to write in this virtual space.

In many ways, of course, I'm the same as ever I was. (Including, probably, a hint of verbosity. See?) At the same time, I've changed. I'm not who I was, never will be. I'm married, for one thing - to the most beautiful woman I've ever met. It was a marvelous ceremony. It's been a better marriage.

Not perfect. Never that. Though my marvelous wife (I rather delight in saying that, you'll find) is certainly a better woman than I deserve, God sees fit day by day to supply me with grace enough to serve her, and grace enough to serve a little better than the day before. I begin to see and understand, just a little, how a life with a family will transform my understanding not only of service to others but indeed of service to God. (Being married hasn't changed my delight in use of non-colloquial words and phrases, either, you'll note.)

Many of those who follow this blog were at my wedding - and it was a delight to see you there. For those of you who were not, however, I'd like to share here the Scriptures that God laid on our hearts as we prepared and that we had read aloud in the course of the ceremony: selections from His everlasting word that, we thought, helped paint a picture of how great this mystery is, and then comment briefly (yes, briefly; don't laugh!) on why these verses. Some of them may be obvious, others less so.

Genesis 1:27-28
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”


Genesis 2:18-24
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.


Song of Songs 4:9:
You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;
you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.


Song of Songs 5:16
His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.


Song of Songs 8:7
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.


Song of Songs 8:6
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.


1 Peter 3:1-2,7
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.


Matthew 22:30
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.


Ephesians 5:31-32
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.


Revelation 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”


Revelation 19:6-9
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”


There is a flow here - a flow from the moment of creation, when God made man not to be alone, to the shocking close of history, when God comes to dwell forever with man whom He made. These passages also tell us something incredibly important about what exactly marriage is: a picture of Christ and the Church He came to redeem to Himself, that He is redeeming to Himself.

Marriage is not, as we all too often proclaim, some eternal state in which we will remain for all time. It is inherently temporary, because it does not exist merely for its own sake. It is meant to be a glorious, shocking truth that represents a far greater Truth. The unity of man and God through the redeeming work of Christ is a deep mystery. Then again, so is marriage.

How can two people from completely different backgrounds leave behind their families and become one? And how is the becoming one flesh - joining together in every possible way - even possible? How is it that our joining in marriage is not merely a lifelong commitment to mate only with each other for social stability but a real spiritual unity that transcends the mundane and reaches to the deepest parts of our nature? It certainly does. Jaimie and I have already experienced ways in which our being married ties us far more closely than ever we were before. Most of all, we affect each other spiritually. It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, a mystery.

God, in His wisdom, has chosen to use this mystery to help us understand a deeper puzzle yet: How can immortal, omnipotent, omniscient God who knows us, our thoughts, our deeds better than we ourselves, relate to us? How can we and He who are so very different ever be joined in any degree of relationship? How can His transcendence meet our very thorough smallness? How could there ever be more to that relationship than distant dictator and abject subjects? How could there be intimacy? Most especially when we are so abjectly fallen, so utterly depraved in our thoughts that we run to every kind of evil whenever we can!

No, this marriage is a temporary one, so that we can glimpse the greater one that awaits: the union of God and man, Christ and His Bride. There will be, as there was in our wedding, a feast to whom all are invited. There is only one acceptable garment at that feast... the garment provided by the Lamb that was slaughtered, choosing from the foundation of the world to redeem us to Him, to make us His, to cover our transgression and make us white as snow... white as the dress a bride wears to her wedding. Our righteous deeds, prepared for us by God, will be the shining linen worn by the Church as a whole as she joyfully runs into the arms of her God-King on that last day.

This is what our wedding and our marriage are about, not some nonsensical idea of eternal bliss together. We will strive every day to be a faithful picture of Christ and His Bride. I will strive to die for Jaimie as Christ died for the church. And we together will be part of His church, striving ever to purify her for the day of His return, starting with our own hearts and reaching out to every man, woman, and child that He places in our path.

Our marriage is about the good news that Christ has redeemed for Himself a people who will share all eternity with Him.

Our marriage is about Him!