Three Bad Bible-Study Questions

February 20th, 2018 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In many ways, the prevailing (and dramatic) shifts in western culture during the past few centuries all center on a single issue: truth—and how we learn it (if we can). To Christians, who worship the One who claimed to be Truth (John 14:6), these cultural shifts prove exceedingly relevant. If we are not mindful of our culture’s changing views of truth, we will imbibe the spirit of the age unwittingly. This is especially evident in how we pursue truth, specifically in our engagement with the (true) Word of God.

 

In order to illustrate (briefly) the major cultural shifts on truth, and to enjoin a particular approach to it (including our pursuit of truth in studying holy scripture), I would like to share three bad (but ever so common) Bible-study questions, and then a much better one.

 

Three Bad Questions

  1. What does the text mean? Now, I’m quite confident I’ll get some objection to this one, because we should absolutely be seeking to understand what the text actually means. In fact, I would suggest that discerning the authors’ (both human and divine) original intent is the primary goal of Bible study. My quibble with the way this question is framed springs from its lack of humility. I believe it represents the “modern” or “Enlightenment” view that human reason can apprehend truth absolutely; that is, applying some form of scientific method (a historical, grammatical approach to the words of scripture) will lead to absolute understanding of truth. However, given humanity’s finiteness, fallibility, and fallen nature (which has corrupted our good minds), I am not sure we possess this ability any longer. Our relationship with truth, as others have said before me, is asymptotic at best: we may get closer and closer to an absolute understanding, but will never quite reach it. This question lacks the requisite humility in human reasoning abilities.
  2. What does the text mean to you? At this point we’ve moved from modernity to post-modernity (or late-modernity, depending on your bent). This question addresses all my concerns with the last approach, but reacts so extremely against modernity’s hubris that it makes the opposite mistake. I am reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ lovely quips (of which he has many): “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.” If modernity (wrongly) assumed we could have perfect knowledge, post-modernity (wrongly) assumes we can’t have any real (or objective) knowledge at all. As a result, this question relocates the center of interpretation from the object (the text) to the subject (the reader). Unsurprisingly, then, we are left with little more than a subjective impression. Authority now rests with the interpreter, not the text, which leads inevitably to a human-centered gospel, and a human-made god fashioned in each person’s own image. This is an incredibly dangerous approach.
  3. What do you think the text means? Committed not to fall off the horse on either side, this question has gotten us much closer to a helpful framework for Bible study than the last two. While rejecting modernity’s confidence in absolute knowledge, it also rejects post-modernity’s insistence that we can have no objective knowledge at all. And if our (hypothetical) Bible-study leader had no inflection when reading the question, I might even be tempted to accept it as is. However, if the emphasis falls on the wrong syllable (as in the italicized “you”), we’ve probably still succumbed to the postmodern temptation. My objection here is that the question, as inflected, suggests all interpretations are equally valid. You may think the text means x, while I maintain the text means y (never mind Sally, who had the audacity to suggest it means z). Whence now? How shall we decide which interpretation is best? If our pursuit of truth (and a true understanding of God’s Word) should be asymptotic—spiraling ever closer to the actual truth, as generations of Christ’s disciples grapple with the original languages, historical and literary context, et cetera—my opinion (or yours, for that matter) matters very little. But if we change the inflection just slightly, we might make some real progress.

 

And One Much Better Question

  1. What do you think the text means? Inflected thus, here is a question that combines subjective humility with objective It rejects modernity’s hubris, by reminding us that our take on the text just might be wrong still, and thus invites correction and improvement. But it also rejects post-modernity’s subjectivism by maintain a text-centered approach. It is, to borrow Kevin Vanhoozer’s lovely phrase, a “hermeneutics of humility and conviction.” It assumes that, while we might not be able to have absolute knowledge, we can still have adequate knowledge. The asymptote is real, and in humility and conviction we can draw nearer the axis of divine revelation together.


A Transcendent New Year

January 4th, 2018 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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As regular and predictable as the rotation of heavenly bodies is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s New Year’s Day tweet. A few words may change, but for the past several years on January 1 he has expressed some sentiment like this year’s offering: “Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years [sic] Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.”

 

Equally inevitable is the frustration voiced by many of his Twitter followers, tired of what they view as his most common schtick: taking a moment meaningful for many and stripping it of its meaning because the stars haven’t aligned perfectly (quite literally). The argument seems to be that unless something has scientific significance, it cannot have real, objective significance at all.

 

Now, I don’t personally care one whit when we celebrate a new year, but I sympathize with Tyson’s critics at this point. For what Tyson is attempting is to rob life of transcendence. If all that exists is the physical, then life cannot have transcendence, and Tyson is surely right to call us on investing meaning where none can be; but if there is more to this world than the merely physical, “ordinary” moments can have extraordinary meaning. The world would be shot through with transcendence. That so many of us assume this to be true—that we feel meaning, experience transcendence (we think)—surely suggests something about the way the world is, however imperfectly. A.W. Tozer, in his masterpiece The Knowledge of the Holy, captures the spirit of the argument nicely:

 

It is spirit that gives significance to matter and apart from spirit nothing has any value at last. A little child strays from a party of sight-seers and becomes lost on a mountain, and immediately the whole mental perspective of the members of the party is changed. Rapt admiration for the grandeur of nature gives way to acute distress for the lost child. The group spreads out over the mountainside anxiously calling the child’s name and searching eagerly into every secluded spot where the little one might chance to be hidden.

 

What brought about this sudden change? The tree-clad mountain is still there towering into the clouds in breath-taking beauty, but no one notices it now. All attention is focused upon the search for a curly-haired little girl not yet two years old and weighing less than thirty pounds. Though so new and so small, she is more precious to parents and friends than all the huge bulk of the vast and ancient mountain they had been admiring a few minutes before. And in their judgment the whole civilized world concurs, for the little girl can love and laugh and speak and pray, and the mountain cannot. It is the child’s quality of being that gives it worth. (69-70)

 

The only part in this provocative illustration with which I’d quibble would be the notion that the whole civilized world concurs with the search party’s judgment. Increasingly, we have incredibly intelligent, sophisticated men and women arguing just the opposite. There is no spirit, and there is no meaning. The world is not transcendent. You may have flipped a calendar, but because the day didn’t have “Astronomical significance” [note the curious capitalization, by the way: transcendence always seeks to smuggle itself in!] it has no real meaning.

 

I realize it’s quite popular to imagine the world to be merely physical at this point in the West’s history (a sentiment not shared by the bulk of humanity still, one should note). But no matter the sophistry, we simply cannot shake the feeling of transcendence, and we’d do well not to ignore it. J. Budziszewski, a former atheist who taught ethics at the University of Texas, makes this point well as he describes his escape from nihilism into Christian faith:

 

Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught those things to students. Now that’s sin.

 

It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself—well, if you are like I was, maybe you can—what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness.” The way natural law thinkers put this is to say they constitute the deep structures of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?

 

Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how many he pulls out, there are still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. But I was the fool. (Quoted in D.A. Carson’s Scandalous, 46-47).

 

This is a sobering reminder to us of how perilous the descent from transcendence really is. Tyson’s quip about New Year’s Day feels so small, so unimportant, until we see the incipient nihilism within it. If a day only has meaning if science decrees so, does my love for my wife and children have meaning? How can it, if it is only chemical processes in my brain (not my mind, mind you, since mind would be illusory)? Does it matter what choices we make towards other humans? How can it, if good and evil are mere social constructs? These are, as Budziszewski points out, terrifying thoughts. And, if we’re being honest, utter foolishness.

 

And here, I think, is the real lesson to be taken away from a bit of banter on the raging dumpster fire that is most social media [not that I have any opinions here or anything like that]: We know—not feel, not believe, not think; but positively know—that the world is transcendent. Love is objectively real. Good and evil are true concepts. People have intrinsic value beyond their physical makeup. To deny any of those statements is to undermine all truth, goodness, and beauty. We could not object to sexual predators. We could not denounce racism. We could not have meaningful relationships.

 

So we must affirm these statements, and, in affirming them, we tacitly affirm a certain view of the world. We have here a striking evidence for the existence of the supernatural—God, perhaps, although we haven’t argued that far just yet; that would take further steps. But it is striking evidence just the same, and we would do well to follow the evidence where it leads—straight into the Transcendent.

 

I am a few days late, I know, but just the same—have yourselves a transcendent new year!



Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Philosophical Kitsch

September 19th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As a wee lad in high school, I remember being struck by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” The she to which Vonnegut refers is Billy Pilgrim’s mother, and the thing that she purchased in the gift shop to give her life meaning was a crucifix, which hung above Billy’s bed as a child.

 

I suspect the quote struck me at the time because I took dual offense at it: as an American, I didn’t particularly like the suggestion that I was dependent on kitsch for my life’s meaning; and as a Christian, I really didn’t like the suggestion that a crucifix could be reduced to mere gift-shop knick-knacks. I’d like to think it suggests a deeper meaning, and the most stable foundation upon which to build a life, but more on that later.

 

In retrospect, however, I think Vonnegut might have been on to something, though not at all in the way in he thought. In fact, in a great bit of irony, his quote is nearer the truth now than ever before, but precisely because people first believed as Vonnegut wished they would—that is, because they stopped looking to the religious for ultimate meaning.

 

The idea first suggested itself when we stopped as a family at a particularly American restaurant right in the heart of America (Nebraska, if I recall) while returning from summer vacation. Among the more dated décor—Americana, primarily—hung the exquisitely fashionable: a feigned rustic, pallet-wood sign. On it, stamped in whites and golds, one could read, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

Enter Vonnegut. Here we have an item, purchased at something like a gift shop, attempting to imbue life with meaning. But as in décor, so in philosophy: kitsch abounds (and one might do well enough without it).

 

To explain, let’s tease out this particular instance of gift-shop philosophy a bit. If we reject the religious as ultimate (and assuming deepest meaning would have been found in religion, such as our satisfaction in Christ in Christianity), we now have a vacuum of meaning in our lives. Because no Ultimate exists—no universals, nothing beyond the confines of this life—meaning will have to reduce to self. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this point in his book What Does It All Mean? Since we’re all destined for the grave (and the grave is the end of life, since no immortal soul exists), perhaps we should simply take life as it comes and try to enjoy it as much as we can. In short, perhaps you should just, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

The trouble, though, is this assumes a certain set of circumstances, i.e., that you have the power to do something each day that makes you happy. While many in the world have that option, not all do, and few have it each and every day of their lives. Imagine a refugee mother, displaced by genocidal atrocities, forced to choose which of her children she can keep from starvation. As she walks away from the younger of her two children, whom she is leaving to die, should she drink in the sunrise sparkling over the desert and find brief happiness in it? It would be a callused heart indeed who could suggest such a thing.

 

The trouble with our philosophical kitsch, then, is that it belongs to a certain segment of a certain society only—the segment that can afford kitsch, if I could put it bluntly. It is the special frivolity of post-religious affluence that can dream up such slogans and then dare to live by them (or at least attempt to).

 

For if we attempt to create meaning for our lives on the basis of circumstance-dependent slogans, we will always be at the mercy of our circumstances. When life’s vicissitudes gust mightily, the whole structure threatens to collapse. It is a house built on sand.

 

And that’s just the point. Philosophical kitsch, like decorative kitsch, is for adorning the walls of a well-founded structure—not for providing the foundation itself. When you use knick-knacks as load-bearing walls, safe to say those walls will come tumbling down faster than you can say, “Jericho.” First lay a solid foundation—choose a governing philosophy that provides meaning despite circumstances—and then (perhaps) throw some decorations up.

 

So, for example, if you’re particularly wedded to our illustrative slogan—you fully intend to do something each day that makes you happy—that’s well and good. Just make sure that’s not the base of your life’s meaning. Added in, as a conscious effort to drink deeply from the common grace offered us in the created world, it might spruce up the place a bit. Even then, I might choose a more robust version of the sentiment, as in George Mueller’s famous comment, “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” The unchanging God, in whom all joy is found, is the only sure foundation, so why not seek your daily happiness in him first?

 

In sum, I suppose I could say this: if you (like most Americans?) are going to seek life’s meaning in a gift shop, let it be a religious shop at least. You could do far worse than a crucifix.



Marks of Smoking Flax

June 27th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

 

Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

 

and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.

 

If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:

 

Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)

 

But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.

 

With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.

 

  1. “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
  2. “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
  3. “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
  4. “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
  5. “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
  6. “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
  7. “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
  8. “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  9. “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
  10. “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”


Lincoln’s Insight for Today

June 20th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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In his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Andrew Delbanco shares what he considers “one of the most remarkable” of Abraham Lincoln’s writing, a short reflection only, perhaps intended as the beginnings of a speech. Lincoln writes:

 

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A., is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker?

Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it is his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

 

In this brief, inchoate musing (idiosyncratic comma usage and all), Lincoln not only anticipates the modern notion of race as “socially constructed,” but also demonstrates the tenuousness of dealing in moral non-absolutes. As Delbanco comments, “Lincoln knew it was fatally dangerous to oneself to deny to others the rights one claims as one’s own”—a point fraught with relevance for people on both sides of political aisles and religious spectra.

 

The issue of religious liberty springs to mind immediately. On one side, for political conservatives and some pious Christians, we have the danger of denying religious liberty to others (read: Muslims) that we would shudder to see denied ourselves. If one may ban Muslims from entry into a country purely on the basis of their religious beliefs, what is to prevent another from banning Christians for the same reason? As Lincoln might say it, “Take care. By this rule, you are to be banned by the first person you meet with any cause—just or unjust, founded or not—who fears you.” (It is worth noting that this is precisely what happened when Senator Sanders questioned a candidate for public office two weeks ago, as I discussed in my last post.) This is why Christians in America (notably the Baptists and Free churches) have always advocated for the separation of church and state: because they did not want government to meddle in the free exercise of their religion, they knew they could not promote or accept the meddling of government in anyone else’s religion either.

 

But I suspect Lincoln’s musing poses a greater corrective to the other side (what we might call liberal secularism), those who would lump all orthodox believers in any religion together under the pejorative “fundamentalist.” The reason Lincoln’s words prove so incisive here is because they bring out the notion of “social construct.” If race is not an absolute category, but merely a social construct (as is surely the case), then the boundaries might shift, and you might find yourself enslaved rather than enslaving.

 

How does this apply to the modern liberal secularism?

 

Simple. At this point in time, most everything is assumed to be a social construct, notably truth and virtue. If one denies mathematics or physics as racially or sexually oppressive, or denies science when it conflicts with our vision of progress (as in the case of transgenderism), what is to keep someone else from denying your truth in the name of progress or equality? If virtue is malleable to culture, and either the zeitgeist or the majority vote become sole arbiters thereof, what happens when evil becomes accepted virtue culture-wide? (See: Nazi Germany.) I’ve sawed off the very branch I’m sitting on right at the trunk.

 

Given globalization, this bother becomes even more troublesome quite quickly. If my virtue is mere social construct, and I encounter someone from another society, who thus possesses a different social construct, who is to arbitrate between us? If I regard the brutal subjugation of women as evil (as I do), but I encounter someone who sees it as the natural order, what can I say? I’m a victim of my own open-mindedness (especially if I’m a woman). If I continue to insist that truth and virtue are relative concepts, I can make no argument against whatever I perceive as evil anywhere I see it. If, instead, I insist that my (or the prevailing culture’s) view of truth and virtue is absolute, I’ve made myself (or my culture) god, which is breathtaking hubris—and unlikely to convince any who don’t share my apotheosizing religious convictions.

 

The way forward—in truth, the only sensible way—is to accept the presence of absolutes, not only social constructs. This was the implicit ground of Lincoln’s whole argument. As Delbanco comments, “In the last analysis, Lincoln regarded the hope of building one’s dignity on another man’s degradation not merely as an error but as sin” (emphasis added). What is wrong is wrong because it is wrong—not just because my culture thinks it is, or because it is in my interest to believe it is. Of course, this demands an accepted standard of truth (justice, sin, virtue, etc.), and here we find ourselves among the deepest, most important questions humanity can ask.

 

Space precluding longer argument, I would only submit that truth, if it is to be timeless, supracultural, must spring from a Being who is eternal, and who is Truth itself (cf. John 14:6).



Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.



More Lessons from the Garden

June 6th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Let me expand on my last post just a little bit. Last time out I shared ten lessons I’ve learned in my garden about the Christian life. Today I’d like to pivot slightly and share a few more lessons from the garden, but this time about ministry specifically. Here are five that come to my mind regularly.

 

  1. If you want to dig deep, dig wide. I’ve been planting a lot of shrubs lately, and I’ve learned an important trick. In order to get the hole deep enough for shrub’s root system, I need to make sure I dig a wide hole. I’ll never get as deep as I’d like unless I dig wide first. What does this mean for ministry? Well, I think it well-nigh impossible to go truly deep in the faith unless you are sharing the gospel widely. We often want to separate our maturity from our ministry, but the two are connected. If you’re not sharing the gospel regularly and using your gifts to serve in the body, you’ll find your growth stunted. To grow deep, you need to reach wide. This holds especially true for congregational life as a whole. Churches that focus inward exclusively (digging deep) will never get as deep as they like because God matures us through our carrying out his commission (digging wide). (Of course, the opposite is true in ministry [although not in gardening!] too: if you want to have a wide reach, you need to make sure you are going deep in your relationship with Jesus.)
  2. If you want continual blooms, keep deadheading! I mentioned this lesson in the last post, but referred it to one’s personal spiritual life only: I need to make sure I am constantly pruning whatever distracts me from my growth, even if it is good. But I think this lesson is even more important for local church ministry. Churches are famous for admiring spent blooms—programs, activities, ministries that blossomed beautifully in past generations. However, as with flowers, so with church life: if you’re not willing to remove the spent blooms—eliminate unnecessary and now ineffective ministries—you’ll soon have a withered, wilted church. Get rid of what is past its prime so that a new bloom can take its place. The next generation needs us to reach them in the here and now, not to tell stories of the way the garden might’ve looked a summer or two ago!
  3. The organic life matters most. There are lots of inanimate structures in a garden that help the garden grow as it should, such as trellises. These are often very important for the health of the garden when growing clematis or cucumbers or the like. However, as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne pointed out in The Trellis and the Vine, the trouble comes when we get enamored with the inanimate to the detriment of the organic. If you have a spectacular trellis, a gorgeous sculpture or two maybe, but nothing growing, you’re unlikely to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s the same in the church. There are many important support structures (such as programs), but nothing matters more than the organic life of the church in Christ. If the support structures begin to inhibit the life of the vine, or if they become the focus instead of the vine, the church will soon lose its vitality.
  4. It takes a lot of work to keep a garden healthy and growing. Because gardens are organic—living, changing, growing, dying—they require constant care. If you want it to be easy, plant artificial turf instead. Pastoral ministry is no different. Paul compares ministry to gardening (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and even mentions a small list of the many tasks required to keep it going, like planting and watering. A church—not the building, mind you (although that takes some TLC too!), but the people—requires constant care too. One never reaches the end of the task because the church is dynamic and ever-changing. A pastor’s work is never done. People who don’t like gardening shouldn’t plant large gardens because they require so much time and effort; in the same way, people who don’t like pouring out their lives in the service of others surely shouldn’t pursue pastoral ministry.
  5. You won’t always get to enjoy the fruit of your labor. Not too long ago I spent an entire summer working on my garden, and I had just about gotten everything where I wanted it. I was particularly excited to see a section of perennials fill in over the years, and to begin harvesting the raspberries I’d planted. But I never got to do either because we moved a short while later to start a new and wonderful ministry adventure. Not getting to see the garden grow was a poignant reminder to me that I had planted the gospel in the lives of different people at my previous church, but didn’t necessarily get to see it take root or blossom. So it will always be. People will move, or we will move. Change will happen. I can still labor faithfully knowing the bloom is far more important than my enjoyment of it. (And I console myself by trusting the family that moved into our old house is enjoying the garden in my place!)

 

I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn about life and ministry in the garden. What are some others you have learned?



Lessons from the Garden

May 30th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I love to garden. When I’m outside planting or weeding or pruning, it reminds me that I was made to garden. I feel like I’m back in Eden, worshiping the Creator by stewarding his creation. Occasionally I even feel I’m imitating my Father—like the son who follows behind with his toy lawn mower while Dad actually mows the grass—by using the creativity he’s given each of us to design and develop (I won’t say create) a landscape.

 

But there is another reason I love to garden, and that is because I am reminded of deep spiritual truths every time I’m out there working. The garden is filled with illustrations of our spiritual lives which minister to me as I dig and deadhead, water and weed. Here are ten spiritual lessons from the garden.

 

  1. If you neglect the garden, weeds will overrun it. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. If you neglect a flower bed, you won’t walk out one day to see splendid color and brilliant blooms. You’ll find all those nice plants you put in have been choked out by weeds. So it is with our character. If we neglect our spiritual development, we’re unlikely to discover the fruit of the Spirit in full bloom within us; we’re rather more likely to see our hearts overrun with idolatry, and sin choking out the life of the Spirit.
  2. The best way to keep weeds out is to make sure what you’ve planted is healthy and thriving. You can weed a bed over and over again—picked bare every time—only to find the weeds are back in force unless you plant something else there. If you want to keep a bed free from weeds, put in some groundcover. Once more, so it is with our character. The best way to keep our lives free from sin really isn’t relentless weeding (although that has its place, of course), but cultivating virtue. Paul used the analogy of clothing to make the same point: you put off sin, but then have to put on If we spend all our time mortifying sin and no time cultivating Christlikeness, we’ll likely end up weeding and re-weeding endlessly.
  3. If you just pick off the flower, the weed will grow back. I can remember as a child helping my mom “weed” by picking the heads off all the dandelions. When I got a bit older I did better, picking off all the leaves as well. Not surprisingly, the weeds always grew back. If you really want to get rid of the weed, you have to dig out the whole thing, all the way down to the root. In the same way, if we want to mortify sin truly and completely, we need to attack it at its root—the idolatry that feeds and encourages our transgression. Too many of us keep playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole because we don’t deal with the root issue; so sin keeps springing up in new places, and we keep whacking it down, picking off the dandelion flower only. Speaking of flowering weeds, though. . . .
  4. When weeds flower, it helps us locate them easily so we can dig them out at the root. The trouble with so many weeds is that they blend in—they’re green like the grass! That’s why I love dandelion season even though I hate dandelions: now I can find them easily so I can put them to death. When we mess up noticeably—when our sin flowers in a particularly flagrant way—it helps us locate and identify the roots that our nourishing it, so we can put the sin to death at its deepest point. Too often we simply repent of the flagrant sin without attacking the roots. Did you blow up at your kids again? Okay. Repent of that, absolutely. But then dig a bit deeper and find out why. Do you have deep control or comfort issues? What is the root idolatry that produces this particular fruit or flower? When our sin flowers, as awful as it is, we can start to discover what’s really going on within us.
  5. The hardest weeds to get out are the ones growing up in the middle of a plant. I’m dealing with this in my backyard right now. I’ve cleared out a bed that was overrun with weeds (because it had been sorely neglected for some time). However, there are still a few prominent weeds shooting up—right in the middle of my boxwoods. I’m not sure how to get to them without hurting the plant. It’s very irritating. Now, I find that the hardest sins to eliminate are the ones growing up right in the middle of my virtue. I finally get into a good rhythm of prayer and study, only to find I’m taking sinful pride in my habits. I devote myself to a genuinely fruitful ministry, only to discover my identity is wrapped up in it rather than my unity with Christ. How do I eliminate the transgression without killing the transformation? Seeing the weeds in the middle of the shrub reminds me to examine even my virtuous habits for iniquity.
  6. If the roots grow strong and deep enough, the plant will flower again, even if it’s been trampled. I had some people working at my house this week, and they trampled some of the perennials I’d just planted. I had to replace them because I knew the plant wasn’t established enough to survive that sort of turmoil; the roots weren’t deep enough yet. But give those same plants a few more years, and I’d expect them to come back even if they got trampled to the ground. Circumstances will inevitably trample us to the ground. A cancer diagnosis will come, the marriage will hit the skids, layoffs will strike. Though those circumstances might seem to destroy our faith for a while, if our roots go deep enough, we will soon see our peace and joy in Christ flower again.
  7. If you want full blooms, you need to prune and deadhead relentlessly. I spend more time than I care to admit deadheading my petunias, but I want them to keep blooming, so I don’t have any choice. If you want various perennials to flower throughout the season, you have to keep trimming them back. Similarly, if we want to keep vital in our union with Christ, we need to keep pruning any dead branch or leaf or flower from our lives. Do I have any wasted time? Is there any habit that is draining life from me? Is there some good that is the dreaded enemy of God’s best for my life? Snip, snip, snip.
  8. What wondrous variety in God’s creation! One of the reasons I love to garden so much is because I’m never bored. There is always a new flower, a new color, a new shape that I haven’t seen before. How does he do it? He is infinitely, endlessly creative, and I worship him for it. It reminds me that every person is both created in his image and yet wondrously unique. How boring it would be if every flower were yellow! And how boring if every person had my personality, or your gifts, or his passions, or her story. We each bear his image uniquely, to his everlasting praise.
  9. I can’t cause anything to grow, but I can help get the conditions right so that growth can happen. Since I don’t sustain all things through my powerful word, I need to leave the growth of my garden in his hands. But that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for him to do it. I am active: tending the soil, fertilizing, watering, pruning. I want everything I can do to be done well, because I know growth won’t happen apart from it. (He could miraculously sustain my plants, of course, but he chooses not to, and I can’t say I blame him.) So it is with my life in Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, he alone can cause the growth. But that doesn’t mean I’m inactive in my life or the lives of those around me. I use the means of grace—prayer, study, meditation, memorization, fellowship, fasting, evangelism—because I want the conditions for my growth to be ideal. Any good that is in me is his work alone, a gracious gift to an undeserving sinner; but I strive to do all I can to put myself in the right position to receive that gift.
  10. Very little seeds and seedlings can grow very large. You put these tiny dots into a giant bed and hardly expect anything to happen. Soon enough, however, you see the seedling grow and expand until it takes up more of your garden than you’d planned. Jesus himself compared the kingdom to a very small seed, which soon grows until it is almost a tree, large enough for birds to nest in it (Matthew 13:31-32). Don’t despise the day of small things. Just as tiny seeds grow into large plants, tiny acts of devotion grow into true Christlikeness, and tiny relational investments—life-on-life evangelism and discipleship—produce harvests of conversion and growth.

 

Perhaps the most wonderful reminder of all comes any time we transplant a flower, shrub, bush, or tree. You go to the nursery, select a plant, and then make it a part of your home. In Psalm 1:3, the psalmist tells us that the blessed person—the one who delights in God’s Word—is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” The Hebrew word for “planted” means transplanted. It didn’t spring up by the stream on its own. Someone put it there—took the time to prepare the soil, dig the hole, water and care for it until it grew. All of us who are in Christ are there because God chose us, uprooted us from our selfish, self-determining ways, and planted us in him. Every time we plant we preach the gospel of our salvation; and as we care for what we’ve planted, we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing presence and goodness in our lives. That’s a lesson from the garden I’m delighted to keep learning!

 

What other lessons have you learned while out in your garden?



Combating Consumerism in Worship

May 23rd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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For my last post in this short series on worship, I’d like to comment on consumerism’s insidious influence on our worship preferences and practices. That we even need to speak of consumerism in worship represents a deep and shameful irony (and one in which I am sure Satan relishes). After all, what could be more antithetical to worship—which is meant to be wholly Other-centered, the active denial of self in the exaltation of Another—than insisting on our own way? How can self put forth its own interests in such an ugly manner at such a beautiful time? Yet, as we all know, it happens. And it happens not in the pew behind me, but in the dark recesses of my own heart.

 

I want my worship experience to be as I prefer.

 

I want it to be all about me, even as I sing that it’s all about him.

 

How can we mortify this sinful tendency in our hearts and lives? Looking up, fixing our attention on Jesus, will certainly help. Worthy of our worship is the Lamb who was slain, which (if I’ve read the accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane correctly) was not his preference. He died to his self-will for our sakes, and we in response take up our own crosses—crucify our self-will—for his sake.

 

But let me suggest that another helpful remedy is looking around at the Bride of Jesus: his beloved, blood-bought Church. When we look around at the local congregation of believers, we may not see people from every tribe or nation or tongue, but we will still see marvelous diversity—people from different genders and ages and ethnicities. God has gathered us together, and our Christ-centered, gospel-wrought unity is far greater than anything that could possibly divide.

 

Here are three ways looking around at the gathered church will help you mortify your consumerism in worship:

 

  1. It will remind you of the root issue. The heart of the problem, as others have said before me, is the problem of the heart. I am the issue. And looking around at others deeply engaged in authentic worship of a glorious God will remind me of that painful truth. I have often heard people say ridiculous things like, “I just couldn’t worship today.” The comment is inevitably aimed as a jab at the worship leader for failing to create an appropriately worshipful atmosphere. (Make no mistake, by the way: there are things worship leaders can do that inhibit worship, and we need to be mindful of them.) What always surprised me, though, was the number of people surrounding the disgruntled congregant who could worship that day. The glory of God had not departed the church because the song selection was so theologically offensive or anything like that. It was a matter of unfulfilled personal preference. And yes, sin will inhibit your worship, so no wonder you couldn’t worship that day. However, seeing others worship God at a moment when you feel worship is impossible will point out the root issue, which lies within you. Confession, repentance, and re-entry into worship should follow easily enough.
  2. It will encourage an appreciation for diversity. Heaven will be wondrously diverse, and many of our local congregations display at least a modicum of that diversity. With a group as diverse as what you’ll find in a typical church, you can expect very different musical preferences. Some will value tradition, while others will appreciate newness. Some will worship demonstratively (e.g., hands raised, clapping), while others will prefer an inward posture. Some will like rock, some country, some classical, some bluegrass, and on and on. People will have different musical abilities, especially when it comes to their singing range. Now, I would guess worship leaders hear more about key choices than song selection, but the truth is there is no good key for everyone in a congregation. Men and women, for example, sing in very different ranges, so it will be well-nigh impossible for a song to be comfortable for men and women to sing simultaneously (unless it has a shockingly limited range). Looking around at others who seem to be singing with gusto a song that you don’t really like and can’t sing particularly well will remind you that you are not the only member of the congregation. You will then have an opportunity to appreciate and embrace the diversity within your gathered church. (Parents and children will often like different music, of course, and I can only think how gratifying it would be to see your children abandoned in worship—even if you don’t care for the tune!) In fact, if your church is reasonably diverse and you have strong musical opinions, you should expect (and even hope) to like only a portion of the songs each week. And that will be a good thing—for the diverse congregation surrounding you, and for you, as you embrace that diversity for the Lord’s and their sakes.
  3. It will help you love others. This is really just the next step in the same direction. Once you appreciate the diversity of your church (and their musical preferences), and assuming you’ve crucified your self-will, you will now have the opportunity to love the rest of your church. In humble service, you can sing songs that just aren’t your favorite because you see how they are ministering to others and allowing them to experience real intimacy with their Father. In self-crucifying love, you can consider their needs as greater than your own and defer to their preferences. Let me take a practical example. Suppose the song selection that morning contains a few songs on the muted, reflective side of the spectrum. Perhaps one even contains strong expressions of lament. Now, everything is peachy keen in your life, and you’d prefer the happy-clappy (I mean no disrespect for the genre, truly) types instead. As you grow in love, you can be grateful that those who are hurting, depressed, broken that morning have words to express the deep emotion within them—even though it doesn’t resonate with you right then. It is truly an opportunity to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), a tangible expression of our love for one another.

 

We put consumerism to death in our hearts because it is sin, and all sin separates us from our good and gracious God, in whom all delight and pleasure is found. But we put consumerism to death because it separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ too. We look up. We look around. And we sing with undignified passion (2 Samuel 6:22) because he is worthy, and they are family.

 

What other tips would you suggest for combating consumerism in worship?