Combating Consumerism in Worship

May 23rd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

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?



Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?



Solomon on Social Discourse

January 13th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

I have spent a lot of time in Proverbs these past few months owing to the season of life I find myself in, and the desire to grow in wisdom through it. Of course, quite a lot has happened nationally and globally during that stretch of time, including Ferguson, the midterm elections, Charlie Hebdo, and at least 60 Jay Cutler interceptions. Because I have been so immersed in Proverbs while all this transpires, it has served as my filter for interpreting not so much the events themselves, but the often lamentable—and occasionally ridiculous—conversation that follows in the wake of each.sibling-clipart-fight

 

I’ve come to a simple conclusion: we could learn a lot from listening to the wisdom of Proverbs. Though writing a few millennia before Facebook and Twitter were the ubiquitous platform for social discourse, before the 24-hour “news” cycle, before the internet increased the amount of available information (factual or otherwise) exponentially while simultaneously reducing knowledge calamitously, Solomon got social discourse. And we would be fools to ignore him.

 

For the sake of brevity—appropriate in any conversation about Proverbs—I will confine myself to wisdom drawn from a single chapter, Proverbs 18. Here are six proverbs,
brimful and overflowing with wisdom that is convicting, humbling, and relentlessly apropos.

 

  1. “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (18:2). The contrast here is important, because the two halves of this proverb aren’t perfect opposites. One might expect, “Fools find no pleasure in keeping their mouths shut but delight in airing their own opinions,” or “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in their robust ignorance,” but that’s not what Solomon has to say. The issue, then, seems to be that fools skip past the understanding phase and jump directly to the soapbox phase. Not a wise choice—but clearly a common one, as a quick scan of the comments section of any political piece will quickly show. Solomon doesn’t tell us what the wise do, but we can assume he would counsel the opposite (as he does in 10:14): the wise would find pleasure in growing in understanding, knowledge, and discernment, all the while holding their tongues until they were sure of where they stand, and sure that it was solid ground! (And even then, one suspects many of the wise would still refrain from entering the fray, especially in certain social media contexts, where productive conversation is well-nigh impossible.)

(I’m not going to cover it, but some might benefit from reflection on Proverbs 18:6—“The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating”—at this point. Could be helpful!)

  1. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts” (18:8). We tend to limit this verse to hushed conversations between “frenemies” in high school hallways (or sharing “prayer requests” in small groups), but I think it has a lot to say about social discourse too. Gossip and slander do not only apply to those we know personally; we may just as easily spread malicious misinformation about celebrities, politicians, and those thrust by terrible circumstances into the global spotlight. Many spread gossip about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson (as they had about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman a few years prior) based on the flimsiest of sources. In part this is because we delight in airing our own opinions, so we rushed to print as much as any newspaper ever has, but in part this is because we really enjoy gossip, as Solomon points out. It is much more fun to judge someone else’s character (ignorantly, I might add), but far wiser to judge our own—and to seek God’s insight as we do (see 16:2).
  2. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (18:13). This is an extremely short and damningly incisive proverb. Others may feel more conviction elsewhere, but for me—prone as I am to offer my opinion on any subject without solicitation—this is a spiritual punch in the gut. Having read through the comments section on various editorials (or editorials cleverly disguised as objective reporting) too many times for my own health, I know I should not be alone in feeling this way. To answer before ensuring I have true understanding of a subject is folly and shame, because people will expose me as an ignorant fraud (see 17:28 also), and will embarrass me for it. Indeed, I would hazard to guess that the greatest shame will be my own, knowing I have acted beneath my calling as a child of God, and have wounded others carelessly. A far better choice would be to follow the wisdom of the next proverb on our list.
  3. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out” (18:15). In marked contrast to fools—who answer before listening, air their own opinions gleefully, and gorge themselves on gossip—are the discerning. These men and women intentionally pursue knowledge and understanding. (Note, by the way, that is says nothing about expressing that knowledge, once attained. See 12:23.) I find it especially interesting that Solomon says “the ears of the wise seek it out.” Whereas fools answer before listening, the discerning make a point of seeking out people to whom they should and will listen, in order to grow in understanding. How differently would many recent events have turned out if people had chosen to listen first, rather than pontificating (which is never wise)!
  4. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18:17). Though Solomon uses an illustration from the courtroom, the point he makes has broad implications. One of the challenges we face today is the increasing politicization of “knowledge,” so that one may happily consume information that is already filtered and interpreted according to one’s political/religious/philosophical bent (see MSNBC and Fox News especially, never mind The New Republic and National Review). This leads to entrenched positions based on half a story—never a good recipe for wisdom. I’ve written more on this elsewhere, so I’ll leave it to you to revisit it.
  5. Finally, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). This is a famous and sweeping statement, one that should influence every word we speak or write. (Its New Testament equivalent, Ephesians 4:29, is equally broad and polarized.) Our words have tremendous power, far more than any physical strength we may possess, and we must wield them with overwhelming sensitivity. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can absolutely and utterly eviscerate my being (see Proverbs 12:18). If this is true, one can only cry out with the psalmist, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). And these days, we may add, “Set a guard over my keyboard, LORD; keep watch over the post button on my phone.” Amen and amen!


Tendentiously Tense

May 13th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

My brother was a gymnast, so my whole family was interested in the sport and watched it avidly, especially during the Olympics. I can keenly remember watching the Magnificent Seven win the gold in 1996 while we were on summer vacation. My favorite event, by far, is the balance beam. To execute any of those maneuvers on the floor seems challenging enough; to perform them on a four-inch-wide beam defies understanding. To undertake the sublime knowing that a small misstep will send you tumbling to one side or the other—that is remarkable.

 

It’s not much different in the Christian life.

 

Theologians, amateur and professional, attempt the sublime—to put into words the wonder of the incomprehensible God—knowing that a small misstep will send us crashing down into one error or another. The balance beam is an apt metaphor for theology because so much balance and precision are needed. I know of no heresy that isn’t simply an overemphasis on a truth that must instead be held in tension with other truths. So to synthesize the riches of God’s counsel on any issue feels like landing a complicated maneuver on a four-inch-wide beam.

 

Witness the great Trinitarian heresies of the first few centuries after Christ, which all either overemphasized the one-ness of God (as in modalism) or the three-ness of God (often by denying equality among the three persons, as in Arianism). Just a short while later, new heresies arose with regard to the two natures of Jesus—some overemphasizing his divinity, others his humanity. The great creeds of the historic church are great precisely because they embrace the tension.[1]

 

The problem remains today. While debates on the Trinity and Christ’s two natures persist to some extent—among Oneness Pentecostals and Mormons, for example—these debates have been largely settled within historic Christianity. But that doesn’t mean we are no longer in danger of falling off of any balance beams. Consider just a few issues today where overemphasizing one side will lead to an ignominious tumble.

 

  1. God’s Holiness and Love. There seems to be an overwhelming desire to reduce God to one of his attributes, or at least to elevate one to a position of primacy. The heart of God’s character is love, some might say, which has to inform our every discussion about him. Overemphasizing this leads to libertinism or universalism with alarming frequency (witness Rob Bell or Madeline L’Engle for the latter, and many discussions of same-sex marriage for the former). Others would point to God’s holiness as his primary characteristic (as in Islam), leading to a vision of God that is harsh and distant. God, however, reveals himself in Scripture to be both simultaneously. John the Elder can affirm with equal emphasis that God is light and God is love (cf. 1 John 1:5; 4:8). God does not act in holiness at some times and act in love at other times. When he acts, he acts in perfect holiness and love (and goodness and wisdom and power and knowledge etc.) always.
  2. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Does God sovereignly ordain every act in history—including the acts of humanity—so that nothing happens which he does not will to occur? Or do humans possess genuine freedom so that they can thwart the divine will by their choices? In other words, does human freedom limit God’s sovereignty or does God’s sovereignty limit human freedom? (Talk about a false dichotomy!) Pelagians, semi-Pelagians, and Open Theists would all affirm the latter, arguing that if humans do not possess “genuine” freedom (i.e., power of contrary choice), then they can bear no responsibility for their actions. Hyper-Calvinists and fatalists affirm the former, such that humans really do not have freedom (but who are we, o humanity, to talk back to God?). Scripture, however, affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (cf. Acts 4:27-28). What Scripture affirms as compatible, we should also—even when it involves logical tension!
  3. Justification and Sanctification. Some prefer to emphasize God’s saving grace, whereby God justifies sinners, adopting them to sonship through the blood of his Son, offered freely in love. Others emphasize God’s sanctifying grace, whereby God transforms sinners into the likeness of his Son, so that they are holy even as he is holy. Both represent a truncated gospel. Emphasizing the former over against the latter leads to libertinism and passivity; emphasizing the latter over against the former leads to legalism and dead religion. Interestingly, almost every epistle is written to combat one or the other of these extremes. Jude and James come out strongly against the libertinism of emphasizing saving grace only, while Galatians and Colossians vehemently oppose the legalism of emphasizing sanctifying grace only. (Of course, the New Testament writers are wise enough to communicate both simultaneously: witness the transition from Galatians 4 to Galatians 5!) We should do likewise.

 

These are a few representative examples, but many more abound. One can easily discern the temptation to embrace tendentiousness instead of tension in issues as wide-ranging as women in ministry, charismatic gifts, end times, and even worship practices. (I will leave it to the reader to determine where overemphasis commonly occurs in each of these areas.)

 

Even this brief scan of some common, shall we say, unplanned dismounts would seem to counsel caution. We must consider the whole counsel of God and give due emphasis to everything Scripture says on an issue. If we are going to insist on any point, we should insist on maintaining the balance. In other, more alliterative words, we should strive to be tendentiously tense.



[1] Note especially how the Athanasian Creed expresses the tension inherent in both of these issues.



The Accountable Heart

April 9th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,

There is a lot of buzz about “authentic community” these days, stemming from either a robust reflection on key biblical teachings or millennial chutzpah about how much better at relating they are than previous generations. Regardless, the writers of Scripture place a transparent emphasis on genuine, biblical fellowship. This is a central component of life in the Spirit—and central to authentic community is the notion of accountability.

 

Accountability simply means inviting others to examine your life in the light of Scripture, to call you out when you stray from the right paths, wittingly or not. We act as living mirrors in each other’s lives (James 1:22-24), speaking the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:14-15), gently and humbly restoring those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1).

 

The trouble with accountability, though, is that it is only as effective as our hearts are open. So what does an accountable heart look like? David paints a fine picture:

 

                I call to you, LORD, come quickly to me;

                                hear me when I call to you.

                May my prayer be set before you like incense;

                                may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

 

                Set a guard over my mouth, LORD;

                                keep watch over the door of my lips.

                Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil

                                so that I take part in wicked deeds

                along with those who are evildoers;

                                do not let me eat their delicacies.

 

                Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;

                                let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.

                My head will not refuse it,

                                for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers. (Psalm 141:1-5)

 

David begins by pleading for grace. He knows that he cannot have what he seeks apart from the gracious intervention of the sovereign Lord. But what does he seek specifically? He wants to keep himself from evil, from wicked deeds (especially sins of the tongue, it seems, based on his opening two petitions). These are prayers many of us have prayed many times, I would guess. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

 

But what comes next caught me off guard. David expects grace might come in the form of authentic community. In effect, he says, “Should you choose to answer this prayer by sending me someone to rebuke me, I would welcome that, Father.” Because his desire for sanctification is strong—his prayer is still “against the deeds of evildoers”—he is a glad participant in the ministry of accountability. And he is truly glad: it isn’t just that he would accept rebuke when it comes; he will receive it as a kindness, as precious as an anointing with oil.[1]

 

I wish we had a good chronology for the Psalms. Did David write this after his experience with Nathan the prophet (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14 and Psalm 51)? Had he already experienced the grace of rebuke? Is that why he celebrates and seeks it here? We will never know—but we know how powerful the ministry of accountability is when the heart is open to receive it.

 

So let us open our hearts to receive it now, pleading with God for this grace . . . just like David.



[1] See Psalm 133:1-2 for a good sense of just how precious oil on the head is to David!



I Am My Own War Horse

April 4th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Israel had trust issues.

 

Despite God’s unfailing love, unrelenting faithfulness, they so rarely managed to trust him for salvation. Had he rescued them from captivity in Egypt? Of course—dramatically. Had he delivered them into the Promised Land despite the size and strength of the inhabitants? Yup. Had he saved them from foreign yokes? Time and time again, whether Moabite, Edomite, Philistine.

 

And yet, whenever trouble threatened, they couldn’t seem to remember how faithful he had been. Rather than trust him, they put their trust in the flesh—treaties with Egypt or Assyria, size of the standing army, diplomatic bribes.

 

The unnamed author of Psalm 33 points out the folly of this approach:

               

The king is not saved by his great army;

                                a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

                  The war horse is a false hope for salvation,

                                and by its great might it cannot rescue. (33:16-17, ESV)

 

Now I’m not much for trusting in standing armies or looking to foreign powers for deliverance, but I still see this Israelite tendency in my own heart.

 

You see, I am my own war horse.

 

I trust in myself. I trust that I can handle what comes my way in the strength of my flesh. I trust I can carry out my God-given responsibilities—husbanding my wife, parenting my children, shepherding my church—on my own. I trust in the earthen vessel, not the treasure within.

 

I can prepare an adequate sermon because of my theological training. I can structure a discipleship ministry through my past experience. I can instruct and discipline my children based on any number of books I have read.

 

I am my own war horse. God help me! What hope do I have if I depend on myself?

 

If I trusted in God and not myself, I would pray more. I would dwell in his Word more. I would humble myself more. I would seek his face before I sought an answer or action step or vision or strategy.

 

The battle is the Lord’s, the victory is his, and the fame will rightly be his too.

 

“But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18, NIV).



Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.

 

Until another comes forward, that is.

 

Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.

 

Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!

 

The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.

 

Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.

 

  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.


Devotional: “Act Like a Child” (Mark 9:30-37)

July 31st, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

This story opens with Jesus predicting his brutal death for a second time. The disciples are either unwilling or unable to understand what he means by this. They expect a conquering military king, so his death makes little sense to them. But they are afraid to ask him anymore about it—probably because they are scared to hear the answer he might give. They prefer their uncomprehending delusions.

 

As they continue on their way to Capernaum, they do not keep silent—even if they won’t ask Jesus about the cross. Instead they fall to arguing about which of the disciples is the greatest. Presumably this quarrel arises because three have seemed to be favored by Jesus (Peter, James and John), and so might have a claim to greatness, and the others have failed to cast out a demon in the meantime, and so might be disparaged as less than great.

 

Whatever the cause of this schoolyard squabble, we cannot miss the absurd incongruity of the moment. Jesus has just said he is going to die an ignominious death for the sake of his people—the fullest expression of self-sacrificing love the world will ever know; his disciples respond by playing spiritual King of the Hill. A more striking contrast in attitudes about self I cannot fathom.

 

Rather than rebuke them sharply, Jesus gives them an object lesson. One of the most profound kingdom reversals—when Jesus takes an upside-down world and flips it right-side up—concerns greatness. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (verse 35). That is true greatness—the greatness of the Servant King. To illustrate his point, he takes a child in his arms—a child accorded no status in that cultural context. In fact, in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), the word for child and servant were the same. Effectively, Jesus says, “You must become like this little child, who owns neither status nor significance in the eyes of the world, whose very name means servant.” This is what we embrace when we embrace the call of Christ.

 

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” One of the weightiest deaths we die in following Christ is to our own status-seeking. Do you want to be great like Jesus? Then act like a child. Make yourself nothing, the servant of all.

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. In what ways do you still seek status and recognition? How will you put these desires to death in the Spirit for the sake of Christ?
  2. Would those closest to you think of you as one who loves to serve or one who loves to be served? How will you pursue a lifestyle of service towards others?
  3. Think of at least one practical way you can humble yourself and serve someone else (anonymously, ideally) each day for the rest of the week.


Emotional Modesty

June 25th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

The first in a short series on the biblical virtue of modesty. Despite the Church’s lax stance on the issue today, Scripture nevertheless commands and expects modesty from those who follow Christ. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8).

 

Whether we choose to listen or not, the Bible has much to say on the issue of modesty. Our whole lives, really, should reflect the modesty of our meek and mighty Savior. We are to have his attitude: not drawing attention to ourselves, but rather humbly serving others in love (cf. Philippians 2:1-11). Of course, modest dress is but one expression of a modest heart. A person who cannot help but shade every story he tells so that others will be impressed by his accomplishments struggles with immodesty as much as any girl who wears tight-fitting, body-revealing clothing. Both seek idolatrous attention through illicit means; both lack faith in God and need a greater understanding of who they are in Christ.

 

Nevertheless, I plan to focus in this series on modesty as it relates to clothing specifically. In so doing, I will address women exclusively (though I would recommend men read and internalize the information too). Some will protest that this is a double-standard, sexism, discrimination, and a host of other dirty words in contemporary culture. If by these words my opponents mean to suggest that I treat men and women as fundamentally different, having different struggles and needs, then I accept the charge unabashedly. God made us very different and we would be fools to minimize that difference in the name of a misguided tolerance. Title IX has no relevance when it comes to the essentials of gender.

 

It should come as no surprise, then, that Scripture addresses the issue of modesty very differently for men and women. When discussing proper adornment, modest dress, the writers of Scripture address women exclusively. They understood the fundamental differences between the genders. Paul, for example, says, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9-10, emphasis added). Peter, while not using the word modesty outright, still raises the issue for women specifically (1 Peter 3:1-6). When “discrimination” simply means making God-created distinctions, we should have no reservations.

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean modesty has no relevance for men at all; quite the contrary, really. While I will aim the rest of this series at women, it is worth addressing men briefly now. Women need to clothe themselves modestly in part because men are attracted visually primarily. Thus, an indecently dressed woman may cause a man to stumble, to have lustful, illicitly sexual thoughts about her. Women, however, are attracted emotionally primarily. Thus, a man must keep himself emotionally modest. A man may cause a woman to stumble—perhaps even by compromising herself sexually—by speaking to her with falsely intimate words, trying to arouse emotions that have no place outside of marriage (and perhaps the final stages of courtship). Men who flirt shamelessly are as immodest (emotionally) as women who reveal their bodies to every passing male. (I don’t think we go too far to call them emotionally promiscuous, in truth.)

 

Men, if this description fits you, it is time to examine your lives and make the necessary changes in the light of God’s grace and by the power of the Spirit. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).



Postmodern Humility

April 10th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

There is a false humility that breeds subjectivity and precludes certainty. Because we cannot know anything absolutely, we assume we can know nothing adequately—and forbid others from thinking or speaking so.

 

There is another humility, born of conviction, that produces faithful service and selfless love. Because we know some things with certainty, we act with conviction and grace-driven purpose.

 

To one of these we are called. To the other we succumb with alarming frequency, giving in to the fads and falsehoods of this present darkness.