Evil Unmasked

February 14th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In the short essay “After Ten Years,” which serves as prologue now to Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an astute observation:


It is one of the most surprising experiences, but at the same time one of the most incontrovertible, that evil—often in a surprisingly short time—proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of every action; but it does mean that deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation has exactly the opposite effect. (10)


When we choose to disobey God, to transgress the moral law written on our hearts, it invariably goes poorly for us—and, as Bonhoeffer points out, often in a short time. Evil unmasks itself as folly. That is, sin is not only wrong, but positively foolish, for it never obtains the object it seeks. In fact, often it obtains precisely the opposite of what it seeks.


Part of this involves what some have referred to as the “boomerang” nature of sin. Sinful actions against other people frequently return, like a boomerang, to cause harm against the evildoer. The psalmists recognize this “incontrovertible” truth, and frequently cling to it when being assailed by wicked people. Take, for example, Psalm 7:14-16:


Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment;

Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.

The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.


Or Psalm 9:15-16:


The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.


I especially like that last couplet, because it combines the notion of God’s justice with the boomerang nature of sin. In God’s justice, you reap what you sow.


It isn’t difficult to see how this works today. When we foolishly choose to sin against others, we experience the consequences of our folly. We maliciously slander our competition in order to make ourselves look better, only to discover that people now think worse of us because we’ve been exposed as petty, self-serving, untrustworthy. We erupt in anger, take justice into our own vengeful hands, and, rather than turn the metaphorical cheek, strike him on his literal cheek. Now we discover we have justice coming our way in the form of an assault charge. Our “deliberate transgression” has produced “exactly the opposite effect” from what we intended and desired. Evil unmasks itself as folly.


But this isn’t only true with these “boomerang” scenarios, where harm we envisioned for another comes back on us. No, it proves equally true with any deliberate transgression of the divine law in service of self. When we seek satisfaction apart from and in rebellion against God, we will find ultimate disappointment. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, this isn’t true in an ultimate (i.e., eternal) sense only; it often proves true in a “surprisingly short time.”


Take the pursuit of false intimacy through illicit sexual relationships. Many pursue intimacy (seek true love) by hopping into bed before a covenantal commitment is in place. Statistics (never mind a brief perusal of social media) consistently demonstrate how foolish this is. Not only does this lead to less sexual satisfaction, it hardens the heart to true intimacy should the opportunity ever arise. Because we settle for the cheap imitation, we can no longer enjoy the genuine article. Cohabitation, an ever-growing trend, seems like a stepping stone to marriage. Let’s try this out for a bit, see if we’re compatible, and then make an informed decision. One would expect this might lead to a decrease in divorce rates, but the opposite is markedly true. Couples who cohabit before marriage are far more likely to divorce (undoubtedly because they bring a consumerist/contractual, not a covenantal, mentality to the marriage). Evil unmasks itself as folly.


We could multiply examples. Harboring bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at you like a cancer, frequently affecting other relationships too, while leaving the object of your bitterness untouched. Arrogance makes people less likely to listen to your opinion, and makes them rejoice all the more when you are wrong (which you will be). Complaining steals joy, breeds discontent, whereas gratitude increases joy and contentment even in the midst of adversity.


The conclusion seems easy enough to draw. When is sin ever a good idea? Never mind the offense it gives a holy God (reason enough to pause and reconsider!)—it simply won’t accomplish what you want. It will produce the opposite effect.


So the next time you’re tempted to sin, consider that the evil desire is not only wrong, but downright foolish!

The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.


Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!


In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:


[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.


All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)


But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:


The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]


These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.


One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.

[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.

Love and a Multitude of Sins

November 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon among Christians today: when it comes to sin in the church, we speak when we should remain silent, and remain silent when we should speak.


If someone sins against me, causing personal offense—by which we usually mean a wounded ego—I am likely to confront the person, sharing my hurt and frustrations with him. It is almost unforgivable that someone who claims Christ as Lord could treat me in this unholy manner! However, if I see that same brother reckless in a sin that does not injure me—does not wound my pride or comfort—I am likely to keep quiet and not involve myself. After all, what if he becomes angry with me? It just isn’t worth the headache to admonish someone—unless his sin causes me more discomfort than confronting him does.


I think we have got this perfectly backwards.


Jesus commands us—not a polite request, mind you, but a demand from the Lord Almighty—to deal with sin in the church decisively: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This is to be done privately, at least initially, as Jesus goes on to explain (18:16); and it is to be done gently and humbly, mindful of our own propensity to sin and need of grace (Galatians 6:1). Above all, it is to be done lovingly. But that is the point, of course: to refrain from speaking—to leave a brother or sister in their sin without the exhortation and support of the fellowship of believers—is no love at all. It is indifference, perhaps the severest form of hatred for a family member. (And we are family.) James understands this well, writing to his scattered flock, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). To save a sibling from death, to cover over a multitude of sins—is this not love?[1]


The trouble comes when we have been personally offended. When this happens, as it will inevitably in the fellowship of sinners, we so rarely respond in love. Instead, we respond in pride and anger—damnable sins, to be sure. I suspect God calls us to forgive without admonition in these cases to keep us from the temptation to pride, to keep us in the humble experience of grace. As he so often does, Bonhoeffer strikes at the heart of the matter: “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sins is there no apology whatsoever.” Our community life usually suggests the reverse. Remember, just a few verses after Jesus commands us to call out a sinful sin, he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matthew 18:21; cf. 23-25). The parable’s powerful lesson is apropos: how can we trifle with a sibling who owes us a small debt—spare change, really—when we see the immensity of the debt God has canceled in our own lives? Paul expresses it tersely, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). We remain silent for our own sakes, pray for our siblings, entrust them to the infallible work of the Spirit. We forego pride. We choose love.


Love. Love compels us to speak, compels us to call the beloved, but wayward sibling to the abundant life Christ tenders. And love compels us to fall silent, to contemplate the magnitude of God’s love in our own lives, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

[1] The language of covering over a multitude of sins calls to mind 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here Peter makes explicit the connection between love and overcoming sin.

Idealistic Realism

November 6th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Idealism and realism are often set in tension. One can cling to ideals, living by a set of principles that others admire outwardly even as they reject them as naïve, simplistic, unrealistic; or one can embrace the harsh reality of the “way the world works” and compromise on those ostensibly noble principles in order to effect real change. But, conventional wisdom has it, you cannot do both.


By the grace of God, we as Christians can gleefully reject conventional wisdom. I would suggest that, as Christians, we are called precisely to the via media, the delicate balance between two opposing ideas. We are called to an idealistic realism.


As Christians, we cannot spurn our ideals. We are called to live counter-culturally, and to be uncompromising in our commitment to the principles upheld in God’s Word. If that proves challenging—especially when compromise could provide an easy solution—well, we embrace the challenge as a trial sent by God to perfect our character (James 1:2-4). Of course, those who ridicule the idealists—young ones especially—for naïve optimism frequently have a point. The world is harsh, and people who cling to ideals often get trampled over. However, our mistake lies in thinking that this is the ultimate reality. The “real world” is poorly named, for this world is passing away. The ultimate cannot be found in the world. Reality is, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, found only in God: “The wise man is aware of the limited receptiveness of reality for principles; for he knows that reality is not built upon principles but that it rests upon the living and creating God.”[1] If our ideals (not principles, but the revelation of God) and reality rest upon the living God, they should remain indissolubly linked.


So what, then, is the true via media? Not a choice between idealism and realism; rather, the true via media is avoiding the extremes of naïve optimism and cynical pragmatism. These are unbiblical extremes.


Naïve optimism blinds itself to the reality that rests on God, settling for a clichéd version of robust biblical truth. This hollow approach to Christianity produces greeting-card theology, and simply cannot engage meaningfully with the brutal reality of this world. Jesus did not seek to shelter his followers from the bleakest possible appraisal of the coming times (cf. John 16:33), and the apostles and prophets harped on it unceasingly. We should be no different. Not everything will come up roses—and even when it does, we may find our brows thorn-pricked still. We follow a crucified Savior, and we who have been called to a life of discipleship have been called to die. That is the brutal reality we face.


At the same time, we are not called to cynical pragmatism. Cynical pragmatists sneer condescendingly at the optimists and idealists because they think they have a better grasp of reality. Life is hard, compromise is inevitable, and so pragmatists counsel doing what works, pursuing the utilitarian at the occasional expense of the ideal. Churches capitulate to this most American philosophy when they cast aside the ideals of Scripture in pursuit of superficial ministry goals. The excesses of the church-growth movement are undeniably founded on this sandy premise. But this sort of compromise refuses to trust in the revelation of God (one thinks of issues like prayer, sacrificial giving, and the long obedience of discipleship), and instead relies sinfully on human ingenuity to accomplish a lesser vision.


Take money as an example of how each alternative knocks us off course. The naïve optimist imagines that certain contextualized promises in Scripture guarantee financial provision, neglecting those passages that speak of trial, famine, hardship. (The faithful suffer along with the sinful when God brings judgment on the land, after all.) The cynical pragmatist, however, adopts the world’s wisdom on the subject, the same approach to retirement, savings, even giving (giving levels among Christians are scarcely higher than the nation at large). They neglect Scripture’s teaching on daily bread, the idolatrous dangers of saving, sacrificial giving. (The woman Jesus commended gave away her money for food, after all.)


Idealistic realists, however, can tread the fine line between these two unbiblical extremes. They recognize the harsh reality of the world, while at the same time clinging unshakably to the ideals revealed in Scripture.


Speaking of ethics—the way we should live our lives in the light of the brutality of this world and the promises of God—Bonhoeffer writes, “Formalism and casuistry set out from the conflict between the good [the ideal] and the real, but the Christian ethic can take for its point of departure the reconciliation, already accomplished, of the world with God and the man Jesus Christ and the acceptance of the real man by God.”[2] As Christians, we joyfully acknowledge the reconciliation of the real and the ideal in Christ, and live like it is true.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1949; reprint New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 71.

[2] Ibid., 87.

Faith and Feelings

May 14th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As evangelicals, we tend to promote “faith not feeling” as a necessary reminder that we do not live by our changing emotions (driven by changing circumstances) but by the unchanging rock of God’s Word and character. All this is right and good. But is there more to it than that?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on Spinoza, wrote, “Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.”[1] I suspect there is a good bit of truth in this. We are called to be joyful always (1 Thessalonians 5:16): shouldn’t this joy, rooted in the eternal work of God, overcome a host of lesser emotions, rooted in the vicissitudes of life? We have been created, called, redeemed, reconciled, adopted by God in Christ. We acknowledge this truth by faith—not feeling—but it produces within us the feeling that overwhelms all others.


The joy of eternity expels the sorrow, anger, fear of the moment.

[1] Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., trans. Reginald Fuller, Frank Clark, and John Bowden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971): 375.

Teaching Itching Ears

November 10th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Youth ministry can be a frustrating activity. Not the youths themselves, mind you; they bring curiosity, energy, vitality to the disciple-making enterprise. No, the trouble is the warnings shouted at those of us who have the privilege of ministering to youth.


You mustn’t talk of theology, we are told, for they will grow bored quickly. Our children need games, activities, to keep them interested and involved. No wonder many youth leaders seem better equipped to lead games than rightly divide the Word of truth—useful though it is for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. (And if youth ministry isn’t about those things, then what is it?)


In a bit of perverse irony, some in the church have now turned Paul’s teaching on its head: Don’t preach the Word; instead, to suit the “desires” of your audience, say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:2-3).


Give them biblical meat and they will choke on it, we are told. They are just children. Keep giving them milk. But considering that a majority of teens who attend youth group abandon the church after they graduate, perhaps it is time for a different tack. Cut the spiritual umbilical cord. Teach them to chew and swallow the most rigorous truths of Scripture.


In trying to make our youth groups “relevant” and “applicable,” have we lost our way?


As Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. . . . Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”


The Scriptures are difficult but powerful, God’s word does not return to him void, Christ alone has the words of life. Let us live and minister like we believe this. Even when it comes to our youth.