Posts tagged ‘Faith’

Keeping Perspective in COVID-19 Times

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Credit: cottonbroPexels

At Concordia in San Antonio where I serve as one of the pastors, we are sending out a weekly “check-in.” People can voluntarily “check-in” with us by answering a few questions about how they’re doing during this pandemic. For a lot of people, just knowing that someone cares and is concerned about them is enough to give them a little boost in their spirits.

This past week, I had an old friend, who is also a pastor, call and check-in with me just to see how I was doing. We caught up on a whole host of ministry triumphs and challenges and talked about how we are navigating a situation the likes of which neither one of us has ever seen. They don’t offer a class on “pandemic response” in seminary. Or, if they did, I missed it.

To keep my spirits up during this time, I have had to fight to keep my perspective. These words from the apostle Paul have become words I’ve turned to again and again when I’ve felt like my spirits were sinking and my perspective was darkening:

We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

There is so much perspective packed into these few verses.

Many of us feel like “we are wasting away.” Whether we have contracted COVID-19, or are just struggling to keep ourselves in shape when gyms are closed, junk food is plentiful, and the sofa is inviting, a lot of our bodies are taking a hit. But even apart from a pandemic, our bodies would waste away anyway. Every body eventually breaks down and falls prey to the wages of sin, which are death. And yet, Paul says, we can be “renewed day by day.” God – one day at a time – can meet us in His Word and refresh us by His Spirit. Our bodily wasting away does not need to result in a deeper spiritual decay.

Paul continues by comparing “our light and momentary troubles” with “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” This little word “far,” in Greek, is a three-word-phrase: hyperbolen eis hyperbolen. We get our word “hyperbole” from this word, which refers to something that is over-the-top. The glory that awaits us in eternity, Paul says, will be over-the-top and so over-the-top that we will look back and scoff at the troubles we are now facing. God’s glory will one day wipe away this pandemic’s gory sicknesses and deaths.

Because we long for this glory, Paul concludes, we should “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” because “what is unseen is eternal.” In other words, instead of fretting over this day’s news, we are to be people who look forward to the day when all things will be made new in Christ Jesus. What we are seeing now is temporary. What remains unseen – but what will one day be seen when Christ reveals it to us – is eternal.

I wish I was better at keeping Paul’s perspective. I, just like anyone else, can get caught up in “our light and momentary troubles.” But when I’m tempted to fall prey to pity, these words call me back. These words give me hope. And because of hope:

We do not lose heart.

April 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

2019: Year in Review

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Credit: Ulrike Leone from Pixabay 

It’s hard to believe another year has come and is now nearly gone. This year has had its share of memorable moments. There were the accelerating attacks on houses of worship – synagogues, mosques, and churches. There were the wildfires that devastated California and Hurricane Dorian that decimated the Bahamas. There was the huge controversy surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, which experienced problems with one of its automated flight control systems, resulting in two deadly crashes. Politically, there was the impeachment of a president and the death of Elijah Cummings, a fixture in the US House of Representatives. And then, of course, in a story that will reach into 2020, there is a presidential election brewing.

It’s difficult not to experience a bit of déjà vu as I look back over this year’s big stories. Deadly rampages continue to terrorize communities and cultures. Natural disasters, a staple of creation since the introduction of sin, continue to wreak havoc across our nation and throughout the world. Businesses continue to find themselves in PR nightmares. And, our political fissures continue to widen and deepen. None of these problems were new to 2019. These were just new manifestations of old menaces.

Solomon famously wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is most certainly true. But we must also remember that this is not ultimate.

The apostle Peter writes about those who, like Solomon, know that things don’t really change. But they also doubt that anything ever will change. They complain: “Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But Peter knows that even if the axiom “history repeats itself” is true of history, it is not true for the future, which is why Peter holds out this hope:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

Peter says there is a day coming when all the drudgery of this age will be overcome by the delight of the age to come.

But here’s the key: Peter says that, since we know that something better and different is on its way, we ought to “look forward” to what is to come. In Greek, the word for the phrase “look forward” is prosdokeo. Dokeo is a word that denotes “thinking,” and pros is a prefix that denotes “that which is first” or “at the head.” In other words, Peter is admonishing us to “think ahead.” Think ahead to a day when mass murders will die and natural disasters will be rendered unnatural and commerce will be consecrated and politics will care only about King Jesus. Think ahead to that day. Because it will be a supremely good day.

I’m praying for a great 2020. But I’m also hoping for a perfect eternity. I don’t know how God will answer my prayer. But I do know He will fulfill my hope. For my hope is His promise.

December 30, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Learning to Give

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Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Church’s Durability

The Christian faith has staying power. This is both a biblical promise and a statistical reality. The biblical promise is that Christ’s Church is so strong that not even “the gates of Hades will overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The statistical case for the endurance of the faith was laid out by Ross Douthat in a column for The New York Times this past weekend:

Long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom …

The recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

The case for the Church’s remarkable sociological durability is not new with Ross Douthat. Several years ago, Ed Stetzer, then the executive director of LifeWay Research, argued:

Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.

So, what does all this mean?

For churches whose attendances are dropping, there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can and should consider in light of what we know about churches that are growing. Two things specifically come to mind.

First, pandering isn’t helpful. Hospitality, however, is. Pastors and church leaders have, in some corners, tried to pander to a progressive cultural zeitgeist that has a deep-seated distrust in and disgust at the Christian faith.  These leaders have discounted biblical authority and downplayed Christ’s ipseity.  In their rush to make the Christian faith palatable for the world, they have wound up with nothing to offer to the world.  These churches are collapsing.  In other more traditional corners of the Church, pastors and church leaders often spend more time pandering to longtime donors and power brokers within their congregations than they do reaching out to those who have questions about the Christian faith or to those who are skeptical of the Christian faith.  In these types congregations, traditions often trump mission.  These churches, too, are foundering.

Pandering stymies the Church’s mission.  Hospitality, on the other hand, calls churches into mission.  Hospitality is not focused on indulging people’s whims, like pandering is.  Instead, it is focused on loving them. This is why, when he writes about hospitality, the apostle Paul explains:

Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:13-16)

For Paul, hospitality’s proving ground comes in how one treats their enemies.  How does the Church treat its enemies?  Do we lie to them by telling them what they want to hear like some supposedly “enlightened” and non-orthodox congregations do?  Do we reject them by catering to insiders and their preferences as some other congregations do?  Or, do we love them by living for them as Christ lived for us?  The Church must recover its hospitable spirit – especially to outsiders.

Second, faith is meant to be deep and go deep inside of us.  In a culture that is, in many pockets, post-Christian, a shallow or simple faith simply will not answer people’s big questions or stand the test of life’s terrible trials.  The studies above show, as other studies have before, that it is people with shallow faith who are falling away from the Church – not people with deep faith.  This means pep talks that pretend to be sermons will not keep people in church – but neither will dry doctrinal treatises that recycle theological buzzwords ad nauseam by pastors who are more concerned with brandishing their orthodox bona fides than they are with communicating Christ.  Only preaching that exposits the content of the Scriptures, explains how the Scriptures concern us and convict us, proclaims from the Scriptures what Christ has done for us, and then calls us to live out of what Christ has done for us will do.  The Scriptures present a deep faith in a clear way.  The Church should do the same.

Obviously, the Church has not done any of this perfectly – nor will it.  But we should consider how we can do things better.  Blessedly, in spite of our shortcomings, the Church will continues to endure because the Church is as durable as the One who died – and conquered death – for it.  Because Christ conquered death, the Church will not die.  He, finally, is the Church’s durability.

November 4, 2019 at 6:15 am 2 comments

Kissing Dating Goodbye

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Credit: Colin Maynard on Unsplash

I remember reading the book in college. Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye defined what romantic relational purity looked like for Christian kids like me in the late 90s. And yet, even back then, I looked at the book with some skepticism. “Is this really what the Bible teaches about dating?” I wondered.

The man who once gave countless Christian college kids plenty to ponder has now given countless Christian believers plenty to mourn. Recently, Mr. Harris announced that he and his wife were separating. But that wasn’t all. Shortly after announcing the dissolution of his marriage, he offered an even sadder revelation about his faith in an Instagram post:

I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.

Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years – repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.

A man who was once a prominent Christian author – and later also became a pastor – has now publicly declared he is no longer a believer.

The apostle Paul once admonished a pastor named Timothy to continue “holding on to faith and a good conscience” so that he might not, as some in his day did, reject Christ and suffer “shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19).  There seems to be no other way to describe what has happened to Mr. Harris than as a “shipwreck.”

In an article for National Review, David French described the dangers inherent in Mr. Harris’s former view of sex and relationships when he explained that what Mr. Harris argued for:

…wasn’t wanton repression or cruelty. Many parents had entered adulthood wounded by past broken relationships. They regretted the mistakes of their youth and desperately wanted their kids to avoid similar heartbreak. Also – and this is crucial for understanding purity culture – they fervently believed in a specific earthly reward for their child’s youthful obedience. Courtship represented the best method of ensuring a healthy, sexually vibrant marriage to a faithful spouse. 

This is what writer Katelyn Beaty called the “sexual prosperity gospel,” an “if/then” transactional relationship with God that manufactures a series of promises from scripture and then creates a form of Christian entitlement and expectation. “I did what You asked, Lord, now may I see my reward?”

Mr. French’s analysis of the problems in Mr. Harris’s older teaching strikes me as precisely correct. Living legalistically before marriage does not ensure anyone a “happily ever after” sexually or otherwise in marriage.

And yet…

Perhaps, in our haste to highlight the problems with the evangelical purity culture of yesteryear, we have also managed to overlook a bit of its value. Joshua Harris once argued that a Christian should not date – or even kiss a girl – before marriage. Commanding such a thing is rank legalism. Holding up restrained and modest relationships as viable and valuable options, however, might just be okay – and even wise. We do, after all, live in a sexually obsessed society that, in many ways, despises just about anything that even remotely smacks of sexual self-control. In what other culture could a movie like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” be so self-evidentially funny? We love to spurn just about any sexual standard.

So, perhaps it’s not so bad to cut against the grain of our sexually licentious zeitgeist – not so that we can somehow present ourselves as especially holy or manufacture later sexual marital bliss, but because we know that inside of all of us lies a fair amount of sexual weakness. Recognizing that – and drawing humble boundaries in light of that – is not a bad thing.

Before Joshua Harris’s fall from faith, he had previously apologized for much of what he wrote in I Kissed Dating Goodbye:

To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry. I never intended to hurt you. I know this apology doesn’t change anything for you and it’s coming too late, but I want you to hear that I regret any way that my ideas restricted you, hurt you, or gave you a less-than-biblical view of yourself, your sexuality, your relationships, and God.

This was a much-needed apology. But what he wrote next is striking to me:

To those of you who benefitted from my book, I am so grateful that something I wrote helped you.

There were some blessings and benefits in what Joshua Harris once wrote in his now infamous book. In a world that idolizes sex and dating, his book offered a reminder – even if it was a broken and incomplete one – that the romantic relationship you have doesn’t define who you are.

Jesus does.

Sadly, Joshua Harris, in his recantation of his faith, not only rejected his Lord, but defined himself by his mistakes – by his wrongheaded guidance, by his failed marriage, and by the self-righteousness of his past. May I humbly remind him that none of that defines him?

Jesus does.

As Mr. Harris once wrote in his own book:

The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”

God always defines love by pointing to His Son. This was the only way our sins could be forgiven. The innocent One took the place of the guilty. 

Which means the innocent One took the place of Josh, too.

I hope and pray Joshua Harris rediscovers this precious truth. And I hope and pray you, dear reader, hold fast to this precious truth.

August 5, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Faith and Authority

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Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

I find people’s faith stories fascinating.  Take, for instance, Rachel Meyer, who, in an article for the Huffington Post, chronicles her struggle of how she might be able to pass down her faith to her son.

She opens her piece by talking about a man she dated when she was in her early 20s.  When she asked him whether or not he believed in God, he responded, “I believe in ME.”  “I knew in that instant,” she writes, “it would never work between us.”  Why?  Well, she continues:

I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology.  I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world.

Her spiritual world, however, is not what many would expect.  She sums up her creedal commitments by rattling off a litany of things she does not believe:

I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it.  I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks.  I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy.  I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion.

For the record, as a confessional Christian, I don’t believe in many of those things, either.  I do believe in original sin.  But I’m not big on pathological shame.  I do believe in hell.  But I don’t believe that bodily desire gets us there.  I believe that rejecting God’s resurrected Son gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered per se, for He is spirit.  But I do believe that He became incarnate as a man and invites us to approach Him as our Father.  I don’t believe in shutting out LGBTQIA+ people – or anyone else, for that matter – but I do believe we must take seriously the sexual contours outlined in Scripture and consider that perhaps they are there for the sake of our safety and thriving.  I most certainly do believe in the substitutionary atonement.  And I most certainly loathe white supremacy.  It is inimical to the very nature of who the Church is to be – the redeemed “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).  A good portion of the fun of figuring out what you think about nationalism is figuring out how to define it, as this podcast from Arthur Brooks reminds us.  But regardless of how you define nationalism and what you think of it, I most certainly believe that I am a member of God’s household before I am a citizen of any nation.

But behind our individual instances of agreement and disagreement lies some bigger questions:  How does one decide what to believe?  To what authority does one turn to shape one’s beliefs?

There is a canon of beliefs that Rachel Meyer wants to hand down to her son:

I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral.  I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals.  I want him to learn that Jesus – like Buddha and Muhammad – was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.

Okay.  I agree that selflessness is critical – even to the Gospel itself.  Gentleness is a member of the Spirit’s fruit.  And concerning ourselves with justice in society is beautifully prophetic.  But why are selflessness, gentleness, and social justice in while the substitutionary atonement is out?  Rachel never quite answers these questions.

In the end, Rachel seems to have cobbled together a faith that is not based on much of anything besides her own affections and aversions.  What she likes in faith, she keeps.  What she doesn’t like, she trashes.

The humorist Anne Lamott once told the story of a priest friend of hers, Tom, who would say, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Tom is right.  To be a person of faith is to be, among other things, a person under divine authority.  Only a fool would believe that their own opinions and preferences would always match up with God’s commands and revelation.  This is why, for millennia now, Christians have turned to the pages of Scripture to discover God’s commands and character, even when His commands and character unsettle us, puzzle us, or even offend us.  We approach the pages of Holy Writ humbly, wondering what we have missed, what we must learn, and how can change.

If your God always agrees with you, then it’s safe to assume that the “god” you believe in is really just a thinly veiled version of you, which means that your god can’t help you, challenge you, stretch you, or save you because he is you.  So why bother with him at all?

Perhaps Rachel has more in common with her old love interest than she lets on.  “I believe in ME,” he said.  It sounds like she could say the same thing, too.

June 24, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When Your Family Becomes Your Enemy

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Jesus proffers plenty of tough challenges over the course of His ministry, but one of His toughest moments comes when He warns His disciples:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

Jesus’ words here make me grimace every time I think about giving a sweet wake-up kiss to my daughter or hoisting my son up over my head as he squeals with delight.  I love my family fiercely.  I would guess that you do, too.  Jesus’ words sound harsh.  And yet, Jesus’ words are also needed.  Here’s why.

Part of the background for Jesus’ teaching comes from God’s instruction to Moses:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. (Deuteronomy 13:6-8)

God loves families.  But He also knows that family structures, like everything else in creation, are marked and marred by sin.  Even family members can lead us astray.  Some family members can lead other family members into idolatry.  God’s worship, Deuteronomy 13 reminds us, must trump even our own family’s wishes.

Sometimes, then, as Jesus warns, we may fight with our families.  Our own family members may, at times, feel like our enemies.  We may put faith first while other family members do not.  We may declare, “Jesus is Lord,” while other family members live as if they are their own lords.  Such faith divisions can cause relational frictions.  And yet, fighting with our family over such transcendent questions can, ultimately, prove to be fighting for our family.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true hope.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true peace.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience God’s promise of and invitation to life.  And so, even when it’s tough and even though rejection is a real possibility, we are called to carry the gospel to everyone – including our own family.

Over my years in ministry, I have had to encourage more than one parent who had a wayward child to draw boundaries and demand accountability.  Yes, this would mean that a parent might have to fight with their child.  But this would also mean that a parent was fighting for their child because they love their child and want what is best for their child – even if the child doesn’t want what is best for their own self.

Over the course of His ministry, Jesus was willing to make a lot of enemies.  The religious leaders hated Him.  The Roman government was suspicious of Him.  Even one of His own disciples betrayed Him.  Yet, Jesus was never afraid to speak tough truth to His enemies – not because He wanted to fight with them, but because He wanted to fight for them.  Jesus loved His enemies and wanted what was best for them – even if they didn’t want what was best for their own selves.

Jesus’ words about family continue to be challenging.  No one likes to fight with their family.  No one wants their family members to become their enemies.  But even if our family members’ response to our commitment to Christ is rejection, our response to them can be drawn from our commitment to Christ:  “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Just because someone is mad at you doesn’t mean you can’t love them.  And love, after all, is what being a family is all about.

May 13, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Problem With The New York Times’ God Problem

The polemical can sometimes become the enemy of the thoughtful.  This seems to be what has happened in an opinion piece penned by Peter Atterton for The New York Times titled, “A God Problem.”

Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who spends his piece trotting out well-worn and, if I may be frank, tired arguments against the logical integrity of Theism.  He begins with this classic:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?  If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it.  On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone.  Either way, God is not all powerful.

This is popularly known as the “omnipotence paradox.”  God either cannot create an unliftable stone or He can create an unliftable stone, but then He cannot lift it.  Either way, there is something God cannot do, which, the argument goes, means His omnipotence is rendered impotent.  C.S. Lewis’ classic rejoinder to this paradox remains the most cogent:

God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to His power.  If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can’ … Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

Lewis’ position is the position the Bible itself takes when speaking of God.  Logically, there are some things Scripture says God cannot do – not because He lacks power, but simply because to pose even their possibility is to traffic in utter nonsense.  The apostle Paul, for instance, writes, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  In other words, God cannot not be God.  He also cannot create liftable unliftable stones – again, not because He lacks power, but because liftable unliftable stones aren’t about exercising power over some theoretical state of nature.  They’re about the law of noncontradiction.  And to try to break the law of noncontradiction doesn’t mean you have unlimited power.  It just means you’re incoherent and incompetent.  And God is neither.  To insist that God use His power to perform senseless and silly acts so that we may be properly impressed seems to be worthy of the kind of rebuke Jesus once gave to the religious leaders who demanded from Him a powerful sign: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39)!

Ultimately, the omnipotence paradox strips God’s power of any purpose by demanding a brute cracking of an irrational and useless quandary.  And to have power without purpose only results in disaster.  For instance, uncontrolled explosions are powerful, but they are also, paradoxically, powerless, because they cannot exercise any ordered power over their chaotic power.  Omnipotence requires that there is power over uncontrolled power that directs and contains it toward generative ends.  This is how God’s power is classically conceived.  Just look at the creation story.  God’s power needs purpose to be omnipotence, which is precisely what God’s power has, and precisely what the omnipotence paradox does not care to address.

For his second objection against God, Mr. Atterton turns to the problem of evil:

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.  Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction.  It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same.  Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t have created such a world.  So why didn’t He? 

According to the Bible, God did create a world where evil did not exist.  It was called Eden.  And God will re-create a world where evil will not exist.  It will be called the New Jerusalem.  As for the evil that Adam and Eve brought into the world, this much is sure:  God is more than up to the task of dealing with the evil that they, and we, have welcomed.  He has conquered and is conquering it in Christ.

With this being said, a common objection remains: Why did and does God allow evil to remain in this time – in our time?  Or, to take the objection back to evil’s initial entry into creation: Why would God allow for the possibility of evil by putting a tree in the center of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it and bring sin into the world?  This objection, however, misses the true locus of evil.  The true locus of evil was not the tree.  It was Adam and Eve, who wanted to usurp God’s authority.  They were tempted not by a tree, but by a futile aspiration: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  If Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had a tree around to use to try to usurp God’s prerogative, they almost assuredly would have tried to use something else.  The tree was only an incidental means for them to indulge the evil pride they harbored in their hearts.  If God wanted to create a world where evil most assuredly would never exist, then, He would have had to create a world without us.

Thus, I’m not quite sure what there’s to object to here.  The story of evil’s entrance into creation doesn’t sound like the story of a feckless God who can’t get things right. It sounds like the story of a loving God who willingly sacrifices to make right the things He already knows we will get wrong even before He puts us here.  God decides from eternity that we are worth His Son’s suffering.

The final objection to God leveled by Mr. Atterton has to do with God’s omniscience:

If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.  But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection.  Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.  As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

This is the weakest of Mr. Atterton’s three objections.  One can have knowledge without experience.  I know about murder even though I have never taken a knife or gun to someone.  God can know about lust and envy even if He has not lusted and envied.  The preacher of Hebrews explains well how God can know sin and yet not commit sin as he describes Jesus’ struggles under temptation: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus was confronted with every sinful temptation, so He knows what sin is, but He also refused to swim to sin’s siren songs.  The difference, then, is not in what He knows and we know.  The difference is in how He responds to what He knows and how we respond to what we know.

One additional point is in order.  Though I believe Mr. Atterton’s assertion that one cannot know certain things “unless one has experienced them” is questionable, it can nevertheless be addressed on its own terms by Christianity.  On the cross, Christians believe that every sin was laid upon Christ, who thereby became sin for us.  In other words, Christ, on the cross, became the chief of sinners, suffering the penalty that every sinner deserved, while, in exchange, giving us the righteous life that only He could live (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In this way, then, Christ has experienced every sin on the cross because He has borne every sin on the cross.  Thus, even according to Mr. Atterton’s own rules for knowing, in Christ, God can know everything through Christ, including every sin.

I should conclude with a confession about a hunch.  I am a little suspicious whether or not this 1,140-word opinion piece in The New York Times decrying faith in God as illogical was written in, ahem, good faith.  This piece and its arguments feel a little too meandering and scattershot and seem a little too clickbait-y to be serious.  Nevertheless, this is a piece that has gained a lot of traction and talk.  I’m not sure that the traction and talk, rather than the arguments, weren’t the point.

Whatever the case, Theism has certainly seen more compelling and interesting interlocutions than this piece.  God, blessedly, is still safely on His throne.

April 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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