Death & distraction

We can’t escape death but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?  So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.{Psa 90:10-12, NAS}

For the longest time I’ve been struck by the melancholy wisdom in Psalm 90. Forget swimming against the current, this kind of thinking doesn’t even appear to be in the stream of our modern consciousness. Say what you will about today’s society but I doubt ‘wisdom’ and ‘sobriety’ are tags for our day.

But the truth of the matter is that human nature remains unchanged. At some point the stupefying sparkle of the iPhone and FaceTwit will be eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of our mortality. Distraction cannot drive away death.

What distraction can do, however, is offer a sort of palliative care for the soul. Absent an inoculation for finitude we choose to be anesthetized. At least this was Pascal’s contention in the 1600s. Reading this portion from Pensees it’s hard to decide if the man was an astute philosopher or a prophet for the technological age.

166 Diversion. Death is easier to bear without thinking of it, than is the thought of death without peril.

167 The miseries of human life have established all this: as men have seen this, they have taken up diversion.

168 Diversion. As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

169 Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.

170 Diversion.-If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.-Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty of being amused by diversion?-No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent, and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, which bring inevitable griefs.

171 Misery.-The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously  to death.

On the bright side, there’s a market for this kind of biblical wisdom in late night comedy sketches. Use it well.

debbie-downer

A valentine from Tolkien

Everyone needs a little Tolkien on Valentine’s Day.

On days devoted to love and romance and all that stuff we could use some wisdom from Tolkien.

Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

The winds move fast

Last night: the greatest Super Bowl game in history.

This morning: SB51 stories headline espn.com

This evening: NBA basketball stories headline espn.com

SB51 doesn’t even hold the top spot for a day. Not 1 day.

Psalm 103:15-16  As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.  16 When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.

Problem vs. mystery

The more God reveals who he is . . . the more mysterious he becomes.

Thomas Weinandy’s book on the doctrine of impassibility  has been on my wish list ever since I heard Carl Trueman reference it a couple(?) years back. It did not disappoint [thanks, AJ!]. I’m not sure if I’ll come back with any comments on the content (still ruminating) but I thought this helpful reminder was worth sharing:

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified. However, the true goal of theological inquiry is not the resolution of theological problems, but the discernment of what the mystery of faith is. Because God, who can never be fully comprehended, lies at the heart of all theological inquiry, theology by its nature is not a problem solving enterprise, but rather a mystery discerning enterprise…

Here we learn a primary lesson concerning the nature of revelation and theology. The more God reveals who he is and the more we come to a true and authentic knowledge of who he is, the more mysterious he becomes. Theology, as faith seeking understanding, helps us come to a deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of God and his revelation, but this growth is in coming to know what the mystery of God is and not the comprehension of the mystery.

–Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?

Should we major in evangelism?

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Facebook lurking to bring you this important newsflash:

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

Apparently, our young churchman has a niggling suspicion that the priority placed on evangelism is short-sighted and rife with unintended consequences. Specifically, He worries that majoring on evangelism means minoring in discipleship, an arrangement not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus didn’t say “Go and evangelize” but “Go and make disciples” (Mt 28:19).

On the whole I think our agitator’s instincts are right, especially when we consider two misconceptions that plague too many evangelism campaigns:

  1. Evangelism ≠ converts. Unfortunately, many pep talks for evangelism conflate evangelizing with winning converts. Strictly speaking, to evangelize (Greek, euangelizō) means “to announce/proclaim good news.” Thus, whenever we share the gospel with someone we have done evangelism regardless of whether or not we win a convert. Failing to distinguish between act and result leads to the belief that we’re not evangelizing unless we’re seeing new people in the pews. Maybe, maybe not.
  2. In Mt 28:19 make disciples is the main verb, not Go. It’s not uncommon to hear someone explain the Great Commission as if it consisted of two commands: Go and make disciples. The effect is that ‘go’ is taken to signify our going out to win the lost (i.e. evangelism) while ‘make disciples’ is what we do once we get them in. So there’s evangelism and there’s discipleship.

    But Go is actually a participle in the Greek which draws its “force” from the imperative make disciples [Oh, you have them on the edge of their seats now. Tell them more! -Shive]. The point is that go is tied to make disciples which is the focus of the verse.

On biblical grounds I think evangelism should neither be conceived in terms of results (i.e. conversions) nor should it be considered apart from the broader work of discipleship. By all means, emphasize evangelism, but do it for the increase of disciples not converts.

The preacher’s dilemma (and our danger)

One of the most dangerous things we can do is sit through a sermon week after week.

In his commentary on Isaiah, Alec Motyer begins his discussion of the prophet’s call to ministry (6:9-13) by observing “Isaiah’s message and his task constitute, at first sight, the oddest commission ever given to a prophet: to tell people not to understand and to effect heart-hardening and spiritual blindness!”

After noting that Isaiah was criticized as a man “fit only to conduct a kindergarten” (28:9-10) Motyer goes on to offer this sobering insight:

It is clear that Isaiah did not understand his commission as one to blind people by obscurity of expression or complexity of message. He, in fact, faced the preacher’s dilemma: if hearers are resistant to the truth, the only recourse is to tell them truth yet again, more clearly than before. But to do this is to expose them to the risk of rejecting the truth yet again and, therefore, of increased hardness of heart. It could even be that the next rejection will prove to be the point at which the heart is hardened beyond recovery. The human eye cannot see this point in advance; it comes and goes unnoticed. But the all-sovereign God both knows it and appoints it as he presides in perfect justice over the psychological processes he created.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is sit through a sermon week after week.

Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS… (Heb 3:7-8a)

 

Reflecting on the incarnation (5)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be…

Christ indeed could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.

-John Calvin (1509-1564)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be; for the contrast between God and an isolated individual human being is the greatest possible contrast; it is infinitely qualitative. This, however, is His will, His free will, and therefore it is an incognito maintained by omnipotence.

-Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Reflecting on the incarnation (4)

…capable of death in one nature and incapable of it in the other.

Since then the properties of both natures and substances were preserved and co-existed in One Person, humility was embraced by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and to pay the debt of our condition the inviolable nature was united to a passible nature; so that, as was necessary for our healing, there was one and the same “Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ,” who was capable of death in one nature and incapable of it in the other. In the complete and perfect nature, therefore, of very man, very God was born – complete in what belonged to Him, complete in what belonged to us.

-Leo of Rome (400-461)

Reflecting on the incarnation (3)

…Christ is as truly man as the meanest of our race.

…as the tabernacle after all was as truly a tent as the humblest in the camp of Israel, so Christ is as truly man as the meanest of our race. The blood which flows in the veins of the Hottentot, or springs under the lash from the back of an American slave, is that ‘one’ same blood which flows in the veins of the Son of God.

-Alexander Stewart, 19th century Scottish preacher