Newton: Christian life easier said than done

The Christian calling, like many others, is easy and clear in theory, but not without much care and difficulty to be reduced to practice. Things appear quite otherwise, when felt experimentally, to what they do, when only read in a book. . . . So, to renounce self, to live upon Jesus, to walk with God, to overcome the world, to hope against hope, to trust the Lord when we cannot trace him, and to know that our duty and privilege consist in these things, may be readily acknowledged or quickly learned; but, upon repeated trial, we find that saying and doing are two things. We think at setting out that we sit down and count the cost; but alas! our views are so superficial at first, that we have occasion to correct our estimate daily. For every day shows us some new thing in the heart, or some new turn in the management of the war against us which we are not aware of; and upon these accounts, discouragements may arise so high as to bring us (I speak for myself) to the very point of throwing down our arms, and making either a tame surrender or a shameful flight. Thus it would be with us at last if the Lord of hosts were not on our side. . . But if He is the Captain of our salvation, if his eye is upon us, his arm stretched out around us, and his ear open to our cry, and if He has engaged to teach our hands to war and our fingers to fight, and to cover our heads in the day of battle, then we need not fear, though a host rise up against us; but lifting up our banner in his name, let us go forth conquering and to conquer (Rom 16:20).

–John Newton, “To William Cowper,” Letter I. 30 July 1767. Letters of John Newton.

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When slavery is freedom

Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith.”

No one is capable of being captain of his own soul, master of her own fate. Each of us is worked upon by unconscious impulses of which we are not even aware and over which we have little control. Paul, unlike the typical American, does not think in terms of autonomous human beings. Paul proudly identifies himself as a “slave of Christ” (Gal 1:10). If the apocalyptic scenario is a picture of true reality, then no one is “free” in the domain of this world as it is. Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). Paradoxically, the new life in Christ can be called both slavery (the service of God) and freedom. This seeming contradiction of slavery and true freedom, which lies at the heart of the gospel, is beautifully invoked in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in words addressed to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”. . .

Being a “slave of righteousness” and a “slave of obedience” will sound intolerable to most modern ears. It takes hard mental work to enter Paul’s thought-world and understand that these phrases do not describe a bondage to a harsh puritanical code imposed upon us by a tyrannical outside force. He means the opposite. The gospel of Christ means precisely deliverance from tyrannical outside forces into a realm of light and life where “the obedience of faith” is the only natural and joyful way to be.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 368-369.

Newton: the Lord only afflicts for our good

We could do much worse than start the week off with some wisdom from John Newton.

…be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometimes spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. William Rose,” Letter II. 21 December 1776. Letters of John Newton.

GoT holiness?

Note to self: There are some things in life you simply cannot question–the supremacy of SEC football, the vile depravity of the NE Patriots, and the suitability of a Christian’s entertainment.

Enter Kevin DeYoung’s  seemingly innocuous admission that he didn’t understand why so many conservative Christians devote themselves to Game of Thrones (GoT) when the series has so much explicit sexual content:

It seems to me sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of the series. And still, a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.

I don’t get it.

Tweeting the link to that post brought on a small flurry of comments on Facebook, most of them critical . . . of DeYoung. I must admit to being a little stunned and that was before I was directed to the comments section for the original post. I thought I had stumbled into bizarro world.

Having recovered from my stupefaction I’d like to offer a measured response to critics of the article. My modest objective is to show that DeYoung’s implied question (i.e. Why would a conservative Christian watch GoT?) is not pharisaical sin-sniffing but well within the bounds of what should be normal self-examination. I’ll proceed in two stages. First, I’ll volunteer some clarification on what the article did/didn’t say. Second, I’d like to address some of the early responses to the article.

One more thing and this is crucial. I’m going to assume that any Christian reading this post would at least agree that the graphic sexual content in GoT is sinful even if we don’t agree on the appropriate response. So if, as a Christian, you don’t believe this kind of material stands against the biblical imperatives concerning holiness and immorality, then we’ll just be talking past each other.

What the article didn’t say

(1) Real Christians don’t watch GoT. Some of the reactions to the post made it seem as if DeYoung had taken it upon himself to separate the sheep from the GoaTs.™ Far from it. As he stated from the outset: “I’m always amazed that a number of people I respect–smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers–are obviously watching (and loving) the series” [emphasis added]. If DeYoung’s position were that no real Christian would watch GoT he wouldn’t be so perplexed.

(2) It is forbidden for real Christians to watch GoT. No doubt DeYoung would advise Christians to steer clear of the series but that’s a far cry from anathematizing the series and all who would watch it.

A rejoinder to the early responses

(1) What about holiness? Strange that with so many readers dismissing DeYoung’s concerns I never saw anyone deny his basic premise that “sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of [GoT].” I actually find the whole thing a bit discouraging–not the criticisms so much as the belligerent indifference.

Where is the longing for purity and its reward (Mat 5:8)? Who considers that we’re in a war for our souls (1Pet 2:11)? What does the pursuit of sanctification look like when I’m parked in front of a TV (Heb 12:14)? Responding to these questions with charges of legalism sounds more like deflection than reflection.

(2) Sin is deceitful and never satisfied. I don’t know that I could improve on this classic statement from John Owen. I’m a fool to think that I can safely manage my lusts as I indulge them.

(3) ‘Live and let live’ isn’t a Christian mantra. Christian community is in a state of disrepair when mutual accountability is held in suspicion. No doubt the Christian life holds some truths in tension. On the one hand, I am not the judge of a fellow servant (Rom 14:4; James 4:12); on the other hand, I’m not to passively watch my brother drift away (Heb 3:13; Jam 5:19-20; Jude 23). No man is an island, least of all the man in Christ.

(4) On the power of the remote. An experienced remote manager can save himself a lot of trouble so long as he remains alert and conscientious. Our remote has been used as a censoring device on numerous occasions while streaming TV shows and movies so I’m well aware that a simple flick of the finger can negate the baring of much flesh. Self-filtering is obviously better than taking it all in.

But two caveats are in order. First, as my wife & I were recently reminded when we tried to watch the first season of Homeland, sexual content often appears without warning. We simply can’t anticipate every sexcapade an episode has in store and, considering the amount of sexually explicit content in GoT, we’re practically guaranteed to see the baring of flesh despite our best efforts. Second, even if we could eliminate every objectionable scene, no one assumes that that’s what all Christians are doing while they’re watching the show–as it airs.

(5) On criticizing a show you haven’t watched. Living in the information age means we don’t always have to watch something to know what’s in it. Yes, if I want to critique the cinematography or the acting or the story I need to watch the show. But it should go without saying that I don’t need to watch soft porn in order to find it objectionable, so it’s hard to understand how not watching GoT due to the sexual content diminishes a man’s concern over said content–especially when we all agree it’s there.

All of that to simply say this: Watch what you will knowing that we all must give an account, but please don’t act as if it doesn’t matter what you watch.

Sometimes Scripture is like your Facebook feed

Sorry for the delay. I had to go take a long, hot shower after that title. Let’s cut to the chase–I have a confessional booth to find.

On Sunday morning our adult Bible study is working through Joshua. We’ve reached the point in the narrative where Israel has taken possession of the land and all that remains (supposedly) is to parcel out the land to the various tribes.

Now the conquest portion of the book takes up eleven out of twenty-four chapters. But on closer inspection, the military campaign doesn’t actually begin until Joshua 6 which means that the conquest is contained in the span of six chapters and two of those chapters (7 & 9) are spent detailing failures that threaten the long-term success of the military campaign. So all told, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is relayed in the space of four action-packed chapters. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the conquest is a seamless sequence of victories–swift, thorough, and thrilling.

But is this an accurate picture?

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, we don’t just want to read Scripture; we want to read Scripture well. To that end we should remember that first impressions often fade in the light of sustained study. Second, the impressions we draw from the Bible’s story line shape our expectations for the Christian life. For example, the conquest motif in Joshua is certainly analogous to the spiritual battles God’s new covenant people must encounter before we enjoy our promised rest (2Cor 10:3-5; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10ff). But what, exactly, should we expect in our conflict? Will ours be the inexorable blitzkrieg we see in Joshua?

Not exactly. But don’t be discouraged–that wasn’t Joshua’s experience either.

Several passages tip us off to the fact that Joshua’s life didn’t consist of one thrilling victory after another, but two will suffice for our purposes:

Joshua 11:18 “Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.”

14:7, 10  “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land . . . Now behold, the LORD has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. {NAS}

Say what you will about a long time but a long time isn’t quick. [Call your local seismologist. I feel an epistemological earthquake coming on! –Shive] More specifically, Caleb’s statements in 14:7 & 10 turn the supposed Israelite blitzkrieg into a mundane five year campaign.

So the short story consisting of action-packed moments in a tightly ordered sequence actually stretches out over a span of at least five years. Additionally, when we compare the list of kings conquered in Joshua 12 with the kings previously cited in Joshua 6-11, we’re surprised to find that multiple battles occurred for which we have no record at all.

The point is that the biblical authors almost always give us the highlights rather than an exhaustive account. And highlights are, by definition, not normal. We’re not told about the hours spent returning to camp, gathering firewood, preparing food, and sharpening blades. We have no mention of sore feet and irritating co-workers. The story gives no thought to what transpired for the women and children as they waited for the men to finish the job. How did the families cope with boredom or burnt food? What happened when the kids in the next tent got too noisy? Terrible two’s anyone?

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over those details. Just like there’s nothing wrong with withholding from Facebook the details of a lunch order, traffic update, or every inconsequential thought that transverses our little synapses (seriously, people). Just the highlights will do. Just remember that no one’s life is uninterrupted highlights.

All of biblical history is written with an agenda, with a message to convey. As such, whatever doesn’t “fit the narrative” doesn’t see the page. By keeping this principle in mind we go a long way to guarding ourselves against unrealistic expectations in the Christian life. More often than not the Christian life is about meeting the seemingly uneventful with simple faithfulness with the occasional crisis and/or climax thrown in.

Not so long ago what I just described was considered “normal.” Then social media came along. Now we call it disappointing.

A convicting word on contentment

There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself.

…the peace of God is not enough to a gracious heart except it may have the God of that peace. A carnal heart could be satisfied if he might but have outward peace, though it is not the peace of God; peace in the state, and his trading, would satisfy him. But mark how a godly heart goes beyond a carnal. All outward peace is not enough; I must have the peace of God. But suppose you have the peace of God. Will that not quiet you? No, I must have the God of peace; as the peace of God so the God of peace. That is, I must enjoy that God who gives me the peace; I must have the Cause as well as the effect. I must see from whence my peace comes, and enjoy the Fountain of my peace, as well as the stream of my peace. And so in other mercies:  have I health from God?  I must have the God of my health to be my portion, or else I am not satisfied. It is not life, but the God of my life; it is not riches, but the God of those riches that I must have, the God of my preservation, as well as my preservation.

In Psalm 73:25, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee.’ There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself. If God gave you not only earth but heaven, that you should rule over sun, moon and stars, and have the rule over the highest of the sons of men it would not be enough to satisfy you, unless you had God himself. There lies the first mystery of contentment. And truly a contented man, though he is the most contented man in the world, is the most dissatisfied man in the world; that is, those things that will satisfy the world will not satisfy him.

-Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

John Newton on Christian growth

The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

The work of grace is not like Jonah’s gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night, and as quickly withered, but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, till it becomes a broad, spreading, and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever. When I see any soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy before they have due acquaintance with their own hearts, I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wits’ end; for without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them turn out well; either their fervour insensibly abates, till they become quite cold and sink into the world again (of which I have seen many instances), or, if they do not give up all, their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savour of brokenness and true humility which is the chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first, they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others. Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, “Soft and fair goes far,” will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Saviour patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician, let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what He shall prescribe for us. He knows us, and He loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.

-John Newton, “Letter to Miss M. Barham,” September 3, 1776

Sometimes we are ‘hunted into the Bible’

…no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. {Psalm 119:71, NAS}

In this entry from Table Talk Martin Luther speaks of the contribution sufferings make to the study of Scripture (and prayer). Christian, your suffering is not in vain:

I, said Luther, did not learn my divinity at one only time, but I was constrained to search deeper and deeper, to which my temptations brought me; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I, said Luther, had cleaving and hanging on my neck the Pope, the Universities, all the deep-learned, and with them the devil himself; these hunted me into the Bible, where I diligently read, and thereby, God be praised, at length I attained to the true understanding of the same. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, we dream that so-and-so it must be, as the Monks and Friars in monasteries do.

The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true enough; but God grant me the grace that I may catch hold on the right use thereof; for when Satan disputeth with me in this sort, namely, whether God be gracious unto me or no? then I must not meet him with this text: “Whoso loveth God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength, the same shall inherit the kingdom of God;” for then the devil presently objecteth, and hitteth me in the teeth, and saith, “Thou hast not loved God, with all thy heart,” etc., which, indeed, is true, and my own conscience therein, witnesseth against me; but at such a time I must arm myself and encounter him with this text, namely: “That Jesus Christ died for me, and through him I have a gracious God and Father; Christ hath made an atonement for me,” as St. Paul saith, “He is of God given unto us for wisdom, for righteousness, for holiness, and for redemption.”

Tyrants, sectaries, seducers, and heretics do nothing else but drive us into the Bible, to make us read more diligently therein, and with more fervency to sharpen our prayers.

Thanksgiving food for thought

There is no true Christianity apart from thankfulness.

I could go for some Thanksgiving right about now and it has nothing to do with the food. Check that. Maybe it has something to do with the food. I mean, have you ever had a Thanksgiving meal in the South? I pity those who haven’t but it’s probably for the best–much easier to never have than to have and then try to do without.

Anyway, since I’m anticipating this year’s Thanksgiving my thoughts keep returning to the essential nature of gratitude which, in turn, reminds me that there is no true Christianity apart from thankfulness.

To wit:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. {Romans 1:21, NAS}

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank. — Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers.Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth? –G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

…we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs. By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that naught is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; no, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity. — John Calvin (Institutes 1.2.1; emphasis added)

What hinders us is not aesthetics

Distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

bible-app-by-olive-tree-63513202684_2All snark aside, those looking for a mature reflection on the market milieu of the ESV Reader’s Bible would do well to read this piece by J. Mark Bertrand.

Bertrand’s hope is that the ubiquity of hypertext has created a demand for a purified text. With so much reading tethered to the internet and all the linked distractions that come with it, we may now be ready for books that are “really good for nothing but reading”:

We long for a deeply immersive experience, something so thick and involved that we can’t be easily pulled away. The fear is that all the choices and features and options we’ve given ourselves, though they seemed good at the time, have now become barriers, fatally distracting us from the one thing that matters most. We fiddle with fonts and margins, we zip back and forth through cross-references, always hovering on a busy surface, clicking and tapping, in danger of forgetting there is anything underneath. Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can’t stay under long enough anymore.

Breadth of features kills the depth of experience. By trying to do everything, we neglect what really matters. In the case of word processors, that’s writing. In the case of Bibles, it’s to take and read.

Meh.

I get what Bertrand is driving at and I agree to a point, but distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

Somewhere in our house we have Hillary Clinton’s autobiography (don’t judge, it was a gag gift). I think the book has been in our house for almost a year now and at no time do I ever remember thinking I’d give the old girl a read if only the font was a Trinité No. 2 type set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. In a ranking desired experiences, becoming immersed in Living History falls somewhere between shopping with the girls and having my ankles gnawed on by a herd of rabid ferrets. The fact of the matter is that no amount of artistry or beautification will draw me to that book.

Maybe today’s pearl divers lack the capacity to go deep. I suspect that many of us just lack the compulsion.