A necessary caution & comfort

These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects.

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Some time back I posted a quote from Thomas Weinandy on a pitfall of modern theology:

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.

This statement made a lasting impression on me as I realized that the problem-solving quest isn’t unique to theologians but is part of the Christian culture in general. With decreasing attention spans and sound bite theology exploding on social media, it should come as no surprise that we have a very low tolerance for the mysterious, the unanswerable, the unmanageable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in so much talk about spiritual encounters in a worship setting. These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects. So for those tempted to buy into the hype that exhilaration is proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers a word of caution. And for those tempted to despair because they have no proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers you a word of comfort.

The presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God. The latter may be due to imagination; the former may be attended with no “sensible consolation” . . . The act which engenders a child ought to be, and usually is attended by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure that produces the child. Where there is pleasure there may be sterility: where there is no pleasure the act may be fertile. And in the spiritual marriage of God and the soul it is the same. It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes.

‘You are not able to serve the Lord’

Did ancient Israel know about reverse psychology? Exhibit A — Joshua’s farewell address to the people:

JOSHUA: fear the Lord and serve Him . . . put away the gods which your fathers served and serve the Lord (24:14) . . . choose for yourselves today whom you will serve (24:15).

PEOPLE: We will serve the Lord because He is our God (24:18).

JOSHUA: You will not be able to serve the Lord for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God… (24:19)

I’m no PSYOPs master (although I dabble from time to time with the kids) but this doesn’t sound like reverse psychology. No, what Joshua says is what he actually means; namely, Israel will not be able to follow through on her commitment to serve the Lord.

 

What we have here is a recurring paradox in the OT: God calls/commands his people to do  what he knows (and they prove) they cannot do. “You will not be able to serve the Lord.”

Now it would be tempting to launch into a withering discourse on man’s sin and depravity, but in this instance God’s word draws our minds not to human nature but to the divine nature. In other words, it is God’s nature that makes it impossible for his people to serve him:

The nature of God himself prevents Israel from serving him. His holy purity and jealous love both tie him in total devotion to his people and tie them off from fulfilling his demands. This has drastic consequences. God will not forgive Israel’s sins (cf. Exod 23:21). His expectations of them are too high. His love for them is too great. He cannot easily ignore their wrongdoings, their casual flirtations with other gods. The gods of the neighbors would simply wait for the worshiper to come back. Yahweh goes out to discipline the errant lover until she returns. –Trent Butler, Joshua, 275.

Incidentally, I think Paul touches this in Romans 7. Left to ourselves, even when the wanting and willing is present, the doing is not. His holiness ties us off from fulfilling his demands.

But what if God himself fulfilled his own demands for his people (Rom 8:3-4; Heb 10:5-7)? And what if he then gave us a share in his divine nature (2Pet 1:4) so that through him we could serve him (Jn 3:21)?

Well, it would take someone far better than Joshua to make that happen.

 

 

Temperament is a poor test of sanctification

…for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. –2 Peter 2:19

The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter hath done more to the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigor to. Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.

–John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers

Miscellany

♦ I take most of the Barna, Rainer, et al stuff with a grain of salt, but Rainer’s Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently is at least anecdotally true.

♦ If Rainer’s diagnosis is accurate we ought to look for remedies.

♦ As proof that I remain blissfully ignorant of so much tripe in pop culture, I pass on this piece of musical propaganda circa 2013(!). I’m spotty on the details but apparently a portion of this video was worked into a larger presentation on “gender fluidity” that was presented at a Grand Rapids high school.

♦ A memorable passage from Chesterton’s Heretics:

A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours…

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Life under ‘the plague’

…they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

This semester I participated in a Worldviews in Literature course with our two oldest. Overall it’s been a good experience–lots of reading, insightful questions to answer, and generally good discussion.

For existentialism we read The Plague by Albert Camus which, in my opinion, turned out to be one of the better books in the course. At one point in the story one of the characters–Tarrou–compiles “a longish description of a day in the plague-stricken town.” Consider how the townspeople react when forced to confront their own mortality [emphasis added]:

“At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evening found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and with loud voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: ‘God is great and good. Come unto Him.’ On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.

“And I, too, I’m no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It’s the event that proves them right.”

Camus wasn’t the first to depict religion and pleasure in competition for the human soul. Pascal had made this observation about three centuries earlier and he was more than a millennia behind Paul (1Cor 15:32) who was himself preceded by the OT wisdom authors (Prov 14:12-13; Eccl 2:1-11).

But in spite of wildly divergent worldviews these men all had one thing in common: they gave themselves to books.

What a bunch of dullards.

Explaining the Lord’s Supper through Deuteronomy 6

…we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

There was a time not so long ago that kids sat with their parents during a church service. My history is fuzzy but I think it was in the days after child labor laws but before we discovered the retarding effects of acute pediatric boredom (APB).¹ But societal evolution marched on and our ecclesiology eventually caught up so that programs like “children’s church” have nearly eradicated APB (and similar disorders) from our gatherings.

Of course, societal evolution rarely comes without a trade-off. For us, the boon of children’s church meant the absence of young children when we observed the Lord’s Supper. So, in what I hope was a small, first step, our leadership decided to change the service order once a quarter so that our children’s church kids (K5-3rd grade) could experience the sacrament.

Better minds have attempted to work out their corporate worship according to the text and pattern of Scripture only to reach varying conclusions on practices like children’s church. I have no desire to jump into that discussion here except to make one observation.

It’s interesting to note that a full understanding or appreciation of God’s commands are not prerequisites for obedience. Or, to put it another way, sometimes we obey so that we may understand (Psa 119:100; Jn 7:17). For our current discussion the point is that one of the ways God would have our children learn the faith is by experiencing things they don’t understand.

And that brings us to Deuteronomy 6 where God prescribes a parent’s answer to a child’s question:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25   “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’  21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  22 ‘Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.’ 24 “So the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today.  25 “It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.

At the risk of stating the obvious [A besetting sin in your teaching ministry. –Shive], this proverbial son is watching, if not participating in, things that seem strange to him; and his lack of understanding is what draws him in. I take it, then, that in we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children concerning our faith by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

To that end we might even consider keeping a fidgety kid in the pew every now and then on a communion Sunday just to pique his curiosity.

And if your son asks you, “What is the Lord’s Supper and why are you doing this?” then maybe you could say something like:

 ‘We were slaves to sin, and the Lord freed us from the curse with a mighty hand.  Moreover, through his death and resurrection Jesus Christ has shown us great and distressing signs and wonders against death, the devil and all his works;

God brought us out from the domain of darkness in order to bring us in to the kingdom of his Son, to give us an inheritance which He has promised to us.’

“So Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper, to fear Him for our good and for our salvation, as we are doing today. “It is a sign of our righteousness when we keep this command before our LORD and Savior, just as He commanded.

 


¹We now know that APB is merely the symptom of bigger problem–excitement deficit disorder (EDD).

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

Worship in ‘the age of authenticity’

Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this period of Western secularism “the age of authenticity.” From his explanation in A Secular Age:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 10 years it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s assessment. But we Christians are adept at dichotomizing the secular and the spiritual so that we attribute the authenticity quest to the godless while we saints float above it all. Of course, this is naive. We’re shaped by our culture more than we like to admit–even in the church.

In an early chapter of You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith depicts Christian worship as a formative process that is especially effective when encountered through a traditional liturgy. The problem, according to Smith, is that too many of our churches think of worship as an expressive endeavor:

…we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in our service when we can express ourselves. . . When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

We might protest that Smith paints with too broad a brush but his basic point rings true. The discomfort of having our foibles exposed becomes slightly unnerving when we also consider how neatly an expressive worship fits in with Taylor’s “age of authenticity.” One would be forgiven for connecting the dots and concluding that secularism has seeped into the church more than we like to think.

In one sense, Smith is suggesting that we do exactly what our culture tells us not to do–surrender to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside. But maybe what the culture sees as surrendering to conformity is actually submitting to the Creator’s design. As Smith explains:

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?

Maybe real authenticity comes not by expression but by submission. Maybe surrendering to conformity isn’t always a bad thing (Rom 8:29).

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