Far away, so close: transcendence beautifying immanence

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When you’re going through something difficult or scary in life, it’s the most natural thing in the world to want someone close to you; to go with you or to be right by your side.  For the Christian, one of our dearest hopes in pain or trial is also that God Himself is close to us and present with us by His Spirit.  We cling to verses like Prov. 18:24 (“there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother”) and Matt. 28:20 (“And, behold, I am with you always, even  to the end of the age.”) as anchors in the storms of our lives that God is close to us; the He is immanent and that He cares for us.

But how many of us in our trials and difficulties would also ask God to reveal His transcendence to us; just how very far away and separate He is?  How many would go to verses like Ecclesiastes 5:2 (“God is in the heavens and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”), Isaiah 55:9 (“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”) or Dan. 4:35 (“He [God] does according to His will among the hosts of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him ‘What have you done?'”) to find comfort in our pain and confusion?  It may seem incomprehensible to make such a request, and yet, I was reminded again recently in a difficult situation of my own, that without a clear understanding of God’s transcendence, His immanence (nearness) actually ends up being diminished in the comfort it offers.

Consider:

The God who is near

All the verses and hymns and prayers for God to be close to us in our pain are absolutely good and right.  God has promised to be near to us and to comfort the lowly and afflicted (Ps. 34:18; Is. 42:3).  And because He is God, there is an additional comfort in knowing that we have access to His closeness whenever we need it; whether we are suffering in a prison cell in North Korea, or visiting hours have simply ended and we’re alone in our hospital bed at night.  His presence is what brings us hope and comfort and joy (Ps. 16:8,11).

The God who is far away

And yet we must not be so captivated and focused on the immanence of God, that we begin to substitute the true picture of the God of the universe for what I once heard Alan Hirsch refer to as “Buddy-Jesus.”

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For all of His closeness, He is also the God who is from before all things and the Creator of all things (Gen. 1:1, Col. 1:16-17); the God who has dominion over all things (Dan. 4:34b-35, Col. 1:17) and who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11).  He gives and takes authority from kings (Prov. 21:1, John 19:11) and He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16).  And that’s just a fraction of all that the Scriptures have to say about just how far away and separate – how “other” – the God of the universe is from His creation.

Why far away is so good

Does that weaken your sense of God’s immanence?  Does it make the comfort of God seem farther away and inaccessible in your pain and your struggle?  It shouldn’t.  Because you see, absolutely nothing about God’s transcendence cancels out a single thing about His immanence.  The truth is, it makes it even more comforting.

Think about it:

  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He can offer us, not just a hand to hold at our hospital bedside, but healing from what’s put us in the hospital bed!
  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He does’t just carry you through the hard times (sorry “Footprints”) He carries you through every moment of your life!
  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He doesn’t just stand beside you as you go into that scary meeting or that difficult conversation, He also has the power to change and shape the hearts of the people you are facing!

In fact, it’s even the transcendence and complete “other-ness” of God, that makes Christmas and the Incarnation of Jesus so much of a bigger deal.  Because it only highlights all the more just how incredible it is that this massive, transcendent, sovereign, holy God actually took on human flesh and really came to dwell among us (Is. 9:6-7; Col. 1:19; Phil. 2:5-8).

So if you’re going through some trial or difficulty today yourself, know that God is absolutely right by your side; as close as your very breath.  But He is also completely “other” from you and able to act on your circumstances according to His perfect sovereign will in a way that can truly affect change (both in you as well as your circumstances).

And if you’re a pastor or a parent or a communicator of God’s word in any way, give the people you counsel and teach and comfort with the word of God a picture of both God’s immanence and  His transcendence.  I hope you’ve seen that understanding the breathtaking holiness, sovereignty, power and “other-ness” of God does not weaken or diminish the reality of His immanence and comfort in our trials.  It is – in fact – the very thing that makes His immanence truly comforting.

Costly worship?

COSTLY WORSHIP?

Have you ever started out on some project or endeavor, only to discover part ways in that it was actually going to be much more costly and time consuming than you had originally planned? I’ve had such an experience recently with my youngest daughter and Highland Dancing. We put her in assuming that once fees were paid we were set to go, only to discover quickly that special shoes, different outfits for each dance, and extra days of rehearsal were also included in the cost of this pursuit.

And when you encounter that moment of realization, it forces you to answer an important question, viz. “Is this pursuit important enough to me to warrant the cost?” And once you say, “yes” (buyer beware) you are – by default now – agreeing to pay whatever costs may be associated with the pursuit of this goal.

But here’s the problem: with pretty much any pursuit or goal we embark on in life, we understand right from the beginning that there will be cost involved.  And we pay that cost because we believe that the goal/prize is worth it. And this is our common belief and understanding in every area of our lives … except in our worship of God. Somehow and at some time or another, we got it into our heads and began to believe that our worship of God shouldn’t cost us anything; that it should be free. But in doing so, doesn’t that belief have a direct bearing on how much we value the thing – or in this case the Person – that we are pursuing?

An Advent case study

Enter the wise men, which we read about in the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. As we look through their story, I think we see four ways that our worship of God is actually incredibly costly.  And yet if we agree that the Goal of our worship is as valuable as we say He is, then really no cost could be too high. Right?

Time

Worship of God will cost us our time. If we accept the theory that the wise men were of Babylonian origin – being raised up over the centuries under the influence of the Hebrew slave Daniel who Nebuchadnezzar had placed, in his day, over all the wise men of the Babylonian kingdom – then the journey to Jerusalem by major trade routes would have been over 800 miles. That’s like walking or riding a camel from Vancouver to Edmonton! And yet these wise men were so sure of their interpretation of this star-sign they had seen in the east; so convinced of the value of what they were coming to see, that they willingly paid the cost of time to make the journey.

And yet, how many – if we were to ask someone who knew us well – would say that the way we use our time in a week shows how valuable Jesus is to us? That we intentionally set aside time for daily personal worship that is not simply about sermon writing, as well as for family worship and corporate worship? How much of your time is your worship of God really costing you?

Reputation

The arrival of these foreign travellers to Jerusalem would have been the talk of the town; Twitter feeds would have been going crazy with #wisemen tags. They were even granted an audience soon after their arrival with the then reigning king over Jerusalem, Herod the great. Their reputation, in once sense, preceded them. And yet – so valuable is the goal of their pursuit to them – that the wise men instantly toss aside any status or reputation they may have had, by asking the reigning king in Jerusalem where the true King of the Jews had been born so they could go and worship him! This would not be unlike walking into Kim Jong Un’s palace in North Korea and asking him where the real supreme leader of north Korea was that was going to replace him!

In our own lives, being unwilling to risk our reputation to be identified with Jesus can seriously impede our worship of Him. The obvious reason is because, in protecting our own reputations over God’s, we are showing what (and who) it is that we truly worship above all! Are you willing to risk people’s opinions and maybe even misconceptions of you, in order to identify yourself with the One you treasure above all? The apostle Peter faced this very same question standing outside Jesus’ trial by a charcoal fire, and showed – that night anyways – that he was unwilling to pay the cost of worshipping Jesus.

Patience

It’s not commonly looked at, but vss 9-10 of Matthew 1 could indicate that – at least for a period of time – the wise men lost sight of the star they were following. And it was only after the star reappeared over the place where Jesus was born, that they found it again and greatly rejoiced. Worship of Jesus in that moment required patient trust and hope – even in the midst of darkness – that their journey had not been for nothing.

And at various times in our own lives – when the sky seems to go dark, when God seems far off, and we’re wondering if maybe we made this journey for nothing – will we pay the cost in our worship of patient trust in the goodness of God? Will we hold tightly to what we know and keep pursuing Him, until He reveals Himself once again?

Treasure

Whether or not we attach theological significance to the gifts that the wise men brought in worship of Jesus, what we can say is that what they brought was important to them; that it was meaningful to them; that it was the best of what they had to offer.

If you know your OT well, you’ll remember king David’s words in 2 Samuel when Araunah seeks to sell him his threshing floor for nothing. He says, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.

And yet how often is that exactly what we do? How often do we drape our pocket-change and garage-sale throwaways in theological language to make it appear much more costly than it actually is; all the while clutching our true treasures closely to our chest? Is Jesus truly the most valuable of your pursuits? Is there truly anything that you have that He does not already have rightful ownership over anyways?

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Do you see it now? Our worship of God is actually more costly than any other pursuit we have in this life! But it is only more costly because this Goal of our worship is also more valuable than any other thing we could ever pursue in this life. May our worship demonstrate and declare just how valuable He truly is to us.

Weaken me for Your service

WEAKEN ME

When you’re faced with something that feels too big for you, what is one of the first prayers on your lips? Ins’t it, “God, give me strength!” or “Father, empower me for this task before me.”?  This was – for instance – Sampson’s prayer as he stood between the two pillars in Judges 16:28, or Nehemiah’s “arrow” prayer as he was about to answer the king in Nehemiah 2:4.

In the past few months, as I’ve faced difficult transitions in my family and my church, this has certainly been my prayer as well.  I look at all that’s ahead of me and – rightly so – I cry out to the One who I believe can strengthen me to lead through those changes.

Asking for weakness?

But my guess is, there are not many of us who would ask God in those same circumstances to weaken us for the task ahead.  Why would anyone ask for weakness when the thing we so desperately need is strength?  “People are counting on me.”  “People are looking to me to be strong.” “People need physical and emotional help all around me.”  And so, like always, I cry out to God for strength.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see that the way God answered my prayer for strength, was, instead, to make me feel weaker than I’ve ever felt in my life!  Physically: to get sick and feel exhausted most days. Emotionally: to feel depressed, melancholy, and overwhelmed a great deal of the time. Rather than strengthened and empowered, I feel weaker and more fearful than ever.

What is God doing? Why isn’t He answering my prayer the way I need Him to?

Prescribed weakness

I can’t count the times anymore now, however, where I am reading a kid’s bible with my daughters at breakfast – intending to minster to them – and felt God’s Spirit speak powerfully to me.  And in this moment of incomprehensible weakness, God led us a few mornings ago to the story of Gideon in Judges 7.  Twice in this chapter, God tells Gideon, basically, “You have too many men in your army to defeat the Midianites.”  And you read that and – like Gideon – you think, “Wait, what?!  Too many men to defeat them?”

But you see, God had an intentional purpose in reducing the size of Gideon’s army. God had a prescribed weakness in mind for Gideon that had the intent of removing illusions of strength, and bringing the glory for the victory to Himself alone.

Blessed awareness

And it was in reading that account of Gideon to my kids, that I heard God say so plainly and tenderly, “I’m doing the same thing right now in you my child! You think what you need so badly right now is strength to lead; strength to minister; strength to help and support.  But what you really need right now is an even deeper sense of your dependance on Me to accomplish any of those things!”  

God was saying, “I don’t need you to be strong for Me, I just need you to be obedient  to Me and to trust in Me.  That way, when I do carry you through all these changes and transitions causing you so much fear and panic right now, you’ll know it was all because of Me and My grace to you, and not your superior leadership skills.”

How often when we pray for strength, are we really asking, “God, make these circumstances such that my own strength will be enough to overcome/endure/be victorious.”?

Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 4:7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” He writes later in chapter 12:9, after pleading with God that He might remove his thorn in the flesh, that when God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” his conclusion is that he will now boast all the more in his weaknesses.  For he sees now that, “When I am weak , then I am strong.

Whatever it is that God has called you to in this life, don’t be surprised if, from time to time, you see the hand of God reducing the size of your “army.”  His word assures us He has not abandoned us, and His purpose may be simply to help you re-learn your utter dependance on Him.

When seen that way, our prayer can truly be:

O God, weaken me for Your service, that I might give all glory to You alone and discover the only place my strength is truly found!

“… the Spirit help us in our weakness.” Rom. 8:26

Showing our hand: a new frontier from the pulpit

Showing our hand

We’ve all experienced it: that freeing, liberating feeling that an honest confession from a friend brings, which causes you to un-tense and say, “… Oh!  So I’m not the freak I thought I was? Thank goodness!”  It does’t matter as much what the subject is.  Call it “misery loves company” or “true confessions”, there is something about that kind of vulnerability from a fellow struggler that brings validity, and also hope, to the listener, in the same way that seeing your opponents’ poker hand across the table brings relief from worry about your own bad hand.  And yet – if we all know the hope and camaraderie that comes from such vulnerable confessions in our our everyday experience – why is it that we are so reticent to offer such comfort from the pulpit?

Because – conversely – there is something so crushing and discouraging about seeing someone do something so well which you fail at daily; maybe even hourly.  It’s the kid who learns piano quickly while you continue to struggle learning simple scales. It’s the guy who easily gets ripped abs in weeks while you work tirelessly and diet for years with no discernible result. Rather than inspiring, these examples usually only bring about despair.

And yet what baffles me is that – even knowing and experiencing that same discouragement in our own day to day lives – we can still believe that presenting a polished, filtered version of ourselves from the pulpit, will still inspire people to Christ-like character, more than the truth will.

Let me say it plainly: it doesn’t.

The Culprit

          How we can do this as preachers is so much easier and deceptive than you’d think.  Consider:

                    – every time you present a real-life illustration where you do “just the right thing” at “just the right moment”;

– every time you do application negatively without including some example of how you too are tempted to do (or actually do) the very same thing yourself;

– every time you do application positively without showing how that same truth has impacted your own life,

Every time you do that (intentionally or not) what you show to people, is an unattainable, crushing picture of reality.  And I know this pressure to present a “polished” reality from the pulpit first hand b/c – every time I seek to personally apply a truth from the bible to myself – I wonder, “What will people think of me if I reveal that?”

Yet, as usual, Tim Keller said it so well when he stated, “Christian communicators must show that we remember (or at least understand) very well what it is like not to believe.

The Christ-exalting/self-depracating choice

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is actually shown to be most strong when we are seen to be most weak.  He actually says, in the latter part of that verse, that he will even boast about his weaknesses, so that the power of Christ will be seen – even more – as the superior power it is.  And, of course, we see Paul doing just that in his recorded ministry; even referring to himself as the least of the apostles b/c of his past (1 Cor. 15:9) and the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Somehow, Paul believed so strongly in what God said to him about the way his own weaknesses showed the superior strength of Christ all the more brightly, that he didn’t shrink back from really showing people those weaknesses.  In the end, he was simply living out the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 .

Showing our hand

In 1 Peter 3:1-3 the apostle Paul exhorts fellow under-shepherds to be “examples to the flock.”  The question that needs to be asked at the end of the day is, “examples of what?” Are we to be examples of moral conquest and overcoming of sin alone? Or are we – much more so – to be examples of the reality of an imperfect life lived out before a holy righteous God who has qualified us, by His grace alone, to be a part of His family?

My plea to preachers of God’s word is simple: be examples, first, of how God has changed you; how He continues to impact, inspire, and correct you. This – as I see it it – is what truly helps people see the gospel for the power it is.  Not –  as Paul says – that we have already attained it, or been made perfect; but that we are striving for it, right alongside the same people we are preaching to about it.  Rather than weakening people’s idea of God and His strength, it will place you (rightly) directly alongside the man or woman in the pew, who is presently struggling to believe/apply/hope in what you are proclaiming anyways. That picture of a co-struggler – in the end – is infinitely more hopeful and inspiring to Christ-like character. And isn’t this what we are all are seeking to inspire in our flock anyways?

The only roadblock, then, to showing our hand from the pulpit is: we need to truly believe that it is more inspiring to the people we’re preaching to.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:5-7 ESV)

Christ and the Law: the triumph of grace over effort

CHRIST AND THE LAW

I’ve always loved the book of Galatians.  There are few other books in the bible that demonstrate so clearly the disparity between earned righteousness and gifted righteousness as this letter from the apostle Paul to the church at Galatia.  But in the same way that we continue to desire McDonalds food even after seeing Supersize Mewhy do we so often default back to the treadmill of trying to earn God’s favour when we know we already have it completely through Christ?  Why do we keep trying to earn what is already ours?

It’s quite possible, of course, that one might continue trying to earn grace because they have not yet truly received it,  but Paul is not primarily addressing that group in his letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a church of men and women who have (presumably) already received and experienced that saving grace, but who are now tempted to go back to law keeping to maintain it (improve on it?).

Paul’s impassioned reminder to them is, “All who rely on the works of the law [for salvation] are under a curse.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV) and, “No one is justified before God by the law.” (Gal. 3:11, ESV)  He bases that statement on the truth that, in order to be justified before God by the law keeping, one must, “abide by all the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV)  All of them!  Jesus taught this same truth when He was carrying out His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 5:19-20).

And if you’ve ever been in that boot camp of trying to earn God’s favour (or perhaps are presently there) you can probably still remember the taste of dirt in your mouth as you fell on your face again and again and again.  It’s the inevitable result of what I’ve now heard a number of preachers refer to as “confusing our justification with our sanctification.”

John Bunyan captured the utter futility of trying to earn God’s favour by keeping the law masterfully in his book Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christian’s friend Faithful recounts to him this interaction:

Now, when I had got above half-way up, I looked behind me, and saw one coming after me, swift as the wind; so he overtook me just about the place where the settle stands … So soon as the man overtook me, it was but a word and a blow; for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again I asked him wherefore he served me so. He said because of my secret inclining to Adam the First. And with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward; so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again I cried him mercy: but he said, I know not how to show mercy; and with that he knocked me down again. (Bunyan, 1998 p. 93-4)

Christian then tells his friend Faithful, “That man that overtook you was Moses. He spareth none; neither knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress the law.” (Bunyan, 1998)

Man’s effort could never achieve God’s favour.  For since the sin of Adam, even the best of our efforts are tainted with sin the way a tone deaf person taints even the most beautiful of songs.

The gospel way

In the midst of his pummelling by Moses (the law) however, Faithful recounts in his tale this important detail:  he says, “He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by and bid him forbear.”  Christian inquires as to who came to his aid, and Faithful replies, “I did not know him at first: but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands and in his side: Then I concluded that he was our Lord.”(Bunyan, 1998)

The great hope of the gospel is that in Jesus, grace triumphs over effort.  Paul says in Gal. 3:13, “Christ redeem us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -“.  In 2 Cor. 5:21 he expands on this by saying, “For our sake, God made Him [Jesus] to be sin [the helpless state of lawbreakers before a holy God] who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The Scriptures are clear that the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and so this, then, is how Jesus freed us from the curse of the law: by becoming a curse.  Paul completes Gal. 3:13 with, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'”

In other words – to use Bunayn’s terms – Jesus bids Moses forbear his pummelling of us, and instead, takes that pummelling upon Himself, to the point of death.

The way of the flesh

The favour of God that we could never achieve ourselves, then, has been fully procured by Christ and credited to our account.  To understand this, just imagine setting up a treadmill in the middle of an olympic racetrack.

treadmill on racetrack

The gun goes off and we begin running on the treadmill, while Jesus actually runs on the track and is victorious in the race.  Running on a treadmill in the middle of a racetrack represents all human efforts to win God’s favour – it achieves nothing (Is. 64:6).  Jesus’ running and completion of the race represents Jesus’ single effort – it achieves everything (Heb. 10:14)!  The incomprehensibility of the gospel message, is that Jesus then takes His gold medal and places it over our neck when we come to Him in faith and repentance.  His victory becomes ours (Gal. 4:4-5).

What Paul is trying to communicate in his letter to the Galatians – using that metaphor – is, really, “The race has already been won for you!  Why would you ever try and get back on that same treadmill again?”

Every time we try to climb back on that treadmill, we deny the truth of the gospel.  Paul says earlier in Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the [keeping of] the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So how do we keep off that treadmill?  Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful:

1. Keep yourself daily in the word of God: It is filled, cover to cover, with the same reminder Paul gives to the Galatians, viz. you can’t, but God can.

2. Intimate and honest conversation with the God (prayer): He saved you by His grace alone. He loves to unplug the treadmill for us.

3. Honest and open conversation with other believers (community):  Here is one of many places where the body of Christ can remind us of truths we already know and help us climb off that treadmill to nowhere.

4. Print out J. D. Greear’s gospel prayer and post it somewhere you will see it often:  The first stanza of the prayer is particularly relevant to treadmill running.  He reminds us to pray, “In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I can do that would make You love me less.”  I need that reminder often.

Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke (treadmill?) of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

Jesus echoes, Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

 Grace triumphs over effort.

Every lofty opinion: Preaching that prepares for Monday

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As evangelical preachers, we say that the word of God is our sole authority for all matters of life and doctrine (Prov. 30:5-6) and that we can hold to that belief because the One who ultimately wrote that word to us is also true (Romans 3:4).  My question is whether or not we end up teaching the exact opposite of that on Sunday morning, simply by the way we interact with the controversial issues of our day?

 We do that, I think, when we are teaching on the questions and “lofty opinions” of our day, and give in to the temptation to either hedge our bets or, worse yet, knowingly present opinions that oppose what we believe to be orthodox, in their weakest forms. Consider a pastor who leans toward a Complementarian position, but who teaches a mediating view on biblical eldership to avoid conflict with the strong Egalitarian voices in his church.  Or a pastor who presents a view that homosexuality is always and only a personal choice when teaching a biblical sexual ethic.

Is this truly humility? An admission that we simply don’t have omniscience?  Or is it, rather the knocking down of straw men, to make ourselves and our congregations feel better, and to conceal the truth that – while we may doctrinally hold to the authority of Scripture –  functionally we are as liberal as the “liberals” we condemn?

In his excellent book entitled Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson describes the fallacy of an Appeal to Selective Evidence as, “so selective a use of evidence that other evidence has been illegitimately excluded.”  He then adds,

“As a general rule, the more complex and/or emotional the issue, the greater the tendency to select only part of the evidence, prematurely construct a grid, and so filter the rest of the evidence through the grid that it is robbed of any substance.” (p.90)

The fallacy is easy to fall into, particularly when one is faced with a topic or a question where the opposing opinion has strong emotional appeal or enjoys wide support within the prevailing culture you are in.  The temptation towards straw-man-building and deck-stacking can be very strong.

But we must decide as preachers – before we are ever even confronted with the temptation – not to give in.  This strategy for overcoming an opposing viewpoint is, at best, only a temporary, short lived victory and, at worst, setting up our congregations for greater defeat (as well as greater distrust of us) in the future when our facile arguments are shown to be what they are.  In other words, we’re not “equipping the saints” in an Eph. 4 sense at all by winning the battle on a Sunday morning, only to leave them to the wolves on Monday.

As ever, Tim Keller is helpful here in giving us a strategy to interact with opposing viewpoints on a Sunday morning in a way that will actually educate and equip your people to head into their work/school week on Monday.  He says in his book Centre Church in a section entitled “Gospel Polemics” (p.372-3),

1. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.

2. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.

3. Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.

4. Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!

5. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.

 To simplify, Keller is exhorting preachers to interact with opposing viewpoints both in their strongest form as well as in a way that those who hold that view point would say, “Yes!  That’s exactly what I believe.”  Only then are we truly teaching on that subject and equipping our congregations for Monday morning.

Paul says of his ministry in 2 Cor. 10 that the weapons we fight with are not of this world and that they have divine power to, “destroy strongholds” and to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5, ESV)  He had such confidence in the word of God (“knowledge of God”) and the message of the gospel (Romans 1:16) that he could confidently stand before Athenian scholars (Acts 17) or kings (Acts 26), certain that the Scriptures were more than sufficient to stand up against any opposing view or opinion raised against them.

As ministers of that same gospel, may we have Paul’s confidence in the strength of the word of God.  Poor logic and shoddy argumentation when interacting with the “lofty opinions” of our day, only belie the true level of our confidence in the Scriptures, and also teach the people God has put under our care to have the same lack of confidence.

My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”  James 3:10

The psychology of oppression: reaping what we’ve sown

The psychology of oppression

After telling us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”, the apostle Paul states plainly in Galatians 6:7

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows that will he also reap.”

And as I consider the recent events in the USA regarding Michael Brown and Eric Garner, for the first time today I read those words from Paul and connected them with Moses’ words in Exodus 20:5, that speak of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation …”

I’m not interested in armchair-lawyering the justice (or lack of justice) that resulted from the criminal investigations that followed both these incidents.  I’m also not interested in trying to speculate or prove that these deaths were racially motivated; the ones that ultimately know the real answer to that question are Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo and God alone.

What interests me here is a deeper question behind the questions of excessive force, choke holds, and the effectiveness of the justice system: a question of origins.

A case study

We’ve become all too familiar with terrible stories about the cycle of domestic abuse and the women/children who are trapped in them.  It’s heartbreaking to hear about and, undoubtedly devastating to live through.  And looking from the outside, as we see these battered and abused women continuing to stay in these destructive relationships, we often ask ourselves “Why don’t they just leave?” or “Why would they continue to tolerate such behaviour?”

But if you think about the origins of this cycle of abuse, it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that no boyfriend or husband starts out beating up on/being physically violent with his partner, on the first date.  Likely, a relationship, or a deeper bond of some kind, is built first before any abusive behaviour really starts to materialize.  And once that relationship has been established – even in spite of the physical and mental violence inflicted – it becomes incredibly hard to break free and rise above such circumstances.  And once the woman is freed from that abusive relationship, she often still experiences the trauma/anxiety of it, even when her new relationship now poses none of the same threat.

The case study flipped and re-applied 

My question is: what if someone did start out with abusive behaviour (under which the oppressed person could not get out from under) and then – over time – gradually reduced the abusive behaviour and finally began to act favourably towards the person?  The order of the cycle of abuse has been reversed, yes, but I wonder the effect is not the exact same on the abused person.

The statistics are clear in my view (see pg. 5 from a US research project regarding African Americans in the penal system – image below).

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(http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_Trends_in_Corrections_Fact_sheet.pdf)

Or see this post from Reuters in Canada regarding First Nations peoples in our penal system.

Even if all the history you know of the settlement of America and Canada is from films like “Amistad” and “Last of the Mohicans”, you know, at least, that the hands of our ancestors are stained with a great deal of the blood of both the African American and First Nations peoples.

  Tadeusz Grygier, a doctor of social and criminal psychology wrote in his recent work, “Oppression: a study of social and criminal psychology” which drew from his own experience in Soviet war camps as well as research done with survivors of Nazi concentration camps, found these startling conclusions about the psychology of oppressed people:

– oppression tends to produce an extrapunitive attitude in the oppressed, diverting aggression to external persons and situations

– it leads to psychopathy and crime

– more severe degrees of oppression greatly increase the incidence of crime

(see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2079301/pdf/brmedj03620-0049c.pdf)

Testing the hypothesis

It’s doesn’t explain everything by a long shot.  But if you look at the justice system’s statistics of formerly (some would say still currently) oppressed people groups, and place them alongside Dr. Grygier’s findings, I think it brings up some difficult questions to answer.

It makes me wonder if – although we (as middle class white people anyways) like to say that “racism in C21 is all but dead”, and then base that statement on the fact that the stark horrors of our forefather’s oppression are no longer taking place – it makes me wonder if we’ve really considered the psychology of that former oppression and the effect it still has on future generations?  If the “feeling” of oppression and subjugation has not been passed on from those formerly oppressed generations?  So that now – although the present threat of domination/subjugation has been quelled – the ability to experience the freedom and non-suspicious life we enjoy today in white North America, still feels out of reach?

It makes me wonder if the sins of our forefathers did not create a present day “oppressed psychology” which is also invisible to our eyes, and which helps to create much of the sociological, economic, and educational disparities we see between ethnicities today, and then the resulting criminal behaviour that can follow out of that oppressed mindset?

And if now we are simply reaping what was sown?

The gain of pain: Suffering as preparation for ministry

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We’ve all heard the words and likely said them ourselves many times, “No pain, no gain.”  We get (or should anyways) that most things in life that are worth accomplishing require some degree of effort and struggle in order to achieve them.  But if we default to thinking about that effort and struggle in one particular way only, we can miss an entirely different perspective with massive implications for life and ministry.

If you’re involved at all in pastoral ministry, that default perspective of effort and struggle likely begins with seminary or theological education of some kind.  It then melds into a mixture of personal devotion, sermon prep, and continuing education, all mixed in with the weekly duties of a pastor.  And – no mistake – that is a part of effort and struggle.

But the perspective on effort and struggle that is often missed, or completely passed over, in ministry is one that we actually have no control over whatsoever and that is more than likely one we’d just as soon forget and move on from:

 It is the perspective of pain.

The evidence of gain in pain

C.S Lewis once said in The problem of pain,

“We can ignore even pleasure.  But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

And yet – particularly for the pastor – our past (or even present) pain and struggles are often the very thing we seek to either forget or hide from those we want to minster to.  And I simply wonder if this is not an over-realized understanding of 1 Peter 5:3.  For what is it exactly that we are to be examples of? Moral superiority?  The fiction of “you can do it too if you just try harder like me”?  Or are we not more to be examples of 1 Timothy 1:16; of “redeemed-by-grace-alone sinners” like Paul?  Examples of “you can receive grace just like I have no matter where you’ve come from!”?

As I trace the biblical narratives – over and over again – it is the tools of pain and suffering that God primarily uses, to prepare His truly great ministers for truly great tasks of ministry.  Consider:

Abraham had to suffer under years of childlessness, to leave behind his home land, as well as be commanded to sacrifice what was most precious to him (Isaac), to be prepared to be the father of many nations.

Jacob/Israel had to be exiled from his family and pummelled by Jesus in a wrestling match to be prepared to bear the name Israel.

Joseph suffered the treachery of his brothers and Potiphar’s wife, as well as years of “hard time” in dungeons to be prepared to be the preserver of God’s people in Egypt.

Moses had to suffer under exile from Egypt and Israel as a murderer before God called him to be the one who would then lead Israel out of slavery Egypt.

Joshua had to wander 40 years in the wilderness, and watch every other Israelite but Caleb die in the wilderness before God called him to replace Moses and lead God’s people into the promised land.

Daniel had to suffer exile in Babylon and the threat of becoming kitty-kibble in order to come to the place of leadership he held.

Peter had to suffer under the pride-pummeling guilt and shame of denying his Lord that he had sworn allegiance to (as well as a humiliating breakfast with Him afterwards) to become the “rock” on which Jesus would build His church.

Saul/Paul had to be blinded and humiliated before a murderer of Christians could become the greatest Christian missionary the world had ever known.

Even Jesus had to humble Himself above all others (Phil.2) and take on human flesh, become the Servant of all, and die a humiliating, horrific death, in order to procure the salvation we have in Him.

You seeing a theme yet?

The hermeneutic of gain through pain 

Wes Furlong, in his article for Catalyst, “What makes a leader truly inspiring?” wrote,

“It’s the personal narrative behind their leadership that makes the difference. Inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical. “Why” they lead and “where” they’re going is firmly embedded in what has happened to them. We see the transformation in their lives and the vision that rises from their struggle and find ourselves resonating with their story and joining their journey from what is to what should be.”

We know that the sufferings of the apostle Paul – for example – were more than any average dude could endure in our day and age, let alone his own day and age.  But when we read 2 Cor. 4:17, For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (ESV)”, I wonder if we don’t see that “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” as only a future reality and not a present one as well?  I wonder if Paul is not describing the veritable “X Factor” of ministry as the very thing we so often seek to forget and hide away from others in order to “do ministry”?

I’m not saying we should be those who either a) seek out suffering as some “badge of honour” to flaunt, or b) those who air out their dirty laundry in order to appear “more relevant” to those we minster to.  But what I am saying is that maybe – just maybe – those places and circumstances of your life that you feel are a hinderance to your ministry, might just be the very places God took you through in order to make you an even more effective leader in your ministry than you could have ever been otherwise.

For once you’ve grown under pain and suffering as a leader, you know: it’s not about transparency or vulnerability anymore – it’s not even something you’re trying to “do” that people are drawn to.  It’s just something you are now.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God [emphasis added]. 2 Cor. 1:3-4 (ESV)

Honorable conduct: living as exiles in the 21st Century

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From the moment we walked in the gates, and until we left, no one spoke more than a few words – there was nothing anyone could say. Touring through Austria in 1994, we had taken a day as a group to visit Mauthausen Concentration camp just outside of Linz, and not far from the Dachau camp.  Just being at that place elicited a whole array of responses, from rage to overwhelming sadness, as I considered the number of people who had taken their last breath within those terrible fences – it was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

While there were certainly many who suffered under the boot of the Third Reich in WWII, most would agree, none suffered so specifically and horrifically as the Jews; a people who – from the 1933 occupation of Germany onward – became progressively and systematically exiled in their own countries and homes.

But if you follow the history, the Nazi regime did not just start loading up Jewish people into trains and sending them off to death camps on day one.  They began, instead, with a propaganda campaign to demonize and dehumanize the Jews in the minds and culture of the German population over time, so that when they did begin carting those same people off in train cars, it would feel less like genocide, and more like deliverance to the deceived minds of the German people.  The campaign was devastatingly successful for the most part.

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(poster reads, “Behind the enemy powers: the Jew”)

There are heroic stories however, amongst the many sad ones, of German people who did not accept the propaganda and – rather than turning in their Jewish neighbours – protected and hid them instead.  The Frank family of Amsterdam (made famous by Anne Frank’s famous diary) is one of those stories.

And one big question that intrigues me from their story is:

What made those German people – surrounded by a culture and a ruling government that was telling them to fear and hate the Jews – see the Frank family differently and act in the exact opposite way towards them?

One answer that seems plausible is that perhaps the Frank family – by simply knowing and living amongst their neighbours in honourable, kind and dependable ways – made the claims of the Nazi propaganda campaign look as ridiculous and mis-informed to them as they do to us today.  The conduct of these exiled Jewish people in the context they lived in, ultimately, made the Nazi propaganda appear implausible and incoherent.

In the book of 1 Peter 2:12,15 we read these words:

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation … For it is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (ESV).”

I don’t mean in any way to suggest either that the Frank family (or any practicing Jewish person) knew and followed this New Testament principle, or that the suffering of Jewish people under the Nazi regime is at all comparable to the plight of 21st Century conservative Evangelicalism; I don’t believe either of those things to be true.  I simply wonder if we can’t extract from the story of the Frank family – living under a country-wide propaganda campaign intended to misrepresent and demonize them – something of the truths that the apostle Peter lays out in 1 Peter 2:12,15 for our own lives today?

For in the Western world, there is also a growing, pervasive propaganda campaign against conservative Evangelicalism.  Its intent is to exile, demonize and misrepresent both the biblical sexual ethic and the people who hold it; to put us forward as a bigoted, closed-minded, homophobic, gay-hating mob chasing down all LBGQT people like the pitch-fork/torch wielding mobs chasing down “witches” in 17th Century Salem.

Now, perhaps we scoff at such a representation and view it as unfair and fantastical.  But I would ask you (and indeed, you must ask yourself): does the way you live your life with your neighbours and within your city, make the claims of this propaganda campaign look implausible to those who know you?

Narrow the question even further: would those within the LGBQT community, who know where you stand on homosexual practice, still find it hard to reconcile the propaganda they hear with what they know of you?  Would they be at all confused and  say to themselves, “Wow!  I know everyone’s telling me that people who say that the bible condemns homosexual practice hate me and want me to go away … but, I don’t see how that could be right because I know my neighbour holds to a biblical view of homosexuality, yet his family were the only ones in the building to help me and my partner move in.  His family has had me into their home for dinner. Our kids play in the park together.  I don’t hate him and it definitely doesn’t seem like he hates me at all either!“?

If not, we have to ask ourselves if the insulating of ourselves against the LBGQT community and our lack of real, true Christ-like engagement with them – all in the name of protecting our children and stewarding the truth – is not actually supporting and solidifying the very propaganda claims we say are unfair and fantastical?

If you really think that the way that Christians who hold to a biblical sexual ethic are portrayed today is foolish, then we are told in God’s word,

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (Ibid.).”

It’s not the whole of what it means to live as an exile in the 21st Century, but it is a very real part of building the context for a faithful presentation of the hope of the gospel.

On the value of repetition in worship

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 10.05.21 AMIf you grew up in more conservative evangelical circles like I did, you can have a very particular reaction to music played in church or on the radio that includes repeating lines or phrases over and over again.

Oh come on,” you might say, “This is just meaningless repetition or shameless emotionalism!  What does this have to do with worshiping God?

Well, as it turns out, a lot actually!

I won’t include every example here, but even a brief survey of the Scriptures shows us that repetition is a powerful tool used frequently both for emphasis, as well as for the embedding of a truth in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

Deut. 11:18-21 provides clear instruction to both state and restate the truths of God over and over and in every circumstance of life in order to (amoung other things) bring about generational worship of the one true God.

Ps. 118 is an obvious example of repetition in worship. “His steadfast love endures forever,” following vast and varied truths of the God of heaven and earth.

Phil. 4:4 sees Paul giving a simple command to rejoice in the Lord always, and then – in the same sentence – repeating the command to emphasize its importance.

And in 2 Peter 1:12-13, Peter seems to find no problem repeating and reminding the church of things he says he knows they already know.

And those are just a few examples!

Where this all came to great clarity to me was a few months back driving out to Langley for one of my MDiv seminars.  I was listening to the song “Everlasting Father” by Elevation worship from their new album “Only King forever.”  During the bridge, the music quiets, and the female singer begins to sing a simple line,

I am loved, I am loved by my Father!  I’m forever Yours!”

Over the next minute or so of the song, she repeats this very same line as the music dynamically builds to an awesome crescendo.  And I’m listening to this song – and I know this part is coming – and I start to have that same “conservative” reaction I spoke of to the song.

But then – Cinephile that I am – I think the Spirit brought to mind that powerful scene from the film Goodwill Hunting when the late Robin Williams character says to Matt Damon’s character (Will) of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood at the hands of his father,

Hey Will, you know what?  All this [pointing to the case file that documents the abuse he suffered]; all this sh*t: it’s not your fault.”

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And then, in the very same way (though without the sweeping band behind him) he just repeats the same line, “It’s not your fault,” over and over and over again; each time he says it, the truth that Will has never confronted and certainly doesn’t believe to be true, presses deeper and deeper into his heart, to the point where he even violently lashes out at the counsellor, to push away the healing balm he is steadily applying to his deeply wounded soul.

And as I thought of that powerful scene, all of a sudden I start hearing,

I am loved, I am loved by my Father!  I’m forever Yours!”

over and over again … and now I almost have to pull the car over I’m weeping so hard; overwhelmed by the staggering truth that I am both known and loved by the God of the universe; that I am His child forever and He is my eternal Father.

Can repetition in worship be overdone – even abused?  Sure it can.  But it can also be a powerful tool to press the truths of God and His word deep into the hearts of His children whom He has set His eternal love on.