Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Get Used to Failure if You Want to Overcome It

Failure is something we all dread. The fear of failure often produces tremendous anxiety. The experience of failure often produces depression and shame and bitterness. Notice those are all emotions that Christians are told to resist and overcome. We are not meant to sit alone after a loss, feeling sorry for ourselves and wondering if we have what it takes. We are meant to put our trust in God and keep going. (See 2 Corinthians 1:8-10.) Easier said than done, of course. But here is one of the most encouraging lessons I've seen on why you should simply make peace with failure and keep pressing on through it.

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 36 years and ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave an extraordinary commencement address in 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin. You may have seen it shared widely on Facebook and in many blogs and business and professional magazines. The YouTube video embedded below has had over 3.4 million views, and rightly so. The speech is remarkable because Adm. McRaven drew on ten lessons from Navy SEAL training that apply to pretty much everything in life and work for anyone. They're all good, but there is one that made a huge impression on me. It's the lesson of the "sugar cookie."

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn't good enough. The instructors would find "something" wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a "sugar cookie." You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn't accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn't make it through training. Those students didn't understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It's just the way life is sometimes.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. 

Mark this: the people who gave up and went home - the ones who didn't become Navy SEALs - were the ones who couldn't accept failure. The ones who succeeded and became SEALs were the ones who learned to get used to failure and keep going. The point of the exercise was to ensure that everyone ended up a "sugar cookie." No illusions here that some people always get it right while others fall short. The only way forward was to accept that you were going to fail, and to keep trying anyway. What sent some of the men home was simply pride. Our fear of failure, and our avoidance of situations where we might fail, does not come from an urgent need to accomplish important things. The people who accomplish important things are the ones who keep trying and failing until they get it right. Our fear and avoidance is due to our vanity in wanting to look successful and impressive. The ones who went home were the ones who couldn't handle the idea of having to look like a failure in order to get to the point of success. 

Bonus points if you're thinking: Kobayashi Maru. This was the infamous test at Starfleet Academy in Star Trek that every person training for command must take. And it was deliberately impossible. This quote by Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film captures it perfectly: "The purpose is to experience fear. Fear in the face of certain death. To accept that fear and maintain control of oneself and one’s crew.” The purpose of this training exercise was never to succeed. The purpose was to learn to maintain courage and control even when everything failed; to avoid giving in to panic or despair. The lesson is to never let your perception that you are failing or your fear of losing tempt you into giving up. The people that succeed are the ones that refuse to give up after failing (or after thinking they've failed).

The application for Christians is critical: more often than anything, it's our doubts about how we're doing and our own insecurities that discourage us and cause us to get derailed. Very often we are on the right track spiritually but we lose heart because we can't see that things are working out. Our perception is that we've failed, and we shrink back from what seems hopeless. 

Keeping our faith fixed in God includes persevering in doing the right thing even when the evidence of our senses tells us we're losing. We trust in God's point of view instead: "When I thought, 'My foot slips,' your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul." (Psalm 94:18-19). One of the precious comforts in Scripture is that God often does His most glorious work when it looks like it's already too late. Think about how the disciples felt for those three days after Jesus died upon the cross. And then...

We need to stop keeping score of our "successes" and worrying if we think our "failures" outnumber them. We need to stop measuring ourselves against other people or against what we think a successful Christian should look like. Everybody ends up a sugar cookie sooner or later. Instead, we need to keep following Christ in every way we can, and trust Him to make the most of the results.

"Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." (Hebrews 10:35-36)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Is Happiness a Vain and Worldly Thing or a Christian Thing?

Randy Alcorn has written the essay I have been waiting for someone to write. This is an important thing to get clear. We see so many people wrecking their lives and their souls by pursuing "happiness" in all the wrong places that we can become skeptical and critical of the idea of happiness itself.

Some Christians have dismissed happiness as a worldly and self-centered idea that is different from Christian joy and satisfaction. They try to explain Christian joy as something different and spiritual, and they treat happiness as a self-indulgent desire. This is very confusing to our hearts, especially to those who struggle for joy, because it makes us feel criticized for some of our legitimate efforts to be happy. And yet we cannot get away from them. As Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said: "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end." (Pensées, #425).

This has been one of my first priorities in writing a blog, and I've tackled the search for joy a number of times from the very early posts to If You Struggle With Joy You're Not Alone and a string of posts here from 2013 on C.S. Lewis (including Don't Let Being Unhappy Make You Feel Guilty).

But for the present, I just encourage you to read Randy Alcorn's post. Here's a preview:

An ungrounded, dangerous separation of joy from happiness has infiltrated the Christian community. The following is typical of the artificial distinctions made by modern Christians:
Joy is something entirely different from happiness. Joy, in the Biblical context, is not an emotion. . . . There is a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is an emotion and temporary; joy is an attitude of the heart.
Judging from such articles (and there are hundreds more out there), you’d think the distinction between joy and happiness is biblical. It’s not.
John Piper writes, “If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has,’ you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”
Here’s a sampling of the more than one hundred Bible verses in various translations that use joy and happiness together:
  • For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. (Esther 8:16, NIV)
  • I will turn their mourning into joy. . . and bring happiness out of grief. (Jeremiah 31:13, HCSB)
  • Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25, NLT)

The relationship between joy and happiness in these passages refutes two common claims: (1) that the Bible doesn’t talk about happiness, and (2) that joy and happiness have contrasting meanings. In fact, the Bible overflows with accounts of God’s people being happy in him.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Be Confident About God's Love for You - He Commands It

Distrusting your own motives and your desires is a prudent habit. We have good reasons to be suspicious of our own judgment about what is right and wrong: the clearest evidence of this is how often we do get it wrong, only to come to our senses later and regret our foolishness. But when self-examination and distrust of our hearts crosses over into doubt about whether we are accepted and favored by God, we are going straight against God's counsel to us. Doubting ourselves is one thing; but we are not meant to doubt the faithfulness and constancy of God's love. One of my greatest comforts is that God actually commands us not to doubt His love. It's not just something I want to be sure about; the Lord insists that I be sure about it.
"And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." (Hebrews 6:11-12 ESV)
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." (1 John 5:13 ESV)
"Assurance" is another way of saying confidence in God. There are two dimensions or parts to assurance: having confidence that God truly is who He says He is and will do all He has promised; and having confidence that you are indeed forgiven by God for all your sins and accepted as His child (being "saved").1  The second part of assurance is believing that you have personally received salvation and forgiveness and that you are now accepted by God. If you don't have the first part secure, trusting God to be who the Scriptures say He is and trusting that He will do what He has promised, the second part doesn't give you much confidence. Being sure you are God's child is an uncertain comfort if you don't believe God is dependable. But if you get the first part straight and still doubt that God specifically loves and accepts you, then you will be doubtful and insecure about whether you personally will benefit from His dependability and faithfulness. So it is crucial to work on being confident that God loves you personally and fully intends to fulfill all His promises in your life.

Spurgeon nails the most important part of this: "[W]e shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self ... We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus.’" (Morning and Evening, p. 360). Assurance is found in seeking to know God in the fullest way possible, largely through examining the Scriptures, which display the best and most complete picture of Him we can have, and through seeking Him directly in prayer. And here it is also vital to remember that Jesus Christ is the way God has revealed Himself to us, and it is through Jesus that we come to know God. "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." (Heb. 1:3). "No one has ever seen God; the only God [Jesus], who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:18). If you would know God, fix your eyes on Jesus.

The more you know God, the more you see He is trustworthy. And the more you know God, the more you discover whether what you see is lovely and appealing and precious. One of the best confirmations that you are accepted and loved by God is that you love what you see of Him. And because our Lord loves us, He does not want us to neglect that source of joy and comfort.
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

1 For those interested, here is the definition from Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology: "There is a twofold assurance, namely, (1) The objective assurance of faith, which is 'the certain and undoubting conviction that Christ is all He professes to be, and will do all He promises.' … (2) The subjective assurance of faith, or the assurance of grace and salvation, which consists in a sense of security and safety, rising in many instances to the height of an 'assured conviction that the individual believer has had his sins pardoned and his soul saved.'" (pp. 562-63).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Wise Man Never Trusts Himself Completely

J.C. Ryle (from Banner of Truth):

'Let it be a settled principle in our religion, that there is an amount of weakness in all our hearts, of which we have no adequate conception, and that we never know how far we might fall if we were tempted. We fancy sometimes, like Peter, that there are some things we could not possibly do. We look pitifully upon others who fall, and please ourselves in the thought that at any rate we should not have done so. We know nothing at all. The seeds of every sin are latent in our hearts, even when renewed, and they only need occasion, or carelessness, and the withdrawal of God's grace of a season, to put forth an abundant crop...The servant of Christ will do wisely to remember these things.
"Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
A humble sense of our own innate weakness, a constant dependence on the Strong for strength, a daily prayer to be held up, because we cannot hold up ourselves, these are the true secrets of safety.'

Bottom line: the only one you can always trust is God Himself. The Bible gives us the standard against which to test our desires and motivations. It is always reliable, even when we are not. And God counsels and advises us through the Holy Spirit and prayer. But to receive that counsel, you must be often in the Word of God and spend time earnestly baring your heart to Him in prayer. You don't hear what you don't listen for. "Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge." (Proverbs 19:27)

Imagination Serves God... if It Is Shaped by God

The imagination sometimes gets overlooked as a tool of faith. Some people see the imagination as a tool of fantasy and daydreaming, something that people use to escape from the really important business of life. Others may be put off by the association of imagination and "imaginary," as if talking about using the imagination about God somehow implies He isn't real. But the fact is that without imagination, we can't really encounter God.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV)

the conviction of things not seen. That sure sounds like a job for imagination.

There are many other good examples in Scripture: “The imagination is a necessary component for reading fiction books, non-fiction books, and, of course, for reading the Bible. God’s book engages our imaginations by the parables of Jesus, the poetry of the Psalms, the adages of the Proverbs, and, of course, the apocalyptic language of the prophets. But what makes human imagination even more incredible is how we experience in our minds things we did not, have not, or cannot experience ourselves. The book of Revelation is one example.” (Tony Reinke, Dragons and Holiness). In the past several months, I have noticed some exceptionally good articles on by various authors examining the imagination at work in faith. Here's my quick summary connecting the dots.

Imagining for Good or for Evil

Like anything else, the imagination can be misused. Bryce Young captured both sides well a few days ago in a thoughtful post: Imagine Your Way to Joy. He starts out by confronting "an often-overlooked aspect of sin: the power of imagination." Young observes: "For sin to be accepted, approved, and even celebrated in our own minds, it must first be nourished by something stronger than just our senses. The seeds of sin, though sown in the flesh, are protected and watered by our imaginations. Sin is supplemented by story, an alternative narrative — an imaginative world in which sin does not afflict the conscience as easily because in that world, wickedness credibly plays the part of virtue."

Imagination allows us to construct an "alternate reality" where we rearrange what is right and wrong so that we can justify our desires. In our minds, we can bend the rules until the wrong direction seems natural and right. Have you ever noticed how most people who are caught up in some sin will rationalize it by saying they think God understands? In their minds, they can imagine God's reaction to be anything they want. And conveniently, they usually imagine His reaction supports what they feel and desire.

But imagination can also get you out of trouble too. When you feel a strong temptation or desire for something, and at the moment it seems like you couldn't possibly be content or satisfied without giving in, imagination allows you to experience the feelings that will come with standing firm and keeping faithful to God. At the moment, the self-denial seems painful, but later on you will be grateful for having stayed true to the Lord, and the blessings of a clean conscience will seem very sweet. But you don't feel that in the moment of great temptation - and so you need imagination to remind you what those rewards of faithfulness feel like. Young concludes:
From all this, you might begin to think that we should suppress imaginative activity. Imagination may appear to be a distraction from the pursuit of truth, or worse, a misleading trail away from it. Fidelity to reason alone, unpolluted by creations of the imagination, may appear a much safer stewardship of our cognitive capabilities.
However, dismissing the imagination from the Christian life will neither save us from sin nor help us grow in righteousness. In fact, all hope of putting off the old man and putting on the new rests in a God-given, Christ-purchased, Spirit-empowered redemption of the imagination. ...
By using the imagination to envision the possibilities of our faithful service to God, we also find help in fighting our sins. The problem is that we are far too easily pleased with the imaginary worlds in which our sins find shelter. The glorious stories that act out God’s purposes will always be more beautiful than the stories we throw together to explain away our sins. So, we kill sin by expending imaginative effort to envision the superior delight and beauty of God’s stories over the twisted, ugly plots we write to justify evil. 

The imaginary life we build up around some desires can be overpowering and very hard to give up. Even when we are convinced that we need to do that, and we direct our imagination to consider the glory and joy of pursing God instead, there is normally a gap between breaking off from the pleasure of deceitful sin and actually experiencing the satisfaction that comes from embracing God. For that, I strongly recommend Breaking Free from the Spell of Fantasy, an article from several months ago that left a strong impression on me.

Letting God Shape Your Imagination

Our imagination is a powerful weapon and tool, but it has to have something reliable to guide it. And that something is not going to be found within ourselves. I recalled Jon Bloom's description in an August post:
Everything God creates is good (Genesis 1:31). But we must take this in large measure on faith because under the curse of the fall, our fallen perceptions often don’t see it. And our fallen natures often don’t believe it. We are disordered and pathologically self-centered. We are out of sync.
The only things fallen humans tend to believe are good are those that sate our appetites, increase our personal prestige, align with our preferences, pleasantly interest us, operate within our desired timetable, and are convenient and comfortable. In the scope of the created universe, these add up to only a very few things. (Let Good Things Run Wild)

When our imaginations are used to make sin seem normal or okay, they aren't doing it on their own. They are conspiring with our hearts, which desire things they shouldn't. Then the imagination tries to serve the desires of the heart by creating an illusionary world in which fulfilling those desires seems good or even inevitable. Jon Bloom summed it up perfectly in another post: "Our hearts were never designed to be followed, but to be led."

Bloom's description that follows, on how our hearts should be led, is excellent, and his points apply to the imagination as well: let your imagination be used and used freely, but let it be directed and shaped by God. Your imagination can be a slave to your desires or it can serve God by shaping your heart and desires. Let the Scriptures and the life of Jesus define the nature of your invisible world.
If we make our hearts gods and ask them to lead us, they will lead us to narcissistic misery and ultimately damnation. They cannot save us, because what’s wrong with our hearts is the heart of our problem. But if our hearts believe in God, as they are designed to, then God saves us (Hebrews 7:25) and leads our hearts to exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4).
Therefore, don’t believe in your heart; direct your heart to believe in God. Don’t follow your heart; follow Jesus. Note that Jesus did not say to his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled, just believe in your hearts.” He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
So though your heart will try to shepherd you today, do not follow it. It is not a shepherd. It is a pompous sheep that, due to remaining sin, has some wolf-like qualities. Don’t follow it, and be careful even listening to it. Remember, your heart only tells you what you want, not where you should go. So only listen to it to note what it’s telling you about what you want, and then take your wants, both good and evil, to Jesus as requests and confessions.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Chesterton Chose a Priest to Be a Detective - Father Brown's Reason and Religion

There's an interesting and thoughtful take here from Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian on how Chesterton had Father Brown employ spiritual rationality (retaining a healthy balance of reason and common sense right alongside his very deep convictions about the supernatural - in fact, retaining it because of them) to solve crimes, along with a Christian insight into human nature and human depravity. 

One of the delightful treasures about Father Brown is the story of how Chesterton got this idea of creating him. Chesterton had been visiting a friend, father John O'Connor, and he was repeatedly stunned by how broad and deep the priest's knowledge of human depravity proved to be. It had been no surprise to him that the Church would know a good deal more than him about good, but that it also knew a good deal more about evil was a shock. After one such meeting, Chesterton overheard a couple of young men saying to one another that they felt it wasn't right for a man to be like that priest and shut himself up all cloistered and cut off from life, that it created a naiveté and ignorance of the world. This was Chesterton's reaction to this irony:
To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing-room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.
To this broad experience of the fallen human heart and its consequences, Chesterton added a deep conviction about reason and common sense. He exploded the shallow myth that a churchman must be a bit weak in reason and somewhat gullible simply because he happens to believe in miracles and the supernatural. Chesterton rather proved that point himself in his life: even his atheist friends like George Bernard Shaw considered the Catholic writer to be one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. In his first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, his priest-detective defends reason against a tall impostor posing as another priest:

   The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:
   "Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?"
   "No," said the other priest; "reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason."
   The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:
   "Yet who knows if in that infinite universe—?"
   "Only infinite physically," said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, "not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth."

As the impostor reveals himself, demanding the priest surrender a holy relic he wants to steal, an exchange takes place where the priest one-ups the thief each time in criminal tricks:

   "How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau.
   The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
   "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."
   "What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

   "You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."

Chesterton wrote some 52 short stories featuring his "dumpy little priest" detective, and for a time in the early 20th Century, Father Brown was nearly as popular as Sherlock Holmes. Part of this charm was due to the very different style and reasoning Chesterton employed in the stories. Father Brown knew what was in his own heart, as a human being corrupted by sin, and therefore he was in a position to deduce the desires, motives, and passions that tempted other men and women to commit crimes. I would be remiss if I didn't give you a link to where Father Brown himself explains his method of solving crimes, but this commentary captures the contrast well:
Father Brown was inspired in part by Chesterton’s good friend Father John O’Connor, a priest in Yorkshire. The central idea was that no other figure was better suited for solving crimes. In one story, the cornered murderer, having listened to Father Brown’s explanation of how he worked out the sinister truth, cries out: ‘How do you know all this? Are you a devil?’
‘I am a man,’ replies Father Brown, ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.’ ...
The great pleasure of Father Brown is that he represents a step away from the icy inductive logic of Sherlock Holmes. There are still clues, though they do not just stand there as facts; it is how they are interpreted that counts. And the interpretations are frequently paradoxical. On the other side of Father Brown are the sleuths of Agatha Christie — Marple and Poirot — who, while understanding crimes of passion, have nothing in the way of passion themselves. Conversely, Father Brown has an innate, unstoppable optimism; whatever one’s beliefs or non-beliefs, as a narrative device it is very clever.
Sinclair McKay, Bring back Father Brown (The Spectator: Dec. 14, 2009). 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Christianity, Superstition & Gullibility (G.K. Chesterton)

As only Chesterton can say it. Believing in something supernatural is no reason at all to take other supernatural or spiritual ideas at face value without careful scrutiny. The Christian is in an excellent position to resist superstition and gullibility precisely because he is acquainted with something truly spiritual and supernatural.

"'I should hardly have thought, sir,' he said, 'that you had any quarrel with mystical explanations.'

'On the contrary,' replied Father Brown, blinking amiably at him.
'That's just why I can quarrel with 'em. Any sham lawyer could bamboozle me, but he couldn't bamboozle you; because you're a lawyer yourself. ... It's just because I have picked up a little about mystics that I have no use for mystagogues."
The Arrow of Heaven, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"'Besides, you have no business to be an unbeliever. You ought to stand for all the things these stupid people call superstitions. Come now, don't you think there's a lot in those old wives' tales about luck and charms and so on, silver bullets included? What do you say about them as a Catholic?'

'I say I'm an agnostic,' replied Father Brown, smiling.

'Nonsense,' said Aylmer impatiently. 'It's your business to believe things.'

'Well, I do believe some things, of course,' conceded Father Brown; 'and therefore, of course, I don't believe other things.'
The Dagger with Wings, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"'You see, it doesn't quite do for a man in my position to joke about miracles.'

'But it was you who said it was a miracle,' said Alboin, staring.

'I'm so sorry,' said Father Brown; 'I'm afraid there's some mistake. I don't think I ever said it was a miracle. All I said was that it might happen. What you said was that it couldn't happen, because it would be a miracle if it did. And then it did. And so you said it was a miracle. But I never said a word about miracles or magic, or anything of the sort from beginning to end.'

'But I thought you believed in miracles,' broke out the secretary.

'Yes,' answered Father Brown, 'I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don't see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them.'"
The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

"It's part of something I've noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that's arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It's drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it's coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.' He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. 'It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India[.]"
The Oracle of the Dog, in The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926

Father Brown's friend Professor Openshaw, after the priest debunked the fear and mystery surrounding a book which appeared to make anyone who opened its pages vanish:
"'But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?'

'Oh, that,' said Father Brown. 'I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It's all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.'"
The Blast of the Book, in The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What a Transformationist Model Looks Like in Culture: Showing God Is Great

Having summarized in my last post what H. Richard Niebuhr described as the Conversionist (or Transformationist) model of Christians interacting with the culture, I wanted to give a good example of what that looks like. Here is the beginning of a recent message John Piper gave in which he described how our transformed lives as Christians affect what people around us see about God. The full video is embedded at the end.

John Piper on Romans 12:1-2: 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2

We are going to look at the first two verses in Romans 12 and talk about the will of God, what it means, how to find it, and what it means to have your mind renewed to find it.

As you know, chapter 12 follows the first eleven chapters. And it begins with a glorious “therefore” (“I appeal to you therefore”). The wonders that he is calling us into in walking with Christ in a renewed way are built on massive theology in chapters 1-11. It doesn’t get any bigger than Romans 1-11. It doesn’t get any deeper than Romans 1-11. And this is what it was all building towards: new minds discerning the will of God and lives of worship.

“I appeal to you, therefore brothers [on the basis of Romans 1-11 and all the glories there and the pillars that suck down into the bottomless foundations] by those mercies [the mercies of God that I have unfolded for 11 chapters] present your bodies [that is, your whole bodily life, what you are everywhere you go including everything you do] as a living sacrifice. Your bodily existence is not going to die. It goes up on the altar, but it won’t die so that it ceases to live. It dies so that it lives a different way. As a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

It is possible, Christian, to live pleasing to God. Don’t overstate the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly. Don’t make it cancel other Scriptures. People are doing that today by taking the doctrine of justification of the ungodly, a beautiful, Romans-taught doctrine, and extrapolating from it that you can’t please God, that you can’t be acceptable to God day by day. All you can do is confess that you are ungodly and bank on the righteousness of Jesus. That is false.

You are now called — built on justification by faith alone and accepted on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone — to offer sacrifices to God in your body that please him, sacrifices that he smiles upon. This afternoon you can do something that pleases God. You can make a phone call that pleases God. You can speak a word of sweetness and kindness to your spouse that pleases God.

A Life of Worship

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing that you may prove [or discern] what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfected and, thus, thus, live a life of worship.

The aim of these two verses is that all of life becomes worship. "Present your bodies, your bodily life as living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship." In other words, the aim of all human life is that God in Christ be displayed as infinitely valuable. That is what life is for, to live your life in such a way that by what you say, what you think, what you feel, what you do with your arms and your lips and your eyes and your legs and your hands, all will show he is more valuable than anything.

That is what worship is: showing God’s value, supreme value over all other things. So if you have a job, do your job in a way that shows that Christ is supremely valuable. And if you can’t do that at your job, either change jobs or do verse two better.

When your life becomes worship, God begins to look valuable to other people. God looks infinitely worthy when others look at you. When they look at you, it looks like you value God more than money. It looks like you value God more than power. It looks like you value God more than illicit sex. So what is with you? They want to know the reason for the hope that is in you.

You probably don’t have to change jobs. That would probably be a mistake. That is not going to solve the problem. But verse two will solve it. And that is what we are going to think about for a while here.

You Are New, Now Get New!

Verse two is Paul’s answer to the question: How all of life becomes worship (from verse one). It doesn’t call for mere change your external behavior. It says, “Be renewed in your minds.” Now I have got to step back and get a little Pauline theology in here so that “being renewed” is understood in the context of what has really happened to you, Christians.

For the rest, see the video below.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Fundamentals Part 2: Christ and Culture - Niebuhr's Five Categories of Interaction

60 years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr addressed the same ideas summed up in Bruce Ashford's lecture (see my last post) with even more depth and broadness. If you really want to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to culture, Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture is priceless. My ambition here is to simply sketch out and summarize the basic categories Niebuhr charted out, showing how they compare to Ashford’s discussion. People could spend entire books on the significance of Niebuhr’s work and its application to a wide range of problems and issues. I only aim to be as simple as possible without distorting his meaning. This makes for a longer-than-average blog post, but the understanding of these ideas is worth it. If you want a really detailed discussion and examination of his categories and ideas by a far superior commentator, you’ll be glad to get D.A. Carson’s 2008 book Christ and Culture Revisited. You can even preview the first section here. (I gladly admit to drawing freely from Carson's analysis.)

First, it is crucial to stop and think about what we mean by the words “Christ” and “culture.” D.A. Carson takes time to examine this right away in Christ and Culture Revisited. We can’t just take for granted that we all mean the same thing by those terms; if we do, we will leave a lot of room for confusion in how each approach to culture affects the Christian and just where the line between culture and Christian thought can be drawn. For purposes of my discussion, when I refer to Christ, I have in mind not simply Jesus Christ as a person and Savior but also what the Apostles' Creed and the historic confessions of the Church teach us about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and other basic Christian doctrines. This differs from Niebuhr’s approach, for he tried to be very inclusive and make room for some modern perspectives on Christ and Christianity such as liberal theology and existentialism. Niebuhr himself, however, drew some boundaries and excluded reflections/imitations of Christianity like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. My point is simply to clarify that I think of Christ in terms of traditional, biblical Christian teaching such as would have been accepted and approved by Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Charles Spurgeon.

As for culture, Niebuhr sums it up brilliantly:
What we have in view when we deal with Christ and culture is that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech. Culture is the “artificial, secondary environment” which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organizations, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. This “social heritage,” this “reality sui generis,” which the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of “the world,” … is what we mean when we speak of culture. (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture)
In short, culture can be described as the world the Christian interacts with beyond purely Christian circles such as church or youth group. Niebuhr helped us a lot by identifying it with what the New Testament writers meant when they referred to “the world.” In fairness (and Niebuhr and Carson both say this) it is hard to identify a Christianity that is entirely outside culture, just as no person can be entirely outside the culture in which he lives, but what we all have in mind here is how the Christian interacts with the culture that we see as distinct from Christ and the Church. We want to figure out how to interact with that which differs from Christianity. Note that culture includes beliefs and ideas as well as traditions, social structures, etc. Culture is not devoid of values or a shared sense of moral purpose; but these are often different from or vastly weaker than the values and purpose Christianity reveals to mankind.

D.A. Carson does us another favor by making the distinction even clearer. What Niebuhr is really doing is comparing “two sources of authority as they compete within culture, namely Christ… and every other source of authority divested of Christ (though Niebuhr is thinking primarily of secular or civil authority rather than the authority claimed by competing religions). If we do not recognize that the polarities Niebuhr sets up are along such lines, the rest of his elegant discussion simply becomes incoherent.” (Christ and Culture Revisited, p. 12)

Now, the five categories from Christ and Culture:
Naturally, these are all generalizations and people who fit under a certain category may very well not fit all the attitudes or weaknesses described. 
  1. Christ Against Culture. An attitude often described as "withdrawal" or "separatism." On this view, Christianity and culture are simply incompatible. The culture is too corrupt for Christianity to redeem, and the Christian is at risk of being tainted and compromised by culture if he or she gets involved in it. No matter how one tries to carefully engage the culture, the moral compromises are unavoidable. Christians should not involve themselves in politics, or military service, or other positions of cultural entanglement. However, Christians do interact with the world as ordinary folk: shopping, paying taxes, going to the health club, etc. For some particular Christians, this approach may serve their calling: monasteries and convents would fit here. Historically, it was advocated by Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy, and is commonly seen in Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish. It was included in Ashford’s lecture as the Second View: Grace Against Nature.
    Weaknesses: Christians who hold this view sometimes make the mistake of viewing the non-religious studies and disciplines as inferior or bad. They may end up despising literature, science, etc. as too corrupted by sin and “godless” thinking to be of any value. Ashford critiques it for its wholesale rejection of much of the created order: “[T]his vision gives sin too much credit. The evil one does not have the power to make bad what God has made good. The best that he can do is to take God’s good creation – which remains good structurally – and twist it toward wrong ends. … This vision unintentionally, as I see it, undermines Christ’s lordship and reduces it to one’s private life, one’s personal activities, and one’s church worship.” A logical consequence of this view is that whole areas of work and study are considered immoral or unworthy for Christians: no Christian lawyers, or legislators, or judges, or public school teachers. If followed through, this would ultimately mean no Christian representation in any of these fields or in any of the decisionmaking or lawmaking of society. Even in its weaker forms, this view can create a crisis of conscience for Christians who cannot reconcile their participation in a career or government position with their belief that these things are corrupted almost beyond redemption.

  2. The Christ of Culture. This view often disregards or minimizes conflict and tension between Christianity and culture. Those who hold this view embrace what they consider to be best in culture, and have an optimistic view of the possibilities of human culture. Rather than seeing Christ and the Lord God as sovereign rulers of the universe who are establishing a new kingdom defined by God's righteousness, followers of this view tend to view Christ and Christian truth as "improving" culture and perfecting what is good in culture. At the same time, they tend to minimize the conflict between Christianity and whatever is bad or undesirable in culture; there is no need for Jesus to take lordship of all of culture, on this view, and so the parts that are backwards or unsavory can simply be disregarded as they focus on making the best parts better. Jesus is often accepted as God by those who hold this view, but not as a ruler of all Creation who must one day remove what opposes the righteousness of God. People who fall into this category often have little use for concepts like the Fall or Redemption. Jesus is more of a hero who has come to better humanity, much like a Plato or Socrates (although on a higher and more divine level). Historical persons who fit under this view include Abelard, Thomas Jefferson, some Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, and even Kant (who charted a course in philosophy away from the spiritual and supernatural aspects of Christianity but found the moral reasoning compelling). From the late 19th century, liberal theology in the United States has largely fit under this category. In Ashford's lecture, this view doesn't have a direct counterpart, but the discussion in my last post described how the First View: Grace Above Nature and the Third View: Grace in Tension with Nature can end up leading to a practice of this view and its weaknesses - but in pure form they resemble the third and fourth categories below.
    Weaknesses: Niebuhr sees more promise in this view than the first view, which rejects most of culture wholesale. Those who embrace the higher aspects of culture and become fluent in them may become "missionaries" to the aristocracy, academics, and cultural leaders who are offended by Christians who treat culture as polluted. But there are significant weaknesses (see also those raised in my last post). Christ tends to be reinvented and adapted by those holding this view to reflect what they see as the needs of the times. So he becomes a great moral rationalist, or an advocate of social justice, or a general example of inner spirituality. The tendency is to broadly include people in spite of vague or nonexistent theology, and to sidestep or reject parts of Christianity that would exclude some people from the community of believers. The fact that the Christ conceived by these Christians usually reflects the cultural demands and the trend of popular thought makes Him little more than an idol created to support their social objectives. In particular, this view often fails to see the importance of grace because it downplays or discounts the effects of sin. The focus is primarily on improving society here and now, rather than looking forward to a new heavens and new earth and the kingdom of God. Those holding this view often have no grasp of some Christian doctrines or theological concepts; they are prone to picking and choosing the aspects of Christianity that serve their vision of culture. This view is sharply criticized by orthodox Christianity as sacrificing too much of the essence of Christian faith and teaching.

  3. Christ Above Culture - the Synthesists. Let's subtitle this "Render Unto Caesar the Things That Are Caesar's" or "One Foot in Both Worlds." Niebuhr's last three categories are really sub-categories of what he calls "Christ Above Culture." He sees the historical positions of the Church over the centuries as fitting into three categories: 1) Synthesist, 2) Dualist, and 3) Conversionist or Transformationist. (Carson at p. 20). First, the Synthesist recognizes the distinctions and tensions between Christ and Culture but also believes we have a role to play in culture. We are conscious of the corruption of sin and the effects of the fall, but we also see the created order (both nature and social structures like government) as things God designed for good and for which God still has a purpose. Matthew 22:21 ("Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.") and Romans 13:1 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.") suggest that God seems to have a purpose for civil government and society. Christ is far above culture, but uses all the institutions of culture (government, education, law, philosophy, civic life) for good purposes in fulfilling His work in the people of God and the world. Bruce Ashford's point that God's creation may be corrupted by sin directionally (in how we use it) but is still good structurally seems to be the same idea. However, this is only a part of Ashford's Fifth View: Grace Renews or Restores Nature, and the best match for that view will be Niebuhr's fifth category: Conversionist or Transformationist. Ashford's First View: Grace Above Nature could fit here, but you can't define this entire category by how Ashford describes his First View. Important synthesists included Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas. I will skip a discussion of weaknesses, except to refer back to what I said about Ashford's First View in my last post, and leave this as a comparison with the final two approaches.

  4. Christ Above Culture - the Dualists. The Dualist (which has nothing to do with the historic Christian heresy of dualism) is essentially Ashford's Third View: Grace in Tension with Nature. Martin Luther was probably the most famous developer of this view. In short, Christ sets us free through grace to approach culture with a renewed mind and purpose, but He doesn't directly govern what we do in the institutions of culture or how they develop. We are free to use the tools of culture to build and improve culture. Luther's contributions here were enormous: he recovered and affirmed the idea that every vocation (job) in human experience had a significance for the Christian; every man's vocation was the arena in which he lived out the Great Commandments by loving his neighbors and being the instruments of God's blessing to them. Faith makes us acceptable to God, but our works serve our neighbors. Niebuhr said: "More than any great Christian leader before him, Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed; and more than any other had discerned that the rules to be followed in the cultural life were independent of Christian or church law. Though philosophy offered no road to faith, yet the faithful man could take the philosophic road to such goals as were attainable by that way." (Niebuhr, pp.174-75). Søren Kierkegaard is a more modern Dualist.
    Weaknesses: Niebuhr acknowledges that there are few actual examples of full Dualists. He identifies some criticisms others have made. Carson sums these up: 1) that Dualists tend toward conservatism and focus on some institutions and traditions to the exclusion of others, so they are unlikely to bring about major social change such as dismantling slavery; and 2) Dualists can fall into antinomianism (a false belief that since grace has covered and forgiven all our sin, we can go forward in the world without worrying about whether we sin or how our behavior conforms to holiness). As I described in my last post, this kind of thinking can result in a "split-personality" set of values: a Christian mindset at church and an entirely secular, agnostic set of values when it comes to work or society. In spite of these dangers, Luther's contributions to the theology of work and the meaning and purpose of our business and employment are rich with encouragement and wisdom. Gene Edward Veith has made them very accessible and clear in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.

  5. Christ Above Culture - the Conversionist or Transformationist Model. The main feature of this approach is its hopeful vision that authentic Christian living can transform the world around us. This is not just about converting people but redeeming and transforming the institutions of culture - at least in part. This is the same as Ashford's Fifth View: Grace Renews or Restores Nature, which he identified as the one he believes in. The Christian can live out his or her faith in the midst of the world and the culture without compromising that faith. We do this by being faithful to Christ in each challenge we come across and allowing that steady devotion to transform our corner of the culture a little at a time. As Niebuhr explains, this vision has a long tradition in church history:
    The men who offer what we are calling the conversionist answer to the problem of Christ and culture evidently belong to the great central tradition of the church. Though they hold fast to the radical distinction between God’s work in Christ and man’s work in culture, they do not take the road of exclusive Christianity into isolation from civilization… Though they accept their station in society with its duties in obedience to their Lord, they do not seek to modify Jesus Christ’s sharp judgment of the world and all its ways. In their Christology they are like synthesists and dualists; they refer to the Redeemer more than to the giver of a new law, and to the God whom men encounter more than to the representative of the best spiritual resources in humanity. ...
    What distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture. (Niebuhr, pp. 190-91)
    For the Conversionist, the Creation has a more significant place in God's plan for humanity and for redemption than simply being the place we live while we wait for the new heavens and new earth. God is at work in the world and the culture as part of establishing the kingdom of heaven, and He does some of that work through our involvement. Where some Dualists can think of human institutions as having largely a negative or neutral function (restraining evil, for instance), the Conversionist sees the possibility of establishing good things that reflect the coming kingdom of God. We cannot make these institutions perfect or sinless, but we can pursue some reflection of God's ideal order. Think of Handel's Messiah, or Christian universities, or hospitals founded by Catholics and monastic orders. We do the best we can to display the true, the beautiful, and the good and show the world that God is wonderful and generous. 

    Conversionists believe that, in spite of the brokenness of the world, for God all things are possible. They are more likely to see in the history of the Church and the history of humanity evidence that God has taken an active role in the affairs of men to guide them to His glorious purposes, intervening to turn the instruments of culture unexpectedly in the direction of God. They believe it is possible to use all the activity of ordinary life - eating and drinking and marrying and mourning - in a redemptive way that contrasts the life eternal against unbelieving culture. These things all ultimately belong to God, were created for Him and by Him, and can still be used that way. That does not mean we claim dominion as Christians over everyone else's use of culture; but rather we display to the world how much better it is to use the things God has given us in a Christlike way that embraces God's design. Niebuhr seems to favor this model, although he does not state his personal preference. Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley each demonstrated this approach in their works.

    Weaknesses: This model may slip into excessive optimism about just how much it is possible to redeem the institutions of culture, which can result in getting so caught up in culture that one confuses Christian duty with cultural roles and objectives, letting those roles shape us more than Christ. For instance, achieving a Christian vision for politics becomes so consuming that the visionary becomes mostly a politician with an agenda founded in Christian ideas and little more. This is different than the Christ of Culture category, because the visionary may retain very traditional Christian theology and see the culture as alien to Christian practice, but he or she is so enthralled with "winning" the culture that this comes to occupy all Christian activity. It can also be distorted into pushing a uniquely Christian vision of culture onto others who do not share the faith in Christ, as seen in some of the more polarizing and inflexible approaches to the "culture wars." However, that is not the vision of this model and represents a shallow grasp of the role of an ambassador. The goal is not to wrest institutions of culture away from others, but to win their support and admiration for the superior blessings of using these institutions in a Christlike way.