A month ago some news sources offered passing comments about a June, 1914, assassination in Sarajevo—a century ago—that launched the wars of the twentieth century.
The first stage of warfare was called the Great War because of its breadth and ferocity. Some—the optimists of the day—called it the War to end all wars. Instead it was just a first round—World War I—to be followed by an even broader and more destructive round, World War II.
Then came a set of conflicts—smaller but still terrible wars—that filled the balance of the century. It’s said that more people were killed by war in the twentieth century than were killed, in total, by all the prior wars of human history.
A question we might ask, then, is “what’s next?” And, even more directly, could 2014 be a year that mirrors 1914 in a terrible irony of cyclic human behavior? It’s at least a possibility. The very dry economic and political tinder of the world today could be enflamed by any of the many lightening storms now brewing.
Some in Russian, for instance, seem hungry to reacquire the lands and powers lost in the collapse of the Soviet state that itself was formed out of the upheavals of the last century.
And the Chinese are claiming the South China Sea as their realm—with the oil sources they hope are there—even when those waters are much nearer to the Philippines and Vietnam than to China. The same sort of economic appetites led to the holding of Southeast Asian colonies by the West and the counter-colonial ambitions of Japan in the twentieth century.
And the growth of radical Islam has been stirred by Persian Gulf conflicts at the end of the last century. These Jihadists look to set up a broad and powerful Islamic state that recalls the great Islamic Ottoman Empire that was broken up by World War I.
At the same time Europe and the United States—the dominant powers of the last century—have been weakened and distracted by economic plights that make them less ready and effective in challenging the ambitious Russians, Chinese, and Jihadists.
I hear a question some might be thinking: why is a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality now taking on global economics and politics?
Here’s why. Our spirituality only works if God is God overall—that he rules over the nations as much today as he did in the times of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. We are too near-sighted if we only think about God’s work in our hearts and in our near circumstances.
It comes from reading the Old Testament prophets just named, and the Bible as a whole. It comes from Jesus’ warning that the end of the age will be accompanied by wars and rumors of wars. He told his followers that lawlessness will increase and the love of many will grow cold (both in Matthew 24). Even if these warnings have other applications—opinions differ—at the very least Jesus is telling us to take world events seriously.
Isaiah and Daniel are especially intriguing. Daniel was warned of a sequence of kingdoms—each displacing the former. He started with the Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, followed by the Greeks, and ending with a collection of rulers representing the Roman era. History followed Daniel’s predictions.
Isaiah is especially intriguing because he framed this sequence of nation-states rising and then collapsing within God’s overall providence. Let me say, in passing, that I see the entire book of Isaiah as the work of one author—its namesake figure.
Here’s a snapshot of what I mean. Isaiah’s sweeping coverage includes the first breach of God’s bond with humanity—Adam’s fall and the cursed earth—“The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth” (24:5).
Isaiah also pressed on to the end of this creation: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). In between he promises that God will “swallow up death forever” (25:8) and tells God’s people how this is done by his own right arm—the suffering Servant—whose “soul makes an offering for guilt” (53:10).
Now let’s turn back to the question of history—to the cycle of the centuries. In the first half of Isaiah a set of oracles—prophetic declarations—should catch our attention. God, through Isaiah, confronts all the powerhouse nations along with the less potent pretenders of that period: Assyria, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, Philistia, Tyre-Sidon, Moab, Israel, and Judea.
What does God have to say?
“The LORD of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth” (23:9).
This is a guiding refrain that offers a glimpse of how God views nations that think they can ignore his sovereign rule. Babylon, the great nemesis kingdom in Isaiah’s day is told, for instance, “I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and I will lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (13:11).
The great kingdom of Assyria—from which Babylon emerged—was also told, “I will break the Assyrian in my land” (15:25).
God also made it clear that he uses evil nations to confront the evil in other nations—showing his rule over evil even as he is righteous in all he does. Assyria, for instance, was “the rod of my anger” again Israel, yet also a nation that would soon be judged: “When the LORD has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria” (10:5&12). And so on.
The point is that God is still in control even when the nations plunge ahead in hideous wars. He allows evil to confront evil. But his purpose is for good. Pride has no place in heaven. So the pride of Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and Brits—to name a few—will be confronted by God’s fearsome mercy.
Listen, then, to God’s heart amid the disruptions of cyclic wars:
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock. For he has humbled the . . . lofty city” (26:3-5).
In 1509 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a biting critique of society in his day, In Praise of Folly. Among other issues he had the corruption of the church in his cross-hairs. His satire was so engaging that even Pope Leo X is said to have enjoyed it . . . without quite realizing that he was a target.
In his writing Erasmus personified Folly, giving her a feminine voice and a blinding self-devotion. Folly’s unrestrained self-delight treated all that is immoral as moral as long as enjoyment is involved. All that is selfish is satisfying. Ignorance, Drunkenness, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Self-love, and Laziness are among her closest companions. Pleasure is Folly’s driving ambition and she insists that life will be dull and tasteless to all who avoid her company.
The connection between Erasmian satire and our contemporary society came to mind last night as I watched a PBS Newshour interview of a spokesman from the US Justice Department. In the interview he explained that a major bank has been punished for its part in the great financial scandal of 2008.
A multi-billion-dollar civil judgment had been made, he said. This confronted the reality that a vast number of worthless mortgage loans had been knowingly bundled and sold as trustworthy investment bonds by this bank. He acknowledged that many other banks had done the same but haven’t been fined. Never mind. The deceptive scheme eventually collapsed as the bonds lost any value. From this there followed a breathtaking economic crisis that shattered the lives of millions of ordinary folks.
The spokesman smiled broadly: justice has prevailed!
The interviewer then asked the obvious question. Why, she wondered, weren’t any of the guiding figures—the leading bankers and investment officers—charged with criminal wrongdoing? Or at least fined in light of the immense—grotesque—profits they earned by shepherding this corruption? The spokesman didn’t blink or wink: “If any criminal wrongdoing is found it can still be prosecuted.”
It was breathtaking stuff! A fine of this size seems not to have had anyone culpable enough to account for it. And these same leaders are still in charge of the banks. Amazing stuff.
It’s not as if some of the guiding figures can’t be identified—a number of exposés have been published and hard-hitting documentaries shown—but public outrage has only bubbled and never erupted. I suspect the spokesman was really saying, “We’ve done all we mean to do, given the modest level of political pressure we’ve felt—please remember that we need political donations from these people.”
I suspect that by now some readers may be puzzled, wondering how a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality has stumbled into a commentary about investments and politics.
Here’s why. Jesus warned against being mastered by money (Matthew 6:24). Paul followed him by warning Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). He also warned the Colossians that coveting—the heart of greed—is “idolatry” and something that will account for God’s coming wrath (Colossians 3:5).
And in my Bible reading I returned to Proverbs this morning. The warnings there against folly offer a weighty biblical complement to the sly critique of Erasmus. The call in Proverbs 4:23—“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”—follows many reminders to seek Wisdom—personified by Proverbs in feminine terms to speak of God’s goodness and creativity. She is the counterpoint to Folly.
Now let me mention a memory stirred by last night’s news story about the bank. In a television interview Oliver Stone commented afterwards on the movie he produced in the late 1980’s, Wall Street. He was startled by the public reaction to the driving theme of the movie: absolute greed. He had expected revulsion and instead the squalid character whose greed generated incredible wealth was admired. It was, he said, as if the public had found a new role model! And perhaps they have.
At least one young man of that decade, Jordan Belfort, gave himself to the pursuit of wealth with a criminal vigor that led to a more recent movie based on his youthful memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street. I haven’t watched the movie—and my point here isn’t to scold movies about dark devotions—but to ask a question about our own ambitions. What shapes our hearts as those who love God and delight in his Son?
Do we feel his grief over the pain felt by millions of ordinary people—the pain of lost homes and shattered security caused by those who wittingly skimmed vast fortunes for themselves? Do we have his ambition to care for others, even to death if necessary, rather than to follow the alluring calls of Folly and her friends? Do we share a devotion to truth and morality that comes from loving the One who personifies “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?
Oh that we Christians were outraged by evil! It’s what Oliver Stone expected but it never came. Many, even in the church today—like Pope Leo long ago—find Folly attractive.
So has Folly won the fight? Maybe for now.
But let’s remember that Christ is coming again and he will send Folly to her ultimate destiny. In the meantime let’s guard our hearts from the allurements Folly offers and enjoy, instead, the love of the one who graciously died for us and now lives that we may live. Here we find true Wisdom.
This post was first published by the Cor Deo website. Please offer any responses there: thanks!
Knowledge can be interesting, useful, and random. This morning I experienced random knowledge on a BBC radio program. The presentation featured an expert on the properties and uses of lithium. He helped connect two worlds for me. On the one hand I knew that lithium is used to treat bipolar disease. On the other hand I know my laptop uses a lithium battery. The expert told us how the conductive properties of lithium explain both uses.
But never mind the lithium: the point is that this professor knew his subject.
What, then, about the underlying notion of knowledge in this or any other field? To know something is to engage it either directly or indirectly—by experience or through training. I can, for instance, be taught about lithium and/or I can use a lithium battery. I can also know a person or I can know about a person even if we’ve never met.
What is the point of knowledge? Should we seek as much knowledge as possible? Is knowing an end in itself, so that we should seek to know as much as possible? Even if the content seems insignificant to us? Or is knowledge mainly functional—a benefit directed by particular needs?
In academia the broad accumulation of knowledge is treasured. So, too, is specialized knowledge. Students with especially retentive minds tend to prosper with this sort of knowing. Yet the validity of some forms of knowledge can’t be assured. History is full of misguided expertise—with the worldview of Ptolemy as one grand example.
I’ve raised these questions mainly to stir thought rather than to offer answers. But I do want to take up one more question and offer a response.
We usually treat the content of our varied courses at school and college as indirect knowledge—as foundational content that is available to others in the same way we’ve learned it: from our instructors and from books. It is objective knowledge: standard and reliable information about topics as varied as geology, geography, history, literature, maths, and more.
But is our knowledge ever really objective?
In asking the question I recall a conference put on for doctoral students during my London days. One segment pitted two history professors in a debate over this question. One held that historical research is an exercise of discovery: the work of finding and expressing a true portrayal of past events. The other professor disagreed and insisted that written history is like a creative painting or an informed novel: the guiding feature is the historian’s creativity rather than the task of uncovering the truth about an event or person.
Both men agreed that historical studies use incomplete evidence. No one can resurrect the past in comprehensive detail or discover all the motives and thoughts that were active in an earlier era. So historical studies can only offer approximations of the past. The question, then, is what the historians have in mind in writing their history.
Let me suggest that the language of “true”—whether in historical studies or in other fields—is central to what we mean by objective. So the two London professors were really debating the benefits of objective history versus subjective history. One version feels obliged to engage the past on the terms the past provides. The other feels free to use the past for present purposes. The former might ask the question in a study of Martin Luther, “Would Luther agree with my portrayal if he was still alive?” The latter would dismiss that option as impossible and not a concern anyway as he would want to offer a “Luther for today.”
Of course there’s only so much freedom in this subjective-objective debate. I’m happy for poets and novelists to be subjective. But in applied aeronautics we all want Boeing and Airbus engineers to be hard-nosed objectivists as they design the aircraft we fly.
The late Kenneth Kantzer, once the Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, waded into the question of reliable knowledge in the realm of theology. He compared the kind of knowledge we have in science and engineering—the realms of lithium research and aircraft design—to the debates we meet in matters of faith and worship.
Kantzer compared the ease of being accurate in non-moral issues such as aeronautics to the moral distortions or deflections that take place as someone comes closer to an unwanted truth—and, ultimately, to an unwanted God.
A lithium scientist, for instance, might be absolutely objective when he talks about properties of lithium and its place on the periodic table. But if he happens to be involved in adultery and is faced with a God who calls him to repent, all his skills as a learned scientist may turn to be used to dismiss God’s existence. So he can be objective on the one hand and fiercely subjective on the other. Call it a function of moral defensiveness. His subjective religious stance will then conflict with the evidence of an ordered universe—a divinely designed universe—that serves as the unacknowledged basis of his lab research.
Kantzer’s argument of moral deflection is a paraphrase of Romans 1:18-32. The evidence of God’s hand in shaping the universe is a compelling reality for a believer—as one who knows and loves God—but all others will “suppress the truth” by their unrighteousness.
This is a theme we find elsewhere in spiritual concerns. Jesus, for instance, condemned the Bible scholars of his era for missing the evidence in Scripture that offered a witness to his own deity in John 5. The problem? “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.”
Paul said as much about the majority of the world “who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
Knowledge, as a wrap up, can be seen as the fabric of all we engage through our perceptions and learning. Yet knowledge ultimately exists as a function of our hearts. That is, the source and sustaining presence behind all that can be known is the Triune God who loves us.
So to grow in every dimension of knowing—to know without moral distortion—we need to embrace the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He determined the properties of lithium and is ever ready to meet us in our subjective places as the object of our greatest devotion.
James enjoys being with Avery. On Friday James’ family came to dinner at my place and Avery was invited too. I hadn’t met her until now but I knew of her through my visits with his family in Poland. There had been many mentions of Avery during my visits and part of the talk by his sisters was about the ways James had changed since he and Avery started a special friendship.
Was I surprised? No. Change comes by way of our friendships. We enjoy friends and want to please them. That, in turn, shapes our own character. It’s that simple: each of us is formed as a sum of our relationships. We live at the intersection of family, friends, school and/or work colleagues, and in the moments of contest or connection with others that make up a given day.
Relationships, in fact, are among the most powerful forces for change in life. From birth onward the quality of a mother’s care, the father’s devotion, and the family bonds form a healthy life for a child. It isn’t something we notice or work at. James, for instance, didn’t decide to change in light of his growing friendship. It just happens in the natural exchange of words and thoughts—a heart-to-heart process that spills outward into smiles, notes, Skype conversations, and a host of natural behaviors.
That’s key. We were made as responders. God exists in an eternal communion of initiative and response as the One who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Then Adam was made in God’s image as a relational being meant to enjoy communion with God, his source, and with his wife as his beloved partner. So we love God because he first loved us and we love each other as a natural outflow of our union with God.
I mention James, Avery, Adam, Eve, and others in the same breathe not because I’m pressing my young friends towards wedlock. That may or may not come along in time: we’ll wait and see. The real point I’d like to underline is that we exist as relational beings more than as physical beings. The two go together in the sense that we’re always embodied, but the real measure of our humanity is our set of relationships.
We can speak of our immaterial or nonphysical personhood in a number of ways but for those of us who are Christians we may want to look more closely at 1 Corinthians 2:11 in this connection. There Paul sets out a parallel between God’s inner being—his Spirit—and our inner being or spirit. In God’s case the Spirit is more than God’s disposition or his collective sensitivities. It’s his distinct partner and communicator—in theological terms he is the third person of the Godhead.
The Spirit “comprehends the thoughts of God” and we, in turn, each have our own spirit who “knows [our] thoughts”. The point Paul then makes to the Corinthians is that they now have the Spirit of God rather than the “spirit of the world” and are able to live in a Spirit-to-spirit communion that the natural world can’t grasp.
Let me go back to James and Avery again. If we think of their deeper persons—their individual spirits in the terms Paul used—they have a spiritual communion of some sort. And if both are united with Christ’s Spirit through new birth—as Paul presumes to be the case for all authentic Christians—then their communion is also Spiritual.
What, then, does a Spirit-to-spirit communion produce in us? If Avery’s friendship has changed James in ways that even his sisters have noticed, how will our own bond with Christ’s Spirit, especially as he pours out God’s love in our hearts (Romans 5:5), impact us. If we’re made to be responsive to his love, will that love start to change us?
The reason I ask is because I keep running into a strange sort of spirituality that calls for us to work on our own transformation. We’re called on to adopt certain spiritual disciplines and to engage in a number of approved spiritual practices. In other words we’re called to adopt certain behaviors that may not be very spontaneous or heartfelt.
The lesson I learn from James, on the other hand, is that the most spontaneous and heartfelt changes come from meeting someone we find lovely.
So that leads us to the next question. Is our spirituality a strange set of unnatural behaviors meant to fulfill the spiritual duties we’re directed to follow? Or is Christ attractive to us in our Spirit-to-spirit communion? Do we look for times and places to be with him? Do we treasure the Bible that opens his heart to us? Does our time with him cause us to change—whether or not we notice the change ourselves?
It seems to me that Paul has the latter in mind, not the former, when he spoke of real spirituality to the Corinthians. And on Friday evening James showed me what that looks like in human terms.
What makes us human?
Is humanity, for instance, expressed by our actions? The term humane—expressing compassionate actions—is one measure of humanity. We call people humane if they care for needy and hurting people. Or even needy animals as in the “Humane Society.” A question, then: are humane people more human than those who are inhumane?
Or is humanity a simple function of our being, as in our existence as human beings? That’s certainly a bottom line if we only think about our biology—about our physical status as a particular and discrete species. We aren’t insects, reptiles, fish, or fowl but humans.
That’s true but, again, isn’t the biological answer too narrow? Think, for instance, about some morbidly evil people in history: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and others. These are just a few of hosts of people who have been called sub-human. Is there something to the charge?
Or are such people just representatives of a less-positive side of humanity—the opposites of the more humane crowd? Opposite but still part of a single spectrum?
No. The truth, biblically, is that something is missing in those who are inhumane. Their humanity is incomplete so that they betray the substance of true humanity.
Yet our instinct is to deny the Bible as we take our physical experience to be final. We may use the analogy of animals. We can trace a range of qualities within a given species. Dogs, for instance, are still dogs whether a given dog is a family-friendly golden retriever or a dangerous junkyard pit bull, right? So aren’t humans just another species among the animals that display a wide character range?
This is where a key question comes into play. Do we really believe in the spiritual realm—in the supernatural world portrayed in the Bible? Or do we dismiss it?
A couple of Bible portrayals of humanity may shed some light for us. The first is the change in Adam and Eve after they rebelled in Eden. And the second is the “measure of full manhood” Paul used in Ephesians.
Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam turned on the question of whether Adam would die if he ate from a forbidden fruit tree. God said he would die “in the day” if he ate from it and the serpent said just the opposite. So Adam ate of it and everything changed: his relations with God, with his wife, and with nature.
Jesus—in John 3—certainly had this in mind when he treated Nicodemus as dead rather than alive. The Pharisee had been born “of the flesh” but not of the Spirit. In other words he lacked the Spirit and was, therefore, devoid of God’s eternal life. He was dead although alive physically. Jesus had, in effect, affirmed the continuing application of God’s promise to Adam that humanity would die in the ‘day’ of his eating the forbidden fruit. The serpent had lied and God had told the truth.
Paul saw the point and its significance when he wrote to Christians in Asia Minor. In Ephesians 2:1 he applied the point Jesus made to Nicodemus to all humanity—“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Death is our separation from God’s life. Salvation, on the other hand, is God’s work of making some humans “alive together with Christ” (2:5).
The true measure of unspoiled humanity was revealed in the creation of Adam and Eve in God’s image and likeness. The relational basis of God’s being—of God’s eternal existence as the “us” who is “one” and who speaks of his existence as “our image”—set up the relational basis for humans as the singular “man” who is both male and female in marriage.
Paul then tied that creation design—“the two shall become one flesh”—to speak of the eternal marriage of Christ and the church as he linked the marital passage of Genesis 2:24 to the union of believers to Christ by means of the Spirit—see 1 Corinthians 6:17 and Ephesians 5:32.
What, then, is true of unspoiled humanity? Of humanity united to Christ? Listen to Paul once again. We are to live as those who are united to Christ and who have his Spirit’s life within us. And by this we are to grow together, “until we all attain the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood [humanity] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” [Ephesians 4:13, ESV]
Here’s the point. Jesus is the fully human man—Adam’s unfallen replacement—and we must be united to him to be truly human. So when we see the inhumanity of man we see the world of Adam but not of Christ. And all who are not born of the Spirit are still in that realm. It is a humanity devoid of life rather than a living humanity. And with that comes the distortions of subhuman living—differing only by the extremes it may reach.
What is the solution to this sub-humanity? Nothing less than the life of Christ, and he invites us to that life as a free gift of love. Call it the “good news” of at last being what we were meant to be!
Today I was rereading a slim volume I first picked up years ago during my London studies. Holmes Rolston’s John Calvin versus the Westminster Confession offers a surprising challenge to those who believe the 1646 Confession of Faith reflects what Calvin taught a century earlier.
Rolston is a scholar raised in the Reformed tradition yet whose research caused him to sound an alarm: Calvin wasn’t really a Calvinist!
Rolston’s summary will ring true to readers not already predisposed to affirm the Westminster tradition but for the most part he’s been ignored. That’s not to say that some in the Reformed crowd haven’t tried to dismiss him, yet most Reformed students today seem not to have read his lively work. They’re missing something important.
Let me add that the strategy of ignoring unwelcome research is all too common in academic circles. It may be effective in the short term but sooner or later some bold students will be curious enough to do more thorough work and then some correctives will follow. It’s an effort especially needed in Puritan studies.
Here is one snippet of Rolston’s work—in case one of these bold students happens to read this post—among many worth chasing.
Calvin’s view of sin was aligned with Augustine of Hippo’s reading: sin is self-love. The term for sin shared by both men is concupiscence—from the Latin term for coveting or lust—“which is the fountain of all evil affections” [p. 51, citing Calvin, Commentary on James, 1:15; C.R. 55.390].
But, as Rolston correctly notices, in the Westminster Confession we find “a much smaller world” (53). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 14, the answer to the question about sin is law-based: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Calvin certainly recognized that sin involved the breach of God’s laws but he understood that the deeper problem is one of orientation and not merely one of behaviors that are linked to law-breaking or law-keeping. Let me cite Rolston here:
“Here Calvin and the Calvinists come at length to a parting of the ways. When Calvin describes sin as that faithlessness which cuts off God’s grace, he has gone where none of the Westminster divines can follow. They can only go further along their own way of describing sin as lawlessness, because, with the intervention of the covenant of works, they know nothing about man’s first duty as that of faithfulness to depend on divine goodness” .
The underlying premise for Calvin is that God’s love is what we have before us at all times, and our self-love is what violates and denies that love. How? As we gaze at our own performance—even as a law-keeper—rather than at the God who loves us.
The ironic result of this errant Calvinist moral scheme is a gaze in the wrong direction. A gaze opposite to what God invites and to what Calvin affirmed. A major spokesmen for Calvinism, Herman Witsius (d. 1708), displayed this moral confusion by suggesting that there is room for human glory in law-keeping by man: “he may glory, as a faithful servant may do, upon the right discharge of his duty, and may claim the reward promised in his working” [57, citing Witsius I.i.15].
Rolston’s response to Witsius as an exemplar of a tradition gone wrong is important: “Here, at the end of the way, Reformed confessional orthodoxy is walking a path alien to Calvin. It does not know that in the very positing of such a boasting for man, integral man or not, sin is latent: indeed, here is the chief sin of man.”
Amen. Humanity loves self and many will work with a passion to draw God’s approval. But it’s all as useless as carving a broken cistern that will never hold water. The real secret of faith is to recognize and enjoy God’s faithfulness and then to respond in love. But we need to be gazing in the proper direction—towards Christ and not at ourselves. Calvin got that part right.
This entry is shared with the Cor Deo site. Please offer any responses there. Thanks!
My friend is an evangelist, a global Christian activist who offers the gospel whenever and wherever he finds opportunity. After any restaurant meal, for instance, he’ll fold the tip in a gospel tract. His voicemail message offers a gospel invitation to callers. His favorite strategy is to take non-Christian friends golfing in order to engage in a gospel conversation somewhere on the back-nine.
There’s a lot of what my British friends call a “high cringe-factor” in his sharing: many folks run for cover when he heads their way! He recognizes that response, of course, but treats it as the cost of doing business. Sometimes he recalls Paul saying, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” So it doesn’t matter what others think.
And, to be honest, I know he views me as one who doesn’t take Christ’s call to evangelism very seriously. He’s right, of course. At least by his measure. I’ve never seen much fruit in his approach so I don’t use it. But I don’t despise it. If even one person comes to faith by reading a tract he left behind, great. God’s hand isn’t short in using any means to save some.
But recently the time came for me to tell him that I’m also an evangelist. His eyebrows arched in surprise and skepticism. Was I kidding?
“My focus is the church,” I told him. “Many ‘Christians’ have never actually met Jesus so whenever I teach or preach I offer what I know I needed to hear before I came to a living faith.”
Here’s my approach. The church is a ready audience because people come each week expecting to hear someone talk about Jesus from the Bible. And lots of these folks are where I once was—assuming they have a proper faith while not actually knowing Jesus.
Call it a social or cultural faith. But—without wanting to be ungracious yet to be honest—it isn’t the kind of faith Jesus affirms.
We can think, for instance, of the flawed faith in John 2:23-24 where “many believed . . . but Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them [lit: “believe in them”]. In other words their faith wasn’t the real thing even though they had some sort of appreciation for Jesus.
I was once in that place. I thought I was a Christian and then I actually met Jesus. Afterwards I wondered how I had attended church for so many years without ‘getting it.’ My claims of faith amounted to a sincere charade—the art of acting as if I knew him when we had never actually met.
So after meeting him I became an evangelist to the church.
Who needs this evangelism? A group in any given church that is bigger than we realize, but never a group we can know with certainty. That knowledge is God’s turf.
Yet Jesus gives us some clear indicators of the need. Those, for instance, who don’t see Jesus as wonderful are signaling that they’ve never met him. He’s more attractive than any of the things he has created, so to meet him is to taste the greatest goodness of all. And, with that, his impact on all who meet him is consistent: he stirs a spontaneous and persistent love that reciprocates his own love.
So once this encounter takes place the person who meets Jesus begins to read and respond to the Bible as a way to hear from a dear companion. True faith always engages what Jesus says. He said as much to a crowd who professed to have believed in him: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples . . .” (John 8:31).
Yet in this John 8 setting the ‘believers’ he was speaking to only wanted a part of what Jesus offered, not Jesus himself. And this utilitarian approach to faith had a corollary: a distaste for his teachings. And because of that distaste Jesus charged this clan with being aligned with the desires of the devil. Jesus also challenged them with a truism for the ages: “If God were [truly] your father, you would love me.”
Jesus offered another sign of true faith in John 13: a faithful love for others and for other Christians in particular.
This one is tough. It’s one thing to love other Christians who love us, but too many members of the church love very selectively. I can think, for instance, of various fence-building versions of faith where love is conditional: limited to those who affirm particular creedal, behavioral, or denominational commitments that make up their own version of the gospel.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were experts at this conditional sort of caring: “we’ll love you if . . .” Jesus, by contrast, loved the world even as the world moved to kill him. His treatment of Judas at the last supper showed this sort of love.
John, with Jesus in mind, crystallized the point: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
So my evangelism is to those who claim to be Christians yet who hate other Christians. And to those who claim to be Christians but who have no taste for the Bible.
The basis of this evangelism? Christ’s call for us to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbors too. It’s that simple. Jesus made this the ultimate measure of his own evangelism. And many of the ordinary people of his day responded but not too many of the scholars.
Many of the religious leaders, in fact, weren’t happy with his emphasis on God’s love. And that’s what got Jesus crucified.
So be alert to the implications of this kind of evangelism—there’s a very high cringe-factor in being crucified! But it’s what Jesus called for in John 12:24 and what Paul affirmed in Galatians 2:20. Read these texts and see what you think.
Four boys were sitting around a bench at the local mall after school today. They weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary—just hanging out and passing time. I suspect they were actually giving each other some sense of meaning. They all looked about the same.
For some reason they reminded me of my six months on an Israeli kibbutz many years ago. The kibbutz was a socialized farm run by about 130 members who, with their children and 20 or so volunteers like myself, made up a community of about 250. I was there to learn modern Hebrew in an Ulpan language program. As volunteers we also worked for room and board.
That’s just context for my reflection at the mall. I’m guessing the boys there were about 14 or 15 years old and they reminded me very loosely of the 10-15 teenage boys on the Kibbutz Dovrat where I studied.
It was a contrast rather than a positive comparison. The Israeli boys would never have been sitting around, styling, and hanging out. They were farm kids. They had cows, chickens, and tractors to deal with: real chores. And they were good at what they did. They belonged.
The kibbutz kids wouldn’t have been any smarter, stronger, or better bred than the cluster I noticed today. But they did show off two qualities I don’t often see these days. They viewed themselves as active contributors to their communities and not as children who, for now, could be sightseers. And they were able, confident, and unselfconscious.
Here’s a snapshot from my Dovrat days. The Israeli Army was still at war at the time and reservists were on active duty, including a number of men from our kibbutz. So we were short-handed. One morning I was assigned to a new job—to work in the fields during a crop dusting visit by a hired airplane. Needless to say I didn’t have a clue about what I was expected to do.
A 16-year-old Israeli boy joined our small cluster of men who were waiting to be briefed. As the sole Israeli in our group I asked him if he knew who would be sent to lead us.
“I’m in charge,” he answered with a comfortable nonchalance.
As soon as the last volunteer showed up he did, indeed, take charge. Without any fuss he explained to each of us where to go, what to do, and how it needed to be done. Simple, sound, and direct. He knew the program because he had done it before. And he was very comfortable in making decisions because it was already a lifestyle.
What struck me at the time—as supported by other exposures—was that farm kids worldwide tend to share the benefit of competence. They have a range of skills built by watching, listening, and doing. Their adults set them up for success. A parental goal is to hand off real responsibilities as soon as the children are ready to handle them—and maybe a bit sooner.
I also knew that a remarkable number of officers in the very effective Israeli army were from kibbutz farms. It was a fertile training ground for early entry into successful adulthood.
By now you may be wondering, why this comparison of farming and non-farming children when this site usually features spiritual topics?
One point I won’t suggest is that the kibbutz youth were morally superior to the mall youth. They might be more mature and ready to handle adult roles, certainly, but that’s not a measure of morality or spirituality. Spirituality and maturity aren’t one and the same even if we might mistake one for the other.
The common ground for all of us is that we grow up in a given social fabric. The varied threads of daily experience eventually become a tapestry of personhood. And some settings are more effective than others in producing maturity.
But if we want our youth to be truly spiritual they need to have the Spirit.
The Spirit of Christ is critical to real maturity because he alone has the design of Ephesians 2:10 in mind—the “good works” we were made for. And he begins to form us from the inside-out once we meet Christ.
Competency, on the other hand, is a process of outside-in formation. Non-Christian Israeli farmers, in our example, might be great at producing strong adults but that doesn’t make them guides for spiritual formation. That depends on the Spirit alone. So, too, we can have mature members of the Christian community who endorse Christ but don’t actually have a new birth.
Let’s return to thinking about young people. What does it look like when we add the sort of training farm youth get to experience to a born-again spirituality?
Maybe another David, a shepherd boy after God’s own heart? A young man who had confidence in God and only then in himself? And who had an unselfconscious devotion to others because of his love for God?
Let’s not mistake competence and confidence for spirituality. Nor social formation that imitates Christians for the spiritual formation that only Christ can produce by giving his Spirit. Instead let’s support the personal growth of children who do meet Jesus and see what God has in mind for them.
The two—Spiritual new birth and growth into meaningful roles of church life—are always meant to go together.
Faith is a favorite term among active Christians. Someone, for instance, may be having a crisis of faith. Another person may have just come to faith. Still another may be seeking more faith. There is also a collective term—“the faith”—that speaks of Christian doctrine as a whole.
It’s an important term because faith is the basis for our salvation. Yet faith is often treated as a mystery. It may be asked, for instance, who has true faith and whose faith is temporary or misguided. Is God satisfied with my faith? Can I gain or display enough faith to be sure that I have eternal life?
Given this uncertainty here’s a proposal. Try reading the Bible as a faith-producing resource: as the antidote to unfaith.
Here’s our guiding assumption. God is able to produce faith. He has a clear mind, a captivating personality, he understands the problem of unfaith, and he has a plan to resolve the problem. So if he offers us a pathway to faith it’s certain to be effective. And that is just what Paul says in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Consider Abraham. In Genesis 11 he lacked faith—his proper faith only appeared in chapter 15—and even after he had faith he, for a second time, gave his wife away to another man. Yet by the time we reach chapter 22 he has become the paradigm of faith that is used in the rest of the Bible. The narrative of Genesis carries us along in his progression from selfishness to a decisive faith that is even ready to give up his beloved son in response to God’s calling.
Jacob is another model in Genesis. His early life is a disaster. His only faith is in his own wits and they aren’t adequate in the face of his brother Esau’s wrath and, after that, his father-in-law Laban’s manipulations. Yet by the end of the story he, too, is an exemplar of profound faith.
Chapter 11 in Hebrews traces all this. It helps to recognize that the author of Hebrews doesn’t mean to give us a pantheon of the most faithful figures in Scripture—Samson, for instance, isn’t a stellar model—but he does want us to see that the birthing of faith in a faithless world is a Bible aim from start to finish. And that content offers all of us a pathway and invitation to faith.
Yet we may make a mistake if we treat the Bible as a source of proof-texts rather than a relation-building gift. A corrective may be needed.
As we trace faith themes in the Bible we’re always pointed to Christ. In Genesis we find Christ as the promised “seed” who will defeat the seed of Satan. He is also found in the many Old Testament theophanies—seen as the visible, walking, talking presence of Yahweh—revealing the heart of the ever-invisible Father. His purpose is to draw out a people for himself. And in the New Testament he comes as the Son whose mission is to swallow death and to give life.
The point is that sin always has the wrong person in view: self. And the solution to sin is our turning to see the proper person: God as revealed in the Son.
So the heart of faith is a change of heart—to be drawn away from self-love into a love that responds to his love for us. Faith works through love—as Paul reminds us in Galatians 5:6—and love needs an object worthy of our love. Only the Son can satisfy this need.
Obstacles to faith, then, are always distractions from Jesus. It might be our career concerns—our love of success and security. It might by our ambitions—our focus on building certain skills or academic honors. Or it might even be our creedal commitments if we’re chasing a version of faith that misses Christ as its distinct focus.
The point is that faith isn’t a mystery: it’s the gaze of our soul. So if we’re captured by Christ and by his love for us, we’re living by faith. If we don’t have him in view as our guiding ambition and delight we may need to go back to the Bible and start reading.
I watched a long string of cows moving along the fence line toward a barn. I was driving by a farm as the scene unfolded. It was milking time, I’m sure, and the cows were maintaining their daily routine.
An awkward analogy struck me. The cows illustrate our own lives. In the eyes of corporate executives we amount to cows to be milked. This sets up our own cycle of life.
Think with me. A new product is announced—perhaps another cool electronic device—and lines soon form at the local store that offers the item. Most buyers already have an earlier model of that particular phone or pad yet it’s time to line up and give up our money for the latest version. In the corporate offices there are smiles all around as sales begin to accumulate: another successful cycle!
A certain logic is involved. Every new model of a device offers marginally more memory, pixels, or speed so there’s a benefit in the upgrade. As I write this I’m even using a newer and improved version of a laptop I purchased a couple of years back. So I’m often part of the cycle.
A larger cycle stands behind the marketing. Corporations see us as resources to be herded and milked. Staff meetings set out the annual upgrade events and engineers are told to come up with incremental variations of each device for those occasions. They do. The devices are then designed and shipped. The lines at the stores form and our own appetite for the product sends us to join them. Soon we’re showing off our latest device to friends. It’s a ritual by now.
And that scenario is just a snapshot. The number of trips we make to stores each day, month, and year are multiplied by our real and perceived needs. We regularly resupply our food, furniture, autos, and more, so various corporations are ever busy trying to draw us into their particular store. They hire advertisers to promote their brand—to warm our hearts to what they offer.
The marketing system invites some attention. The sales force folks are tasked with the job of getting us to consume product. And we only need a few of the endless options dangled before us. Yet our appetites are stirred to take on all sorts of things. Things we began to consider because of the marketing efforts behind them.
Who milks us—thinking as individuals here—most often and most successfully? A look at our annual purchases tells a story. And it’s a story the credit card companies have already harvested and, I’m sure, sold to the corporations.
The point is that the system is nicely integrated and well led. Among the discretionary items of life—things that aren’t real needs but are seen as valuable—we regularly ponder and purchase. Someone convinced us to buy. And only the most successful corporations and the best marketing strategies prosper. They know how to make us like what we come to desire.
And most of us are properly compliant as the marketing folks successfully stir our desires. It’s a system that made us buy exercise machines we never touch. How? By stirring our vision of being slim and fit. Or to buy a new kitchen device that slices, dices, and does even more. How? By showing off appetizing outcomes just before a mealtime when we’re hungry.
One of the insights the Bible offers us—and one we often miss—is that we’re designed by God to be responders. We were made to love him in response to his love: “We love because he first loved us.” It’s wonderful because we find our greatest delight in loving and in being loved.
So our heart is the hub of life in each of us—that from which all our motives and actions emerge. In other words we do exactly what we “want” to do as our hearts guide us. And as such the heart must be guarded against those who know how to manipulate desires.
Why this vulnerability? Because God made us in his own image. He is the triune Father-Son-Spirit God who has been eternally active in a communion of initiating-responding-and-reciprocating love. We are made to be like him and to like him just as children instinctively like their parents. Jesus said as much in John 8—“If God were your father you would love me.”
We aren’t, however, forced to respond to God. We’re invited but never forced. Love precludes manipulation. So God offers us the most attractive quality he has to offer: the captivating love of his own communion. His love is captivating to everyone who tastes it and responds to the joy it offers. It’s an open invitation to taste and see how good God is.
Against that is the greatest market manipulator: the Devil. He even manipulates the manipulators. How? By regularly using the self-love he offered Adam in Eden. By that love he blinds us to God’s beauty and goodness by keeping us distracted with false desires.
Paul tells us as much in Ephesians 2:1-3, saying that before salvation we were “following” Satan as we “all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind . . .” Desires the Arch-Marketer knows how to exploit. How? By promising short-term excitement. By casting a vision of our own success and significance. By promising us the glory of having the latest device the market offers.
So let’s pause. Let’s look at the cows walking to the barn. Isn’t it better to be captured by God’s eternal love than by the annual upgrade cycle of various devices? May our hearts at least consider that prospect? If we do Christ can catch our hearts and offer a truly satisfying life.