I’ve experienced many of the services offered by service industries. Airports, hotels, trains, car rentals, restaurants, and the like, are regular features of life lately. So here are some thoughts on how to find the best service possible.
First, services are reliable: companies remain consistent in being either strong or weak. So I always pay attention to reviews on the Internet. TripAdvisor, for instance, offers great scuttlebutt on most major travel services. Before I book a hotel room I always check their site to see the applicable service scores. If a hotel review averages a 3 or lower out of the top mark of 5 I know it’s time to look elsewhere. And any hotel with at least a 4 is a winner.
Second, I know I have to pay for good service. The more expensive servers generally have good management and good management expects its staff to serve well and will pay them accordingly. This, in turn, sets up a reputation that allows good service providers to charge more. So while I love a good value I also hate miserable travel experiences that masquerade as values.
As a negative example I recently flew on an airline that was both cheap and had poor reviews. I used them despite the growling reviews because their city connections were convenient. The trip came off as planned but only with a number of cringes along the way.
To start, their equipment was shabby and dirty; flights were late; communications poor; and standard safety rules were violated. Two gate staff for one flight were more interested in mutual flirting than in checking us in. On the flight itself two passengers were still searching for seats even as the aircraft was backing away from the gate—the flight attendants hadn’t enforced seat assignments so they were left to negotiate on their own. Then a couple of the attendants were still fiddling in the galley when the take-off roll started. Cheap service and weak service are common partners.
Third, there can always be diamonds among ordinary service providers. I remember a staffer from a service-weak airline from a few years ago. An Icelandic volcano had me parked in Estonia for most of a week. As flights were restored I needed some serious rebooking help, and soon. But the airline contact systems were virtually shut down. After many hours of dead ends I thought to call an airline center outside Europe: it was a desperate reach. Happily I finally connected with a staff member in Los Angeles who gave me all the time needed to solve things. She was a gem of wisdom and care when it was most needed.
Finally, the very best service is the product of selfless devotion. And it’s here that the best service differs from merely good service: authentic care always trumps imitations. Merely good service is pragmatic. It restricts selfish interests while still applying them. Those who care for others, on the other hand, offer the best services. They serve others in ways they would want to be cared for—with such judgments always shaped by love.
Now let’s shift categories but not topics.
How do we see God? Have we recognized him as the ultimate servant? He is. And those who know him are able to offer the very best services, services stimulated by the best source.
Behind this claim is God’s love: a love characterized by humble, selfless giving. We can think of John 3:16, of course, as the Father gave up his Son to death to provide for salvation. We also think of the Son’s example of humbling himself on the cross—Philippians 2:1-11 on this—along with the Hebrews 12 insight that Jesus despised the shame of the cross for the joy of gaining a people for himself.
God’s service also reveals what we were made to be: lovers of God and others. We were made to be like him and, with that, to discover there is more joy in giving than in receiving. Even when the cost of such service is dramatic, calling for everything we are and have.
Alternative types of service still operate in the grip of self-concern and can’t be trusted once pragmatic issues reach the bottom line. Selfishness, if present at the heart of a person or a company, eventually distorts every relationship and service.
Let me wrap up, then, with the best service statement we’ll ever hear, from Mark 10:45—“ For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Amen, and thank God for the real thing!
This entry repeats my primary posting at the Cor Deo site. Please offer any responses there. Thanks!
Everything. God wants everything we have, and all of who we are. Not more and not less. God’s ambition for us is heart-based: he wants whole hearts.
That includes our mind, soul, and strength. Or, in contemporary terms, our time, our employment, our money, our devices, our attitudes, values, marriages, plans, and everything else we can think of.
This radical divine ambition came as a dawning when I was converted: the basis for my response to Christ. Jesus came to me with the language of “two masters” in Matthew 6:24. He was saying, in effect, “I want to be your master but you have another master right now—and that must change.”
I mention my embrace of Christ’s calling for my life to highlight a point that many Christians seem to have muddled. The point is important: God isn’t looking for our cooperation or appreciation. He wants, instead, a marriage-like devotion. So when I next read Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and responded so that he began to reshape my deepest values, the implications of this calling started to unfold.
My response of, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” meant everything started to change. Knowing Jesus became both my immediate and my ultimate ambition. That’s not to say that I was always consistent or wholly persistent: by no means! But my movement toward him was a new trajectory in life. Later on I realized my “yes” reflected the ministry of the Spirit winning my heart and uniting me to the Son as in the marital-union language of 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when at theological college a few years later I read a book by a Christian scholar that treated this kind of faith as “crypto-sectarian.” The author actually made the charge against a 17th century Puritan, John Cotton, but it also applied to me.
Cotton, by the way, was converted by the preaching of Richard Sibbes when Cotton was already a trained and respected Puritan preacher. Sibbes’ teaching of Christ’s love and free grace by the coming of the Spirit caught Cotton’s heart and changed his life. And, obviously, it said something about Cotton’s new view of his earlier version of faith.
What I shared with Cotton, and Sibbes before him, and Calvin before him, and Luther before him, and Bernard before him, and Augustine before him, and the Bible before them, was a marriage-like commitment. God, by the Spirit using unconditional Bible promises of his love and mercy in Christ, made all the difference. His love is both captivating and freeing. And we love him because he first loved us.
The troubling book I read—by William Stoever—was a creed-based critique of the free-grace movement among Puritans. It was, arguably, a lively exercise in Whiggish history—the measuring of earlier historical events by later values. In other words, what Stoever today believes to be correct doctrine was imposed on the 17th century Puritans. So Stoever’s personal Reformed convictions were his basis for criticizing Cotton as a heretic.
As such it buried the real issue: that the Reformed movement was, and still is, divided by two competing versions of Reformed faith. One version—Stoever’s modern view—treats God’s grace as an empowering gift to the elect. This newly created grace offers power to live in line with God’s demands. In turn this obedience displays their status as genuine believers. Obedience, then, is the hallmark of faith.
Cotton’s alternative version of faith followed Luther’s Reformation insight—also embraced by Calvin—that saving grace isn’t a created power but God’s indwelling presence by the Spirit. He then changes us from the inside-out by changing our desires. And with new and holy desires the fruit of obedience follows. But obedience isn’t the focus of faith. Only Christ has that pedestal and any call to look to self by focusing on obedience is to look in the wrong direction.
What Stoever either missed or dismissed, as a result, was the continuity between Cotton and Calvin. This was a key issue in the original Puritan debate: transformation comes only by the Spirit’s participation in a convert’s soul. He stirs the reciprocity of mutual love.
So Calvin himself would need to be seen as a “crypto-sectarian” along with Cotton if Stoever had followed the trail of evidence based on what Cotton kept saying to his colleagues, “I’m just following Calvin!” And he was.
In a nutshell Stoever insisted that God wants a balance between himself and his believers—a symmetry between Nature (humans) and Grace (God). Stoever argues that Cotton’s newfound belief in the abiding presence of the Spirit violates this symmetry. How? By Cotton’s claim that believers, by this union with Christ, are fully dependent on God.
Such complete dependence, Stoever warns, violates God’s desire for a Nature-Grace partnership by means of enabling and saving grace. Grace, as a booster force given by God to the Elect, allows them to retain a certain independence that pleases God.
But Independence, even of this type, is a curious thought to all of us who were converted by repenting of our independence. Adam started the problem by declaring independence so it’s certainly not likely to be a feature of salvation. So Cotton dismissed independence and moved from one version of Reformed faith to another. And he got it right.
Go read and see for yourself. Boasting or Nature-boosting just doesn’t cut it. God still wants everything.
Are you happy? And—to press the issue—is happiness your aim in life?
I ask because the answer, yes, is widespread. The classical religions and their teachers—led by Greek and Roman philosophers in particular—made happiness an ultimate value.
Aristotle, for instance, was a “eudaimonist”—one who seeks goodness-satisfaction-happiness—and he made the state of happiness his measure of ethics. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—a virtue-based system defined by eudaimonic values—is present in much of modern moral thought.
Happiness was, in turn, at the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, a child of that era, reflected this in his creedal Declaration of Independence by assuming that “the pursuit of happiness” is an ultimate and proper ambition for all.
Even today the pathway to personal happiness is a trajectory Baby-Boomers successfully passed along to their offspring. Entertainment—reflecting this transmission—is now central to Western life. Neil Postman’s prescient study of the 80’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was spot-on in anticipating how media would nurture this appetite among post-moderns—the realm of most teens and twenties today. Their screen-devices have become venues of happiness.
By now some readers may be wondering: “So where are you going with this; are you ready to say we should pursue unhappiness? Is your big ambition to be a gloom-monger?”
God forbid—that’s certainly not where I’m going. But let’s at least ask where following Christ will take us.
And I say “God forbid” advisedly because in Scriptures we find that God is not about the pursuit of happiness or unhappiness. Instead he warns us—as we move to a bottom line—that we must not eat the forbidden fruit of trying “to be like god” and, with that, of determining good and evil by our own measures. By missing this warning Aristotle and Jefferson were wrong. Both used human happiness as an anthropocentric measure of good and evil.
C. S. Lewis, by contrast, charted a proper trajectory in Surprised by Joy. His book—the story of his conversion to Christianity—tells of how he felt moments of joy in his early life. These brief encounters with joy—a term overlapped with happiness—became a fixation for Lewis. He found that joy couldn’t be predicted or controlled—it was real but ephemeral. So whenever he experienced joy he tried to capture it. That is, in the moment of joy he quickly made joy itself his focus; but in his trying to nail down the substance of joy it instantly evaporated.
Eventually it dawned on him that joy isn’t an independent quality—an emotional end in itself—but the result of encountering one who stirs joy in us: ultimately, God.
A distinction between joy and happiness is now worth noting. Both are positive emotions but in common usage happiness is more pleasure-centered—a video game, for instance, may keep a child happy for a time.
Joy, on the other hand, is a more complex emotion that can be sustained even in the face of pain or loss. I recall, for instance, my mother’s tears as my parents saw me off to university. She wasn’t happy—it wasn’t a pleasure for her—but in the moment of loss she also experienced joy in my moving forward in life. And, much more deeply, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Christ enduring his crucifixion “for the joy set before him.”
So let’s embrace joy as a proper longing rather than happiness. And, with that, let’s return to the lesson Lewis learned: joy is a relational word. We can find real joy in a someone rather than in a something. We might be “happy” with a new toy but the emotion fades as soon as the battery runs low, the fuel is used up, or the paint is scratched.
Joy, on the other hand, is ever and always reawakened whenever we see the smile of one we love and trust.
Why? Because God made us to be relational beings—made in the image of the eternally loving and trustworthy Father-Son-and-Spirit God. He, the relational One, captures us with his love and loveliness.
What, then, of the widespread ambition to be happy? Is it, perhaps, an ultimate idol meant by God’s Enemy to distract us from joy? Is it possible that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve replaced God with an unending appetite for shallow and fleeting pleasures?
Certainly, yes! And happiness is an idol so deeply entrenched in our hearts that we won’t see its falsity until by the Spirit’s urging we look away from self to see Christ gazing at us in his grief and love.
Repentance, by this measure, is a turning away from our toys, our devices, our material passions, and our degrading entertainments. In their place we look to Jesus who loves us and brings us to his Father.
In God’s communion, then, we find unending joy as it spreads first to us and then through us. Call it happiness if you like, or blessing, or delight—just be sure to keep the focus where it belongs: on Christ alone.
Here’s a practical question that quietly divides Christians. Is Christ personally present to believers in faith? Or is he an iconic object of faith who offers us spiritual benefits from afar?
Different answers change the basic shape of applied faith and explain some key distinctions among Christians.
To be clear, this question differs from our asking whether Christians should seek to learn more about Jesus. Growing Christians of any stripe always value learning about him as a biblical and historical figure. And any gains help build our picture of his ministry that, in turn, ground our values and creeds.
Nor are we asking if those who hold Christ to be more detached—rather than immediate and accessible—have dismissed his eternal status as the living Son of God. That’s a separate question that, depending on the given answer, formally divides belief and unbelief. Our concern here is an intramural difference.
To begin, I think it’s fair to say that a more detached faith usually features divine process. That is, the believer looks to Christ’s work in particular as a gracious legal solution to a moral conundrum.
The conundrum of how an absolutely righteous God resolves the unrighteousness of humans is primary. Most often God’s moral demands and his wrath against sin are set out in a courtroom scenario. The Father, as judge, condemns sin. The Son intervenes both as defense attorney on behalf of the elect and as a placating sacrifice—the one who dies for the elect—as demanded by divine justice.
This judicial scenario is set out in the broader process of a basic moral contract or covenant between God and his creation. God, as creator, sets out his proper expectations that are wholly and perfectly aligned with his attributes. Humanity then must fulfill the expectations that come with his being. God, for instance, is glorious so his people are called to glorify him. He is holy so his people must be holy. He is faithful and we are called to be faithful. And so on.
So the divine process consists in a progression that traces God’s plan and our assigned roles. It begins with creation and fall; then moves to incarnation; followed by Christ’s death-burial-and-resurrection; and it wraps up with ascension and a future reunion with God in store for saints; and with eternal judgment of the unredeemed.
To a critical eye there are features of this divine process that must be affirmed. But there’s also a major blind spot that invites us to look for an alternative presentation. On the positive side we find that the biblical features of God’s incarnation in Christ, his vicarious death for his people, and his promise of eternal life for all who believe is properly noticed. Jesus paid the price of sin and provides life to sinners saved by his grace.
But the ‘strictly judicial’ portrayal is too detached—too mechanical: the contract is met in Christ; God’s ambitions are fulfilled in the process; and believers get eternal life. Each believer fulfills a role—offering faith, for instance—in order for the plan to work. And God’s supernatural power is behind it all so that he gains all the glory. God uses the creation to feel good about himself for reasons we, ultimately, are not to question.
The blind spot here is the loss of God’s heart—his being portrayed as an emotionally detached divinity. It’s a portrayal that misses or dismisses a number of emphatic themes in the Bible.
So let me at least launch the inexhaustible relational alternative: a view of God as one intent on fully engaging us by his love, both now and in eternity.
To begin we turn to the question of God’s eternal past. What was God about before the foundation of the world? The Bible answers this: he was enjoying his communion of mutual love and glory as the Father and Son delighted in each other and the Spirit facilitated that love and glory. See John 17 on this along with 1 John 4.
And what is the eternal future God has in mind?
He invites his followers to share in this love-produced-glory (John 17:24) for the ages to come.
We also see the motive of God reiterated throughout the Bible from beginning to end: he is a triune lover whose heart overflows to his creation. The Father sends his Son to die for our sins. Why? Because he loves the world. Yet the Father is just and shows wrath. Why? Because his jealous love for the Son has been violated by the Son’s bride who became a spiritual whore—see Psalm 2 and Ezekiel 16 for glimpses here. But, as seen in Hosea, he calls her back to himself.
And with this we find the role of the Spirit as the intimate—as in marital intimacy—bond of Christ and believers. This is given explicitly in 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5 and implicitly in all the marital language God uses towards his people.
But how, we might ask, does such theological content compare to the sort of relational immediacy we expect in human bonds? The answer, in paraphrase, is blunt: “get over your hardness of heart and blindness in sin and you’ll begin to hear the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the ways God always meant for you to hear.” And what he shares is a husband’s love. In other words, sound marriages are workshops for what God is offering us.
Jesus, then, was speaking to more than his first set of apostles when he promised the benefits of the Spirit’s immediacy to his followers in John 14 and 15. So the faith the Bible invites and produces, when the Spirit is working in us, is a dynamic life: we are assured of God’s love for us and we enjoy his communion in each day if we have ears to hear by Spirit-aligned hearts.
So let me suggest to all who are living by a detached faith that you’re missing something. Come to Christ and tell him you’d like something more immediate. Then chase him in the Bible and in giving your heart to others.
When we meet a passionate God we soon respond in kind.
This post is shared with the Cor Deo ministry site. Please post any responses on that site: thanks!
Where do we stand with God? Is he pleased with us? Are we confident about the future—sure about eternal life?
Hopefully, yes, but let’s pause to think about it. And let’s ask the question in light of God as the Father, Son, and Spirit God.
Justification—our engaging God’s righteousness—is a biblical linchpin for Christians. The English terms “righteous” and “just” are two translations of one root word in the original language. The idea of being set right with God seems simple enough but how it happens is more complex. Debates about justification are common as was illustrated by an exchange between Tom Wright and John Piper not so long ago.
In this small space I’d like to consider a narrower aspect of justification that doesn’t get much notice: what does our justification accomplish for God?
To answer I’ll return here to a theme I see throughout the Bible. I now refer to it regularly but I was shy to use it until I found it in the writings of Martin Luther and some of the 17th century Puritans.
Here it is. God the Father wants to share his beloved Son with others. So he created those who would become the Son’s beloved ones—his collective “bride”—to receive from the Son what the Son receives from the Father: devoted care and creative fellowship.
This narrative starts in the beginning as we meet God in his plurality: “let us” make “him” and “them” in “our” image. Later we discover the Son as the Father’s beloved companion—his “Word”—who reveals the Father to others. Together with the Spirit they are “one.”
Later in the Bible we discover labels for God: He is good, holy, righteous, pure, blameless, just, wise, and so on. These are words that describe his triune communion. And so it is that he is also said to be love—a word expressing God’s mutual devotion and the basis of his overflowing care for the creation.
This love sets up God’s gift of companionship. In love he walked in the Garden of Eden to be with Adam and Eve. Adam, however, spurned God’s love and lost confidence in God as he usurped God’s place.
Adam’s lost confidence was tied to his lost love: for a fallen person to trust God, God must fulfill that person’s will. And God must live under the fallen pretense that humans are autonomous: made to be free.
But God treats this as utter nonsense. He knows that all humans were enslaved from Eden onward by the great Liar and his one Lie: “You can be like God!”
But even after Adam’s fall God was determined to live among us. He chose a people for himself and set up, first, a tent and then a temple as his earthly home among us.
The Father also sent the Son at an appropriate time to offer humanity the ultimate expression of his love—the God-man who was not fallen. His was a life of total dependence on, and unrestrained affection for, the Father and with that a love for his creation.
Sin is a violation of this love: a complete disaffection for God. The bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit is a mystery to fallen people—and the willingness of the Father to send the Son to die and redeem his bride is sheer folly. Life in sin, instead, endorses the Enemy’s ambition to dismiss God.
The Father laughs at this—as the “nations rage”—and refuses to allow for self-love as an alternative to a love for his Son (Psalm 2). God’s love is unrestrained and unrestricted otherness—what fallen humanity can’t begin to comprehend—as in the eternal love of the Father and the Son as communicated by the Spirit.
So the sum of God’s eternal communion is love. The Old Testament refrain, for instance—“his loving kindness endures forever”—sets out God’s motivation. And that warns humans that self-love—the motive behind fallen assertions of freedom and independence—has no future. God condemns sin to a single realm: death.
The Spirit shares this mutual love of the Father and the Son. His role in humanity is to whisper God’s word—expressing his love—in our hearts. Most humans remain deaf in their sin—hard-hearted. But others begin to hear and respond to Scriptures—especially those who have been damaged by the proud and successful god-pretenders. The hearers are the elect: the bridal ones.
There’s much more to be said about God, of course, but this is enough for now. As we return to the question of our being righteous with God—of being justified—we find a lover waiting for us. The Father offers his Son in love. The Spirit woos us with that love and wins some but not all. Faith is a dawning that Satan lied and that God loves us on his terms, not ours. We were made by God, for God. And faith works through love.
Listen, then, to Jesus as he prayed on our behalf:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you and these know that you have sent me” (John 17:24-25).
So justification is the culmination of a love story: it is our gazing into Christ’s eyes by faith and saying, as his bride, “I do.”
And with that we become what God meant us to be from the very beginning: his beloved ones who share all that he is, including his righteousness.
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!