Icon of St. Augustine of Hippo

Healing the Wounds of Sin

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,

Ps 103:1–3 [ESV]

I’ve had the opportunity this semester to read several of Jonathan Edwards’ works. One of the things that has stood out to me regarding his theology is an emphasis on the sinfulness of humanity and the punishment we deserve as a result of it. While I by no means disagree with this, I do feel that is unbalanced; Sin is not just an act we commit that deserves punishment, it is also a disease inherent to human nature that must cured. This imbalance, in my opinion, seems to have continued in much of American theology to the present day.

Commenting on Psalm 103.3 Augustine says,

Icon of St. Augustine of HippoBehold His rewards. What, save punishment, was due unto the sinner? What was due to the blasphemer, but the hell of burning fire? He gave not these rewards: that thou mayest not shudder with dread: and without love fear Him.… But thou art a sinner. Turn again, and receive these His rewards: He “forgiveth all thy sin.” … Yet even after remission of sins the soul herself is shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation, still is she pleased with certain suggestions; with some she is not pleased, and sometimes she consenteth unto some of those with which she is pleased: she is taken. This is infirmity: but He “healeth all thine infirmities.” All thine infirmities shall be healed: fear not. They are great, thou wilt say: but the Physician is greater. No infirmity cometh before the Almighty Physician as incurable: only suffer thou thyself to be healed: repel not His hands; He knoweth how to deal with thee. Be not only pleased when He cherisheth thee, but also bear with Him when He useth the knife: bear the pain of the remedy, reflecting on thy future health.… Thou dost not endure in uncertainty: He who promised thee health, cannot be deceived. The physician is often deceived: and promiseth health in the human body. Why is he deceived? Because he is not healing his own creature. God made thy body, God made thy soul. He knoweth how to restore what He hath made, He knoweth how to fashion again what He hath already fashioned: do thou only be patient beneath the Physician’s hands: for He hateth one who rejects His hands.

— Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.8, Ps 103.4

I believe that humanity lives in 1 of 2 states: either they are in Christ and have remission [released from the penalty] of sin or they are not in Christ [i.e. they are in Sin] and do not have remission of sin. No one is naturally in Christ, and so they must be redeemed from Sin by Christ after which they are then in Christ [Rom 3.24]. Once in Christ they are no longer subject to the punishment their sin deserves, but their soul is still just as wounded, sick, and evil as it was before. Or as Augustine put it above it is still, “shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation…” Or to put it still another way, the only change that has taken place is a legal one, the moral character of the person is still the same as it was before.

It is the healing part that comes from being in Christ, which is the most difficult part of the Christian life, that I believe is not emphasized enough these days. While there are certainly times in this process where “He cherisheth” us, there are also times where we have to “bear with Him when He useth the knife” and also “bear the pain of the remedy.” Unlike the legal change described above, which takes place in an instant, this healing process takes place over the course of our entire lives and is never finished during them.

I believe that by failing to properly recognize the healing that comes from being in Christ our faith becomes primarily about deliverance from eternal damnation, which is not the goal of our faith. Our faith is primarily concerned about becoming like Christ, or as Athanasius would say, “He [God] became man that we might be made God.” God did not redeem us from Sin simply to save us from eternal damnation; He redeemed us from Sin to make us like Christ, to make us like God. It is in the pursuit of Christ-likeness that we are healed from the wounds that Sin has inflicted upon us.

Freedom in Liturgy

The goal of the Christian life is divinization, or theosis, that, is to become like Christ, to become like God. This goal is not easily attained. In fact it will never be attained in this life, but only in the one to come. The reason why the path to Christ-likeness is so difficult is because we are naturally rebellious against God and naturally adverse to doing the things required to complete this path (this is what it means to be sinful after all). So it is easy for us to become distracted and pursue something else instead of Christ, or to bind something together with the Gospel that is not part of the Gospel (e.g. political views).

One of the benefits of the liturgical life is that it sets boundaries for our attention and focuses it on the things which are beneficial in the pursuit of Christ-likeness, and prevents us from focusing on things that are harmful. The services focus our attention on God and prevent us from focusing our attention elsewhere. Morning Prayer directs our attention to the fact we are a part of God’s created order. Evening Prayer directs our attention to our inevitable deaths and eventual judgment before God. In Holy Communion our attention is directed to Jesus’ sacrifice and we receive grace through partaking of His body and blood. In all these services we confess our sinfulness and have Christ’s forgiveness declared and pronounced to us. Additionally, the liturgical year itself teaches us to view time in relation to God and His redemption of humanity through Christ.

Having now followed this life for the past few years I’ve noticed a change of focus in my life. I find myself mostly focused on whether or not I have obeyed God’s commands, meaning have I loved Him with my whole being and also loved my neighbor as myself? Not because I feel like I need to in order to gain God’s love or forgiveness, but because it is by continually fulfilling these two commandments that I (and we) stay on the path to Christ-likeness, which is what I really and honestly do desire.

In the end the liturgical life has given me freedom in my life. Freedom from things that distract me from the path to Christ-likeness, things such as cultural issues or political debates. And freedom to focus on things which lead me down the path to Christ-likeness, things such as the state of my own soul and purging sinful habits and thoughts from my life.

My interest in liturgy was piqued initially with a simple curiosity in the historical church and how they did things. But it is the freedom that I have found in the liturgy that has made me stay.

 

Recognizing the essentials

A recent post at Credo House mentioned the importance of being able to separate the essentials of the Christian faith from the non-essentials, especially when sharing the Gospel, and it reminded me of some experiences I had while finishing my undergrad. These experiences were challenging to my faith, I believe, because at that time my faith was resting on some things that were not essential. So by illuminating this it helped me to recognize those things that were essential and to rest my faith on them.

At the time my faith was overly dependent on Inerrancy (and not only this, but at the time I didn’t even have a correct understanding of what Inerrancy actually was, which made things even worse). Well one of the courses I took during my undergrad was Bible as Literature, and in this course the professor advocated for the Documentary Hypothesis (DH, or JEDP theory) for the composition of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). The basic idea behind the DH is that the Torah was originally 4 independent sources that were later combined, probably during the Babylonian Exile, into the Torah that we know today. In the end the Torah and the rest of the OT were presented as just another human book with nothing unique or Divine about it. At the time I was woefully unprepared to refute such arguments, but I did ultimately reject his argument because in the end it was highly complex and therefore highly unlikely in my view (as a consequence of this I have come to value simple theories).

However in the intervening period between first hearing about the DH and rejecting it there was a definite shaking of my faith because it was a direct attack on the main support for my faith. On the one hand his arguments seemed logical and made the Bible look like an all too human book, and thus the Christian faith as but one valid choice among many other valid choices. However on the other hand I had my experience of God, and denying this experience would be rather difficult. Who had I been praying to all these years if not the Christian God? Who had been answering my prayers? Who had I felt guiding me and with me through the tough and lonely periods of my life?

As I wrestled with this problem I began to realize that in the end Christianity didn’t rest on a book, but on the historical reality of God becoming incarnate, uniting human nature to His divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed us from our sin through his death and resurrection. Even the Bible itself says this:

“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” 1 Corinthians 15:13–14.

At the time this was a revolutionary shift in my thinking because it showed me that in the end Christianity stood or fell on a historical reality, not on some particular view of the composition of the Bible. And looking back on this 6 or so years later this shift has been one of the most beneficial things I have done because it has given me a certain freedom to operate in my thinking because my faith is based on an event rather than a theory.

Theories are easily disproven because they describe or define something about reality and there is much about reality that we don’t know or can’t know. Events however are the reality, and while they can be disbelieved, they cannot be disproven. The resurrection is the event, the reality, on which Christianity stands or falls and is what separates it from all other religions. A faith that is built or rested on something other than the resurrection is on unstable ground and will easily be shaken or destroyed.  

 

4 Years of Seminary: The Struggle is Real – Ministry Calling

We now depart the fields of gloom that were the previous 2 posts in this series for sunnier pastures…although be sure to check them out: Part 1, Part 2.

There were a lot of factors that influenced me to attend seminary, but I ultimately decided to go because I felt that was where God was telling me to go. However God didn’t call me here just so I could learn a bunch of things and inflate my ego. He called me here to form me for ministry.

However discerning specifically where He is calling me has been quite difficult, particularly with my health issues of the last 2 years.

When I moved out here I didn’t really have a clear sense of what I wanted to do ministry wise, and 4 years later I’m still essentially in the same place. I’m an academically gifted and inclined person; I don’t struggle to learn new things and I love to do so. So in keeping with this trait I was initially inclined towards academic ministry. However I don’t really want to do the work of a scholar which involves “increasing knowledge” because then learning just seems like an end in itself to me. I like learning things because I believe the deeper and broader your knowledge the better you can guide people spiritually, which inclines me towards pastoral ministry. However pastoral ministry involves working closely with people which is an area that I personally do not have a lot of experience and confidence in. 

Gifting and inclinations however are only part of the equation when it comes to discerning ministry calling; you also need to discover what you are passionate about. Really what this means is to discover what it is that excites you, keeps you up at night, makes you jump out of bed in the morning, and what you will suffer and endure trials and hardships in the pursuit of. This doesn’t have to be in traditional areas of ministry such as missions, pastoring, teaching, etc, it could also be in the marketplace. So if you are passionate about business for example, running one in a Christlike manner (e.g. sustainable workloads so you don’t burn your employees out, investing in and developing people, etc) is just as much a ministry as preaching from the pulpit on Sunday morning, and just as needed, if you have the passion for it. Or if you’re just an employee at a company doing your job with integrity and treating people fairly and respectfully is also ministry.

At this point I don’t really have an answer to the second part of this equation. On the one hand the reason I have an IT undergrad degree is because I actually do like computers and all the related technologies; I haven’t lost interest in the IT field. On the other hand though the reason I am pursuing a theology degree is because my faith is actually so important to me that I consider it worth it to invest thousands of dollars in learning to understand it better and to use that better understanding for the spiritual benefit of others.  I believe that I have the skills to do either one (though at this point I would need retraining to do IT work again) and could be happy doing either one (mainly because they’re not mutually exclusive options).

I suppose though if you feel burned out like I do (yes my condition has improved from depressed to burned out) it’s hard to be passionate about anything. Many of the people I’ve talked to who did enter full time ministry did so because they couldn’t see themselves being happy doing anything else, and this point I can’t say that in regards to anything.

So I’ve decided to prioritize recovering from my burnout and then seeing where I’m at once I’m back to normal and being honest and okay with where I’m at then. I did come to seminary after all to be formed for ministry, and that happens both inside and outside the classroom. I believe that the struggles of the past 2 years are certainly playing a role in that formation, but what role and the effects of it remain to be seen.

If you know me personally and have any comments or feedback on this feel free to e-mail me, Facebook me, or leave a comment. If you don’t have an e-mail for me you can use tom@srqtom.com

4 Years of Seminary: The Struggle is Real – Spiritual

Christ is the light of the world, whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but have the light of lifeBefore reading this please read the first part of this series here since it provides essential background information for properly understanding this post.

It’s hard to make generalities about something like depression, so I’ll just speak from own experience in this post. In my worst moments I feel like burning the world to the ground, and in my best moments I just feel apathetic towards everything because I feel powerless to do anything to change my situation.

In the beginning, before I knew what was going on [around summer 2014], it was mostly just anger. A whole lot of anger. Angry at God. Angry at others. Angry at the world. I think perhaps the only notable thing I have not been angry at is myself, but everything else there’s a good chance I have been angry at it at some point. I prayed a lot of angry prayers and wrote a lot of angry journal entries during this time. It’s hard to pray when you’re angry. It’s hard to really do any sort of spiritual exercise when you’re angry. I tried to and found it to be a completely pointless and fruitless activity, and so for a period of time I just stopped. No praying, no devotions, no nothing. I went to church on Sunday [and didn’t grasp anything that was going on], but that was it.

Well during this time I was driving home from work one day and I was angry. And on this particular day I happened to be angry at God and decided to voice my displeasure to Him. When I had finished my tirade I heard a response almost immediately: go see a doctor. So I did and eventually was diagnosed with hypogonadism. When I finally started treatment for it in the beginning of 2015 I felt better, had more energy, a lot less anger, and resumed praying and devotions. It helped me to see that all the anger and frustration I had previously were mainly a result of a hormone imbalance. I was completely buried in work at this point and this prevented me from really being able to reorder myself spiritually to the extent I would have liked, but I at least felt the desire to serve God return, which had been noticeably absent previously.

This second time around though there isn’t much anger present, it’s mostly just hopelessness and sadness. I tend to believe that this is the lot God has given me in life: to suffer in depression and sadness and never be able to do anything of worth or have anything good happen to me. I have to say that hopelessness and sadness have been far tougher for me to battle than anger was because they kill much of my love and desire for God.

They also make it hard for me to discern what’s real and what’s not. Are the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness real? Is this really the life God has given me to live, one that’s sad, miserable, and lonely? Is it really not going to get any better for me? Or are the few moments when I feel my desire and love for God return real? Am I really still willing to follow Christ and go wherever He calls me to serve Him? I don’t know. And when I think I have it figured out my thoughts and feelings change and I’m confused once again. 

I’m also tired and worn out from battling and struggling with this over the past 2 years. Most of the time I feel like my faith has been thoroughly gutted and all that remains is a bare frame, which itself sometimes gets a little shaky, though it never falls. But I suppose this very fact, that despite all this my faith has not fallen, is enough evidence that God is with me during this time and will see me through it.

I wish I could end this post with some great story about how God brought something good out of this season of my life, or a list [alliterated of course] of things I learned, or just something positive in general, but I can’t because I’m still in this season. In a few years perhaps I will no longer be in this situation and will be able to see the effects it has had, but not today.

Health Update
I’ve had 2 injections now of the increased dose and overall I don’t notice much difference. They said I won’t really notice anything until between the 3rd and 4th injections and I get the 3rd on 8/30, one day after my semester starts. I’m not very optimistic based on my experience thus far with injections, but who knows, maybe I will feel better.

 

 

4 Years of Seminary: The Struggle is Real – Health

Part 2 of this post is here.

Around this time 4 years ago I left my hometown of Sarasota, FL to move to Dallas to attend DTS. I haven’t spoken much here about what has transpired over these past 4 years, but I feel that now is a good and appropriate time to do so.

Picture of a hot dog on sandwich with a caption claiming that it is a struggle to eat a hot dog on sandwich bread

This is not a real struggle…

Health Struggles
My own health issues have been the biggest struggle for me in seminary so far. In January of ’15 I was diagnosed with hypogonadism [low testosterone], but the symptoms had been present for most of my life, and particularly in the year prior to the diagnosis, though I was unaware of it at the time. Basically what this causes for me is depression. Not in the narrow sense of an overwhelming sadness, but in the broader sense of including loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies/activities, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, sleep issues [for me waking up early, like 3-4am early], and being easily irritable [see here for depression symptoms, and here for subtle signs of depression]. The only things I felt that I could do well were eating, drinking, and breathing; even walking could be challenging depending on how far I was going.

But despite being diagnosed at the beginning of the spring ’15 semester it was a month or so into the semester until I was able to actually start treatment for this. My insurance had to approve it first, which took 2 weeks, but then I was allergic to the first one we tried, so we had to get a different one approved, which took another 2 weeks, but thankfully I wasn’t allergic to the second one [Androgel].

Well during this month long wait or so I got absolutely nothing done coursework wise, which put me quite behind. Once the treatment started working though I had more energy than I ever had before and was able to get most of it done without the need for extensions [except for Greek!].

During the summer though I didn’t feel rested, which I attributed to not sleeping well. So I bought some blackout curtains to block all the light that came into my room at night [which is considerable] and a new mattress. Well it worked for a while, but I soon fell back into the depression I was in earlier in the year and when the fall ’15 semester started I was pretty incapable of doing any sort of work. So I talked to my doctor and he increased the dosage I was on. I felt much better on this new dosage and was finally able to get work done. Unfortunately I was again about a month behind, but this time there was no way I would be able to catch up with the course load I had, which included two language courses. I had to ask every professor I had that semester for extensions on assignments, and thankfully they all granted them to me.

While I managed to get most of my work done before the fall ’15 semester ended I still needed a course extension for Greek and had to work continuously over the winter break to get all the work done before the spring ’16 semester started. And I did get it all done, but I was completely exhausted when the new semester started and I had several assignments due right at the start of that semester that I had to pull all-nighters to complete. I think I pulled about 3 in the first month of the semester.

I also had to switch insurance at the beginning of this year [previously was through my employer and my hours dropped below benefits eligibility] and my new insurance didn’t cover the treatment I was on, so I had to switch to injections [cypionate] in February. Overall the injections haven’t worked. I had my levels checked at the end of July and they were back to around where they were in January ’15.*

So I started the spring ’16 semester completely exhausted and had to further exhaust myself with all-nighters at the beginning and then had to change my testosterone therapy to something that didn’t work. So I once again had to ask my professors for extensions on assignments, and once again needed a course extension [though for eschatology this time!]. But once I handed in my last assignment [which was on June 31]  I slipped back into depression almost immediately the next day and have basically stayed there ever since.

So to briefly summarize all this, the only point in time over the last 2 years or so that I have not been depressed is when I’ve been so overwhelmed with work that I had to put all of my energy and effort into getting that done.

Conclusion
My dosage has been increased and I received the first injection of the new dosage on August 2nd. I felt noticeably better afterwards, but nowhere near how I felt when I was on the higher dosage of Androgel. I am hopeful that going forward my levels will be where they should be and I will not be falling behind in my courses anymore, but right now I am 100% not ready to start this next semester.

The experience of the past 2 years definitely had an impact on me spiritually, and I am planning on discussing that experience in the next post.

*What happened here was when I switched they checked my levels after about 3-4 injections and saw that they were higher than my baseline. I told them that I felt worse than I did previously, but they didn’t want to increase my dosage just yet at that point. The dosage was increased on August 1st.

 

Bible Study 101: Translations

One of the most important decisions to make when it comes to studying the Bible is the selection of a translation, but with all the available choices in English it isn’t always easy, or clear, which one to choose. This decision however doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult if you know a few things about the translations.

First, recognize that no English translation is going to perfectly reflect the underlying Greek or Hebrew. Any time you translate from one language to another you lose something in the translation; it’s just going to happen regardless of how hard you try. Why? Mostly because every language works differently from other languages. There is different vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation, etc. Even between languages that are similar there is at least some difference. For example, in English the basic word order for a sentence is subject-verb-object [the student wrote a paper]. In Biblical Hebrew basic word order is verb-subject-object [wrote the student a paper]. In Biblical Greek the subject, verb, and object can be in any order they want.*

So if we did a word for word translation of say Jonah 1.16a it would come out like this in English: “Then they feared the men a great fear the LORD.” Not very understandable. So we have to change a few things in order for it to make sense in English. In the verse the subject is “the men” and “the LORD” is the object, so accounting for these we now end up with: “Then the men feared the LORD a great fear.” This is a little better than what we started out with originally since we now have a subject-verb-object word order, but it still isn’t very good because it doesn’t make sense of the phrase, “a great fear.” What “a great fear” is actually doing here is adding emphasis to the “fear” of the men. Hebrew does this by repeating the same root in the verb [“feared”] and the accusative noun [“fear”],** but in English we would use an adverb such as “exceedingly” or “greatly” in such a situation. If we take this into consideration then we end up with: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly.” 

Second, recognize that each translation takes a different approach to translation. Some translations [e.g. New American Standard Bible] emphasize a word-for-word approach to translation [our translation above followed this approach]. While this approach helps preserve aspects of the original text that are useful for study purposes it also requires you to know [or learn] certain nuances of some terms because the English word may not have the same nuance as the underlying Greek or Hebrew. For example, if you ask someone, “Do you fear _______?” You’re usually wanting to know if they’re afraid of something. If this was all you knew of the term you likely would conclude that men were afraid or terrified of the LORD. You would then read the next part of the verse with this meaning in mind and would conclude that their motivation for offering a sacrifice to the LORD and making vows was their terror.

You conclusion however would be incorrect. True, in Biblical Hebrew [and Greek] “fear” could refer to being afraid or terrified of something, but it could also refer to having reverence for something [the same Hebrew verb is translated as “feared” in Jonah 1.16 and “honor” or “revere” in Leviticus 19.3]. Some people recognized that a word-for-word translation such as “feared the LORD” does not easily convey the sense of the underlying Hebrew, and so they prefer a thought-for-thought approach to translation. In this approach you lose certain aspects of the original text, but the meaning of the text is more readily apparent because you do not need to struggle with foreign expressions and awkward syntax.

A translation that emphasizes this approach is the New Living Translation [NLT] and it translates Jonah 1.16 as, “The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” In this passage then we see that the main emotion of the men [sailors] was not terror! The sailors had tried everything they could in order to survive the storm they were in and were at their wits end. So when the sea calmed after they threw Jonah overboard they were amazed that the LORD had the power to stop the storm and calm the sea! They were not scared! They recognized that it was the LORD, the God of heaven, who saved them and that He was more powerful than their gods, and so they chose to serve Him.

Third, know your own intellectual abilities and be honest with yourself about them. These two different approaches to translation result in different reading levels. Translations that follow a word-for-word approach generally have a higher reading level than those which follow a thought-for-thought approach. The following chart estimates the reading levels of certain translations [source]:

KJV — 12
RSV — 12
NRSV — 11
NASB — 11
ESV — 10
HCSB — 7-8
NIV — 7-8
CEB — 7
NKJV — 7
NLT — 6
GW — 5
Message — 4-5
NCV — 3
NIrV — 3

So if you’re trying to read a certain translation, say the KJV or NASB, and are having difficulty understanding it, choose one that has a lower reading level, perhaps the NIV or NLT. You will find your Bible Study to be much more rewarding when you understand what is going on in the text, which in turn will motivate you to continue to study and read the Bible. A site like BibleGateway has many translations available for free online that you can use and read. So if you’re not sure of which translation to go with you can compare them there.

Hopefully this helps explains some of the reasons as to why there are so many English translations and is useful in selecting one.

* This is because Biblical Greek uses a noun case system in order to determine the function of a noun in a sentence. In this system the ending of the noun determines its function in the sentence. And if you know Biblical Greek you also know that technically there is a word order to it, but this is an article on English Bible translations, not New Testament Greek, and thus such a a topic is well beyond the scope of it. Here I am talking very generally.

** This is called a cognate accusative construction.