Monthly Archives: August 2017

Forgotten Elements in American Christianity: Ecclesiastes

American Christianity is unbalanced, I believe. This is not a uniquely American problem though; no culture will ever have a perfectly balanced expression of Christianity. Cultures have a certain set of values and those values inevitably help shape their expression of Christianity, for good and bad.

In America we tend to value practicality. We focus on making things productive and efficient. We focus on things that get results; that help us accomplish our goals. We are a goal-oriented society. This naturally leads to an emphasis on work, which is good because God created us to work:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. — Genesis 2.15

God expects us to work:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8–10a

The Apostle Paul also expects us to work:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12

We also tend to value idealism. We’re eternal optimists. We’re always envisioning and imagining a better life, a better country, a better world. We differ quite vastly over what that ideal world looks like, but we are always imagining it. When we combine this with our emphasis on work it naturally leads to the conclusion that we can make our ideal world a reality. And this also is not a bad thing. The single mother, for example, who wants to get out of her minimum wage job and earn more money so she can work less and spend more time with her children should try to make that ideal a reality; it’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is when a healthy dose of the futility of life is not injected into the marriage of these two values. I think this injection is missing in American Christianity and I think it is missing because we have neglected the perspective of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I suspect if I surveyed 100 American Christians and asked them what their favorite book of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes would have less than 5 votes, in fact it might not get any. It is a sad thing to think about, and I think also indicative of why American Christianity is the way it is.

It requires us to think and reflect on some of the cold hard truths about life, and we don’t like to do this. It isn’t productive. It doesn’t produce results. It doesn’t help us reach our goals. So why bother with it? Not only this, but it also undermines our idealism with fatalism. Consider the following:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. — Ecclesiastes 1.14

Why would we want to acknowledge this? If this is true we reason, then why bother doing anything? Why bother standing up for the rights of the unborn? Why bother trying to eliminate racism? If it’s all useless then why bother? And so our thoughts stop there and we move on to the nice friendly passages that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

However once we come to grips with the perspective of the Preacher we can conclude along with him:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. — Ecclesiastes 12.13-14

When we recognize that all our striving after the actualization of our ideals is useless and in the end doesn’t matter it frees us from carrying that unnecessary burden and allows us to focus on what does matter: keeping the commandments of God. We recognize that God will judge each of us individually. Were we covetous and never content with what we had? Were we adulterous and consistently involved in sexual promiscuity? Did we spread false lies about others for our own advantage? Did we love something more than God? How well we loved God and loved others is what we will be judged on.

The reason why I write this is because I have noticed a tendency over the past couple of years within the church to think that we need to solve the social injustices in our country and world. I think this is dangerous because it is placing an unnecessary burden on the church and I think it will eventually be too much for us to carry and will crush us. We are not called to solve all the problems and injustices of the world. We are called to be salt and light. Living testimonies of the love of God to all humanity. If we first look at the state of our own soul and work to purify and cleanse it, then the societal change we want to see will naturally flow from it. It does not work the other way around. This is what Christ taught us:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23.25-28

 

 

 

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Personality and Discipleship

A perennial struggle in Christianity is the struggle between preserving the old and adapting to the new. On the one hand we have a faith that we must preserve and hand on to future generations, but on the other new discoveries and advances are constantly being made, especially in the areas of science and technology. How much of the old do we change or reformulate in light of the new?

One of the fields that has been part of this debate is psychology. While there is a lot in this field that has been rejected by Christians [and rightfully so], not everything has. One area that seems to have gained at least some acceptance is personality theory, and more specifically the MBTI.

Essentially the MBTI builds on some of Carl Jung’s work to arrive at 16 different types of human cognition [thinking patterns]. It is important to note that these are indeed just different types and that one is not inherently better than the others; each type has its own gifts and blind spots. It is a good description of what we see in reality and in our everyday interactions with others since it is quite obvious that not everyone thinks the same or cares about the same things. Its widespread acceptance then is not surprising.

Where I think the MBTI can make the best impact is as a supplement to discipleship. Note the emphasis on supplement. Whatever your cognitive wiring happens to be it isn’t going to change when you become a Christian, but your heart will. An example of this is the Apostle Paul. Prior to his conversion we read of someone with a zealous personality:

“But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  — Acts 8.3

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” — Acts 9.1-2

After his conversion Paul didn’t lose his zeal as he went on several missionary journeys establishing and strengthening the churches [mostly Gentile] throughout the Roman Empire. He was beaten numerous times, imprisoned, and eventually executed for his work in spreading the Gospel. God didn’t change his wiring, He changed his heart.

When we become Christians, whenever that might be, our cognitive wiring does not change, our hearts do. Like Paul’s our hearts change from being hostile towards God to loving Him; we desire to serve Him rather than persecute Him. If someone was an artist before their conversion, they will still be an artist afterwards; their personality won’t change. What will change is their heart, a change that will likely be reflected in their art.

Discipleship essentially continues the heart change that happened at conversion. The regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, meditation, fasting, etc are of far more value in this process than the MBTI, and also offer better opportunities for growth. If you are in a discipleship or mentoring relationship with someone the main focus of your discussions should be on spiritual matters and spiritual growth, not personality theory. Living the Christian life and following Christ, learning to deny yourself, putting to death your own selfish ambitions, and being submissive to where the Spirit is leading you and the work He is doing in you will result in far more growth than anything any psychologist will ever come up with, including the MBTI.

However, I think the MBTI can be a useful supplement to this process by providing a framework that shows us that not everybody processes information the same, nor do they need to, nor should they. It can help show us how to craft a discipleship process that helps a person become the best version of who God made them to be, rather than who the pastor, mentor, or whoever thinks they should be. Or as a resource I recently saw put it: we can become like Jesus while being ourselves.

It can also help us avoid some of the conflicts and miscommunication that can arise in such relationships as a result of our different wiring.

There’s always a little truth in sarcasm…

I’ll use myself as an example. My MBTI type is INTP. A basic description of this style of thinking is that it is a never ending quest for truth, subjective truth in this case. In the end it doesn’t matter what the experts say, or what social convention or niceties dictate, if something is true it is true and it should be accepted. There is really no emotional attachment to any particular idea or theory and everything is subject to modification or rejection as new information becomes available; there are no sacred cows. As such there is a certain type of inherent rebellion with us. We generally do not readily “drink the kool-aid” we are served by society or a particular organization; we will not defend something [at least not readily or easily] that we believe is wrong just because we have a societal obligation to, or because a superior tells us to. We’re not trying to be rebellious on principle or cause disruption; we are not anarchists. We are just loyal to the truth and believe everyone else should be as well. At best we are something similar to Albert Einstein, whose ideas helped move physics forward. At worst we are along the lines of Sheldon Cooper, who is not open to modifying his ideas in light of new information, is constantly defending himself and his ideas, and does not realize the impact and effect that he has on others.

So if you are discipling me recognizing that this is my thought process would be a great supplement to our relationship. It isn’t going to change what we talk about, but it will change your understanding of my actions and responses. So for instance, if you happen to be a firm believer in eternal security and one week I say something that attacks that doctrine, knowing that what I am actually after is the truth concerning the question: “Can a Christian lose their salvation?” and not attacking eternal security, will [hopefully] keep you from condemning me. It can help you realize that my priority is on truth and it matters to me that I am able to be loyal to this, whatever it might happen to be. It would be better in this case to point me in the direction of resources that discuss this issue without misrepresenting the views of either side so that I can weigh the best arguments from each side and come to an answer on this question. The truth is after all what I care about. And for all you know I just may end up supporting eternal security, though perhaps not on the same basis you do.

It can also help you realize what my blind spot is, so that you can improve me in this area. For me my biggest blind spot is that I don’t realize the impact that my words and ideas have on others. Let’s stick with the eternal security example. You might say to me regarding this issue: “You know, there are a lot of people who come from a background which created in them a lot of doubt concerning their salvation; they never knew for sure if they were saved or not. So for them the doctrine of eternal security is a great comfort because it assuaged their doubts. Repudiating this doctrine would likely have a negative effect on such people and bring back all their old doubts.” It won’t have any effect on my answer to the question, but it will help me realize that if I do find the doctrine of eternal security false I will need to plan for and expect this reaction. I basically need help packaging the truth in a way that others can accept it, especially those who are going to react negatively to it.

With this strategy I get to use the natural gifts and abilities God gave me, and the Church gets to benefit from these gifts and abilities; I become a better version of who God made me to be. But if you try to force me to be something I’m not the only thing you’re really going to succeed in is driving me away from the Church.

God made us all different, and I think the MBTI can help us recognize those differences and craft better discipleship and mentoring strategies in light of them. I think failing to recognize these differences will only impoverish the Church and deprive her of the necessary gifts that everyone brings.