Monthly Archives: November 2019

A Lesson on the Trinity

Note: This article is adapted from lesson notes for a teaching I did on the Trinity a few years ago. The class was following McGrath’s Christian Theology, so some of this follows his thought, some of it is my own.

This article is longer than usual, so if you enjoyed reading even part of this this please leave a like. I am trying to determine what to focus on post-seminary now that my health is improving and your feedback is essential in making this decision. Thanks.

Photo by Ben Turnbull on Unsplash

When we try to describe the Trinity we have set before ourselves a difficult task because attempting to describe the transcendent using human language is a bit of an impossible task. One theologian has likened it as an attempt to pour the ocean into a cup. This task is made even more difficult by the fact that we are limited to what God has revealed about Himself, which is to say that we do not know everything about God; we only know what God has revealed about Himself to us. But nonetheless God has revealed Himself to us and we must try to grasp and understand this revelation as best we can.

A common question that is asked these days regarding the doctrine of the Trinity is its relevance to everyday life. Even lifelong, committed Christians ask this question! The answer to this is that it matters because it is how God has revealed Himself in history (some of which is recorded in Scripture) and in our own lives. It matters because it corresponds to reality. It matters because it’s true.

We were created by someone (the Father). We were redeemed by someone (the Son). We are being sanctified by someone (the Holy Spirit). But these are not three separate actions by three separate gods, but one unified action by one Triune God. It is in the doctrine of the Trinity that we find the cohesion necessary to make sense of reality. Without this doctrine Christianity becomes an incoherent mess.

We must understand that this is not only what Scripture reveals to us, but also that beneath the surface of the complexities of the history of salvation and our own human experience lies one God and one God only. There are not multiple gods involved in the creation and redemption of humanity. There is only one God, and there is only way to Him.

The Basics

There are two ways to approach describing the Trinity: economically or immanently. When we describe the Trinity economically we are describing how God has made Himself known in redeeming humanity in history. An example of this can be found in Irenaeus:

“God the Father uncreated, who is uncontained, invisible, one God, creator of the universe; this is the first article of our faith … And the Word of God, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ … who, in the fullness of time in order to gather all things to himself, he became a human being amongst human beings, capable of being seen and touched, to destroy death, bring life, and restore fellowship between God and humanity. And the Holy Spirit … who, in the fullness of time was poured out in a new way on our human nature in order to renew humanity throughout the world in the sight of God.” – Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 1.6. 

Or in other words. God the Father created the universe; God the Son became incarnate and redeemed humanity; and God the Holy Spirit indwells, sustains, and sanctifies Christians as they follow Christ.

When we approach the Trinity immanently (also called “essentially”) we are attempting to describe God as He is in Himself, that is, outside of the limiting conditions of time and space. A typical way to describe the Trinity in this manner is: There is one God comprised of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are all equal and all are God, but they are also separate from each other.

This approach is also found in the Athanasian Creed (c. 500):

“Now this is the catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance. For the Father’s person is one, the Son’s another, the Holy Spirit’s another; but the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, their glory is equal, their majesty coeternal.”

Visually the immanent approach to describing God can be represented like this:

This doctrine is also reflected in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty…and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; God of God, Light of light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one substance with the Father…and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son) who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified…”

When we attempt to describe the Trinity we should not choose one approach or the other because God has revealed Himself in both ways and both approaches are necessary.

These formulations were developed in response to various heresies and challenges that arose during the first centuries of the Church. They made sense of the Biblical data and put it into a format that was theologically coherent. So these traditional formulations of the Trinity are not something you want to depart from because you will probably very likely open the door to theological errors. To be sure there are other theological topics where it is perfectly fine to develop your own doctrine or formulation, but the Trinity isn’t one of them.

If you wish to know more about the Biblical data as well so how this came to be formulated as such continue reading.

Old Testament

If we are going to claim that Christ and Christianity are the fulfillment of the Messiah and His Kingdom promised in the Old Testament, then we must show that there is continuity between it and the New Testament. The goal here is not to prove the formulation of the previous section, but simply to show that the Old Testament reveals a single God, but also plurality within that single God.

A common argument for the Trinity from the Old Testament is to appeal to Deuteronomy 6.4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” and say that “one” (echad) denotes composite oneness, and so the Trinity is compatible with the Old Testament. The word (yachid) would have more forcefully excluded the possibility of plurality within God and is not used to describe divine oneness.

This is not an altogether bad argument. Yachid is only used 12 times in the Old Testament and in those uses does mean “only, only one, solitary” and it is indeed never used to describe God. However, echad is used over 900 times in the Old Testament and has a wide range of possible meanings, including “only” (see Joshua 22.20; 1 Kings 4.19; Song of Songs 6.9; Zechariah 14.9). Furthermore, the clause in Deuteronomy 6.4 has no verb in Hebrew, which leaves us with at least 5 translation options:

  1.             “Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one.”
  2.             “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.”
  3.             “Yahweh our God is one Yahweh.”
  4.             “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.”
  5.             “Our one God is Yahweh, Yahweh.”


So the argument is a plausible one, but due to the wide range of possible meanings with echad and the Hebrew syntax it is not the best.

What is unquestionably clear though from this text is that there is only one God: Yahweh.

What is also clear in the Old Testament is that there are multiple divine agents portrayed as coming from God, and thus being dependent on Him, but also as having an independent existence.

Wisdom

Sometimes in the Old Testament “wisdom” simply refers to the learned skill of human beings living in accordance with God’s commandments. Sometimes it refers to a primary attribute of God. But sometimes it is portrayed as a person with an existence apart from, yet dependent upon God. This independent, yet dependent existence is most evident in Proverbs 8.1-31, especially in verses 22-23:

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”
(See also Psalm 104.24; Proverbs 3.19; Jeremiah 10.12)

In the New Testament this personification is applied to Christ by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.24:

“but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (See also 1 Corinthians 1.30; Colossians 2.3)

Most church fathers also interpret the Wisdom in Proverbs 8 to refer to Christ, (see Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 61.129; Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 6; Origen, On First Principles, 1.2.1– 5, 8, 12), but some interpret it to refer to the Holy Spirit (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.1, 3).

The Word of the Lord

The word of the Lord refers to God’s speech going out into the creation to accomplish His will. Sometimes this is to bring guidance, judgment, and salvation as in Isaiah 55.10-11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(See also Psalm 119.89; 147.15-20).

Or to create the universe as in Genesis 1 and Psalm 33.6, 9:

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host…

For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.”

The Spirit of the Lord

The spirit of the Lord refers to God’s presence and power within the creation as seen in Psalm 139.7-10:

“Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.”

It gives life, order, and beauty to creation (Genesis 1.2; Job 33.4; Psalm 104.30); will be present in the expected Messiah (Isaiah 42.1-3); and is portrayed as being the agent of a new creation (Ezekiel 36.26-27; 37.1-14). Thus it shows a strong correspondence with the New Testament and a Christian theology of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion from the Old Testament

In the Old Testament then we see that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6.4) and that there are multiple divine entities coming from that one God.

New Testament

There are 2 primary Trinitarian texts in the New Testament:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” – Matthew 28.19

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” – 2 Corinthians 13.14

However, there are at least 115 more passages in which deity is attributed to at least one of the members of the Trinity. Some of these are discussed below.

Deity of the Father

The deity of the Father isn’t in dispute, but nevertheless it is affirmed in the New Testament in numerous places, some of which include: John 20.17; Romans 1.7; 1 Corinthians 1.3, 8.6, 15.24; 2 Corinthians 1.2-3, 11.31; Galatians 1.1, 3, 4; Ephesians 1.2-3, 17; Philippians 1.2, 2.11; Colossians 1.2-3, 3.17; James 1.27; 1 Peter 1.2-3; 2 Peter 1.17; 2 John 3; Jude 1.

Deity of Jesus

There are numerous passages that attribute deity to Jesus, but among the most important are what are called the “high Christological passages.” They include John 1.1-18; Romans 1.2-5; Philippians 2.6-11; Colossians 1.15-23; Hebrews 1; 1 John 1.1-3.

Deity of the Holy Spirit

The deity of the Holy Spirit is not as obvious as that of the Father and the Son, and so some explanation of the various passages will be necessary.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is used interchangeably with God as in Acts 5.3-4 where in v.3 Peter rebukes Ananias and said he has lied to the Holy Spirit, and then in v.4 says he has lied to God. Or again in Acts 28.25-27 where Paul says the Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah and then quotes Isaiah 6.9-10, but Isaiah speaks after hearing “the Lord” (adonai). Or yet again in Hebrews 10.15-17 where the author says “The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us…” and then quotes Jeremiah 31.33-34, but Jeremiah declares the words of Yahweh, thus equating the Holy Spirit with Yahweh.

The Holy Spirit possesses the attributes of God, such as: knowing the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2.10-11; John 16.13).

The Holy Spirit possesses the power of God. This can be seen in the virgin birth (Luke 1.35); Paul’s ministry accomplishments (Romans 15.19); convicting the world (John 16.8-11); and spiritual regeneration (John 3.5-8; Titus 3.5), a power which Jesus said belongs to God (Matthew 19.16-26).

The Holy Spirit is eternal like the Father and the Son (Hebrews 9.14).

The Holy Spirit is associated with the Father and the Son as an equal in Matthew 28.19 and 2 Corinthians 13.14 (see above).

Conclusion from the New Testament

The result of all these verses is the same as the Old Testament: one God, but multiple divine entities coming from that one God.

Patristic Development

It was during the Patristic period (roughly from 100A.D.- 600A.D.) that the doctrine of the Trinity we know today came about (see the beginning of this article). As should be clear from the Biblical data above the theologians of this period were not developing the doctrine in the sense of inventing something new, but were developing in the sense of putting into a clear and precise model how God revealed Himself both in Scripture and in reality.

One of the most formative and influential theologians in Western Christianity is Tertullian, and he is likely responsible for the development of the distinctive Trinitarian terminology we use today. First, he invented the term Trinity (Trinitas). Second, he used the term Person (Persona) to translate the Greek hypostasis (usually translated “substance” or “essence”). Scholars debate what Tertullian meant by this term. The Greek term refers to the basic nature or structure of an entity, but the Latin (Persona) literally means “a mask,” such as one worn by an actor in a Roman drama. It is possible by using this term that Tertullian wanted his readers to understand the idea of “one substance three persons” to mean that the one God played three distinct yet related roles in the great drama of human redemption. Third, he used the term Substance (Substantia) to express the fundamental unity within God, that is, what the members of the Trinity have in common.

By the second half of the fourth century it had been concluded that the Father and Son were of one substance, thus condemning the Arian view as heresy and establishing a consensus within the church (although Arianism itself didn’t go away and still remains today, e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses). What was not settled however is the relationship between the Father and the Spirit. Western theology has tended to begin from and emphasize the unity of God, but Eastern theology (found in the Eastern Orthodox churches, e.g. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc) has tended to emphasize the distinct individuality of the three persons. The Eastern approach could logically lead to three independent beings doing quite different things, but two later developments: perichoresis and appropriation  excluded this possibility.

An Aside

These two different tendencies were bound to conflict and eventually exploded in 1054 with the Western church and Eastern church anathematizing one another over the addition of “and the Son” (Filioque) to the Nicene Creed. Originally the Nicene Creed said the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, but later the West added “and the Son” so that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. For the West this didn’t cause much of a problem theologically due to its emphasis on the unity of God. However, this was (and remains) a huge problem for the East because in order to safeguard the unity of God against their emphasis on the distinctness of the three persons they stress that both the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father, thus the unity is found in the Father, who is the “Fountainhead of Divinity.” So in their view if you have the Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son you have denigrated the Spirit and have created two Gods (the Father and the Son) thus destroying the unity and equality between the persons of the Trinity.

Perichoresis and Appropriation

The term perichoresis is often found as “mutual interpenetration” in English. It refers to the mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity in one another, but still maintains the individuality of each of them. Logically following from this idea is appropriation, which responds to the modalist heresy. Modalism argued that at different points in the redemption of humanity God existed in different “modes” of being. So at one point God was Father and created the world, and then at another God was Son and redeemed it.  Against this appropriation insists that the works of the Trinity are a unity; whatever one does, the other two members do as well, a logical extension of their mutual indwelling. A helpful image for grasping these two concepts might be a dance, where each member maintains their individuality, but is involved in whatever another member does.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has been helpful in not only understanding the essential basics of the Trinity, but also in understanding how the doctrine has come to be articulated as such and why we should adhere to the traditional formulations for this doctrine.

If you enjoyed reading this please leave a like. I am trying to determine what to focus on post-seminary now that my health is improving and your feedback is essential in making this decision. Thanks.

Forgotten Elements of American Christianity: The Contest

PC: James Pond on Unsplash

As I remarked in a previous post American Christianity tends to avoid wrestling with the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). These books challenge us to think and contemplate the complexities of the world God created, and the truths presented in them are sometimes uncomfortable and hard to accept. However, this is not the only element of Christianity that America has forgotten; we have also forgotten that Christianity is a contest.

The Christian life is a contest; a struggle; a fight; a battle. But it is not one that you can pause or put on hold or retreat from; it continues on whether you want it to or not. And not only are we unable to withdraw from this battle, it also demands all our energy in order to win. Consider the following saying from Jesus:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (Luke 13.22-25, ESV)

There are two things that are opposed to each other in this passage: striving and seeking. Notice above that it is those who strive that enter through the narrow door, while those who seek do not. If we are going to be saved we must strive, we must struggle, we must fight our way through the door. If we do not fight or struggle we will not make it through the door and we will not be saved. Seeking will not get us through the door; in this passage it is passivity, laziness, indolence, and evidence of uncertainty regarding Jesus as the only way to salvation. Seeking here is apathy regarding salvation. It is double-mindedness. It is wanting to simultaneously be friends with God and friends with the world, something which is impossible (e.g. James 4.4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”).

Now, what I am referring to here is not salvation by works. Scripture is very clear on this matter. No, the striving I am referring to here is done by the Holy Spirit working in us; it is not done in our power.

Consider the Parable of the Sower [Matthew 13.1-23; Mark 4.1-20; Luke 8.4-15] in this regard: the seed that was sown is the word of God and the 4 soils are various types of human hearts. The path represents those who reject the Gospel, and so nothing grows in them. The seed that was sown on rocky ground and among thorns represents those who did believe the Gospel initially, but they were either afraid of persecution or loved wealth, fame, honor, etc more than God. So while something initially grew in them it amounted to nothing in the end. The seed that was sown on good soil represents those who believe the Gospel wholeheartedly and do not love anything more than God. So what grows in them produces fruit, unlike the other 3 soils. But where did the growth of the seed in this final group come from? It came from their belief in the Gospel! Not from anything they did!

So why do we need to fight and struggle then if we are not saved by works? Because God does not compel us to love Him and we must love God more than anything else to be saved. We are constantly being attacked and tempted by Satan every day, and if we love something more than God these attacks will eventually succeed and we will show that we are not good soil and thus not saved. Our fight then is within our own heart. To be constantly examining it for things that threaten to steal our love for God. To be constantly orienting it towards God through daily prayer and meditation on Scripture.

I originally wrote this post in the middle of my last semester in seminary (March 2018). At that time I considered things to be bad spiritually, but I was expecting them to get better. I only had 7 hours that semester and had quit my job, so I had much less to do than previous semesters. Graduation was not far off and I was looking forward to being done with my studies and finally getting some rest. I even had a ministry opportunity I was looking forward to pursuing post graduation. If you’ve read some of my recent posts though about the various health issues I’ve faced recently you know that things did not get better. In fact they went from bad to worse and have only recently started to improve (and I hope and pray that they stay on this trajectory).

In light of my experiences since writing this originally I’ll add the following comment in closing: appearances can be deceiving. It doesn’t matter how distant or absent God seems from a situation. It doesn’t matter how beat up or defeated you feel. It doesn’t matter if you feel God doesn’t love you or has abandoned you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve given up on praying or Scripture reading or any other sort of spiritual discipline or exercise. It doesn’t matter if songs about God’s goodness make you angry.

What matters is what you believe about God. Do you believe in the Father, maker of heaven and earth? In Jesus Christ his only son who took on flesh and was crucified and raised on the third day for our salvation? In the Holy Spirit who indwells everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus? If you believe these things you have not lost the fight, but are still very much in it. God is with us, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

If you enjoyed reading this post please like and/or share it. I am trying to decide what to focus on post seminary now that my health is returning and your feedback on my writing is an important part of this decision.

Sacrificing to our Paychecks

PC: Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

I had a dog growing up. I envied him most of the time. Why? He was always so happy. It didn’t matter what was going on he was always happy. Nothing seemed to get him down. Ever. His happiness was in stark contrast to my own unhappiness and I thought about this contrast on many occasions. Eventually I came to realize that the essential element to his happiness was his trust in me. He knew I would pet him, feed him, shelter him, love him. He never doubted or worried that these would be provided for him, he just knew that they would be there. It is this attitude of trust that enabled him to simply be who God made him to be, a dog. I noticed that a similar attitude prevailed amongst the squirrels that played in the tree outside my house as well. They too didn’t worry about their needs, they just knew that they would be provided for, and because they knew this they were able to be who God made them to be, squirrels.

To my knowledge we are the only one of God’s creatures in whom this attitude of trust for provision of our needs does not prevail. So we build businesses and careers. Why? To make money. Why? To provide for our needs. For our family’s needs. How do we go about building these? We take from others. We take fathers from their sons and mothers from their daughters. We take them and stick them in cubicles and behind desks and phones where all their talent and energy is spent earning a paycheck. And what have we gained by devoting ourselves to these paychecks? For all the wealth and advancements and ‘quality of life’ improvements we may have gained all the ills that have plagued every society in human history still continue unabated. We still kill one another, steal from one another, abuse one another, and do numerous other heinous things to one another. Not only do these problems continue, but so does the problem of death; we will all inevitably die.

The most significant result of us sacrificing ourselves to our paychecks is not prosperity, but rather that we no longer have any idea who we are or what we should be doing. We no longer realize how strange of a world we live in. A world in which water falls from the sky in order to bring our food out of the dirt. A world in which every species dies, but yet the species continues to live. A world which is constantly in motion spinning around its axis while rotating around the sun suspended in space, but yet never seems (from our perspective) to move.

Why do we not hear what the world is saying to us? Why do we simply acknowledge its workings as facts and think nothing further of them? We do not hear because we, even us who consider ourselves Christians, have bought into the lie which teaches that the world is a neutral zone in which god or religion, any god or religion, is optional.

How should we respond to this as Christians? There are perhaps several ways, but I think the essential element is to understand and remember Psalm 19. The first part of the psalm begins by praising God for his creation:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

It is the pslamist’s reflection upon God’s creation which prompts his praise of God’s law, precepts, and commandments:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Why was he prompted to praise God for His law, precepts, and commandments? Because when he reflected on the creation around him he saw glory of God and because he saw the glory of God he saw who he really was, a sinful and evil person who was unworthy to dwell with God, which prompts his conclusion:

12 Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

A similar response is made by the prophet Isaiah, who also saw that he was sinful and evil after seeing the glory of God:

 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  – Isaiah 6.5 ESV

We see the same world that the psalmist saw, but yet we do not repeat his words, nor the words of the prophet Isaiah. Why?

Because the heavens do not declare the glory of God to us. We do not listen to their speech or hear their voice. We ignore it and resist it. In fact we go so far as to erase them from our mind by lighting up the night sky so as not to see the stars and paving all our cities with concrete, brick, and steel. Because if we listened to them their speech would be unbearable to us. We would realize that all our efforts to provide for ourselves have been one huge act of rebellion against God. And we would realize that there is no way to stop this rebellion since it is the result of the sin which is inherit in everyone.

What is it then that we should hear from the heavens and creation? What are they telling us? When Solomon dedicated the temple he had built to the LORD the glory of the LORD came and filled it [1 Kings 8.10-11]. The heavens and creation then, by declaring the glory of the LORD are telling us that the entire earth is His temple. Right now you and I are in God’s temple and he is in the midst of us. When we become aware of God’s presence we recognize how evil we truly are.

If the world truly declared the glory of God to us [Ps. 19.1] we would understand why the remainder of the Psalm praises the law of the LORD and finishes with:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

One of the things that Qohelet realizes in Ecclesiastes is that there are many things that he does not have control over that can and/or will destroy everything he has worked so hard to accomplish. He concludes that God has made things this way, so follow God. I think we would do well to do the same. God will provide for us and we will be who He made us to be. We are of more value than many sparrows.

If you enjoyed this post please click “Like” and/or leave a comment. Your feedback is important to me as I decide what to focus on post-seminary now that my health is recovering and I get closer and closer to normal.

Life and Death in the Wilderness

Photo: Yuliya Kosolapova on Unsplash

Note: I am currently in the process of going through my drafts and cleaning up and publishing the good ones I have in there. This post was started in 2015 and was just finished today.

I was struck by the imagery of the appointed readings for Morning Prayer on Thursday last week. The First Lesson was from Ezekiel 37.1-14. In this passage Ezekiel is in the Valley of Dry Bones, surrounded by the result of death, and God promises the prophet that He will reverse this curse:

“Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the LORD—I have spoken and I will act, declares the LORD.’ ” – Ezekiel 37.12-14

The eventual end of every person is to die, this is inevitable and unavoidable. Primarily we conceive of death as a physical occurrence. However, there is also a spiritual dimension to death, a dimension which can perhaps simply be described as not believing and trusting in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection and thus not being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Or in other words, not being a true Christian.

It is this view of death, as both physical and spiritual, that is in view in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Ezekiel was a prophet to Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. Not only had many Israelites been killed physically as a result of the Babylonian conquest, but God had used Babylon to judge Israel because she was dead spiritually as well. She had abandoned God for other false gods and refused to repent and return.

This is not merely a description of a nation that lived over 2,000 years ago however. It is a description of all humanity since the Fall. We all die physically because we are all dead spiritually. Our physical reality is indicative of our natural spiritual state.

The Second Lesson was from Philippians 3.7-21. In the preceding verses (3.1-6) Paul describes his human credentials and says that no one has better spiritual credentials from a human standpoint than he does. But he regards these as liabilities, saying:

But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things… Philippians 3.7-8a

Why are these liabilities though? Because they blind us to our true spiritual state. We focus on our false selves, what we do well, our gifts, our accomplishments, our goals, our greatness. We do not focus on our true selves, our vileness, our frailty, our death. God came to us out of love for us, and we hated Him and executed Him in an attempt to hide our own evil from ourselves. Being alone with our true selves is a very scary thing.

Both of these Lessons occurred during what modern Christianese would call a “wilderness experience” or a “desert experience,” which basically refers to a period of time in which God feels absent or things are not working out well for some reason. In the case of Ezekiel the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. In the case of Paul he was writing to the Philippians from prison. In both of these cases things are not working out well and to the people directly involved it seemed as though God was absent for some reason, at least initially. But in reality God wasn’t absent from either of these situations. In reality God had brought them into the wilderness so that there was nothing around to distract them from their true selves and they were forced to confront what they found there. Ultimately they each responded differently.

The Israelites, as a nation, failed (or refused) to recognize the evil and vileness that was in their hearts. Instead their basic thought process seems to have been: “God exiled us because we failed to keep the Law and follow all its rules, so now we are going to be extra sure to keep the Law and all its rules so that God does not punish us again.” Their concern was not turning from sin, but avoiding punishment. They did not love God. They only loved themselves. They were not concerned with God wanted. They were only concerned with what they wanted and their own comfort.

Paul on the other hand recognized the evil in himself and recognized that only God could cure the sin that lived within it (e.g. Romans 7.21-25, 1Corinthians 15.9, 1Timothy 1.15). He was not concerned with avoiding punishment. He was concerned with loving God and pursuing Him more and more. In fact if you continue reading in Philippians you read:

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. – Philippians 3.10-12

Paul is not concerned for his own comfort, but only for being as much like Christ as possible. He truly repents of his old ways and pursues the way of Christ. He is not concerned with his external status or situation, but only with being holy as Christ is holy.

I believe that God uses the wilderness experiences of our lives, those times when something tragic or unexpected happens and it seems like God is absent, to expose what is in our hearts and force us to confront it. When we are brought to this point we have two choices: 1) choose death and refuse to recognize the evil and sin in us, or 2) choose life and truly repent and follow Christ. The first choice is extremely tempting because when we’re in a wilderness experience I think our main concern is getting out of the wilderness and back to the way things used to be, especially if we were happy and things were going good. The problem with this choice though is that it ignores our spiritual state and condition and prioritizes our own comfort. To be sure, it isn’t that wanting to get back to “normal” is a bad thing, because it isn’t. The problem is, I think, when we allow ourselves to get so focused on getting back to normal that we don’t take any time at all to examine what is going in our hearts during this time.

In my own experience I’ve found that I usually don’t understand or know what was going on in my heart during a wilderness experience until after I have gotten through it and got back to something close to normal. Once I’m in better circumstances I’ve found that I am in a much better place to reflect and examine the experience than when I am still in the experience. There are far too many emotions in play during the experience that it really prevents me from seeing things accurately. I think it is when we are on the other side of a wilderness experience that the choice between the way of death and the way of life presents itself to us. We can choose death and not examine our hearts, or we can choose life and examine our hearts and ask God to help us repent of whatever evil was revealed to us in it. Even if in the past we’ve chosen death and refused to acknowledge whatever sin(s) God brought to light there is still time to choose to acknowledge them and follow Christ.

I do not believe a perspective like Paul’s, who values Christ more than anything, even physical comfort comes easily. Following God and being obedient to what He called you to do, ending up in prison, and still being joyful and eager to serve Him isn’t something that just happens. It is born from coming face to face with the evil in your own heart and asking God to help take it away. And it is when all the distractions are taken away, our talents, our skills, our accomplishments, our greatness, that we are able to come face to face with our own sinfulness.

It is in the wilderness that God does his best work in us. It can be a very painful work. But if we cooperate and don’t fight him we will be closer to Him than we were before. Closer to being holy as he is holy. We will not die, but live eternally.