Author Archives: SRQTom

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

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

Recovery

Sometimes things do not always happen as planned.

At the beginning of last summer I knew I had been overextending myself for too long and needed a break, which I planned to take over that summer. My expectation was that I would be ready and back to 100% by the time the Fall semester started, but this expectation was not realized and I had to drop to part-time [6 hours]. I was a little discouraged, but I knew I had made the right decision and expected that I would be ready and back to 100% in time to begin the Spring semester. Well, I felt much better in the Spring compared to the Fall, not 100%, but vastly improved and continuing to improve. So I decided to take a full load [12 hours] with the expectation that I would be back to 100% within the first few weeks. However, this expectation was also not realized.

I realized a couple of weeks in that I had made a mistake in taking a full load, but by that point I was already financially committed, and since I didn’t have a spare $5,000 laying around my only option was to move forward and do the best I could running on the little I had left.

At about the midway point I had to preach my first sermon for class. As I was preparing before class that day I noticed that my body started to shake, and then I realized that I was chronically stressed [preaching is stressful, but not that stressful]. On the one hand this was good news because it meant that I finally knew what was going on, and that I could starting treating it. But on the other hand you’re not going to de-stress in the middle of graduate level semester, no matter what you do. I did however manage to sneak in a break of about a month which got me rested just enough to finish out the semester.

One thing I have come to appreciate over the course of my health struggles these past few years has been the union of body and soul in humanity; what happens to one affects the other. There were long stretches of time where I could not concentrate on what I was reading or praying, and thus it was hard for me to benefit from doing many spiritual exercises. So I eventually stopped doing them. This of course had negative consequences spiritually and led to a lot of anger and resentment towards God on my part. It can go the other way too where a spiritual disease affects the body, such as acedia or gluttony, but that wasn’t the case here.

One tendency I’ve noticed in myself, which I think holds true for American culture as well, is the tendency to think in extremism and false dichotomies. When this type of thinking is applied to the nature of humanity it leads to either putting so much emphasis on the soul that we live and think as if we don’t have a body, or to putting so much emphasis on the body that we live and think as if we don’t have a soul.

Many Christians I think tend towards the former [too much emphasis on the soul]. While we are right to pay attention to our soul and care and nourish it, we cannot do so to the extent that we forget we have a body as well that needs to be nourished and cared for. Knowing what we know about human biology we cannot automatically assume that everything has a spiritual cause, and that if we just pray more, or increase our devotion to God, or confess some sin that we are unrepentant of, that we will be able to overcome whatever is ailing us. Sometimes the dust of which our bodies are made just breaks down. My body broke down last year.

As my body has finally been able to recover in the month or so since the semester ended my spiritual life has improved as well, but not fully nor automatically. I have been surprised by the amount of work and discipline that has been required of me to recover spiritually. I didn’t use to have to discipline myself to do things like pray, or read Scripture because I looked forward to them and wanted to do them. In some ways I feel like I am back to square one spiritually and now must find some way to recover the love and zeal that I had before this whole ordeal.

I am not out of the woods yet either physically or spiritually, but I am better than I was a month or so ago, and I continue to get better. If everything goes as planned [hopefully] I should be in good shape physically and spiritually to tackle my last semester of seminary, and hopefully gain some hindsight on the events of the past 12 months.

 

Empty Spaces

Christ is the light of the world, whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life

“I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

I was offered a free desk yesterday afternoon while I was walking into my building after arriving home from church. I noticed the desk was an L-desk, something I had been looking for for a while, and so I quickly agreed to take it. When I moved my old desk out to make space for my new desk it occurred to me that I had a lot of space to play with. The question before me was, “What will I put in this empty space?”

The season of Trinity in the liturgical year poses the same question to us: “What will we put in this empty space?”  Will we put Christ in it? Will we allow Him to purge from us our sinful and evil ways? Will we do the things He commands us to do? Will we love Him more than the world?

Trinitytide is a season of growth, so let us allow Christ to grow in us, so that everyone may see His glory in us and be drawn into His kingdom. Amen.

 

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.