Tag Archives: theology

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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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.  

 

Book Recommendation: Truth Matters

“Truth Matters” is written to answer common objections raised against Christianity by skeptics, pundits, etc, and also to address legitimate questions that sometimes occur to people. It deals with matters such as the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical manuscripts, why is there is so much evil, the claim of contradictions in the Bible, and also the claim that early Christianity was actually diverse, but then “orthodoxy” eventually stomped all the others out. It is written for high school students, so it is quite readable and understandable. And while it doesn’t go into all the intricacies of the arguments, it does give a fairly good overview of the basic contours of them.

Why Squirrels are Better

 

How to be happy: be a dog!

This just in from the stating the obvious department…

While I was still living in FL God provided me with a frequent image to consider: squirrels (don’t laugh! this is going somewhere serious I promise!). You see there is a tree in the backyard of my parent’s house that I would watch the squirrels play in every morning before I did my daily Scripture readings. I would often be jealous of them. They didn’t worry about their jobs, money, or many of the other things that I worried about. They simply ran around the tree chasing each other, gathered material for nests, and (after checking to make sure the dog was inside) hopped down to the ground to search for food. Their lives seemed so simple, happy and worry-free; I wondered why my life had to be so complex, sad, and worrisome.

I’m not sure that I truly learned the lesson God was teaching me back then (actually I’m not sure I’ve truly learned any lesson God has ever taught me), but it’s a lesson I am being taught again as I near the end of another semester of seminary. I even find myself worrying about the same things I did back then! What will I do after seminary? Am I currently pursuing the right path for after graduation? Will I have enough money? Actually I am even worrying about more things! Am I being called to marriage or singleness? Can I personally do ministry without the support of a wife? Will having a wife (and likely kids also) be a detriment to my ministry?

Squirrels have not been my only teachers regarding these concerns, but Scripture also. The Psalms address these concerns in numerous places I believe, but Psalm 95.1-7 has stood out to me in particular:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95.1-7a ESV

These verses recount God’s creation of the world and everything in it, including humans. As a result of this we, along with the rest of creation, should recognize that we not only exist due solely to God’s decision to create, but that we are dependent on Him for our daily sustenance (e.g. food, water).

Jesus explicitly teaches this several times in the New Testament. First in Matthew 6.25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 6.25-34 ESV

It doesn’t matter how much money we have or how big our house is, if God doesn’t send the rain to water the crops and fill the rivers and lakes, or the sunshine to grow the crops we won’t be alive for much longer. No matter how fit or healthy we are we will not live a moment longer than God has decided that we should live. So what should we do? God knows that we need food, water, and clothing, and He will give these things to us, just like he does to the birds (and squirrels!). And just like the birds (and squirrels!) are obedient to God and serve Him the way He intends for them, so we also should follow God and be obedient to His teachings and live the life he intends for us, a life of holiness. We should not be anxious about food, water, and clothing.

Jesus again teaches us not be anxious when He is in Martha’s house:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10.38-42 ESV

Martha is busy with all the preparations* for Jesus and His disciples, but how does Jesus describe her? As anxious about many things! A rebuke! It is Mary who Jesus describes as having “chosen the good portion,” which is listening to the words of her God and Savior and following Him, rather than being worried about food and entertaining guests.

Even the Apostles struggled with being anxious! They were once worried that they had no food, even though they had already seen Jesus feed thousands of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16.5-12 ESV

But why is it significant that we not worry about these things? Because they are symptomatic of what is in our heart. The passage I quoted above from Matthew 6.25-34 has a parallel account in Luke 12.22-31 and immediately following adds:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Luke 12.32-34 ESV

I believe one of the fundamentals of the Christian life is to learn to set our hearts and desires on heavenly rewards rather than earthly rewards. This means learning to hear God’s voice and being obedient to what He calls you to do and trusting that He will provide for your needs along the way. The second part of Psalm 95 is instructive regarding this:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Psalm 95.7b-11**

God has called us to follow Him and to trust Him to provide for our needs along the way. We should not be worried about whether we will have food, or water, or clothing, or whether we will be married because God knows what we need and will give us what we need. What we should be worried about is whether or not we are being obedient to Him, following Him where He is leading us, and trusting Him to provide for us. If we are not doing this it is a sign that we love the things of the world, such as money or power or prestige, more than the God who made us. It is a sign that Sin is ruling our lives.

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

*The word translated “serving” probably refers to the preparations for a social event, such as a meal. See BDAG, διακονία 2.b.

**The incident at Meribah and Massah is found in Exodus 17.1-7 where the Israelites grumbled against Moses and did not trust that God was with them and would provide for their needs on their journey to the land He had promised, even though they had already seen Him provide bread for them from heaven (Exodus 16). Also, Hebrew 3.7-4.13 has an excellent exposition of these verses which I highly recommend reading.