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Posts from the ‘Practical Theology’ Category

To use brackets when teaching theology in the church

Something the NASB edition does but nobody else bothers with: italicizing all words that have no basis in the original text. Of course, this is hilarious, because even word-for-word translations have several words in each sentence that are interpolated. A phrase like πιστις Χριστου cannot be translated into English as “faith Christ” but must include an “of” in between to make sense. Should we italicize “of” in every genitive? The word “in” or “to” for each dative? Beyond case-use, there are more ways that words get added. One that Matt Chandler pointed out a few years ago is Philippians 2:4, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In the Greek, this sentence is more like “not looking to your own ________ but each of your to _________ of others.” The word “interests” is a simple translation addition to make the sentence clear for English readers. The NASB italicizes it.

brackets symbol vectorTo avoid being confusingly word-for-word, the NASB still includes the word; to avoid giving the word undue weight, the NASB italicizes it. While that approach may be ridiculous — and at times unhelpful, since English readers are used to thinking of emphasis when they see italics — the idea can be applied on a different level. I would like to suggest that the same inclusion-by-italicization method can be helpful for our teaching of theology in the church. Since, again, italics usually communicate emphasis, maybe brackets are the better symbol.

The balance struck by the NASB is also a balance to strike with teaching theology: we don’t want to be unhelpfully text-only, which would deprive our congregation from thinking rightly about the text. On the other hand, the theology we supply to the text may be wrong, and we do not want to give it the same level of authority in our teaching.

The main example that comes up in my conversations at Trinity is limited atonement. Limited atonement is a doctrinal idea that I believe is logically consequent from other doctrinal ideas which have strong Biblical basis: the other four points of Calvinism, total depravity, unconditional atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of these command strong Biblical support in a way that limited atonement does not. (If anything, 1 John 2:2 leans the other way on atonement). Limited atonement is extra-biblical, but this does not mean untrue; it only means not necessarily true. Calculus is extra-biblical, but true!

So if someone were to ask me, “Where do you see limited atonement in the Bible?” I would have to first show the Biblical support for those other four doctrines, and then after all of that, say, “Look, I know its not anywhere in the text, but limited atonement just has to be an accurate description of Christ’s work on the cross if these other four things are true.” In other words, limited atonement as a doctrine exists one level of abstraction above these other doctrines; it does not have roots in the text, but in other doctrines, which themselves have roots in the text.

So, should we teach limited atonement? Or should we just leave it unsaid? My answer is that we should still teach it, but bracket it with phrases like “it seems like the best way to understand these doctrines would be…” as an opening bracket and then “there may be more precise ways to talk about the relationship between these doctrines, but we can save those for later.” Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing, but this approach seems like a healthy way to major on the majors, minor on the minors, and keep our gaze focused on the Biblical text and the doctrines most obviously rooted in the text.

Of course, this bracketing is unnecessary in a doctrinal class, a catechism class, a book study group, or, unthinkably, a class on theology. I am only talking about expositional preaching on Sunday morning, especially when the congregation is walking through a book of the Bible chapter by chapter. As pastors, our understanding of level-two and higher doctrine should impact how we read the text and the basic ideas which emerge from it — don’t get me wrong, higher doctrine matters — but it is unhelpful to explain these ideas as if they bears the same weight as other teachings. Your doctrinal stance on the precise nature of the atonement will color your teaching, but don’t trick the congregation into thinking that stance is rock-solid authoritative like the text itself.

I know there are objections to what I am saying. For his part, Paul comments that he opposed Peter “when I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14, a great verse to memorize). Likewise we should understand the gospel in all its abstract implications and try to live accordingly. There is also the simple fact that Paul himself was a deeply systematic theologian, and he wrote Biblical text, so then we have some Biblical texts that ground even our deepest systematic theology. The number of topics that can be two layers of abstraction away from “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” or “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” is small. (Romans 11:12, 29).

I am talking about practical, day-to-day, sermon-by-sermon use of theology for teaching laypeople. For the Junior High students I volunteer with at church, this can be important. I remember when I was in eighth grade and first started to discover the doctrines of grace and the five points of Calvinism. It changed my life, but not always for the better. Eighth-grade me would have been far better off being challenged to learn more about the Torah and Prophets, or about the doctrine of sanctification (!) than about theoretical constructs which I later discovered were deeply bankrupt. The solution doesn’t have to be complicated: we can better communicate the message of scripture by including-by-bracketing logical developments of doctrine.

Fall, friendship, and experiencing God

As I drove back to college from my parents house today, my route wove through an aimless countryside. Along the way were Pumpkin Patches and Harvest Pickings, Apple Orchards and Tree Farms. My parents and I stopped at one together and bought cider, jams and apples. We even had our picture taken:

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Seeing the fall in action ushered my mind to a moment in one of my favorite books. David Whyte’s collection of short essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In his meditation on Friendship, he writes this:

Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going. (73-74).

One of our main goals as people is to experience transcendence. This is true of everyone, even, awkwardly, of those who deny that the transcendent is real. To see a mountain that dwarfs us in size. To look out on an ocean whose end is the horizon. To look injustice in the face and say “No, you will not remain,” only for, to our surprise, our words to make themselves true. To understand our world in a way that bring us if only for a moment far beyond our normal, small lives. To look up at the color-changing leaves of a tree and tremble under the weight of overwhelming beauty.

For the believer, these everyday moments point to something outside of themselves. They sign God to us, or his glory, or the meaning he declares over our lives. For the nonbeliever, these moments of transcendence are puzzling. Even though nothing exists out there, beyond us… we still experience the “out there” in our own lives.

These are “the surprising circles of which we are a part” and “the wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship.” We have the option to see them around us — or we can shut them out. If only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand.

What surprises me about Whyte’s comments is that friendship helps us get outside us. Friendship and its “natural surprises” can condition us to see a bigger world. A world that is open to what may be outside it, whether we like that possibility or not.

Thinking it would be fitting to the topic, I sat outside to write this post. But within a few minutes, I was too cold and had to retreat to the Student Center fireplace. Even after almost twenty conscious years of living through the Midwest winter — which bottoms out at negative 20 most years — I always forget the cold. This is because the knowledge of cold and the experience of cold are two different things. Six months of warmth is not enough to make me forget that it gets cold in October. But that length is enough for me to forget what the cold feels like.

In the same way, we who believe can know that God is real. And those who do not believe can know that God is not real. But we all feel, we all experience, we all sense God. The changing seasons, of which Pumpkin Patches and Apple Orchards are reminders, remind us to look beyond ourselves. So, too, does the tumult of ordinary life with friends challenge our gaze to drift higher and higher.

Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry

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As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.

I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.

 

10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry

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1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?

For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.

At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life?  There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”

I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.

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2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.

It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.

Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.

Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.

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3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.

The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.

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4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.

I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.

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5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.

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6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.

So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.

It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.

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7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.

The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.

This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.

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8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.

What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.

Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.

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9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.

But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.

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10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪

This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.

Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.

I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.

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Conclusion

My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:

  1. Vulnerability in mentoring
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. 14 year olds are adults
  4. Helping boys express their emotions
  5. The Local Church is where it’s at
  6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
  7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
  8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
  9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing
  10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants

This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.

For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God

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With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.

This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)

So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?

In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.

Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:

Does God exist?

Y-N

Can God be experienced?

Y—————N

And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.

The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.

Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?

And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.

Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.

As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.

What more could I ask God for?

Preach purity without losing the Gospel

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Imagine a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. What would happen? How would you confront the person? What, exactly, about the Gospel do you think they have wrong, and are you sure that you are right about that?

This was the situation in Galatia when Paul wrote their church a letter. Word had gotten back to Paul that the church was divided between the Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. A new group of pastors had come into town teaching that non-Jews had to be circumcised to enter Christianity. (Circumcision was a ritual practice marking a boy as Jewish; in other words, non-Jews had to become Jewish first before they could become Christians). As this division grew, the Jewish Christian believers stopped eating with and then associating with the non-Jewish Christians.

Grasping his flowing white beard and preparing his long quill pen, Paul looks at the situation and concludes, clearly, you don’t understand the Gospel. 

What about the Gospel did they not understand? I’ll tell you what they didn’t get wrong. They didn’t mistake who was at the center of it. That would be Jesus. They didn’t mistake what happened next. That would be the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They didn’t mistake who can be included in it. That would be everyone.

The mistake was how deep the Gospel goes. And to explain this, I will have to go into some depth.

How does Life in Christ work?

The wrong way to understand life in Christ is “God made the rules, and now we have to follow them.” Of course, these rules are the bedrock of most religions. Islam has lots of them. Way back to Hammurabi. Judaism definitely did. The idea is that God has set them down, and now we are morally obligated to follow them.

But the weird thing about these commandments is that just being given them doesn’t make you any better at following them. Actually, because there is a dark energy inside us called “The Power of Sin,” we tend to do worse once we are given the commandment. Ironic, but true. When you give The Power of Sin a law, it schemes to break the law (or keep the law only when convenient). Shouldn’t knowing the rules make us more moral? Only if we start out at neutral. But we start out with The Power of Sin inside. The human condition cannot be solved by education; only transformation.

God, by the way, is pissed. Livid. Full of wrath because he is full of justice and must punish anyone who breaks the moral law. He must destroy them — or worse, leave them alive yet suffering forever. This is the natural consequence of upsetting Justice: It comes back to bite you. God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

Nobody could actually meet his moral standards. God knew how far short we fall, and so he sent himself as Jesus to do meet the standards. Jesus lived perfectly, never breaking the Law. In his whole time on earth, facing all the temptation Satan could lob at him, he never sinned. Not once. (This sinlessness is what just happens when The Power of Sin is not alive in you).

Now — and this is what I’m building towards — Jesus’s death has satisfied the wrath of God. A man reaps what he sows, yes, but in this case, Jesus reaped what we sowed. God will not be mocked, yes, but God punished someone else for our mockery. God has to destroy sinners, yes, but Jesus chose to be destroyed on our behalf. He was destroyed in a way that was somehow more excruciating than eternal conscious torment in Hell.

As a result, God’s wrath being satisfied, only God’s love remains. This is true for everyone who participates in Jesus by faith. If you have nothing to do with Jesus, the wrath remains. But if you have faith in Jesus to have satisfied the wrath of God for you, you “participate” in Jesus. This is the great irony, the great switcheroo of Christianity. Jesus was perfect and we were sinful, yet Jesus received God’s wrath and we receive God’s love. Now that God’s wrath has been satisfied for us, we can have a relationship with God.

The result of this newfound participation in Jesus by faith is that The Power of Sin is gradually being put to death. A new power is now gradually growing within us, The Power of the Spirit. If you are living in this new power, your default life will be marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And since there are no anti-love laws in the Bible, no anti-joy laws, no anti-peace laws, by living in The Power of the Spirit you will not break any laws. So you will just, by default, follow the Law.

But the key is the order. You have to become right in God’s sight, and now you follow the law. The order is not: following the law to become right in God’s sight. Such was the error of the new pastors in Galatia, who thought that to become a full Christian, you had to follow the Laws. Not only was the circumcision law not a true moral law — it was just a cultural identifier — it was a commandment, and so it could not be the basis for salvation.

I feel like I have to reexplain all this every time I talk about anything in Christianity because so many people don’t get it. Or they get it, but they don’t live like they get it. The Apostle Paul confronted Peter because Peter “was not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel” (2:14). People so often understand the truth of the Gospel but they then go back to the Law – Obedience method. If you would live according to the truth, you would go to the New Life – Fruit method.

What does the New Life – Fruit method look like? What does it look like to “live in step with the Spirit” (5:25)? Instead of describing this in general terms, let’s look at specific example.

An Example from Purity

Suppose a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. (This is the scenario I was imagining at the beginning). And that pastor preaches a whole message about Purity, which boiled down to: God has commanded you to be sexually pure, and by extension, God has commanded you to wear modest clothing and not wear makeup. Also, you should feel guilt and shame if you do not do this.

This message gets wrong exactly everything about the Gospel. The Gospel does not work like this. Law (modest clothing) and Obedience (so you can avoid feeling bad about yourself) — full stop — is as antithetical to the Gospel as requiring non-Jews to be circumcised to become Christians. Paul would throw a fit at someone teaching like this. Even if they know the Gospel deep down, clearly their knowledge has nothing to do with their message.

We are looking for a true and better message on sexual purity, one informed at its core by Jesus’s righteousness, given as a free gift instead of an earned reward. What does that purity message sound like? I will hazard something like this.

We are not, on our own, able to keep the commands of sexual purity. Even if you’ve never “done anything,” Jesus raised the ante by saying that even looking at someone with lust is just as sinful as “doing something” about it. Surely, from puberty onward, there is nobody who escapes this law. For this the wrath of God is coming; God has commanded you otherwise, and he will not be mocked.

So God sent Jesus to live a life of perfect sexual purity. He was single the whole time and never sinned in this way. He was tempted, for sure, but since he was never beholden to The Power of Sin, he brushed past the temptation. Then, Jesus took the punishment for our sin (in this case, sexual sin) by dying in our place.

We must now give up the futile game of working to earn our own satisfaction of God’s wrath. To continue playing that game is to reject what God as Jesus has sacrificed for us. God looks at those who have faith and sees not their sexual sin but the sexual righteousness of Jesus.

The Power of Sin to control us to break sexual commandments is now being gradually put to death in us, while The Power of the Spirit to live a life of patience, faithfulness, and self-control is gradually growing.

The clear result is that guilt and shame have no place. Guilt and shame are what happen when we are commanded to do something and fail. (Which is true in this case; God has commanded it, and we’ve failed). But if we participate in Jesus by faith, God only sees Jesus’s success, not our failure. So instead of guilt and shame, we move on. We repent. We seek new ways to solve the problem. Isolate the temptation. See the joy it pretends to give us, and then recognize the true joy available in the life God has designed for us. Continue to abide with God even when we recoil against God at our own sin, because by continuing to participate in Jesus The Power of Sin gets put to death just a little bit more. Get practical and find ways to eliminate that particular sin. Look for guidance given by the Bible, which was written by people who have gone through all this before (including God). See the community of Christians around you as people going through the same things, and see that God has put you all together for that reason. And on. And on.

Don’t just wallow in guilt and shame because you cannot, on your own, follow God’s commandments about sexual purity. Keep participating in your relationship with Jesus and watch the sin die from the inside out. Also, get a filter for your devices. Delete snapchat, and probably twitter too. Unfollow the meme pages you know have become problematic. Learn to bounce your eyes when someone is wearing revealing clothes (without shaming them). Break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend who is leading you away from God’s calling for you to be single in this stage of your life. Better yet, next time around, just don’t date someone who isn’t a Christian. Not because you should be ashamed, but because it is the most practical, realistic thing to do to live out the New Creation you are in Christ. Get open enough to talk to other Christians about your struggles with sexual purity, and join with them as you all seek to submit this domain of your life to Jesus’s authority. And on. And on.

This is the difference between working hard to satisfy the wrath of God, and trusting Jesus that he has already done so. The new pastors in Galatia did not understand this — nor does our hypothetical Purity Slam pastor — but Paul did. This is the message of Galatians as clearly as I can summarize it. No matter what topic you are considering, from sexual purity to greed, from anger to gossip. This message is also the only mindset that should seep into our self-worth, into our encouragement for other Christians, and into our messages from the stage. Or, in addition to pointing everyone away from Jesus, you may have someone like Paul screaming from the audience, Anathema! Anathema!

 

A quick story from this week at Camp

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A few hours ago we sent home our second batch of campers for the summer. The first group had been elementary school (mine were entering 6th grade); this last group was middle school (mine were entering 8th grade). The intervening two years between my cabins make an unbelievable difference in comprehension and spiritual “readiness,” not to mention basic things like keeping the cabin clean and willingly eating vegetables.

Anyways. I had a camper this week, “John,” we’ll call him, who I could tell was listening intently to the chapel messages and asked some important questions during our cabin discussion times. He seemed to be yearning for God, and at the same time hesitant to come near to God. Similar to way we react to cliffs. A cliff draws us near — an irresistible pull towards the edge; but the edge repulses us, so that we move slowly and consider deeply everything that could go wrong. John was like this about God, which is almost always a sign that something is going to happen. When you strip a person of their apathy, this same two-sided response to the Gospel starts to move around in their heart.

Last night we had an open-mic time with the whole camp, in which campers could share ways they have seen God working in them throughout the week. John, again, was listening in the whole time, fully there. When the time ended, we had some worship music and then walked back to the cabins.

This was the point when John let loose the simple statement, “Ross, I want to accept God into my life right now.” As a camp counselor, and just as a Christian in general, this is a great sentence to get my attention 100% zeroed in on you. I ask him what he means by that. I have seen too many people walk away from the faith who never actually entered it because they were led into some type of flippy-dippy false conversion “sinner’s prayer” without understanding at all what salvation means. So I want to take a statement like John’s as a conversation starter and see what they mean by “accepting God into my life.”

We talk. I won’t summarize everything in the conversation, but briefly put: it became clear after a while that to John, “accepting God into my heart” was a statement of trust in God. The example he gave is Job, who did nothing wrong but still suffered a lot. From some of the personal things happening in John’s life at the time, I could see how he would identify with Job. But this is problematic in an obvious way. Job was a good person whose struggles in life were caused by outside problem. We are sinners whose primary struggle is our sin, which is an “inside” problem. And these two struggles in life require very different kinds of trust in God. The former can be had by anyone — that God will work out good from the midst of bad situations. Jews could have this trust in God with no issue, since, after all, Job is in their scriptures. The later can be had only by a Christian — that God will forgive sins and indwell a person via the Holy Spirit. And John had only wanted to trust God in the first of these ways.

We had a long conversation. We were standing by the beach, looking over it at dark while talking about this. Then we moved up to the village center living room and kept talking. Over the course of the conversation, I asked John about the weight of his sin. About the free gift of God in forgiveness of sins. He had been listening close during our cabin discussions (I had been leading us in some basic conversations about Justification in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that week). He got it. And he started talking about the guilt he feels about this sin and that sin, this other sin and that other sin. It was a powerful thing to hear. How numb am I to the significance of my sin — and by extension, to the greatness of my savior — compared to this 8th grader?

He prayed and asked God to forgive him of his sins and give him New Life. Some of the wording he used, I could tell, he had parroted from me. Other things were original and genuine. I don’t think I have ever heard someone pray like John did. I am not sure what about it made it unique. He meant it, that much is for sure. Then, I prayed for him. I prayed that God would sustain this simple trust in John into a real, life-long, fruit-bearing trust.

Then we broke and went back to the cabin, where the rest of my guys were standing in a circle doing Fortnite emote dances.

Four Reflections from the MLKJ Day event at Trinity

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Today my university’s Intercultural Development Office hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day program over lunch and into the afternoon. I just got back from it, and wanted to write out a few reflections before I get busy again or forget. None of these are very insightful, but even regular truths can be important to remember. Here are four.

Giving a platform to black people does not require us to stoop low. Sometimes it is thought that picking speakers “because diversity” means that more qualified white people are left out. I sometimes think this. But today reminds me that there are equally-qualified black people who can speak and lead. I was thinking about this throughout the program, which intentionally had a diverse speaking lineup. I also thought about this earlier in the morning as I read an article from Thabiti Anyabwile on the TGC website. He is such a qualified speaker and writer. I ask myself, “why aren’t there any theologically conservative black pastors?” but the answer is clearly “they are out there, but we don’t usually listen to them.” Maybe another Kevin DeYoung or Matt Chandler lies in the wings, but if they are, they will rise up anyways. So, give black people the platform every once in a while. Even if it hurts our pride and feelings of supremacy, it won’t hurt the message preached.

Justice can require personal sacrifice. Today I sacrificed four and half hours of my time, and the opportunity to finish an essay that could have won me $250 in a paper competition on campus. Those sting. But getting to hear the perspective of my black peers outweighs the loss. Being there, as a white student, means something — that their voices aren’t just bouncing around an echo chamber. But man I wanted to submit that paper. I spent the past week on it, and 10:00-1:30 this morning at O’Hare while I waited for my ride, writing the paper. The clear parable, obviously, is that you should do what you can for racial justice even if it stings. Also I’d add that justice can require getting uncomfortable, like talking to people you don’t really know (e.g., every black student and every white student on campus to each other). Or it could mean not speaking up to share my opinion, when I’m the boisterous, extroverted, verbal-processing guy who always speaks up.

Love remains the motivation. The middle of the program was a reading of King’s “Paul’s Letter to the American Church.” Here is the text, it is worth reading. He mimics Paul’s tone and style but addresses the American Church in the 1950’s, not Rome in the 0050’s. Near the end he gets around to reframing the Love passage from 1 Corinthians 13 into his day. Here’s the relevant bit:

I must bring my writing to a close now. Timothy is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another church. But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.

So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you “speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.

But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.

Maybe this can be added to the list of differences between King and Malcolm X. I think it also stands in sharp contrast to the way that people think about racial issues today. Today we think of protesters and activists who are frustrated with the system, who say disparaging things about “white people” generally (though often this is a misinterpretation of the point being made), who are more about getting justice by putting down the privileged classes rather than getting justice by expressing love to them. Here is a fair example of what I think King would do today. This comes from love, not resentment.

Its also worth pointing out that love for a black person as such isn’t really love of them, its a love of their skin color and upbringing. Which is not really love for them. So while this doesn’t scale on to the policy level, it does apply on a person-to-person level. It applies for me in the Trinity community. I’m really open to being friends with black students on campus (current number of black friends = zero) (and that is not unique to me or below average for white students). But I’ve got to make sure that it is because of them themselves, not some heteronomous factor like my belief in diversity.

Racial justice is not just secular. During this morning’s daily perusal through the TGC website I also read Russell Moore’s new post about Dr. King. Here is the relevant bit:

King’s understanding of human dignity was founded upon the Christian Scriptures. As the struggle for civil rights advanced on multiple fronts, he spoke courageously from this foundation. In the political realm, Dr. King pointed out how the American system was inconsistent with Jeffersonian principles of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Americans had to choose: be an American (as defined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both.

But the civil rights movement was, at its core, also an ecclesial movement. King was, after all, “Rev. King” and many of those marching with him, singing before him, listening to him, were Christian clergy and laity. To the churches, especially the churches of the South, the civil rights pioneers sent a similar message to the one they sent to the governmental powers. You have to choose: be a Christian (as defined by the Scripture and the small “c” catholic apostolic tradition), or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both.

Segregation, like slavery, was shown to be what all human consciences already knew it to be: not just a political injustice or a social inequity (although certainly that) but also a sin against God and neighbor and a repudiation of the gospel. For conservative Christians, and especially Southern Baptists, we must be careful to remember the ways in which our cultural anthropology perverted our soteriology and ecclesiology. It is to our shame that we ignored our own doctrines to advance something as clearly demonic as racial pride.

My public school upbringing did not showcase this side of King. But he was a pastor, and drew on Biblical imagery and principles not just as rhetorical fluff or pandering to a Christian audience; it is usually the core of his arguments.

Likewise our motivation for racial justice today should not be from non-Christian principles. Why would that be necessary? We’ve got everything we need in human dignity and autonomy, the spiritual equality of all people under Adam (and in Christ), a theology of the nations, and love for neighbor.

I am going to be a pastor in a few years and will stand face-to-face before a 90+% white audience to deliver my first pastoral sermon. That will be an interesting time. As king points out in the sermon above, 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated time in American Christianity. I’m not sure what I’ll do to seek racial desegregation in that church where I will work. I have no idea. But King reminds me that it doesn’t take much of a theological stretch for a Christian to do that. Just a willing heart. The principles are already there; will I do anything with them?

Certainty, God, Lived Experience, etc.

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As I veered wildly toward Atheism about two years ago, something key to the Christian life had been lost that I didn’t realize until later. I finally now have the categories to understand and explain this idea. It used to be vague and nebulous, but now it is clear.

The Christian Life is not phenomenologically possible without confidence in the existence of God. There are a couple of things to break down here. First, The Christian Life. This is the lived experience of being a Christian. Not the beliefs of Christianity — those are one thing. Instead, this is talking about things like the rhythms of prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and study. The community in which one lives. The subtle attitudes that emerge from believing the truths of Christianity. If the Christian message is true, how does that impact my day-to-day behavior, and how I engage in the ordinary things of life?

This is what the gross word “phenomenologically” means. Eliminate the suffixes. Phenom. Ology. The study of. The way that things appear. Truth questions can be asked separately from lived experience questions. My reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age lately has opened my mind up to this whole topic of study. What do things actually look like in practice?

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If a belief is “not phenomenologically possible,” then nobody can live like that. The belief does not work in practice. The truths can all be there, the premises confirmed, the logic holds, the argument sound. But if it cannot translate into real action, what does it translate into? My newfound favorite example of this is Calvinism, and by that I mean Determinism. Determinism is not phenonemologically possible, meaning that you cannot live as if Determinism is true. If Determinism is true, then you have no motivation to do anything. There is not meaning in life. There is not meaning in anything. Also, since there is no free will, there cannot be moral responsibility for things that happen. Who is responsible for my sin? God, of course, because he decided I would do it. But no Christian, no matter how Deterministic they are, actually lives like this. They avoid sin as if they are an Arminian. They evangelize like they are Arminian. So, Determinism is not phenomenologically possible.

Confidence in the existence of God is important. The Bible is straightforward on this.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6.

An important point here gets misplaced sometimes.

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As Christians, we are not supposed to have faith in the existence of God. We do not “have faith” that he exists. No, the Bible treats the existence of God as a basic given, and then moves from there. We “have faith” that Christ’s work of atonement can be applied to our account. That is what we have faith in. There is no real reason that we should feel justified that the crosswork of Christ would mean anything in relation to us. But that is what faith is.

The existence of God, along with “believing that he rewards those who seek him,” are treated as basic givens that must be true in order to have faith. But faith is not just “believe in God + believe that he rewards.” It is something greater than the combination of the statements in Hebrews 11:6. Something like “drawing near” which is an action, not an idea. Nonetheless, those two ideas must be true for faith to happen.

The Bible never seriously poses the question, “does God actually exist?” because it doesn’t need to. God is all over the place. He sends fire, he communicates directly to people, Moses got to see him (but only backwards?), prophets speak in his name and are correct. Prayer withholds rain from the sky for three and a half years, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and himself from the dead. God has created the world. God has put conscience in all people (“the gentiles are a law unto themselves”). The Jewish religion continues in perpetuity because of the promises of God.

Similarly, in The Christian Life, we cannot entertain the idea that God does not exist. Get it figured out. Decide. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Look at the Kalam Cosmological argument. The Ontological argument. How about the Teleological one? Recall from your own personal experience the work of God in your life. Become an Atheist, or resolve to be a Christian. But the worst of all options is to remain in perpetual uncertainty. Evaluate the evidence once, and then put the counterarguments out of your mind until, a few years later, you decide to reopen the case file.

moonrise kingdom narrator

I say this because all the great aspects of The Christian Life are impossible in the absence of such confidence. Without believing that God exists, you cannot have faith. You cannot experience the power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot encourage fellow Christians in the way of the cross. You cannot testify to the goodness of God, must less experience it yourself. You certainly cannot evangelize. How could you persuade someone to draw near to God if you aren’t sure he exists? You won’t. You’ll just give up on evangelism. You cannot exercise the giftings of the Spirit in the context of the local church.

At least, I didn’t. And I’m sure that my experience was not unique. Atheism may be true. But if it is, then you cannot also phenomenologically live the Christian life. And Christianity may be true. But without confidence in one of its most basic premises (“God exists”), it cannot be lived.

 

Flagged paragraphs from textbooks this year

Here are all the paragraphs I flagged in my course textbooks this year.

(“This year” is inaccurate; I gradually stopped flagging my readings as the year continued, and in retrospect it looks like all of these come from first semester).

 

Kenneth Berding and Matt Williams, eds. What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing. Second edition: 2015. 

19-20:

Daniel 5 begins recording the second story that is essential for understanding those living during the time of Jesus. Here we read of the Persian king, Cyrus II, who surprisingly overtook the great city of Babylon and her king, Belshazzar, in 539 B.C. Unlike the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire was more tolerant, allowing 42,360 Jews to return to Jerusalem. According to Ezra 1-4, an altar was set up in 537 B.C., and approximately twenty years later the temple, while far from the glorious Solominc temple, was reconstructed.

Imagine the flood of emotions as the Jews returned to their home and began rebuilding their beloved temple. Ezra tells us that when they laid the foundation of the temple, the people sang together in praise, giving thanks to the Lord for his mercy and goodness (cf. Ezra 3:11). Pro-Jewish sentiment prevailed throughout the Persian monarchy; and in 445-444 B.C., Nehemiah began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. These years were marked with great sacrifice on the part of those who resettled the land. While certainly not free from foreign control, the Jews were at liberty to worship once again in their temple and celebrate their festivals in the land given to them by their God. The story of the return from exile and rebuilding the temple impacted the Jewish people all the way down to the first century, becoming a rallying point for the Jews for centuries. As a result, it is not surprising that several generations later the Jewish religious leaders would not take kindly to Jesus’s threats to destroy the temple (Matt 27:40).

27:

The Zealots are the last of the important Jewish sects of this time period. Similar in many ways to present-day terrorists, these Jewish fanatics did anything possible to advance the cause of God in the midst of pagan rulers in Israel. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during the latter part of the first century, blamed the Zealots for the downfall of the Jewish people under Rome in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70. The story of the Zealots is important for understanding the story of Jesus and his disciples because Simon (not Simon Peter) was called a Zealot (Luke 6:15), while Matthew was a tax collector, formerly aiding the Roman cause.

46-47:

Matthew recounted that Jesus called twelve disciples and gave them authority to continue his ministry. Remarkably, the disciples’ mission would replicate Jesus’s in almost every detail: they would drive out evil spirits, heal diseases, preach the kingdom of heaven, raise the dead, and cleanse leapers ([Matthew] 10:1-8). Like Jesus’s own mission, the disciples’ mission would provoke persecution, but the disciples could rest in Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would enable them in times of crisis (10:18-20).

The disciples’ remarkable power and authority is to be understood against the background of the Semitic Shaliah principle, which maintained that persons sent carried the authority of the one who sent them. With this understanding Jesus was able to tell the disciples, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (10:40).

74:

Mark 8:22-10:52 is central to Mark’s presentation of discipleship. Within this section, mark repeatedly described Jesus as “on the way” (8:27, 9:33, 10:17, 32, 46, 52). He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die (10:32-33). While Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, he also taught about the way of discipleship, about the pattern of life expected of all those who desire to follow him.

In this section, Mark arranged his material around Jesus’s three predictions in which he looked ahead to his suffering, death, and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). Each prediction led to an action on the part of the disciples that revealed their lack of understanding. After the first prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus in response to his teaching on the suffering of the Messiah (8:32-33). After the second prediction, the disciples discussed among themselves which one of them was the greatest (9:32-34). After the third, two disciples, James and John, asked Jesus for the most honored positions in his kingdom (10:35-41). This angered the other disciples because they coveted the same honor. Jesus responded to each instance of misunderstanding by teaching about the nature of true discipleship (8:34-38; 9:35-50; 10:42-45).

133:

Jesus’s sacrificial death, however, did not automatically bring eternal life to everyone in the world. In order to receive that life, one had to believe in Jesus (20:31). John never used the noun “faith”; he always used the verb, “to believe” or “to have faith” (ninety-eight times!). By constantly using the verb, John emphasized the active response of believing.

The idea of “believing” in today’s church is often seen as an action that is performed solely by the brain, that is, an intellectual action. Belief certainly includes the intellectual assent to facts, but John showed that real belief in Jesus always leads to obedience. For example, it was only because the royal official believed Jesus that he could leave him and return to his son (4:50). It was only because the blind man believed Jesus that he went to the pool of Siloam to wash (9:7, 38).

 

Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2002.

105:

‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD,
‘when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.’
(Jeremiah 31:31)

This covenant will not be a completely new start. God is not abandoning the promises he has made in the past. But how can he fulfill those promises to bless his people? In his faithfulness, he must do so if he is to keep his word. And yet he is also bound to punish the Israelites if they disobey him. So how can he bless them, given their continued sinfulness? The new covenant will make this possible. It will be unbreakable. God will find a way of dealing with sin, so that all his people will be forgiven and know God intimately. he will change them from within: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (31:33). Ezekiel and Joel make it clear that this is a promise of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of all God’s people (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-32). This new covenant was to be inaugurated by Jesus’s death. When he took the cup at the last supper he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’ (Luke 22:20).

114-115:

The New Testament never leads us to expect that there will be any fulfillment of the Old Testament promises other than their fulfillment in Christ… We are not encouraged, for example, to look for their fulfillment in the State of Israel and to expect a new temple to be built there. That is to expect a renewal of the model that has now been dismantled. The permanent reality is found in Christ. Graeme Goldsworthy has put it like this: ‘For the New Testament the interpretation of the Old Testament is not “literal” but “Christological”. That is to say that the coming of Christ transforms all the kingdom terms of the Old Testament into gospel reality.’

Another writer draws an analogy with a father a century ago, who promises his young son that he will give him a horse on his twenty-first birthday. Cars are subsequently invented, and so, when the birthday finally comes, the boy is given a car instead of a horse. The promise has still be fulfilled, but not literally. The father could not have promised his son a car because neither could have understood the concept. In a similar way, God made his promises to Israel in ways they could understand. He used categories they were familiar with, such as the nation, the temple, and material prosperity in the land. But the fulfillment breaks the boundaries of those categories. To expect a literal fulfillment is to miss the point: “To look for direct fulfillment of, say, Ezekiel in the twentieth-century Middle East, is to bypass and short-circuit the reality and the finality of what we already have in Christ as the fulfillment of those great assurances. It is like taking delivery of the motor car but still expecting to receive a horse.” All the promises of the kingdom of God are fulfilled in Christ; he is God’s people, God’s place and God’s rule.

116-117:

When Jesus is a child, Joseph and Mary take him to Egypt to protect him from Herod’s persecution. Matthew comments ‘So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son”‘ (Matthew 2:15). Some commentators suggest that this is an unprincipled use of Old Testament prophecy. The question is from Hosea 11:1, which is not a messianic promise referring to an individual. The original context makes it very clear that it refers to the exodus of the nation of Israel. But Matthew is neither naive nor unprincipled. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is deliberately identifying Jesus with Israel. But Jesus is different. He too is temped, as the Israelites were in the wilderness, but, unlike them, he does not fall (Matthew 4:1-11).

Michael Anthony, ed., Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2001.

28:

George Knight has cited seven hallmarks of a Christian epistemology. In a slightly adapted form, they are:

1. The biblical perspective is that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, the distinction between sacred and secular truth is a false dichotomy.

2. The truth of Christian revelation is true to what actually exists in the universe. Therefore, the Christian can pursue truth without the fear of ultimate contradiction.

3. Forces of evil seek to undermine the Bible, distort human reasoning, and lead individuals to rely on their own inadequate and fallen selves in the pursuit of truth.

4. We have only a relative grasp of the absolute truths in the universe. In other words, while God can know absolutely, Christians can know absolutes in a relative sense. Thus, there is room for Christian humility in the epistemological enterprise.

5. The Bible is not concerned with abstract truth. It always sees truth as related to life. Therefore, knowing in the biblical sense is applying perceived knowledge to one’s daily life and experience.

6. The various sources of knowledge available to the Christ — the special revelation of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, the general revelation of the natural world, and reason — are complementary and should be used in light of the biblical pattern.

7. Given the unity of the truth, the acceptance of a Christian epistemology cannot be separated from the acceptance of a Christian metaphysics and vice-versa. The acceptance of any metaphysical-epistemological configuration is a faith choice, and it necessitates a total commitment to a way of life.

118:

The art of teaching is reflected in a competent teacher’s excellence in balancing the complementary, though often conflicted, attributes of the teaching task. The teacher as artist is constantly working out the right combination of exhorting and complimenting, warning, reassuring, and supporting. The teacher must avoid the desire to control or to remake another person in his or her own image. Integrity demands that an artist-teacher should take very seriously the responsibilities of the career. Any marks of insincerity are displaced by a more thoughtful style marked by realistic judgement calls and underlined by warmth and gentle humor. This sort of sincerity can become warmly appreciated, even eagerly anticipated. Ultimately, it will come to reside in the learner’s own capabilities for self-direction.

126:

Contrary to the popular belief that the Holy Spirit’s voice is primarily a subjective expression of a person’s inner spirit, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit represents an objective manifestation of the truth of God that never contradicts biblical truth. While the Spirit often expresses himself in subjective ways within an individual, his voice can be tested as to its authenticity by comparing it to truth from the Word of God. The Holy Spirit’s teaching never contradicts God’s objective revelation in Scripture.

 

Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Second Edition: 2006.

60:

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to take this son of the promise to Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice him. Abraham shows that he now trusts God completely when the narrative informs the reader that he silently and without complaint carried out God’s request. The reader is left to make the connection between the Mount Moriah of the sacrifice (Gen. 22:2) and the location of the future site of the temple (2 Chron. 3:1).

76:

Attempts like those of a movement called theonomy to impose the laws and penalties found in the Book of the Covenant to contemporary society… are ill-founded and dangerous… They simply do not take into account the radically different cultural and, more importantly, redemptive-historical differences between Old testament Israel and contemporary society. Theonomy used to be an attractive lens through which to read Scripture for many Christians, particularly in Reformed and Pentecostal circles in the 1970s and into the 1990s, among those who looked with horror at the secularization of society and longed for a more powerful Christian influence. Fortunately, as we begin the twenty-first century this movement has lost significant influence.

The law remains relevant for today, however, as the principles behind the various stipulations are summarized in a general way in the Ten Commandments. The Christian is now given a specification of the law in the New Testament along the lines of the Book of the Covenant or the other law codes of the Pentateuch. The Christian must think through contemporary ethical issues with the Ten Commandments as a guide. How does the commandment not to steal apply to computer theft? How does the commandment not to kill apply to the abortion pill? Nuclear arms?

The New Testament, of course, is not bereft of comments on law. Jesus shows that he is God himself as he deepens our understanding of the law in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Certainly, the most startling news in the New Testament about the law is that Jesus Christ has freed his followers from the curse of the law (Rom. 7). Thus the law, which was never the means to a relationship with God, becomes for Christians a guide to God’s will for their life.

 

James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. Fifth Edition: 2009.

43-44:

Looked at in this way, history itself is a form of revelation. That is, not only does God reveal himself in history (here, there, then), but the very sequence of events is revelation. One can say, therefore, that history (especially as localized in the Jewish people) is the record of the involvement and concern of God in human events. History is the divine purpose of God in concrete form.

This pattern is, of course, dependent on the Christian tradition. It does not at first appear to take into account people other than Jews and Christians. Yet the Old Testament has much to say about the nations surrounding Israel and about God-fearers (non-Jewish people who adopted Jewish beliefs and were considered a part of God’s promise). And the New Testament stresses even more the international dimension of God’s purposes and his reign.

101-102 n13:

The scientific concept of chance is vexed. The Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy holds that one cannot determine with accuracy both the location and the momentum of any given electron. One can have precise knowledge of either, but not both at the same time. It is an epistemological principle. But many scientists, including Werner Heisenberg, drew ontological implications from the epistemological principle that are clearly not warranted. Heisenberg himself said, “Since all experiments are subjected to the laws of quantum mechanics,… the invalidity of the law of causality is definitely proved by quantum mechanics” (quoted by Stanley Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” in Chance or Reality and Other Essays [Lanham, Md,: University Press of America, 1986], pp. 6-7). The implication is that not only is the universe not understandable at a fundamental level, but the universe is itself irrational or, even, unreal.

Heisenberg, along with at least some other scientists and popularizes of science, has moved from ignorance of reality to knowledge about that reality. I cannot measure Xtherefore does not exist. It is just such a movement from the limits of knowledge to the declaration that we have no justification for thinking we know anything that constitutes much of the postmodern pattern of thinking… Reality has to conform to the human mind in a theoretically completely knowable way or it does not exist. In fact, solipsism “has for long been recognized as an inevitable implication of the drastic meaning of Heisenberg’s principle” (Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” pp. 12-13).

One way out of the dilemma was taken by Niels Bohr, who insisted that “all statements about ontology or being must be avoided” (ibid., p. 8). As Jaki says, W. Pauli agreed “that questions about reality were as metaphysical and useless as was the concern of medieval philosophers about the number of angels that could be put on a pinhead” (ibid., p. 10).

Another way out, taken by Albert Einstein and other scientists, tried to get around the principle itself by finding ways of conceiving how measurements could be complete and accurate at the same time. Their attempt failed. All that could be said is, in Einstein’s words, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” (ibid., p. 9). But this was more a pretheoritical commitment, a presupposition, than a conclusion drawn from successful theorizing from either laboratory or thought experiments. This then left the ontological conclusion to be drawn as many did: the universe is not fundamentally understandable (ibid., p. 8).

A premodern humility about the human ability to know might have prevented this rash and illogical move. Think of the apostle Paul’s caution (“Now we see through a glass darkly”) and then hope (“but then face to face”; 1 Cor 13:12 KJV).

The issue, Jaki concludes, boils down to a confusion of ontology and epistemology. “The science of quantum mechanics states only the impossibility of perfect accuracy in measurements. The philosophy of quantum mechanics states ultimately the impossibility of distinguishing between material and non-material, and even between being and non-being… At any rate, if it is impossible to distinguish between being and non-being, then efforts to say anything about freedom and determinism become utterly meaningless” (Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” p. 14).

134-136:

As in atheistic existentialism, theistic existentialism emphasizes the disjuction between the objective and the subjective worlds. Martin Buber, a Jewish existentialist whose views have greatly influenced Christians, uses the terms I-Thou and I-It to distinguish between the two ways a person relates to reality. In the I-It relationship a human being is an objectifier. “Now with the magnifying glass of peering observation he bends over particulars and objectifies them, or with the field-glass of remote inspection he objectifies them and arranges them as scenery, he isolates them in observation without any feeling of their exclusiveness, or he knits them into a scheme of observation without any feeling of universality.”

This is the realm of science and logic, of space and time, of measurability. As Buber says, “Without It man cannot live. But he who lives by It alone is not man.” The Thou is necessary.

In the I-Thou relationship, a subject encounters a subject: “When Thou is spoken [Buber means experienced], the speaker has nothing for his object.” Rather, such speakers have a subject like themselves with whom to share a mutual life. In Buber’s words, “All real living is meeting.”

Buber’s statement about the primacy of I-Thou, person-to-person relationships is now recognized as a classic. No simple summary can do it justice, and I encourage readers to treat themselves to the book itself. Here we must content ourselves with one more quotation about the personal relationship Buber sees possible between God and people:

“Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find Him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds Him who cannot be sought. Of course God is the “wholly Other”; but He is also the wholly Same, the Wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterious Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.

So theistic existentialists emphasize the personal as of primary value. The impersonal is there; it is important; but it is to be lifted up to God, lifted up to the Thou of all Thous. To do so satisfies the and serves to eradicate the alienation so strongly felt by people when they concentrate on I-It relations with nature and, sadly, with other people as well.

This discussion may seem rather abstract to Christians whose faith in God is a daily reality that they live out rather than reflect on. Perhaps the chart in figure 6.1 comparing two ways of looking at some basics elements of Christianity will make the issues clearer. It is adapted from a lecture given by theologian Harold Englund at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s. Think of the column on the left as describing a dead orthodoxy contrasted with the column on the right describing a live theistic existentialism.

When put this way, the existential version is obviously more attractive. Of course, traditional theists may well respond in two ways: first, the second column demands or implies the existence of the first column and, second, theism has always included the second column in its system. Both responses are well founded. The problem has been that theism’s total worldview has not always been well understood and churches have tended to stick with column one. It has taken existentialism to restore many theists to a full recognition of the richness of their own system.

137:

The full truth is in the paradox, not in an assertion of only one side of the issue. Presumably this paradox is resolved in the mind of God, but it is not resolved in the human mind. It is to be lived out: “God, I rely completely on you; do your will. I am stepping out to act.”

The strength of stating our understanding of our stance before God in such a paradox is at least in part a result of the inability most of us have had in stating our stance nonparadoxically. Most nonparadoxical statements end by denying either God’s sovereignty or human significance. That is, they tend either to Pelagianism or to hyper-Calvinism.

The weakness of resting in paradox is the difficulty of knowing where to stop. What sets of seemingly contradictory statements are to be lived out as truth? Surely not every set. “Love your neighbor; hate your neighbor.” “Do good to those who persecute you. Call your friends together and do in your enemies.” “Don’t commit adultery. Have every sexual liaison you can pull off.”

So beyond the paradoxical it would seem that there must be some noncontradictory proposition governing which paradoxes we will try to live out. In the Christian form of existentialism the Bible taken as God’s special revelation has set the bounds. It forbids many paradoxes, and it seems to encourage others. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, may be an unresolvable paradox, but it does justice to the biblical data…

Among those who have no external objective authority to set the bounds, paradox tends to run rampant. Marjorie Grene comments about Kierkegaard, “Much of Kierkegaard’s writing seems to be motivated not so much by an insight into the philosophical or religious appropriateness of paradox to a peculiar problem as by the sheer intellectual delight in the absurd for its own sake.” Thus this aspect of theistic existentialism has come in for a great deal of criticism from those holding a traditional theistic worldview. The human mind is made in the image of God’s mind, and thus though our mind is finite and incapable of encompassing the whole of knowledge, it is yet able to discern some truth. As Francis Schaeffer puts it, we can have substantial truth but no exhaustive truth, and we can discern truth from foolishness by the use of the principle of noncontradiction.

 

Michael P. Schutt, Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2007. 

20:

Lawyers no longer think theologically about the substance of the law and therefore are blind to the goodness (or wickedness) of their daily work, which might otherwise be apparent in light of Scripture and the teachings of the church through the centuries.

The failure of attorneys and students to think biblically about the law and their daily work opens the door for confusion about the lawyer’s calling and the goodness of the lawyer’s work. Does God have a purpose in tort law? What is a contract? Is there a biblical reason for corporations, and should I participating in creating one? For the most part lawyers don’t ask these questions about the meat of the law; that is, they fail to develop a theology of their work. This is a failure in the life of the mind, and it is a problem running through the entire church, not just the bar. A decade ago Mark Noll documented this failure in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

43-44:

The real problem posed by the law school culture is the insidious fruit of the two conditions discussed. After exposure to the unspoken amoral assumptions inherent in the law school climate, students are often deadened to the potential for Christian service in the law. They leave law school with a profound inclination toward a sort of spiritual apathy, fostered by the law school experience. It is a sluggishness about the pursuit of first things, about pursuit of ultimate goodness, truth, and beauty. Medieval scholars used the Latin term acedia for this spiritual sloth.

We are created to pursue the One who is good, who is the truth, and who is beauty. Our chief end, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to glorify him and enjoy him forever. This includes seeing his hand in the natural world, its laws and our duties. In our pursuit of the highest good, we pursue the good things and the noble and the true in the world, in our lives, and in our calling. Our stewardship of this material world is related in part to understanding that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Our good works are in this world; they are here are now. Our great joy is to seek and knock, to search with our hearts, to discern our calling to serve God and others in what we do with our daily work. To abandon this quest is to reject the very privilege that comes with being created in God’s image. Yet acedia steals that joy and wrests the privilege of seeking and knocking from our hands.

This is the joyless state in which many lawyers find themselves. One reason they’re in this position is that, as law students, they gradually came tot understand that any desire for eternal truth in the law should be suppressed as irrelevant. This is a form of spiritual sloth.

Thomas Aquinas discusses this acedia in the context of the sin of despair: “The fact that a man considers an arduous good impossible to obtain, either by himself or by another, is due to his being downcast… [I]t seems to him that he will never be able to rise to any good. And since sloth [acedia] is a sadness that casts down the spirit, in this way, despair is born of [acedia].”

In other words, acedia arises when we look at some worthwhile good thing as impossible to achieve. It is this very despair of achieving a worthwhile good that is fostered in law school. Recall that Judge Posner tells us that we should not despair when we renounce the metaphysical quest, because there is no mystery at the heart of existence “worth troubling our minds about.” Yet because we know that we were created to pursue that mystery and that our happiness depends on it, we do despair. And if we are told enough times that the good is unattainable or irrelevant, we adopt Posner’s acedia as our own and experience the despair that arises from it.

60-61:

I watched as Stephen, who had just turned nineteen, stood before his church on a Sunday evening service. “The Lord has gotten hold of my heart,” he said, “and I just want to publicly announce that I have surrendered to the ministry.” By this, Stephen meant that he believed that he would spend his life in “full-time Christian work,” that is, in the clergy. Stephen’s announcement reflects common practice at many conservative Protestant churches: young people who feel a call to a deeper level of submission in their faith are encouraged to “surrender to the ministry.” Thus they begin informal preparation for a career as a youth pastor, evangelist, preacher, or missionary. In these circles, there is little consideration — at least no direct discussion or instruction — that “surrendering to God” might best be accomplished through full-time Christian work as a physician, teacher, writer, or lawyer.

Most often, an announcement like Stephen’s comes from a young person whose heart has been stirred to deeper submission to God. This stirring may have little or nothing to do with career or secondary calling issues. More likely, it is the longing to respond to God’s primary calling to surrender one’s life, in every area, to God. Stephen and his church leaders simply assume that his secondary calling in everyday work, based on gifts, talents and ability — will be professional ministry in the church. At a time in their lives when students should be encouraged to broaden their education and perspective on the world, this “surrendering to the ministry” has the opposite result. The student narrows his or her focus to biblical studies or youth ministry, narrowing the options and focus during an important formative period of discovery. Rather than gaining a broad education and wisdom in applying the things of God to real-world experience, the student is often isolated from the opportunities to develop various gifts and talents. Even in churches where the encouragement to “surrender to the ministry” is not phrased in those terms and where the narrowing effect is less obvious, Christians often think of a serious call by God as a call into “full-time” Christian work.

66:

The gravitation of Christian lawyers to political organizations may be a sign of our narrow view of culture-changing vocation. Political activism is often a knee-jerk response to the cultural drift away from moral truth. Yet the culture is almost never changed by politics; the culture must change first, and then political solutions will follow. It’s not that political activity is wrong — indeed, we are called to participate in and influence our political institutions — but we need to beware of our own brand of social engineering, in which we seek to remake the culture in our image through political means. This is the very instrumentalism I criticized in chapter two for being at the root of a shift away from our religious moorings.

87:

Christian thinking must not intentionally politicize. Yes, the life of the lawyer’s mind usually has important political or legal consequences — of course it does. And if clear, biblical, Spirit-led, body-centered thinking leads you to agree with the Republicans, then agree. If it leads you to agree with the Democrats, agree. I am not warning against political involvement, which is one of the clear duties of the Christian. I am warning against equating truth with a particular political movement or goal rather than following the truth wherever it leads. One of the huge traps here is for Christians to follow leaders — presidents, professors, or politicians — because they are “Christian,” and therefore their ideas must be “Christian.” We need to worry about the truth, follow the person of Christ and his revealed Word, and stop worrying about the labels on others. Look to their conduct — is it right? Look to their ideas — are they true? Look to the fruit of their leadership — is it morally sound? We need, for example, to stop worrying about whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists or pagans and start faithfully evaluating their ideas and the consequences of their ideas.

126-127:

Many law students have the idea that the local congregation is unimportant during the law school years. This is simply one of the many little lies that flow from the big lie: I’ll never be any busier than I am now in law school. We need to get used to it, setting our priorities during our formal education so that we have habits that are worth keeping after graduation. Our interaction with church leaders is a great resource for us and a big help to them… Interact with leaders — give them the benefit of your thoughts regarding calling and scholarship. Law students must intentionally pursue belonging to a local congregation or parish. Anonymous attendance is not the point either: students should be involved in the in-going (singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school, assisting in the youth program) and out-going (visitation of the sick, working at the shelter or food pantry, volunteering with Christian Legal Aid) ministries of the local church.

155:

J. P. Moreland reminds us that the couch potato is a poor model for the person pursuing the disciple’s life of the mind: “We let other people do our living and thinking for us: the pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team exercise, struggle, and win for us. From watching television to listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and entertained.” This passivity is just one of the seven traits of what Moreland calls the empty self, constituted by “a set of values, motives, and habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that perverts and eliminates the life of the mind and makes maturation in the way of Christ extremely difficult.” Part of his solution to the empty self, beyond recognizing the problem and choosing to be different, is a change of routine. He suggests that our routines can be changed to “get out of passive ruts” and replace them with habits that create physical and intellectual energy. In other words, turn off the TV and the Internet!

171:

Leisure is not vacation, napping, or even retreating, though each of these things may play a role in our pursuit of leisure. Leisure is a condition of the inner person, embracing what God has created him or her to be. Like Daniel, we can exhibit a worshiping heart as we work out the lawyer’s calling. We celebrate our roles in continuing creation work, we reflect on what it means to be human, we stop and consider, we struggle with motherhood or fatherhood, we contemplate the sunset, or wonder why God created gnats. leisure, in its true sense, is the quiet consideration of what is true, good, and beautiful, and it flows from worship of the One who is good.

Both workaholism and idleness are the enemies of leisure. We can pursue work itself out of a true heart of worship, as workers created in the image of God. Yet when we use work to fill empty souls, to replace our obligation to set our minds on things that are beautiful, or to avoid reflection on our lives and purpose, then work stands in opposition to our callings in life. True work compliments true leisure, but work as a tool for fulfillment or as an end in itself is acedia in the same sense that pure idleness is. Spiritual sluggishness can take either form: We might choose to fill our hours with mindless amusement, seeking to distract ourselves from the task of reflection and contemplation, or we might fill our hours with productive task after never-ending task, seeking to numb ourselves to the call to reflect and consider.

American culture is beset with both problems, and, in fact, they feed one another. We are obsessed with work as the means to happiness, and we fill our non-working hours with mindless distraction or expensive toys. Cultural observer David Brooks notes that there are “two work ethics” layered into the American psyche. The first is the perversion of the Puritan work-ethic we discussed in chapter three, filtered through “the secularizing pen of Benjamin Franklin” and moralists preaching the gospel of work. “According to this ethic, it is through work, and our contribution to society, that we define ourselves. Far from being solely a thing you do, work is a way of justifying one’s existence, of fulfilling one’s purpose on earth, and of creating one’s identity.” The other American work ethic, “layered on top of this Puritan sense of calling, ” is that work is the means to “grabbing the goodies.” Brooks calls this the “abundance mentality” that believes that “fanatical work is always worth it, because it can be lavishly rewarded.” Rising class status is part of the goal: if your neighbor can “pull himself up to the realm of Lexus drivers,” someday you can too. People fill their lives with the pursuit of abundance, waiting to be grabbed like candy in a candy shop. “It takes a force of willpower beyond that of most ordinary people to renounce all this glorious possibility. It’s easier to work phenomenally long hours and grasp at all the candies than it is to say no. It takes incredible dedication to renounce opportunity, get off the conveyor, and be content with what one is.” This observation is a prophetic word to lawyers. Stop working to grasp the candies and be content with what you are — and first, take the time to discover who and what you are! This is true leisure, the last of the lawyer’s disciplines.

The Scales

[Originally delivered as a sermon to Grace on Campus, the Christian club at Hononegah High School, on April 13, 2017.]

scales from eyes

I’m thinking about the way one of my college professors uses a particular expression.

Whenever a student has a sudden moment of realization in class — they hadn’t understood something but then all at once they get it — my professor comments that “it’s like the scales have fallen from their eyes.”

I’m not sure exactly where he got this expression from, (though I harbor some suspicions), or why he uses this metaphor instead of the numerous others that relate understanding and wisdom with eyes and sight.

Somehow, some way, scientists can know how different animals see. Humans, obviously, because the scientists themselves are human. Dogs, because they can dissect the canine eyes and count the cones and rods, or something. The particular animal of this metaphor is the snake, which has a thick scale over each eye which prevents it from really seeing. It can see that things are there, like if you closed your eyes and tried look forward. You would have just the vaguest impression of light and dark, but no thing in particular. So it is with snakes. This is also why snakes flick their tongue out. Not just to taste the air. They are smelling the air. It replaces their mostly-useless eyes.

Needless to say, my professor is not the first to compare sight and understanding. The scriptures also use this concept, and I’d like to bring to your attention several distinct places the Bible talks about blindness as a spiritual and mental, rather than merely physical, process.

First let’s dig through Paul. Some important sections come to mind.

From 1st Corinthians:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

And then later on, into the next chapter:

12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness,and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Let’s take stock of a few things before continuing. First, Paul is talking to an audience of Greek believers who face a variety of issues. Some were practical, like marriage, lawsuits, and people disrupting the church service. But before Paul gets into any of that, he talks about this. Human understanding and reasoning. This audience is living in ancient Greece, keep in mind, the hub of all kinds of different philosophies. He wants to make sure they get this down first.

Second, the problem with Jews and Greeks. To the Jews, it is ridiculous to say that Christ’s death achieved anything. Why would his death have any impact on me? Shouldn’t my own death, or maybe the death of my property (rams, bulls, cows, etc.) have an impact? Why would someone else’s property dying, or their death, alter my account? Not to mention, how could God die? If Jesus died, then he isn’t God. The problem is that the teachings of Jesus upended their religious system of sacrifice and atonement. Jesus’s death is like asking your calculator to find 2+-*/2. Syntax Error.

The Greeks had similar opinions of Jesus, but for them, it was because they were wiser than that. The solution proposed by Christ would be simple, too simple; stupid, a question for fools, they think. Like answering the question “how do you solve the world’s problems?” with “a good deal of hard work.” That’s not enough of an answer. There is clearly something more sophisticated than that.

So both end up rejecting him. A stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Last, lets look closely at the final statement in these verses: the unbeliever “cannot understand [the things of the Spirit] because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” So, they are blind — not that the unbeliever can see things but refuses to follow them.

They cannot see at all.

They have scales covering their eyes.

Flip 10 or so pages forward in your Bible and find 2nd Corinthians, chapter 3. This is a follow-up letter to the same group of people, in more or less the same situation. Not much has changed since the first letter (which infuriated Paul, I’d imagine). Here is the passage:

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

And then continuing on into the next chapter a few verses…

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

As straightforward as ever, Paul is again arguing in this passage that people are blinded to the message of Christ.

This comparison between Moses with his veil and the Israelites with their spiritual blindness is a bit confused, in my opinion, because it’s compares general themes, instead of a 1 to 1 comparison, and we hear 1 to 1 comparisons more often. But here is what he means: just as nobody could see Moses’s face because the veil prevented them, so could the unbelieving Jews today [c. AD 54] not see what is really going on.

His language is explicit: people who have not “turned to the Lord” have something blocking their ability to understand the truths of God, and they “cannot see the light”. Here Satan gets the credit, but at other times God does, because in some way everything is at least partially is attributable to God. Yet when that person is reoriented towards Christ, their barrier is removed and they understand.

They can see the light of the gospel.

The scales fall off their eyes.

To make my point crystal clear: belief and unbelief are not as straightforward as being convinced that something is true.

If it WERE so straightforward, then I would only have to point them to this next argument and they would convert on the spot.

THE KALAM COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

__________ BEGAN TO EXIST
ALL THINGS THAT BEGIN TO EXIST HAVE A CAUSE
__________ HAS A CAUSE.

INPUT: THE UNIVERSE; TIME; MATTER; SPACE; ENERGY.

The force of this argument should be felt immediately. If the two premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. And if that conclusion follows — that matter, time, space, energy, the universe, or any other way you try to slice and dice everything that “is,” are caused — then they must have a cause which is not themselves. So, there must be an immaterial cause for matter. There must be an intemporal cause for time (i.e. never changes). There must be an inspatial cause for space. There must be something not made of energy that caused energy. (Though this is irrelevant because Einstein proved the unity of energy and matter with his equation e=mc^2). Put generally, there must be something outside of the universe which is not the universe itself nor is made of what the universe is made of, that caused the universe to be.

This argument leads all the others in most circles of Christian apologetics. William Lane Craig wrote his PhD. dissertation on this topic and has since written numerous books and articles about it. The Kalam brings us to the same point that Aristotle did with his “unmoved first mover” concept. There exists something with properties x y and z. Now, we are left with the legwork of connecting that thing with those properties to the Person we describe as God, and sure enough, the argument holds there as well. These traits do match the descriptions given in the scriptures and are precariously similar to Anselm’s or Paul Tillich’s description of God.

But this isn’t how things work. It doesn’t matter how logically structured the argument. The gap between unbelief and belief is not persuasion.

There is something blocking their understanding.

Their face has a veil.

Their eyes have scales.

I really hate to introduce another passage of scripture because too many can be overwhelming, or seem like I’m pulling things out of context. But this one is too good to resist.

At the very end of Luke two men are walking along a path and see a third one nearby. So they start a conversation, not realizing that the third man is Jesus himself. Now, I’ve undersold it already: they didn’t just “not realize” it. Instead, as verse 16 describes, “they were kept from recognizing him.” So that little verb, those two words “were kept,” means that this blindness is imposed upon them. It isn’t coming from themselves. It’s an outside force. Keep that in mind.

Jesus has just been crucified that weekend, and raised from the dead that day (or maybe the day before). So these two travelers start telling the third man, unbeknownst to them Jesus, all about who Jesus is and how he had died and rose again. And Jesus replies, picking up in verse 25:

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

And notice again, let me read it one more time, verse 31: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This, just like “were kept,” means that some outside force was in the way, not just themselves.

So what exactly happened here? Did these men have some crazy backstory of hating and persecuting Jesus? Later on Saul would be a good example of this, and another angle emerges there when you consider his blindness. But were these men ridiculous sinners, criminals, and such? No, it seems like these are people that had been tracking with Jesus for quite a while. These are the ones in close proximity to him. We don’t know who they are, but the text sort of implies that they are among the 12, minus Judas, so the 11. Yet these men did not understand. In their description of Jesus they called him “a prophet, powerful in word and deed.” But is that all? Is Jesus just a powerful prophet? Jesus corrects them and says “the Messiah.” The chosen one.

And their hearts, burning within them! The teaching of scripture lit a fire within their spirit. The passage records that Jesus went through the Old Testament and pointed out all the places that testified to him — that’s all he did — and inside them grew an intense passion.

Meanwhile, they gain vision.

They can see.

The scales are removed.

My own testimony happened in something of a similar process. And by process I mean all at once, in a single moment, without any duration or length of time at all.

Sitting on a couch in the youth room at Hope EFC in Roscoe, (and I can still point you to the exact spot), a few things came together at once. The group was studying the book “Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World” by C.J. Mahaney. Doug Juhlin was leading my small group and was asking us questions. The first chapter after the introduction provided a very pointed scenario:

Imagine that someone could obtain a transcript of every word you said this week, the lyrics of every song you listened to, a complete browser history of your internet activity, and a print-out of every thought that nobody else but you could know. This observer also gets to have the same documentation from a random, non-Christian person. If they looked over the documents, would they notice a difference between the two of you? Would there be anything indicative of a changed life?

You must change your life. This religious system holds to certain premises, and from those premises follow conclusions that must logically follow. You agree to the premises, Ross. God exists. You have offended him. You are sinner in the hand of an angry God. You must obey his commands. But will I follow those to their end?

What a profoundly Biblical concept. Union with Christ means that I must fully surrender, that ALL of me must be united with Him.

And so it happened that all in one moment I felt this impact. The whole gospel message finally clicked. Why did Jesus have to die? What does it mean for “Jesus to live in your heart”? What is the significance of faith in the life of a Christian? What is a Christian, as opposed to a non-Christian, if not beliefs?

I moved from being a James 2:19 follower of Christ to being a James 2:22 follower of Christ.

My aloofness was taken all in one moment.

I could see.

The veil was gone.

The scales had fallen.

This happened in late September or early October of 2010 and for the remainder of 7th grade I was on fire for Christ. My heart burned within me. Everything that I could think about or talk about reflected Him. I exclusively listened to Christian music, consumed Christian radio and podcasts, read books about Christianity (from a very fundamentalist slant) and got more and more involved at church. My attitudes in school changed; no longer the sarcastic, arrogant prick who was smart enough to goof around and still get an A+. (The classes were still easy enough to do that, but my attitude changed). Suddenly I was engaged in classes, I became an extrovert with social skills on the rise, instead of hating everyone and playing with my Lego blocks in the corner. I began to desire the things that God desires. My favorite book was a two-way tie between Romans and Romans. In short, I became the most Christian person I knew.

The rest of my story is long and complicated. Everything changed after 7th grade, and I’ve swung up and down and sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways, and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of.

In 8th grade I became depressed from a confluence of different circumstances that all seemed to pile on at once with no solution in sight. Everything being miserable and all, the pure joy of the previous year fell away.

In 9th grade I became worldly after the depression wore off, because now I was neither depressed nor joyful — just hollow, and I let that hollowness be filled in by influence of the wrong people.

In 10th grade I became build up again after I left those friends in the dust and headed for the hills. My accidentally joining the Cross Country team led me to therefore (and really, this did 100% follow from being on Cross Country) become part of the Christian Club. A set of upperclassmen together fixed their eyes on Christ and caught my gaze in the process. Winston, Shannon, Liz, Hannah, and the list goes on. Real discipleship.

In 11th grade I became busy, filling my schedule to meet every demand. My study of the scriptures became less important. My study of statistics, now that’s where my time went. Along with my other half a dozen AP classes, all of my clubs, my church hyper-involvement, and on and on and on and on.

In 12th grade I began to doubt. Over the previous year I had begun to listen to some passionate atheists online because I agreed with their politics, but I ended up gathering from them more than opinions about government. I downloaded their thought process, the way that they found truth strictly through reason and evidence. In my mental computer I followed the startlingly new chain of Start > Control Panel > Command Prompt > Run > Secularism.exe. Rationalism! Intelligence! Profundity! Reason! Dozens of objections to the faith soon followed and it all quickly spiraled out of control.

Do you remember the presentation in January of 2016, last year, during Outreach Week when we had Mickey Klink come speak with a topic like “Arguments that a God Exists”? Do you remember the buzz around the school that day, what everyone was talking about? They were all annoyed that he didn’t actually give arguments that a God exists. Instead he spent almost the whole hour talking about the legitimacy of doubt in the life of a believer. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said. He also talked a lot about presuppositions and the foundations for secular thought, and why those are unsatisfactory. But that flew right over everyone’s heads. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said.

In retrospect, and I didn’t understand this until at least 8 months later, I realize that he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to me. Every single word that he spoke was directed by the Holy Spirit to console, of all people, the one who organized the event. Me. I booked him as the speaker, I gave him the topic and prepped him on what not to say, I met him in the lobby, had a bottle of water for him, introduced him to the audience and everything. I had a great leadership team to help with the entire week, but this particular even was solely mine. Yet I was the one receiving the message, not them. Unbelievable.

In 13th grade, this year, I became passionate again. It’s the year of Jubilee! Seven years later and the slaves are all set free. Since I arrived at Trinity I have had those doubts repackaged and reoriented in a way that makes most of them irrelevant. A whole lot has changed and I wish that I could describe it all to you, but put shortly: in one moment, at probably 2 or 3 am in my dorm, I was reading the textbook assignment for the next day. The selection was about the difference between recognizing pluralism and abandoning absolute truth.

And it hit me.

I was set free once more.

The scales that had regrown over my eyes were gone once more.

You see, something strange happens in a public school environment that doesn’t happen in private religious schools. I brought this entire book with me to read a passage from it, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have time for that.

*

But essentially, here is what happened: I didn’t need to be a Christian to do Calculus. Alex Hartz could hand the same calculus problem to a hardened atheist and a selfless follower of Christ, and the only determinant on who gets the problem right or wrong is who did the homework — not — who believed in God. The same was true of English class, or Economics class, or worst yet, my classes at Beloit College that year. It did not matter whether I believed in God or not. And since school had consumed roughly 1000% of my life, I just began to live my life as if He wasn’t there.

(This effect is something described in depth by Craig Groeschel in his book “The Christian Atheist.” I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon.)

Here’s the mistake I was making. I mixed up two different concepts: that we all coexist together in this school regardless of our religion, and that religion does not matter. When really, we can coexist in the same school regardless of religion and I can still fiercely disagree with you. I can look you in the eyes and say “you’re wrong” and still do my math homework. 

Before time runs out, I want to offer some applications from all of this.

First. Let’s remember that sight is God’s supernatural work. We cannot save people, and we cannot even present the arguments in a way that makes sense. Because to them, it won’t. They disagree not because of anything purely rational — though they may frame the conversation in those terms — but because Satan and/or God is standing in the way. Instead, ask God to remove the veil. Only he can do that.

Second. Your peers worship one of four things. The God of Christianity. The God or deities of some different religion. Themselves. Or their college admissions counselor.

Most people that talk about high school students overlook this. They think that if a student isn’t religious, they are obviously a crazy party goer, slamming shots as if alcohol isn’t kryptonyte to the liver. Doing a different drug every day, cheating their way through tests and girls like their consequences will never catch up with them. Their social media doubles as an online MTV-if-ied 16 and Pregant of their horrendous moral choices. They look up to the cast of Jersey Shore.

This only tells half the story. In fact, an entire group of students– at my school, somewhere between 70 and 150 people, or 1/3 of the grade — are more religious than the most Christian student in the school. They could deny themselves and take up their cross all day long, but they weren’t following Christ. They would worship at the door of the office of their college admissions counselor. Complete and total self-sacrifice in exchange for the approval of this one person! That’s as religious as it gets! They would sacrifice four years of their life, all their passions and goals, and press through sheer hell. All day long, every day, every week, every month, for four years.

Puritans of all Puritans!

It’s funny, because on the first day of school, freshman orientation in 2012, my admissions counselor told everyone at a presentation that they should join clubs. Okay. Sure. Joining clubs sounds like a good idea. But she said that joining clubs was a good idea for one particular reason: because it looks good on college apps. That phrase, to my surprise and eventual frustration, would be repeated by students as a justification for doing anything that had the slightest chance of getting into that one school they’ve always dreamed of attending. It’s funny because when I applied to schools, and this is true for nearly all schools, especially the good ones, the application limited me to listing my top 5 extra-curricular activities. Only 5.

I didn’t even mention Student Council. I was the president.

This is outright sinful and I regret not only participating in it, but dragging others deeper and deeper into the system. This is outright treason against God and as such it is sending people to Hell. We must stop it.

This is the gutwrenching reality of what it means to be a human being: you will worship something. If God is removed from that equation, you will still worship, it is only the object of that worship that will change. God. A different God. Yourself. Your college admission counselor. Pick one.

Third. The Christian’s task is to beam the light of the gospel into the eyes of snakes. Your job, to continue this already crude metaphor, is not to anesthetize the snake, grab a scalpel, and cut into the eye-scales. Instead, take out the flashlight. Spread the true message of the gospel anyways. It works. God will change lives through your proclamation of the simple truth. We don’t need to “distort the word of God,” per Paul in the 2nd Corinthians passage. Nothing about the purity of the message needs to be improved. “On the contrary, we set forth the truth plainly.”

And by “light” I do not mean the Kalam Cosmological argument. This “light” is not the mere existence of God. It is not warm and fuzzy morality. It is not “family values.” It is the message of redemption, that you don’t got God because you ain’t good but God got good at gettin’ you and so propitiated the wrath destined for your account, switching your place with Christ’s, and accepting you into the kingdom. This is the gospel message. This is what we spread.

Because with it, God transforms lives.

Because through it, God reveals the truth to those without understanding.

Because in it, scales fall from the eyes of men.

 

 


 

*[The book is How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith and the passage I was going to read is this:

What [Charles] Taylor describes a ‘secular” — a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world — is the engine that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. As she attested in a letter about her first novel:

“I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.”

Even a faith that wants to testify and evangelize — as certainly O’Connor did — has to do so from this place…. [Paul] Elie… well summarizes that effect:

“We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by out experience, are complicated by out lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.”

Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded. Conversely, the Nietzschean dream is alive and well, and the heirs of Bertrand Russell and Auguste Comte continue to beat their drums, and yet Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert still make it to the best seller lists and the magic of Tolkein still captivates wide audiences. (p 10-11).]