My Three Study Bibles

study bible“Of making many books, there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

To read this, you’d think the Teacher was perusing a recent publishing catalogue, skimming through the “study Bible” section. Each year it seems that another one, or two, or ten are printed by the same publishing house, aimed at an ever narrower slice of the Evangelical consumer base. First, it’s the “Patriots” Bible. Then, it’s the Eco-study Bible. Or the Student’s Study Bible. Or the Red-headed, Left-handed, Immigrant’s Study Bible. And the standard-issue, ESV Study Bible for New Calvinists looking to up their game. The longer (and more cognizant) I’ve been around the Evangelical world, the easier it’s been to become cynical about the whole industry and the concept as a whole.

But then I remember my own study Bibles and I have to tap the breaks on my cynicism ever so slightly. You see, I’ve had three study Bibles in my time, each quite crucial in my spiritual and intellectual development.

First, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started a break-time Bible study with my friend. Initially, we just began to meet at one of the tables to read the Psalms together and pray. Then, more and more people began to join us, so we had to move inside to a classroom to read. Pretty soon, I got the idea to actually start reading a bit and saying something about what we read. Novel idea, I know. That’s when I asked my parents for a study Bible–because as many sermons as I heard, when I got to Romans and Paul started dropping “circumcision” all over the place, I knew I was out of my league.

So my parents got me the NIV Life Application Study Bible. Of course, being a life application Bible, it wasn’t very in-depth on doctrine or massive exegetical insights. All the same, for a high schooler looking to learn enough to share some insights with 10 other high schoolers at break, it was eye-opening. I knew the Bible was the Word of God, but who knew so much of it could speak to my daily issues? In any case, that was my Bible all through the rest of high school and served me well.

Then, came college. Without going into a lot of details, college started out as a dry time for me. Even though I was still in church, I was frustrated at God for some goods I thought he had failed to deliver even though he never promised them. Which is typical. In any case, around Christmas, I knew something had to change, so I started going to a new church and asked my parents for the straight NIV Study Bible that focused more on historical and intertextual notes. And they came through and bought it for me. And I started reading it every day. I’d pray, read the text, and the notes and even began looking up the cross-references. I’d make my own illegible, incorrect notes as well. And things started to come alive for me.

Of course, there were a variety of factors involved at the time including the new church, an iPod (no joke), and a Bible study with some caring dudes. All the same, when my life caught fire again, along with a call to ministry, one of the things it involved was a mass consumption of Scripture. I basically tore through that study Bible. Thankfully, at the time, I was hungry for the Bible as the Bible, so I wasn’t just skipping to the study note section (which is all too easy to do for some). All the same, I learned so much just by reading the text and all the helpful explanatory notes.

I’m older now, a bit more theologically-experienced, and I get the dangers of printing text alongside the text. But seriously, when I was younger, with no access to a theological library, or commentaries, or articles the way I was later in seminary, at church, and now back in seminary, those notes were an entry-way into a new exegetical world. And so, by the end of college, my second study Bible was tore up. I had to shelve it because of how jacked up it had gotten from overuse and carrying it around everywhere.

Finally, when I hit my MA, I got a third kind of study Bible. As it was more of an academic degree, I had to purchase an SBL approved NRSV one. So I snagged myself a HarperCollins Study Bible—which I preferred to the New Oxford Annotated one—and I got to work. This was a different experience, of course. There was almost no life application. Nor was an overly-“theological” approach to commentary the norm. All the same, it proved a trusty entry-way as well, into a more historical and academic approach to the text (with some of the common, boilerplate, historical-critical assumptions) that I would have to master if I was going to get through the degree. So I put some mileage on that one, as well.

Why go into all this? Well, for one thing it’s nostalgic for me to remember. Second, I suppose it’s to remind myself that a number of the things that it’s easy for me to get cynical about the more I press on in my faith (simple, Evangelicalish things that are easily distorted and vulgarized through marketing), had some positive purpose for people. And they probably still do. Taste-wise nor in theological temperament, I don’t connect to some of the worship anthems I used to, but there are a great many of them that are theologically sound and spiritually-salutary songs that I’d be wrong to scorn or write off.

For that reason, I can imagine another young man headed to the ministry deriving great insight from his first study Bible. Or the mom and dad without time to take a class in advanced hermeneutics, still looking to grow in their knowledge of Scripture in order to instruct their children in the Word of life. Or the small group, Bible study leader. Or the missionary without a book budget who needs a teaching aid through the Old Testament contextual issues. And so on.

So, I suppose, for all their possible flaws, I’m saying I loved my study Bibles and I’d caution against the sort of easy scorn those of us with a stack of commentaries on our shelves might be tempted towards. Though there are real dangers to be avoided and some egregious marketing practices to be condemned, there is real, spiritual value in a good study Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can I Drag That Into Church?

snow bootsThis last Sunday was the first time I ever went to church in the snow. Chicagoland had its first snowfall of the season on Friday night continuing into Saturday, immediately transforming the landscape, covering the last vestiges of autumn red, gold, and hints of green, into a dense carpet of white powder. For a California boy, it was all a bit magical. I’d never seen snow fall before–certainly not outside my window.

Of course, that also means I’ve never dealt with snow as a reality of life. Because it is a reality of life out here. So much so that you have to get special gear for it. Not only jackets, gloves, and boots, but gear for your car like ice-scrapers for your windows and shovels to move the all the snow the snow-plow pushed up against your car in the morning. And there’s not just one kind of snow, the lovely white powder. There’s also slush. And Ice hiding under the powder and slush. And the salt, that gets poured out to get rid of the powder and the slush and the ice.

Needless to say, it can get a bit messy, especially when you’re trying to walk indoors. No matter how hard you try, or how good your boots or doormat are, it’s difficult not to track your mess inside, without taking off your shoes altogether. And even then, if the snow has been kicked up on the legs of your pants, it’s just inevitable.

Which brings me to church.

Every week at church one of our pastors leads us through a time of corporate confession of sins and an assurance of pardon. This week my pastor Jason noticed the tentative way people were walking into church. “Are we allowed to come in like this on the clean wood floors? Is all the salt, slush, dirt, and powder too much of a mess for church this morning?”

He pointed out that’s the way all too many of us walk into church every week: “Am I allowed to come in like this? Is this mess okay in here? Can I come sit in the pews with all the slush, grime, and filth from my life? Is this sin too dirty to clean up? Is my mess going to stain the carpet? Do I have to make sure I’m gotten every single speck off before I walk through the door?”

The good news of the gospel is that God’s church is a place of welcome because the God of the Gospel is a hospitable God. Our forgiving Father does not require you to clean up your mess to come through the door. In fact, in the gospel, he has sent his Son out into the highways and byways to collect you from the cold and the slush you’ve been wearily trodding in. In baptism, he himself gives you a new set of clothes–his own garment of righteousness to clothe you. And he sits you down to be warmed by the gift of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Finally, in the Lord’s Supper, he feasts you on the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant.

So to answer the question, “Can I drag this dirt into church?” Yes! Of course, you can. That’s the only way anybody ever makes it through the door.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Seventeen Ways To Aim At God’s Glory (A Puritan Listicle)

watsonI usually have a couple opportunities a year to ask students the question, “What would you say is the meaning of life?” The replies are usually confounded stares, shrugs, or somewhat more knowing responses along the lines, “The meaning of life? Well, you know, that’s such a big question. How can we know such a thing?” Then, when they’re good and ready, I say, “Well, actually, it’s pretty simple” and I hit ’em with Westminister Shorter Catechism:

Q. 1: What is the chief end of man?
A. 1: To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Westminster helpful condenses the Bible’s answer to the ultimate meaning of life into one short, seven word answer. We were made to glorify and enjoy. That’s why God made us. It’s that simple. Everything in our life is somehow supposed to be ordered towards the glorification of God and our enjoyment of God.

Of course, that just raises a host of other relevant questions. Assuming we buy that answer, what is God’s glory and what is it to glorify God? Why should we glorify God? And how can we glorify God? Well, it is to such questions that the great 17th Century Puritan Divine Thomas Watson turned his attention in the first proper section of his classic sermon series commenting on the catechism A Body of Practical Divinity. I picked the work up this week and I gotta be honest, this is fantastic stuff. It’s rich, careful, and learned, but because Watson is preaching, the writing is just lively!

What and Why?

So what does Watson have to say? Well, to begin, he distinguishes the nature of God’s glory. First, there’s God’s own, internal glory, his luminous being that he possesses without any relation to anything but his own Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is glorious. But second, there’s ascribed glory–the kind of glory that creatures can “give” him so to speak, through their being and actions, that reflect or acknowledge God’s glory. It’s the honor we show him.

Okay, but what is it to glorify God? Watson says that “glorifying God consists in four things: 1: Appreciation, 2. Adoration, 3. Affection, 4. Subjection. This is the yearly rent we pay to the crown of heaven.” As we appreciate God, worship him alone, love and delight in him, as well as obey him in all things, we give him glory.

Inquiring minds might persist in asking “Well, why should we?” Watson gives five reasons for that as well. First, God gives us our being. He made us. So give him glory. Second, he gave us our being so that we might glorify him. That’s the purpose written into our DNA. Third, God is actually worthy of the glory. He just is that good. Fourth, everything else from angels to anthills glorifies God, so why not humanity? Are we the only ones going to be that obtuse? Fifth, we must glorify God. It’s really our only hope in this life of any ultimate good.

But How?

Well, now that those preliminaries are out of the way, the question becomes, “How can we?” If it’s that important, how should I go about this all-consuming task? I mean, I’ve got a job, a spouse, maybe kids, an education, and any number of other things that occupy my time. How do go about glorifying God in all that? Well, being a Puritan, Watson doesn’t leave you in the lurch. He actually lists 17 ways you can go about glorifying God. (And for those of you wondering, no, he doesn’t actually say “seventeenthly”, but he legitimately could.)

I’ll go ahead and just give you the abridged list, but it’s worth following up and reading the whole exposition here:

[1] It is glorifying God when we aim purely at his glory. It is one thing to advance God’s glory, another thing to aim at it. God must be the Terminus ad quem, the ultimate end of all actions…We do this…

(1.) When we prefer God’s glory above all other things; above credit, estate, relations; when the glory of God coming in competition with them, we prefer his glory before them…

(2.) We aim at God’s glory, when we are content that God’s will should take place, though it may cross ours…

(3.) We aim at God’s glory when we are content to be outshined by others in gifts and esteem, so that his glory may be increased…

[2] We glorify God by an ingenuous confession of sin…it acknowledges that he is holy and righteous, whatever he does.

[5] We glorify God by believing. Rom 4:40. ‘Abraham was strong in faith, giving glory to God.’ Unbelief affronts God, it gives him the lie; ‘he that believeth not, maketh God a liar.’ I John 5:50. But faith brings glory to God; it sets to its seal that God is true. John 3:33.

[4] We glorify God, by being tender of his glory. God’s glory is dear to him as the apple of his eye. An ingenuous child weeps to see a disgrace done to his father. Psa 69:9. ‘The reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.’ When we hear God reproached, it is as if we were reproached; when God’s glory suffers, it is as if we suffered. This is to be tender of God’s glory.

[5] We glorify God by fruitfulness. John 15:5. ‘Hereby is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit.’ As it is dishonouring God to be barren, so fruitfulness honours him. Phil 1:1: ‘Filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are to the praise of his glory.’ We must not be like the fig tree in the gospel, which had nothing but leaves, but like the pomecitron, that is continually either mellowing or blossoming, and is never without fruit. It is not profession, but fruit that glorifies God. God expects to have his glory from us in this way…

[6] We glorify God, by being contented in that state in which Providence has placed us. We give God the glory of his wisdom, when we rest satisfied with what he carves out to us. Thus Paul glorified God. The Lord cast him into as great variety of conditions as any man, ‘in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft,’ 2 Cor 11:13, yet he had learned to be content. Paul could sail either in a storm or a calm; he could be anything that God would have him; he could either want or abound. Phil 4:13….This man must needs bring glory to God; for he shows to all the world, that though he has little meal in his barrel, yet he has enough in God to make him content: he says, as David, Psa 16: 5,’The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance; the lines are fallen to me in pleasant places.’

[7] We glorify God by working out our own salvation. God has twisted together his glory and our good. We glorify him by promoting our own salvation. It is a glory to God to have multitudes of converts; now, his design of free grace takes, and God has the glory of his mercy; so that, while we are endeavouring our salvation, we are honouring God…

[8] We glorify God by living to God.2 Cor 5:55. ‘That they which live should not live to themselves, but unto him who died for them.’ Rom 14:4. ‘Whether we live, we live unto the Lord.’ The Mammonist lives to his money, the Epicure lives to his belly; the design of a sinner’s life is to gratify lust, but we glorify God when we live to God. We live to God when we live to his service, and lay ourselves out wholly for God…

[9] We glorify God by walking cheerfully. It brings glory to God, when the world sees a Christian has that within him that can make him cheerful in the worst times; that can enable him, with the nightingale, to sing with a thorn at his breast. The people of God have ground for cheerfulness. They are justified and adopted, and this creates inward peace; it makes music within, whatever storms are without. 2 Cor 1:1. I Thess 1:1

[10] We glorify God, by standing up for his truths. Much of God’s glory lies in his truth. God has intrusted us with his truth, as a master intrusts his servant with his purse to keep. We have not a richer jewel to trust God with than our souls, nor has God a richer jewel to trust us with than his truth. Truth is a beam that shines from God. Much of his glory lies in his truth. When we are advocates for truth we glorify God…

[II] We glorify God, by praising him. Doxology, or praise, is a God-exalting work…Though nothing can add to God’s essential glory, yet praise exalts him in the eyes of others. When we praise God, we spread his fame and renown, we display the trophies of his excellency. In this manner the angels glorify him; they are the choristers of heaven, and do trumpet forth his praise. Praising God is one of the highest and purest acts of religion. In prayer we act like men; in praise we act like angels. Believers are called ‘temples of God.’ I Cor 3:16. When our tongues praise, then the organs in God’s spiritual temple are sounding…

[12] We glorify God, by being zealous for his name...Zeal is a mixed affection, a compound of love and anger; it carries forth our love to God, and our anger against sin in an intense degree. Zeal is impatient of God’s dishonour; a Christian fired with zeal, takes a dishonour done to God worse than an injury done to himself…Our Saviour Christ thus glorified his Father; he, being baptized with a spirit of zeal, drove the money-changers out of the temple. John 2:14-17. ‘The zeal of thine house has eaten me up.

[13] We glorify God, when we have an eye to God in our natural and in our civil actions. In our natural actions; in eating and drinking. I Cor 10:0I. ‘Whether therefore ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.’ A gracious person holds the golden bridle of temperance; he takes his meat as a medicine to heal the decays of nature, that he may be the fitter, by the strength he receives, for the service of God; he makes his food, not fuel for lust, but help to duty. In buying and selling, we do all to the glory of God…We glorify God, when we have an eye to God in all our civil and natural actions, and do nothing that may reflect any blemish on religion.

[14] We glorify God by labouring to draw others to God; by seeking to convert others, and so make them instruments of glorifying God. We should be both diamonds and loadstones; diamonds for the lustre of grace, and loadstones for attractive virtue in drawing others to Christ.

[15] We glorify God in a high degree when we suffer for God, and seal the gospel with our blood.John 21:18, 19. ‘When thou shalt be old, another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not: this spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.’ God’s glory shines in the ashes of his martyrs…

[16] We glorify God, when we give God the glory of all that we doWe glorify God, when we sacrifice the praise and glory of all to God. I Cor 15:50. ‘I laboured more abundantly than they all,’ a speech, one would think, savoured of pride; but the apostle pulls the crown from his own head, and sets it upon the head of free grace: ‘yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’

[17] We glorify God by a holy life. Though the main work of religion lies in the heart, yet our light must so shine that others may behold it…When the saints, who are called jewels, cast a sparkling lustre of holiness in the eyes of the world, then they ‘walk as Christ walked.’ I John 2:6. When they live as if they had seen the Lord with bodily eyes, and been with him upon the mount, they adorn religion, and bring revenues of glory to the crown of heaven.

Watson keeps going through the many uses we can put this to as well as the various ways we can enjoy God, but this seems like quite enough material enough for now. Certainly Watson shows us that there isn’t an inch of our life, time, energies, affection, living or dying, that can’t be turned to the glory of God. So what are you waiting for? Get to glorifying!

Soli Deo Gloria

Either Way You’re Gonna Get Cut

vine“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” -John 15:1-2

Jesus tells us here that, whether you bear fruit or you don’t bear fruit, either way, you’re gonna get cut. “Come again?” If you’re someone just sitting in church, hearing the Gospel but not responding, not growing, not developing the faith and showing no signs of spiritual life you’re going to be cut by the Lord. AND, if you’re someone who has responded in faith, is growing, developing, deepening in your love by the Spirit’s power, and showing the good fruit of good works, you’re going to be cut by the Lord. This is straight from Jesus’ mouth.

The Gardener, The Vine, and the vines
But why? Because God is a Gardener, the Great Vine-dresser attending to the health and growth of the Church which draws its life from the Son, the True Vine. To get where this is going, you have to understand the image of the vine. The image Jesus uses here is one drawn from the OT. Israel is often compared to a vine that gives or does not give the fruit of true obedience. Here, Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine, the one that Israel was always supposed to be. He will do all that Israel should have done and be all that Israel should have been.

Now, building on that, he compares as branches that have been grafted onto a good vine. As Calvin reminds us, Jesus is using this image to tell us “that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength  — proceeds from himself alone. Hence it follows, that the nature of man is unfruitful and destitute of everything good; because no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him.” (Commentary on John 15:1)  On our own, we can do some relatively (outwardly) good things, yes, but to work truly spiritual works, those that are pleasing to the Father, producing true fruit, we need to be dependently drawing on the grace of the Son. In other words, the goodness of the Messiah only flows to us as we’ve been made a part of his people, being united by faith with Christ.

Here’s the thing, when you’ve been around long enough, you start to see that there two kinds of branches appearing to be connected to the vine. There are some branches that bear fruit and some that apparently have only been outwardly grafted on. Some people have joined up with the Messiah outwardly, but never started to draw life from him. Instead, at best they’re harmlessly taking up space on the branch, or at worst, they’re impeding the growth of the other branches. Others have taken hold of Christ by faith, or rather been grasped by Christ, and they’ve begun to take on the character of the original vine and are producing real fruit.

Thing is, as a good gardener, God cuts both. The dead branches get cut to clear them away for the health of the whole. If it’s not growing and giving off fruit, it’s dead wood.  The live vines he prunes so that they might give more fruit.

The Cutting Tool
Now, the interesting thing is that he uses the same tool to do it: adversity. It doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, but I think it’s a legitimate inference from the surrounding context. Jesus is preparing his disciples to deal with his absence. He talks to them about the comfort of the Holy Spirit, their need to remain in him, the opposition they’re going to face in life because of his name, and so forth. One of the main themes of the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17), is comfort in the face of adversity.

Adversity will often-times reveal the character of our faith; is it merely superficial, that of dead branches, or deep and true, one that draws life from the vine? How do we react when the bills start stacking up? Or marriage stresses? Or a difficult semester? Maybe a break-up? Divorce? Death? An unruly child? A church community divided against itself? Hostility from co-workers? Unrelenting health issues? I could go on for pages here, but you all know the adversity that life brings–the cuts.

And the cuts reveal the character. So, when adversity hits, do we get bitter, or cling harder? Do we shake our fist up at God for “failing” to give us what he never promised, or dig deeper into the gospel-blessings that he has provided for us in Christ? Do we feel robbed by God, or held by God? Does our faith deepen and grow, or die and grow cold? Do we strive for greater obedience and hope, or plunge ourselves into rebellious apathy? Will the cut lead to death, or deeper life? The same cut, the same adversity reveals the nature of the branch.

Believers need to know that Jesus never promises protection from the ordinary troubles of life, or the particular problems that attend with following him in the world. They need to understand that, so when the Gardener’s pruning tools go to work they accept it as the perfecting work of God in their life, instead of his careless abandonment. Again, either way, you’re gonna get cut–but for the person who has truly been in-grafted, they can know that the cuts come from the good hand of the master Vine-dresser whose aim is to cut away the dead parts of your life. We need those cuts so that the new, true life of Christ can flow more freely and result in even great fruits of righteousness and life. Trust the Gardener when the cut comes and remain in the Vine.

Soli Deo Gloria

Salvation in Living Color

Rembrandt sketchHebrews 10:1 says that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”

Commenting on this truth, Calvin expands on the relation between Law and Gospel given in this verse:

He has borrowed this similitude from the pictorial art; for a shadow here is in a sense different from what it has in Colossians 2:17; where he calls the ancient rites or ceremonies shadows, because they did not possess the real substance of what they represented. But he now says that they were like rude lineaments, which shadow forth the perfect picture; for painters, before they introduce the living colors by the pencil, are wont to mark out the outlines of what they intend to represent. This indistinct representation is called by the Greeks σκιαγραφία, which you might call in Latin, “umbratilem“, shadowy. The Greeks had also the εἰκὼν, the full likeness. Hence also “eiconia” are called images (imagines) in Latin, which represent to the life the form of men or of animals or of places.

The difference then which the Apostle makes between the Law and the Gospel is this, — that under the Law was shadowed forth only in rude and imperfect lines what is under the Gospel set forth in living colors and graphically distinct. He thus confirms again what he had previously said, that the Law was not useless, nor its ceremonies unprofitable. For though there was not in them the image of heavenly things, finished, as they say, by the last touch of the artist; yet the representation, such as it was, was of no small benefit to the fathers; but still our condition is much more favorable. We must however observe, that the things which were shown to them at a distance are the same with those which are now set before our eyes. Hence to both the same Christ is exhibited, the same righteousness, sanctification, and salvation; and the difference only is in the manner of painting or setting them forth.

 –Commentary on Hebrews 10:1

rembrandt-paintingMy wife and I went to the Getty Museum a couple of years ago to see the Rembrandt exhibit. There was a room full of his marvelous sketches, each one distinct and the result of crushing brilliance. I could have studied them for hours to great profit. And yet, when we stepped into the room with his finished products, the difference was unmistakable. Where before was the outline, here was the fullness, the brilliance, the subtle extravagance of his handiwork. Both unmistakably came from the same hand, while the one clearly outshone the other.

Calvin tells us here that in the same way, the Law is good and true, pointing forward to Christ. But the Gospel sets out a salvation in “living colors” that is “graphically distinct”, where there were only “lineaments” before. As different and superior as the sketch is to the finished product, so Christ’s work is from the sacrifices that prefigured it. In fact, I would argue that that even that picture falls short of what Hebrews or Calvin are teaching us here. Instead, as far as the sketch is from the living model, so the shadow of heavenly realities found in the Law, while faithful, inevitably falls short of the beauty of our living, breathing salvation in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. It’s even worse when you’re ‘unique’. Paul David Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual; impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. —Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, pg. 164

unique2While it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair

I remember when this point flooded my mind with light in college. It was a particularly angsty time for me; school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I had just met my future, life-long friend, Kierkegaard and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death–probably my favorite of the pseudonymous works–and he was tracing the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our understanding of ourselves. In a particularly eye-opening section, he points out that pride can take many forms, even the devious negative pride of thinking you’re beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking that no one understands–not even God. I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse, post-Hegelian language to expose my folly–to prise open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained, beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be twenty again (shudders).

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that, in fact, people do understand. Maybe not each particular person knows your particular pain–the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless. Still, someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, and failed as spectacularly, maybe even more so, as you. The good news is that you’re not unique. You don’t have to grieve alone or heal alone.  

Jesus, the High Priest and Our Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this is particularly true for the Christian:

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(2:10, 14-18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside of us. In the Incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all that we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even then, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation–in order to resist it, he had to bear it’s full weight.) Jesus knows our pain. Jesus knows our suffering. He knows our struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, being human alongside of us, tasting the full range of human experiences and loss, even to the point of death, so that he could overcome it. Bottom-line is the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix it. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery, but a company, a whole world-wide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside of in the church. Your local church is full of ‘unique’ people just like you. People with deep scars that Jesus is healing, broken hearts that Jesus is mending, histories of slavery that Jesus is redeeming, and lonely silences that Jesus is speaking into. It’s kind of like I told one of my students the other day, “Everybody here has a story just like yours. It’s just the details that are different.” And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories, all the broken twists and turns, to speak grace into the lives of his children by His Spirit.

Break the Silence

Coming back Tripp’s quote, the point is you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin–you’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to somebody. Let someone in on your anger issue. Talk to someone about the family trauma that’s tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Finally admit to the absolute terror you experience whenever you think about your future. Invite someone to know where you’re really at. It’s only when we confess what’s truly going on in our hearts and lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort and the healing can truly begin.

The long and the short of it is you don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The Gospel means that you can be saved just like everyone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Mark, and the God You’d Never Notice

Let's be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

Let’s be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

For those of us growing up in church, we’d like to think we’d recognize Jesus for who he was if we were there, right? I mean, if we were in the crowds, watching him get baptized, we’d see it–the divine glow, the radiance of the godhead, the words dripping with holy wisdom–we’d never doubt. We’d stand apart, push others aside, let him walk by in his numinous otherness. I mean, how could anybody doubt? It’s just so obvious. He stands out head and shoulders from the crowd.

As R.T. France points out, that’s not necessarily the case. Writing of Jesus’ baptism by John:

There is no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself saw or heard what happened after the baptism (1:10-11), or that the crowd had any reason to identify him with the (mightier one) of John’s prophecy. No one else witnessed the confrontation with Satan and the animals, or saw the angelic intervention. All that people saw was an unknown man from an obscure village joining the many others who responded to John’s call to baptism. It is only Mark’s readers who, as a result of his prologue, are in a position to see more clearly who Jesus is…

For the time being…the coming one is incognito (and will remain so for the actors in the story, since the revelations of vv. 10-13 are not publicly available, but offered only to the privileged insight of the reader). John’s enigmatic words would presumably, in the narrative context, be understood as a prophecy of God’s eschatological coming; only Mark’s readers have been given a hint that there is a human (mightier one) waiting in the wings. –pp. 58, 70, The Gospel of Mark

Yes, eventually he would perform miracles, preach, teach, get crucified, and rise from the dead, but even then, you were making a decision about a man–a very normal-looking man, a Nazarene who’d grown up in a village not much different than yours. You were deciding on a paradox, whether this man, this contemporary of yours, was, in fact, the eternal stepped into time. In a lot of ways, Jesus is the God you’d never notice, and when you had, it was still up for grabs.

This is the kind of point Kierkegaard loved to press in order to puncture that easy sort of “historical” assurance in his works. As he pointed out, after 1,800 years, in the context of Christendom, Jesus looks pretty obvious. I mean, look at his impact on world history, right? He’s got to be truth; it’s so clear. But that’s not how we’re supposed to come to Jesus. At some point we have to make a decision about the Christ who is contemporaneous with us–a Christ whose claims, when taken seriously, are a bit ridiculous–indeed blasphemous, if false. We have to make a decision about a man at whom we might take offense.

Christians ought to be sobered by this thought in two ways.

First, if you’ve never been struck by the offense of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ claims, there’s a good chance you have not processed the Gospel. I’m not saying you’re not a Christian. It’s a silly, romantic idea that everybody has to suffer some intellectual crisis of faith in order for their faith to be authentic or valid. I’m saying that the message of the Gospel, that God himself has come to save us in this man, Jesus, is a bold, brilliant, non-obvious claim which confronts our human sensibilities at every level. It’s kind of like the ontological counterpart to grace: if it’s stopped astonishing you and converting you, or it never has, you may need to do some self-examination and see whether or not you really heard it in the first place.

Second, for those of us looking to teach and preach the Gospel of this Jesus, the paradox, we must be aware of our hearers. For those of us in the Christ-haunted parts of the culture where Jesus’ name still evokes a sort of ill-informed respect, or reverence, it may be profitable to inject a little Kierkegaardian-note into things. Let people hear the offense and decide on Jesus, not simply persist in their vague, pleasant, respect for him. On the flipside, many in the culture no longer have the feeling of 2,000 years of history backing Jesus’ claims, making him more plausible, or obvious to them. For them, Jesus is just another Jew going down to get baptized with the others who happened to have a lot of high-sounding claims made about him. In a lot of ways this is a blessing. We don’t have Kierkegaard’s problem of re-introducing Christianity to people who already think they believe it. We have far more first-time hearers than before. Still, that means the offense is live for them. We need to be conscious of that. If we go about our preaching and teaching as if Jesus was equally obvious to all, we will fail to actually engage our hearers.

May we never forget the offense, the shocking ordinariness of Jesus, the God you’d never notice.

Soli Deo Gloria