Work Unto the Lord, Not Unto the Advocate

elijah-in-the-desertAdvocating for justice is a difficult business at the best of times. This is not only because we are fallen sinners, but because we are finite and the world is a complex place. Moral discernment takes hard-won wisdom, passion, and a great deal of humility. Acting on it takes even greater courage and care. Few places seem require this more than the painful struggles around racial reconciliation and justice, both in the broader culture as well as within the walls of the Church.

Unfortunately, it seems particularly easy for discouragement to set in at just this point.

I do not consider myself an expert in these matters, though I have written on them occasionally. Still, I wanted to briefly speak to one particular sort discouragement: that of the frustrated ally. I have noticed among some of my white friends (especially Evangelicals) who care and speak out on issues of racial injustice and bias (often in the face of opposition), a disappointment and weariness that sets in when it seems that their efforts go unrecognized.

This discouragement sets in especially when some POC (people of color) advocates speak as if there are no white allies trying to stand alongside them. Or as if the efforts of certain allies still aren’t good enough—or indeed shouldn’t be seen as true efforts at all.

At that point, for some the question can become, “Why even bother?” And I get that. I’m not white (Arab and Hispanic), so I don’t typically struggle with white-guilt about these sorts of things. But I can imagine a bit of the frustration, especially if you felt you’d sacrificed and were doing your level-best from the heart.

To that frustration I would speak a few quick points and one major encouragement that might be summed up as, “Work unto the Lord, not unto the advocate.”

First, if you’re aiming your efforts in part to please the loudest voices for justice out on social media you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Prophetic voices are not often looking to hand out praises to those who are doing work that is the basic responsibility of Christians anyways. Also, the prophetic mindset is often more keenly attuned to what is wrong, what is still broken and needs to be alleviated, than applauding what is going right with some. Third, they are humans as well, who cannot see all and speak to all things. Finally, you should consider that they might not even be talking about you.

Second, I’ll be very Calvinistic and say that, as sinners, we often tend to evaluate our efforts more highly than we ought to anyways. I know I do that myself. In which case, there is likely more to forgive in our best works for reconciliation than we’d like to admit in the first place. We need to not rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from these voices and to grow in our work unto the Lord, by letting our first instinct be that of self-vindication. They are not perfect, and they may be missing some of the good in your work, but the Lord can use them to sharpen us nonetheless.

Third, following this, we need to remember that all of our work is done unto the Lord anyways.  As Jesus puts it in his brief parable, at the end of all of his hard work, all any faithful servant can really say is, “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). God does not owe us for our hard work for justice. We are to work, sweat, struggle, cry, pray, and go to bed only to wake up and go through the same cycle over again, simply because it is the proper obedience due to our Lord who wills justice.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important point, it is to the Lord that we work. And this is the forgiving, saving Lord who is our Righteousness. It is unto the gracious One whose eyes behold heaven and earth, who judges the living and the dead that we turn our efforts. In which case, we know that even if others do not see our efforts for what they are, he does. And on the right day, he will vindicate them and reward them.

What’s more, even our most impure efforts he will forgive and accept, for (as Lewis says) he is a gracious Father who is never satisfied, but quite easily pleased by the stumbling first steps of his children. Indeed, Jesus says there is a special blessing from the Father for those good works done without any public recognition (Matt. 6:4). This is a special encouragement to work from a pure heart unto the Lord alone.

That said, we should recall we have already been vindicated in Christ. In which case, our efforts for justice in the world are no longer part of our project of self-justification. They are carried out in the power of the Spirit because we have been united by faith to the Just One, Jesus Christ. And he is the one who is at work in us, giving us the energy to do what is right whether or not the voices whose approval we seek give it or not. We love them and we serve them, but we serve them because we work unto the Lord.

Take heart, then. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Election and So Forth

Mere FiWe decided it was a good idea to talk about the Election and what it means. We had the full cast and crew for this one to talk about our reactions,the implications for the church in North American, Evangelical witness, as well as our responsibilities as Christians, disciples, neighbors, and so forth. We hope this will be a challenge and an encouragement. We know it was for us.

By the way, Alastair has written an absurd amount of analysis on the election.

Here are a few posts: 10 Sets of Questions to Ask Before Voting For Donald TrumpThe Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and EvangelicalismHow Social Justice Ideology Gave Us Donald TrumpFurther Thoughts: How Social Justice Ideology Fuels Racism and SexismA Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left, and A Crisis of Discourse—Part 2: A Problem of Gender.

Agree or disagree, there’s always plenty to think about with Roberts.

Well, here it is.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Why Is It Harder For Younger Generations to Commit to the Church? (TGC Video)

A few months ago, I was asked to film a couple of videos with The Gospel Coalition on working with young adults. In this one, I try to answer the question, “Why Is It Harder for Younger Generations to Commit to the Church?” I also try to seem not-awkward when talking direct to camera. Not sure how successful that was. Anyways, here’s the video.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity – The 4 Loves: Affection

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Matt, and I consider the first of ‘the four loves’ that C.S. Lewis discusses, affection. I think it was a smashing discussion, but that may just be me.

If you do too, though, feel free to share this around, or leave us a review at iTunes. If you’re interested in supporting the show (with money, that is), you can check out our Patreon here. We don’t make any money, but it would be nice if Matt didn’t have to keep losing it.

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Four Loves, Part 1

Mere FiC.S. Lewis’s work The Four Loves is a classic bit of moral theology and psychological observation, so Matt, Alastair, and I decided to discuss it. Our conversation today focuses on the first two chapters. In two weeks time, we will consider chapter three. So feel free to pick up a copy of your own and join in if you’d like. There’s still the majority of the book to go through with us.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Becker and the Anti-Hero Church

beckerI finally got around to reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Denial of Death.  Wow, have I been behind the curve. I’m only through the preface and the introduction, but it’s already been an illuminating few pages.

In a nutshell, Becker begins to argue that humans desperately crave cosmic significance—we all need to be heroes who accomplish great deeds of worth and value in order to have a sense of meaning. Cultures, by their nature, provide hero-systems through which we have the framework to achieve that hero-status. In some it is great material accomplishment, in others it is physical heroics, or literary vitality, or religious holiness, and so forth. Cultures are relative in the way hero-systems are constructed, but they all provide them, nonetheless.

Of course, writing after the 1960s and heading into the 1970s, the question that loomed large was: what happens when the major cultural, hero-systems failed? What happened when they were exposed? When it turned out that you could be solid, honest, businessman working for a corrupt corporation? Or that you could throw yourself on a grenade to save your buddies in what ends up being a senseless war? Or that consumerism might just be rotting away at your soul, so that he who had the most toys when he does, dies a villain instead of a hero of industry?

This was the crisis of the youth heading into the 1970s—at least from Becker’s point of view. We all still need that sense of cosmic heroism—a way to achieve meaning in our lives that sustains, strengthens, and drives all our actions. But what do you do when the cultural, hero-systems of the day have all been unmasked?

And here he makes a potent observation about the Church and religious faith:

“And the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it. If traditional culture is discredited as heroics, then the church that supports that culture automatically discredits itself. If the church, on the other hand, chooses to insist on its own special heroics, it might find that in crucial ways it must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time.”

-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 7

Written over forty years ago, Becker is still on to something, for better or for worse. Religion and Christianity aren’t totally discredited in the “youth” today, but by most markers, it’s certainly down. Something like thirty percent of millennials identify as “Nones”, and even the more specific, religious confession among the rest is far squishier, syncretistic, and self-consciously peripheral to the core of their lives than in the past.

This is why I see a warning here for the current church, going in two directions.

First, there’s a warning about the danger of a sort of Christian traditionalism that sees itself conserving more traditional culture, almost out of sheer inertia. The kind of “good, old days” golden-ageism that rightly praises the holy elements of cultural, hero-systems of previous generations (stable families, long-term company loyalty, visible religious confession, etc), but tends to be rather myopic about the various, short-comings of its compromises along economic, racial, gender, or social lines.

I’m painting with a broad, maybe unfair brush, but the longing for a return to the days of our parents or grandparents without a critical edge to the various accommodations and failures of the Church as a prop of civil religion, or the “moral, Evangelical, suburban lifestyle” will not help us here.

Of course, the danger we’re likely to be less aware of when reading Becker is of latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement. Seeing that the Church has been identified with older, hero-systems that don’t connect and even drive off the youth, there’s a rush to jump on any bandwagon and the ideologies attached to it, in order to show that “Christianity really does get (insert issue X)” so as to catch the wave. And that may work for a while.

But in the long-run,  there’s got to be something distinctively Christian about the way the Church invites people into a meaningful life that doesn’t simply end up being a version of their neighbor’s meaning-system with a Bible-verse attached to it–because when that goes (and it always goes), so does the Christianity that’s attached to it. Or, even more—if Christianity just presents itself as another version of the currently-appealing hero-system, then why bother with it? Today’s progressivism may be (and likely will be) tomorrow’s traditionalism. And given the vagaries and inconsistencies of history, some hero-systems considered regressive today, may end up making a comeback in the near-future.

So, for instance, it’s right and good to show that Christianity has a deep logic to it which funds the work of activism for broader racial and social justice. The gospel does have social implications along those lines. But when you do so,  you have to do the hard work of showing the way these currently common values are rooted into the distinctively Christian story of Christ and him crucified, or the way that the Church offers certain distinctive ways of approaching reconciliation and truth in ways that might run counter to the dominant, activist, hero-system. Indeed, that they’re not even really part of a typical hero-system, in that sense.

Otherwise, what happens when people get burned out by that system? What happens when you’re a failure within it? When you just don’t measure up? Or key personalities within the movement end up exposed? Or someone hijacks the cause for personal gain? Or the acids of deconstructive suspicion begin to eat away even at the struggle for justice? At that point, are there distinctively Christian practices and theological values of grace, forgiveness, Sabbath, or truth-telling, rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, that continue to fund this work in the Church even when the rest of the world has moved on to the next, big thing?

I’m not sure that will happen, but as with so many of the great, meaning-imbuing causes of the last few centuries, it’s a possibility. Christianity needs to have a message, then, that does one thing that Becker hints at and another that he doesn’t.

First, it needs to cultivate—at least in some areas—what Becker called an “anti-hero” ethic. This is often what some refer to as a sense of being “counter-cultural.” I say that with trepidation, mostly because of the sort of criticisms my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has noted with the cheaper appeals to it. But all the same, that sensibility of knowing that Christianity stands apart (even at those moments when it stands in solidarity with!) the meaning-systems of the world is important if it is to not get dragged down into with them when they sink.

Of course, even more obvious than engaging those areas we do share in a distinctive way, we’ll be required to simply refuse to go along with others. We will have to stand apart not only the way we do things, but in what we do and advocate altogether. The rush towards reinventing every aspect of sexual and gender ethics seems to be only the most obvious example. This is one of those areas where, yes, progress in understanding can be made to a degree, but unsurprisingly we will likely have to stand almost entirely apart and inhabit the freakish space the early church did in this regard.

Second, the even more radical move that Becker does not suggest is to show the way that Christianity up-ends the normal modes of cultural hero-systems altogether. In the cross and resurrection, Christ delivers us from the elements of the world—the typical, socio-religious systems of meaning-creation—and hero-systems our world offers us to achieve our own identity, our sense of cosmic worth, by introducing us into a new cosmos altogether.

In that cosmos, it is not we who achieve our meaning and significance, but Christ from whom we receive it by faith. By faith we are united with Christ and so participate in his life, death, and resurrection which reform the world altogether, imbuing it with its true meaning and purpose.Ours is a meaning and purpose derived, dependent, and secure in his.

Yes, we are invited into his kingdom, into his Church, into a truly meaningful way of living in the world, but all the same, when we preach that message, we offer people a Christianity that stands truly apart from all the meaning-systems of the world. It is a distinctive faith with a distinctive life drawn from its distinctive center—the Lord Jesus Christ. We are different because he is different. We are invited to embrace “anti-heroes” to the ways of life of the world precisely because Jesus, our hero, was crucified by them, rose, and conquered them in himself.

Soli Deo Gloria