False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy (The Gospel Coalition)

@JeffersonBethke You are the generation most afraid of real community because it inevitably limits freedom and choice. Get over your fear.

— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) July 29, 2013

teenager-texting-kamshotflickr-300x199I hate going to restaurants with large menus. As dish after dish stares up at me, with tempting descriptions following one upon the other, the thought of choosing only one paralyzes me. I usually narrow it down to one of two options, and then, when the server finally arrives, I glance down and impulsively order something entirely different that just caught my eye. Or, if it’s a restaurant I’m familiar with, I just end up playing it safe with my regular meal. I dread committing myself to a food choice, making the wrong one, and losing out on all the other good meals that I might have had that night.

My restaurant anxieties are, I think, a small, admittedly ridiculous, microcosm of the problem with choice-making in our generation (millennials) in general. It’s not that we make bad choices (although, we do), it’s that we are bad at choosing. Period. Why? We have a screwy view of the relationship between freedom of choice and happiness. Americans value freedom and choice in general, but being the iPod generation who grew up with thousands of choices at our fingertips the problem’s metastasized a bit (which, incidentally, is why it takes me 4 minutes to choose an album to listen to on a 5 minute drive).

Now, taking too long to choose a song is annoying, but not really that big a deal. The problem comes with the larger issues in life, especially relationships. Being a millennial myself and working with them every week, I see this all the time. An inability to choose inevitably leads to an inability to have the real community we were created for.

You can read the of my analysis of  our cultural fear of community and what true freedom looks like over at The Gospel Coalition

Dangerous Seminary

dangerousIn a recent series over at the Gospel Coalition, a buddy of mine wrote about how he wouldn’t trade his seminary experience for anything. It was a deeply formative experience of learning, joy, life, pain, and spiritual growth. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. I loved my years in seminary, not because they were perfect, but because in God’s purposes they were key for forming my character and ministry instincts.

That said, seminary can be a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Addressing himself to pastors, seminarians, and professors within the seminary culture at large, Paul David Tripp writes of the attendant dangers when it comes to the way pastoral training is undertaken nowadays. He tells the story of a friend whose passion for gardening his roses led him to become an expert in all things concerning roses. He was technically proficient and knew all kinds of arcana when it came to the care and growth of roses. One day though, as he was working on his garden, he realized that it had been years since he’d actually taken the time to enjoy his roses without working on them. Tripp then asks:

Could it be that this is very close to what a seminary education might do to its students? Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it? Is it not important for seminary students to be faced daily with the personal implications of the message that they’re learning to unpack and deliver to others? Is it not vital to hold before students who are investigating the theology of Christ the frequent and consistent call to life-shaping love for Christ? Could it be that many students in seminary are too academically busy to sit before the Rose of Sharon in awe, love, and worship? Could it be that in academizing the faith, we have unwittingly made the means to an end the end? Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book?

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Kindle Locations 631-640). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

I can attest that in my own years in seminary, one of the greatest challenges was to see the text as something more than a puzzle to be solved, but rather a Word to obeyed. I’d be lying if I didn’t still struggle with having a devotional life that doesn’t immediately slide into some kind of study session. Resist this at all costs.

I don’t for a minute want to discourage an future pastors or current seminarians from digging in to their time at school. What I would urge you is the heed the warning in these questions. Fight to keep a real devotional life. Do not ever see the text simply as a task to be conquered, but strive to be conquered by the text. Open your study sessions with prayer and stop in the middle to pray regularly. Do not leave seminary with a shriveled devotional life.

Pastors, do the same as you prepare for your sermons. If this didn’t happen to you in seminary, it might happen as you enter the professional life. One simple but key question to always ask yourself after all the exegetical research is done is: “How am I putting this into practice?” Not, “how can my people put this into practice?”, but “how can be engaged with it?” Your studies of the text are not done if you have not gotten to the personal level, and eventually your preaching and pastoring, if not simply your personal holiness, will show the signs of this neglect.

If you’re a seminary prof reading this (which I’d be surprised at because there are much smarter things for you to be reading than this blog), please pastor your students. I loved that a number of my brilliant professors at seminary had also cut their teeth in the pastorate, and that even the ones who hadn’t, still encouraged us to deeper levels of discipleship, not just technical proficiency. Even if they resist you, don’t listen to them. They are the students, you are the professors: assert yourselves here. They need this and so do the congregations they will eventually pastor.

Finally, I’d encourage anybody in formal ministry, connected to it, elders, pastors, or involved parishioners to read this book. If you’re in seminary, it might help you cut off some signs of spiritual disease early. If you’re a pastor, it might save your ministry. If you’re on a search committee, it might help you know how to look for a pastor, not merely a professional. If you’re an elder, it’ll help your congregation care for the pastor you already have.

Soli Deo Gloria

Meet the Family

victoria_family_tree_1901Family trees can be fascinating. At some point we all get this itch to find out where we come from, who we are, or whether our ancestry contains some famous personage. We have this sense that knowing our roots says something about who we are; our identity is caught up in our heritage. I know for myself, there’s been a rumor going around that there is some Crusader blood somewhere up the family tree on my mother’s side, the Bendecks. I did some digging online–the kind you can do without paying money for blood tests and all that–and there might be something to it.

John Jefferson Davis points out that this fascination with our ancestry ought to be one more thing driving us to read our Bibles:

How do we understand our fundamental identity and purpose in life as we approach the Scriptures in prayerful meditation? Our sense of personal identity, either conscious or unconsciously presupposed, does influence the way we approach texts. If I am looking at a set of papers and hearing my friend explain her family tree and the fruits of her genealogical research, I may listen with polite and sincer interest; if someone shows me surprising new information about my family tree–that I am descended from some great celebrity from the past–then my interest is even deeper!

The Bible is, in a very real sense, my “family tree.” I read the biblical text not as an outsider but as an insider. Jesus Christ, the central character in the entire biblical narrative is not a stranger to me but–by virtue of my union with him–is my ancestor, my brother, and my beloved friend. “My lover is mine and I am his…His banner over me is love.” (Song 2:16, 4)

Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, pg. 80

This, I think, was one of the advantages of being raised in in Sunday School; I’ve always had a vivid sense that when I was learning the flannel-graph stories about the patriarchs, I was learning something about myself. In ways more subtle than a 2nd grader could grasp, I was being ecclesially and scripturally-formed.

In one sense, I’ve always known that the Bible is not about me. It certainly wasn’t addressed to me when it was written, but the original communities which formed the people of God addressed by the prophets and apostles; my name appears nowhere in the text. At a deeper level though, Scripture is not about somebody else, but intimately involves me because I am united to its main character. Because of that, when I read the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, I’m not just reading about Jesus’ royal lineage, but my own. If I am in Christ, then King David is my flawed but glorious grandfather; Ruth is my redeemed pagan grandmother; Jacob is my ingenious but duplicitous forefather. As Paul argues, by faith I am included in the covenant people of God so that I am one of the heirs promised to Abraham (Rom. 4). Because of this, the failures of Israel are my family’s failures as are her glories.

And this is simply one more reason we should want to read our Bibles–it’s how we meet the family.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom and What That Means for Ministry

Paul David Tripp explains the difference between insight and application, or knowledge and wisdom, and why that matters for personal ministry:

Most of us are tempted to think that change has taken place before it actually has. We confuse growth in knowledge and insight with genuine life change. But insight is not change and knowledge should not be confused with practical, active, biblical wisdom. In fourteen years of seminary teaching, I have met many brilliant, theologically astute students who were incredibly immature in their everyday life. There was often a huge gap between their confessional and functional theology. Students who could articulate the sovereignty of God could be overcome with worry. Students who could expound on the glory of God would dominate classroom discussions for the sake of their own egos. I have counseled students who could explain the biblical doctrine of progressive holiness while nurturing secret worlds of lust and sexual sin. I have seen many men who were months away from ministry who had not yet learned how to love people. Students who could explain the biblical teaching of God’s grace were harsh, judgmental legalists.

In short, we must not confuse insight and change. Insight is a beginning, a part of the whole, but it is not the whole. We do want people to see, know, and understand, but we also want them to apply that insight to their daily life. God opens our eyes so that, in seeing him we would follow him more closely. This means that personal ministry should not end too soon. If holiness is God’s goal, we must be willing to help others through the process of change.

For many people it is much easier to know what is wrong than how to change it. I may have confessed a selfish, idolatrous heart and seen its fruit in my relationship with my wife. But it will be harder for me to think clearly and creatively about how to repent and love her in specific ways. I may understand the major themes in Scripture, but I may not know how to use them in certain situations and relationships. We all need people to stand alongside us as we apply God’s Word to our lives. –Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, pp. 242-243

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Important Tips on Reading

One day I hope to look like this.

One day I hope to look like this.

I read…a lot. It often doesn’t feel like I read enough, but compared to normal people, yes, it’s a bit obsessive. (What can I say? I’m Reformed.)

In any case, while there have been a number of pieces of advice on reading that I’ve received over the years, three in particular have shaped my reading habits and formed me for the better as a reader and a thinker.

1. Read Your Favorites’ Favorites – The first bit of explicit reading wisdom I remember getting was from one of my future groomsmen, Scott Buttes. We were both at the gym and I was telling him how I excited I was about listening to podcast sermons by my pastor because I learned so much from them. I was particularly ecstatic because he had brilliantly gone into the 1st Century history to show how the Roman Imperial theology was behind so much of the NT proclamation of Christ as Lord, and so on and so forth, and even more excited that his new book was coming out.

At that point, Scott stopped me and said, “Derek, what you need to be doing is reading the guys that he reads and going to the source.”

Scott pointed out that Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher, but the commentator he read was J.B. Lightfoot. In the same way, I should look for the people that my favorite preachers read, and read them. So that’s what I started doing and it’s been crucial for my intellectual development since.

What does that look like? Mostly, it’s raiding the footnotes of your favorite authors. So maybe you’re a Tim Keller fan. Do you like the philosophical point he just scored in The Reason for God? Looks like you should check out Alvin Plantinga. How about his Christ-centered exposition of the Scriptures in Preaching? Guess you should read some Edmund Clowney. The list goes on. Basically, his books’ footnotes are a treasure-trove.

Of course, this starts to have a snowballing effect. When you start chasing the footnotes in the authors cited by your initial favorite authors, your literary and intellectual world keeps expanding. This is good because it keeps you from becoming too narrow. It’s good to have favorite authors, but as you expand your range, you begin to do your own synthesis, which keeps you from simply being a mini-me of your favorite thinker.

2. Read Stuff That’s Too Hard For You – The second bit of advice that follows is to try and read stuff that’s too hard for you. Sometimes your favorites’ favorites are not easy. They’re not always quick reads. But if you’re always looking for easy reads, even if you consume a lot, you’ll never fully work your intellectual muscles to stretch and grow.

Right after I finished college, I asked one of my professors which good history of theology I should check out. She recommended Jaroslav Pelikan’s 5-volume classic, even though she knew I was clearly not up on the subject. I love that she did that. She knew I was just arrogant enough at the tender age of 21 to tackle them anyways.

Now, I definitely missed a lot of what was going on. Nevertheless, the impression it left on my mind of the breadth and depth of Christian orthodoxy and tradition throughout the centuries has never left me, and, on top of that, prepared me for later theological engagement. (Not to mention humbled me a bit. Just a bit.)

This holds true in almost any area of knowledge or literature. Honestly, it’s okay if you have to pull out a dictionary or constantly Google new terms you encounter. That’s about the only way to get through anything by David Bentley Hart. I’m not saying you should only read hard books, just some more than you might naturally attempt.

3. Read What Interests You – I can’t remember where he says it, but C.S. Lewis has a marvelous comment about reading the books that interested him instead of the books he “ought” to read.

I think my dad understood this intuitively. He used to take us to the library when we were kids and he’d pick out one book we had to read before we returned, but he then let us pick the rest based on our own interests.

Yes, it’s important to read broadly, even those books that aren’t initially appealing. And yet, when in doubt, read what’s interesting to you. If you pick books on subjects you’re interested in instead of ones you think you should be interested in, you’re more likely to read even the hard books.

This is why I have more books on the Trinity and the atonement than on ecclesiology in my theological library. I happen to think they are theologically prior to ecclesiology, so it makes sense for me to read about them first. But I’ll just say that I initially preferred them because they were more interesting to me. Now, realize, I am interested in ecclesiology, even more than I used to be. But really, it’s only because of the training I’ve had disciplining my mind in the areas that interest me, that I’m able to approach the thicker material in subject matter that wasn’t initially appealing.

The bottom-line is: when in doubt, choose what’s interesting.

Hopefully these tips serve you as well as they’ve served me over the last few years.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus is Batman and Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul (Or, How Christopher Nolan Reminded Me of the Gospel)

Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul and Jesus is Batman. I made this realization the other night at the young adult Bible study I lead. We have some serious game and comic people among us, so occasionally little flashes of nerdly brilliance will strike in our midst. I prefer to think of it as the Holy Spirit’s little-discussed comic book habit shining through. In any case, it came to me as we were studying chapter 4 in the book of Jonah. But first, for the uninitiated, a little background on Ra’s Al Ghul.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Holy Liam NEESONS, Batman!!
The comic-book villain has had multiple incarnations over the years as one of Batman’s greatest enemies, most recently and famously played by Liam Neeson as the lead villain in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. (Late Spoiler-Alert: Liam Neeson is actually Ra’s Al Ghul, not Ken Watanabe. If this is news to you, well, I don’t apologize. You should have already seen this movie. It’s brilliant.) In this iteration, he appears as the head of the ancient and morally-ambiguous League of Shadows, a secret organization dedicated to rooting out evil and corruption in society, restoring balance and justice in the world. He gives Bruce Wayne some sweet ninja training, teaching him how to us “theatricality and deception” to fight the underworld, and lead the team to Gotham to clean it up. Great goal, right? Sure. The only hiccup is that by “cleaning it up” he means absolutely destroying it. More of a “Noah and the Flood” cleansing, than anything else.

As Al Ghul says, “Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we’ve performed for centuries. Gotham… must be destroyed.”

Predictably, Bruce has a problem with this, and refuses to go along. At that point, he burns down the sweet ninja training house, setting up the great conflict in the rest of the movie.

Back to Gotham, er, I mean Nineveh
As I mentioned, this whole background struck me the other night during Bible study. We were in chapter 4 of the prophet Jonah where we find the root of Jonah’s odd behavior in the first few chapters. I guess I should recap that too:  See, the “evil” of the great Assyrian city-state of Nineveh had come up before Yahweh (Jonah 1:2), so he tells his prophet Jonah to go preach against it. Then, in the very famous part of the book, Jonah, quite foolishly, runs away instead, jumps on a boat, gets stuck in a God-sent storm, gets chucked off the boat by the sailors, and then is saved by God who has a big fish swallow him. From there Jonah kinda repents, gets spit out on dry land, goes to Nineveh and preaches the lamest sermon ever, “40 days and Nineveh will fall” (Jonah 3:4), the city freaks out, repents, and then God has mercy on them.

Now, initially you might have thought that Jonah was running away from fear. Nineveh wasn’t a nice place. As one of the main cities in the aggressive, Neo-Assyrian empire, it was dark, pagan, cruel and imperialistic. The historical evidence we have depicts a culture drunk with violence and a lust for power. With a message like, “40 days and you’re going to be wiped off the map”, you might expect some opposition there. Turns out that wasn’t the main problem. Jonah wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s reaction, but Yahweh’s:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

(Jonah 4:1-2)

Nineveh was a desperately wicked city and as an Israelite, whose nation lived under the constant threat of Assyrian intimidation, Jonah wanted to see it burn. He wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s evil, but rather wary of God’s gracious mercy. In fact, he gets so mad about God’s mercy towards Nineveh that he wants God to put him out of his misery. (4:3) God questions him on this, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4) After an odd object-lesson with a plant (4:5-10) He calls him out and says, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11)

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

Yahweh is Batman
When I read that line I realized that Yahweh is Batman. In the movie Al Ghul saw only Gotham’s evil, but in Batman’s mind Gotham is a city worth saving. He would fight its injustice, but he refused to become an executioner.  Similarly Jonah saw only wickedness and evil needing to be destroyed, but Yahweh saw more. He certainly saw the evil, so much so that he threatened them with real judgment. Yet, he also saw people made in his Image so morally disordered (“who do not know their right hand from their left”), and far from his original intentions for human flourishing, that he had pity on them. So he threatened in order to bring about repentance; he judged in order to save.

One other Batman-related insight: Batman’s concern isn’t just for individual Gothamites, but for the flourishing of the whole city, with its economy, infrastructure, and shared civic life. In the same way, God calls Nineveh that “great city”, and commentators have pointed out that his mention of “much cattle” isn’t just a reference to animals, but the economy of the city. The repentance we read about is structural, from the king of the city, to his officials, down to the lowest peasants. God is concerned with cities and cultures, not just the people in them.

Yahweh and Grace
This was the gracious and merciful God Jonah knew and feared. As a prophet, he knew Israel’s long history of being spared despite its rebellion. In fact, the phrase “you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” comes from God’s own self-description in Exodus 34 when he spares Israel after the incident with the golden calf. Yes, he is a just a God, “who will by no means clear the guilty”,  but he is one whose fundamental stance is “steadfast love…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exod 34:7) He doesn’t take evil lightly, but his love goes deeper than our sin. Of course, that’s what the Cross is all about.

Jonah couldn’t handle that disturbing grace. He is the OT equivalent of the elder brother in the parable of the two sons (Luke 15), angry at the Father for showing grace to the undeserving younger brother, while self-righteously refusing to see his own need for it. We’ve got the same God in both testaments. It’s not the case that God is angry and just in the OT, and nice and gracious in the NT. As we see here, He’s just as gracious in the Old. (And if you read it properly, there’s plenty of justice in the New.) In the same vein, the God of Israel isn’t merely a tribal God, but the God of the “nations” as well–both of the Jews and the Gentiles. (Rom. 3:29)

As a figure representing OT Israel, Jonah’s story stands as a rebuke to his countrymen and a warning for their NT counterpart, the church. Far too many of our churches are more like Jonah and Ra’s Al Ghul than God and Batman. Instead of looking with pity on a culture that can’t tell its right from its left, we’d rather take a seat and watch the destruction go down. (Jonah 4:5) We would do well to reconsider our stance towards the culture and towards our neighbors. Are we more like Al Ghul or Batman? Do we look out and see only evil, or signs of a fallen creation awaiting redemption? Are we eager to go to the ‘nations’ (neighbors) with God’s word, a much better Gospel-word than Jonah had? Let’s hope so.  If not, let’s be quick to repent anyways.

A Final Word
Let’s be honest, my initial impulse to write this was nerdy excitement about connecting one of my favorite books in the Bible to one of my favorite comic-book movies. Once I started writing it though, I realized there are all sorts of applications and insights to be gleaned from it. If you’re looking for it, you can see imperfect glimpses God’s truth anywhere–even a comic-book movie. Be on the lookout for it. Also, read your Bible. If you don’t know God’s “authorized” truth, you’re not as likely to recognize it elsewhere.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Deepest Reason We Obey

Calvin had a way of cutting to the heart of things when he wanted to. In chapter 6 of Book 3 of the Institutes he discusses the Christian life, the object of God’s regenerating (life-giving) work in our hearts by the Spirit, a life lived in obedient harmony with God’s righteousness. He points out that, over the years, various moral philosophers have given capable enough accounts of what we ought to do and why we ought to do it. (3.6.1) Now, they’re good as far as they go, but, of course, scripture gives far better reasons, rooting our motive for righteousness more securely, among other reasons, in God’s own holiness, our desire to be in communion him, and a desire to be numbered among those inhabitants of the holy city. (3.6.2) But Calvin goes further and says that, as great as these are, scripture gives us a deeper reason still:

And to wake us more effectively, Scripture shows that God the Father, as he has reconciled us to himself in his Christ [cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18], has in him stamped for us the likeness [Hebrews 1:3] to which he would have us conform. Now, let these persons who think that moral philosophy is duly and systematically set forth solely among philosophers find me among the philosophers a more excellent dispensation. They, while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption. Accordingly, unless we give and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only revolt from our Creator with wicked perfidy but we also abjure our Savior himself.

Then the Scripture finds occasion for exhortation in all the benefits of God that it lists for us, and in the individual parts of our salvation. Ever since God revealed himself Father to us, we must prove our ungratefulness to him if we did not in turn show ourselves his sons [Malachi 1:6; Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 3:1]. Ever since Christ cleansed us with the washing of his blood, and imparted this cleansing through baptism, it would be unfitting to befoul ourselves with new pollutions [Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Peter 1:15,19]. Ever since he engrafted us into his body, we must take especial care not to disfigure ourselves, who are his members, with any spot or blemish [Ephesians 5:23-33; 1 Corinthians 6:15; John 15:3-6]. Ever since Christ himself, who is our Head, ascended into heaven, it behooves us, having laid aside love of earthly things, wholeheartedly to aspire heavenward [Colossians 3:1 ff.]. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to God, we must take care that God’s glory shine through us, and must not commit anything to defile ourselves with the filthiness of sin [1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16]. Ever since both our souls and bodies were destined for heavenly incorruption and an unfading crown [1 Peter 5:4], we ought to strive manfully to keep them pure and uncorrupted until the Day of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 5:23; cf. Philippians 1:10]. These, I say, are the most auspicious foundations upon which to establish one’s life. One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man.

-John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

To sum up: Why does Calvin say we obey? Because God has saved us in Christ.

C.S. Lewis on “Counting the Cost”

Mr. T

Mr. T…just because.

There’s really no point in trying to pick which passage in Lewis’ Mere Christianity is the most helpful or more insightful than any other. Usually they all help with some particular point or question. Still, as I was perusing through it again today I ran across this section towards the end of the book where Lewis is describing the process of sanctification–he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is–and he goes into the subject of the ‘cost of discipleship’. I figured it’s worth a share and it doesn’t really need any commentary:

I find a good many people have been bothered by what I said in the last chapter about Our Lord’s words, “Be ye perfect.” Some people seem to think this means “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you”; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant “The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.”

Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else.

I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took an ell.

Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.

That is why He warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away.

But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”And yet—this is the other and equally important side of it— this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”

The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realise from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, ca prevent Him from taking you to that goal.

That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realise that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point. I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not out it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say “I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.” And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.

But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us. He is the inventor, we are only the machine. He is the painter, we are only the picture. How should we know what He means us to be like? You see, He has already made us something very different from what we were. Long ago, before we were born, when we were inside our mothers’ bodies, we passed through various stages.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 4.9

C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past, though, the more theology I read I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Want to Be God (And So Do You)

I want to be God.

I discovered this in college. Actually, what I found out is that I happen to want to be God in a particular way–specifically I wanted to know everything. In a sense, there was one attribute of God’s that I coveted, desired for myself most: omniscience. There are times that I’ve wanted to know things with a sort of desperation. I look at stacks of books and feel crushed with the weight of all that I have yet to read and discover. To those that know me, this might sound funny. “Oh Derek, you and your books.” Honestly though, the sense of incompleteness and inadequacy can be tormenting–especially in light of the fact I know I will never have the time, energy, or resources to even come close to the end of my studies.

I have this theory that we all do this to some degree–we have certain attributes of God we want more. Some of us want to be everywhere at once. We have this constant feeling that we’re missing out on something, so we try to be all places at all times as much as possible so we don’t miss a thing. Others of us want to be eternal–there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything on our checklist. We dream of bending time to our will so that we’re not limited to the 18-20 hours of the day we’re up for. Then, there are those of us who want God’s power. We strain at the edges of our human possibilities and strive to attain those things that are just beyond our grasp. In fact, we hate the idea that there might exist anything “beyond our grasp.” Of course, there are the control freaks–people who want total sovereignty of their lives, securing themselves by making sure that all goes according to their perfect plan. The list could easily go on.

be as god 2

I have named the skull “George.”

As I’ve sat back and reflected on this a bit over the years, I’ve realized that all of these desires, in some way, are a rejection of our finitude–don’t like being limited beings. Now, of course the Bible has told us for thousands of years that ever since the Garden we’ve all been striving to be God. The Teacher has said that God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Eccles. 3:11). God made us in his Image (Gen 1:26), but apparently that wasn’t good enough. We didn’t just want to reflect God’s glory, we wanted to have it.  We didn’t want to depend on God for good and evil, we wanted to “know” it/determine it for ourselves. (Gen. 3:5) The lie that we believed is that we can be god-like apart from God.

In a way, the issue is about one attribute, very much ignored in popular preaching–that of God’s aseity, or self-sufficiency. God has “life in himself” and is dependent on no one and nothing outside of his glorious, infinite, Triune self. (John 5:26; Ac 17:24-25; Rom 11:35-36) He doesn’t need anything. He is blessedly complete in the infinite perfection of his own life. This is what we want when we strive for all of the other attributes–to be the source of our own blessedness.

The truth of the matter though, is that there are only two ways of possessing infinite good: either it is yours inherently (God) or you receive it from him. This is true down to the ontological level–you can’t even keep yourself in existence if he doesn’t will it. The upshot of this is that we can either strive to be infinite ourselves (and fail miserably), or gain it by being rightly related to the infinite one through Christ. See, the very “great promises” of the Gospel is that through faith in Christ we can “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), as God redeems us from sin and grows us further in holiness and righteousness through the Spirit. In other words, this doesn’t happen by our striving for self-achieved autonomy–it happens by grace, by depending on God’s favor, looking to him alone for all of our good in Christ.

A few words then for you God-strivers:

  • If you thirst for knowledge, let God teach you the depths of knowledge and wisdom in Christ. (Col. 2:3)
  • If you long for eternity, set your hope on God’s promised future in Christ. (Rom 6:23)
  • If you strive to be present everywhere, remember that God has appointed the time and place where you would be born and live that you might reach out and find Christ. (Acts 17:26-27)
  • If you scramble for sovereignty, don’t be afraid to lose control of your life, and receive it back as a gift through Christ. (Matt 16:24-27)

Finally, if that isn’t enough: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (Jas 1:17) So let him be the source of your blessedness today.

Soli Deo Gloria