Quit Limping–Choose Jesus

Speaking to the spiritual depthlessness with which his contemporaries lived, Thoreau wrote in Walden of the tragedy that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They give in, they resign themselves to life as it is, no adventure, no true life–mere amusements only. Despair becomes a fixed underlying atmosphere of the heart.

The unfortunate reality is that Thoreau’s description could easily be applied to contemporary American Christians with little modification. You see, most of them will live the majority of their lives with a limp.

A limp? What do I mean by that?

Can I just say right now how much I love cheesy, bible drawings? Great times.

Theological Dance-off
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel found in 1 Kings 18. In the ultimate theological showdown Elijah faces off against the false prophets in the Biblical equivalent of a dance-off, pitting YHWH against the false gods of the Canaanites, the Baals introduced by Queen Jezebel, in a literal trial by fire. Elijah would pray to YHWH and the false prophets would pray to the Baals, and whoever’s deity answered with fire to consume the sacrifice offered was the true God.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness of God administering a raw beat-down of a rival deity, what’s going on in the passage? Why did God feel it necessary to display himself in this way? Why set up a contest with non-existent gods? Why all the fireworks? What does he have to prove? Elijah’s question to the people reveals YHWH’s motive:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

See, the Israelites had a limp. Israel, as it often would in its history, had fallen into the worship of false gods. They were turning away from YHWH, the true God, and had begun to give themselves to gods that weren’t really gods, who hadn’t done anything for them, certainly hadn’t saved them, redeemed them out of slavery from Egypt, and wouldn’t be of any use to them in the future. As Elijah put it, they were “limping between two different opinions.” Elijah’s challenge was a call to make up their minds, make a decision and whole-heartedly give themselves over.

Life with a Limp
When you live your life wavering between two different opinions, you live it with a limp. You can never take a solid step–you’re always teetering, unsteady in your choices. It’s like someone who can’t decide whether or not to commit to a relationship. For every little word or date or occasion there’s tons of analysis as to the implications and so firm action is rarely taken. What’s more, the fruits of a decision are not enjoyed either–you get none of the peace of solidly saying nor, and none of the joy of fully being with someone–this is, in fact, what struck me about the passage.

I remember listening to a Matt Chandler sermon where he pointed out that for a lot of Christians, life is lived between sin and God. They’re Christians but their hearts drawn towards sin and so they never fully chase after God and enjoy the fruit of a full relationship with him. At the same time, they’re too scared to chase after sin and at least enjoy it for a while before it destroys them. They enjoy neither and live basically fruitless lives.

No wonder so many of us wonder whether the Gospel is real. We live our lives half-chasing everything else, never fully giving ourselves over to Christ but never quite chasing what we really want either. Our home is in the muddled middle of spiritual mediocrity. Don’t misunderstand me here–I am not talking about being some super-Christian who out-preaches Billy Graham, out-serves Mother Theresa, and makes Ignatius of Loyola look like a spiritual slouch. I am talking about living each day having turned ourselves over to Christ; waking up with his glory and grace at the forefront of our minds, not that job promotion, or my own wants. I am talking about time in Scripture that’s about knowing and communing with Jesus, not a ritual to secure the blessings of all green lights on the way to work. I am talking about a prayer-life focused on the Kingdom, not simply achieving the American dream. I’m talking about a church-life that is more than just showing up for an hour to “get fed” and roll out, but an active involvement in the community of God because we know that’s where life-change happens–in the worshipping community. I’m talking about all of these things and more.

The Choice
The point is you’ll never chase these things if your heart is caught between God and money, God and sex, God and comfort, God and anything else. You will not run. You will not experience the true freedom God has for his children. You will simply limp through life wishing there was something more and bitterly resenting God because you’re too scared to chase it.

The call now is the same as it was then: Quit limping between the LORD or the Baals–choose Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Jesus Hates Heresy (And So Should You)

I’d like to take a moment to point something out that may have escaped your attention last time you went to church or watched  a Nooma: Jesus and the rest of the New Testament authors don’t like false teaching, or heresy. I mean, they really hate it. It doesn’t take long reading through the thing to see the forceful way they spoke of “false teachers/prophets” and “false teaching” about God and the Gospel.  Don’t believe me? Here are just a few quotes. See for yourself.

Gentle Jesus

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Not so Gentle Paul

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

Old-Man John

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter “the Rock” Bar-Jonah

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

This is Weird to Us

These quotes can seem disturbing to people of our age.

Our culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heretic’ used on your average blog, news article, etc. it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It’s thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m somewhat puzzled. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians?)

It’s sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that us entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness. (Which, incidentally were the result of false teaching about the nature of the church.)

So, why do they think different?

So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

So again, “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Resources for avoiding Heresy:

1. Any good systematic theology. (Classic Christianity by Thomas Oden, The Christian Faith by Michael Horton)
2. Heresies and How to Avoid Them by Ben Quash and Michael Ward
3. Heresy: A History of Defending Truth by Alister McGrath
4. Free article by Craig Blomberg “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?)

Beefing Up Your “Quiet Times”: Catechisms and Confessions as Devotional Literature

A little bit ago, a buddy of mine was musing about the fact that he doesn’t connect to most devotional literature of the type that truly “spiritual” people normally rave about. His critical, analytical mind and personality just doesn’t connect with warm meditation, but rather with critical analysis of history and culture.

For a while I’d found myself in a similar place. After seminary, my devotional life became a bit trickier. I find that my mind comes most alive to God when I’m reading systematic theology, or wrestling with some interesting piece of biblical theology, but when I try to slow down, pause, and meditate on something like My Utmost for His Highest, I just can’t do it. (That’s not to disparage Chambers. I loved it in college. The sad thing is, most current, popular stuff doesn’t even come close to his depth.) Because of this, finding good devotional material has been a challenge.

This didn’t trouble me much at first. I would simply pray, read my Bible, and then move on to my academic reading. Still, after a while I realized that I need a slowing down, a place for a more contemplative, heart-oriented approach to God in my devotional life. When I “just read my Bible” I found it hard to turn off the analytic mode. When I did, I didn’t really find my heart moved, but rather just bored.

The Good News We Almost Forgot

Just when I thought all was lost, I got my hands on The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung. The book is basically a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which you can read for yourself here. For those of you unfamiliar with catechisms, they are a series of questions and answers designed to be memorized by either new believers, old believers in need of depth, or children in order to teach them the content of the Christian faith. They’re employed across various confessional church traditions and they usually they have scripture references attached to the answers for believers to look up and study as well.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written at the University of Heidelberg at the commission of Elector Frederick III and was approved by the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563. The Catechism has 129 questions and answers that are basically commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 10 Commandments, but it is divided into fifty-two sections, called “Lord’s Days,” so that pastors could preach through them on each of the 52 Sundays of the year.  It is one of the most universally recognized pieces of Reformed theology across confessions and was adopted by the great Synod of 1618-1619, as one of the Three Forms of Unity, along with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.

How exciting!!!

Now for myself, having been raised in a barely-denominational Friends church, I hadn’t spent more than a minute with anything like a catechism, except to know \the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer: “Q. What is the Chief End of Man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  To my less-than-enlightened mind that was great, deep, but spare stuff.  The thought of spending a whole book reading about a catechism didn’t originally strike me as an edifying experience, because at that point, “I already knew that stuff.”

Still, my buddy told me that he’d been using DeYoung’s book as a devotion because it breaks up into 52 short chapters (2-3 pages) commenting on each of the Lord’s days.  I figured, why not? It can’t hurt.

After a short introduction to the catechism much more exhaustive than my paragraph, I got to the first Lord’s Day and read Question and Answer 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

When I read this I nearly started to tear up immediately. The first sentence alone gripped me: “I am not my own.” There is nothing sterile, dry or impersonal about this answer. At the same time, it deploys in a matter of sentences the doctrines of atonement, providence, adoption, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, assurance, and sanctification, in order to draw me into the saving reality of the Gospel. As you read through the rest of the catechism, there are other questions of similar depth and power. DeYoung’s commentary each day was solidly theological, scriptural, and very pastoral. For the next month and a half I found myself daily edified by the truths encapsulated in the short answers and the meditation that followed.

I had finally found something to found the devotional gap in my life.

Why Read Catechisms– After this I went on a search and started reading through the different catechisms and confessions I could find, (Westminster, Luther’s, Belgic, Scots), as a part of my daily time of prayer and scripture. I found myself time and time again, blessed, challenged, and moved to worship and delight. I also found myself wondering why I had never done this before.

If you’ve never spent time with a catechism, here are three reasons you should in no particular order.

1. Hearing voices from other centuries– Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. This means that Christians have been reading, praying, thinking, and writing about the Gospel for 2,000 years. It is foolish to not pay attention to what our mothers and fathers in the faith have said in past generations as if the truth of the Gospel had a 2 month shelf-life. Their voices are needed if we are to hear the Gospel in all of its fullness in our own day. Catechisms  are a great way of doing that given that most of them were written centuries ago and have still been found spiritually beneficial after all of these years.

2. Deep truths; short phrases. Most catechisms and confessions are doing serious theology and yet condensing it down into short, memorable phrases that are perfect for meditation and contemplation throughout the day. They are perfect for engaging the mind as well as the heart with the truth of God throughout your day.

3. Know Your Bible- Finally, most catechisms and confessions are packed to the gills with scriptural references backing up every statement. You can trace them down as a devotional exercise that can help you get to know your Bible better than you did before, as well as learn the deep, biblical basis for what we believe. It also can help you get into the scriptures in a focused, guided way that is less intimidating for some people than just opening the thing up and reading it.

Where Do I Start?

Honestly, I think DeYoung’s book, The Good News We Almost Forgot is a great place to start. I don’t have a copy of my own any more because I keep giving it away. When one of my college students asks me if I know of a book they should read, it’s one of the first two or three that I recommend.

If you want to start checking out catechism right away, you can start here.

Confessions

I have a confession to make: this is not my first blog. Back in the days when MySpace wasn’t just the punchline to jokes about irrelevance (Irony!), I blogged fairly regularly on faith in the MySpace blog forum. It was a formative experience for me. I was just a 19-year old who knew next to nothing, but for some reason I was getting read. I met a lot of great people and great writers through that blog, some of whom I still keep in touch with. I learned a lot about respectful dialogue with people from various worldviews as well as differing tribes within Christianity. It was a great part of my spiritual and theological development in college that I look back on with much fondness.

At the same time, I’m glad it died.

the rise and fall of my blog

For a while was going well; I was posting on a regular basis, once or twice a week as my school schedule allowed. My blogs were being read and regularly ranked in the top 10 of the Religion and Spirituality section on MySpace in terms of views and comments. (I know that’s not much, but it was pretty good for a 19-year-old with a brain full of mush.) At a certain point though, I began to notice that the posts were slowing down until I eventually found myself unable to write anymore. I mean, I could write, but I couldn’t find the will to write. When I stepped back to think about my writer’s block, I realized that it set in about the time that I started to do serious theological reading. While I have always been a reader, I had not starting reading books relating to Christian theology until my college years, and even then I didn’t start reading what I would call “serious” theology until my last year.

In looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that one thing that came with reading, growing, and learning is that I began to learn how much I had left to read, grow, and learn. I knew next to nothing. I wasn’t even aware of how much I didn’t know. I dare say I’m still just scratching the surface of my ignorance. At the time I came to realize that most of what I could say or write had been said and written long before I started typing by men and women with greater depth, insight, and skill than myself. It was a humbling experience.

In realizing this, I also recognized one my main motivations for blogging: I had been captivated by the feeling of saying something novel and being applauded for it. I loved the feeling of writing something and getting “likes”, seeing comments engaging my thoughts as if they were important insights, and getting acclaim for it. Of course this wasn’t my only motive. I am a natural teacher. I like sharing thoughts. At that point though, the love of being heard was novel and captivating. I don’t say that this is not a temptation even now–it is. At the time it was easy for it to become consuming. When I realized that I wasn’t actually saying anything new, or that people ought to be reading others instead myself, a large portion of my motivation died.

Again, I take this, in many ways, to be a good development. Writing for applause doesn’t do good things for your soul. At the same time, the death of my blog was not an unambiguously positive event. In being humbled, in coming to realize my smallness, relative ignorance and foolishness, I also was struck with a peculiar voicelessness. In coming to know that I knew very little, I fell into a certain of paralysis that robbed me of the ability to try to write about the things that I did know. I just didn’t see the point, or even feel competent to.

the birth pangs

Since that time I have gone to grad school, written a few papers, read a great many books, preached regularly for a couple of years, spent far too much time pontificating in Facebook conversations, and been humbled time and again in various contexts (as I’m sure I’ll continue to be.) In other words, God’s been working on my heart for, knowledge of, and ability to communicate the truth of the Gospel. I’m in a better spot in that respect than I was a few years ago.  After prayer, deliberation, and counsel, I came to the decision to start blogging again.

Surprisingly, this has not been an easy one. For the amount of time that I’ve spent in online forums expressing myself, discussing, debating, as well as preaching on a regular basis, coming to the point of committing my thoughts to print in an intentional and sustained fashion has felt daunting. Temporary disengagement from an activity can become habit that leads to the eventual atrophy of the talents or will required to participate in it. This is true, I am finding, in nearly all areas of life. There’s a part of me that still asks much as I did a few years ago, “Why write? There are much smarter and more valuable things that have already said by more capable writers than myself?”

the hope

I’ve been asking myself this question for a bit and, for the most part, I have not really had any good reasons other than a basic sense that I ought to be writing. It was only until a friend of mine gave me some good advice in personal correspondence that I have been able arrive at any sort of conclusion. In discussing the issue, my friend wrote, “I would say that you should write as a discipline for yourself. If others want to participate in that, awesome, but the goal should be developing to skill of creatively communicating what truths the Lord has revealed. That is, as you know, the task of a theologian.”

This is what I want to be the heart behind my writing. I want it to be an act of discipleship and obedience to my covenant Lord; another area in which to grow in humility and grace; a means by which I can continue to grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others according to the gifts and abilities God has given me; another area of my life in which I can strive to glorify God and enjoy him even now in this life.

This is my hope and my prayer.