Sunday, December 27, 2009

Facebook Evangelism ... or "Keep Christ in Christmas, You Heathen Swine!"

Last week I found myself in an office at work where a particularly haughty woman was castigating a co-worker for wishing her a "Merry X-mas".  You know the drill from here:  "Jesus is the reason for the season", "they can take Christ out of Christmas but they can't take Christ out of me", etc., complete with contemptuous sneer and wagging index finger. 

So, another bold believer standing up for her Lord, or just a Pharisee being a jerk?  I've been considering this question while reading Presbyter's recent posts on "Digital Barbarism", and alongside the rash of now-ubiquitous Facebook comments like:
Billy Bob believes in Jesus Christ and is proud to say it! Let's see how many people on Facebook aren't afraid to show their love for our heavenly Father and Jesus Christ our Savior! Repost this as your status. Let's get God back in this country like He should be! If you this as your status update. Just copy and paste.
Facebook appears to have replaced the bumper sticker as the place where Christians succumb to the temptation to "boldness".  Yet, if my primary concern is that the world is dying without Christ, will they be saved because I brazenly copy and paste my outrage to Facebook?  Will they be reached when our culture rejects expressions of "Happy Holidays" and re-accepts Nativity scenes in the town square?  Or will they be reached when Christians heed Paul's instruction to "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt ..."

If indeed "I am not ashamed of the gospel" and am ready to prove it by a public, glib display of self-righteous arrogance, maybe a little more shame is called for.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Doesn't God Want Me to be Happy?

"It can't be wrong when it feels so right."  When Christian singer Debbie Boone crossed over onto the pop music charts in 1977 with "You Light Up My Life", it was these lyrics that made Christians really sit up and take notice.  Does "feeling so right" really mean something must be right? 

Happiness.  We all want it.  In fact, we demand it.  Now.  On our terms.  We're just claiming what is ours by right, because the Bible promises it ... doesn't it?  After all, "happy is that people, whose God is the LORD."

During my last conversation with my spiritual father, he spoke about some of the challenges of pastoring.  One set of church issues that particularly troubled him (as it does most who are involved in ministry) centered around the various romantic pursuits of the flock:  sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, etc.  When our hearts burn within us for someone or something we cannot (or at least should not) have, it is common to protest:  "Doesn't God want me to be happy?"  Well, doesn't He?

Of course He does.  There would be little point to the hope and promise of the Redeemed if there were no hope or promise.  As God's dearly loved children, we are guaranteed eternal, unbridled happiness in His presence.

Oh, right ... that.  Of course.  But what about now?  Surely God promises me joy here on earth ...

Ah, well now we come to it.  Happiness and joy--are they the same? 

Happiness is pure emotion.  It's what I feel when I get a promotion, sip a vanilla latte, or cuddle with my wife front of a good movie.  On the other hand, when my kids don't do their homework, or when there's tension in my marriage, or when I sit by the death bed of a loved one ... well, not so much.  Ever since sin and death entered the world through the Curse, the fact that we will experience unhappiness is a stone-cold lock of a guarantee. 

By contrast, joy is a choice, a command, a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It is what happens when I rejoice in the face of calamity (and in good times), secure in the hope of my salvation, laying claim to the promise of Christ:  "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world!"  Jesus promises his followers trouble, not happiness.  But He gives us Himself so that we may overcome and be joyful in all things:
Though the fig tree does not bud
       and there are no grapes on the vines,
       though the olive crop fails
       and the fields produce no food,
       though there are no sheep in the pen
       and no cattle in the stalls,

 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
       I will be joyful in God my Savior.

But this isn't what we want!  We want the fig tree to bud ... NOW!  At the root of sin is the demand that this life produce uninterrupted happiness for us.  If we don't experience it in obedience, well we have to do what we have to do!  God can't expect us to tolerate unhappiness, after all.

One of my favorite stories on this topic comes from Larry Crabb's superb book Inside Out.
     A man opened a counseling session with an urgent request:  "I want to feel better quick."

     I paused for a moment, then replied, "I suggest you get a case of your favorite alcoholic beverage, find some cooperative women, and go to the Bahamas for a month."

     Now it was his turn to pause.  He stared at me, looking puzzled, then asked, "Are you a Christian?"

     "Why do you ask?"

     "Well, your advice doesn't sound very biblical."

     "It's the best I can do given your request.  If you really want to feel good right away and get rid of any unpleasant emotion, then I don't recommend following Christ.  Drunkenness, immoral pleasures, and vacations work far better.  Not for long of course, but in the short term they'll give you what you want."
My generation's great child philosopher, Bill Waterson's "Calvin", puts it succinctly:
Calvin:  It's true, Hobbes.  Ignorance is bliss.  Once you know things, you start seeing problems everywhere... and once you see problems, you feel like you ought to try to fix them... and fixing problems always seems to require personal change... and changes means doing things that aren't fun! I say phooey to that! But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like! The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest.
Hobbes: We're heading for that cliff!
Calvin:  I don't want to know about it.
Now, lest you think me a curmudgeon, I'm totally in favor of happiness.  In fact, I think I'd like some more, please.  There's nothing wrong with being happy.  But while the "pursuit of happiness" may be an "inalienable right" according to our Declaration of Independence, it is also an invitation to hedonism when it becomes our consuming motivation.  It is the siren's song, offering satisfaction for the moment, but leading to emptiness and death.  The Teacher understood this:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
       I refused my heart no pleasure.
       My heart took delight in all my work,
       and this was the reward for all my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
       and what I had toiled to achieve,
       everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
       nothing was gained under the sun.

Doesn't God want me to be happy?  Indeed He does, and he has promised it in abundance as the culmination of a life lived in grateful, obedient submission to His commands.  In the meanwhile, we can learn to rejoice and remain faithful in the midst of trouble, as we wait patiently for that day:
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This Earthly Tent: A Saint Enters the Final Hours

Mrs. Jailer is back in the Philippines with her father, who is entering his final hours on earth.  Rolando "Rolly" Rosales has lived a full life, and will soon be reunited with his wife, Remy in perfect peace and rest.

Today my wife and most of her siblings are together with him, and today they made the decision not to continue extraordinary measures to extend his life.  This can be a crushing choice, but for the believer it is made so much easier by the fact that our hope is not for this life, but for the one to which Rolly is about to enter: 
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
I recall a quote by Bob Boardman after he had accepted that cancer would soon take him:  "My greatest fear is that God would yet heal me."  He was only half joking ... Bob knew that this mortal life is full of groaning, but that those who are in Christ will one day be swallowed up by life of quite another sort--one of eternal peace, joy, and face-to-face fellowship with our Lord.

Like Bob, Rolly is about to "break the tape" and enter into his rest.  Those of us who remain behind will mourn his passing, but we do so with the comfort of knowing that to die in the Lord is great gain and the ultimate objective of this life.  Good bye, Rolly ... until we meet again!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hard, but Amazing Grace

“I will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when terror strikes you,...”
(Pr. 1:26)

“..., if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(2 Cor. 5:17)

I have hesitated to write this post for a while: It’s part of a series from Proverbs on “The Simple”. (The previous posts in the series have been “The Turning Away of the Simple”, “The Seed of the Serpent”, and “Knowing God”.) Taken together, they make the point that the situation of the young, with their characteristic “simplicity” is a very dangerous one, which is depressing enough. But the news in Proverbs 1 gets even worse, as Wisdom warns the Simple:

“Will you turn away at my reproof?
Behold, I would make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when terror strikes you,
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,....”
(Pr. 1:23-33)

Anyone who has read much of Scripture knows that it contains threats, but this passage goes beyond that. It might be called “a dark promise”! It’s not an easy subject.

What are we to say then to those (and especially the young in the church, with all the opportunities they have had) who have refused to listen, and have brought all sorts of misery on themselves, and now turn again to the Lord? It seems to me that this passage definitely tells us what we are NOT to say: We’re not to tell them that a trip to the nearest Christian bookstore will give them the tools they need to put it all right, so that they can live happy lives, as though their falling away had never happened. If they have married an unbeliever and now have a house full of unbelieving and half-wild children, we’re not to tell them that putting a plaque on the wall with the last sentence from Joshua 24:15 on it, and decreeing an in-house “reformation” will make it all better. The possible examples to follow that one could occupy many pages.

So what are we to say? The accompanying picture is supposed to be a hint: Consider the life of John Newton: His father hoped to set John onto a successful path as a businessman and ship’s captain, but John’s stupidity (and the word seems fair, even though, in a sense he was intelligent enough) managed to blow those hopes to smithereens. As the title of Grace Irwin’s biographical novel indicates, he sank pretty low indeed. Then, while traveling back to England, in the midst of a storm that terrified him, he finally turned to God. But he subsequently claimed that his true conversion did not occur until later, when he was sick with a fever.

Whenever his true conversion occurred, the point here is that it did not result in “everything being made well”: He didn’t suddenly find himself as the man his father had hoped he would be. Instead, he found himself as a brand new man, a “new creation”.

If we take this example to heart, I think we’ll be a lot wiser when we’re called upon to minister to those who come to us with broken lives: We do them no favors if we tell them God is now going to put that life they’ve broken back together again, just as if they’d never broken it. Instead, we should encourage them to prayerfully look to Him for the new life that He has prepared for them, and prepare them to be realistic about it. To go back to the example of those who have married outside the church, the new life may involve a lifetime of witness to their family, and they may go home to be with Him without ever having seen the fruit of that witness, but simply trusting Him to honor it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hive Faith?

“A prudent man conceals knowledge,
but the heart
of fools proclaims folly.” (Pr. 12:23)

The post “Which Protocol Would Jesus Use?” made use of the cover from Mark Helprin’s book, “Digital Barbarism” in connection with qualms about blogging as a method for constructive Christian interchange. This post will make use of some of the book’s content to expand on that a bit:

Mr. Helprin’s book is a defense of copyright, but the deeper defense is of individual rights and responsibilities where the written word is concerned. Over against this, he is concerned to attack a movement which defends what it calls the “Creative Commons” (or even, from one adherent, the “Hive Mind”) and which sees copyright as inhibiting this.

To see how something of this sort might work, let’s suppose that Jailer, instead of starting a blog called “The Philippian Jailer”, had decided to establish what’s called a “wiki” site which would have as its purpose a “common” effort to state just what the Christian Faith is, and what Christians believe. He might have toyed with the notion of calling it “Wikicredia”, or, finding domain name problems (and certainly is taken) he might have tried “Credimus” (for “we believe”). With the site set up, he might have put some sort of credal skeleton out there, and then thrown the matter open. If he had been able to get enough interest, the “hive” might have begun to buzz and, day-by-day, the world might have been amazed and astounded at the current, “common” statement of what it had thought to be “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). To use an image painfully familiar to many Bible-study leaders, think of “my idea of God”, electronically multiplied.

Of course, Jailer would never do this because he’d feel responsible for the result, which would almost certainly be awful. And one big reason that it would be so awful is that he might well be the only person in sight who would feel any responsibility. A “wiki” site can lend itself to some pretty exotic and extravagant stuff, without most of the participants having to own up to having had any part in it. And, if they did own up to it, most of the time they could do so with the understanding that it was just “off the top”, without really thinking things through, and the idea was for the “hive” to produce something creative from many spontaneous contributions. So individual responsibility ought not to have really been an issue. The whole thing would have been a common creative exercise!

Mr. Helprin is properly aghast at this sort of thing, which seems to show that it’s been too long since he participated in a university indoctrination. One hopes that the readers of this blog would also be aghast. But the question would still remain: While nowhere near as subject to abuse as the hypothetical “wiki” site, doesn’t a blog have some tendencies in that direction? One can make comments anonymously. Even if not, one can hide a bit behind “handles” like “Presbyter”. But the most serious danger is probably the temptation to speak without reflection. An important lesson from Proverbs is that this sort of expression is associated with folly, and does not become believers.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Which Protocol Would Jesus Use?

In network programming, two important acronyms are UDP (“User Datagram Protocol”) and TCP (“Transmission Control Protocol”). Using the latter protocol, there is an actual connection between two parties. The former protocol can be thought of as involving a “broadcast”, where one party simply tosses some information out there for the benefit of anyone who happens to be listening, but not immediately knowing if anyone actually “gets the message”.

Since this is a blog post, it may be a funny place to ask this question, but isn’t blogging mostly UDP, instead of TCP? How much of the time are we just expressing ourselves, instead of really trying to communicate with some other particular person? I think of my own posts when I ask this, and the question seems particularly urgent here in a Christian blog: “... love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34) That has to be done one-on-one. Does blogging help with this?

A related area where this question comes up is that of social networking tools like Facebook. How much of this is just “broadcast”, but with no “connection”? Can real Christian Fellowship (Acts 2:42) be cultivated like this, when, instead of sharing our lives with other particular saints, we toss the details out there for them all at once?

An area in the church where we often see these issues come up is in the exercise of the ministry: Pastors sometimes see themselves as called to preach in such an urgent sense that they have little time left over for the network of personal one-on-one relationships that are so important in shepherding God’s flock. Elders too can get so wrapped up in governing the church, that they lose touch with its members. I recall being told once at an elder’s retreat that, when we really needed to be able to influence a member of our church, our efforts wouldn’t amount to much if we hadn’t been frequently in his home. How easy it can be to fall into the trap of thinking of “the flock”, instead of thinking as our Lord does, who knows each one of His sheep by name. (John 10:3)

So here it is, as the subversive post of the day: Do we need less time on blogs and social networking tools, and more time sitting down with one another in coffee shops and homes, as brothers and sisters in the Lord? Short of that, how do we get more “connection” back into these “broadcast” media (more TCP and less UDP)?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"The Marine Who Only Whispers" Breaks the Tape

Bob Boardman, the Marine Who Only Whispers, passed through the gates of splendor yesterday.  He now sings to the Lord he served so faithfully with the angels in full-throated elation.

Thank you, Boardy, for showing the true meaning of "Semper Fidelis", and showing us how a believer lives and dies:  joyful and hopeful through the final strides.  Well done, good and faithful servant ... now enter into your rest!

Our prayers for Jean continue through her grief after losing her 56-year partner in life, love and ministry.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

God-Centered Worship

One pitfall of writing (or blogging) is that a rhetorical point can get lost in translation.  Such seems to have been the case with my previous post, in which I sought to stir up our thinking about worship by poking some holes in the common practice of taking prayer requests before engaging in corporate prayer. As is often the case with such things, those closest to me (who've had the chance to hear my thoughts at length on this topic) responded favorably, while those without the benefit of my context were compelled to supply their own.  So, this seems like a good time to clarify a few things:

First, several things I am not saying:
  1. I am not saying we should never pray for our needs and desires.
  2. I am not saying we should never pray for each other.
  3. I am not saying we should never ask how we may pray for one another.
  4. I am not saying we should never ask for prayer requests during a worship service or prayer meeting.
What I am trying to get across is that the idea of "prayer requests" has become habitual in the church, to the extent that it has crowded out the other important aspects of prayer:  praise, thanksgiving, confession, etc.  Corporate prayer has often devolved into long lists of petitions for the meeting of worldly needs, with occasional head-nods in the direction of the rest.  This takes place in worship services, but also in prayer meetings. 

The point is this:  Worship has intrinsic value, which is often lost in the context of our methods.  For example:
  • Music is chosen with a mind to entertain. 
  • Sermons are constructed with a mind to provide tips for "victorious Christian living."
  • Services are geared primarily to bring people forward at the altar call.
  • Events are planned for maximum turnout.
  • ... and prayer is structured around requests.
The theme is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being entertained, or living successful lives, or (of course) making public decisions, or having great turnout.  There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with praying for our needs or those of others.  The issue is identifying how corporate worship can get lost in the noise. By the time we're done, what's left of our "worship" is that activity that occurs between the first and last praise song during the "worship time" of the weekly service ... and even that may be undercut by the temptation to entertain or be entertained.

So, to return to the original point:  we need to be wary about how our "prayer-request culture" has contributed to a devaluing of worship for its own sake.
Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain. (Psalm 48:1)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Man-Centered Worship: The Curse of Prayer Requests

Why must every corporate prayer begin with, "Are there any prayer requests"?  When did "prayer requests" become such an integral part of our Christian culture?  Whenever it was, I'm convinced it was the beginning of the death of God-centered prayer in our worship.

Certainly we should pray for what we need, and we should pray for one another.  But should this really occupy the central place we've learned to habitually assign it in our corporate prayer life?  It's almost as if we have rewritten the Lord's prayer like this:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread ... and healing from our hangnails and our Aunt Suzy's gout; and safe travel to Cleveland this weekend; and good grades at school; and a promotion at work; and money to complete our household repairs; and ... and ... and ...
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
This is precisely what the Lord specifically instructed us not to do immediately before giving us the above prayer as a model (minus the red text):  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The practice of "prayer requests" in corporate worship is a cultural device we've grown accustomed to, and which we probably assume was common among Christians ever since Jesus walked the earth, but they have become a huge distraction for us.  Our corporate prayers no longer resemble the Lord's model, because our myriad requests have come to so dominate them.  What's more, our individual prayers--learned in the corporate setting--follow a similar pattern.  They demonstrate our preoccupation with worldly things ... our refusal to give central place to the King:  infinite, eternal, almighty, holy, righteous, just, loving and gracious.  We nod in His direction before we get down to the "real" business of filling out our wish-list.

Frankly, our prayers may be directed to God, but they're mostly about us.

In the Jailer household, we've begun to recondition ourselves.  We now talk much more earnestly about God-centered prayers, beginning with an emphasis on praise.  We've had to relearn prayer, because it's apparent that we just don't know how to do it.  It's been remarkable and instructive to watch our kids struggle through what to say to God when requests are excluded.  We've all been conditioned to ask for stuff ... stuff that Jesus said the Father knows we need before we ask it. 

Our prayer-request culture has taught us that prayer is little more than a sanctified "Dear Santa" letter.  Moving toward God-centered prayer begins with actively constraining our preoccupation with prayer requests.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Pathetic Counterfeit

There are many good books published every year, far more mediocre ones, but just a few truly extraordinary ones.  For me, it doesn't seem too much to call Dr. Larry Crabb's "Inside Out" a landmark publication.  It certainly was life-altering for me.

I was first encouraged to pick this book up shortly after its publication in 1988.  It utterly dismantled me, forcing me to confront the reality that my sin problem was vastly more pervasive than I'd previously understood.  Of course, as a fairly orthodox young Christian man I had come to accept that I was imperfect and in need of grace, but for the first time I was compelled to face how insidiously selfish my motives could be.

Crabb's book laid bare my man-centered notions of "goodness", exposing how even in my "spiritual" moments my self-serving, self-protective thoughts and intentions lurk beneath the facade.

This comprehension is crucial to turning the corner from knowing about grace, to reliance on grace.  It's only when I clearly recognize the "dirty rags" that actually comprise my own righteousness that I can start the journey from self- to God-centeredness in earnest. 

The truth is, for as much as I speak as a Christian, at a certain level I continue to believe and behave like an atheist.  I paint my earthly treasure with a heavenly gild, so as to convince myself that I have actually abandoned self for God.  Yet, it takes surprisingly little to expose me as a fraud ... simply threaten to tear away some part of my carefully constructed little world and panic will begin to set in.  

Crabb paints this realization as necessary to true freedom in Christ:
"The illusion that life in a fallen world is really not too bad must be shattered. When even the best parts of life are exposed as pathetic counterfeits of how things should be, the reality drives us to a level of distress that threatens to utterly undo us. But it’s when we’re on the brink of personal collapse that we’re best able to shift the direction of our soul from self-protection to trusting love. The more deeply we enter into the reality that life without God is sheer desolation, the more fully we can turn toward Him...

"The richest love grows in the soil of an unbearable disappointment with life. When we realize life can’t give us what we want, we can better give up our foolish demand that it do so and get on with the noble task of loving as we should. We will no longer need to demand protection from further disappointment. The deepest change will occur in the life of a bold realist who clings to God with a passion only his realistic appraisal of life can generate."
The fact is, I'm a dying man living as a stranger in a temporary world.  I clean up nicely, however, and have mastered my public persona.  I have achieved a modicum of "victorious Christian living", which qualifies me to be ... a well-dressed dying man living as a stranger in a temporary world.  

Freedom begins with the fundamental understanding that God's grace is not a crutch--it's a stretcher. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

Trading the Scalding Nearness of God for the Lukewarm Comfort of Religion

Last night's Bible study focused on God's character. Eventually we were forced to discuss His justice (gulp), which led us into an examination of our sin (double gulp). That's when the gloves came off, and to her credit, our facilitator kept it real. Romans 7:15-8:2 came front and center:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
It's not until we confront the depth and extent of our sin problem that we are able to break out of our dull religion and into real spiritual vibrancy. Yet moving in this direction runs directly counter to my bias toward worldly comfort.

Proverbs 20:5 says that "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out." The deeper I swim into the purposes of my heart, the darker it becomes. In fact, the closer I get to God, the "dirtier" I see myself.

This is terrifying, and has the potential to crush me, or it can finally break me down to the point where I reconnect with the incredible grace of God. It must be done, or else I surrender my intimacy with God for the comfort of lukewarm religion. I don't want to do it ... I want to feel good about myself. But if I have the courage, it can lead me straight into the arms of my Savior.

It is sadly rare that we dwell on our continuing, intense, immediate need for grace. We generally talk a pretty good game and sing the right songs, but we mostly behave like we needed grace a little bit, a long time ago ... once upon a time when we were "lost". Now what we "need" is other stuff: healing for ourselves or our loved ones, money, a promotion, etc.

Very seldom do we act like we need the grace of our Lord today, just to stand before His throne of God and not be consumed. And thus we trade the scalding nearness of God for the lukewarm comfort of our religion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "Hard to Get" Jesus

This is a very nice rendition of one of Rich Mullins' final compositions, performed by former American Idol contestant Phil Stacey:

Rich didn't have the chance to professionally record this amazing song before his death in 1997, so his demo version was cleaned up and produced posthumously on "The Jesus Record". This recording was made on a boom box in an abandoned Illinois church just nine days before he died, and the amateur quality contributes to the haunting effect of Rich's words.

What's truly wonderful about Rich's music is the poetry, and the way his thirst for God defined his life. What I find convicting about the lyrics is the fact that I seldom, if ever, experience this kind of thirst. They have a Psalm 42 quality about them.

Rich no longer thirsts after God ... he is now fully quenched with Him in heaven, in radiance, in eternity ...

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I'm so scared I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Broken Spirit, The Bent Look

Jim Elliot, martyr of Ecuador, had the uncanny ability to find application on every page of God's Word. I keep a copy of his Journals on my shelf at work. They are very instructive, but perhaps even more humbling to read.

From his entry dated January 26, 1948:

God taught Jacob not to fear Esau, but to fear God. Esau could be appeased, and his face seen without hurt. God must be met with, and the crafty man must struggle with him. Jacob left Peniel with a new name and a new walk. No longer was it the walk of self-confident Jacob but the limp of humbled Israel who saw God face to face and lived. Fear not, Jacob, the face of man, but learn to fear the face of God.

Lord, I fear to ask for a (moonlight rendezvous) with you, but it must need be before I enter the land of blessing and promise. Will You meet me alone and deal with me as You did with the patriarch? His self-confidence hardly surpasses mine, and I hate myself for this, but I pray that You should give me the broken spirit, the bent look, before I proceed to deal with my brothers - whomever they may be.

God has been at work in me of late. I don't know where He's going with this, but I can only pray that He "should give me the broken spirit, the bent look" so coveted by Philip James Elliot.

Friday, August 14, 2009

You're Going to Need Some Empathy

I have a guest post up over at C. Beth's "happy mommy" blog (pause for snide remarks).

This post is very personal, and includes some extracts from a letter I wrote to an old friend, including the following:

You are right when you suggest I lack empathy. To be truthful, I have been
observing that I also have grown increasingly numb over the years. Perhaps for
me it has been the burden of responsibility or the seduction of ease rather than
the pain of a broken heart, yet it is real nonetheless.

You'll have to visit Beth's site to read the rest (Note: Beth refers to me as a Pastor, which is flattering but erroneous). Overall, the gist of the post is that there is something about greater responsibility and visibility that can slowly drain a man of that part of him that used to feel deeply.

I have watched it grow over the years; talked, prayed and fretted over it; and tried to somehow find my way to the other side of it ... but in the end I sense that I have traded my former immature empathy for a more "mature" callousness.

It reminds me a bit of an old Keith Green song:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how
I ought to be
Alive to you
and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you,
your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowing God

Can any praise be worthy of the Lord’s majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” (First paragraph of Augustine’s Confessions)

... then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
” (Pr. 2:5)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30)

This is the third in a series of posts, and the first two have been almost hyperbolic in their negative tone: The first looked at what Proverbs teaches to be the characteristic danger to the young, the “turning away of the simple”. The second followed this up with another lesson from Proverbs, namely that the young are surrounded by enemies, the “seed of the serpent”, who work at enticing them to turn away: They sow doubt. (“Did God actually say, ....”) They try to make sin attractive. (“Stolen water is sweet, ....”)

This picture is daunting enough so that one version or another of what is reported to be Mark Twain’s advice on raising boys may seem to be our only reasonable response. (In one version, he reportedly advised keeping them in a pickle barrel until the age of 12. In another version, he is supposed to have advised putting them in at age 13 for their teenage years.) A less humorous way of putting this would be to say that the proper response to the situation must be fearful and “prophylactic”. Or, trying humor again, perhaps the only way to raise our young is to guard them night and day, “until their brains grow in”. Certainly, many of the citations from Proverbs in the second post seem to lend support to this.

However, it would be very wrong to draw this conclusion, and, I think there are many who can attest that trying to raise children in this spirit can easily lead to disaster. And, looking again at Proverbs, this is not the message we find there. Indeed, the message we find in my favorite chapter of that book, Proverbs 2, is very different: In the first 5 verses, the young person is exhorted to seek wisdom ardently, disdaining the goods of this age, and a wonderful reward for this is held out in verse 5, "... then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.” So the chapter begins by recognizing what Augustine marks out at the beginning of his Confessions as our greatest need and deepest longing, to know God.

The chapter continues in verses 6 to 10 with the promise that, finding God, we will find wisdom, and, in particular, what is sometimes phrased as “wise dealing”: “Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; ....

Only then, does the promise come in verses 11 and following that we might be inclined to grasp at for its own sake: “... discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, ....

So the teaching of Proverbs 2 shows us that, were we to focus first on doing everything we can to keep our young safe, hoping that, later, when they are past the dangerous years, they will seek to know God and to love Him, we would be “180 degrees wrong”! Indeed, we would show ourselves to be valuing a gift of God before Him, and so, strange as it might seem at first, we would show ourselves to be idolaters! Moreover, by our values and example before our young, we would be teaching them to be the same. So it would hardly be surprising if the Lord did not bless this child-rearing paradigm.

As was pointed out above, Proverbs 2 begins with an exhortation to seek wisdom ardently. The citation from 1 Corinthians 1 at the top of this post makes it clear where we are to find wisdom (“and righteousness and sanctification and redemption”): It must be in Christ Jesus. And 2 Corinthians 4 makes it clear that, finding Him, we - and our children - will find “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. In other words, while we are charged, of course, to guard our children and exhort them to wisdom and prudence, our primary charge must be to evangelize them, knowing that, if they truly find Christ, He will safeguard them. Because of this, the main question we must ask ourselves about our young ones is not, “How can I keep them safe?”, but, rather, “How can I share with them how desperately I need the Lord, and what a joy it has been to me to find Him?”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Seed of the Serpent

You an’ me kin live dat high life in New York.
Come wid me, dere you can’t go wrong, sister.

(From Sport’n Life’s enticement of Bess)

... throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse.

(Gang-bangers’ recruitment spiel from Proverbs 1)

Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love
(Wayward wife’s seduction of a young man from Proverbs 7)

Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them." (Romans 1:32)

This is the second in a series of posts on the subject of a “Proverbial” character, “the Simple”. The first post dealt with his characteristic mindset - “turning away” - and the great spiritual danger he is in. This post deals with a fact of life that, in his turning away, he characteristically refuses to believe: There really are people out there - Satan’s agents - who are actively committed to destroying him spiritually.

Such people are introduced almost immediately in the first chapter of Proverbs, as a father implores his son not to join up with “sinners” who “entice” him with a life of bloodshed and booty. We may read the account and think their recruitment spiel can’t be very attractive, with pleas like, “let us lie in wait for blood”. But, if we think in terms of the attraction of a gang, we should be able to see the appeal: Joining them, the youth will become a “big man” and people will fear him. Together, the gang will take whatever they want, and they’ll do it as comrades. But, says the father, in the end, that’s not really what it will all be about. Instead, it really will be all about bloodshed and violence. In effect, the son will become - with the others - a monster, joining them in “setting an ambush for their own lives”. (vs. 18)

Another striking passage on the lure of evil - and the agents who do the luring - is the 7th chapter of Proverbs, where a father is warning his son to beware of the wayward wife and her attraction. Here, it’s easier to grasp at first glance why the young man might be enticed, as she is brazen and forward with him (vs. 13), and, in addition, there seems to be no immediate danger, since the woman’s husband is out of town for a long period (vs. 19,20). But, again, the danger is not so much in being caught (though Proverbs 6 does warn against that), but in being ensnared in a spiritually deadly bondage to sexual sin: “All at once, he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces his liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life.” (vs. 22,23)

One aspect of Proverbs 7 that sheds some light on this is found in the descriptions in the Hebrew of the type of woman that is involved: “... to keep you from the strange woman, from the foreign woman with her smooth words.” (Pr. 7:5) The reason this sheds light on what is going on is that it echos what we find in Proverbs 5, where we have warnings about “the strange woman” (vs. 3); about a situation where “strangers take their fill of your strength and your labors go to the house of a foreigner” (vs. 10); about what is to become of the young man’s “streams” of life - “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you.” (vs. 16,17). And then a last warning, “Why should you be seduced my son, by a strange woman and embrace the bosom of a foreign woman”.

So using the usual translations of what in Hebrew are “a strange woman” and “a foreign woman” obscures the message that a young man who yields to sexual lusts is entangling himself in a whole different culture, with people who, viewed from the point of view of the Kingdom of God, are “strangers and foreigners”. Instead of the nourishment of the Church, that is, of “the seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15), he will have been taken captive by “the seed of the serpent”. Proverbs 5 warns him that the outcome will be hellish: “... at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, ‘How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof!’” (vs. 11,12) “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of disicpline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.” (vs. 22,23) And what is true of the spiritual ruin brought about about by sexual sin is equally true of that brought about by sins of violence, or greed, or deceit.

Is this overstating the dichotomy between the two groups? Are the “strangers and foreigners” who entice the young of the church really that bad, that far gone? Are they really that committed to promoting evil? (If you have seen the movie version of Porgy and Bess, think of Sport'n Life, crooning, "There's a boat dat's leav'n sooooooon for New York". Is he real?) Proverbs speaks uncompromisingly to the matter: “... men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, ....” (Pr. 2:12-14) And again: “... the strange woman, the foreign woman with her smooth words, ..., her house sinks down to death, ....” (Pr. 2:16,18) And again: “... they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” (Pr. 4:16,17) And again, “Her feet go down to death, and her steps lay hold of the path to Sheol; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander and she does not know it.” (Pr. 5:5,6)

Do we really believe the judgment of Scripture in this matter? Do we believe that our young people are the targets of Satan’s agents all around us (and, in some cases, among us)? Do we understand that our young people will resist these truths and, because of that, they will, unless we urgently exhort them to take the truths seriously, be “sitting ducks”? Or have we adopted the point of view of the world around us, and chosen to think that our unbelieving neighbors (and the hypocrites in our congregations) aren’t really all that bad?

The Energy and Arrogance of Youth

Because my current job leaves me with so little time and energy for blogging, I have had to change my approach. My current approach is to wait until I get a convergence of occasion and inspiration and then jump on it. It being Sunday evening, I have a little time, and the inspiration comes from Presbyter's last blog and today's Sunday school lesson: Paul's letter to the Corinthians and its applicability to young Christians as well as young Airmen.

In Chapter 4 of his first epistle, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their arrogant self-righteousness, and for their ingratitude toward both God and the apostles:
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did
not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did
As I told my class this morning, the Corinthian church has much in common with the Honor Guard: both share the enthusiasm and the immaturity of youth (most of our Airmen come directly from basic training). This enthusiasm brings great energy at the same time as it is prone to careening off course--the "all thrust, no vector" phenomenon, as we say in the Air Force.

At the same time, man's sinful inclination toward arrogance is clearly on display in the lives of these young professionals. Just as the spiritually young Corinthians boldy passed judgment on their elders, teachers, and even the Apostle Paul himself, so do young military men and women rapidly progress from trainee to trainer to expert, mastering their particular art and then looking down their noses on those who have not. Of course, this is not unique to any one community, but the preponderance of youth makes the Honor Guard a unique vantage point to watch it take hold.

Arrogance and ingratitude are endemic to our sinful condition, and the young are especially vulnerable, as they have not yet been chastised by the hard lessons of years. Most of us learned to despise the wisdom of our elders from an early age, and then had to unlearn that hubris the hard way. As a young believer, I quickly grew to be an "expert" in many things, and I have grown progressively "dumber" over the years, as the experience of those years has exposed me to my limitations. We naturally cling to our vanity and pride until God lets us follow them to their logical, humiliating conclusion.

Humility would be much easier to learn if we pursued it for its own sake, but we are instead generally forced to embrace it only when the humiliation of failure leaves us with no other option.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Turning Away of the Simple

Will you turn away at my reproof?” (Pr. 1:23, ESV margin)
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” (John Wooden)

The Book of Proverbs lends itself to an instructive daily reading program, due to having 31 chapters of accessible length. A big advantage to doing this is that, after repeating the course for a while, one begins to get a feeling for some of its important characters, ones whose names may cause us to misinterpret them at first.

One such character is “the simple”, and the motivation behind this post is a widespread tendency in the church to fail this fellow: He is in our congregations, and is in great peril, but not only do we often not “move heaven and earth” to rescue him, but we may even praise him for the very traits that endanger him!

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth - ...
.” (Pr. 1:1,4)

We are told at the outset of Proverbs that one of the purposes of the book is, “... to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth”. The association of “simplicity” with youth in this verse gives some of its flavor. Expositors and translators often search for other words than “simple”, because of our tendency to misinterpret it. I have heard “naive” used. But, in the end, I think that only frequent reading of Proverbs really gets the message home:

A “simple” person is wont to “turn away”, as the citation above from Pr. 1:23 indicates, when given advice. He doesn’t believe that life is as serious as his counselors tell him it is, or that things won’t just naturally work out as he wants them to do without all that much trouble. Alfred E. Newman’s mindset is his, “What Me Worry?” The John Wooden quote above also captures much of him - he already “knows it all”.

That this state of mind is often characteristic of the young is hardly a surprise. Most parents have experienced the rolling eyes, the muttered, “Yeah, yeah” (or worse, “Yadda, yadda”) and all the other signs that they’re really “not getting through”. Many have also seen the consequences, since this mindset is pregnant with trouble:

The simple believes everything,
but the prudent gives thought to his steps.
” (Pr. 14:15)
The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
but the simple go on and suffer for it
.” (Pr. 27:12)

However, while the young are prone to thinking this way, the trait is not limited to them. Most of us can think of people we know who have persisted into adulthood with it, and have continued, “believing everything” and “suffering for it”. And yet, while this happens, it happens without the lightness that accompanied it when they were young. Life has caught up with them, and they have, as Derek Kidner points out in his book on Proverbs, found that simplicity is an inherently unstable state:

The simple inherit folly,
but the prudent are crowned with wisdom.
” (Pr. 14:18)

In other words, a simple person is poised on something of a knife-edge: He can listen to the exhortations of his elders and turn to wisdom, or he can fall into folly - that is, become a fool.

With this, we come to another character in Proverbs that we may misinterpret, unless we take the trouble to get to know him. He comes in at least two manifestations there which are of interest here: One of them, “the fool proper” is violent and opinionated:

A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating.
” (Pr. 18:6)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
” (Pr. 18:2)

A man like this rejected advice and counsel when he was young, consequences caught up with him, and his response has been anger: It hasn’t been his fault. “The system” was stacked against him:

When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin,
his heart rages against the LORD
.” (Pr. 19:3)

The other manifestation is the character in Proverbs called “the sluggard”. Our first inclination may be to think that this fellow is something like Beetle Baily, but that’s far from true, and we do better if we think of “the sluggard” as being someone we might call “depressed”. He has a thousand excuses for inactivity, and, indeed is paralyzed by it:

The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside!’
I shall be killed in the streets!
” (Pr. 22:13)
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish
and will not even bring it back to his mouth
.” (Pr. 19:24)

Like the “fool proper”, this type of fool would not listen while young, but his response, instead of “raging against the LORD” is a sort of befuddled whining against Him. He will spend his days, closeted uselessly somewhere, all the while wondering why things haven’t turned out better.

The sluggard does not plow in autumn;
he will seek at harvest and have nothing.
” (Pr. 20:4)

What should be clear to us as we consider these two manifestations of folly is that they are spiritually deadly: These characters are sinking (the sluggard) or charging (the fool) into perdition! And this is the risk that faces the simple as he confronts his choice early in life: Will he listen and seek wisdom, or will he “turn away”:

For the simple are killed by their turning away, ....” (Pr. 1:32)

But, as I asked at the beginning of this post, do we in the church really take the urgency of this situation seriously? Do we really see the simplicity of the young as Scripture sees it, a sinful and dangerous state? Do we respond as the Book of Proverbs does with frequent and frank exhortations to change?

Leave your simple ways, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.
” (Pr. 9:6)

Or do we instead, ape the fads and fashions of the young, and corrupt our teaching and worship in order to attract those caught up in “the youth culture” (including a lot of so-called adults, who should know better by now)?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

That I May Lead This People

Followers of this blog will recognize that my posts have been very sparse since taking command on 23 June. This is, of course, not mere coincidence. Leading a unit like the Honor Guard consumes not merely time, but also physical and emotional energy in large quantities.

Of course, it's not just this blog which has felt the impact, but also my family, friendships, and church relationships. On the other hand, I do sense that my relationship with God has been rekindled in its intensity, as my awareness of my need for His strength and wisdom has increased. The weight of responsibility, as well as running into the "vertical learning curve", has certainly been humbling in an important way.

Each day has had more than its share of exhilarations and frustrations ... there have been inspiring ceremonies to witness; punishments to decide and mete out; personal tragedies and crises to navigate; strategic direction to set; expectations from above, below and personal to manage; and 15-hour days to survive.

In all, Solomon's request--"Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people ..."--seems appropriate to this time. I am, however, grateful for the encouragement I have received along the way.

I received the following early last week from Pastor Allen--who together with his wife Miriam attended my ceremony--and have been waiting for the opportunity to post it:
As I write this letter, it is a week since your installation as the new commander of the Honor Guard. I am sure you are enjoying each day you serve and I hope it is a challenge that you will steadily rise to, to the expectation of the unit and to your own personal sense of accomplishment.
Miriam and I were duly impressed with the ceremony, the words of the outgoing commander and your words, especially the ones directed to me. I was glad I could attend and see you receive this great honor, and I know [Mrs. Jailer] and the children are very proud of you. You know we are, and I wish with all my heart [Presbyter] could have been there to witness this milestone in your life.*

Please inform the officer who was in charge of the Honor Guard (I am referring to the African-American, tall and with a strong voice of command) that he did an excellent job. So much was going on that I did not get a chance to thank him myself.

And I wish to tell you that I have been using the Airman's Bible for devotions. It is a fine translation. Years ago I used the Holman Study Bible and this was before seminary. The spine is broken and the pages are falling out and so it was a joy to get a new one.

Also that was a special thing you did when you presented me with the commander's medal. It is something I will always treasure.

You are doing a good work as a military servant to your country and a servant of Christ. May the Lord grant you strength and wisdom as you serve in these two roles along with that of husband and father.

God bless you.
Your father in the faith,
* (Note: Presbyter wanted to come but time and financial considerations constrained him--I advised him that when I finally relinquish command would be a better time to witness the ceremony.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The First Use of the Law

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people
” (Pr. 14:34)

Three weeks ago, Jailer published a post on “The Political Church”. It received some comment, but I think more is in order, and so I’d like to take a different slant on the subject, using what theologians term “the uses of the law”. One treatment of this subject can be found Berkhof’s Systematic Theology in a section titled “The Threefold Use of the Law”, under “The Word as a Means of Grace”:

The first use Berkhof lists is the law’s “political” use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. .... It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large.” This use is related to what Luther termed in the introductory “declaration” to his great Commentary on Galatians a “civil or political righteousness, [with] which Kings, princes of this world, magistrates and lawyers deal ....” This is the use which concerns us when we wrestle in the church with political activity. So we need to look more closely at it, but it’s helpful to first look at the other two uses of the law, since they cast light on the issues involved.

The second use Berkhof lists is the law’s use to “refute” any notion we may entertain of our own righteousness or ability to please God. The classic Scriptural text that captures this use is Romans 3:19,20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” I have heard pastors characterize this use of the law as “driving us to Christ”. This characterization is related to what Luther termed in the declaration cited above, “the righteousness of faith [in which] we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.” The law’s role in this “alien righteousness” (Luther’s term) is to convince us that we are utterly undone without it. So this use is part of the very central message of the church: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

The compelling importance to the church of the second use of the law is illustrated by the fact that the “third use of the law” is actually controversial. This use of the law, often referred to simply as “the third use”, is called by Berkhof its “normative” use, and a good exposition of it can be found in Questions 90 and 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism. A summary I have heard of this use of the law is that it is a Christian’s "guide to the life of gratitude”. The law is our guide as to how to live in response to His grace to us.

So it may seem surprising that this use of the law would be controversial. But, if we think about it for a moment, the dangers here are very real. What to a grateful Christian, saved by grace and wanting to live in a way that pleases God in gratitude for that, is his guide, can easily be to another listener instructions on how to save himself by works. That is, the concern is that the third use may compromise the second, which is all-important. The tension involved here can be heard in the care Paul takes in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God has prepared good works for us to do, and surely His word is a lamp for our feet (Psalm 119:105), but be careful that it doesn’t become a matter of pride!

This matter was so troubling to the first Lutherans that the legitimacy of the “third use of the law” was hotly disputed among them and this dispute had to be addressed in the Formula of Concord. In that document, written in 1577 to settle various disputes in the protestant German churches, Articles IV, V, and VI are, entitled, respectively, “Of Good Works”, “Of the Law and the Gospel”, and “Of the Third Use of the Law”. From these titles, one can see the concern that the law not be used in any way that would undermine "the righteousness of faith". In these Articles, the document recognizes the legitimacy of the third use of the law, but also recognizes that it must be exercised very carefully.

Returning now to the “political use of the law”, and looking back at the controversy concerning the “third use of the law”, can it be surprising that, if the dangers of pride and works-righteousness are a concern when the church uses “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) to instruct believers on how they themselves ought to live, there is even greater concern when we go beyond that and put our energies into using that precept to work for laws that constrain our unbelieving neighbors to live that way?

Do Christians have a proper concern with such laws? Phrased this way, the answer must surely be “Yes”, since 1 Timothy 2:1-6 makes that very clear. Paul urges in verses 1 & 2 “that ... prayers ... be made ... for kings and all who are in high positions, ....” and part of the reason given in verse 2 is “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life”, but the deeper reason for that is given in verses 3 & 4: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

If we think in terms of the commandment quoted above, consider the social consequences we have seen already from it’s having been ignored in our culture for decades now. An opinion article about illegitimacy by Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal in October, 1993 titled “The Coming White Underclass” made the situation seem pretty grim then, and things have only got worse in the meanwhile. An inference from his point then was that all the reasons for which we would have been reluctant to walk in certain neighborhoods, were about to become true of neighborhoods a whole lot closer to many of us. The consequences of raising children in broken homes (or homes that were never put together in the first place!) are well-documented: Society breaks down. It turns into "a jungle out there"!

The point here, if we come back to 1 Timothy 2, is that the work of the gospel is made much more difficult when it has to be carried out in neighborhoods with bullet-pocked walls, where people are afraid to walk the streets. We may argue that, “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27), but, in the light of 1 Timothy 2:3,4, it’s clear that, while God can indeed save people out of those neighborhoods, He wants us at the very least to be earnest in prayer to the political end that neighborhoods more peaceful than that may be available to those whom He is saving.

But what happens to us, even restricting ourselves to prayer, if we devote so much of our energies to working against the destruction of the family, or the murder of the unborn, or against any one of a number of other abuses, that we lose sight of the fact that we never outgrow our need to “repent and believe in the gospel”? And we know from history, especially when we go beyond prayer, that this danger is very great: In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”, Daniel Walker Howe justifiably spends considerable time on the efforts of Northern Evangelicals to ameliorate different social ills of that era, the most acute of them being slavery. Many who worked for these things were devout believers, who never lost their grip on the Gospel of Grace. But many fell into the trap of believing that they could “bring in the millennium” by political transformation. That is, they fell into the trap of making the “political use” of the law their focus, rather than the use which “drives men to Christ”. Even worse, many had shipwrecked their faith altogether and were Unitarians. This was an issue for the church in this country almost 200 years ago, and it’s no less an issue today: How do we work for God’s common grace in our nation without losing sight of His special grace in our lives?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Curse: Your Desire Will be for Your Husband

I have been unable to shake a thought my spiritual parents shared with me this past weekend--that our confusion over gender roles has its roots in sin's curse, as described by God in Genesis 3:16:
To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."
Perhaps this isn't hot off the news wire, but here's the part that's stuck with me ... I'd always wondered about the "desire will be for your husband" part. I had the vague sense that this language meant that the woman would be unable to shake an emotional dependency on the man, one which would lead her to bend to his subjugation ("he will rule over you").

But Pastor Allen and Miriam shared with me a different thought. It seems the language of "desire" in this instance is like that in Genesis 4:7b, where God warns Cain, "But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

The New Living Translation tries to capture this language, as it translates 3:16b: "And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you."

This translation captures more closely the power struggle that sin prompts between men and women. It's more than just dependency and subjugation, it is a struggle for control brought upon us by the curse of sin. The woman's desire will be frustrated by the man's physical strength, so she must resort to subtler manipulations to wrest control away. He then responds with his own sinful impulse to crush her resistance.

John Piper captures the problem this way:
So the essence of corrupted maleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit women for its own private desires. And the essence of corrupted femaleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit men for its own private desires. And the difference is found mainly in the different weaknesses that we can exploit in one another. As a rule men have more brute strength than women and so they can rape and abuse and threaten and sit around and snap their finger. It's fashionable to say those sorts of things today. But it's just as true that women are sinners. We are in God's image male and female; and we are depraved, male and female. Women may not have as much brute strength as men but she knows ways to subdue him. She can very often run circles around him with her words and where her words fail she knows the weakness of his lust. If you have any doubts about the power of sinful woman to control sinful man just reflect for a moment on the number one marketing force in the world — the female body. She can sell anything because she knows the universal weakness of man and how to control him with it. The exploitation of women by sinful men is conspicuous because it is often harsh and violent. But a moment's reflection will show you that the exploitation of men by sinful women is just as pervasive in our society.
It is into this power struggle that Paul's exhortation to men and women gains special significance:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
The wife must no longer seek to control but to submit ... the husband no longer to subjugate but to love sacrificially. It is truly counterintuitive to our sinful inclinations, and especially difficult and wonderful in its application.