Luke 2.1-7 takes us from the most powerful man in the world to an infant in a cave. That's a pretty stark contrast in a single paragraph. On Sunday, we'll see some of the reasons why Luke tells the story of Christ's birth this way.
by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.
Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."
We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.
Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.
For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.
In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"
This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.
The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.
The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."
But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.
Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)
So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."
by Matthew Raley Let's make that, "Lessons Camping has taught inadvertently."
1. An interpreter of the Bible has to exhibit sound reasoning.
Camping consistently appeals to what he calls the "spiritual" meaning of the text. There's what a passage says, and then there's a secret code in it that contains what God really meant. You crack the code by "comparing Scripture with Scripture," as Camping likes to say. This procedure of his reduces to cut-and-paste: pull this fragment of a verse from here, join it with this bit of numerology from there, and, lo, the "spiritual" meaning is clear.
There is no "spiritual" meaning of Scripture. There's just the meaning. "Spiritualizing" is nothing but an escape hatch for a teacher who can't find a legitimate connection between a biblical passage and life. And Camping is far from being the only pastor who uses it.
We grasp the meaning of the Bible in the usual way: by applying the knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, history, genre, literary allusions, and lines of reasoning. Many pastors do not want to do the work of learning these things, much less be held accountable for demonstrating that their interpretations are valid.
Which brings us to ...
2. Debate among pastors and scholars is a safeguard for congregations.
If you're going to teach God's word, you'd better be prepared to argue your case. Pastors are guilty of a breach of ethics when they refuse to answer questions, or debate the many problems of interpretation, or expose the line of reasoning behind their preaching. A pastor owes it to his people to be accountable to the community of scholars in this way.
Camping is a classic prophet-leader, who relies on his authority over his followers to answer all questions.
Today, just as many pastors don't want to debate, so many believers don't want to hear arguments, regarding debate as inherently divisive. I hear people say, "Let's not argue about words. We all believe the same God."
Their aversion to public argument is foolish. It reduces every disagreement to a matter of preference between the personalities or styles of teachers, instead of recognizing that there are real issues to be decided that are larger than mere points of view. The folly of this reductionism is that a cult leader like Camping thrives in a contest of personal loyalty.
Where mere personal appeals are the issue, believers are not safe. They need to be challenged to think, not just prefer.
3. A Bible teacher is responsible for what he teaches.
Camping keeps saying, as many pastors say, "I'm just teaching the Bible. I'm not responsible for what it says."
This is another escape hatch. As a teacher, I am responsible for what I teach. I am not at liberty to equate my interpretations with the Bible, so that if you reject my teaching you are by definition rejecting God. I am morally accountable for my expositions of Scripture, for the workmanship of my sermons, for the clarity of my reasoning, and for the precision of my applications.
This is an awesome responsibility. A few people's hope, health, and decision-making are deeply influenced by what I say. This reality is what drives me to study: When I come before the throne of God, the Lord will render a verdict on whether I accurately taught his word.
Camping should repent of his self-indulgence. Judgment Day is indeed coming for him.
by Matthew Raley Americans, pragmatic as they are about everything, tend to evaluate God the same way they evaluate their congressman: What have you done for me lately?
There shouldn't be any question on God's part about whether to keep our blessings coming: the financial windfall, the narrow escape from an accident, robust health, and above all, fun. He knows we're not perfect. He knows we try -- at least when we feel like it. And he ought to know that, despite our limitations, we're doing a pretty darn good job with life.
So, when we put a prayer in the heavenly slot, we have a right to hear some clicking, a whir, and a final clop as the item we requested appears. Fair is fair.
The biblical word holy intrudes on this fantasy.
When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple (Isaiah 6), some of the more threatening aspects of the vision are the seraphim. These creatures have six wings apiece: two pairs to pay deference to the Lord by covering face and feet, and one pair to fly. The verb stem of fly is intensive, meaning not merely that they hover, but that they dart around the high throne.
All the while, they call warnings to each other: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" These calls are loud and deep enough to shake the foundations of the temple.
The root idea of holy is separate, or unmixed. To say that God is holy is to call him Other.
But that is not all the seraphim are saying. The Hebrew language is built on repetition; to repeat a word is to compound its force. "Holy, holy" would be the maximum imaginable Otherness. The seraphim are calling, "Holy, holy, holy": the Otherness beyond your ability to imagine.
No wonder Isaiah says, "I'm dead!" He and his people are unclean -- that is, mixed and corrupt, unable to survive the presence of utter holiness.
America pragmatism doesn't work well. We resent that the cosmic vending machine won't deliver on demand, and that heaven is silent when we pound it. If Isaiah's vision is true, then we are operating on a theory of God that is disastrously wrong.
Pragmatists have no category for holiness. This omission means that we not only can't understand God's judgment but, even worse, we can't understand his grace. The Lord says the same thing to us that he said to Isaiah: "I will make you clean."
God's holiness means that every single blessing we receive has crossed the infinite chasm between us and the purity of his being. It means that his extension of cleansing to us is life itself.
by Matthew Raley We tend to associate gratitude with being polite -- or worse, being respectable. And I suspect our view of Christmas is tainted as a result.
In our point of view, I show gratitude to avoid giving offense. After all, if someone helps me out, I don't want to take the help for granted, as if I were entitled to it. That would foreclose the possibility of being helped again. So I show gratitude for the same reason Americans are polite generally: pragmatic vigilance.
The lower form of this pragmatism is to tend appearances. I don't want someone to think I'm ungrateful, so I express gratitude to maintain respectability.
This kind of gratitude is alien to the Bible.
Here's one of the Bible's most important, and most neglected, verses (Romans 1.21). "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened."
To explain the depth of human perversity, Paul says that we did not "honor God as God." God is the creator of all things (vv 19-20, 25). He has a rank that is infinitely above ours: creator to creature. Honor in this case is not a matter of politeness, but of profound, inflexible, eternal indebtedness.
Giving thanks is the payment. The gratitude is not about being appreciative, as if we were supposed to say, "Wow, it was so nice of you to make me and all my stuff!" The gratitude is what we owe God when we cannot repay the debt. "You gave me life. I can never repay what I owe you. But I can live for your glory in humble gratitude."
I understand this best as a parent. When my sons spontaneously say, "Thanks, Dad!" for something I do, I am repaid in the coin of honor. More than the thing I provide, they value me.
How does this concept of gratitude relate to Christmas?
Christ Jesus came to this world to give his life for our redemption. He did so when we were still ungodly -- still expressing ingratitude for created life, giving no honor to him as God (Romans 5.8). So what we celebrate in this season is the double-gift of life that is doubly beyond our ability to repay.
We are celebrating our debt of gratitude.
by Matthew Raley Bitterness is a conviction that your life is filled with unfairness. It is one of the most common spiritual conditions I come across, and it is debilitating. Here are some characteristics of bitterness that I've noticed in myself and others.
1. Bitterness is a story.
When someone expresses his bitterness, it has characters and plot. "First they took my lunch money. Then they stole my invention -- which would've made me rich. Then they cut off my unemployment. And now you want a tip! This always happens to me!"
Here is Jacob's response when his oldest son Reuben needs to take the youngest son to Egypt to buy food during a famine (Genesis 42.36): "You [Reuben] have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me." Jacob has been telling himself a story about Reuben.
A good start at dispelling bitterness is to notice the stories you tell yourself.
2. The bitter story is deceitful.
The story usually lumps disparate people into one category. They stole my lunch money, my invention, and my unemployment benefits. You want a tip. Ergo, you belong with them. Time to challenge the composition of they.
Also, the story interprets actions as if they are about "me." Life is unfair because people are always against me, stealing from me, dissing me. But, reality is, no one thinks about me as much as I do.
Jacob's story leads him to blame Reuben for events that were not Reuben's fault. But it makes total sense to Jacob because deception wears a cloak of plausibility.
Another way to dispel bitterness is to challenge your own assumptions.
3. Bitterness ignores God's story.
Because I am the center of the bitter story, and my point of view dominates, I can edit the parts that confuse the plot. The part where, for instance, someone gave me a sandwich after my lunch money went missing. The part where my invention that was going to make me billions didn't actually work. Or the part where I started a new job after my unemployment ran out. These scenes mess up the story, so out they go.
In Genesis 42, Jacob doesn't know yet that Joseph is alive, that it was Joseph who arrested Simeon in Egypt, and that it is Joseph who will save the family from starvation and bring reconciliation. And Jacob has conveniently forgotten how God protected and provided for him before.
God is busy working his agenda for our lives, and he is not going to adjust it to our preferences. Nor should he: his agenda is good. So, in addition to forgiveness, the most helpful single way to dispel bitterness is hour-to-hour gratitude, which prevents the bitter story in the first place.
by Matthew Raley The word forgive has fallen into disuse, and we've substituted the phrase move on. But the two actions we describe are different.
The object of my "moving on" or "forgiving" is a wrong someone has committed against me.
To move on is to leave that wrong behind on life's road. I strive to put my relationship with the wrong-doer on a new course. I also strive to prevent my emotions returning to the wrong, so that I stop feeling angry, resentful, or grieved. And I strive to think of myself as no longer defined by the wrong: I am not a victim.
The wrong is still there. I am choosing to ignore it.
To forgive is more radical. The New Testament word aphiemi does have the idea of "letting go," but with a greater specificity. It came to be used as a legal term for debt cancellation and divorce. A creditor's claim no longer adhered to the debtor; a husband's claim no longer adhered to the wife. In forgiveness, what is owed is zero.
This is the word Jesus uses when a paralytic is brought to him (Mark 2.1-12). He says to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." He is not saying, "God has moved on from all of the wrongs you have committed." He is saying, "The claims against you are canceled."
The enormity of Jesus' statement is obvious to the religious leaders listening. "He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" To zero-out the moral debts we owe is an action only God can take. Jesus heals the paralytic to verify that he does indeed have the authority to forgive. And in doing so he is claiming to be God.
The basis of Jesus' authority is that he "gives his life as a ransom for many," a payment to redeem sinners from their debts (Mark 10.45).
Our "move on" method of repairing personal harm doesn't work.
For starters, it doesn't deal with the nature of wrong-doing. Harm leaves a debt. Unpaid debt is loss. Every time I hear someone say he has "moved on," the very next words out of his mouth reassert the loss he bears. At one moment he pretends the loss is negligible, and at the next he proves how heavy the loss remains.
Deeper, "moving on" never discharges the wrong-doer. His wrong is still back there on the road. Let two people's road cover ten years, and let the road be covered with harm's wreckage, and then see how free and honest the two are after all their moving on.
We've probably stopped forgiving not because we don't know what it means, but because we do know. We have no real basis for canceling debts, and we refuse to lie. We move on instead.
What would happen in our relationships if our own debts were canceled, and if we canceled each other's debts on the basis of Christ's payment? Christianity would happen.
by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.
If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.
President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.
A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.
So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.
Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?
Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?
We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.
Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.
None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.
If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:
Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.
And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)
If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.
by Matthew Raley On Sunday, I preached in an international church in Penang, the beginning of an intense week of speaking.
The church meets in a hotel ballroom, and is a diverse group, reflecting the variety of people who live here. I met a professor from Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, a Malaysian Chinese who had been a student in the U.S., a South African couple, and several Canadians and Indians. There was also an American student who had grown up in Penang, but is now attending Simpson University, just an hour north of my home.
It was especially encouraging to see the open communication in this body of believers. There was a time of testimony in response to my sermon that set the tone for many conversations afterward. People hung around to talk for quite a while -- always a good sign for a church.
This morning, I spoke for about five hours at Malaysian Baptist Theological Seminary, with some short breaks. I did the first four sessions of my class on story-telling and biblical literature, and also preached in chapel.
My students are superb. They are Chinese, Korean, and Indian, with one American -- all ages, men and women. I am impressed by their understanding of the art of teaching, of the English language, and above all of the Bible. Right away they were asking pointed, informed, and perceptive questions. I haven't had such a good time teaching in a long, long while.
My sermon in chapel was my first experience speaking through a translator (Chinese). It took me a while to get the rhythm of it, but by the middle I felt that Miss Koh Tan Peng and I were working smoothly. The place was packed with people from all over the world, and Bridget and I were given a warm welcome.
Three things were of great help to me today: water, air-conditioning, and immediate unity with this body of believers.
by Matthew Raley As a parent, I find it easy to think that my boys are rebelling against my rules. They don't like the limits I set, so they try to overturn them.
Until recently I have read the stories of Israel's rebellions against the Lord from the same perspective. The people hated the law, so they disregarded it. My misconception could stem from the definition of rebellion: it is the overthrow of authority. So the target of rebellion would seem to be law.
Yet, when Moses writes his song of witness against Israel's rebellions (Deuteronomy 31-32), the law of God is only a secondary focus.
Here is the song’s theme (32:4): “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” This teaching about the Lord’s name (32:1-3) should “drop as the rain” and “distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass.” The knowledge of God’s faithfulness renews the nation’s life, keeping it tender and green.
The witness Moses writes is not first concerned with the nation’s sin, but with God’s faithfulness.
Moses sings of it both in the past and the future.
The Lord found Jacob “in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness.” There the Lord kept Jacob “as the apple of his eye,” leading him into the fruitful land (32:10-14).
The Lord’s faithfulness will not change in coming generations, even after Jacob rebels against him. As a contrast to helpless idols (32:36-43), the Lord will “vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” God proclaims, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me.” Ultimately, he “cleanses,” or atones for, the land.
Here is what I learned from the song about rebellion's target. Moses does not charge the people with rebelling against law, but against grace.
To be sure, Israel has broken God’s law, and no man can itemize the trespasses in greater detail than Moses. Yet Moses charges the people with rebellion against the Lord’s protection (32:11), guidance (32:12), and material gifts (32:13-14). He portrays the Lord as jealous, like a spurned lover (32:21). Israel's rebellion is perverse, in other words, because the people cast aside God's goodness.
This means that the four characteristics of rebellion all target God's faithfulness. Idolatry says that the living God cannot be trusted because we cannot manipulate him. The principal lies rebels tell are slanders against God's record of goodness. Rebels scoff at God's gifts, especially his forgiveness. A rebel's refusal to listen is driven by his bitter determination that God is against him.
Studying Moses' song has clarified my focus as a dad.
Rules matter. But I am not to be focused on them primarily. I am to call on my boys to trust me, and I am to demonstrate trustworthiness.
For instance, I have been deliberate about keeping my promises to the boys. But I want to go further. I want to gain their implicit confidence. I do this by taking the initiative to help them with problems, not just waiting for them to ask for help. I also nurture this confidence by helping them express themselves when they're having trouble, and by paying careful attention to their emotions. I want them to assume that I am for them, not against them.
Here's what I've found in applying this focus. When my boys trust me, the rules usually aren't an issue for them. They tend to comply readily.
In other words, this approach is a way to teach obedience toward God in faith. In Christ, God's authority is expressed toward us through grace.
by Matthew Raley We've been seeing that the sin of rebellion is, at its core, a refusal to deal with reality.
Moses' description of Israel in Deuteronomy 31-32 shows a nation unwilling to worship the real God, serving only their imagined deities. They were unwilling to face the real past and present truthfully, but fabricated bitter histories. And they were unwilling to face life with humility, preserving a deluded superiority with scoffing.
The fourth characteristic of rebellion in Deuteronomy is foolish obstinacy. Repeated experience of reality will not turn Israel from folly.
Moses calls the people “stubborn” (31:27), noting that their rebellion during his life will only intensify after his death. In his song, he dramatizes their refusal to listen, calling them “foolish and senseless,” and pleading (32:6-7), “[A]sk you father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.”
Yet again, this is a quality all too familiar in the nation’s history.
The Lord called the people “stiff-necked” after they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:9). Nothing had changed by Ezekiel’s time. The Lord warned him (Ezekiel 3:7), “But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me. Because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.”
Again, the logic of rebellion dictates this attitude. No rebel can admit having learned from anyone except himself. To learn from experience would be to admit that he was wrong. To listen to others would be to admit that their priorities matter. To be taught, by definition, is to be turned from one’s own way. None of these things are tolerable.
The rebel would rather self-destruct than submit.
Now, there is an important consideration for a parent in this regard. I worry about a child who has no fight.
One of the biggest reasons I am against authoritarian parenting systems that emphasize compliance -- systems like Michael Pearl's, for example -- is that they are designed to break a child's will. Not soften. Break. That is why Pearl describes his system in terms of conditioning animals.
It doesn't take too much acquaintance with life to realize that a child is going to need his or her will to be strong. Adults have to make decisions, and make their decisions stick. Christ calls us to persevere against the world's constant wickedness. A Christian's duty is frequently to stand alone.
In light of this, I am not raising compliant boys. I am fortifying their wills for the days ahead, when they will need every last bit of resolution for godliness.
Is there a difference between resolution and obstinacy?
I believe there is. I've noticed that resolute people are able to persist in moving toward their goals because they adapt. They are profound learners, and quick listeners. That is, they do not ignore reality, but find real ways around real barriers.
A resolute leader such as Lincoln offers a good example. He refused to consider any outcome of the Civil War but restoring the Union. But in his drive toward that goal, he adapted to circumstances constantly. He changed his generals, maintained political coalitions, and managed the timing of such pronouncements as the Emancipation Proclamation. He adapted.
So how do we foster a resolve that is tempered by a willingness to learn?
Teaching a high view of God is the answer once again. When our children are taught to listen to him, to learn his ways, and to pursue his goals, they inherit a balance of traits than can only come from reverence. Our awe of God teaches us both what is yet to be learned and what must never be compromised.
Next week, we'll discover from Deuteronomy what may be the most important point of all about rebellion.
by Matthew Raley Rebellion in a child is not a phase, and it doesn't just happen. Rebellion is the sin of disregarding or overthrowing authority, and as we saw last week, it is the convergence of four patterns.
These four are on display in Deuteronomy 31-32, where Israel's past and future rebellions are confronted. In chapter 31, the Lord commands Moses to draft a written witness against Israel to set beside the ark of the covenant. Chapter 32 contains the witness itself, a song about the Lord's faithfulness and the nation's twisted response.
Let's think in more detail about the first pattern described in these chapters, idolatry.
After Moses’s death, the Lord says (31:16), Israel “will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them . . . .” The sexual metaphor captures the intimacy of Israel’s coming betrayal: having taken God’s faithful love the people will reject any bond with him.
Moses dramatizes this unfaithfulness in the song of witness (32:16-18). “They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods . . . They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently.”
Rebellion through idolatry has been characteristic of Israel throughout Moses’s life. Most notoriously, the nation made the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32:1-6), calling it by the Lord’s name and proclaiming that it had brought them out of Egypt. Israel also worshiped Baal of Peor in Moab (Number 25:1-5).
Israel’s idolatry after Moses is well-documented in the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel, whom the Lord called to “nations of rebels” (Ezekiel 2:3), offers an important reference point. He gave repeated descriptions of the nation’s whoring after false gods, with abominations even brought into the temple (8:7-18). Inside, “engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel.”
So Israel's rebellion both under Moses and after him consistently involved the worship of false gods.
The close association between the scriptural concepts of rebellion and idolatry is no accident. Rebellion has a perverse logic. The Bible’s God is sovereign, making submission to him the only option. For the rebel to gain control of his life, he must fabricate a new god, a pliable deity whom he can manipulate through rituals and rationalizations. A woman who was leaving her husband put this rationale to me quite succinctly: “My god wants me to be free.”
People often grow up treating God like he’s made of Legos.
There’s a pile of ideas of about God on the carpet, and your job is to assemble God out of them. So you try different ideas and see how God looks. If an idea about God’s justice doesn’t work for you, it’s like a black Lego that looks out of place. Pull it off and try a red one, a piece of mercy perhaps, and see if it doesn’t look better. Or if a Bible verse seems like a “hard saying” to you, it’s nothing more than a block that’s too big. The Bible has other verses. Find a smaller block.
Whatever. They’re your Legos.
If you want to nurture your child in a way that prevents rebellion, that first thing you have to do is teach him about idolatry. Train him that the real God does not conform to his imagination.
One summer when Dylan was 2 years old, we stopped in Ashland, Oregon, one of neo-paganism's many little pleasure domes. In a store, I noticed a wall full of Buddhas and a sampling of Hindu gods. I walked Dylan over to a shelf at his eye-level, got down on one knee, pointed to a fat and happy Siddhartha, and said, "Son, this is an idol. Many people believe this is a god."
"People pray to him, and even bring him food."
I pointed at the whole wall of shelves. "This store sells idols."
I did this more than once when Dylan was small. He is now 9, and has a deep aversion to idols. The other night, I was reading him The Lightning Thief, the well-written series opener by Rick Riordan that treats Greek mythology as if it were happening today. We enjoyed it enormously. After I closed the book, he knitted his eyebrows and said, "I can't understand why anyone would pray to those gods."
When we instill the truth early that God is God, and will not yield His being to the human imagination, we are building powerful categories for discerning reality from fantasy. Further, we are teaching a child to yield to reality -- the one thing a rebel will never do.
by Matthew Raley One day when I was 11, I stood eyes down in our family’s laundry room while Dad bawled me out. I don’t remember what I had done. But I do remember taking my eyes off a pile of dirty rags and giving Dad the sharpest look my face could make. And I remember the look as a conscious decision.
Dad changed. His voice dropped. “You are looking at me with defiance. Don’t you know that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft?”
He was quoting the verse we examined last week, 1 Samuel 15.23, in which the prophet defines rebellion as the overthrow or disregard of authority, and the search for power.
Rebellion is not a phase in a child's life. Identity formation is a phase; rebellion is a sin.
It takes strength for a child to maintain defiance against his parents -- moral and emotional strength. Morally, a child has to be convinced that his defiance is right. Emotionally, he has to be able to hold his course without parental approval.
Maintaining strength requires the child to twist his mind and habits with falsehoods.
The twisting is on display in Deuteronomy 31. The Lord and Moses confront the rebellions of Israel, both in the past and those coming in the future. The passage shows that rebellion is a close association of four distinct sins, all of which give rebels a feeling of empowerment.
The Lord says (31:16) that after Moses' death Israel “will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them . . . .” That is, they will leave the true God who loves them, has brought them out of Egypt, and is giving them their own land, and will follow the gods of their imagination.
Rebels have to receive spiritual blessing from somewhere. They fabricate gods who will meet the need. A woman recently told me she was leaving her husband. "Your God wants me to be in bondage," she said. "My god wants me to be free."
The Lord tells Moses that Israel will “break my covenant that I have made with them,” a phrase he repeats four verses later (31:16, 20). He is referring back to the covenant at Sinai and ahead to the renewal of that covenant in the land (Joshua 24.19-22). The nation is going to lie.
I have noticed a pattern in rebellious people, both young and old, of deceit. They create different personalities for different sets of people. They make up half-histories of ill treatment -- legitimate claims, but highly selective. And they tell outright falsehoods.
The Lord foretells that the Israelites “will despise me,” having “grown fat” from the land’s fruit (31:20).
A rebel’s emotional life needs the energy drink of scoffing. The feeling of superiority, of remaining unaffected by others, and of knowing people’s “real” motivations becomes the animating power of the rebel’s personality. There’s security in sarcasm.
Moses tells the people (31:27), “For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!”
Rebels do not listen. They debate, rationalize, and shift blame. But they do not consider the points of view they don't agree with.
We will look at each of these characteristics in more detail over the next few weeks.
For now, here's the point. I do not think of my fatherly task as controlling my boys behavior at all levels so as to make them compliant. Instead, my task is to counter these four sins separately, before they join. My boys need to learn how to gain strength from the true God, Jesus Christ, strength from being personally truthful, from cultivating humility, and from a habit of listening to counsel. They need to draw strength from grace.
This is how my parents raised me. So, in our laundry room when I consciously attempted defiance, I did not have the toxic compound of sins to carry it off. My strength was already coming from good sources. I submitted sincerely, for the right reasons.
Looking back, it was a crucial moment in the formation of my identity as a man.
by Matthew Raley The ten commandments get plenty of evangelical attention if they are engraved on courthouses. But tucked away in Exodus 20, not so much. The reason, I think, has to do with evangelicals' informal hermeneutic: the parts of the Bible that are "culturally specific" do not apply today because "culture has changed." Like other people with the issue of ethics, evangelicals preserve their wiggle-room.
So, some parts of the Decalogue fare better than others. The command against murder is still cited, as is the command against bearing false witness. The commands against coveting or breaking the Sabbath are usually ignored. The other commands receive lip-service, like the command against making idols, but only scant consideration.
The command to honor your father and your mother is in this last category. Groups of children are guaranteed to hear that they should obey their parents, and they will also hear Paul's comment about an attached promise in Ephesians 6. But there's a little detail you've probably never heard -- just a bit of trivia, I suppose, but I find such arcane matters entertaining. The original audience for this command was composed chiefly of adults.
The idea was that every grown-up would honor his father, and not just while his father lived, but also in memory. In this way, children would be taught by example, not just homily, that an elder is to be treated with reverence, deference, and attention.
I bring this up because I'm thinking through the political alliance evangelicals have maintained with the conservative movement. I've noted that there are three strains that constitute the movement, and that each one needs fresh biblical evaluation so that evangelicals can reform their view of citizenship. We've looked at the Bible's broad teaching about the state, and about the concern of the libertarian strain of conservatism for property, work, and profit.
A second strain of conservatism is traditionalist. As I've already written, these conservatives are primarily concerned with the preservation of inherited ways of life, and of the union of generations.
This kind of conservatism grew out of biblical soil.
Consider what it meant practically for an Israelite man to honor his parents. In the first place, the God his father and mother worshiped would remain his God. The fidelity his parents maintained -- fidelity to God, to each other sexually, to truthfulness and the rights of others to their lives and property -- he would continue to foster in his own heart and in the hearts of his children. Doing so, he would ensure "that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you."
In other words, the command to honor father and mother is the command to pass on the Decalogue itself, and to reform practices that have departed from it, as an expression of familial loyalty. It is a command to guard the comprehensive inheritance you have received, materially and spiritually. It creates a society that measures itself from the past forward, not from the future backward.
There is no way to keep this command on the surface of your life. It can't be done with postmodern irony. It can only be kept from the depths of your heart.
Further, this is not a "culturally specific" item that can be discarded. It is essential to the ethical world of the Bible. A society that has "outgrown" this command is a society we must defy.
Here's what bothers me.
Evangelicals have devoted vast resources to political battles for conservative policies. They have poured money into state referenda, gaining majorities on councils, and electing candidates for national office, all with a rhetoric that calls for "traditional values."
But if you look at the local churches evangelicals have built, you find no emphasis on honoring your father and your mother -- the molten core of biblical civics.
Indeed, evangelical churches have transformed into youth-oriented, age-denigrating activity centers. Bill Hybels and his ilk have spent the last three decades railing against "dead traditions" and effacing the inheritance of symbols, songs, and doctrine from public worship. Most churches will not consider pastoral candidates over 50 anymore. I know a man in his 60s who has led international organizations, whose churches have grown, and who is wiser than ever, but whose resume cannot attract attention. The Christian psychology industry, when it is not busy advising divorce, is telling adults to cut off their parents.
In politics, traditional rhetoric. At church, wisdom-deleting practice. I am not denying the many complexities of staying flexible in a changing society, but the degree of evangelical refusal to pay honor to elders is hypocrisy -- or lunacy.
For churches truly to advance traditionalism, they would have to teach and practice the 5th commandment. And that would turn their operations upside down. Instead of age-segregation, they would mix generations. Instead of dumbing down their preaching, they would restore accurate measures of greatness -- the measures of biblical history, not youthful fantasy.
The Bible teaches that the ethics of the people rule the nation. And the fruits of evangelical rule are . . . ?
by Matthew Raley When I started this series on the evangelical alliance with political conservatism, I noted three questions to explore biblically. Evangelicals should act as citizens from a biblical framework, not an ideological one. So, does the Bible teach a worldview of citizenship that coheres with conservatism?
Last week, we surveyed the Bible's view of the state in general, finding that government is set up by God for a nation's justice and security, and that government must not control worship. The real governor of a nation is the ethic of the people, the way citizens live day-to-day.
In this context, the first of my questions is, "What does the Bible teach about work, property, and profit -- the preoccupations of contemporary libertarianism?"
The Bible teaches that work is one of the most basic ways human beings glorify God. Proverbs 22.29 is typical: "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men." Working skillfully to generate a return of abundance is at the heart of the mandate God gave human beings in the beginning (Genesis 1.28; 2.5-15).
Laziness is condemned, sometimes in comical terms, as in Proverbs 26.13-16. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth." In Proverbs 24.30-34 the wise man passes by the field of a sluggard, "and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down."
The Bible teaches at length about caring for the poor, but it always calls for work as an expression of their dignity. For instance, farmers were to leave the corners of their field unharvested so that the poor could glean what they needed (e.g. Ruth 2). This perspective continues in the New Testament, as in 2 Thessalonians 3.6-12, where Paul commands, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."
I was struck by PBS's American Experience this week, which told the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt envisioned building up a generation of young men through hard work, a vision that came from a biblically formed worldview. Anything like the CCC today would be viewed as heinous cruelty because our concept of work is messed-up.
The Bible's teaching on property is summed up in the 8th commandment (Exodus 20.15): "You shall not steal." The words of Proverbs 22.28 are frequently repeated: "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set." (Note the cross-references.) The act of taking property is, in biblical terms, one of the lowest forms of wickedness. A key proof of King Ahab's villainy, for instance, is his seizure of a vineyard (1 Kings 21).
Indeed, it's not too much to say that the entire law of Moses is founded on the distinction between Mine and Not-Mine.
We have a society today in which we call things Mine when they are purchased with unsecured debt, and in which asset-backed notes can back other notes (which the Bible would call fraud, since the same surety backs two debts). We have a messed-up concept of property.
One of the best places to see the Bible's teaching on profit is Proverbs 31.10-31, a description of the wise woman. She works hard, directs laborers, trades goods, manages and expands the family's properties, and makes a clear profit. Her life is ennobling, both for herself and her community.
The Bible puts limits on the profit motive by making a distinction between work and exploitation. The 4th commandment about the Sabbath, or ceasing, applied to all servants and animals, not just masters, on the seventh day of every week (Exodus 20.8-11). Every seventh year there was a Sabbath for the land (Leviticus 25.1-22). There were also strong protections against the exploitation of the powerless in the law, comprehended in Proverbs 28.8.
Two observations about all of this.
First, the Bible's concept of civil rights is strong, but is not founded on abstractions. It is tied tangibly to work, property, and profit. This is the most fundamental problem between the Bible and the political left, which abstracts a growing list of entitlements based on nothing but egalitarian rhetoric. This is great for the lawyers, and promises to get even better. But it has nothing to do with the biblical concept of justice.
Second, the tendency of libertarianism to see the profit motive as the cure for all social problems often produces exploitation, which the Bible calls sin. No state can overlook exploitation without destroying civil society.
What does all this have to do with last year's financial meltdown?
Just this: no legislature passed a law saying American households had to run up unsecured debts, deplete what little equity they had by refinancing their mortgages, and bet on ever-escalating home prices to make them rich in retirement. The American people themselves did this because their degraded ethics of work and property left them with an exploitative view of profit.
The Bible's view of national life is accurate: the ethics of the people rule.
by Matthew Raley In modern philosophy (as I sketched here), the dignity and freedom of the individual have been troubled. Here is how Reinhold Niebuhr summarized one aspect of the problem in The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949, p 21):
Modern man ... cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.
In postmodern culture, exhausted with these questions, the individual has become an autonomous consumer of mass culture: self-invented, alienated, rootless, and unaccountable to permanent relationships. She mines her passions in search of vitality, a search for which boundaries, reasoning, and even relationships are impediments.
The postmodern individual understands herself from the standpoint of natural vitality, but in her the outward-reaching wonder of modern romanticism is dead, replaced by an inward-reaching nihilism.
The iPod worshiper I described last week is little different. He or she comes to public worship wanting the freedom to sing alone to God with others who are also singing alone to God. The iPod worshiper knows no other mode for passionate freedom but the personal, subjective, solo mode. Christ and his community are understood from the standpoint of self, which is antithetical to Paul's description of body life in Ephesians 4-5.
(I think the younger you are, the more likely you are to identify with iPod worship. The older you are, the less you identify with it, because to some degree you have experienced a culture held in common.)
To revive evangelical worship, most believers jump to the issue of music style. "Naturally, the style I like is what will revive worship." But I will address music style last in this series, because style needs to serve many, many other considerations. The reason we now have churches full of iPod worshipers is that all other considerations of worship were made to serve style.
What we need to work on exegetically is this problem of individuality-in-community. What is individuality, and what is it for? What is personal freedom, and what is it for? What is the nature of the bond between individual Christians, and what is that bond for? What do individual Christians owe in light of their bond with each other?
If we have some answers to these questions, the matter of what and how to sing may become clearer.
Let's take some direction about individuality from Ephesians.
1. In Ephesians, we understand ourselves not from the standpoint of our past, present, or preferences, nor from our rationality, nor from our natural drives. In fact, we don't view ourselves from the standpoint of self at all, but from that of Christ.
Paul describes a variety of individuals at work in the community of believers, each part "working properly" in the body -- that is, contributing a unique strengths and actions to shared life. But the individual parts all "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ." (4.15-16)
So the Jewish Christian descended from Levites has a unique role in the Ephesian church. He contributes a practical knowledge of how Israel worshiped, an instinctive appreciation of sacrifice for sin, and also an instinctive knowledge of the deceitful power of self-righteousness. The Greek Christian, a former worshiper of Diana, let's say, contributes very different strengths to the other Christians in Ephesus: he knows the deceit of sexual immorality as a prop for idolatry, as well as the power of Christ to save a man from it.
Niebuhr said, "The Christian faith in God's self-disclosure, culminating in the revelation of Christ, is thus the basis of the Christian concept of personality and individuality." (p 15) The Jewish man and the Greek man have no need to compromise their uniqueness in the community of believers. They are each connected directly to their Savior, Jesus Christ. Niebuhr added, "To understand himself truly means to begin with a faith that he is understood from beyond himself, that he is known and loved of God and must find himself in terms of obedience to the divine will." (p 15)
These two individuals are outward-reaching in their self-understanding. They are understood. Therefore they will come to understand themselves. The inward-reaching iPod believer needs to take out his earphones and leave the tiny world in which he thrives.
2. In Ephesians, we do not efface what we are, or where we came from, but we submit to Christ as he redeems what we are.
The Jewish man and the Greek man remain Jewish and Greek. The Jewish man's emotional life still revolves around the Psalms, while the Greek man's emotional life remains tied to the sound and form of hymns. Nothing will change that. One man is not required to conform to the other. Rather, Christ takes what each man is and Christ expresses his own self in each man.
And public worship reflects their individuality (5.19). Each individual contributes his or her unique strength in Christ to the love of the community, and he also receives strength in Christ from the community. The Greek man rejoices in the Jewish man's testimony, and vice-versa.
In these two points, I find freedom without autonomy. As followers of Christ, the Jewish and Greek men are not self-invented, alienated, and rootless. They are defined in relationship. In that relationship with Christ, they are unique and they are also accountable.
In particular, as I'll sketch next week, they are accountable for how they relate to each other.
by Matthew Raley Let's step out of the mode of persuading skeptics for now, and think more specifically about the experience of conversion. We'll get back to the issues of persuasion next week. They're important. But I'm convinced we can't construct a sound apologetic for our Christian faith without understanding of what has happened to us.
Jesus is specific in John 10 about what moves people to follow him: recognition.
"The sheep hear [the Shepherd's] voice." (10.3) "[T]he sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow ... for they do not know the voice of strangers." (10.4-5) "I know my own and my own know me." (10.14) "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold ... and they will listen to my voice." (10.16) "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (10.27)
Jesus is describing at least two things.
There is a quality in his voice that turns his sheep. The quality is personal, unique to Jesus, and it is communicable from him to his sheep. In other words, there are subjective characteristics inside Jesus (pardon the redundancy, but I'm emphatic about this point) that are expressed in his voice. His interior qualities constitute the object of the sheep's recognition.
I know him.
Further, there is something in his sheep that instinctively responds to his voice. Subjectively, each sheep recognizes the qualities of the Shepherd through the medium of his voice. This experience is, by definition, not something one person can share with another, but only describe.
So Jesus teaches that the decisive factor in conversion is an interaction. While the experience is subjective, Jesus clearly expects people to reflect on it. He describes, in other words, a reasoning process that accepts subjectivity as part of decision-making.
Last Sunday evening, as part of our church's discussion of the morning's sermon, I asked participants to tell me how they knew God was speaking to them. They described several characteristics, of which I give two:
1. Automatic change.
One woman said that after her conversion to Christ some of behaviors simply reversed. She no longer did the things she had desired in the past. It was a change she couldn't help noticing, but had never initiated.
2. A source of thoughts and motives other than self.
Several people described the experience of thinking, saying, or doing things that they could not attribute to themselves. The source, they said, had been Other. This is a different experience from an intuition or sub-rational process issuing in an action. A person can say, "I don't know why I did that," while still recognizing that the action came from him- or herself. But the participants described actions that they could not recognize as coming from themselves.
There were other characteristics, but these two illustrate that the people could describe a specific kind of experience.
Remember, we're out of the mode of persuading skeptics. We'll get back to it later.
Suppose we accepted this subjectivity as a legitimate part of spiritual decision-making. Is there a basis for reasoning about it? True, information from the two kinds of experiences above is fragile, and will only bear so much weight. The information is falsifiable, and is not open to objective proof. Even so, can we reason about this kind of subjectivity?
Consider two analogies.
The many indicators of falling in love are also fragile, also open to falsification, and all too frequently misunderstood. But romantic love is nevertheless a real experience.
A more fruitful comparison might be made with pain. Medicine does not have truly objective measures of pain, but tries to plumb the experience in search of diagnosis. The question What do you feel? is primary. Such information as location, kind, and scale of pain is limited by the patient's ability to communicate, verbally and physically. The information is indirect, fragile, and open to falsification.
But pain is real. Reflection and conversation about it can yield legitimate conclusions.
I believe our understanding of evangelism and apologetics should be revolutionized.
No one's decision-making process is purely objective. Decisions that mix objective and subjective priorities are the only decisions human beings are capable of making. So in evangelism, we shouldn't merely give evidence that points to Christ, urging people to make an inference that Christ's claims are true. Nor should we merely give evidence that proves competing claims false, hoping that people will convert to Christ by an analytical process of elimination.
Rather, the evangelist's goal should be to nurture an awareness of Christ's voice, the recognition of which is all the evidence people will need to follow him.
The other day, my friend was trying to find his way out of a spiritual fog. He felt fearful, and he needed solutions. He told me that he was more intellectual than emotional, and that merely trying to change his feelings would not be solid enough. He needed something for his mind. Many believers struggle with how the Christian life becomes real. For some, like my friend, the key is what they learn intellectually. Spirituality isn't real until it can be put into words. For others, the key is what they experience -- an emotion, a connection between a prayer and an event, an intuition that isn't necessarily articulate.
So, when Jesus says repeatedly in John 10 that "the sheep know the shepherd's voice," the interpretation of his words is a source of contention. Certainly a direct, personal knowledge of the Lord is central to the Christian life. But is Jesus talking about what we know in our minds or in our experiences?
In much teaching on spirituality, this dichotomy is prominent, and it is expressed in many ways. There are left-brained people and right-brained people -- as if we've all been lobotomized. There are intuitive people and analytical people -- as if analytical results were possible without intuitive questions. There are creative people v. practical, mathematical v. artistic. There's the head v. the heart.
As if each of us is only half a person.
In this context, a phrase like know the shepherd's voice falls into a chasm between the thinkers and the feelers, both sides clutching after it while it vanishes into the darkness.
For the thinkers, "hearing Jesus' voice" has to be explained so as to focus any mystical blur. For the feelers, the phrase is proof that the real Christian life is an experience, not "mere information," and they proceed to tame the teacherly.
I can't relate to this dichotomy. Some of the most careful analysis I have done has been driven by passion, while some of the deepest emotions I've experienced were animated by knowledge. I am not half a person.
What if God made the Christian life as he made the human personality -- integrated? What if thinking and feeling are the veins of an organic whole?
Consider the context in which the phrase know the shepherd's voice comes to us.
The Gospel of John is built around a legal argument that uses the standards of the Mosaic law to prove that Jesus came from the Father (1:18). The calling of witnesses is central to this kind of logic (1.7-8, 29-34; 5:19-47; 7:14-24; 8:12-20, et al.). John designed the flow of the story to impress our minds with the consistency of Jesus and the illogical hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders.
The overall context of John's gospel focuses the meaning of the phrase know the shepherd's voice in chapter 10. The knowledge has an intellectual, analytical, even critical element.
But John's gospel is narrative. It uses the juxtaposition of the characters' deeds and words to incite the reader's gut reactions. John does not intend me to see the malice of the Pharisees coolly. He does not mean for me to be dispassionate while I watch Mary anoint Jesus' feet with oil and dry them with her hair. I am to feel the power of these scenes.
So, both as part of an emotional drama and as a metaphor in its own right, know the shepherd's voice carries me deeper into my feelings.
The Bible was written to speak to a whole-person, not a half-person. It builds up the understanding and the emotions in an integrated way, the way the Christian life has to be lived.
For me, this means I often have to change what I'm looking for in the Bible. Sometimes I have to pay more attention to narrative flow and the literary devices of scripture in order to minister to my emotions. But sometimes I need to linger analytically over a verse, take it apart methodically, and learn something new. I have to use spiritual disciplines, in other words, with both my mind and my feelings in view.
In the same way, your first step toward integration may be to realize that you are not half a person.
This painting is about where the faces are pointed, and about evoking the key elements of a story to make a spiritual impact.
The fire is ready to receive the boy Isaac's body. His father Abraham has take the swing back with his arm that will end his son's life. But someone outside our frame of vision catches his sword, and Abraham's face jerks back and up to see.
Isaac's face, while he waits for the final blow to fall, is set on a ram caught in a bush immediately below him. He seems to be contemplating this ram in serenity, as if he understands the animal's significance for him as a substitute sacrifice.
The painting is a dramatic evocation of the words Abraham told Isaac: "The Lord will provide." And it demonstrates how biblical art can be edifying without the deadness of sentimentality.
One Sunday when I was a sophomore in high school, our pastor gave a sermon on baptism and invited people to come forward. My parents had not made an issue of the ordinance because they felt they had been baptized too young, and they wanted the decision to come from me. I went forward. As I knelt, my grandpa's hand came around my shoulder. It was a decision he had been praying I would make, though he hadn't ever mentioned it. My dad decided to be baptized again in the same service with me, and I remember several significant friends waiting their turns around the baptistry while I gave my testimony.
It was humbling for me to undergo something so physical in front of the whole church on a Sunday morning, something that left me wet and sputtering. It was also a moment of high commitment in front of my fathers. At the end of my testimony, I said, "I want everyone to know that I'm going to follow Christ for my whole life."
Later, I learned that some people took my statement as prideful.
I realized why they thought so -- my stomach tightening and my spine freezing at the memory of my tone of voice in speaking those words. I regretted sounding so pompous in front of several hundred people at an event I had wanted to honor the Lord. It was humiliating.
I was also angry. As poorly as my words came across, they had no guile. I meant what I said, and I understood as well as someone can at 16 that my commitment would have a price. I felt I had been willfully misunderstood by a group for which loftiness was a big negative. My feeling was (though the exact term wasn't in currency then), "Do I have to spin my own baptism?"
In Sunday's sermon, we saw Hannah's experience of being rebuked by Eli (1 Samuel 1). On top of her other humiliations, the high priest of Israel mistook her prayers for a drunken stupor. She shot back, "Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation."
Such destructive judgments can leave you hobbled by unbelief. When the people around you do not regard your searching for Christ as sincere, or worse, when they make accusations that are untrue, you can feel that your pursuit of godliness makes your life worse rather than better. You can even feel that Christ is unreachable beyond the barrier of judgmentalism.
1. The admonition to ignore the people around you is not wise.
The cliché spouters would have you believe that "it doesn't matter what other people think," as if you can build a godly life in isolation.
It does matter what people think. We all know it matters, and there's no healthy way to ignore such judgments. When you get slapped with a label, you are driven to tear it off -- or to prove that it doesn't matter. You're lazy. You're too emotional. You're proud. Words like these can determine your whole strategy in life.
Hannah didn't ignore Eli judgment, as if she could rise above it. She confronted the priest's assumptions.
How can you do the same?
2. The ability to sift a speck of gold out of a pan full of mud is worth having.
I have learned a great deal from criticism, even when it's unjust. When my baptism testimony sounded proud to some, I tried to see what they saw, and hear what they heard. I tried to hear my voice without the affirmation of my emotions.
I began the arduous work -- as yet incomplete -- of finding tones that match my best intentions instead of expressing my strongest feelings.
But I learned something far more important from the blow: I can stand back from myself and evaluate. I am not imprisoned in my own point of view. Over time, this realization has given me confidence.
3. The way to deal rightly with judgmental people is to draw near to a gracious God.
Hannah chose to trust God more than God's representative. Her demand that Eli not consider her worthless was linked tellingly to her declaration, "I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord." Her sense of worth came from the fact that the Lord listened to her. She had, in other words, a relationship that trumped Eli's claims.
Nowhere is a high view of God more powerful than in nurturing a healthy view of ourselves. When individuals cultivate a deep fellowship with him -- that is, when Christ ceases to be a scorekeeper and becomes a coach -- they are able to escape the talons of others' manipulation and anger.
Small gods make small people. The living God makes large people.
4. Having seen the destructive power of reactive judgment, double-check the way you use your own influence.
Are you Eli too?
There is the poison in the pomposity I am still learning to discard.