Monday, January 23, 2012

God's Will and Mine

Lots of Christians put a lot of stock in learning to "discern God's will". Part of making God the ruler of your life is submitting your situations and decisions to His lordship. And this is great; it takes a lot of humility and trust to entrust your life to someone else, but God is supremely capable. I'm not exactly writing about that. One thing I don't see any of these teachers, pastors, Christian motivational speakers, etc. mentioning is that God doesn't have a specific will for every single decision you make. Or maybe He does, but He's not going to tell you. Let me explain. Sometimes when I'm praying about an upcoming decision to God (like my recent decision of which job offer to accept), I get no response, except a sense of "you decide". It's always scary when God does this--tell me to make a decision I'm asking Him about--but also reassuring, as it means I'm up to the task and there is no wrong answer. After all, God doesn't want to produce automata who blindly follow His will--He wants children who freely choose to obey and follow Him. God telling me to make these decisions is a precursor to the total freedom in Christ we'll have in heaven--where God doesn't have to tell us what to do, but out of love we honor Him with our lives anyway.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cold and True Minnesotans

It's pretty cold in the Twin Cities today. Like really cold. Like high-of-minus-17 cold. When I set out this morning it was -24 with a wind chill of -36. It's hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we couldn't keep any snow on the ground. If we just had some snow, this would be a pretty good winter. Anyway, in preparation for the extreme cold I went all-out on bundling up this morning: a scarf over my mouth and nose, ski goggles, a hat, three layers of shirts, and long underwear under jeans. I had a pretty warm walk to class, but the wind stung on any exposed skin. At these temperatures you have to start seriously worrying about getting frostbite on the way to class. (Note: I am quite happy about this weather; consider this a mirror image to my post on heat)

And then on my way I see people with exposed faces, even exposed heads with no hats. Are these people crazy? It's not just silly and painful, not bundling up on a day like today is potentially hazardous. Then I realized the true difference between native Minnesotans and lesser beings. We aren't naturally any more resistant to cold, but we're familiar with it. Someone from a warmer climate where negative temperatures are rare and below -10 are almost unheard of might see 'cold' as a monolithic entity; in winter, it's cold, so you wear your "cold gear" consisting of gloves, a coat, maybe a hat. Minnesotans see different kinds of cold. 5 is autumn-jacket cool, -5 is wear-a-jacket-and-gloves cold, -15 is hat-and-multiple-layers cold, -25 is no-exposed-skin cold. It's just a theory, but I have no idea how else to explain it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Religion" vs. The Gospel?

You've probably seen this video shared more than a few times on Facebook, maybe even reposted it yourself. (I did so, largely because of how well and earnestly he presented this poem that doubled as his testimony)

This video, a spoken word recitation by Jefferson Bethke, has recently been sending viewers into a flurry of praise, discussion, and debate. The first line pretty much sums up its controversial aspect:
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?
I'm not going to do an in-depth analysis of the poem as other Christian bloggers have already done so, some addressing the controversy more or less thoughtfully. The general reactions I've seen to this video (from Christians) have either been excited, emphatic approval and agreement with its message or confusion and concern that people think "Jesus came to abolish religion" and that young believers have turned dangerously astray.

I'm going to argue that both of these groups really agree on the issue at hand, and that the argument here is a semantic one. The dictionary definition of "religion" goes like this.

Definition of RELIGION
1 a : the state of a religious
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Jesus came to abolish that? I don't think Bethke or really any Christians would agree. What is going on here is that I've seen "religion" take on at best a whole new set of connotations, or at worst, an entire new definition. In a nutshell, I previously summed it up at "legalism and superficial self-righteousness"; in a few more words, it is devotion to "Christian" laws, principles, or expectations more than to serving and worshipping God himself. It's focusing on surface-level change and the appearance of holiness and righteousness rather than a deep, life-changing self-sacrificing relationship with God that truly brings about holiness. This expectation of living a "clean" life is not just for oneself, but is projected to others in or outside the church. Bethke describes the hypocrisy of "religion":
Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice
Tend to ridicule God’s people, they did it to John the Baptist
They can’t fix their problems, and so they just mask it
Not realizing religions like spraying perfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like lets dress up the outside make it look nice and neat
This definition of "religion" was exactly what Jesus couldn't stand about the pharisees of the New Testament, and it's alive and well today; as I describe in my previous post (which you really should read), I was unwittingly ensnared by it in an even deeper form for years. "Religion" is, at one level or another, a human attempt at taking holiness into our own hands rather than trusting God to take and mold our entire lives. The concern I hold, and that is expressed in this video, is not merely that Christians struggle with this (as we inevitably will in this life), but that it is often enshrined as true, Biblical Christianity, set on a pedestal, not evaluated for its flaws.

And again, I think virtually all Christians can agree that this is not what God intended His church to look like, if Jesus' reaction to the pharisees was any example. The reason for the controversy surrounding the video is this:  most people hold one of these definitions of "religion" and may not even be aware of the other. For those who hold the first definition of the word, the video will seem alarming and against all doctrine; for those who hold the second (like Bethke himself, and my church), it will be an elegant and refreshing statement of their convictions and fears about the church. I really wish those holding to the second definition had picked a different, less strong-defined word closer to their intended meaning (like "legalism") to get their wholly valid point across rather than redefining "religion". But it seems the damage has been done.

At this point I'm going to do a quick but complete Biblical survey of the word, since it appears in just six verses (at least in the ESV).

Acts 17:22:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.

Acts 25:19:
Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.
Acts 26:5:
They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.
Colossians 2:23:
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 
James 1:26:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.
James 1:27:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Acts verses all seem to be using the first definition of "religion" (to refer to Greek paganism or Judaism) James uses the same basic word (θρησκεια) as Acts, contrasting "pure and undefiled" and "worthless" religion. It seems to be a neutral term here, capable of being good or bad; the test is whether it leads to holiness. This is consistent with interpreting it as a system of beliefs or practices. Only the Colossians passage, a stern warning against legalism, seems to approach the second definition of "religion", but again, it's specified to be "self-made" religion, or more simply, idolatry. We still don't get any sense of religion being a terrible thing.

I find some words from C.S. Lewis' 60-year-old classic Mere Christianity on a similar confusion over the definition of "Christian" quite appropriate here:
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and ome landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a complement, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was no 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him but giving information. ... But then there came people who said...'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should?...' They meant well. To be honorable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. ... A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that purpose; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. ... We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teachings of the apostles. ... There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.
As with "gentleman", as with "Christian", now with "religion"; we are at risk of making it into a subjective and therefore useless term thrown around in contempt. At the very least I want everyone to be aware of this semantic shift, and I would encourage you to stop adding to the confusion by using a more appropriate term like "legalism" instead. Yes, you lose the shock value of phrases like "Jesus came to abolish religion" in favor of the much less surprising "Jesus came to abolish legalism", but it's worth it to stop this needless debate.

Make no mistake, I am glad for Bethke's video; both for the message he so eloquently conveys in it and for the conversation it has started. I think it brings to the forefront the confusion of many young, earnest Christians about the place of doctrine, tradition, "the church", and the 2000+-year-old word of God in today's world. This is a question we all have to answer for ourselves, as I am still doing.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why I Am A Christian

My more astute readers might have noticed that whereas I used to have to apologize for the sheer density of my posts on faith, I've only done two in the past month in a half. The first, early in the morning of December 1st, was a brief and rather enigmatic parable contrasting outward appearances to inner natures--the differences between the two and the masks we put on. The second, a few days later, unpacked the concept of justification as the undeserved imputation of God's perfect righteousness as explained by Tim Keller. And then--nothing, except politics, Christmas-related stuff, and games I've been playing.

The truth is that for the whole month of December 2011 (and two days into this year), I've been fighting for my faith with unanswered questions of need, meaning, and practice. I've gone through existential depression and deeply questioned God, the church, and myself. Having come out of the worst of that and more secure in my faith than ever before, I think I might finally be ready to bring my testimony to a workable state. It's far more introspective and philosophical than the previous drafts, which assures me that it's really mine. Dave, my discipler and great buddy from Milwaukee, once said that I'm more of an internal processor; it's how God has made me, and it's how He is drawing me to Himself. Here it goes.

I was raised by loving Christian parents who prayed with me often and brought me to church. Looking back on my childhood I can recognize some times when I really experienced God, but these had no lasting impact on me; I preferred to pursue books, video games, and increasingly in middle school, academic success. I was very secure in all of these things and never feared losing my ability to find endless contentment in them, so I felt I had little need for something deeper in my life. I don't miss those days because I had no idea how much more there was to life. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "We are far too easily pleased."

As I got older and relationships became increasingly important to me, I began seeking God as a means to success in them, to get the love and acceptance I wanted or for comfort when the unstable things I poured my life into failed me. Through all of this and into my sophomore year of college I somehow maintained the absurdity of believing in God as the "Lord of my life" but living self-centeredly and reducing Him to the role of assistant.

At a fall retreat with Cru (then Campus Crusade for Christ) I made the conscious decision to trust God to lead me rather than leading my own life selfishly, which had led to despair and disaster from pursuing the impossibility of perfecting my own life. Looking back, this was the start of the positive trajectory my life has been on since. I admitted to God that I couldn't run my life on my own. As I began living this decision out, in 2010 I went on a summer mission trip where I saw God use me to do amazing inner-city ministry and had some of the best community of my life with my "project friends", who became like a second family to me.

Starting on summer project and continuing through 2011, I wrote about seven or eight drafts of my testimony, but it always felt incomplete--as if God still had chapters of it left to write. Obviously it won't be completely done until the day I die, but it didn't seem to have the mark of transformation to it like the others I heard on project. This didn't worry me nearly as much as it should have. I continued optimistically in my growing faith, continuing to be taught and getting more involved with my church in 2011.

But as fall of my senior year of college went by, I seemed to be stagnating. Rather than boldly living out my faith as I was called to, I was increasingly focusing on not getting dragged back by distractions, reminiscing on how great the past was, and my increasingly intellectual posts on this blog. Until one night at my small group when God started wrecking my life. (As it was then)

It started when I realized the circularity of having the main "point" of living as a Christian be to introduce others to Jesus--the Great Commission (as I'd come to believe on one level or another from Cru). This made it seem like some kind of benign virus that spreads and spreads, but doesn't do anything. The truth was I'd been overly focused on the external results of Christianity--when I felt like I was having a successful ministry I had peace of mind, and when I wasn't doing as much, I felt bad, like I needed to shape up, pray more, have more faith. I was trusting God to help me live a "Christian" life, but that life, the result, was my ultimate goal, not what God Himself had to offer.

I felt a hollowness inside me, a disconnect between my inner man and my exterior lifestyle. I'd been meeting my fundamental, then-unidentified needs with the same kinds of things I had been years ago when I treated God as an assistant, and trusting Him with surface-level things related to living as a Christian (which would certainly be considered "good" things) because those were what I thought mattered to me. I hadn't made the internal connection between who I knew I was in Christ and how I lived. I realized how I lived was motivated a great deal by pressure I felt to "fit in" with my believer friends and a desire not to feel guilty for not producing the same kinds of ministry results they did--after all, couldn't I do anything through Him who gives me strength?

The next step, then, was figuring out what my deepest need actually was and how God fulfilled that instead of my "need" to live as a Christian (which was largely because of what I'd been told and had told myself for years). At the same time I was confused about what the ultimate "point" or goal of my faith was. I was tired of the overly simplistic, Sunday-school answers to these questions I'd been hearing and repeating for years--answers that sounded great in the abstract but were of no use to me in this crisis. I had never sincerely asked these questions of need and essential meaning before and they burned constantly on my soul. Next to finding true answers to these questions, nothing else seemed to matter. I spent my Christmas break in a mental fog as I wrestled with them.

After some reading and thinking, I concluded that my deepest need was for my life to have meaning, or significance--I needed to matter, as I think we all do. This meaning or significance couldn't come from some arbitrary material thing or process, for as Kierkegaard argued, what's to stop me from later picking something else as my source of life? No, I was sure it was nowhere to be found in the material universe, but had to come from an eternal source--by my relationship with God. Furthermore, it couldn't depend on anything I did; the prospect of failing to make my own life meaningful couldn't be an option, because it was inevitable that I would continue to fail. I'd admitted years ago that I couldn't run my life without God, but I now truly believed it, and it was initially very discouraging.

So I began to slide into an existential depression. Even with all my previous theological study, I struggled not to believe that my life was meaningless because all of my individual actions were meaningless because "only God matters". Lost in confusion, the truths that had used to seem so clear-cut to me were now a tangled haze of paradoxes. I remember for a few days facing the clear decision of whether to keep seeking God at all. I understood how many hardened atheists are made--by coming to this question and answering it in the negative. I was tempted to reject the doctrine and the teaching as ridiculous, incomprehensible, and start over.

Ironically, my avid studies of Christian apologetics from back before I was really even earnest about my faith helped save me. Denying the existence of God has never been an option for me, even in this time of extreme doubt. I knew, undeniably, that looking for the answers to my questions anywhere except in Christianity was a waste of time. For the first time in my life, I had actually, freely decided on my own to follow God, even when doing so seemed like a ridiculous prospect. (I had faced a similar decision on summer project, but the pressure imposed by the ministry and Christian community I was engrossed in cut my struggle short and I applied a sort of "band-aid" fix)

For a few days after that decision, nothing seemed to happen; the confusion continued. It didn't matter to me; I'd made my choice. Then, within minutes, I felt the haze lift and knew it was God responding just as I'd hoped He would. Suddenly it all made sense. The ultimate question of meaning was already answered by what God did, not by me. The gospel I'd studied and told to others so many times seemed to come alive. That despite all the times I pushed God aside and disobeyed Him, He somehow still loved me, died for me--that the sin that separated me from God was gone and I was somehow declared righteous--that I was adopted as His son--it was almost too good to believe. My nagging questions were silenced by the glory of the gospel.

That was almost two weeks ago; I'm still working out the ramifications of this glorious news on how I live. But I know this: a religion, worldview, or other belief system that says you matter because of what you do or how you live is a lie; either you delude yourself into thinking you are living up to its standards and become prideful, or you realize you can never measure up to its demands and fall into despair. My life is justified because of who I am in Christ, not by anything I do. I have to remind myself of why I am a Christian every day or else I quickly fall back into trying to "keep up" with the spiritual life of those around me and feeling guilty for not doing more.

The problem with focusing on results, or "fruits of the Spirit" in Christian-speak, is that next to God's standard of perfection, no amount is ever enough, and you will inevitably be discouraged or even crushed by your failure to measure up. The joy of the gospel is that God loves you in the midst of your imperfections, loves you enough to die for you, and will walk with you until your joy in Him is complete.