Friday, September 20, 2013

The Gift of Loneliness

I recently finished reading a book that I won from my pastor Cor's blog, The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. It's a short but incredibly sweet and practical book about how the wounds we bear can help us minister to others in a confused, lost age. His writing style is both deeply insightful and emotionally engaging, a huge inspiration to me (I think he might also be an INFJ). This passage toward the end stuck out to me (emphasis added):
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain. When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge—that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.
Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. And many celibates live with the naive dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.
When the minister lives with these false expectations and illusions he prevents himself from claiming his own loneliness as a source of human understanding, and is unable to offer any real service to the many who do not understand their own suffering.
I recently came to the realization that, as enjoyable as my relationship with my girlfriend is (so, did I mention I'm seeing someone?), and as thankful for it as I am, it can't completely satisfy me, make me fully completely loved, accepted and valued, end the deep-seated feeling of loneliness, and all that fun stuff Nouwen describes. I "saw the bottom" of what it could provide. And the amazing part of my Christian learning in life is that not only was I not surprised by this realization, I was expecting it. As Nouwen says, this realization comes after marriage or years of cohabitation for some and ruins the relationship because both people were hoping that the other would, essentially, be God to them, which is too great a burden for anyone to bear. My pastor Steve often says that his wife Carol is "a great wife, but a terrible god".

But Nouwen paints a more nuanced picture than simply saying that God can cure the loneliness that no one else can. God doesn't just take our loneliness away; He turns it into a blessing and a gift for ministering to others. By understanding our own inner loneliness we can begin to understand the loneliness of others and love them through it. That is, largely, the theme of Nouwen's book.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The difference between law and grace

The following was written in response to the question, "What is the difference between being 'under law' and 'under grace'?"

The intrabiblical tension between law and grace is one that I've struggled with a lot in the past. The Law (i.e. the old covenant) is presented in totally different ways in the Old and New Testaments. In the OT, the law is given as a blessing, a set of rules to live by. The Israelites are promised that if they obey, they will live by their obedience (Lev 18:5) and it will be their righteousness (Deut 6:25). They are also told that the commandments of the law are not too difficult or too far off, but are "in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deut 30:14) Numerous Psalms, especially 119, treasure the Law as a gift and a blessing to be celebrated. Everything seems peachy, until the New Testament.

In the New Testament we learn that no one is declared righteous before God by observing the Law, only made conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20) Instead of a gift, the Law is now seen as a jailer that imprisoned the Jews under it, or at best a stopgap measure to hold us over until Christ came (Gal 3:23-24). The Law is revealed to have been weak and useless, making nothing perfect (Heb 7:18-19), its rituals incapable of taking away sins (Heb 10:4) as advertised (Lev 16:30). In Romans 10:5 Paul uses Moses' earlier promise that that the person who does the commandments will live by them to contrast with the "proper" kind of righteousness, the kind that is by faith.

This would all be well and good, except that God also gave the Law, which makes the gospel seem like a God-given solution to a God-given problem. It completely undermines the spirit in which the Law was given, making it into a burden rather than a blessing. It makes God's "chosen people" seem singularly unfortunate because they happened to live in a time before salvation by faith was revealed and instead got stuck with God's second-rate blessing, the Law, which doesn't save anyone. What is the point of the Law revealing their sin problem as in Romans 3:20 if they didn't live to see the solution? Commentators are quick to point out that this discrepancy is not because of a deficiency in the Law but because of our sinful inability to keep it, but was God unaware of this when He gave it, or taken by surprise? Placing moral burdens on people without helping them to carry them is what the Pharisees did, for which Jesus condemned them. (Matthew 23:4 What is going on here? How could God give the Israelites such a bad covenant deal and pass it off as a huge blessing—the covenant Christ has to deliver us from?

These are very tough questions and I definitely wouldn't say I have figured out all the answers. But I think one mistaken assumption in the questions is that the New Testament authors are making a "bad vs. good" contrast between Law and grace. I think a more fitting description of the two would be "good vs. much, much better". The key to seeing the Law as good, as I believe Paul and the author of Hebrews really did, is to stop seeing it as codified legalism—that is, as a covenant system designed to produce Pharisees. The Pharisees, including Paul (Phil 3:6), obeyed the Law perfectly—if all there was to the Law was doing what it says, they would have been "good" with God. But clearly they weren't.

The point has never been simply to do the right things, says the right words, and perform the right rituals to get into heaven, and God never told us to do so. This kind of legalism was just as much a perversion of God's Word before Christ as it is today. But there is another problem with legalism which is not synonymous with the Law, as it is just as easy to do with grace. This is treating the attainment of salvation from God as our be-all and end-all goal. Eternal life is not a "spiritual object" that God can wrap up with a bow and hand to us in exchange for good works, faith, or anything. Life is found not from Christ, but in Christ Himself (John 14:6). Eternal life is not something we receive from God, but simply knowing the true God (John 17:3). If we treat faith as something we "do" to receive a salvation that is not coterminous with knowing Christ, we may as well be legalists.

With all of this in mind, I can finally answer the question, what is the difference between being under law and under grace? It is not that we were stuck in a system of legalism and are now freed to receive our righteousness by grace through faith. This may be true of some Christians' experience, but God never commanded anyone to live this way so He could later get more glory by freeing them. What changes from Law to grace is not whether we know God or not, but how we know God. Through the Law God did provide a means of knowing and communing with Him, albeit a difficult, ritualized, and highly regimented one. The Law was also very communal in its role a the prototypical mediator between God and man; there was one tabernacle/temple for the nation where God was said to live, and where people would go to seek Him, and His commands were given on Mount Sinai for all the people.

But by grace we now know God more clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. So the book of Hebrews begins, "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world." Whereas the Law was previously the mediator between God and man, we now have Christ (1 Tim 2:5). Through His death and resurrection we are able to know Him in ways of which the regulations of the Law were merely types and shadows (Heb 10:1). Though those under the Law could and sometimes did have a real relationship with God, by comparison with us they were prisoners. Now we ourselves are temples for God's spirit (1 Cor 3:16) and His word is written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone (2 Cor 3:3). The precepts of the Law are fulfilled (or completed) through the grace shown to us by Jesus, who is the end of the Law (that is, the fulfillment of all it set out to do) for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4).

Addendum: I can't help but wonder if the term "Law" underwent a semantic shift similar to what has happened to the term "religion" today. Whereas initially it referred to the old system of instructions by which Israel would worship and experience its God, by Paul's time it seemed to have become more synonymous with the onerous legalistic burdens laid by the "teachers of the Law", and it is this usage that Paul adopts in his writing about how grace releases us from the Law. Similar to how, today, people say that "Jesus came to abolish religion" which would have sounded absurd to a first-century Christian.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Glory of God, or packing a mountain in a suitcase

The glory of God—three simple words, so often used in theology (starting with Paul) to refer to the ultimate purpose of God, our lives, history—virtually everything. But much can be hidden behind them, and I sometimes wonder if by using them so much we've forgotten what they really mean.

It's as if a breathtaking mountain landscape could somehow be packed into a suitcase, carried off, bought and sold, changing hands dozens of times, its presence duly recorded in arrival logs and transaction ledgers, spoken of as one might refer to the next shipment of wood, a drop in the ocean of human endeavours for the day, all while its handlers remained ignorant of its awesome contents. I say unpack the suitcase, and let the grandeur speak and be seen for itself rather than being spoken of.

Transactional Christianity

The following was written as part of my Spiritual Formation class at the University of Northwestern.
"Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”" (1 Corinthians 10:7, ESV)
This verse refers back to Exodus 32:6. The context of this reference that the Lord has just finished giving Moses the tablets of the testimony on Mt. Sinai in chapter 31, and the Israelites, losing patience with Moses and with the Lord, have asked Aaron to make them new gods. Exodus 31:1-6 is worth quoting at length:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
The people were growing impatient with Moses and with God: "When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain..." As throughout the whole section of chapters 13-19 that Paul was referring to before, they still don't seem to trust the Lord even after all He has done for them. So they decide to make some new gods that they can follow and trust (the prophets delighted in pointing out the absurdity of trusting in gods you made yourself). I noticed for the first time the incongruity: Aaron makes a single golden calf and then the people say, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" As if they simply weren't comfortable banking entirely on a single god. And then it gets stranger: after making these idols, Aaron says that "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord", and they bring offerings (to the true God or the golden calf, it's not clear). Finally, in the verse Paul refers to, the people just party and do whatever they want.

There is more going on here than merely exchanging worship of the true God for a false one. The Israelites still seem to keep honoring God, at least in lip service. In the polytheistic, paganistic culture from which Judaism arose, the existence of multiple gods was not controversial. Families or tribes would have a favorite god that they paid the most respects to, but they would also recognize and honor other gods, because hey, a little more blessing couldn't hurt. This kind of polytheistic worship—not rejecting the true God outright but demoting Him to merely your favorite god to worship or even a peripheral god that you superficially honored to avoid getting whacked—was a huge problem for Israel through the time of the kings. The most controversial thing about Judaism was that its God demanded exclusive worship and devotion—not to simply be added to your own personal pantheon of deities.

Thinking about it, I see Moses and the Israelites displaying two totally different attitudes both under the guide of "worship". Moses was a servant of God. He did what God told him to do, went where God told him to go—basically laid his entire life in God's hand, like so many other imperfect heroes of the Bible (and Jesus). The Israelites, on the other hand, seem more interested in how God will serve them. They expect to be practically pampered through the exodus, complaining against Him when things aren't up to their expectations, and then God seems to be taking too long, not holding up His end of the deal, they turn to another god who can better cater to their whims (while still hedging their bets with God).

This sounds uncomfortably like me. This kind of exploitative attitude, serving God as a way to get things from Him, used to characterize my faith. And it is a pervasive temptation. When we are merely giving God things like our time, our money, our service, our blog posts, and merely getting from Him things like a better life, a new community, a set of rules to live and judge others by, or even salvation (as a "get-out-of-hell-free card"), our relationship with God looks more like a business partnership. He has His interests, we have ours, and by working together we can satisfy those interests while still remaining essentially our own. But the truth of the gospel is that "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV). We don't merely give God things and receive things from Him; in love we give Him our selves and receive the greatest prize of all, God Himself.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Anti-Pharisee

My pastor Cor preached a sermon yesterday about how Jesus gets to be lord over your inner life--your mind and heart, thoughts and passions. He stressed the importance of not "sucking in your spiritual gut", that is, not outwardly pretending to be more righteous than you really are on the inside, and instead letting Jesus transform you from the inside out. This is the difference between authentic Christianity and superficial Christian-esque religion, and it is vital that we take heed of it. One of the texts he preached from was part of Jesus' tirade against the externally-focused Jewish scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:25-26:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate1, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside may also be clean.
While I thought it was a good sermon, it didn't hit me through the heart like a great sermon does. After some reflection, I realized that this is because I tend to make the opposite error of the Pharisees: I clean the inside and neglect the outside. I'm so focused on seeking internal transformation (often by inspiration) that I don't do the hard work of actually reshaping habits and living differently. The result is that while on the inside I may be coming to resemble Christ, on the outside (which is all anyone else sees) I look little like Him in many ways.

There's a misconception in Christianity that makes this opposite mistake easy to miss, saying that the inside, the heart is all that matters. Jesus transforms you on the inside, and the outside changes to match. But I don't think it's quite that simple. He didn't say, "Clean the inside and the outside will also be clean", but "Clean the inside...that the outside may also be clean." Internal transformation is vital and preeminent for the Christian, but it is no excuse to be lazy about changing the patterns of how we actually live--it is an opportunity to do so.

1 Random aside: I had an instructive example for a "wrong message" to take from this woe. If you try to be practical and preach a sermon based on this text asking whether you are a cup or a plate, and enumerating bullet-pointed differences between cups and plates, you are probably, as Jesus had just said, "straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel". The point is the difference between cleaning the inside and the outside, not between Jesus' metaphorical cup and plate.