Category Archives: theology

Christian, What is the Foundation of Your Happiness?

brothers professionalsI have said for some time that my favorite book on pastoral ministry is John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. While every point may not be exactly in line with my own pastoral convictions, it gets the essentials right, puts the focus in the right place, and is never short on challenging statements.

The second edition of this book was just released. The pastors at our church are working through this book at our monthly meeting. With the new edition came a few new chapters. I wanted to share a portion of one such chapter. The author is trying to explain how God can be for his glory and for us. In defending why he as (over?) emphasized God’s self-glory he describes the plight of many Christians (so-called):

I feel a special burden for the millions of nominal Christians who are not born again who believe God loves them and yet are on their way to hell. And the difference between them and a born-again believer is this: What’s the bottom, the decisive foundation, of their happiness? As you penetrate down deeper and deeper to the core, or the bottom, of what makes you happy?

Millions of nominal Christians have never experienced a fundamental alteration of that foundation of happiness. Instead, they have absorbed the notion that becoming Christian means turning to Jesus to get what you always wanted before you were born again. So, if you wanted wealth, you stop depending on yourself for it, and by prayer and faith and obedience you depend on Jesus for wealth. If you wanted to be healthy, you turn from mere human cures to Jesus as the source of your health. If you wanted to escape the pain of hell, you turn to Jesus for the escape. If you wanted to have a happy marriage, you come to Jesus for help. If you wanted peace of conscience and freedom from guilt feelings, you turn to Jesus for these things.

In other words, to become a Christian, in this way of seeing things, is to have all the same desires you had as an unregenerate person — only you get them from a new source, Jesus. And He feels so loving when you do. But there’s no change at the bottom of your heart and your cravings. No change at the bottom of what makes you happy. There’s no change in the decisive foundation of your joy. You just shop at a new store. The dinner is still the same, you just have a new butler. The bags in the hotel room are still the same; just a new bellhop.

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Mythbuster Monday: Myth of Experience

There is this perpetual myth floating around that has implications for our understanding of wisdom, decision-making, and the will of God. It is a myth that is pervasive but proves wanting with a little Biblical and logical examination. However, without being examined many use it as an excuse to ignore any counsel that is contrary to choices they already want to make or have made.

I call it, “THE MYTH OF EXPERIENCE.”

Can I Know If I Haven’t Tried?

This myth has a number of iterations. For example, I do a lot of ministry with families. Some of the most fruitful pastoral opportunities involve teenagers and their parents. However, I do not have any children of my own. Therefore, when I have a difference of opinion with a parent over a particular issue the invariable response they give is, “you don’t understand because you don’t have kids.” Really? A doctor doesn’t have to have a disease to know the cure.

The whole purpose of advice is to help others avoid experiencing something that is bad or harmful or help them try something they haven’t tried. If experience is necessary then Christians can just get rid of the Bible and start experimenting (it appears some have already started down this path). This goes along with the old notion that “people have to learn the hard way.” Maybe some people choose to learn the hard way but they sure don’t have to learn the hard way. If possible, I would rather learn from the mistakes of others than experience them myself.

I am not trying to denigrate the value experience can have. Those who have made poor choices or experienced particular things are able to understand and empathize in a more robust way with others in similar situations. However, their experiences are not necessary for godly decision-making or figuring out “what is right.”

Experience Can Be Negative

It is important to remember that experience is not always positive. First, some experiences irreparably harm you or have consequences that never go away. In addition, personal experience makes objectivity more difficult than it already is. None of us see the world from a completely fair and unbiased perspective. None of us interpret history objectively. No Christian can look at the Bible and fully understand its meaning without being affected (either positively or negatively) by their own worldview and experiences. As a result, it might be possible that someone who has not experienced a particular situation may be able to more fully appraise the possible outcomes without being unfairly influenced by their own past.

Experience Can Cloud Objectivity

Most of us interpret things the way we want them to be rather than they way they are or should be. I have a recent example that makes this perfectly clear. I have some mutual friends that recently had a baby. On her blog, my friend carefully explained all of the positives of breastfeeding in public. Her main arguments were based on the fact that it was natural (it’s a part of the human body’s natural experience) and necessary (a baby has to eat). Purely because I sensed a logical inconsistency I pointed out that a lot of activities are natural and necessary (e.g., going to the bathroom) but our society still requires us to do them in private. Now, I’m not trying to rile up all of the lactating mothers out there. I’m just using this recent incident as an example. My friend (as a mother) was having a hard time seeing things from an unbiased point-of-view and was insinuating that when my wife and I have a baby we’ll understand. Basically, since we haven’t experienced this situation we have no right or ability to comment! Personal experience will increase our empathy of how difficult this issue is but it shouldn’t change our understanding of the issue at hand. One could argue that I am just as biased in the other direction since I do not have a hungry child whose cries melt my heart. That is my point, experience actually makes it harder to achieve objectivity (in both directions)! Since no one can remove their experiences or lack thereof, how do we decide what is right? We’ll get to that a little later.

Age and Experience

Another variation of this myth involves age. Many people argue that “experience = wisdom.” We all know this isn’t the case. I have met a some older people that are exceeding experienced and exceedingly wise. On the other hand, I have met a lot of experienced, elderly people who are immature and unwise. What is the difference? Experience is not synonymous with wisdom. One can be wise and inexperienced. One can also be old and inexperienced. I have met a number of elderly people that haven’t experienced a lot in there lives. However, wisdom and experience combine to make an unmatched resource for discernment, advice, encouragement, information, and much more.

Wisdom and Truth Are Independent of Personal Experience

How can one find wisdom? The theme of wisdom is prevalent throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus is described in terms of the Old Testament wisdom literature (e.g., Prov. 8:1-36, 1 Cor. 1:18-25). Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God. There is hope for those of us who don’t have sufficient life experience. We can still have wisdom via the person of Jesus Christ.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength… It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:18, 25, 30).

When Paul is talking to Timothy he explicitly tells him that his youth and, in some regard, inexperience do not negate his calling, his giftedness, and (most importantly) the truth that he has received (1 Timothy 4). The mature in his congregation are worthy of respect but the foundation of the church is not on their experiences but on the Word of God to which they must be faithful.

Ultimately, it is not one’s experience or inexperience that should guide decision-making. Jesus is the power and example of wisdom; he is the truth.

Summary Thoughts

To summarize:

1. Experience is not necessary to make the right decision.

2. Experience does not equal wisdom.

3. Experience is not always positive, it can be harmful.

4. Personal experiences can cloud one’s ability to make a sound, Biblical decision.

5. Experience and wisdom work together to produce godly discernment and judgment.

6. Experience is not the final determiner of what is wise and true, Jesus is.

Walk the Talk

I have again been reminded of a way to functionally undermine the authority of the Scriptures. Bible teachers or Christians frequently proclaim their allegiance to the Scripture and its truth yet often only vaguely reference its contents out of context or (worst) (mis-)use the text to suit their own ends; in these moments they demonstrate that all the talk about authority and sufficiency is smoke and mirrors, propaganda, and hypocrisy. I also see people consistently elevate and emphasize secondary material in the text above things of greater importance. Sometimes, wholesale theological fabrications are held in higher esteem than the gospel.

All of this reminded me of an excellent message by David Nelson delivered at SEBTS during convocation a few years ago. His message (“How to Undermine the Authority of Scripture”) gave four ways to functionally undermine the authority of the Bible:

1. Make loud claims about the inerrancy of the Bible and then fail to teach it all.

2. Insist that what is not in the Scripture is in the Scripture.

3. Neglect to teach what is in the Scripture or fail to give it the proper emphasis given by the Bible.

4. Make loud claims of the authority of Scripture and then fail to live a truly Christian way of life.

I would highly recommend listening to the entire message.

Are Competitive Sports Sinful?

In his massive Christian Theology, Millard Erickson notes that the first effect of sin on one’s relationships with other people is competition.  Erickson is clearly referencing something bigger than competitive sports but his point seems appropriate, nonetheless.

With the American football season upon us, I wanted to briefly explore the legitimacy of competitive sports for Christians.  Are competitive sports sinful?

1.  Is competition sinful?

Yes and no.

Yes. It depends who you are competing against.  Anytime you are doing something merely to prove your superiority, you are basing your identity on the need to win.  You are, in essence, worshiping yourself when you are trying to prove your value and self-worth by validating your dominance.

No.  Self-competition that promotes humble excellence can be positive.  Some people are never satisfied with their abilities, appearance, or the like.  Discontentment is as much a sin as arrogance.  Pursuing excellence and pushing yourself to the limit can be a very healthy activity.  Many people learn a lot about their inabilities and abilities by attempting difficult and challenging things.

2. Are competitive sports sinful?

Like most things, competitive sports can be used as an opportunity for sin and might even tend to promote sinful behavior when they overemphasize proving one’s superiority.  However, competitive sports are not, by default, sinful.  I think it is important to keep score in many games to maintain an objective grasp on reality.  The better team should, all things being equal, win the game.  Without a score a team is unable to fully evaluate their performance to ensure they are giving maximum effort.

Anytime winning, however, becomes attached to one’s value then sin has taken hold.  Whether a team wins is of no consequence as long as everyone involve is giving maximum effort.

The Remarkable Story of Josiah Vierra

When a grown man is weeping uncontrollably by himself watching ESPN on his lunch break then you know something unique is happening. Such is the situation I found myself while watching the story of Josiah Vierra. When the doctor cried, I almost lost it. Doctors aren’t supposed to cry. His life just might be a miracle. I also felt there was a lot to learn from Josiah’s understanding of heaven. What is heaven like? Jesus.

Some More Glenn Beck Discussion

Glenn Beck is a regular topic of discussion on this blog (see here and here).  My reservations about Beck are numerous (both political, ideological, historical, and theological).  Recently, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally has gained much attention.  Some have lauded Beck for showing courage to stand for America’s “founding values” and others have cautioned evangelicals to be careful with whom they partner (at this point the essay by Russell Moore is genuinely helpful).  Not only has Moore weighed in but Doug Wilson and Scot McKnight have offered some commentary on the situation.

One denominational side note that I found disappointing was the alliance of Richard Land (president of  SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) with Beck as part of his multi-faith “black-robed regiment.”

Outside of Moore, Robert Parham has proven to be the most helpful.  He not only provides insightful commentary about the dangers of civil religion and generic, theistic alliances, he does so with ample quotations from the actual event in question (“Restoring Honor” on August 28, 2010).

Fox News host Glenn Beck muddled biblical references with fragments of America history, recreating a pottage of civil religion that says America has a divine destiny and claiming that a national revival is beginning…

Beck said, “We can disagree on politics.  We can disagree on so much.  These men and women don’t agree on fundamentals.  They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches.  What they do agree on is that God is the answer.

It is insightful to note that the definitions of god provided by these various clerics are so broad that god is probably not even a sufficiently meaningful category.  Whose God?

No amount of Bible reading, sermons masquerading as prayers and Christian hymns can cover up Beck’s civil religion that slides back and forth between the Bible and nationalism, between authentic faith and patriotic religion.

He treats the “American scripture”—such as the Gettysburg Address—as if it bears the same revelatory weight as Christian Scripture.

What is important to Beck is belief in God—God generically—not a specific understanding of God revealed in the Biblical witness, but God who appears in nature and from which one draws universal truths.

Not surprisingly, Beck only uses the Bible to point toward the idea of a God-generic…

There is NO Condemnation

I’m not sure if you have moments of personal doubt and insecurity—I sometimes do.  Recently I was feeling quite useless.  A stray comment here or a thoughtless decision there and one can easily spiral into a defeatist attitude.  Satan wastes no time in capitalizing on our mistakes.

Satan accuses Christians day and night.  It is not just that he will work on our conscience to make us feel as dirty, guilty, defeated, destroyed, weak, and ugly as he possibly can; it is something worse: his entire play in the past is to accuse us before God day and night, bringing charges against us that we know we can never answer before the majesty of God’s holiness.

What can we say in response? Will our defense be, ‘Oh, I’m not that bad?’  You will never beat Satan that way.  Never.  What you must say is, ‘Satan, I’m even worse than you think, but God loves me anyway.  He has accepted me because of the blood of the lamb

— D. A. Carson, Scandalous

Unfortunately, Satan is not our only accuser.  Other Christians waste no time pointing out your flaws and imperfections.  I am convinced that accountability is necessary within a Christian fellowship but accountability is for the purpose of edification and restoration.  It is very easy to drift from accountability to accusation.  We love to see others fall.  There must be a point where we allow the mistakes of others to be left in the past.  The acceptance and forgiveness of Christ is the basis of our status before Him and each other.  For me, the words of Paul are profoundly applicable:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

Am I willing to treat others not just as I want to be treated but as Christ treated me.  Am I willing to consider them as better than myself?  Am I willing to suffer wrongs and insults rather than be defensive?  Am I willing to measure others by the work of Christ rather than their good or bad behavior?  Am I willing to forgive their sins rather keeping score?  Am I willing to love like Christ?