Don’t Turn Wisdom into Mantras

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We love to simplify complex ideas, to make big thing small and sum things up as neatly as possible. It is the easiest way to keep thoughts organized and make sense out of the complicated. We try to take entire ideologies or theologies and sum them up in tight paradigmic phrases. We especially do this with quotes pulled from deep thinkers. Rather than do the work of learning absorbing the entirety of their arguments we lift the one or two phrases that seem to sum up the ideas nicely and just run with those.

Martin Luther King Jr. – “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

C.S. Lewis – All sin stems from Pride.

Mother Teresa – “If you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

Tim Keller – “All sin is idolatry.”

Gandhi – “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

John Piper – “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

Winston Churchill – “You have enemies? Good; that means you’ve stood up for something in your life.”

William Shakespeare – “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

Truth is easily apparent in each of these quotes or ideas. So the problem isn’t finding the wrong paradigms, it is settling for too few and doing so too readily. When we adopt a single paradigm, or maybe two, as our inspiration and guidance they easily become mantras – phrases repeated endlessly with little thought in the hopes it will transform. Mantras are meaningless. Christians can even do this with “life verses.” Jeremiah 29:11 becomes the quick fix for all problems and Romans 8:28 is the comfort for all troubles, an band aid for our spiritual and emotional boo boos.

Three main problems present themselves when we settle for such simplistic, mantra-like wisdom.

First, is that we are settling for synthesized and compacted thought. The strength of these singular thoughts comes from the massive scaffold of other thoughts on which they are built. If all we take is the single mantra we know little of the true power of the thought process and deep truths.

The second problem is more one of human nature: anything repeated often enough, no matter how brilliant, becomes rote and fades into the background. In order for truth to maintain its radiance in our eyes it must remain varied in its expression (how it is expressed, who expresses is it, when we see or hear it expressed). Truths repeated endlessly become tired (though not less true).

The third problem is also a function of humanity – that of human error and finitude. No one mantra sums all of life or truth perfectly. No one piece of wisdom answers all the questions or is clearly applied in every situation. So to claim one or two or three bits of wisdom as what you “base your life on” is to leave yourself with a largely empty tool box while facing the complex project of life.

There is no simple way to find and learn wisdom for life. Simplicity functions to create easier opportunities to begin discovering. It is not to be the end of discovering. Even biblical truths cannot be isolated and claimed apart from the full canon. Our response to brilliant bites of wisdom should not be to treat them like the samples at Costco but rather as an appetizer for the seven course meal. Each bite should titillate the senses and create wonder as to what more there might be.

What Does It Mean To Be A Responsible Charismatic?

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Ah yes…the Holy Spirit. What are we to do with Him? On one extreme you’ve got Benny Hinn, stalking back and forth across the stage, wearing his spotless white suit, talking Holy Spirit nonsense and “slaying” people in the Spirit by pushing them backwards. On the other extreme, you’ve got John MacArthur creating a conference called “Strange Fire”. And then there are a whole bunch of people in the middle who don’t know exactly what they believe about the Holy Spirit.

I don’t want to be Benny Hinn (although his white suit is pretty awesome). As much as I like and respect John MacArthur, I don’t believe that his position regarding the cessation of the spiritual gifts is biblical either. Is there a middle ground? I think there is.

I like to call myself a “responsible charismatic”.

What is a responsible charismatic? Let me spell it out. A responsible charismatic…

…BELIEVES IN THE FINAL AUTHORITY AND SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE

One of the assumptions people often make is that if you believe in spiritual gifts like prophecy or tongues or healing, you can’t believe in the final authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The assumption is that you either believe in prophecy or you believe in the final, ultimate authority and sufficiency of Scripture. It’s one or the other. Door one or door two. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Except that you can.

How do the spiritual gifts and the authority of Scripture work together? I’ll explain more about that in a future post. For now I simply want to make one thing clear: every part of my life, including my use of and understanding of the spiritual gifts, falls under the authority and guidance of Scripture. My belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit does not in any way undermine or contradict my full confidence in the sufficiency and authority of God’s word. Scripture always has the final say.

Some might object that it is logically impossible to believe in something like prophecy and to also believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If that’s your position, you’re gonna need to take that up with the Bible itself.

The biblical authors did not see any tension between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was writing as a divinely commissioned apostle. He was aware that his words carried divine authority. He knew that his words were authoritative in the same way the rest of Holy Scripture was authoritative. And yet Paul didn’t seem to have any problem in telling the Corinthians to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). Paul didn’t have any hesitation when he told the Christians at Rome to use their spiritual gifts for the building up of the church (Romans 12:3-8). He told the Thessalonians to test every prophecy, and to hold fast to what was good (1 Thessalonians 5:16). How were they to test prophecy? Presumably against the teaching of the apostles and the Old Testament scriptures. Scripture does not create a conflict between the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the ongoing use of the spiritual gifts.

So, a responsible charismatic believes that the spiritual gifts are for today and also believes that Scripture is sufficient and has the final authority.

A responsible charismatic also…

…EMBRACES THE BROAD WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Unfortunately, when people hear the term “charismatic”, they immediately think of extremists like Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley. They think of people laying on the ground, “slain” by the power of the Holy Spirit. A responsible charismatic, however, doesn’t limit his understanding of the Holy Spirit to just the spectactular spiritual gifts. Rather, the responsible charismatic embraces the broad work of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit works in a massive number of ways. The Spirit convicts us of sin. He inspires us to give generously. He creates true fellowship between believers. He comforts us in our distress. He empowers us to share the gospel boldly. He strengthens our marriages. He gives us the ability to be content in weakness. The Holy Spirit is at work all the time in his people. To only pursue the flashy spiritual gifts, like prophecy or tongues, is to miss out on so many other things the Spirit does.

At church this past Sunday, I asked a guy if he would be willing to help out with running our lighting system. He immediately responded by saying that he wanted to serve in any way possible. That response is just as much the work of the Holy Spirit as someone speaking in tongues. The Spirit works in many, diverse ways, and a responsible charismatic pursues and embraces the broad work of the Holy Spirit.

I want to be a responsible charismatic. I want to hold fast to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. I want to embrace the broad work of the Holy Spirit. And I also want to actively pursue the presence and gifts of the Spirit.

How do I pursue the gifts of the Spirit while still submitting to the authority of Scripture. More on that to come…

Your Systematic Theology is Showing

photo credit: hillary the mammal via photopin cc

Math is a remarkable gift from God. Prior to adulthood I thought of it as some combination of befuddling, boring, and cumbersome – at best a necessary evil. I’ve come to recognize its significance, though, as a set of organizing principles for the entire universe. Math helps the limited human mind make sense of the created expanse, or at least some of it. It divides and combines and sorts the world while allowing for logic and predictive abilities.

In spite of all that, only a certain kind of mind really sees beauty in math. It is necessary, imminently useful, and occasionally almost interesting. But not beautiful to most.

Mammals have skeletons to give us strength and shape. Without them we would be immobile, gelatinous lumps of flexing, twitching, grunting goo. Skeletons are crucial to the human body, the human existence. But when we look at another person we don’t think “Whoa, nice bone structure! She must drink her milk.” It is the rest of the human figure that attracts us — the symmetrical features and curves and smiles and hair color. We find beauty in the sense of humor, the personality, and the wit. We would recognize none of this without a skeleton to hold it all up, but it isn’t the skeleton we find lovely.

Systematic Theology is math, a skeleton. It is a system of organizing thoughts so that finite minds can begin to understand an infinite God (in a distinctly western way, mind you). Systematic theology is a support system for the reality of relationship with God. Too often, though, it is put forth as the face of faith instead of being the framework of it. All the “ologies” (soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, Christology, etc.) you know are not your relationship with God. They are not the true story of God. They support those things for you. They need muscles and veins and organs and skin to make them alive, to adorn them in beauty.

For many people, yea most people, systematic theology is not any more beautiful than algebra. It is intimidating or cumbersome or boring or argumentative. It can even be a deterrent from connecting with God when misused. “Misused” in this instance means thrust in people’s faces, worn as a badge of honor, broadcast as the defining characteristic of faith. People don’t need a systematic, organized understanding of God to be saved. They don’t need to have their beliefs divided and subdivided. They need a relationship, a deep, personal, intimate relationship.

Systematic theology can be present and right in a person’s life without ever being noticed or labeled as such. People can have it and use it and not know it just like they do with numerous math principles every day; just like they depend on their bone structure. And that’s ok. They don’t need the theological labels and all their associated camps any more than we need to begin dividing up people based on the length of their femurs or ability to determine the area of an equilateral triangle.

None of this is to undermine the value of accurate and rigorous theology. It is to put said theology in its proper place: foundation and underpinning, organization and understanding. It would be better if our systematic theology served its purpose and showed up less.

photo credit: hillary the mammal via photopin cc 

Happy Birthday To A Misunderstood Theologian

Tomorrow is the 31oth anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. (I’m sure you were counting down the days.) Edwards, the New England pastor, theologian, and philosopher, is probably best-known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

In my community college English class we read portions of this sermon to the mocking disdain of students and professor alike. Many of you have probably experienced something similar. The sermon itself, while certainly vivid in its descriptions of Hell, is no more vivid than Jesus’ own teachings about eternal judgment (see Matt 10:28; Mark 9:43, 47-48; Luke 16:19-31). But it’s a shame that to many people Edwards is known exclusively by this one sermon and thus characterized as a demented preacher obsessed with spewing venomous proclamations of hellfire and brimstone. That’s a distorted caricature of a man from whom we could learn much. So, in honor of his (almost) 310th birthday, let’s take a closer look at Jonathan Edwards’ life and thought.

Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son in a family of eleven children. When he entered Yale University in 1716, he was a month short of his 13th birthday. He was valedictorian at age 17, and had a Master’s three years later. (I find all of this mildly depressing.) He took all that brilliance and book-learning to the ministry in 1727 when he was ordained and became pastor of a church in Northampton, Connecticut.

He remained there for 23 years, during which time he would see several revivals, including the nation-shaping event of the Great Awakening. Despite what most would regard as a very successful pastoral ministry in Northampton, Edwards was dismissed by the congregation in 1750. He spent the remainder of his life as a missionary to the Indians and pastor to a small frontier congregation in the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He died on March 22nd, 1758, from a failed smallpox vaccination.

In the interest of brevity, let me introduce you to just counter-example to our popular image of Edwards as merely a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher. Would it surprise you to know one of his lengthy sermon series was on love? Charity and Its Fruits is now a 16 chapter, 300+ page meditation on 1 Cor. 13. The final sermon, entitled “Heaven is a World of Love” is a beautiful picture of the joys of Heaven. Here are some of the sections: “Love in heaven is always mutual…The joy of heavenly love shall never be interrupted or damped by jealousy…There shall be nothing within themselves to clog or hinder the saints in heaven in the exercises and expressions of love…Love will be expressed with perfect decency and wisdom…There shall be nothing external in heaven to keep its inhabitants at a distance from each other, or to hinder their most perfect enjoyment of each other’s love…In heaven all shall be united together in very near and dear relations…In heaven [the saints] shall enjoy each other’s love in perfect and uninterrupted prosperity.” His conclusion? “If you would be on the way to the world of love, see that you live a life of love – of love to God, and love to men.”

There you have it. The life and thought of Jonathan Edwards in two paragraphs. (I left out a few details.) But here’s the last thing I think we should gain from celebrating a dead guy’s birthday: God isn’t dependent on any one genius, “super-pastor,” or “super-theologian” to carry on his mission. Edwards is dead – and the gospel still goes forward. As the inscription on John Wesley’s tomb says, “God buries his workmen but carries on his work.” Even titanic geniuses like Edwards aren’t necessary to God’s plan. The sovereign Lord is pleased to use us – but he doesn’t need us.

So happy birthday, Jonathan Edwards. We’re grateful to God for you, and we’re grateful that God didn’t need you.

Image from Wikipedia.

It’s Not About Religion. It’s About A Relationship. Really?

On the sign of a local church: It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus.

When I first saw the sign I thought, that’s great, they’re trying to reach people – and I know what they’re saying. Christianity isn’t drudgery; it’s not a bunch of tedious rules and regulations we slog through; it’s a joy-filled relationship with God through Jesus.  I commend that church for reaching out to our community.

But the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. Bear with with me here – remember, I’m an old guy and I’m entitled to these kinds of musings.  If you want you can blast me afterwards but hear me out for a second.

The sign bothered me because being a Christian IS about religion.  Religion and relationship with Jesus aren’t mutually exclusive.  Being a Christian is about religion AND a relationship.

Religion is a specific set of beliefs about God and the practices those beliefs require. If we don’t believe Jesus is God, who became a man, lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead, we won’t be saved and can have no relationship with the Father or Jesus Christ. Without religion there is no relationship.

James certainly saw religion as important:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.  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. James 1:26-27

If one can think he is religious yet not be, then it must be possible to actually be. If there is a religion that is worthless, then there is a religion that is true and worth having.  James says true religion will lead us to bridle our tongues, visit afflicted orphans and widows  and live holy, unstained lives.

In other words, it IS about religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy.

The problem with the statement “It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus” is that it’s vague.  It’s undefined, warm and fuzzy.  But it can say the wrong thing.

If taken the wrong way people might think they don’t need to believe specific truths or be a committed member of a church. That they need not gather with others to hear the word preached or learn sound doctrine or serve others or speak the truth in love, confront sin or repent. It’s just me and Jesus; I don’t need all that religion stuff.

Yes, it is about relationship with Jesus which we receive as a free gift of God. But we cultivate that relationship by abiding in his word, prayer, worship, exercising faith, obedience and loving others – by our religion.

So what would I put on our sign? Maybe something like – It’s not about religion – if you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules. It’s about a religion that leads to and fuels a satisfying saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of course that’s too much for a sign you have 1.2 seconds to read as you drive by. But you know what I mean.  Ok, old man’s musings are done.  Fire away.