...but my book is finally ready. It sold out once, but it’s back in stock on Amazon now. $5 off today, if you want to catch it on sale.
Honest Company for the Journey
...but my book is finally ready. It sold out once, but it’s back in stock on Amazon now. $5 off today, if you want to catch it on sale.
Maybe Jesus wants you to be a little chubby
with a yard sale coffee table.
Back when he was knitting you together
inside your momma’s tummy
(decorating her like he decorated the Virgin Mary,
with holy stretch marks and a bonus layer
of blessed belly fat),
perhaps he had a plan for you
to grow up to be strong instead of just skinny.
Maybe the Good Lord knew that So-and-So
would shut you out
(or shut you down) if you were
one more double-zero for Jesus.
Maybe in the endless scope of eternal souls,
he had a reason for hovering over the darkness
and planting his voice
in the precise size of you.
Consider the remote possibility
that God didn’t mess up when he made you.
Consider the remote possibility that a perfect God
made you the exact sort of perfect you are
so that you could hold up your head and walk
like a daughter of the King.
What if he looked down on
a world hooked on porn and little butts in yoga pants
and said, “My daughter will teach them
how dignity looks.”
Perhaps he called you to wipe the tears of
women who hate themselves,
women who step on the scales every morning
and measure their worth in pounds of dirt.
And while we’re at it,
maybe that $10 beat-up coffee table
is part of the plan, too.
Maybe Mrs. Instagram-with-everything-new
needs to sit on your worn out old couch for an hour
and see how comfortable you are with the world to come.
Maybe she needs to cook with you
on your 1980’s linoleum floor,
sticking her finger in the batter of the flavor of joy
you can only whip up in a room just like that.
Maybe you’re not all wrong but all right--
and not just all right but just perfect
for this moment right now,
called by God to believe only
that he has a plan for the you
you already are.
“Do no harm.”
This phrase is often affiliated with the medical profession, but it applies to a much wider realm. Protecting the trust of the vulnerable is the foundation of every good friendship.
While friendship can involve co-creation, exhortation, belief, humor, and physical support; perhaps the most critical role of a friend is that of a healer. Friendship is our primary context for the long, hard, soul work of growth and recovery.
Yet helping to heal another person can be tough when we are wounded ourselves.
If you are familiar with the book The Five Love Languages, you already know how someone with the language of “affirming words” can feel starved without verbal affirmation. You know how an “acts of service” person can feel abandoned in a home where nobody jumps in to help. You know how a “gifts” person can feel empty and unseen when a birthday is dismissed.
Strangely, many of us marry people whose default for communicating love is entirely different from our own. So today, I want to write about what can happen in a split-language marriage when a lonely soul encounters someone else who naturally speaks their own language.
From what I’ve seen, this disparity can be particularly difficult for people whose love language is physical touch. Why? Because almost every other love language can be legitimately met in some other platonic way in the culture. We can receive compliments from others. We can spend time with others. We can receive acts of service or gifts from others. All those things can be fulfilled in non-romantic settings if our love tanks are running low. But in adults, the language of touch is reserved almost exclusively for the marital bond. This means Christian men and women who aren’t held meaningfully by their spouses can walk around in the world with a terrible void.
(Neglect and cruelty can happen in all love languages, of course, so if this love language doesn’t speak to you, some of the same principles may transfer to your situation. Feel free to write me with examples of your own!)
NEED AS A WEAPON
I was shocked when I realized that certain people intentionally leverage the needs of others as weapons in interpersonal relationships. I don't mean that I am easy to live with--I'm not. I can be obsessive, hyper-emotional, oblivious, and selfish. But obtaining control over friends isn’t something I enjoy. I like strong people who can volley with me.
So when I first started seeing spouses trying to control their mates, I was baffled. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do that in the one relationship that is supposed to run on mutual trust. Yet, sometimes people grow up in homes where they don’t feel safe, so the only way they know to engage is by entrapping another person.
One of my old boyfriends had a dad who told him to always keep women wanting something because dissatisfaction would always keep them coming back. Thankfully, I didn’t marry into that mindset, but it is a strategy too many people carry into the bond of marriage.
The first person I heard describe this in detail was a female—a woman who was profoundly angry with her husband. She was almost giddy when telling me how desperate he was at her lack of physical responsiveness. She said she hadn’t allowed him to be intimate with her for seven years—that it had grown so “bad” he couldn’t even put his hand on her knee without going wild with desire.
She loved that he wanted her. She loved rejecting him. This was power for her.
I knew her husband, saw him flitting around her, trying to meet her every wish. She knew that she had limited his choices to either unfaithfulness (in which he would be the bad guy) or endless and futile attempts to obtain love she wasn’t willing to give. This dynamic was comfortable for her. She felt safe inside of it.
Since then, I’ve heard stories of spouses who were intentionally critical in moments of intimate physical trust, shaming their mates and reducing them to tears.
I’ve heard of spouses who pretended to be oblivious but who were methodically rejecting every physical advance of their mates.
I’ve heard voices quiver when the rejected spouses described cold, obligatory kisses, or nights of sitting next to a spouse who wouldn’t reach out to hold a hand, or crying themselves to sleep in a lonely bed.
This wound goes out into the world with no legitimate means of satisfaction. This wound lives inside husbands and wives who encounter other husbands and wives who are living the same secret loneliness.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF TWO STARVED HEARTS
In the comments on shares to my last post, I saw several readers get nervous about my nuanced approach to this subject. “I hope she’s going to land this in truth!” Or “She better not excuse sin!” they said.
I get why people are nervous. Too many writers who possess the emotional depth to empathize with sexual struggles end up teaching a relativistic morality. They allow WANT to justify BEHAVIOR, assuming that a loving God would never allow his children to live with decades of unsatisfied temptation.
that’s not what I believe. I’ve read too many books written by people who spent their entire lives wrestling with the desires of their souls, and I know how much richer their books are than the writings of people who have yielded to what "felt right."
The struggles and temptations we experience on this planet can be some of the most beneficial classrooms of our faith. God uses them to show us things about ourselves that we cannot learn in any other way. True love doesn't try to build escape hatches out of God's hard best.
In fact, Jesus told us following him would involve loss. He said that we would find life through death, and dying hurts. The light yoke that Christ describes, the abundant life that he promises—this isn't a free pass to indulge in sin. Jesus is introducing us to the liberty of the gospel, a Christ-resourced way of living that helps us step out of a greedy human autonomy into an eternal communion.
Gospel levity is about Christ-in-us, not about the “you-do-you” philosophy of indulgence that too many progressive Christians teach. The former leads to life. The latter to devastation.
We don't hear that much, living in a post-modern Christianity. Instead, we often hear Christians describe physical affairs as beautiful. I’ve heard more than one adulterer swear that extra-marital sex was actually an agent of healing in his or her life. But not once in hearing those claims have I seen an adulterer leave the other person more healed.
When two love-starved Christians intersect with one another, their felt needs naturally sit on the surface. This isn’t an intentional choice, it’s more like taking a man who hasn’t eaten for a week into a French bistro. When he’s about to pass out from hunger, would you expect him to concentrate on an exegesis of the book of Philemon, even as the smell of fresh bread wafts through the air?
In a similar way, if a man greeting visitors to his small group meeting receives the hand of a visiting female friend whose husband hasn’t hugged her in a month, even that simple contact may feel delightful. Her initial wave of pleasure isn’t adulterous… it’s just what happens when someone who hadn’t been loved feels a half second of affection.
What happens next is very important, however.
If the man is intuitive, he may notice when his benign, non-sexual gesture moves the woman. Her cheeks may flush. She might give a slight bend in the knees. She might hold her breath. Some sort of non-verbal clue may show him that he has impacted her.
And what if this man is the same man whose wife delights in keeping him at a distance? What does he feel when he sees this woman's response?
How could she not trigger the question he’s been carrying around forever? "Is it possible that I could actually please someone? Does it really have to be this difficult every day?" How could he not feel a flutter of hope?
This initial tsunami of emotion isn’t about a desire for sex-- it’s about a lonely, rejected man wanting some sort of close, human connection that isn’t built around strategic rejection.
WHAT IS HEALING REALLY?
Thousands and thousands of lonely Christian couples face this dilemma every day. In the life of a “words of affirmation” person, the emotional high could appear in a simple compliment that a controlling spouse refuses to give. In the life of a “gifts” person, a cheap, quirky present could show a wife that she is known and seen. In the life of an “acts of service” man whose wife never takes time to help him, the lunch a coworker lovingly prepares could make him feel worthwhile.
You and I work with dozens of love-starved people, and it’s not easy to know how to engage with their wounds without doing harm. Isn’t our first impulse to repeat behavior that seems to give others life? Don’t we naturally want to rush in and fill a gap that would be easy and natural for us when we see someone treated with disrespect or cruelty?
So many affairs in the Christian church begin this way. They don’t begin in sheer carnal lust; they begin in a desire to help. But we walk into danger when we trust ourselves and our natural love languages to heal others instead of walking in the Spirit. Even the best intentions can destroy, when we try to do good on our own.
Even if we see another person grin as we lavish praise upon her, our healing words may eventually cause her harm.
Even if our long hug gives another person’s husband an immediate sense of courage and strength, our embrace may eventually cause him harm.
Even if another person’s wife has been shamed into believing she is unlovable, the sex of another man will hurt her—though his intentions are to help her finally realize that she is profoundly valuable.
We cannot determine the true telos (the end) of our affection by looking at its immediate impact on another person's emotions.
WALKING IN THE SPIRIT IN A BROKEN WORLD
Simply admitting reality here can be so powerful.
If we can identify what is actually going on inside ourselves, we may begin to see that we aren’t always being the pure givers we think we are—but that we are secretly trying to satisfy ourselves while believing that we are being caregivers.
We also have to believe that God sometimes has a plan for people we love that requires them to walk through pain. I don’t mean that a man or woman should stay in an abusive marriage; after counseling leads to continued abuse, I think there’s a place to draw the line. But the answer to abuse isn’t sin. Being hurt by a greedy spouse doesn’t give us a free pass to engage in an illicit relationship. A cruel spouse may justify a divorce--but cruelty does not justify adultery. And this can be very, very difficult for us to believe when we love someone has suffered for a long time.
But a true friend comes alongside pain, empathizes deeply with the reality of suffering, and helps the other person continue to believe that God has a plan for his or her life that is built upon faith, not reactivity. A true friend co-believes that God is good and that he will do good, even as our friends face the trials God has allowed them to experience.
This is some of the most painful love I have ever had to give my friends. I am a rescuer, and I’d rather feel pain inside my own body than watch others hurt. Yet this gentle, tender companionship—offered without severe judgment or platitudes—is the companionship Jesus desired when his disciples slept as he agonized in the garden. It's lonely to be broken. And when you help a friend who is fighting the battles of “Not my will but Thine,” you are kneeling in union with something profoundly holy.
In mixed-gender friendships where potential romantic energy is present, loving the wounded will involve resisting expressions of love that would immediately medicate pain but ultimately hurt more than help. This restraint may feel cruel or heartless, but it’s a great kindness to the vulnerable.
Your work here begins in honest prayer--some of the most honest prayers you have ever prayed. You ask for insight into your own motives. You pray for wisdom in how to do ultimate good to a hurting person. You walk trusting God to love your friend more than you do.
God sometimes shows us practical ideas for assistance that don’t tempt or destroy in these situations. Often these ideas will take people closer to Jesus instead of deeper into ourselves, and this can feel a little lonely on our end. You haven't failed if you experience this loneliness. In fact, it might mean you have succeeded.
CONSUMING VS. GIVING
C.S. Lewis, Sayers, and others, often wrote about a dark form of love that consumed its object. This selfish obsession tried to own, use, and control instead of helping another free soul toward its eternal end.
A lot of times, giving love isn’t as immediately satisfying as consuming love. It's tough to assist without strings attached, and overflowing from God’s resources can lead others to embed themselves more deeply in Jesus than in us. It’s a whole different way of living, counter-intuitive in a culture that seeks ultimate healing in human romance.
If God isn't real--if He doesn't have a good plan for our friends--this way of doing things foolish. But if He is a benevolent Father who is working ultimate good for those we love, being selfless with the wounded trust of a true, hurting friend is the most beautiful offering we can give them. If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, giving them to Him is even more beautiful than giving them ourselves.
For years, I’ve been frustrated by Christian marriage books that operate according to stereotypes.
“Men want respect while women want love.”
“Men want sex while women want romance.”
“Men want results while women want conversation.”
These extremes may work for some couples, but they don’t work for all. This makes writing about relationships between real humans complicated.
More than once, I’ve seen a woman sitting in a Bible study group withdraw, checking out of the conversation because her marriage didn’t work like everyone else's. As a pastor’s wife, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to approach me privately, devastated by a husband who had no interest in her physically. It grieved her to hear other wives laughingly complain about men “just wanting sex” while she felt the shame of physical rejection.
I’ve also heard from brilliant, driven women who felt loved but not respected by their husbands. These men bring flowers and arrange dates, but their wives’ ideas never seem to matter very much. These women aren’t a real part of the marital team---not engaged as intellectual companions or co-creators. They ache for the camaraderie of helping a man change the world, but they are treated more like accessories.
Other marriages involve one partner who is secretly cruel. Over two decades of ministry, I haven’t met a single victim of emotional abuse who wouldn’t have eagerly traded emotional wounds for broken bones and skin bruises. I’m not exaggerating here. There is a unique wickedness to emotional abuse—a torture that methodically steals, kills, and destroys. The secretive nature of emotional abuse makes it even more devastating because Christian friends who would bend over backwards to help a woman escape a man who blacked her eye will completely dismiss emotional torture, blaming and shunning a woman who is trying to flee for her life.
Porn is also having a profound impact on certain Christian marriages. People talk about porn as if the struggle always reduced to dudes looking at photoshopped pictures of naked, twenty-something women, and that dynamic can be part of it. But that’s not the whole story. For Christians wrestling with porn, the attraction can transcend simple, animal lust. The bigger allure is more often passivity--perhaps a man feels inadequate or rejected, and he’s grown too scared and tired to try to connect intimately with a real human being. Or maybe a woman feels defeated or stuck in real life, so she runs to a fantasy world in which she can trick herself into temporarily believing that she is admired or wanted. Like most addictions, this escape involves just enough connection to the physical to make it believable for a moment or two. But after the thrill fades, life seems even more empty. Eventually the shame of the habit makes interaction with real humans even more difficult, and in loneliness, the problem snowballs.
A BAD FIT
Finally, some marriages are just a hard fit. The physical attraction or electric personality quirks that brought two people together in young adulthood have faded, and a man and woman find themselves struggling to find common ground. The adventurer/dreamer feels choked by the maintainer/sustainer. The long-term loyalist feels exhausted by the impulsive ADD tendencies of an explorer. The romantic is bored by the pragmatist. The athlete is annoyed by the couch potato. The incessant talker annoys the thinker. The extrovert needs to find some depth. The introvert needs to stop hiding. The type-A doer wants to break free of the sluggard. The artist feels unknowable to the realist.
How many more angles could I explain here? Dozens.
Because marriage is inherently complicated, I don’t think it's possible to write a post that fits every situation. So even though this topic has been on my mind for months, I’ve shied away from it time and again, afraid of doing more harm than good.
I don’t want to inadvertently urge the abused to stay with the abuser. I don’t want to oversimplify a unique situation with a platitude that causes more pain. I don’t want to overshadow the individual leading of the Holy Spirit, and I don’t want to suggest laws that distract people the living work of the gospel.
As a reader, you invest quite a bit of trust in me as a writer. But with this series, I want to throw that trust back upon you as a reader, asking you to pray and then throw away anything I offer that doesn’t fit your particular situation. I think that's the only way we are going to reach through the anonymity of the internet to make any sort of connection work here.
That said, onward. :)
So what’s behind an affair?
Some cases of infidelity are stereotypical. The middle-aged dude freaks about his receding hairline, wonders if he still “has it,” and sweet talks a vulnerable twenty-something into hooking up. Shallow. Physical. Greedy. He doesn’t care who he hurts. He takes what he wants and doesn’t look back. His family is wrecked. His kids are devastated. The standard, selfish jerk.
We all know cases in which this has happened.
But there are also other situations in which sex isn’t the driving pull to marital infidelity. At least from what I’ve seen, a great many more affairs begin at the emotional level—with two people who never wanted to sleep around. These people just stumbled into a shockingly power friendship during a time of intense pain. And, after years of trying to make a broken marriage work, after years of making the same appeals over and over and over, after growing weary of trying to have honest conversations that end up going nowhere, an unexpected and innocent human connection appears—a friendship that is stunningly easy.
This other person isn’t just physically attractive, he or she quickens parts of your spirit that has been dormant for a long time. His or her company draws you out of the dull routines that have paralyzed you. He or she makes you feel like it’s possible to turn over a new leaf, that your work in the world isn’t quite over yet.
You don’t begin to feel lust—you begin to feel hope.
You don’t just like this person—this person makes you begin to like yourself again.
I specifically want to talk to Christians who find themselves here, caught up in the first waves of this particular surprise.
First off, I’m not going to shame you. If you are in this situation, you weren’t looking for it; it just happened. You don’t need guilt right now, you need help knowing what to do with it. (If you wanted to jump headlong into infidelity, you wouldn't be reading a post with this title, right?)
Secondly, I’m not going to exhort you to react in fear, pressuring you to find some sort of external accountability to protect you. God may lead you to do that, but I don't know your situation well enough to know what to suggest. (The wrong external pressures can actually make a situation like this worse.) So, I'm just going to dig into the heart of the matter; then, at the end of this series, you and Jesus can decide what steps to take next.
Because this subject needs a little more room than some, I’m thinking I'll need to break it into three sessions. For now, here's the plan.
1. Today’s introduction
2. Do No Harm: Consuming vs Giving
3. Transposition: Seeing a Reviving Love Clearly
Please be praying for me as I try to tackle this topic. I’ve been in the ministry for over twenty years now, and I’ve seen a lot of patterns repeat. Still, I’m a nervous about trying to communicate those patterns in a complicated world. I’ll be praying for your marriages on this end, too.
And nope. I haven’t forgotten about the last part of the last series on God’s goodness. I’m just waiting for a day with enough think-space to finish it off. :)
When Abram and Lot separated in Genesis 13, Abram got the short end of the stick.
Lot was greedy, choosing the most fertile countryside with the richest farm lands--leaving Abram to make do with the lesser business opportunity.
I don’t know if this happened to you in corporate America or inside of a personal relationship, but chances are, you’ve run into some Lot-types. These sorts of people are still operating full force, rushing to position themselves with the “best” people. They bulldoze, grab, and disrespect, trying to climb all the right ladders.
Like Abram, you’ve had to move into the wake of their selfishness, trying to make the most of the leftovers.
But don’t forget what happened to Lot and Abram eventually. Even though it looked like Lot was destined to succeed, his selfishness led to tragedy in his own family. Lot’s desire for the stuff of the earth lured him into the very heart of Sodom. And that’s where this sort of greed will lead all of us, if we don’t learn to master it.
The book of Genesis doesn’t promise that we will receive physical blessings in a broken world, but it does show us that God isn’t limited by the selfishness of others. Even if we suffer materially or physically, the Lord can create spiritual depth in us as a result.
When selfish people start to mess with our lives, it's okay to draw boundaries like Abraham did--letting some separation exist between his world and Lot's. It's okay to grieve a broken relationship and to cry out for God's intervention in the face of injustice. But we don’t have to despair when humans are suspicious, rude, cruel, or greedy. God knows how to grow a harvest on difficult soil. All is not lost.
Late last night, I was chatting with a friend of mine who has been mistreated severely. Even from the middle of grave injustice, she wrote, “We just have to remember to stay true to who God created us to be, even when the world doesn’t behave in the same way.”
This dear friend knows what it's like to live with a “Lot” who grabs up all the best lands, and for now, his selfish plan seems to be working. But even as she moves on into Canaan, she is clinging to hope in a God who sees and loves her, and she’s refusing to let the selfishness of others change the core of her character.
After we finished chatting, I cried a little while, moved by her rare goodness. It did my heart good to see someone make this choice. Her faith gave me the courage to take a few more steps of hope in my own life.
You’re not trying to find every possible snag in the Bible—you’re just a strong reader, and you’re empathetic. You notice the difficult things, and they bother you.
You’re surrounded by cultural Christians who blitz through difficult passages without flinching. While they claim to believe the Bible is literal and true, they read with the emotional distance of a fiction novel. They fight passionately for the six days of creation because that story knocks down dominoes in the culture wars; but when an entire country gets slaughtered in the Old Testament--when a slave or woman is brutalized—when a nation sustains a plague because of one person’s sin--they smooth it over.
And if you express concern about a troubling story, they turn on you. They accuse you of “trying to be too smart” or you of “trying to play God.” They warn you about the dangers of thinking too much--as if you could turn off an internal switch and suddenly stop noticing.
We would never accuse a musician of bad motives when he notices a string out of tune, but deep thinkers who notice elements of Scripture that don’t seem to harmonize with the overall morality of the Bible are scolded.
That pressure is lonely. It’s also disorienting.
If you’ve lived through this, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to notice the snags. I know what it’s like to be accused of bad motives when I couldn't help seeing or caring. I also know what it’s like to grow so exhausted from the struggle that you finally push the Bible away because you’re afraid of uncovering one more question that will bring pain and distance if you mention it.
This morning, I was trying to read Genesis 12. In this passage, God tells Abram that he is going to bless the entire world through A’s offspring. Next thing you know, Abram is traveling through Egypt where he gets nervous because his (65-year-old) wife is gorgeous (#seniorgoals). Abram thinks he’s going to be killed when the Egyptians see Sarai because they will want to steal her. So, he tells Sarai to tell everybody that she’s his sister. The Egyptians are duped, and they take Sarai into the palace. Suddenly the Egyptians get hit with a bunch of plagues. In fact, the Bible says the LORD inflicted those diseases on Pharaoh and his household because they took her.
Typical reading experience for me here. I hit that last bit and feel a huge wave of frustration. Abram was a coward and he lied. Sarah was misused. Pharoah and his household felt the consequences. Not fair. Still, Abram not only gets off the hook entirely, he gets a ton of riches from Pharaoh. What in the world?
At this point, some of you will be tempted to rush in and explain how the Abram narrative fits into the overall structure of Genesis. But I already know how the offspring of Sarai and Abram will eventually produce a Messiah who will bless the whole world. I know it would goof everything up if Sarai got pregnant by Pharaoh.
That explanation doesn’t make the ethical snag go away for someone like me, though--the collateral damage still hurts--especially when I see God inflicting diseases on people who had no idea what was happening.
What is a thinker supposed to do about this kind of problem? I have studied too much to throw the entire Christian faith away; I couldn't be an atheist and maintain any sort of intellectual honesty. But I’m also hurt that God did something that feels so unfair to the Egyptians. What now?
To answer that, I'm going to tell you about an image that has changed my approach to difficult Bible passages. It's so simple, it might not seem powerful at first. But over the past ten years or so, this has come to mean more and more to my restless mind. Ready? Here it is:
A.W. Tozer read Shakespeare on his knees.
This man was brilliant, yet, he still had the humility to learn with a physical posture that expressed need and dependence. As he chased the intellectual act of reading, he maintained a spiritual awareness that his mind couldn't do all the work--he needed God to be the giver of real wisdom and insight.
If that image feels foreign to you, don’t be surprised. You live in an era void of humility. You probably have no frame of reference for this sort of posture.
For example doesn't this line sound familiar to you lately? “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power...” (Daniel 4:20).
Nebuchanezzar bragged with these very words before being turned beastly by God, yet we could change the word "Babylon" to "America" and use the phrase for a campaign slogan in 2020.
By the tens of thousands, evangelicals cheer for such chest beating and self-promotion. The church loves bravado these days—excuses it, defends it, rallies behind it. Meekness, goodness, gentleness, patience, love have no visible role in our political-religious spectrum.
Can you even imagine a major evangelical leader kneeling humbly to pray? I certainly can’t fathom it. The church is drunk on flexing its muscles, abandoning public confessions of dependent weakness.
But once upon a time, long, long ago--in a land far, far away--A.W. Tozer read Shakespeare on his knees.
Maybe you’ve seen atheists get impatient with Biblical complexities, storming off and assuming that a complicated God is either cruel or fake. But atheists are not alone in such proud, rash behavior. Many Christians aren’t willing to crawl down off their platforms to find a place to kneel.
Thinking friends, even as you read this post, doesn’t something inside you crave this ancient, beautiful, counter-cultural posture? Look at how Psalm 95 connects the act of kneeling with an acknowledgement that we are as dependent as sheep upon their shepherd? The physical act and the spiritual act are one here. The psalmist wasn’t ashamed of urging God’s people to bow before their Lord because he knew what this physical act could do inside of us.
"O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand."
This practice isn’t relegated to the Old Testament. In the New Testament kneeling is taught as common practice among the early believers. And one day, every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Luke 22:41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed. (Jesus)
Ephesians 3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father. (Paul)
Acts 20:36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. (Paul)
Philippians 2:10 So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
So if you are a thinker, instead of trying to turn off your questions, I want to encourage you to kneel through them. Don't feel ashamed. Just find a room where you can get some privacy. Kneel before your God—not just in spirit, but with your whole body. (Sometimes I put a blanket over my head because I have a little bit of ADD, and the closed space helps me focus.)
In that privacy, let your bodily posture reflect your appeal to the Lord, and then say to him, “Help me. This passage is hard. You told me to care about people, and here are people hurting. Guide me through this.”
When I did that this morning, I started to get some clarity within minutes. Something about a physical posture that expressed need and trust instantly settled my impulses to try to fix the snag myself. I felt that I was making room for a sincere question before a God who loved me and who could handle it. It also reminded me that it was okay to be the responder, the requester, and the dependent because God is the pursuer, the giver of Truth, and the provider.
Kneeling also reorients the expectations human government has placed upon me. As much as I love my democratic republic, I also know that it’s only ideal because humans sin. The perfect government is a theocracy—which can only function perfectly under the rule of a holy King. Caught in this double reality, I have to do some mental work when switching from an American mindset to prayer. A divine leader can be trusted to lovingly withhold answers for a good purpose, if he chooses to do so. That’s an uncomfortable leap for most Americans.
After my time of kneeling prayer, I did more technical research and found more answers to the Genesis 12 dilemma. But you know what’s even more interesting than those answers? It’s now almost noon, and my whole body still feels the effects of those moments spent kneeling.
Why? Because kneeling is about more than finding one answer to one question. It’s about aligning ourselves inside of the community of a God who is actually alive.
Toes in the sand pictures. Windblown hair and sunglasses pictures. You don’t feel jealous so much as you just feel numb.
Jealous is what you feel when something could be yours, but you let go of glamour a long time ago. You want a roof over your head. You want more than five hours of sleep for once. You want health insurance. You want a second job.
Your big dream this week is thirty minutes of quiet in a hot bath.
I don’t know what weight is on your shoulders tonight. An old financial burden. A sudden job loss. A medical crisis. A relational breakdown. But whatever the reason, if you didn’t get a single day this summer to slow down, this post is for you.
It’s almost August, and you're way more tired than you were in May. Back-to-school sales are hitting, and your head hurts because this summer wasn’t a summer. Your head hurts because there’s no room to mess this up, but you don’t have the energy to do it perfectly.
Your to-do list is still a million miles long, but your brain isn’t connecting all the dots because it’s maxed out. You feel like a fool. You feel like a failure. You know that you just can’t get it all done—and yet, it has to be done. And you’re the one who has to do it.
Your neck is tight. Your shoulders are sore. The stress draws you in. The base of your skull feels like it’s rusted into your spine.
You’re scared. You’re tired. You’re scared of how tired you are.
There’s no room—literally no room—to sit down and have the cry you need. And you’re also kind of scared to think about how long you might cry if you ever got started.
Has anybody told you lately that surviving a summer like that is a win? Because it a win. You need to hear that.
Women joke about drowning their stress in wine—but you know what those jokes actually mean, right? They aren’t about the wine. They are about the one thing women aren’t allowed to say.
“I can’t do this!”
Our mouths won’t say it. Our minds won’t think it. We joke about two-buck chuck because women CAN’T ever NOT keep going.
And you kept going. You put one foot in front of the other.
When people complete a marathon, they buy a sticker for the back of their minivan to prove how far they’ve come. That sticker says, “I ran the race! I did this impossibly hard thing.” So tonight, I want to give you a symbol. Maybe you’re not visual like I am, but my brain works this way.
A circle inside a circle.
I drew this on my hand today because I wanted to be reminded that I was enclosed. All the chaos. All the fatigue. All the stuff left to do is held inside the grace of God.
I looked at those two circles and took a long breath,
That breath didn’t take away my to-do list, but it was still good to remember.
His grace is sufficient for my weakness--yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of this hard, hard, summer.
If this post connects with you, I wish you’d had a vacation. I wish I could give you a good long rest and your whole summer back. But I’m proud of you for surviving. I know it was more difficult than almost anybody in your life understands.
But his grace is sufficient for you, tired one. And somewhere out in the world, I’m praying for you tonight.
Most of us aren't college professors, so we don't get paid to study. We have to squeeze in Biblical research wherever we can find the time for it.
This morning, I wanted to double check an assumption about the bloodline of Mary, but I only had an hour or so to find what I needed. The assumption? That Mary was connected to the line of Levi on her mother’s side (because she was related to Elizabeth), and to the line of Judah on her father’s side (because the angel Gabriel told the virgin that her son would be Davidic).
The thought of Mary’s lineage deriving from both priests (Levi) and kings (Judah) seems to fit in so many ways. When I think about who Jesus was, and how he connected the old covenant to the new, this feels like the sort of nuance the Father would choose when selecting a mother for his Son. But feelings don't make truth, so I needed facts.
Anyway, I have an hour to figure this problem out...kid is waking upstairs, I have a long to-do list... and as I was studying, I ran into a dilemma Christians (and atheists) have been talking about for years: the genealogies of Matthew and Luke list two different fathers for Joseph.
Matthew tells us a man named Jacob (not Isaac’s son) was Joseph’s father while Luke tells us Heli held that role. Historical and cultural reasons explain why the Bible diverges here--reasons that would have been obvious to first century readers thinking in terms of legal and biological lines of descent. But any time you find a seeming paradox in the Bible, you’re also probably going to find human conflict about it. And that's what I ran into this morning.
For example, here are two comments I found at the bottom of a website wrestling with Joseph’s parentage. I want you to notice the posture of these two readers.
Both “David” and “Soul Collector” are condescending, dismissive, and rude. The first assumes dishonest motives in the writer. The second spits out a haughty, “Do some research,” despite the fact that the original post is research based.
Even though I’m forty-six and have been studying theology for over twenty years, my stomach still feels sick when I find myself in “Christian” dialogues like these. I had a sincere question, and I was looking for a solid answer. I had very little time to find what I needed. But instead of being encouraged by the body, I felt beat up by it.
I don’t want to be part of a community that engages this way. There’s no kindness here. There’s no room for curiosity. There’s no room to be in process.
So I started thinking about where this sort of bravado begins. And I started wondering how we might help it stop.
At the highest levels of Christian research, scholars have long bantered back and forth about interpretation. In those contexts, a fraternal volley can be served and returned with a certain measure of humor. It’s how the game of discovery is played because the best scholars are inherently Socratic. They challenge and they debate, trusting the best ideas to rise to the surface.
The camaraderie of intellectual volley is everyday fare inside of a university setting. After a rousing match of wit, two profs can go have lunch together. No blood, no foul. But what happens when these internal debates overflow into lay culture? And in light of this, what responsibility do Christian scholars have for the posture they adopt inside of academia?
I’ve read elite theologians who walk in a sober understanding of the responsibility they hold to the non-scholastic world. These men are not only theologically accurate, they also teach with a posture that embodies the gospel—a posture that is “caught” affectively and intuitively mimicked through the church.
Others, however, seem more myopic. They get stuck inside of an academic bubble and live accordingly. A campus is a biosphere, after all, which is beautiful and also dangerous. It’s easy for a professor to get wrapped up in the rush of publications, in the electricity of the classroom, in theories, in faculty politics, in forums, in the quest for tenure—forgetting that what happens inside of academia automatically trickles down into something very different outside of it.
Non-academic readers read academic writings, and they mimic a theologian’s posture--even when they can’t comprehend his intended context. This has a huge impact on dialogue within lay Christianity.
I wonder what those scholars would change if they could see what happens with their teachings down here in the lower church—a realm where tertiary and quaternary disciples break fragments of academic wit into shards and use them as real weapons to hurt real people? What would they change if they could see how two-decades-worth of careful, primary source research eventually morph into a cocky online smack down by AmillTom542 who blasts, “DO SOME RESEARCH!” in a public forum?
Can anything be done inside of our elite havens of discovery and discussion to help heal the church—not just intellectually, but also relationally?
This morning, my husband was praising Derek Kidner's commentary on the Psalms. “This is a guy who hasn’t just studied the text—he’s let it change who he is,” B said.
I’m already enchanted. I can feel the gospel radiating off my husband after he’s read Kidner. This is the impact of a scholar who operates like a shepherd/teacher. This is the impact of an intellectual who writes confessionally instead of just correctively.
Last night B and I had our first couple conversation with a search team from a potential new church. I don’t know where that conversation will lead, but no matter what happens in the future, last night was big for us.
Nothing about the conversation was corporate. I know that shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. After ten years of trying to lead a church in an engineering town, I was moved to find a body of believers with a whole different set of priorities. We didn't get a printed list of 60 specific demands. (This happened more than once last go around.) They didn't ask if we could create a business plan to produce a religious product. These folks had two basic questions that drove every other question. “Will you make the room to love and enjoy us? And will you help us know Jesus?”
My heart melted listening to them.
This little church sits out in the country, and it's full of people who reminded me a lot of our distant family members. Their last pastor and his wife showed them what it meant to walk authentically with God and one another, and now they don't want to turn back. They want to walk more deeply with Jesus. They want to take good care of each other.
Something else that moved me? Older members who can’t get out of the house very often are a top priority for them. Older folks should be a priority for every church, but they're not. So many churches are restless, desperate to do whatever it takes to attract glitzy new members in their 20’s and 30’s. But here was a fierce and beautiful loyalty to those dear older souls who are sometimes overlooked and forgotten.
They also want to help their community find Jesus. This is a tiny town in East Tennessee—a town where little houses are dotted back along dead end roads. There’s not a central place in the community where folks hang out, so we spent part of our time throwing around ideas about board game nights, and karaoke, and a coffee/live music nights.
They are already serving local people in need, and they are looking for new ways to reach out to those who are hurting from addiction and injustice. They told us they wanted leadership that would push them out of their comfort zones into serving more and more. “Find someone who will make us uncomfortable, who will urge us to get out there and give,” a member in the church had asked the team. I thought that was so sweet.
They don’t want a CEO. They want a shepherd and a teacher. They don't idolize the corporate model of church--and that was one of the most moving realizations of the night for me. I can't tell you what hope that gave me for the American church as a whole. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to this nation if there were more groups of 150 sincere people willing to believe that a real Jesus could show up in their midst.
I don’t know if God will place us at this church, but it was such a beautiful introduction into our search for new place to serve. America is overrun with too-engineered, corporate, strategic religious machines—but there are still honest groups of believers out there who just want to be known and loved so that they can go out into a dark world carrying the practical love of Jesus.
That’s the strategy Jesus used with the twelve. I couldn’t help thinking about how much he must love these folks as we drove through the mountains on our way home.
I’m thankful God let me see that.
(I'll return to our series in my next post. :) )
So many of our denominational differences boil down to a split between opposites, both of which the Bible seems to support in at least some way.
1: Do people choose to believe in God, or does God cause people to believe in him?
2: Does God want everyone to be saved, or has he planned some souls for destruction?
3: Did Jesus die for the whole world, or did he die only for the elect?
4. Could the second coming of Jesus happen at any moment, or will the Kingdom of God slowly reform the condition of the planet?
5. Did God give women gifts in teaching, discernment, and leadership, or does he want them to take an invisible, submissive role in the church?
6. Is salvation by grace alone, or is a level of obedience a necessary component of true salvation?
7. Was the book of Genesis meant to function like a lab report, describing precise details of an empirical process, or is its genre poetic, built upon a Hebrew framework that works more like poetry found in other places in the Bible?
8. Is salvation permanent, or can it be lost?
Most of us can look at this list and sort various opinions into a camp with the Southern Baptists, the Church of Christ, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, or the Episcopalians. Many of us also know where we stand on these issues.
Once we find ourselves planted in a definite theological camp, it can be hard to find hearty, irenic conversation about any of these matters. Answers are promptly given. Denominational authorities are promptly cited. We are handed syllogisms, proofs, creeds, systematics—but mostly, we are handed a posture of complete certainty. Our denominations have absorbed all the tension. They have answered the questions for us.
In some ways, this sort of certainty is necessary. This is a crazy time for the church, an era when fundamental orthodoxy is being challenged in many congregations.
Because my husband and I have been thinking about getting back into ministry, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading statements of beliefs on church websites. I’m not doing this because I want to argue, I just know that if certain key things don’t line up, I’m probably not going to be a good fit for a congregation.
For example, I look for church leadership that respects the Scriptures highly; I could never trust a leadership team that valued its own discernment more than the Word of God.
Holding this single standard eliminates two types of churches for me immediately. First, this conviction prevents me from joining certain progressive congregations that use the Bible “more like guidelines” (Pirates of the Carribbean reference. Don’t miss it. Ha.). No, the Bible isn’t a collection of Aesop’s fables; it’s living and active, intended to have an authoritative role in our lives. So those churches are out. Secondly, however, my respect for the Scriptures eliminates churches that insist the KJV is more inspired than all other translations. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t support this teaching in any way. A KJV-only stance is based on eisegesis, not exegesis. I love the KJV dearly, but my love for that translation can't excuse an extra-Biblical claim. Because I trust the Bible so much, I'm prevented from joining both ultra progressive and extreme, fundamentalist churches.
Within the American religious machine, such issues function like a sorting hat. They help us find places to jump in and start participating in community, and they warn us about congregations where we would have enormous battles to fight before we could even begin to harmonize. As much as I love the idea of ecumenicalism, I don’t think it will be a real possibility until the Kingdom is fully implemented.
That said, the church has also taken the work of definition too far at times. In an attempt to solve all Biblical mysteries, we have sometimes tried to force clarity, and we have erred in our conclusions as a result.
Here’s an example from my own life.
Twenty years ago, I discovered Reformed theology for the first time. I was immediately smitten. I didn’t just read a couple of Piper books and start listening to R.C. Sproul like most people did at the time--I went full out. I got my husband to bring me thick, old, technical Reformed books from the seminary library. I hacked through systematic theology and writings of the Puritans. I studied pretty hard for about five years. I was thrilled to find a theological system that could handle the scientific, rational part of my mind.
The puzzle was solved. The mysteries were mastered. I was giddy.
My husband and I have very different personalities, and those differences became obvious during this period of our marriage. After my frenzied studies, I would run to him with what I found that day. (He was in seminary at the time.) As I poured all my excitement and certainty upon him, he would listen, but he wouldn’t immediately join in my ecstasies. As he held back, I grew angrier and angrier.
When I insisted on hearing what he thought, he said, “Bec, we should leave the things Scripture leaves in tension in tension. You don’t have to solve everything. God leaves certain gaps for a reason.”
This answer infuriated me. I had spent so many hours dialoguing with people who exuded total theological confidence. I thought that confidence was the same thing as faith.
I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I finally (secretly) decided that I was just a lot more intelligent and brave than my husband. I thought he was too scared to walk into the battle and hack these problems out. (I conveniently ignored the fact that B was working 40 hours a week while completing a 122-hour ThM requiring competency in Greek and Hebrew. It would take me twice that long to learn those languages with full focus. I wasn't smarter or braver--I was just angry that he wasn’t jumping on board with me.)
Dismissing his hesitations, I persisted on my own. After all, the Bible was a only a book, and I’d never met a book I couldn’t conquer. I could do this.
Then, one day something hit me. Suddenly, I saw how a single element of Reformed theology could not be reconciled with the Bible.
Panic ran through me. Desperate to make the problem go away, I read books, I dug through the writings of people who had tried to make this puzzle piece fit. I even emailed John Piper’s church and wrestled with one of their lead pastors—a man who was wise, kind, and patient, but who couldn’t give me an answer that fit my exegetical standards.
This one element of theology wasn’t derived from Scripture; it was derived from human logic.
I was devastated.
If you aren’t an analytical person, this disappointment might not make sense to you. But at twenty-nine, I placed complete trust in the power of the human mind to crack the truths of God. I was still, essentially, a Greek humanist. (So many intellectual Christians are.)
Because I was wholly encased in a Christianity that fought every internal and cultural battle with Greek tools, I didn’t know anything different. I didn’t understand how Plato and Aristotle had impacted Augustine or Aquinas, or why that influence mattered. The only God I could imagine was a divine Aristotle-type figure--a systematic, mathematical Great Divider who dispersed truth like a chemistry textbook. If this was God, my sole quest was to find the system that held all truth.
This is why finding one hole in the best system I'd ever found broke my heart.
As time has passed, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of what my husband was saying all those years ago. If God is really all-powerful, he could have given us a Bible with no mysteries in it. But he didn’t do that. He left tensions. He left paradoxes.
I still read (and love) a lot of Reformed theology. But these days I don’t study Reformed theology because I want to master all-things-God. These days I read it to worship a God who is caught, in part, by certain Reformed teachers. There’s a massive (eternity-shattering) difference between the two approaches.
Some of you—especially the readers who are like me—are chomping at the bit at this point in my essay. You want me to tackle specific mysteries from the Scriptures and tell you where I've landed. But as I've prayed about it, I'm not sure that's the best move to make in this post. Maybe we can hit some of those mysteries later, one at a time, but right now, the teacher-part of my personality wants to pause the lesson and let a concept soak overnight.
Why? Because if we move forward too quickly, we will lose the bigger and more important point--a point that supersedes all those singular questions. That point is this:
What God makes clear in the Scriptures, receive with clarity.
What God leaves ambiguous in the Scriptures, receive with humble trust.
If we distort either element of that combination, we’re going to find ourselves in trouble.
What does humble trust in the presence of a mystery look like? Well, it's not blind belief, if that's what you're thinking.
One of the most important quotes of my faith journey was written by Flannery O’Connor in Wise Blood. You’re going to think it’s a misquote when you first read it, but it’s not. Read this slowly, and really think about it as you go.
Of a particular character, she writes: “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin” [emphasis mine].
This is the total opposite of how most of us imagine religion works. We normally think of sin as the thing that drives us from God—and it does, of course. But there’s also another posture that keeps us from God—a posture that runs through every descendant of Eve—a posture so pervasive that we hardly recognize it as sin at all. This posture is the belief that our own powers of mind or will can protect us from needing a living and uncontrollable God.
This was the posture of the Pharisees, who were so desperate to create a systematized religion that they missed the Messiah. This is the posture of modern religious legalists, desperate to follow a checklist of “dos and don’t” so that they can "earn" heaven.
It can also be the posture of the theological intellectual, the ravenous student who (at a subconscious level) is trying to find every rule of Christianity so that she doesn’t have to engage with a free and living God.
I would have never admitted that this is what I was doing when I was twenty-nine. I would have told you that I wanted to be accurate. But in retrospect, I wanted a machine I could wield in battle—a dependable weapon that I could carry into relationships, into culture, in the depths of my own fears to destroy any threat.
I wasn't content with what God made clear. I wanted every mystery and paradox wrapped up, in part, because I was scared that God wasn’t real, that he wasn’t good, that he didn’t love me. I was desperate for a theological Constitution that I could carry into a divine court, demanding my rights and proving my justification.
As the Lord has lovingly broken this mistrust in me (he’s still breaking it BTW), I’ve come to feel a little differently about the intentional instabilities he’s left in the Bible. Why? Because if I stand in humble trust, they can drive me back to Him—not just to a recognition of His character-- but to the living person of God.
I haven’t stopped working over the mysteries, and God hasn’t stopped meeting me in them. In fact, some dilemmas that I considered irreconcilable twenty years ago no longer confuse me. But I’m starting to see that he’s not just a dissertation review board—he’s a Father who stands in mastery over dimensions of truth that exist beyond the limitations of Greek rationalism.
So, when I look at the concept of hell and start wrestling with verses that seem to teach two different angles on the prospect—instead of short circuiting into panic, I take time to slow down and admit what’s really going on inside of me. I get emotionally honest and say: “What is it that I’m so afraid of here?” and “What does this tension expose in my heart?”
The answers to those questions are awfully important—perhaps even more important than than cracking the mystery proper. At times, I’ve had to tell God, “This passage makes me wonder how you could possibly be fair!” or “These verses make me afraid you don’t love people as much as I do!”
As much as I don’t like saying those things to the Lord, my admissions don’t surprise him. He knows what’s churning in my heart before I confess it. And until I’m willing to go to his living presence and admit my struggles, I can’t progress in my relationship with him very easily.
As I look back through the Bible, I don’t see God flinching when Abraham desperately cries out, “Shall not the judge of the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Jesus quotes David instead of condemning him for saying, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46) When Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-32), or when the Canaanite woman we studied yesterday pushes back into Jesus with her appeal, the Lord engages. Over and again, I see a God who can handle honest human engagement—who even praises those children who dig in and trust him with their real struggles.
Christianity is an invitation to join a God-man partnership, a union the Bible compares to a marriage. It is the beginning of an eternity of union, a union built upon love and trust. The Bible tells us that we are already (in some ways) reigning and that we will will reign even more fully with God as time goes on. (II Timothy 2:12, Hebrews 2:5-9, Psalm 8, Revelation 20:4-6). How could we possibly work out that sort of partnership with systems alone?
As limited mortal beings intersect with an infinite immortal being, we will inevitably find gaps that require honest questions. These gaps would be devastating if God were limited to Greek rationalism, but He’s not. He's actually alive, and he loves us. He IS (linking verb) the WAY (predicate noun that renames the subject), the TRUTH and the LIFE. There is no gap between Jesus and those three claims of identity. He contains them.
This self-declaration stands as the single most powerful epistemological claim humans have ever encountered. It doesn’t just lead to syllogisms. It leads to a marriage.
A few days ago, one of my readers caught me making up a word. (Ha!) Exe-trajectical.
It’s a combination of two different concepts the Bible encourages Christians to embrace in faith-based living: (1) exegesis and (2) trajectory.
Let me explain both individually before I bring them together...
When a Christian uses exegesis, he or she is using a text-reliant method of interpreting the Bible. It's the opposite of EISegesis, which is twisting the Bible to support an individual's pre-existing opinion.
The Greek prefixes are helpful here. “Eis,” means “into"--eisegesis tries to force meaning “into” the text. An eisegetical reader hunts for stories and verses that back his own opinions; he uses the Bible manipulatively.
“Ex” means “out of”--an exegetical reader isn’t trying to push his own meaning in, he’s taking meaning out. He is willing to sit under the authority of the text and receive what it teaches, even if this instruction challenges him. (If you are interested in knowing more about this, check out Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul, page 39. IV Press, 1977).
The term “trajectory” is generally used in the realm of physics. A trajectory describes the path an object takes while moving through space/time. It tells us about a moving object’s position in light of its own momentum and any external physical forces influencing its flight.
The concept of spiritual “trajectory” is also taught regularly by the Bible/ From start to finish, God shows us how souls and nations exist in motion, moving toward the natural ends of their own choices.
We see Lot moving closer and closer to Sodom, until his family is lethally entangled within its culture. We see Cain’s refusal to honor God wholeheartedly, leading to jealousy, to murder, and to exile. The Proverbs are full of exhortations about the ends of various life choices. The Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation all show how internal choices express heart postures that—over time—either yield to renovating union with Christ or hardened hostility to the faith.
Strangely, though, despite the prevalence of trajectory teaching in the Scriptures, this concept is generally ignored by many conservative Biblical teachers. Why? Well, because when this concept is mishandled, it’s inherently dangerous.
Sure, writers like C.S. Lewis have handled it brilliantly in essays like “Weight of Glory” and “Transposition.” But many others have misused the concept to re-create theology so that it jibes with secular humanism. Particularly, we see this happen to assumptions about the heart and nature of God.
Example 1: “Oh, God would never (insert random hard thing I don’t like) because he is love.”
Example 2: “God loves us. He wants us to be happy. He would never ask me to (insert hard thing I either don’t understand or don’t want to do).”
These are unreliable arguments of trajectory, assumptions that distort what has been revealed about God. We create statements like these when we want to use God to get what we want.
I wish I could tell you that I weren’t subject to this temptation, but I am. We all are. That's why this concept is dangerous. Nearly every eisegetical distortion of Scripture that I’ve seen in the past thirty years can be traced back to assumptions about God that are twisted by personal bias.
Yet avoiding the concept isn't entirely safe, either. Throughout Scripture, God praises believers who were willing to stand in the confusing intersection of past revelation and future hope, and believe huge, exe-trajectical things of him.
AN EXE-TRAJECTICAL LIFE
The first example that comes to mind is Abraham’s.
In defiance of everything we now know about Biblical Law—the command to refrain from murder, the command to refrain from sacrificing family members to gods--God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Abraham was willing to go there. He would have killed the boy, if God hadn’t stopped him at the last moment.
Mosaic law wasn’t around at the time, but still, Abraham had a general idea of right and wrong. You don’t have to sit through a Hebrew Ethics 101 class to know that you shouldn’t kill your own son after waiting 100 years for him to be born. And yet, God asked him to.
If you don’t gasp in horror while reading this tale, you’re not super religious—you’re numb. God knows how human hearts work—he included this narrative, in part, to jolt us out of spiritual apathy. The appropriate spiritual response to Abraham’s terrible journey up the mountain isn't a passive shrug and a, “Well, God is good!” This story is supposed to bother you to your bones. It’s supposed to challenge you. It’s supposed to expose idols we hide in our hearts, and force us to ask hard questions, and drive us to our knees.
It's also supposed to show us something radically unconventional about Abraham’s relationship with God. Not until the New Testament book of Hebrews do we get a little insight about what the old man was thinking here. Hebrews says, “He [Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise him [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:9)
Do you get why this is so critical?
If Abraham had used exegesis alone, how could he have ever made an assumption so radical? Had he ever seen God raise anyone from the dead?
If we hijacked the Tardis to send Wayne Grudem back to Abraham's moment in Biblical history, could Grudem have provided systematic, textual evidence that Abraham’s hypothesis was solid? Would Abraham’s assumption have withstood a standard Dallas Theological Seminary hermenutics analysis?
Probably not. An exegetical analysis might focus on God's promise to multiply Abraham through Isaac--that promise had to be fulfilled. But a plan to raise Isaac from the dead can't be achieved in the exegetical realm alone. That leap has to be made by trajectory + exegesis.
Abraham chose not to limit God's future behavior to his past behavior. Yes, he held fast to God's promise, character, and power--but he didn't use that information to try to harness the options of the divine. He set his faith in the groove of the motion God had revealed--something I would have a difficult time doing without feeling like a heretic. Yet, we know Abraham was right to assume the unconventional of God because he’s praised for it in the chapter of the New Testament which lauds Biblical trust.
It would be easier to dismiss this story as a quirk of pre-canon, pre-Mosaic faith if other followers of God hadn’t pleased the Lord by drawing similar conclusions, even after written Scriptures began to be available in culture. So many believers used what was revealed about God to leap into unusual expectations of God, and this leap wasn't railed as theologically reckless but praised as beautiful.
Because of this, I'm not sure I've always perceived the intended function of the Scriptures accurately.
The Bible tells us that the Scriptures are God-breathed, critical for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16), and while it assures us that not a jot or tittle will pass away without the text being fulfilled (Matthew 5:18), it doesn’t ever say that God has placed all His truth inside of the text.
In fact, God tells us he intentionally hides things sometimes (Matthew 11:25). Through Paul, he tells we can only see through a glass darkly now (I Corinthians 13:12). The vision John received on Patmos is only partially explained--some of what John sees, he is forbidden to write down (Revelation 10:4). And Jesus openly criticizes scholars who believe that they can find all of God’s truth in the Scriptures while disengaging with him personally (John 5:39).
None of this lessens the value of the Bible.
The Bible is our most faithful plumb line for truth; it is living and active, and its ability to work diagnostically and correctively to bring about redemption is supernatural (Hebrews 4:12). But the Bible doesn’t replace a living God--it works in harmonious union with Him.
So there are two dangers in attempting an Abraham-like faith here, as far as I see it.
Danger One: We’ve talked about this risk in our conservative churches a billion times. It is possible to "remake" God into our own image simply because we don’t like the idea of God saying, requiring, or planning something that feels icky or unreasonable to us. The reality of a divine judgment doesn’t depend on whether we like the idea or not. The morality of eating/spending/having sex doesn’t depend on how we want God to feel about those things. As we discussed in the last post, humans are only able to create arbitrary law and moral codes—we can’t do anything about the deep, universal or moral laws. Whether we approve of truth or not, it exists. Whether we approve of God or not, He exists.
Danger Two: We haven’t talked about this in our conservative churches as often. We may also miss something critical if we never allow exegesis to lead us into true knowledge of a living God who is free to do unconventional or unexpected things. Knowing how to do this well will take some work on the part of conservative scholars because so often we have seen it done poorly.
But start working through the Old Testament and then the New Testament, asking how many opportunities for obedience, how many conclusions about truth (that were eventually confirmed) would have been missed if God’s people had not been willing to operate in an exe-trajectical manner.
These people didn’t eisegete—they weren’t letting selfishness drive them to recreate God or truth. In fact, often what they had to do as a result was difficult or painful. Still, they looked along the flight path of what God had clearly, definitely revealed--and as a result, they believed something of him that couldn't quite be nailed down to a specific verse of the text.
Jesus praised the centurion who looked to him with more faith than all of Isreal.
He praised the Canaanite woman who refused to accept two clear “no’s” from Him. This woman got direct statements from the Son of God telling her that her request was theologically impossible--yet, she didn’t stop with the words themselves--she trusted Christ’s character enough to push past technical religious language to reach what she believed to be true of His heart.
She openly defied his “It is not right,” with a “Yes, it is right.” Jesus wasn’t angered by this.
Look what he says instead, “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (To read this story, look up Matthew 15:21-28)
Her faith, Abraham’s faith, the faith of scores of other unconventional believers rooted in trust in a free and living God show us what it means to approach the Father exe-trajectically. The concept isn’t entirely safe, but it is good.
So first, a quick preview of the remaining posts I’m planning in this series. Hopefully a list of topics will help orient each essay into a larger context.
Part 1. Intro
Part 2. Limitations
Part 3. Are truth and goodness permanent, or do they shift?
Part 4. Exe-trajectical believers from the Bible.
Part 5. The benefits of an intentional instability
Part 6. The consequence of consequence
Part 7. The deep math of an indwelt life
And now, on to Part 3--are truth and goodness permanent, or do they shift?
One of the first debates in philosophy, a debate that hit even before the time of Socrates, focused on whether reality was permanent. A thinker named Heraclitus argued that the fundamental character of reality is change; in other words, that the universe is constantly in flux. Parmenides disagreed, arguing that permanence is the fundamental nature of reality and that any change we think we are seeing is just an illusion.
That may sound like a bunch of philosophical mumbo jumbo, but the tension is actually super relevant still today. During the #metoo surge, victims were infuriated by people who urged them to, “Tell your truth.”
Why were abused people angered by this language? Because they wanted more validation for their pain. They said, “It’s not ‘my truth’--this is THE TRUTH. There aren’t two ways of looking at what I endured. This wasn't just my STORY, this was wrong.”
While the complaint makes sense, nailing right and wrong to the wall isn't easy in a postmodern world. Our sense of morality is largely based on trends. If you've seen the hilarious SNL skit, “Woke jeans,” you have watched comedians poke fun at America's epidemic inability to be definite. WOKE JEANS
But what is truth? Is truth something universal or permanent? And what about goodness? Is what's good for one person good for another?
I don’t have a lot of theological heroes, but Dot Sayers is one of them. Gosh, she was fierce. Brilliant. She was among the first class at Oxford to female graduates, but she attended before a degree was guaranteed. She played the saxophone, rode a motorcycle, learned medieval Italian just so she could translate Dante. Her book The Mind of the Maker is one of the most influential books of my life. As I read it, I felt like I'd finally, finally, FINALLY found another woman who understood the way I think. She's my Fairy Thoughtmother.
I'm not going to go step-by-step through her first chapter here, but I am going to borrow snippets of her chapter. (For those of you who are up for a challenge, go read this. It's worth your time. http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/dlsayers/mindofmaker/mind.01.htm)
Sayers is painstakingly methodical, breaking complex ideas into simple, clearly-defined terms She uses a method I encourage as a rhetoric teacher--beginning crucial arguments by defining important terms. Why define? Because until you know the edges and function of a tool, you can’t pick it up and use it effectively.
Sayers begins by defining two meanings of the word “law,” and I think you will recognize the difference between these two meanings immediately.
Law Type 1: The laws humans create (arbitrary laws.) For example: the laws of football were written by human beings.
Law Type 2: The laws humans discover (natural laws.) For example, if you put your bare hand in the fire, you will get burned.
With only that brief explanation, I bet you can take the following quiz and label each “law” A (for arbitrary) or N for natural. (Answers are at the bottom of today’s post.) If you get confused, ask yourself, “Did a human create this law, or does this consequence occur naturally?”
A. _____ If you drive over 35 MPH in a certain neighborhood, you will receive a ticket.
B. _____ If you stare into the sun during an eclipse, you will damage your eyesight.
C. _____ If you boil a raw egg in the water for eight minutes, it will no longer be raw.
D. _____ That cow produced milk after having a calf.
E. _____ He was caught stealing a car; then he went to jail.
F. _____ She jumped off a tall bridge into asphalt and broke twenty bones.
G. _____ She ate 8000 calories every day for six months and gained weight.
H._____ Because women in her country are repressed, she was beaten for speaking her opinion.
Can you see how some of these laws are created and some are just an unavoidable part of living in our physical universe?
When it comes to natural laws, the opinions of human beings are irrelevant. The entire planet could take a vote, deciding to reverse the influence of gravity, and even if the consensus were unanimous, that vote would create no change. Consequences will still happen.
We all accept this dynamic naturally. Humans don’t waste time trying to campaign against the second law of thermodynamics. (Imagine that rally in D.C. Ha!) Instead, they adjust arbitrary laws—changing regulations about industrial pollution, and the three-point shot in basketball, and buying alcohol on Sundays.
There is a realm in which the difference between natural and arbitrary laws becomes volatile, however. That realm is ethics.
To introduce ethics, let me ask you this question: do you believe some sort of deep, inherent, morality should be consulted when creating arbitrary laws?
Is it inherently wrong to abuse dogs or children? Or is there no such thing as moral behavior in a mechanical world?
America is certainly based on the assumption that universal morality exists. The founders wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even if a secularist removes the “Creator” part of this statement, he’s likely going to agree that human beings have certain inalienable rights. In fact, the hottest secular arguments of our day depend upon this sort of assumption. Have you heard any of the following claims?
“I have the right to smoke pot if I want.”
“It’s my body. I have the right to choose an abortion.”
“I have the right to marry whomever I want.”
“The repressed poor of this nation have a right to stand against capitalist dominance.”
“I have a right to work without being sexually assaulted.”
When you hear people making these arguments, they almost always appeal to a deep, assumed morality—something that is far stronger than individual opinion. Theirs claims are rooted in an invisible ethic that THEY BELIEVE exists as firmly as any law of physics.
But what is the universal ethic? What does it say, and how do we find it?
Sayers tackles this problem by creating two categories that I think may be helpful to us as well:
1. moral codes
2. moral laws.
Moral codes are the regulations humans create to try to enforce ethics. (Example: If you are caught raping a woman, you will serve prison time.)
Moral laws are discoverable but invisible truths about ethics upon which moral codes can be based. (Rape is wrong.)
See if you can code the following MC (for moral code) or ML (for moral law) using the examples I provided as a guide.
A. _____A family receives child support after an unfaithful husband is divorced.
B. _____A man should help provide for his children.
C. _____An employer is not permitted to discriminate because of race.
D. _____Thinking less of another human’s value because of race is wrong.
E. _____ Minimum wage.
F. _____ Powerful people should not take advantage of the desperate.
As you look back over these examples, you see some statements that require human regulation. Others are expressions of principle—larger truths that simply exist.
Moral codes usually offer a definite legal consequence for misbehavior. For example, if you don’t _____ then ____ will happen. Governments use moral codes and their consequences to keep large groups of people from hurting one another, and this is a good thing. It's the best thing governments ever do.
But there's also a reality most moderns miss—a reality that is incredibly dangerous to miss. In fact, if I could give you one point to memorize from this post, this would be that point-- consequences also result when we break moral LAWS.. not just when we break moral CODES.
Sayers writes, “These statements [moral laws] do not rest on human consent; they are either true or false. If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril.”
At his own peril.
Let's go back to the woman who jumped off the bridge onto asphalt. Even if she was confident, optimistic, and happy during her entire fall, she still broke bones at the end of her journey. Likewise, people who defy natural moral laws will eventually have a hard landing.
The man who rapes will face consequences just as debilitating as a fall off a bridge, even if he is never prosecuted by human law.
This inherent danger should impact impact how a government create laws. To explain that, let's use a bizarre example. Imagine Congress suddenly passes a law stating that all American citizens have the right to breathe underwater. "Americans are done with being limited to air!" Congressman Whipnot exclaims in his public address. "From this day forth, you are all free to walk into the ocean and inhale at will!"
If American citizens embraced this new ruling, many law-abiding citizens would drown. The human-made law wouldn’t be strong enough to negate the natural law.
At times in American history, moral codes defied inherent moral laws. When Americans stole, enslaved, and brutalized Africans—they did so legally. And yet, the natural consequences of this “legal” behavior led to the inevitable. Revolt. Resistance. The bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. Centuries of consequential damage in our nation resulted—horrific dominoes tumbled (of course) because the moral code didn't harmonize with the moral law.
We can look back on all that now and say, “Of course abuse and murder didn’t turn out well.” But at the time, a prevailing moral code blinded many from understanding of what had to happen to a nation that openly defied an unchangeable moral law.
Likewise, any modern government that fails to comply with moral law--no matter what public opinion says--will result in suffering.
A government can create wildly popular regulations that please the vast majority of a population, codes that excuse its favorite behaviors and reward its favorite choices...and those codes may ultimately still harm its citizens. Even if a law SEEMS beautiful and good to any given era, if the moral law isn't understood while that law is being made, the telos of the law will eventually harm people
Blast. This post is already too long.
I had wanted to bring in what physicists are discovering about the natural laws of beauty. I was going to talk about research on symmetry, on music—the Fibonnaci sequence. I was going to write about how the Greeks believed in universal principles of artistry and relate that belief to Aristotle’s unities and Plato’s forms. I was going to show you how those assumptions shifted as philosophy changed...moving through rationalistic then empirical attempts to nail truth to the wall...landing in defeat.
I was going to explain how existentialism is the deformed son of thousands of futile years of trying to create independent truth-- a defeated conclusion that moral law doesn’t actually exist so we must make meaning for ourselves.
I was going to tie all this in to Eve’s first sin—her desire to make meaning for herself. I was going to claim that she became the first existentialist when she decided to be like God without God.
I was going to land this post in Christ’s wild claim that he IS truth embodied and challenge you to think beyond even the Christian apologists of our time who have a terrible habit of ripping the truth out of a living Christ.
I was going to land with Chesterton’s brilliant quote that I cite too much, the quote about the danger of letting beautiful virtues fragment away from a critical center.
But there’s simply no room to unpack all that, and modern readers won’t stand for it. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it.
I will include the Chesterton quote, though. Print it out. Memorize it. Get it tattooed on your arms. Stick it on your refrigerator. It’s truly one of the most important thoughts of the past thousand years. It may change your life, if you let it.
"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. "
- - - - - - - -
A - A
B - N
C - N
D - N
E - A
F - N
G - N
H - A
A - MC
B - ML
C - MC
D - ML
E - MC
F - ML
Even though I teach literature and philosophy these days, my first “career” was actually in science. From an early age, I was conducting research under the mentorship of a local university. As a teen, I read scientific journals, helped conduct experiments at national laboratories, and attended international symposiums. So, when it comes to left-brained/right-brained thinking, I’m sort of amphibious.
One of the loves I’ve carried over from those early years is an admiration for a well-written scientific paper. Those of you with scientific training already know how those papers work; for those who don't, an excellent piece of research contains several critical elements. For example, an abstract contains a summary of the research, and a conclusion documents the technical findings of the project. Probably my favorite element of a scientific paper, however, is the section called “limitations.”
A “limitations” section presents a frank and accurate admission of what a study doesn’t accomplish. It says, “There are six or seven factors that limit our conclusions, and instead of hiding those factors from you, we’re going to tell you very clearly what they are.” This part of the paper captures empiricism at its finest. It’s dependent upon a sort of transparency that all true scientists love--a transparency that values human knowledge more than the egos of individual researchers.
Unfortunately, however, “science” isn’t often as pure as it should be. Just as in religion, business, and government, political and economic pressures can corrupt the purity of the scientific community. Professors need to publish to obtain tenure or to advance in university departments, meaning weaknesses in research projects are sometimes smoothed over. Graduate assistants are asked to fudge numbers, and conclusions are stretched for the sake of the “wow” factor. In a competitive world, admission of a significant gap can knock a study out of publication.
Such corruption compels scientific purists to make appeals for honesty. If any of you fellow nerds want to read the scientific equivalent of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day call to arms, a mighty good rally cry for the importance of limitations can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3305390/
I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest when I was reading that journal article because I don’t just want the scientific community to return to purity here—I want this same sort of integrity to rise up within politics, the church, the media, literary interpretation... you name it. In a world where people fudge facts while trying to gain cultural power, I ache for honest voices saying, “Here is what I think I have learned—and here’s what I don’t know yet.”
So I’d like to declare some limitations at the outset of this post. I want to be open with you about who I am and who I’m not. I want to be open with you about what these essays can do and what they can’t.
I know that some of you were excited when you read yesterday’s introduction to this series—either because you have struggled with the topics I listed or because you have friends and family who have struggled. But while I’m willing to walk with you honestly into these topics, I am not going to hand you ten points that will immediately remedy all your confusion. I just don’t have that capacity. In fact, let me tell you four things I’m not even going to attempt.
Limitation 1: I’m not going to attempt to convince every atheist to agree with me.
Unbelief is way more complicated than some Christians realize, and many atheists have walked through years of emotional and intellectual struggle before choosing to reject religion. For them, atheism isn’t a single decision; it’s a thousand decisions.
Sure, there are atheists who have grown up in unbelief and have settled into it easily. Others, however, have come to it through fierce pain, knowing that their unbelief would sever or bruise relationships that meant a great deal to them. Some atheists have spent years trying to believe through abuse or pain, asking God for rescue that never seemed to come. Some have felt lonely and disoriented, begging for one simple miraculous confirmation that would have been so easy for an all-powerful God—a confirmation He never seemed willing to give. Some atheists have been mistreated by the church. Some have broken free of cult-like pressures, and propaganda, and threats.
It would be proud and silly of me to assume that a single blog series could reverse all those conclusions rooted in memory, experience, and relationship. I’m not even going to try to do it.
If atheist readers want to see that it’s possible for a Christian to present a respectful difference of opinion, I’d like to try to give them that. But this isn’t a glitzy flood lights and big stage power debate that promises to dominate secularism and change the minds of the entire unbelieving planet here. It’s just writing by somebody who can’t help thinking too much sharing some thoughts.
Limitation 2: Secondly, I’m not going to try to convince every Christian to agree with me.
For decades, I’ve been one of those nerds who loves technical apologetics books. I’ve plowed through reformed theology, mystical theology, dispensationalist theology, Wesleyan theology, you name it...digging through so many schools of thought which collect under the banner of Christianity.
In these studies, I’ve found a lot that I consider good, beautiful, and true; however, I haven’t found a single theological label that encompasses everything I believe about the Scriptures. That’s not because I’m a relativist or a liberal. It’s because when I consider how certain theological stances emerged from specific historical contexts, I start to understand more about why the church diverged then calcified into various branches.
Often, Theology B was a response to a bad extreme in Theology A. And then, Theology C grew as a response to an extreme in Theology B. Also, sometimes conclusions A, B, or C were drawn as a result of secular philosophies that were raging at the time--philosophies that may have long since passed into obscurity.
Today, our denominations collect around the remnants of Theologies A, B, and C—but most of us are clueless about the philosophical and historical contexts in which these stances began. This lack of understanding doesn’t seem to prevent advocates for A, B, and C from throwing on their hockey jerseys and knocking out teeth. We just know our team, and therefore, we think we know who has it all wrong. The Calvinists mock diSpENSATIONALISTS. (Haw. Haw. Haw.) The Amilleniallists bash Darby and his Rapture junkies. (Haw. Haw. Haw.) Armenians mock the eisegetical hot glue needed to make the Legos of TULIP stick together. (Haw. Haw. Haw.)
For a long time, I thought it might be possible to sort all that out. Maybe it is. But as I look back over the past few decades, I feel like I’ve wasted way too much time in those particular sorts of conversations. Every now and then, I will click on my least-favorite “discernment blogger” site, just to remind me of how ugly and haughty that type of religion can get.
Lately I’ve been gravitating more and more toward salt-of-the-earth believers, people who get out into the world and live out what they do know about the gospel instead of theology nerds who sit behind computer screens 40 hours a week critiquing others. I’m just not sure Jesus has much to do with all those ego-driven Calvinist/Arminian debates on online forums that pass by the bleeding man in the ditch because they are too busy to get to the temple. Jesus said we could determine the quality of a tree by its fruit, and I’m tired of chewing on sour apples.
So, as I explore these questions, I’m going to be vulnerable and honest. I’m going to try to apply sound principles of exegesis and cite thinkers who respect the text. But I don’t expect to pass muster with every cerebral guardian of every staunch theological camp. So, if you are deeply bound to a certain team within Orthodoxy, my guess is that this series won’t be altogether satisfying for you. In such cases, you might find more of what you are looking for on one of your own denominational websites.
Limitation 3. I’m not going to claim to have definitive answers on super complicated theological questions that scholars have wrestling with for centuries.
I’m going to tell you what I think I know for sure, but I’m also going to hypothesize a little, too. When I speculate, I won’t be making definitive theological claims; I’ll be saying, “I can see how something like this might be in the realm of possibility.”
If that sort of thinking makes you nervous, this blog series isn’t for you. If you want someone who is 100% sure about everything, I’m not your girl.
Limitation 4: I'm not going to try to supersede writers you should trust more than me on almost everything.
Who should you trust more than me? Tim Keller, Christopher J. H. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Howard Hendricks, Haddon Robinson, Corrie Ten Boom. (There are more, but that’s a good start.) Any time something I write goes against these good folks, trust them more than you trust me. Actually, if I could convince you to stop reading my blog and just go read all their books, you’d probably be a lot better off.
Alright, I wrote this post yesterday, hoping that I would wake up this morning and find a way to make it shorter. But before attempting to go further, I just needed to draw some boundaries. You might not feel better about proceeding, but I do. Thanks for letting me get this part out of the way.
The fiercest and most common objections I hear about Christianity aren’t scientific or historical but moral.
Millions of dollars are spent on faith-based training programs trying to argue that the Bible wields academic heft in a post-Enlightenment world, but the real crux of modern atheism doesn’t quiver before the intellectual force of the Scriptures.
Very simply, most atheists don’t like the God of the Bible because they think he isn’t moral. They think God is narcissistic, savage, inconsistent, moody, sexist, racist, and primitive.
I’ve met few Christians who are able to empathize and engage with this barrier. They shake their heads and say that atheists “just don’t get it.” They slap on a platitude. But for the most part, Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the argument that if the God of the Bible is real, he’s not the sort of leader modern humans should trust.
God has allowed this barrier to impact people I love deeply, so I’ve not been able to dismiss it like some Christians. Even if I apply childlike trust to my own faith, my heart still reaches back to plead for those who cannot believe so easily. The Lord has kept me in a strange and difficult place—a place of loving him while also understanding why friends are angry about how they perceive God.
So, I want to try to talk about this issue with respect for those who disagree with me. I want to try to explain why (at least some) atheists have such a hard time wanting to engage with the God of the Bible. And I also want to share a couple of thoughts about how I’ve processed their honest apprehensions.
1. Atheists believe the the God of the Bible is inhumane.
They have heard bits and pieces of the Old Testament— verses about mass slaughter, the stoning of homosexuals, and punishing women who were raped. They have read verses that condone slavery and advocate for treating females unequally.
While Christians tend to say, “But that was the Old Testament!” it’s very difficult for someone who isn’t all that familiar with the Bible to see how 1300 years of the Mosaic Law fit into a larger narrative context. To someone who doesn’t understand how many years the Bible actually spans, or what the different covenants communicated, the words of Deuteronomy and Galatians seem to hold equal weight.
2. Christianity has lost cred because of misapplications of the Bible.
If atheists are confused about Biblical interpretation, they have good reason. Over the centuries, a great many so-called Christians have yanked random verses out of context to try to gain cultural power. Biblical verses have been misapplied to support American slavery, the abuse of women and children, wicked political leaders, and cruelty toward the desperate. Just as satan used the Scripture during Christ’s temptation in the desert, wicked men have quoted the Bible while promoting darkness.
Before we get all defensive about this and say, “Yeah, but those teachers weren’t legit!” we need to think seriously about how trust works. Aristotle taught that ethos (personal credibility) was far more persuasive than logos (facts) or pathos (emotions). Jesus taught something similar when he explained that bad fruit falls from a bad tree.
To ask people to immediately embrace a belief system that (in their view) has proven cruel is unrealistic. Jesus warned us about the impact of false religion, and our society is now facing the consequences he told us would come. Grave damage has been done, and it’s probably going to take a lot of time in the company of real faith to even begin to repair those wounds.
People who have been deeply disappointed in religion need to test the waters, need to push on the walls, need to shake the foundations. That’s not just because those people are weak—it’s because they’ve been exposed to a false version of Christianity that hasn’t held to its core.
3. Even the New Testament can be morally confusing to the modern reader. It would be different if every baffling verse were packed away in the pre-Christ books, but even in the epistles, we find passages that provoke the modern, humanistic conscience. Beautiful commands to feed the poor, die to self, and serve the weak are juxtaposed alongside commands for women to keep silent in the churches and for slaves to obey their masters.
Concepts like predestination and hell feel profoundly unjust. Atheists ask, “How could a mortal resist the plan of God? And why should a soul face eternal consequences for a temporary choice?”
4. Perhaps even more offensive than all of these things is God’s determination to require faith of a society that worships empirical proofs. Modern America doesn’t build temples to gods made of wood and stone, but we have idolized an epistemology built upon the reliability of human perception. Despite the inability of empirical science to provide primary proofs—despite its ultimate reliance upon presuppositions built upon blind faith, a weakness even the founders of empiricism openly acknowledged—modern academia feels no qualms about demanding secondary proofs. Any deity who fails to jump through these hoops is deemed a bad sport.
I believe the Bible is true, and I believe that God is good. But I also understand why questions like these catch in the throats of the atheists of my time.
It’s hard for me to write this next bit, but I also think it’s pretty important. Sometimes what’s called “faith” is really just a lack of empathy.
I don’t mean that everybody needs to become a melancholy, cynical doubter. Not everyone is wired like that. But a lot of people who call themselves Christians aren't just pragmatic--they are fundamentally selfish about their own faith.
They have checked off the salvation box, and those who haven’t don't really keep them up nights. Once they’ve signed the dotted line on their own fire insurance, they move on to accumulate as much wealth and happiness on this planet as they can, huddling in groups with people who agree with them, and not caring all that much who makes it out with them in the end.
The politicization of the American church has exacerbated this problem. The we/them mentality has helped us divide the world into good guys and bad guys. If we are honest, a lot of Christians are truly more concerned about LGBTQ rights than they are about LGBTQ souls. A lot of Christians are truly more concerned about protecting the free market than they are about helping the poor. A lot of Christians are truly more passionate about proving their liberal family members wrong online than they are about where those family members will spend eternity.
Empathy doesn’t alter what the Bible teaches about holiness. Compassion doesn’t turn us into moral relativists. But these traits can expose our idols and show us that sometimes we have minor gods standing between us and the Pearl of Great price. Sometimes we think we are worshipping Jesus when really we are just trying to save our own skins.
I’m writing this post as a political conservative and as an orthodox Christian. I hold to old creeds and confessions and to inerrancy. Making room to care about the questions I see atheists asking hasn’t undermined my faith in Jesus.
The church is spending so much energy trying to convince the unbelieving world that the Scriptures are true, but perhaps the church needs to talk less about this and more about real heart of the matter--how the unconventional God of the Bible could possibly be good.
I’ll try to spend some time over the next few weeks unpacking my thoughts on that. For now, this post is too long already.
Humans generally love “how to” courses, materials that promise a certain result if we behave a certain way. The Christian publishing world picked up on this desire in the 90’s, giving the church hundreds of resources that broke faith down into manageable steps that offered certain types of marriages, certain types of children, certain types of financial profit, certain types of lives.
When I was a young adult, I loved some of those tidy faith-based how-to programs. I didn’t believe everything I read, of course. I’ve always been a bit of a cynic. But I used discernment and chose a few programs from reputable sources, and it felt good to jump through hoops of moral behavior and know that certain results were inevitable.
Christian Gen-Xers like me grew up inside of this well-oiled machine, a machine that didn’t exist when Baby Boomers were teens and young adults. We grew up knowing that if we would simply behave appropriately, God would perform wonders--and we did try to behave appropriately. We tried so hard.
My generation wore promise rings, and we attended Women of Faith conferences, and we went to Promise Keepers, and we raised kids “God’s Way.” Dave Ramsey told us we could have financial peace. Authors told us how to find God’s will for our lives—or if we couldn’t do that, how to make Christian decisions. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood told us how to find our gender roles. Focus on the Family told us how to create an ideal home, Family Life seminars told us how to create the perfect marriage.
No matter what the felt need was, a Christian resource existed telling us how to get there. This was the “equipping church.” The church of doing.
I still love a lot of what I learned from some of these resources. There’s good wisdom in most of those materials. Yet, I’ve also found that the life of faith isn’t always as tidy as what I was told.
Sometimes my Baby Boomer friends can’t understand why Gen Xers and Millennials are leaving the church, but people in my age group and younger are not only disillusioned with the real life results of some of those glorious old equipping programs, we’ve also had to process disappointment in many leaders who offered us those resources before abandoning their principles. Leaders who encouraged us to stand against the crowd and make difficult moral sacrifices went with the flow when push came to shove, loving political power more than holiness. I can understand why Boomers don't realize how devastating this was--when they were growing up, the "machine" and all of its promises didn't exist. But for children of my era, it's been hard to process the duality. And meanwhile, in our personal lives, following those programs didn’t always produce the lives we anticipated.
For a couple of months, my husband and I have been packing our house to sell. As I’ve been cleaning bookshelves, it’s been strange to find some of my old training materials again. My handwriting fills the blanks of workbooks from the early 90’s, and it’s been hard to read some of the answers I once wrote down. Because I’m firstborn and driven, I have jumped through hoops--but some of those hoops led nowhere. There’s been no finish line tape to break and no applause. I have quite a few bruises and some serious fatigue.
I’m only 46, so it’s probably too soon to assess the whole of my life. But as I’ve been flipping through pages scribbled full of the expectations and performance of my past, I wish I could go back and encourage my young self to step away from the machine at least a little bit so that I could prioritize simply knowing and loving Jesus.
I’m thankful for the moral choices I made, but I wish I had made them with a different motivation. Instead of believing that God would bless me if I performed well (a chorus reiterated in so, so many of the resources I once trusted), I wish I had focused on knowing and trusting the living person of Jesus because he is worth knowing and trusting--letting restraint and purity flow from the inherent good of that relationship.
I wish I had refused to equivocate physical blessing with obedience, holding communion with my Maker as the ultimate reward.
And I wish I had seen the difference between flesh-driven religious behavior and spirit-driven religious behavior more clearly from the beginning.
Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” This emphasis on the indwelling life is the main message of the New Testament, and it is reiterated over and again in almost every book.
“Know Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Let His power work in and through you. If you try to achieve the same results by mere human force, you might find something that mimics success for a while, but human force--even religious-looking human force--can accomplish nothing eternal."
Can I squeeze a best-selling book title and twelve marketable chapters out of that? Probably not. But even if this message isn't going to make the New York Times Best Seller List, God isn’t a means to an end--He is the end.
The Christian life isn’t just a set of techniques; it’s learning to trust a living Father and King who doesn’t lead the exact same way in every life. He's not a program. He's a Person.
Over the next few years, I think evangelicalism will find itself in a bit of a predicament. Desperation to recover cultural power has revealed too much about the true center of evangelical trust, and quite a few of the Boomer-era religious systems are going to look shallow and silly in the wake of that revelation.
My generation, and the generation after mine, is probably going to flinch around anything that rings of the 90's equipping train. I doubt we will buy the workbooks or attend the seminars.
But in the messy aftermath of what we have realized on both a personal and national level, even as the dust settles, we will still long for the living God.
My hope is that like Aslan, Jesus will appear larger than the last time America knew him—too large to fit inside of a tidy, corporate machine. I hope that our new publications will lay aside the efforts of the flesh and focus on what it means to abide in the Vine.
In the 1500’s, John Donne wrote some of my favorite lines in the introduction to the translation of Sir Philip Sydney’s translation of the psalms:
ETERNAL God—for whom who ever dare
Seek new expressions, do the circle square,
And thrust into straight corners of poor wit
Thee, who art cornerless and infinite—
I would but bless Thy name, not name Thee now
—And Thy gifts are as infinite as Thou—
The living God is complex, infinite, cornerless. He is truth. He is goodness. He is beauty. He is the bread of life and the living water.
As weary as I am, and as much as I’ve lost, there’s something wonderful about coming to a breaking point in which the straw and the chaff burn away. I'm so glad to be hurting like this before this earthly life is over, when I still have time to learn what it means to abide.
God has been good to rip me out of a sense of earned security and push me back into what never fades and never crumbles. After all is gone, Jesus remains.
Yesterday a friend of mine asked a great question about a meme that’s been circulating on social media. I tried to answer him in a comment, but as I’ve been thinking about this question, I’ve realized it’s probably worth a larger discussion.
He asked about this picture (above), wondering why Christians are trying to defend humane treatment of refugees by using a verse from a book that also advocates practices that seem incredibly inhumane to us. For example, there are verses in the Bible that tell followers of God to stone sexual offenders. Have you ever thought about how brutal stoning is? When I was a teenager, I became furious over Deuteronomy 25:11 because it says that a woman who jumps in to help fight for her husband is supposed to have her hand cut off. So many of those old rules can seem cruel, sexist, and unfair.
Because I'm deeply empathetic and high on justice, I can't let hard questions go. So I really struggled with how to reconcile these parts of the Bible with the Jesus I claimed to love. I had studied the Scriptures too much to throw out the whole text. I knew that it would be scientifically impossible for so many different writers over hundreds of years to create a text that interlinks the way the Bible does. This sort of unity is difficult for a single writer—let alone so many different writers from so many different continents. So as confusing as the Bible is at times, the fact that it holds together in its diversity is a wonder that the even the strict processes of canonization cannot undo.
However, I live in a culture in which most Christians don’t study the Bible responsibly. They don’t treat it like 66 different books, written in different styles, by different authors, in different situations. They assume that “inerrancy” means that you can roll the whole thing into a big, flat sheet and cut out random verses like fortune cookie sayings.
I believe the Bible is inerrant in its original texts, and I believe those original texts are God-breathed and perfect. But I also believe God gave humans the ability to be discerning, responsible readers.
When Jesus spoke about the Old Testament writings, he often put them in historical and theological context. The Bible tells us that he took time to explain the Scriptures (Luke 24:27) to his followers--even the Creator of the Universe had to work to explain how He completed the Law. Luke says, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. “
So many modern Christians don’t do this. They just choose a single verse out of the middle of a complex section of Old Testament Law, and they try to use that verse to prove whatever they want to prove at the moment. This is irresponsible. And unless we are willing to find the larger context of what we are quoting, we are likely to appear foolish as we try to relate the Bible to the world.
Many of the quirky rules of the Bible are found in the “Law” period of Israel’s history. I think this period began around 1300 BC (there's some debate about the exact year, so I'm approximating), after Israel left Egypt. This is when Israel began to operate as a formal nation instead of as just as a string of individual families. During this time period, God told his story through his engagement with that nation, so things worked a little differently than they did when he was interacting with individual lives like Abraham's or Noah's. This Law period ended with the death of Jesus, which was in the 30's AD.
Jesus didn’t negate these Mosaic laws; he completed them. That concept probably deserves a post of its own. I'm not sure I will have time to unpack it fully here. But during these 1300ish years, God interacted with the world in an unusual way. There was a lot of symbolism and foreshadowing involved—but instead of just telling people what he was predicting in songs or stories, he was more of a playwright. He used real animals, and real human lives, and stern rules to bring his predictions into 3D.
That God would use real human lives to tell a predictive story was hard for me to process ethically at first because I don’t want anyone’s solitary mortal life spent on a story to help future generations. This is still one of the hardest things about the Bible for me. I feel compassion for people who lived and died under the Law, and I sometimes feel angry about how hard it was for them. I feel this especially when I forget that God is not like me.
But when I pause and think a little deeper, I know that God is the origin of truth and mercy, and that he was able to make sure everything he did was just. And because he transcends time and space, I believe there are elements to God’s engagement with the people of old I don’t in full understand yet. I’m not going to theorize about what was actually happening in Ephesians 4:8-9 or 1 Peter 3:19 (quite a few theologians have made definitive claims here, and I will let them be the experts), but I will say that those passages help me see that God isn’t bound by the dimensions that limit humans.
So, while the Law can be difficult for me at times, I also see how parts of it click together into a single story. And when I look at those connections, I'm amazed.
During the Law period, Israel was given scores of formal requirements that represented holiness. Some of those requirements seem bizarre to me today—especially laws about rape, menstruation, mold, spices, edible insects. When I was a kid, I would get so angry in these parts of the Bible because God seemed picky and impossible. However, other parts of the Law seem beautiful to me—exquisite, flawless metaphors that could be poetry by Donne or Shakespeare. But whether I like a particular law or don’t like a law, I can see why the “Law” as a whole had to be overwhelming and impossible because holiness is overwhelming and impossible for human beings.
To understand that, we have to go back to the origin of sin. So many Christians talk about sins as if they were simply crimes. But according to the Bible, the first sin didn’t look like what we would call evil.
Eve didn’t want something that seemed bad, she wanted something that seemed beautiful. She didn’t just eat an apple--Genesis says Satan told her she could be “like God” without God, and that’s what really happened when she ate that fruit. She was choosing to try to be everything good and godlike without staying in community with God.
In a universe of harmony, in the presence of a Trinity that existed in harmony, she was trying to sing in her own key, in her own rhythm. The music of the created order was disrupted as she severed the bond between Creator and created— it was self-deification.
The introduction of a bounty of microscopic laws pushed humanity up against its own declaration of independence. It forced a sort of breaking point that emphasized the root of a choice we all ultimately make. You want to be holy on your own? Alright. Here is holiness—all ten thousand tons of it. The Law showed us what we aren’t capable of achieving on our own.
The consequence for sin—Eve’s and all sin after hers—was death. This isn’t just a comic fire and brimstone thing— and it’s not just punitive. It’s almost like a law of physics. If God is the origin of life, and if humans are attempting to exist apart from him, death is the ultimate telos of mortal autonomy.
To choose to be out of union with the hub of vitality is to choose non-vitality.
The Old Testament sacrificial system (put in place for those who violated the Law) was also symbolic, predicting Jesus would come to restore what was broken. Reconnecting with God involves dependence upon what Jesus did because the chasm between human independence and communion with God is too vast to span by human effort or will. That bridge had to be built by the divine.
Anyway, when uniformed Christians cite random verses from that 1300 year period (as in this meme), they are often missing what is actually happening in those specific chapters of the Bible given for a specific time.
When Jesus fulfilled the Law, the curtain in the temple tore. The barrier to holiness is not just overcome through performance now (BTW, the Bible says performance never actually worked). Unity with Life was obtained by receiving what Eve rejected—falling into the harmony of the universe--receiving God and operating in union with Him.
What does transfer to 2018 from the Law, then?
We see Jesus and the NT writers reiterating many principles of the New Testament. Mercy. Forgiveness. Hospitality. Sexual purity. Selflessness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Instead of these things rising out of legal or national obligation, however, they are supposed to rise out of a whole different dynamic--the Spirit of God living inside us and through us.
So in a sense, we can reference OT laws like the one above because their underlying principles continue into the New Covenant. But we aren’t to follow them as members of a theocracy (like Israel), but as individuals who are part of a non-earthly Kingdom, resourced by God’s presence and power.
How many churches in America actually keep all this straight historically and contextually? I’ve seen very few.
Also, I have some limitations here as well, and you should know them.
First off, while I’ve studied this quite a bit, there may be pieces of it I have missed. If you are able to understand the writings of solid, academic theologians, you’d benefit from reading their thoughts instead of just mine.
Secondly, I’m trying to give an overview of several complex ideas simple here. There’s no way to do that without leaving out some important details, and I’ve also likely used a word or two that lead to inaccurate implications. If you catch one of those words, let me know, and I’ll try to tweak this summary to make it more accurate.
But as limited as this post is, maybe it will at least help provide a launching point for reading the Bible in its God-given historical and literary context. If you’re like me, you’re weary of people cherry picking verses to suit their political goals. Maybe I’m just underexposed, but I’ve hard a hard time finding groups of Christians who handle the Law in the way a literature teacher knows it needs to be taught. Just as in reading other works of ancient literature, understanding cultural and narrative context as well as historicity is essential for interpretation.
Sometimes I steal blog ideas from my husband, but after ten years of staying up late to help him edit his sermons, we’ll consider it a fair swap.
This is one of those stolen posts.
Early this morning, he told me that he wanted us to memorize a passage from II Corinthians--verses Paul wrote about the challenges and purposes of keeping a right perspective during difficulty.
I’d read those verses about twenty billion times, but as he recited them to me again this morning, one particular word caught my eye. “Perplexed.” Paul said he was perplexed but not giving in to despair.
Several years ago, I was studying II Corinthians when I realized Paul had admitted depression so deep that he’d wanted to just check out and die (II Corinthians 1:8). I was astonished that the leader of the entire Gentile church had not only felt such deep doubt but was also admitting it to one of the most volatile churches under his care.
Today, the word “perplexed” helped me see even deeper into his openness. I realized that Paul didn't just speak about his disillusionment past tense. From the middle of trouble, he was still comfortable admitting confusion about his sufferings.
The Greek word for “perplexed” means “to have no way out” or “to be at a loss (mentally.” It means to stand in doubt. Its Hebrew equivalent means to be embarrassed because you are in doubt and you don’t know which way to turn. This isn’t the sort of thing charismatic leaders of fake religious movements say. Charlatans are always slick, always confident, always sure.
Paul, on the other hand, chose brutal honesty. He told his audience that he was confused. He let them see his doubt and uncertainty.
And yet, he also showed them how to let emotions take a proper role in the life of a person who had encountered the real Jesus. Paul said, “I feel this hard thing---and yet, because of what I know deep down—I will not despair.”
My husband said it is good for us to go through times of brokenness because our weakness provides an opportunity for God to demonstrate what he’s capable of doing—even in two fragile, clay pots like us. He also wanted to remind me that God can use (even) this difficult opportunity in our lives to create life in others (verses 11-12). I needed those two concepts.
I also needed to see Paul’s intense emotional honesty sitting alongside limits he gives to the reign of his feelings:
“What in the world? I’m getting hit from every side! -- But you know, I’m not crushed."
“I’m so confused about all of these painful things that are happening. I feel lost and embarrassed! -- But you know, I’m not giving in to despair."
“I’m disappointed and sore from being hit over and over again by selfish, wicked people! -- But, you know, I’m not destroyed."
Me too, Paul. Me too.
It was good for me to hear Paul's vulnerability today. And I needed to be reminded that times like this can also be used by God to pour eternal significance from my little quivering pot of clay.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
II Corinthians 4:7-4:12
Paul’s second letter to Timothy is one of my favorite letters in the whole Bible, though it’s so intimate, I always feel a little strange reading it. It's a message between two close friends, the kind of friends who go straight to the honest core of what’s really happening in a soul.
The older mentor wrote from prison, from the middle of intense physical suffering. You and I read Paul’s words in modern typeface on sheets of printed paper (or on a computer screen), but think about how Timothy would have actually received them—perhaps written with a shivering, dirty hand with dirty fingernails. His words were hard words--Paul was going to die soon, and he was sober and passionate in his final written commission to Timothy.
Timothy was a tender-hearted man, not Alpha, and not charismatic. He was my kind of guy, a thinker who doubted himself and felt his surroundings deeply. Timothy had to have cried when he read Paul's words, and I bet he held this letter to his own chest, aching for a way to comfort the friend and teacher he loved.
I believe this letter has a unique message for us in 2018 because it talks about specific troubles that have discouraged thousands of believers in our time. Paul’s message isn’t easy—in fact it’s incredibly difficult. But because “a thing resounds when it rings true,” studying this epistle can give us courage, reviving those whose deepest ache is for the Kingdom.
I was up until one this morning, reading and rereading this epistle, and as I read, I found myself jotting down notes and praying for you. I don’t have room here to write about every aspect of this letter, but I want to create some bullet points that will hopefully encourage you to go read II Timothy and pray through it. (I'm not including verse numbers here, but these points do flow in the same order, generally, as the letter.)
1. You have a spiritual legacy. Taking time to get reoriented inside of that legacy can be helpful.
Timothy’s legacy was his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. I don’t know who those people are for you, but I do know that you have your own cloud of witnesses, people who showed you the gospel and its beauty. My husband and I are going through a rough patch right now, so two weeks ago, he pulled out his old Andrew Peterson CD’s. He needed to be reminded of what those early songs once quickened in his heart.
Your legacy may sit on a shelf full of long-dead writers, and it’s okay if it does. But when you are weary, when you feel alone, go soak a while in the memory of the teachings God has used to win you to the beauty of the gospel. Even if your greatest spiritual influences have passed into eternity, they aren’t gone. At this very moment, their souls keep company with the God you love. Even if you feel alone, your ministry fits into the framework they left for you. You’re part of a great team, and you belong.
2. The gift of God lives in you, waiting to be fanned into a flame. It’s not a spirit of fear, but of God’s power, and his love and self-control. This will be hard to remember. It’s going to be tempting to be ashamed of the gospel.
Paul was in prison, so people assumed he had done something shameful. Our dynamic is a little different—our shame comes from being affiliated with a religion that has been distorted into something ugly and selfish. But no matter what causes the believers of any era shame (for our enemy will always attempt to shame us into silence), we have still been given counter-cultural resources from the Almighty: supernatural strength, supernatural compassion, supernatural selflessness.
3. How does Paul counteract shame? He doesn’t lean into a cause for validation here. He leans into a person. He says “he knows whom he has believed,” and he is convinced that the living Jesus will be able to guard the commission given to him until his work here is finished. He also reminds Timothy that the Holy Spirit lives inside him and can be employed to guard his commission. When we are embarrassed by religion gone bad, it’s tempting to try to justify ourselves and our cause, but God is real, he is our worth and our defense. He is our lodestar.
4. A faithful life here may be incredibly lonely. The believers of Asia turned away from Paul--imagine being abandoned by the believers of an entire continent. As if that weren’t hard enough, there were two people who hurt him particularly, because Paul names them specifically. (Whose names would you include here?) There was also one friend who didn’t turn away. If God has provided someone willing to search for you and find you in your moment of spiritual need, realize that’s a gift. That Facebook message. That text. That whisper to endure. It probably wasn’t just human; it was likely your Lord working through the body to remind you that he sees you and loves you.
5. The commission? Take a deep breath before you read it because it’s not easy. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Does this mean you will suffer if you follow Jesus? I can’t say for sure. Paul’s commission is included in a personal letter to one friend; it’s directed to one personal, historical situation. But from what I’m seeing of our era and what it takes to walk with Jesus, I think a lot of us can expect the same. And if this commission does fall upon us, it’s going to require single-minded focus. Paul says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” These words are super convicting to me because this is where I get lost most often. Our enemy knows that I will reject obvious evil—I’m much more likely to be distracted from the gospel by good but lesser causes. I’m definitely in the entangled by civilian pursuits camp.
6. If we do fight for what is best, there’s no promise God’s going to give us results the secular world considers positive. We aren’t told that we will win so much we will get sick of winning. We may be misunderstood. We may be falsely accused. Our family members may suffer hard consequences as we speak out about the religious evils of our day.
But even if we suffer, we will still be called “to endure everything for the sake of the elect.” Those who are watching and listening to our pain matter. Their souls matter. Paul was alone, imprisoned, cold, humiliated, prepared to die. In this circumstance, he knew his focus during agony would show those who were watching and listening the truth. He knew their salvation could be impacted by his endurance.
You might not know who these elect are. They might hear your story second hand, and you might never meet them in this earthly life. But stop right now to pray for all who will be influenced by your story of faith. Ask God to strengthen you for their sake, and to help you walk through whatever is hitting in a way that ministers to their deepest need.
So many people in our world are spiritually discouraged. They’ve seen false religion gravitate toward elitism, wealth, and comfort. They are finished with a church that runs on economic and cultural manipulation. You may be the only person in someone’s life who clings to the real Jesus in such a way that the true gospel is revealed. As hard as it is to walk that road now, it’s worth it. That soul is worth your investment.
7. We are called to be gentle. To be patient. To correct those who are wrong with as much tenderness as possible, hoping that the opponents of Jesus will repent.
But that doesn't mean we stop speaking truth about evil. In fact, in the latter part of this letter, Paul describes a church culture that has fallen into many of the same bad habits ours has embraced, and Paul instructs Timothy to be exhortative and bold about naming those wrongs.
So it’s okay to speak with authority.
Kindness plus truth. It’s a rare and powerful combo.
8. Expect a fake religious culture with eight specific traits.
a. Fake religious people will love themselves and their money.
b. They are going to be proud, as if their merit has earned all they have, and they will be and abusive and arrogant with their power.
c. They are going to be heartless toward people who need compassion and care.
d. They will slander unfairly.
e. They won’t have any self-control, so their language and behavior will be brutal.
f. They won’t love what’s good—but they will love what goes against the ways of heaven.
g. Their words will be reckless and conceited, and they will gravitate to whatever feels good in the moment.
h. All the while, they will claim to be Christians—while denying the real power of the gospel.
And we aren’t supposed to hang out with people like that. Paul tells Timothy to avoid them. We’re supposed to mix it up with nonbelievers, but we aren’t supposed to mix it up with fake religious people. It’s healthy to draw a relational boundary there.
9. Fake religious teachers will creep into communities and allure weak people and lead them astray, filling them with teaching that never leads to truth.
We see this happen daily, but it’s good to know that Paul told us it was part of this journey. It doesn’t surprise God that this is happening. It shouldn’t surprise us.
10. If you’re going to stand up against fake religion and actually love Jesus, expect to have a really hard time of this life. This is a war, after all. You face unseen forces that despise you and your calling.
Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
This is the weather forecast for your faith.
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Great religious movements will find earthly pastors who are willing to betray the true gospel for the sake of supporting their own pet causes. Religious organizations will look for preachers who are willing to bend the truth for worldly goals. Sound familiar?
When that happens, we aren’t supposed to be shocked, sulk, and give up. Paul told us ahead of time that this would happen.
We are to endure suffering.
We are to keep doing the work of an evangelist.
We are to keep putting one foot in front of the other and fulfill the ministry we’ve been given.
11. As we focus, we will begin to live with a different values system.
It’s fascinating to see how Paul learns to perceive the world. Note how he assesses his condition.
While Paul sits cold and suffering in prison, he claims he was rescued from the lion’s mouth. As Paul tells Timothy that he thinks he will die in this prison, he rejoices that the Lord will rescue him. Rescue from what? From pain? No. Rescue from every evil deed so that he can safely enter heaven.
His safety isn’t earthy. His rescue isn’t earthly. His rescue is the gift of integrity--faith to endure difficulty so that his worship can be pure as he passes on to the next world.
I needed this epistle today. I needed the reminder to constantly transpose the stuff of earth into the currency of eternity. I needed to be reminded that it’s supposed to be hard here sometimes, supposed to be lonely, supposed to be a bad fit. I needed the phrase, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”
I needed the reminder to treasure and pray for those souls God will call to eternity as a result of the way I live my life here.
P.S. If you’ve never studied this book of the Bible, this video from The Bible Project is worth your time.
Father Zossima is the kind old monk in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. He’s similar to Bishop Myriel in Les Mis, an otherworldly sage who has learned to live out the gospel in a radical way.
Father Zossima is also the beloved spiritual mentor of Alyosha, the hero of the novel and the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers. Aloysha is only twenty, and he’s a novice in the local monastery, so he trusts Father Zossima wholeheartedly, agreeing to follow whatever instruction the old man gives. Because Aloysha’s biological father has been distant for most of his life, it’s easy to see why this young man gravitates toward kindly, paternal affection.
Father Zossima is also a local celebrity, known for spiritual access to healing and prophecy. It’s widely suspected that the old man will be sainted when he dies, so when his earthly life finally draws to a close, the townspeople grow to a frenzy. Expecting miracles, they bring family members who need healing to his coffin.
Yet at this critical moment in the novel, something terrible and unexpected happens—something which shakes Alyosha’s faith. Father Zossima’s body begins to decay.
At the time, tradition taught that a true saint’s body wouldn’t decompose—that it would even release a perfumed sweetness into the air. Yet within hours—even sooner than most—the scent of real, human death fills the room.
Several monks who had been jealous of Zossima’s fame and admiration seized this opportunity to mock and deride him. Soon, their whispers grew to open verbal hostility, and finally a hateful monk enters the mourning room to lambast the dead father as a false teacher.
Alyosha’s naïve young heart breaks.
He had not only loved the old man, he had lived inside a bubble of spiritual idealism, believing a string of religious fairy tales. When reality didn’t match his expectations, Alyosha was spiritually undone, overcome with doubt, devastated that all had not gone as he expected.
I read this section of Karamazov after midnight last night. I read because I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying. Though God tells us not to fear, I was afraid.
Beside me, my husband groaned in his sleep. He hurt his back pretty badly yesterday, and of all the times that injury could have happened to our family, this is one of the worst. Yesterday was our first day of switching to a new insurance with a new deductible, and after several nervous hours of Googling bulging and ruptured discs, I was trying to decide whether he needed an MRI.
For some of you, hits like this never seem to stop. There’s always one more kink in the happily ever after.
Even if you’ve never believed in the prosperity gospel, the theological promises of movies like Facing the Giants get into our bones. In the back of our hearts, we still expect faithful resignation to be blessed in visible ways. The follower of Jesus will coach the team to winning the championship, snag the new pickup truck, get the baby, and look at last around at his mortal life and find that all is well.
Some stories of faith certainly look like this, but in others, the blessings of God may smell more like a dead monk. That’s because God knows what each of his followers needs (truly needs), and his love allows different challenges for different Christians. He knows that coming face-to-face with deep disappointment can be critical to the maturity of faith.
As Alyosha comes to terms with the smell of death in his mentor, he faces, “a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect.” Perhaps you’ve lived out a similar shock—perhaps you know what questions rise when we realize that God’s behavior does not fit into the tiny boxes we have made to hold Him. These moments of reorientation may be painful and bitter, and we may weep for days when we face them. But like Alyosha, they can also grow us up.
By his deepest disappointment, by this brutal blow to the crux of his security and idealism, Alyosha faith was strengthened. Because of the pain of a lost ideal, his belief was given a "definite aim.”
As I prayed this morning, I felt the onslaught of challenges facing our family. I prayed for direction. I prayed for sustenance and for miracles. I also prayed for the ability to worship God in rooms that reek of death.
On June 8, a team of scientists from Oxford published research addressing the Fermi paradox, the gap between our expectation that life exists somewhere in the universe and our inability to find it. This study concludes that we cannot find extraterrestrial life because it doesn’t exist.
Since I haven’t seen the Bible specifically negate the possibility of alien life, this has never been a major theological battlefield for me. I’ve always trusted that an infinite God could have simultaneous narratives running in different solar systems (or even in different dimensions). I’ve supposed that if he did have something like that going on, all narratives would one day fold together into a lovely story he knows we can’t comprehend with tiny mortal minds.
I haven’t obsessed about it, of course; I haven’t actively believed that life did exist elsewhere. I’ve just held the possibility loosely. I’ve let what God left unsaid remain mysterious.
So, it was strange to read the Oxford study and consider the thought that humans might actually be alone in the universe. I stopped to really think about that--we could be the only beings anywhere with souls. In all of this everything that goes on seemingly forever, our capacity for worship could be unique.
Maybe this won't hit you like it hits me--astronomy and I have kind of a "thing" going, and we have for a while. It’s more of a romance than an academic passion. I’m one of those weirdos who cries real tears when NASA releases new pics of Jupiter and Pluto. Star nebulae give me goose bumps. As a baby, my first sentence was, “The moon is in the sky, Mr. Hall.”
I have felt reverent awe for God’s artistry in the heavens every since I can remember, a sense of being pressed down to my knees by the all-I-am-not, a compression like gravity. The created order is so beautiful, so extravagant... I’m tempted to use the word “magical.”
Without that Oxford study, assuming that we could possibly be alone in all of this feels audacious. History has slapped the hand of the small-minded church too many times. My faith is post Copernicus, post Galileo—I don’t have geocentric impulses.
And yet, here is science telling me that we could be alone.
I wasn't expecting to be taken so seriously by my Creator.
What if He really did make all of this--the dimension of time--the capacity for sentience--the ability to praise--all poured into a handful of creatures placed on one tiny, tumbling rock? What if our hymns are the only hymns besides those songs the angels sing?
The circumstances which seem so grave to me--the challenges that make my belly quiver and my knees shake--readjust in light of this possibility.
My pain and fear are portals in all of space and time, and even when I face the smell of the decomposition of my theological fairy tales, I still stand before the God who was, and who is, and who always will be.
Here in the silence of the created order, I can speak trust to Him. I can yield to Him. Among all the cold rocks and the fiery gasses of all of creation, I have been given the capacity to hold my arms wide before all his mysteries and confess:
I did not see you lay the foundation of the earth.
I did not determine its measurements.
I do not know how its bases were sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy.
I did not see you shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
I was not there when you made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
saying “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”
I have never commanded the morning since my days began,
or caused the dawn to know its place.
I have never changed its surfaces
l like clay under the seal,
or dressed the earth like a garment.
I have never entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep.
I have never seen the gates of death or the gates of deep darkness.
I cannot comprehend the expanse of the earth.
Only by your hand, do I know the way to the dwelling of light,
because you are the Light of the World,
and amid all of the lesser lights of all You have made,
you, Great Light, have come to give light to me.
While a soulless Jupiter storms, while distant stars implode, while the red dust of Mars holds low in a lifeless hush, while no-man of the moon paints every grass tip silver, I can recline upon Jesus.
No matter what happens in my life, He is worthy. Though the good, dead monk reeks, Christ remains a center which cannot be shaken. And He has given me a voice that is able to praise Him. Thanks be to God.
Yesterday, our minister delivered his last sermon.
Joe and his wife have been in church ministry for over 40 years, and the sweetness of two lives well spent filled the sanctuary with gratitude as this beloved couple urged us onward in love. I felt the eternal heft of their service. And somehow, it felt like the passing of a baton.
As I sat there, I scribbled out a confession. “I miss being a pastor’s wife.”
This was a big deal for me—a sentence I thought I would never write.
I suppose the ache was similar to the ache a former dancer must feel in her legs while watching a ballet, similar to the ache a retired musician must feel in his fingers while sitting in the audience during a brilliant symphony. That ache feels like, “Oh, there I am! That is who I am! But I am not that now.”
I ran to the Methodist church five years ago, after a hard breakdown in our last church. My denominational choice didn’t make much sense to some of my friends. They know Methodism through stories that hit the news—struggles over sticky cultural issues that will probably divide the denomination soon.
However, I don’t just know Methodism from the news. I know it from the inside.
While my husband was in seminary at Dallas Theological, he worked in a small town Methodist church. This baffled fellow students at DTS as well as some Methodists in our local conference. On paper, certain differences seemed difficult to reconcile. Yet in practice, the blend was easy. In that congregation, we found older believers who knew their Bibles back and forth, people who were deeply committed to its truth and beauty. These gentle souls knew the Bible better than some seminary students, they trusted it, and they taught it with accuracy and passion in little groups of Sunday School classes.
We found Wesleyan hymns, rich and full of awe for the Living God. These weren’t just feel-good, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. They made a person think. They cleared the fog of the world away from the soul and carried it to a place of reverence and trust.
We found dozens and dozens of good, kind people, accustomed to turning Sunday morning sermons into real-life service in the community. These church members didn’t serve as if service were shocking—they served as if it were the most natural thing in the world to let God’s love for the individual move outward into love for a lost world.
They rushed to care for the poor, the uninsured, children of working single mothers. They found ways to provide affordable clothes and food for those in need. They created venues for dignified help, and they didn’t do that condescendingly but giddy as children.
After my husband graduated from seminary, we went on to plant one of the theologically-accurate, culturally-accurate, new-and-improved non-denom churches that promised to save America in the early 2000’s. We did strategic planning, and small groups, and relevant guitar songs, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. But there was something wrong with how we did the right things. We trusted in methods and our own strength too much. As two first-born children, we tried to carry weight that only God can carry.
After ten years, we burned out, and our church hit the skids. In great pain, I ran to the oldest Methodist congregation in our town and sank exhausted into a creaky wooden pew.
I ran to the Methodist church because I knew how Methodists love. I knew they wouldn’t hyper-analyze, wouldn’t critique, wouldn’t shuffle me into the next new trend that promised to fix whatever was wrong with the last new trend.
The PCA folks might be more accurate. The Baptists might be more passionate about evangelism. The non-denoms might be more culturally-relevant. The Anglicans might be more gritty and thinky. I love those denominations and knew that I could fit (at least partially) in any of them. But I was wounded and needed a hospital.
Like so many conservative evangelicals, I’d cracked jokes about the Methodist slogan, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Yeah, it’s kind of cringe-worthy; how much more wishy-washy PC can you get? Nonetheless, experience had taught me the real-life safety that exists behind that slogan. I knew how Methodist hearts work. I knew I wouldn’t need to perform as a pastor’s wife. I knew I could be a broken soul needing spiritual help.
And you know, I wasn’t met with feel-good, wishy-washy theology.
I was met with liturgy, and by it, I was reminded that I was a part of ancient rhythms of worship that could not be thwarted by the mistakes of 250 people.
I was met with the sights and sounds of grey-haired believers reciting the creeds, walking through the seasons of the calendar. This was a parental comfort to me—something you (surprisingly) still need at 41 years old.
I was met with the operations of a church that expects to reach out into the world with compassion and service, a flurry of lay ministries providing dignified assistance to the broken. Free haircuts. Cheap appliances. A place for the homeless to sleep for the week. Breakfast for the hungry. And people offered these gifts with laughter and gratitude, not jumping through hoops or attempting to catch the next, new wave of strategic evangelism. They gave because God’s people overflow.
I shook off the heavy leadership demands I had been carrying and melted into a congregation. Like a surgeon who suddenly finds himself in need of surgery, I was shown how it feels to be a congregant in need of care. For five years, I’ve absorbed. I haven’t led. I’ve blended into the background. I’ve watched, and I’ve let my vision be restored.
In all of this, I’ve learned that the church keeps going without me. I can’t tell you how powerful that realization is to a first-born kid who feels like it’s her responsibility to carry the entire world. Jesus told us that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church, and I’ve had a little glimpse of that as an observer. I’ve learned that the church isn’t about how much I can carry—a lesson that has stripped away my pride.
In non-denominational world, we were sometimes misled by training that used corporate terms and methodology to try to direct the church of Jesus. “Directional Leader” ministry models elevated alpha-charismatic, CEO personalities and created a pecking-order of importance in the body. How evangelicals talk about our churches shows how deeply we’ve fallen into this trap. Megachurches are usually mentioned by the lead pastor’s name, right? We don’t call it “The Wellspring,” we call it “Reverend Whatever’s” Church.
Yet, Paul compared members of a church to parts of a human body because we all need one another. In the Methodist church, I’ve seen that symbiosis in such a healthy way—a multi-gear machine in which the minister is embraced as a teaching shepherd while the members work hard to fulfill their roles. It’s been humbling and beautiful to watch, and it’s given me a clearer vision for how I would want to engage if we ever entered ministry again.
If you’ve seen the documentary Godspeed, you know how much an American pastor learned when he stepped out of the incorporated flurry of U.S. ministry into the community of a tiny parish in Scotland. This is the sort of fellowship I’ve found in small-town Methodism. It might not be trendy. It might be fodder for Babylon Bee’s next condescending Calvinist crack. But in real time, among real people, it’s been beautiful.
Yesterday, as I watched my pastor and his wife say their goodbyes before passing into retirement, I felt a squeeze in my heart that felt like a commission. I choked back tears as I realized how much I miss being a pastor’s wife—not those parts I did badly out of fear and strain—but I do miss the Spirit-led, maternal role of welcoming wandering souls.
Five years ago, I swore I would never, ever be a pastor’s wife again. But I’ve seen a lot since then. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve learned a lot about the church.
Toward the end of the second section of Beowulf, Hrothgar (king of the Spear-Danes) blesses the young Geat warrior before he returns home. Hrothgar has become a sort of father-figure to the young warrior, and he speaks words of wisdom and commission over the young man.
Hrothgar warns Beowulf that it’s easy for young leaders to get caught up in the strength of their own arms, but that a wound will come which sobers a man and shows him the end of himself. With this wound, the honor and possessions collected over a lifetime will suddenly hold no value, and all a man has strained to collect will pass on to another who will let a life’s worth of effort fall through his fingertips. It’s the Ecclesiastes of ancient literature, a confession that “all is vanity.”
But Hrothgar also urges Beowulf to strain for what cannot be lost.
”O flower of warriors,” says Hrothgar, “beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.”*
Listening to our pastor retire after 40 years of leadership reminded me of that scene. The strings of my heart were plucked, and (after a long, much-needed rest), I felt ready at last to head back into battle. From the balcony (where I hide almost every week), I gave Pastor Joe a spontaneous “thumb’s up.” I didn’t expect him to see it, but as he spoke, he gave me a “thumb’s up” back, and he smiled.
“Okay, God,” I said. “But if that’s what you have for us, I won’t fight the same way I fought last time. This time, I’m going to let you carry me.”
*© 2000 by Seamus Heaney. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company.