The Lessons Learned through Suffering

Since I can’t send this to my own 2010 self, I’ll open it up to everyone else

Dear Pre-Suffering Self,

Thank you for going through everything you’re about to go through; it’s going to suck. You’re going to feel the fire and regret and loss of being human. You’re going to weep. You’ll wish you could stay in bed all day. It’ll overwhelm you: you’ll find yourself hating your life, yourself, your choices. You’re going to go through every negative feeling imaginable.

But, you’re going to keep waking up, going to work and class, going to church. You’re going to fail and fall down again and again and again, collapsing in tears and loneliness, until finally you learn that only God can pick you up. You’ll find yourself unable to do anything but pray for hours on end. You’re going to suffer, to be chastened, and you’re going to grow.

And, when you’ve gone through it, you’ll know what matters and what doesn’t. Where you had pride and confusion, you’ll grow humility and clarity. You’ll learn to ask for help and figure out your limitations. You’re going to find out that those limitations are what make you you and God God. That will become very comforting.

So, thank you for going through all this so that I can be who I am and know what I know, as your own future, post-suffering self. The amazing thing is, the whole time you’ll be praying and struggling and learning, you won’t even be confident I exist. You’ll never quite believe there will be a post-suffering you until you become me. If you could know that, I think it would be easier.

I wish I could convince you that one day, you’re going to walk into a coffee shop and someone you don’t even know will comment on how remarkably happy you look. And, it will be true: there won’t be a more contented person than you in any room that you enter. You’ll have a hard-won smile, bought with weeped darkness and painful hours. All those months of soreness chiseling the flabby bits off your soul will leave a cool, resolute peace. The personality that remains will be a lean personality, fit and ready. For the first time, you will begin to become patient, joyful, generous, strong, humble, and gracious, all learned through suffering.

You’ll discover that what you once called “joy” was always tainted with fear; it rested on shaky supports. Those things are all about to be pulled back like a curtain. The bright light that blasts through, shriveling up all your false supports and half joys, will threaten to blind you. It’s Christ, and he’ll do the opposite, and he will do it cleanly and fully. But, it will be a surgery and a flame, and you will learn that great phrase: “Our only hope (or else despair), lies in the choice of pyre or pyre: to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

You’ll fall into the arms of Christ, because you won’t be strong enough to stand. You’ll whimper, “You must do this. I cannot.” And, your tear-cleaned eyes fixed on Christ will detect close-up textures and features that startle and upset you; he’ll look different than you remembered from your soft days. Until now, he’s always patiently let you play with the little images of him you hand-picked out of your favorite Scriptures and your favorite virtues and your favorite sermons. But, he’s about to teach you that you don’t get to choose the Christ who welcomes the children without choosing the Christ who flings tables in the temples. And, he’s about to remind you that you need the table-flinging Christ, because you – temple of Christ – have weighed yourself down with idols, and they’re crushing you. For years, you’ve approached theological arguments with proud and pious discernment, thinking you’ll be the judge of their virtue; and, for the first time in your life, they’ll turn the tables and you’ll realize that you’re the one being judged. And, naked and vulnerable, you’ve been found wanting.

Once, you might have run away from this unbearably objective God; now, you have no where else to turn. 

You’ll be all alone in a room with the God you’ve always said you loved, and you’ll realize one of you needs to change for this relationship to work. One of you. And he’ll kindly ask you: Are you willing?

You’ll realize that the thing that you were trying to force God to remain was not a God big enough for all your injuries. Discovery: the radical, wild ways He wants to behave are the only ways that can save you from death. It turns out you disagree with him and that he sometimes makes you feel very, very uncomfortable. The moment of clarity comes when you realize that’s a problem with yourself, and not with him. Once you resolve to change yourself around Christ, instead of hoping he’ll change himself around you, the surgery will start. The Doctor is working. That doesn’t keep the pain from being painful. You’re still going to hurt a lot, and I do and I will. But, I’ll hurt with less fear. Your first fearful steps into the shallow end will start my journey toward the deep end. There, walking beside Christ, we’ll experience that gorgeous paradox of increasing danger and decreasing fear.

One day, you’ll hear people share their fears, and the fears will sound foreign, like a language you’ve almost forgotten. How could I fear car accidents, if they would send me to heaven in God’s timing? How could I be afraid of never getting married; if God wants me to marry, won’t it happen? How could I fear abandonment when Christ will never abandon me? Little fears will wander around, but the only thing you’ll fear deeply is your own ability to turn from Christ. And, that fear will keep you praying, and that prayer will keep you from all the other fears. You’ll know, when fears creep back in, that it’s time to pray more. And, when you pray, you’ll feel the fears shrink back, and the cool, hard-won peace of the cross will help you through the sufferings that will always continue. (Yes, the cross: the truth is, most of the suffering that won my peace won’t even be borne by you.)

But, I wouldn’t know this if you didn’t go through the things you’re about to go through. So, thank you. I know this isn’t going to be easy for you. Thank you, thank you for going through all these lessons and all this discipline so I can know this. Thank you for the mornings you’ll choose to get out of bed when you just don’t want to face the world. Thank you for the hours you’re going to spend praying. Thank you for the Sundays you’ll go to church. Thank you for enduring. Thank you for wrestling through the hard times and offering the one thing you can actually offer – obedience – by which you will make it possible for me to start becoming the most content of all creatures.

I won’t say it won’t hurt. It will. All I can say is this: thank you. I’m so glad to know all the things you made it possible for me to learn. And, I would do it again. In fact, I know I will.

Under the mercy,

Your Post-Suffering Self

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Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

A cadaver in a lab is no more alive than a corpse in a ditch, though it may smell a little less. In the end, both are buried. Rot looks alive compared to the sanitized corpse because rot is life that feeds on death, but sanitation’s sanctity is ultimately worth something. Because Christians identify with Christ’s resurrection as well as his death, merely sanitizing a corpse dignifies it but fails to perform the necessary resurrection from death to life. Continue reading Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. Citing the four main sources of a Christian’s theology—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—it describes reality and lays a foundation for Christian leaders to prescribe how Christians should do theology. The Quadrilateral is true to history, what people do with their heads, and what people actually live through while confirming the chief place of Scripture in the making of theology. Although teachers have to be careful when diagramming the Quadrilateral, it is far better than waving around a bald “sola scriptura!” Continue reading Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Consider the Birds of the Air

Consider the birds of the air. Specifically, consider the sparrow. A person can learn as much from a bird such as this as they can from any other element of Creation. Maybe that’s why Jesus drew the eyes of the people to the birds of the air—he knew they were some of the best teachers, and they spoke to the literate and the illiterate, the rich and the poor.

The sparrow is the ultimate example of a worldly creature. Not worldly in our peculiar Christian dialect, but worldly in the fundamental sense. The sparrow is worldly in that it lives, breathes, and dies wholly dependent on the divine World-Maker. We should take note; we should be more worldly.

Saint Francis was perhaps one of the worldliest men to ever walk the earth. He owned a brown, rough-spun cloak that he was quick to give away. He allowed himself the luxury of canvas shoes when his feet became too old to walk the ground uncovered. He talked to animals. To make a remarkable biography short, Saint Francis lived in the world as the perfect houseguest. He enjoyed creation, and created things. He was worldly, not in that he acted as other men did, but in that he sought to reconcile God and our fallen world, without seeking to shackle himself to it.

We so often dream and speak of Heaven that we forget that our eternity will be spent in a new earth that God makes for us. Our bodies will be resurrected and our world will be redeemed. We will be—in a perfect and whole sense—worldly. The world may be broken, but the sparrow is held by its Creator. Even in death, the sparrow is courageous; he knows no other hand but the hand of the Father, and rests in His providence.

People who amass money and fast cars and houses with private butlers aren’t necessarily bad people, but they certainly don’t deserve the title of worldly. They aren’t interacting with the world well; if anything, they should be pitied as fearful. They haven’t learned to rely on the world and the God sustaining it; instead, they try to protect themselves from it. The wind-whipped sparrow tucked in its nest is worldly. A man in his mansion is hiding—hiding from the sparrow, for the sparrow reminds him that his mansion is nothing more than a gilded nest of sticks.

Consider the sparrow—that wholly dependent being. If God should choose to feed it, God will feed it. When the wind picks up, and trees are shaken, it can do nothing but trust and carry on. And when it drops to the ground, never to rise again, Christ himself kneels down to carry it away. Where man lies to himself, the sparrow is honest. Where man is frail, the sparrow is strong. Man is rich. The sparrow is free.

Being poor isn’t fun, or so the old phrase goes; yet is it wrong? Folks who toss this expression around seem to hold that life is intended to be comfortable and fun. This is a dangerous stance to take; as C.S. Lewis wrote, “If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.” Putting our very souls in the hands of a street preacher isn’t fun or safe; regardless, it is life to the fullest. In many ways, we should envy the sparrow, which through its very nature is made dependent on God. All things are permissible to the sparrow, while we are so often owned by the world, unable to flit about on the breeze because we are too tied to the ground. Saint Francis preached to the birds—and the birds listened. The birds preach to us, and we so often go away sad, and take our seat at the bar with the rich, young ruler.

This does not imply a life of foolish neglect, for even a sparrow builds its nest and gathers food. Even a sparrow knows to take care of its young. When Jesus calls his listeners to consider the birds of the air, he is not calling them to a life of carelessness, but to a life of trust—in many ways, the blind trust of a sparrow. The sparrow doesn’t worry, doesn’t store up food in barns; instead, it trusts its Creator for its next meal—for its next breath. It has no other choice.

Remember the old saying: God takes care of fools and little children. It seems fitting to add sparrows to that list—those birds who are so foolish as to dance through life, flitting from heavenly perch to heavenly perch—perfectly worldly beings.

In Defense Of The Pope

I am a Protestant.  Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical.  And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist.  In short, I have no love for the Papacy.  I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter.  When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.

Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.

Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism.  He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.

This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to.  Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola.  The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening.  Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through.  Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order.  Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate.  And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church.  This isn’t surprising.  Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target.  The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity.  Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question.  In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.

In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform;  the true bully pulpit.

Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically.  In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive.  He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”

And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role.  Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization.  The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church.  Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist.  Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis.  Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world.  Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.

All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world.  There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear.  Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection.  Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend.  The ideas of the West.

Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation.  We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel.  And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice;  one that Western culture desperately needs.

Ruminations on the Incarnation

What does it mean for man to be made in the image of God and then to have God become man? What does it mean for God to hold mankind together–and, indeed, all of creation–and then to enter into humanity as a man himself? How does it change our lives that God lived a life like ours and now lives on with a body like ours? Continue reading Ruminations on the Incarnation

The Thrill Of Hope

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The people of Rohan are trapped.  Surrounded by impenetrable rock on all sides save one, their only path of escape blocked by a blood-thirsty hoard of orcs.  The women and children in vain flee deeper into the mountain, gaining but a short reprieve from their inevitable doom.  The fighting men have twice retreated already, and now they have no choice but to make one final stand, to face the terror at the door with what courage they have left.  There is no hope of victory, no hope of living to see another sunset.  There is only the meager comfort of dying a hero and dispatching as many infernal beasts as possible before the end.  But even this comfort, such as it is, is robbed by the knowledge that no matter how valiant the fight or how many monsters are slain, thousands more will yet pour into the caverns at their backs when they lie dead, there to murder the innocent loved ones they will have failed to defend.

A single beam of dawn breaks over the stone window to the east.  Aragorn, in sudden remembrance of a dim promise, turns to the king and says, “Ride out with me.”

This scene, or something very much like it, is what I think of when I hear the words “A thrill of hope.”  Just at the moment when things seem the most hopeless, and then hope comes unexpected, the sudden rush of adrenaline and wonderment (an interesting mixture of the physiological and the mental) is aptly described as a thrill.  A thrill that brings you to tears.

One fascinating layer of the Christmas story is that this thrill is almost entirely retrospective.  We can only guess at what the Shepherds, Wise Men, Mary and Joseph knew or felt at the birth of Jesus, but we can safely assume that the World had no idea that the tide of history had turned that night in a tiny, dirty stable.  Rohan is saved, the enemy is defeated.  Now we need to go tell everybody.

In this respect, the great commission is a mandate to bring this thrill of hope to all the nations.  Not that the gospel is all about getting a chill up your spine.  The birth of the Son of God is an objective reality that accomplishes something real in a world that is really mired in sin and error and pining after fellowship with a Creator it has rejected.  If Gandalf’s promised return is nothing more than a comforting narrative Aragorn tells himself to give meaning to his suffering, then his thrill of hope will be decidedly short-lived (and so, incidentally, will he).  But his hope, rooted in faith, is in something objective.  Gandalf’s staff and the spears of the Rohirrim are very real, as the orcs are soon to discover.

At the same time, objective realities ought to affect us.  If Aragorn doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings about the hope of immanent salvation, but stoically suggests that it might be preferable to live than not, we would suspect that he either does not grasp the true nature of his peril or else he does not truly believe that salvation is coming.  And of course we are prone to both errors.  It is no accident that Paul’s magnificent presentation of the gospel in Romans begins with the wrath of God revealed against all unrighteousness.  Unless we know deeply our wretched state, we cannot feel the great thrill of our hope.  The people of Rohan had no idea that their very existence as a people was being threatened, after all, until a herald came to shake them out of their ignorance and complacency, and to point to the hidden rot within their own kingdom (and subsequently, to cast that rot out and make the heart of their kingdom, its king, new again).

Yesterday, December 2nd, was the beginning of Advent.  This is not the season when Christians dutifully meditate upon the many 50%-Off blowouts at Sears and Amazon, faithfully trusting in God to lead them to make just the right purchases to please their family around the tree.  Nor is it (I only grudgingly admit) the season when we finally get to listen to Christmas music every day without getting strange looks from the fellow in the car next to you (though it is that).  This is the season when Christians get to run around excitedly asking everyone they meet, “Have you heard?  He’s come at last!  He’s come to make all things new!  The tide has turned!”

Evangelism tends to focus on Easter, and even more on Good Friday.  “You’re a sinner, right?  Well Jesus took care of that, and here’s how.”  But Christmas, it seems to me, is an equally evangelistic celebration.  Jesus is the reason for the season, but what is the reason for Jesus?  The reason is that for a very, very long time the world lay pining in sin and error, darkness and despair.  And just then, a beam of dawn breaks.  A light unexpected.  God eternal comes, a helpless babe.

To know this and understand it is to feel the thrill of hope.  And if you truly feel that thrill, if you know the hope that brings you to tears of unbearable joy, how can you not share it with those who still wallow in hopelessness?  How can you not to turn to everyone you meet and plead, “Ride out with me”?

Forgiveness and the Cross

In life, we will all do things that we will come to regret. Every one of us will violate the moral code. Even the man who does not believe in an objective moral code will find his actions inconsistent at some point, and regret the different action. We make mistakes because we are fallible.

With each mistake we make, we are given a choice. Continue reading Forgiveness and the Cross

Was C.S. Lewis A Calvinist?

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing that J.R.R. Tolkien, though a devout Roman Catholic, filled his works with a distinctly Reformed or Calvinistic attitude toward fate and free will.  If you ask the direct question, “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a Calvinist?” the answer is obviously no.  But I believe that while Tolkien clearly rejected a bad cariacture of Calvinism (human beings are mere puppets on divine strings, etc), his deeper appreciation of acient northern culture lead him to hold divine providence and human freedom in a constant tension, with neither ever overwhelming the other, but with the greater emphasis always upon providence.  Without getting into the specifics of works and meriting salvation, this basic view is no less than the classic Reformed understanding of Philippians 2:12-13. Continue reading Was C.S. Lewis A Calvinist?

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.

“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.

“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”

Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.

But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for. Continue reading A Strange Prayer