How Living Safely is Dangerous

I tend to think passivity and the middle-way are pretty safe ways of life.  But choosing neither virtue nor vice is more dangerous than choosing vice.  If I am an outwardly vicious person, I cannot deny my viciousness.   On the other hand, by internalizing, that thereby ignoring, my own vice, I risk denying its very existence.

Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4):

Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Pharisees: *crickets*

Their problem here is not the typical Pharisaical hypocrisy.  It is a subtler, more paralytic hypocrisy.  They are silent because they hate public correction.  They would much rather be correct than corrected.  If they open to the possibility of their own error, then they also open to the pain of correction.

In life, the ways we tell ourselves we are don’t need correction are just as subtle and crafty.

For example, let’s say that I get really angry when my roommate retires early to bed because it prevents me from staying up late studying in our room (a totally theoretical situation).  In response, I can either lash out in anger, communicating how much I dislike the inconvenience of his early bedtime, or I can pretend it doesn’t bother me in the least bit.  Ignoring my anger seems the holier option, but it turns out to be the more dangerous one.

It seems that resisting anger could be the better option in the following ways:

  • It exemplifies a holiness that should be emulated.
  • It resists the natural tendency to sin in this way.
  • It displays self-control, which is Spiritual Fruit.
  • It avoids painful confrontation.
  • It practices self-denial.

Nevertheless, what if this passive response is more deceptive than constructive?

Notice that my pretending not to be angry is just that: a pretense.  It is just like that Pharisaical lie that tells me I don’t need correction:  it communicates something false about myself.  Thus, being bold in the wrong ways will tell me more true things about myself than my silence.

Whenever we convince ourselves to live safely, we actually hinder the process of sanctification.  By “safe living” I mean choosing the least confrontational, most holy-seeming option available.  These can vary from offering a service you really don’t want to do to seeming really solemn during a worship service to Pharisee-like silence.  We sometimes think seeming like the caring person is more important than actually caring for others.  This sort of self-deception does two things:

First, in these pretenses we hide from men.  Instead of confronting us about our flaws and failures, they praise our purity. By producing this positive image of ourselves, we deceive others.

Second, this success in hiding from men actually conceals us from ourselves. If we hear their praises enough, we will actually start to believe them. Then, when the pretended safe living becomes our truest form of living, we have trouble recognizing our own flaws.  By extension, we will also have trouble with sanctification. The temptation to sanctify a projection of ourselves paralyzes the process of the true purification that works at the core of who we are, where Christ is.  We feel safe because we try to hide from the exposing power of sanctification.

By safe living, we distance ourselves form our fundamental identity in Christ.  As we continually try to reinforce the self-perfection we have constructed, we rely on the people around us to tell us how sound this self-perfection structure is.  Affirmation can feed the monster within that desperately wants others to confirm the false perfection we outwardly project.  We forget to cling desperately to the perfection of Christ, subtly defending, instead, our own self-righteousness.  We choose to identify with a false righteousness instead of the perfect righteousness Christ offers us.

Fortunately, this form of self-deception is relatively easy to identify.  We must, however, be open to the fact that we practice deceptive safe living in the least suspecting areas of life.  There are two main ways to recognize this self-deception.  First, you have an unexplained need for affirmation.  If you need others to approve of you in certain areas of your life, dangerous safe living has probably crept into those specific spaces. Second, you are hurt deeply by personal flaws that people bring to your attention.  If you feel a powerful aversion to a confrontational remark or probing question, search for self-deception lurking nearby.

The Holy Spirit will bring people into your life to provide this service.  He will also remind you of the painful remarks people make about your flaws.  These all serve to keep us truly safe, in Christ, not deceptively safe, in ourselves.

One who finds freedom in Christ is free to live dangerously.  You are no longer bound to sin, so why be burdened by the thought that others might consider you sinful?  Instead consider those occasions when the deep darkness inside you swells to the surface as opportunities to boldly confront that deep darkness and give it, with all its twisted ways, to Christ.

It is unhealthy to have sin, but it is fatal to silently pretend it isn’t there.

The truly safe man rests in this prayer:

Lord I need you, oh, I need you

Every hour I need you

My One Defense, my Righteousness

Oh God, how I need you.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

I was baptized twice. I cringe when I think about it. In brief, I was baptized when I was 8, because it was a public declaration of my decision to follow Jesus 3-4 years before. I was re-baptized at 18 because I had “made my faith my own” and I thought it necessary, since the point of baptism was to publicly declare faith.

I have found that this is a fairly common narrative for Protestants, though the majority decide against a second baptism. The problem is that we don’t understand what the sacraments do for us. Here are a few points we often assume:

1. Baptism is merely a declaration of my decision to follow Christ to the world.

Accompanying this line of thought are a couple of embedded thoughts that enable Christians to think in this direction. First, we believe that baptism is a declaration of a fact, our salvation. Thus it made sense to be re-baptized after one has been “actually” been saved. If baptism is merely a statement of fact with little import in the world, then one can be re-baptized without it having any real effect.

The inherent danger behind this line of thought is the loss of the spiritual aspect of baptism. By not acknowledging the full, rich symbolism of baptism we reduce it to a mere formal external action. While there is great theological richness to be mined from baptism, I will focus on only one aspect for the sake of space. We celebrate baptism largely because Christ was baptized, so this is a fitting place to discover its significance.

Jesus’ baptism is significant for two primary reasons: the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ baptism marks two physical actions that Christians participate in when we are baptized. Since Jesus has already died on the cross, our baptism with the Holy Spirit comes when we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives. Thus when we are physically baptized we point to spiritual reality—the work of Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and the subsequent anointing of believers with the Holy Spirit. The aspect of a declaration of sonship carries with it the language of adoption into the family of God, of being heirs of the kingdom of God, of a change of identity and a number of other resonant theological truths which are harkened back to with submission to baptism.

Reducing the baptismal ceremony to a statement of fact removes the conferral of grace from it entirely. While you are affirming your covenant with God publicly and in community (both important aspects of the sacraments) there is an aspect of intentional remembering that is lost in a mere declaration. Intentional remembering is part of conferral of grace because it presents Christ to our minds, and assists the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (see discussion in first post). Baptism reminds us that behind the external actions there lies a true baptism, the shed blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Further, we must remember that behind the external action there is an inward operation of the Holy Spirit that moves the recipient to faith in Christ’s work and accomplishing regeneration in the life of Faith.1 Without these, baptism–and any sacrament–tends towards meaningless ceremony.

2. Communion is merely a point of remembrance.

Underlying this is the assumption that the sacraments are merely mental exercises, not spiritual conditioning. If this were the case, then re-reading the story of crucifixion or watching the Passion of the Christ might be a better way to remember Christ than eating bread and drinking wine. As we saw yesterday, mere remembrance is not the whole of the Lord’s Supper—conferral of grace is also integral to the process. The point of communion is that it is an external signifier of an internal reality, a sign of what has transpired in a person’s heart. So while its purpose is to remind us of Christ’s work on the cross, it also reminds us that something transpired in our hearts when we committed to Jesus. We accepted the work of the Cross as the covering and forgiveness for our own sins, and we were transferred into sonship with Christ. It is an external reminder that God is keeping his end of the bargain and we are freely accepting the grace that is given at the cross by participating in communion.

In conclusion, the sacraments bring together two spheres of participation, mental and physical and the two united together gives a deeper understanding of the grace that God has bestowed on us. Our tendency is to emphasize one sphere to the exclusion of the other, but both are necessary for full participation in the sacraments. While the sacraments are a mental exercise and a statement of fact, the presentation of them as physical signs and our participation in them as physical elements is also a necessary component. Physical actions reinforce ideas and present ideas to our minds in different ways than words, and thus, we are spiritually conditioned in different ways. Our participation in the sacraments confers grace because it affirms both our spiritual and physical decision to follow Christ, and opens us up to receive mercy for our souls.

In my next post, I want to consider in what sense the church is sacramental, to think through the work of some more recent theologians on the topic, and to reflect on how it is useful in the life of believers.

1The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has a lot of thoughtful discussion of this and is well worth reading.

To God, From the Front Lines of Job Hunting

Dear God,

In 54 days, I’ll don academic robes, hear Pomp and Circumstance, walk, and descend the commencement platform unemployed and out of control of my future.

And that’s exactly what I need. In the files of my mind, under the heading “job hunting,” at some point in the past, I flipped heaven and earth upside down.

All the scaffolding I put in place to make it seem like I’m in control—things like job security, a solid resume, a name school, a steady paycheck, retirement planning—those things obscure the fact (that fact I fight so desperately!) that every day I depend on You for my daily bread.

It’s deep in my planning nature: I want to know where tomorrow’s bread is coming from. I want all the scaffolding in place. I want control.

And that walk down from the commence platform reminds me that it’s the daily bread I need.

I’m not a fan of daily bread. Why? Well, something in the pit of my heart made its way to the top and turned it all upside down when it started asking that pragmatic question: what if You just don’t come through with the daily bread tomorrow? That’s a lot of trust You’re asking for. It’s a scary option, but it’s the only game in town. The soul can only live on daily bread.

In my mind, it’s flipped upside down, this job hunt. Somewhere along the way, it morphed from what it truly is into a shadow. It spun upside down, and I started to see this unemployed time as an uncomfortable, rickety bridge between the times of self-sufficiency (read: self-delusion); that uncomfortable space when I had to face the fact that I’m not God. Unemployment makes it so inescapable, so blindingly clear that I have no choice but to depend on You.

And what a relief that becomes when it turns right-side up. How laughable that it seemed like a chore—what a terrible time, this post-graduation uncertainty: suddenly, instead of depending on all the power of a foolish, finite, 24-year-old girl, I have to depend on the Treasury of Good Things and Giver of Life, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.

When it all turns right-side up, I can breathe easy. Nothing in this life is about this life; everything is about beginning the life of heaven. My job hunt is a prayer—a faithful, patient dispensing of applications—for which finding a job is only of secondary importance. The one real goal of my job hunt is learning how to depend on You. Right-side up, my job hunt is already successful, and will grow more and more successful.

So, I’ll let go. Today, I don’t need what You’ll give me tomorrow. My daily bread will come when I need it. And, if every day for the rest of my life, I wake up without knowing where that bread is coming from, I can still know it’s coming from You. My job hunt will have been successful if it does nothing but teach me to live at peace with daily bread.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Alicia Prickett