Crypto-Buddhist Christians

23 August 2022

I think of myself as having grown up on the slightly fundamentalist side of normie Evangelicalism, which is true as far as it goes, but I also grew up in a strongly renunciate household. My parents regularly told stories of praying fervently for some particular result, and continuing in prayer for weeks until they reached a point of surrender at which they said “Fine, Lord, I leave it in Your hands entirely. Whatever You choose to do is fine with me” — at which point, the prayers would finally be answered.

Now, those stories were true. This is a thing that God actually did. It was a running theme in both my parents’ lives, and there’s a good lesson to be had here. But the lesson I learned from those stories was seriously unbalanced.

The point — so I thought — was to extinguish my own desires as fast as possible, so that God could work in whatever way He chose. And you know what? Sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. It is entirely possible for me to want my own way so hard that I can’t (or won’t) see what God is really doing. But there’s more to it than that.

I was raised to see God as the boss, and His will as more important than my own — and that’s true, as far as it goes. I was missing the goodness of God, and the goodness of His creation. When I ask God to heal someone, I am asking for a good thing. I’m supposed to want that. When I ask God for the funds to pay a bill, or the wisdom to navigate a sticky relationship, or to save someone’s marriage, these are all good things. There may be a mismatch between God’s timing and mine, or what God wants to do may look different from the picture in my head, but that doesn’t change the goodness of the thing I’m asking for.

There’s a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain of thought that a really good Christian eradicates all desire. We’re typically very selective about where we apply this line of thinking, but in recent years it often rears its ugly head in the guise of accusations about “idolatry of marriage” and “idolatry of family.” These accusations generally come from barren couples, or single folk who object to the way the church centers and normalizes fruitful marriage and family as over against their (sometimes involuntary, but all too often chosen) lifestyle.

We wanted children and weren’t able, so I’m going to speak concretely in those terms. Anybody can turn anything into an idol, and that can be a real concern, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. What we’re seeing here is a revolt against the way God made the world. Children are a good gift from a good God, and barrenness is an affliction. That is objectively true. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not a suggestion; it is a command, and even a cursory grasp of biology demonstrates that producing children is a major purpose — if not the purpose — of sex.

“But what if we don’t want children?” Doesn’t matter. If you cut off your own foot (rather than, say, losing your foot in an accident), you are just as lame, and lameness is still an affliction. Likewise, if the barrenness is self-inflicted, it is still an affliction. Legs are meant to have feet on them, and a penis and a vagina are meant to meet up and make babies, and designed to do so in a way that’s a lot of fun. These are objective realities that God made; they can’t be wished away by reframing them in the context of our own fallible desires.

So barrenness is like vertigo — if you have it, you ought to seek to rid yourself of it as quickly as possible, and by all lawful means. If it turns out that you can’t, you will have to find a way to live fruitfully despite the debility, but nobody needs to pretend that it’s somehow a good thing. You must submit yourself to God’s Providence, but eradicating your desires is a poor substitute for submission to your Father.

It is not only lawful, it is normal and healthy, to want the good things that God made. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of extinguishing our desires for good things. Buddhism is just wrong about this; desire is not the root of all suffering. Sin is the root of all suffering. The world is broken, and we sometimes have to make our peace with the way, in God’s Providence, that brokenness hurts us.

And so we trust God. We ask Him to end the affliction, and we keep asking, unless, as with Paul, God tells us to stop. And we don’t criticize the people who have — and love — the things that we lack. It is not idolatry to love God’s good gifts. It is idolatry to elevate our own perspective above the objective realities God made.


Not Automatic

2 August 2022

In conversation with a young female friend about how the church handles conversations on modesty, we stumbled on something interesting.

Men need female attention; women need male attention. “Need” is actually the right word here — God made us for relationship, and we actually do need each other. When a young woman’s father has not been doing his job well, and she then she hits puberty, that’s a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, she’s getting male attention she never got before. It feels like water in the desert, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out how to dress to get more of that sort of attention.

Now, normally in the church, we want to say something to her like “You don’t need to do that.” Here’s the thing: for a lot of these girls, that’s just not true.

If she’s been neglected by her father and the other men in her life, if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents and abilities, then her legitimate needs have gone unmet. She’s spent her whole life hungry for male attention. The only reason she’s getting it now is her body, and she knows it. Of course, in the abstract it’s certainly true that a young woman could get a better class of attention through musical talent, intellectual prowess, writing well, athletic achievement, and countless other ways. But the thing is, none of those things come automatically, and if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents, then not only does she lack those skills, she doesn’t know how to develop them. Meanwhile — pardon me putting it crudely — she got her hips and her boobs for free, and that’s getting her the attention she never got before.

In her experience, she does need to flaunt her body. As far as she knows, that’s all she’s got.

If we know better — and we do! — then the path forward is not to shame her for using what she’s got. Scolding that girl about her necklines is not going to get her where she needs to go. We know that she’s handcrafted in the image of God, shaped with God’s purposes in mind. Even if nobody knows what her talents are, we know they’re in there. What if we just decline to notice her neckline, look her in the eye, and focus our attention on her talents, her achievements, her growth as a human being? Maybe, if we can give her a better class of attention focused in the right direction, she’ll find she likes that attention better. We aren’t likely to succeed at getting her to give up the wrong kind of attention if we offer nothing in return.


Post-Industrial Revolution Ecclesiology

4 January 2022

One of the great tensions in the 21st-Century church is the place of business operations. The vast majority of churches – especially large churches – run as corporations. Many leaders have objected to the trend. John Piper published a book for pastors titled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Mike Breen regularly comments on how the saints of future centuries will look back in bemused wonder that anyone ever thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business. Darvin Wallis does a particularly good job of showcasing the flaws of taking our leadership lessons from the business world. But so what?

Nobody’s listening. While the occasional dissident complains, the juggernaut keeps moving. The pragmatists among us simply keep feeding the beast, tending to the needs of the business. There’s a budget, a mortgage, utilities to pay, payroll to meet every month, big events, and more. The show goes on. Nobody’s going to stop treating the church like a business without some sort of viable alternative.

There is one. A different model to steer by, and it’s been sitting in the pages of the Bible the whole time. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes the church as the household of God.

You’re probably thinking, “So what?”

The modern household has fallen so far from what it was in the first century that it barely even registers as a category. We think “household” is a synonym for “family.” It’s not.

Our modern households are pits of consumption and consumer debt that don’t really produce anything or have any particular purpose, other than as holding pens for human beings when we’re not doing something productive. Naturally, in seeking to run productive churches, we’ve looked elsewhere for a model, and – surprise, surprise – ended up looking to business, with all the problems that entails. 

The first-century household, by contrast, was a center of production. Take Peter’s household, for example. He ran a commercial fishing concern, and the whole family would be involved — from gardening to tending the little children to mending nets to preparing the fish for market, everyone would have work to do. The household produced food, raised and educated children, and interacted in the marketplace. This engine of production was what Paul had in mind when he described the church as the household of God, and we’re so far from it, we can barely even think about what that means.

So let’s quit trying to mend our ecclesiology by thought experiment, and mend it by real experiment. Let’s recover productive households, so we can learn what the church should look like. We can’t all move to the country and homestead, but we city-dwellers don’t have to live in a pit of consumption either.

A productive household has a mission. Chiefly, it gives the world functioning adults, which it brings into the world as babies and then raises and educates until they’re prepared to enter the adult world, but a productive household is also an economic entity that operates in the marketplace. A household maintains property and tends to its business interests, but a productive household has a mission beyond maximizing profits or shareholder value, a mission for which the business interests are necessary, but to which they are subordinated. It gives something to the world, and it raises children who are givers in their turn.

So let’s get about it. What does your household produce?


But Is It Mine To Take?

7 September 2021

“In Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Let’s scrape off the Sunday School language for a minute and ask what that means in the real world.  A “treasure” is something well worth having.  Biblically speaking, “wisdom” is skill — it can be skill at a trade, skill at interpersonal relationships, skill at anything.  “Knowledge” is understanding of facts, but biblically it also includes understanding and intimacy with the facts — grasping how they relate to one another.  So “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” means all the skills worth having and all the things worth knowing — and all of them are hidden in Christ.  Every last one.

So what are we to do when we find a pagan claiming that these particular treasures of wisdom and knowledge right here belong to his idols?

Refuse to believe him, of course.  But does that mean that the pagan really doesn’t have treasures of wisdom and knowledge, even though he thinks he does?  That will be the case sometimes,  but often enough he’s got the real thing, courtesy of common grace, and the devil is lying to him about where it came from.  After all, the Canaanites were not living in make-believe houses and harvesting pretend grapes to make imagined wine.  They had the real thing — all gifts from the loving hand of a gracious God, which the devil was only too happy to claim for his own, with the Canaanites’ complicity.

Faced with that situation, the task of God’s people is obvious enough — take those good things back, and return them to their lawful role in service to the Creator.  The devil is not Abraham, and he may not claim territory everywhere he leaves his cloven hoofprints.  It all belongs to Yahweh, every last bit, and we will be taking it back in Yahweh’s name.  This is as true in the New Covenant as it was under the Old: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ….”  

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, and we look forward to a day when everybody knows it, and the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like water covers the sea.  This is God’s will, and while we wait to see it come to full fruition, we pray for little pieces of it to invade here and now — “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

That’s the long view, the answer in principle.  However, just because the whole thing belongs to God does not mean we are fit to take it all back right this minute.  Abraham’s family wasn’t ready to inhabit the land during Abraham’s lifetime — hence the centuries-long delay.  Even at Kadesh Barnea, Israel wasn’t ready.  Still filled with fear, they believed the ten spies instead of Joshua and Caleb.  God told them that He would respect their wishes and give the land to their children instead, and then, predictably, they decided they would try to take it after all.  God warned them that He would not go with them, not now, but they tried anyway, and a bunch of them died in the attempt. 

When they finally went in with Joshua, even then God told them that He would drive out the peoples of the land gradually before them, lest the land be overgrown and overrun with wild beasts.  The conquest has its cataclysmic moments like the destruction of Jericho, but it is a process, and the process was always meant to be directed by divine guidance.  It’s God’s territory, and we have to retake it on His timetable, in His way.  

The question is not simply, “Is this God’s?”  The question is, “Is God giving this to me?”  “Is it mine to take?”

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. We all encounter enemy strongholds — in our own lives, in our communities, in the world we live in.  Where are some of the enemy strongholds that you encounter?
  2. God gives us His armor because He means for us to be active in warfare.  Is there a stronghold that God wants you to assault?  
  3. If God gives you a target, don’t assume He wants you to go charging up that hill immediately.  Ask how God wants you to go about it.

Changing the Sheets…and Loving it!

10 March 2020

God gave us a command to be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. This is an essential part of what it means to be human.

The basic, straightforward meaning of the command is simple enough: have lots of babies, lead them to Jesus, baptize them, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so they will do the same. This is the direct meaning of the command, and it is also the middle of the bell–curve of human behavior. Across time and culture, we pair off and have kids. It’s how the species continues.

So what does that mean for those of us who — in God’s providence and the brokenness of the world — are denied children? Those of us who’d give anything to have kids, and for whatever reason, can’t?

There’s a broader meaning to the command; it’s not less than the direct, literal meaning. It’s a good and necessary consequence of it, and the broader command applies to us all.

A particular couple may not be able to have kids, but we are still required to be the sort of people who would have kids, the sort of people who love fruitfulness. We are called to love children, love other people’s children, love the raising and training of children to be more like Christ, love the institutions that shelter and grow children. Beyond that, we should love and practice fruitfulness in all its forms and varieties — art and music, daffodils and peach trees, building houses and farming fields and breeding cattle and throwing pots and writing books and baking flaky biscuits, all of it — and we should hate things that are fruitless by design.

We are in the midst of a cultural trend where forward-thinking young people don’t get married and have kids; they shack up and get dogs. (These folks think of themselves as the people of the future, although, as my friend Richard Bledsoe observes, it’s wildly unlikely that the future belongs to people who don’t reproduce.) These folks pride themselves on sliding through life with no complications — no mortgage, no kids, no need for a divorce if things go south — no mess, in other words.

Against that, we should let ourselves be taught what fruitfulness looks like by the literal fulfillment of the command. Obeying “be fruitful and multiply” is a messy business. God could have designed human reproduction so that it happened with a fist-bump. Instead, He made sex visceral, primal, messy, the sort of thing where you might need to change the sheets afterwards — and we love it, as we should. Pregnancy only gets messier, and birth messier still — even more linens to wash. And then the diapers! Toddlers are petri dishes with legs, ambulatory forces of destruction wandering the house with an illicitly gotten permanent marker in each tiny fist. As they get older, they get messy in ever more complicated ways. We’re called to love all that too…and to do all the laundry.

All fruitfulness is messy, filled with confusion, cleanup, course corrections. We should not just love the product; we must learn to love the messy process of creation. There’s an ever-present temptation to reject the necessary mess. Writer’s block, for example, is a rejection of the messiness of the process of creation, a desire for everything to be preternaturally bright and clean the first time around — and it never works out that way.

The good news is it doesn’t have to. We are the image of God; we are designed to dream and to make and to do, and then to bring our glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, which is the Church, the Bride of Christ. He made us for this, and all His ways are good. The sooner we learn to love changing the sheets afterwards, the more often we’ll create something good.


Jesus All The Way Down

22 February 2019

If I want to house a homeless woman, because Jesus, or feed a homeless man, because Jesus, I must also desire to pay for these things, because Jesus.

I may not drive someone from their apartment at gunpoint in Jesus’ name in order to house the homeless woman. I may not steal from the grocery store in Jesus’ name in order to feed the homeless man. And if—in Jesus’ name—I stick up some third neighbor at the ATM in order to pay the landlord and the grocer, I am only compounding the problem. It can’t be a slick patina of Jesus (which looks suspiciously like Shane Claiborne, just sayin’) on the surface, and an unrepentant Zacchaeus down where the real work gets done. It’s got to be Jesus all the way down.

The point here is simple: STOP COVETING OTHER PEOPLE’S STUFF!!!

In a more secular mode, the appeal is inevitably to “simple human compassion.” You cannot call it compassion to care for the addict who does not work or the mentally ill who cannot work while plotting to rob the worker to pay for it all. It is not compassion to hate the productive business owner and make him your slave. Covering it all with Jesus-talk does not somehow make it okay. We cannot expect God to bless our so-called compassion when we build the whole project on covetousness and theft.

All the Christian leftists who want to take other people’s stuff to pay for their compassionate endeavors—if all those people repented of their covetousness and became Christian business owners who work hard to earn the money to pay for those same endeavors so they can show real generosity with their own stuff rather than faking it with someone else’s—it would all be paid for, and then some. Or do you think God wouldn’t bless that?

“Let him who stole, steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, in order that he might have something to give the needy.”

And let him who lobbied for the stealing, and him who voted for the stealing, do the same.