…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.

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Three Critical Questions on the Christian Life

18 May 2014

I had the privilege of going to the inaugural facilitator training course for the Paul Tripp/Tim Lane How People Change small group curriculum, several years back. One point that Tripp made over and over has really stuck with me. “If all we needed were principles, then God could have done everything we needed on Mount Sinai. If all we needed were principles, then why did Jesus come and die? Because we don’t just need principles; we need rescue.”

Indeed. I’d like to address that same line of thought at a slightly higher resolution.

1. If Sinai is sufficient, then why Calvary?

If principles/doctrine alone were sufficient, then God could have gotten it all done at Sinai. If that were true, then why Jesus? Because living by principles is never enough. We needed to be saved from ourselves, and this is something we simply could not do for ourselves, no matter how good the principles might be. The seeds of the problem are inside us, and we can’t excise them.

We have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” as the Anglicans say. We simply could not resolve the problem for ourselves; it took Jesus dying our death on the cross. We participate in His death, and in this way we are reconciled to God.

2. If Calvary is sufficient, then why Pentecost?

If Christ’s finished work on the Cross was all that we needed, then why send the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the work all done? No, it isn’t. Calvary reconciled us to God, but reconciliation is only the beginning of what God wants to give us. He wants to give us life.

Through our union with Christ, we participate, not just in His death for us, but also in His life. Ongoing participation in the life of Christ is a continuing miracle of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and comes upon us in anointing for service just as He came upon Jesus for His earthly ministry. It is through the guidance of the Spirit that we advance God’s Kingdom here on earth.

3. What does it look like to live Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost?

If we mess up the first question, we make the moralistic mistake of trying to earn God’s acceptance. Life turns into a never-ending round of “service” that is much more about our need to see ourselves as useful than it is about meeting actual needs. We become the sort of person that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he penned the epitaph, “She lived her life for others. Now she has peace…and so have they.”

If we mess up the second question, then we make the mistake of trying to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness without taking advantage of all His guidance for us. We’ll operate based on the general principles in Scripture — which (to be fair) give far more guidance than most people think. But the Scriptures also give far less guidance than is needed for the life that God would have you to live.

If we get both questions right, if we live into Sinai, Calvary and Pentecost, then we live a life that is guided by the Scriptures. Our character becomes deeply aligned with God’s character as He has expressed it in the Scriptures. And our lives become masterpieces, unpredictable works of art. Just applying the principles on our own would generate a decent life, but it would never yield the beautiful surprises that come from a living relationship with God.

For example, God used me to help a homeless guy named Michael last year. The biblical principles would lead me to helping homeless folks–the stranger in your gates, the least of these, and all that. But I have no shortage of opportunity to minister to homeless folks, and Michael was not hanging around the places I would usually go to minister. What led me to Michael was that God literally told me to turn the car around, go back to that exit ramp, and give him $5 and a message: “God has not forgotten you.”

I did. As the relationship developed over subsequent conversations, it turned out there were certain truths Michael needed to hear, and then to live. It just so happened that these were the same truths God was teaching me right then.

Was the guidance to engage that specific homeless guy at that specific time biblical? No. It was far more specific than I could have gleaned from the Torah, or from the Old Testament, or even from the completed canon. But it didn’t conflict in any way with Scripture; it just went further than general instructions to the whole Body could go. Was it God? Of course, and the good fruit bore that out, as Jesus taught us that it would.

In other words, to add to Tripp, we didn’t just need principles; we needed rescue. And we don’t just need rescue; we need relationship.


Jamie Smith, 3DM, and the Discipleship Gap

27 January 2013

A while back, I recommended Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom here. Let me repeat that recommendation. If you’re involved in education or Christian formation in any serious way, you probably ought to read it, or at least listen to the associated lectures (which are available free online). In a nutshell, Smith’s big point is that human beings aren’t simply “thinking things” — and so downloading propositional content into our heads, while important enough, is not the whole shebang. Rather, human beings are desiring, imagining creatures, and forming us into the image of Christ involves engaging the whole person in ways that go well beyond simply explaining some propositions.

Today I want to talk about an application of that important truth.

A while back, I was talking with a friend about bridging the gap between hearing a sermon in church and applying it in real life. We often seem to have an awful lot of trouble with that. I noticed this problem a long time ago — I grew up in the church. But the question is, what to do about it?

In the tribe I come from, the accepted solution was good, solid Bible preaching. A series on Ephesians, a series on Joshua, a sermon or three on a Psalm here and there. You could do a series on marriage or finding God’s will or whatever, but you always came back to straight expository preaching. Preach the Word, and all will be well.

And you know what? It worked. Well…it kinda worked. I know a number of the success stories. In some ways, I am one. We learned a large amount of Bible, and we heard someone explain how it could be applied in our lives. In a number of cases, we put the stuff to work, and it became part of the way we lived — which is to say, it worked.

Except when it didn’t. Except when we found ourselves unable to effectively fight a temptation even though we knew perfectly well what we were supposed to be doing. Or when we couldn’t quite see how to fit the propositional wisdom of Scripture into the warped situation we were facing. Or whatever. There were a lot of cases where it didn’t work well enough. If a problem went untended long enough, it got untenable, and then we ended up in need of pastoral counseling.

The lucky ones actually got good pastoral counseling. I was one of those, praise God. In some corners of the tribe, they didn’t believe in counseling. They believed in preaching doctrine, and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit. The people who needed counseling in those churches were in a really bad way, and those churches are some of the most toxic in my experience.

Even in our better churches, though, the problem remained. There was a gap between the good stuff we heard on Sunday morning and our ability to put it to work in our own lives. Something was missing. When I became an assistant pastor, I pointed this out to my boss and asked him if I could tackle the problem in our congregation. He turned me loose on it. So what did I do?

I realized (correctly) that Matthew is a manual of Christian discipleship. So I invited the people who were interested in closing the gap between their intellectual knowledge and their day-to-day practice, and I taught a Bible study on Matthew.

Did you catch that? The problem was that teaching the Bible wasn’t getting the whole job done, and I tried to solve the problem by…teaching the Bible some more. Now Bible teaching isn’t bad, just like water isn’t bad. But offering a glass of water to a downing man is maybe not the best idea ever, and if he objects, lecturing him on how water is necessary to life is simply not an appropriate response.

Which is to say, Bible teaching meets a need, but it is not the only need we have.

***

3DM — an acronym for 3-Dimensional Ministries, or some such — produces some of the most outstanding materials for discipleship that I’ve ever seen. There are some curricular materials, and the truth is, they’re kinda hokey. The hokiness, such as it is, makes the material memorable, but the curriculum is only part of the recipe. The key is a social vehicle called a Huddle — a small group of leaders and leaders-in-training that are being mentored through the process of life-on-life discipleship. The 3DM guys are adamant that you can’t just read a couple of their books and then start a Huddle on your own. You need to experience being in one first before you try to replicate it.

Now the books are kinda expensive, but being huddled by a 3DM coach or joining one of their learning communities (a 2-year process) costs a small fortune. A cynic would be inclined to observe that the 3DM guys are effectively saying, “Sure, you could blow $120 on books, read them, and try to apply what you learned, but it’s not going to work unless you give us a couple thousand more to guide you through it.”

Thing is…they might be right. That’s the way it worked for me.

***

I knew about the discipleship gap early in my career. I tried to address it, but even though I knew the problem was not lack of teaching, I fell right back into trying to teach my way out of it. It would be far too easy to do the same thing with any other material — from 3DM, or Navigators, or anybody else. If I make that mistake, I reduce whatever material I’m using to just another nifty currriculum with some good memory aids — and let’s face it, I can get 3 of those for $5 on the bargain shelf of my local Christian bookstore.

It me a year or so of being led in a huddle by an older, more experienced disciple-maker to bring me to the point where I could replicate the experience, where I was ready to disciple rather than simply teach. Which is to say that person-to-person transmission, in a high-contact personal context, really matters. God made us to learn, not only from the Book, but from the Body.


Mystical Union: The Incarnation

25 December 2011

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.'”

That was true beyond what Isaiah could have guessed.  The prophecy was fulfilled, not by a child whose name reminds us that God is with us, but by a Child who was God with us.  The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

It took us centuries to think that one through.  All the Christological debates back and forth for years, the roads being filled with galloping bishops hurrying from one council to another, all the letters written and polemical sermons preached, were just to come to grips with this simple truth.

Why?

Because it’s extraordinarily important, and being so important, it was under constant attack by the enemy.  The Church was besieged by one idiotic scheme after another: “Well, maybe it worked like this….”  Unfailingly, it would turn out that at the heart of the scheme would lie one of two flaws.  Either Christ was divine, godish, but not really God, in the sense that the Father is God, or Christ was humanish, human in some respects, but not really man, in the sense that we are man.

What difference would that have made?

The center of the Christian faith, the promise on which we utterly depend, is that ordinary human beings may be partakers of the divine nature; that we, frail broken as we are, can come as we are, and enter into the fellowship of the Trinity itself.

How do we know this is true?

Because God promises it, of course, but also because we’ve actually seen it.  Jesus did it perfectly.  The Word became flesh.  He was a man as we are men, and very God of very God, as the creeds put it.

If Jesus was humanish, but didn’t really have all the traits we do, then whence our confidence that the traits He did not assume could be redeemed?  Without that confidence, we have no hope of being redeemed as human beings.  The Fall was permanent; humanity is ruined forever, and salvation lies in becoming something less than entirely human.

On the other hand, if Jesus was only godish, divine, touched by the Father but not of the same nature as the Father, then we could hope to be better than we are, certainly, but we can have no confidence of entering into true fellowship, true union, with God.  We can be good human beings, maybe even spiritual supermen, but entry into the fellowship of the Godhead is forever barred to us.  If even Jesus couldn’t manage it, how could we?

But the Divine Word, true and complete God, became the son of Mary, true and complete man, and in His person bore our every sin and frailty to the cross.  In Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and therefore we may trust that we too can be partakers of the divine nature, and enter into the circle of the perichoretic Triune fellowship, as Jesus prayed that we would:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:  I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

The enemy has not stopped attacking our Christology.  We’ve weathered the storm of doctrinal defections, but having pure doctrine on paper never saved anyone.  It has to be lived, and the tragedy is that we simply fail to rise to the destiny Christ won for us.  We live not only as if the Incarnation did not happen; we live as though it could not have happened.  We settle for giving in to our flaws: “I’m only human,” we say, as though Jesus had not shown us what true humanity can be.  Or we settle for being merely good, moral people, as if Jesus had been merely a moral man rather than very God.  But we are neither called to be showcases of the sins of our flesh, nor showcases of the moral accomplishments of our flesh.  We are called to be the image of God in the world, the Body of Christ, and members of the Triune dance.  We are called to union with God, to know the love of God that passes knowledge, and this is not a thought experiment.  It is a real experience, or it is nothing at all.

Today we celebrate the Incarnation, the ultimate demonstration that such an experience is available to us.  Merry Christmas to you all.


Mystical Union: The Only Alternative to Legalism

23 January 2011

In conversation with a couple of friends this week on these things, I happened more or less by accident on a truth that surprised me, and sharpens the mysticism issue for me a great deal.

Here’s how it happened: in discussing the ongoing person/proposition controversy, we were considering how poorly the Saving Proposition/Content Of Saving Faith positions fare when faced with the burden of addressing a person’s present experience of death.  However well they might do at addressing truths regarding the second death (not well, actually, but that’s another discussion), these positions utterly fail to bring God’s saving power to bear on death right now. Jesus came to save His people from their sins — not just from the Lake of Fire, but from drunkenness, adultery, theft, lying, murder, addiction, and so on.

An eternally secure heroin addict who will certainly go to heaven when he dies has not yet been saved from his sin.  No proposition suggested in the Content of Saving Faith debate will help him.  He needs more than propositions; he needs rescue.

If you insist on sticking to the truth-is-a-proposition approach, then you find yourself stuck in a two-tiered view of the Christian life, in which one needs this proposition to guarantee passage to heaven, and then those propositions to experience life here and now.  In principle, this is the Galatian heresy all over again, and as long as you confine yourself to thinking of truth in terms of propositions, it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Which is why you ought to consider the living Christ instead of just propositions about Him, however true.  A propositional view of receiving eternal life not only fails to meet the real human need for life now, it can’t help lapsing into legalism.  You can refer to a person in a proposition, but you can’t contain a person in a proposition, or transmit a relationship with a person via a proposition.  All you can contain and transmit in a proposition is an idea.  Living by ideas — even the most noble of ideas — is living by Law.  We already know how well that works, and anyhow if Sinai had been all we needed, whence Jesus?

The solution?  Actual relationship with the living Christ, which is to say, mystical union.  Either you live in real relationship with God or you’re just another legalist, living by ideas in your head.


Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.


Mystical Union

16 January 2011

I’ve had several recent conversations that converged on the same basic truth.  It’s at once the very core of the Christian faith, and a drastically under-acknowledged and under-emphasized point in conservative circles.  I don’t even know how to talk about it without setting off alarm bells among my colleagues.

But this is the truth that underlies the person/proposition discussion, and it’s something we need to discuss directly.

Here it is: the core of the Christian life, the very center of it all, is mystical union with Christ.

Paul talks of this in Romans 6: we are buried with Christ in baptism that we might be raised with Him to walk in a new life.  He talks of it in Galatians 2: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  It’s how unbelievers become converted, according to Romans 10: “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”  (Note, the Greek does not say “of whom” — Paul is asking how they can believe in Jesus if they haven’t heard Jesus.  Then he goes on to ask “How will they hear [Jesus] without a preacher?”  In the faithful preaching of the gospel, the unbeliever hears Christ.)

It’s not just Paul, either.  Jesus talks of it in John 17: “I do not pray for these [the 11 disciples] alone, but for all who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You….And the glory that You have given Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them and You in Me….”

I could go on with the proof texts, but you get the idea.

I figure I might as well out myself now: It’s taken me a long time to get to this point in my Christian life, but I’m now an unabashed mystic.  Actual contact with the living Christ is the sine qua non of the Christian faith, and if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got anything.  If you have got it, you can still be wrong about various factual matters — just like a man can be married to a woman for years and still not know the color of her toothbrush — but you have the relationship, and that’s what matters most.

Most of us know this instinctively.  When a friend or loved one dies, or you lose your job and you can’t pay the bills, or your child is sick in the hospital, hovering between life and death — all your theological knowledge (in itself) isn’t worth ten cents right then. What you need is comfort, the personal comfort of a God who is really there.  Certainly this can come through Scripture, but it’s not the ideas in the Scriptures that comfort you, but the God behind them, the One who says them to you.  You hear His voice, and it is in trusting Him, in clinging to Him, that you make it through.  If your Bible knowledge doesn’t help you toward that, you might as well have memorized the manual for your DVD player.

I remember once reading the testimony of a seminary professor who came to this realization when his child was ill.  I thought it was an amazing, thought-provoking article, and recommended it to a friend.  He was underwhelmed: “If he really believed what he taught, his theology ought to have been enough for him.”  Sadly, many of us think that way, even under really trying circumstances.  These are people who have managed to build the theological house of cards in their heads to the point that they can escape into it for hours, days if necessary, the way some socially awkward teenagers used to escape into D&D or an addict escapes into getting high for as long as possible.  Sadly, their theology is enough for them.  It is enough for them to think of the idea of God’s presence; they don’t actually need Him to be present.  These same people tend to be a bit devoid of human feeling, and have stilted, awkward relationships as a result of their preoccupation with their own fantasies.  If you’re going to be preoccupied with fantasies, I suppose theological truth is better than D&D — but not by a whole lot.  Preoccupation with your own fantasy — any fantasy — still inhibits loving God and your neighbors, and the fantasy still becomes an idol.

Unfortunately, people mistake this fantasy-worship for faith, just because the theological house of cards has a great deal of propositional truth in it.  The Pharisees had just as much propositional truth in their theological fantasies.  What they lacked was actual relationship with God — and the problem is as real in the church today as it ever was in first-century Judaism.

I recognize that a lot of the things that have happened under the banner of mysticism are wrong.  Conservatives are suspicious of anything with the label “mystical,” and not without reason.  But we can’t allow the various abuses to stop us from seeing the truth.  There is no substitute for actually walking with God.

Besides, the fact remains that we do need some word to describe the thing that the various proof texts above are talking about, the experience of actual contact with the living Christ.  Jesus and Paul are not just building theological castles in the air.  They are describing something that really happens, the real experience of actual Christians.  How are we to describe this?  Our fathers used the phrase “mystical union with Christ,” and if there’s a better term, I haven’t yet heard it.