“O God, for as much as without thee, we are not able to please thee; Grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Archive for October 2011
For sheer headiness, it would seem hard to surpass Paul’s statement concerning the ministry of young Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 5:18). These are God’s words, and we shouldn’t immediately jump to qualify them. Ministers save people. Under God, they do.
I would like to draw attention, though, to the first part of Paul’s statement: “Keep close watch on yourself.” If a minister doesn’t do this, he’s not going to save anyone; and I’d like to suggest that a grave danger lurks in the life of a minister precisely because he is trying to save others. There’s something wonderful, of course, about being used by God to pour out His grace, truth, wisdom, and love to His people and the world; but a minister who fails to keep watch over his heart in this matter can fall prey to a poison so subtle that it remains largely imperceptible until its deadly work is already done.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves, we humans need to be (and to feel) needed. This is not sinful, per se: it’s a good thing to be needed (take parenting, for example), and the pleasure we feel in being needed (holding an infant, for instance, or lifting a load from a neighbor’s back) is perfectly legitimate. God made us to love others, to meet their needs, and we can and should feel His own joy in doing so.
But there’s a dark side, thanks to sin. Pastors are not immune from the deep insecurities, fears, and longings that beset other mortals; and whereas others may drown these things in distracting pleasures, or mask them behind professionalism or machismo or other forms of self-protective detachment, a pastor can hide behind . . . well, ministry. Love. Giving care and compassion and counsel. And this can be quite addictive. One can reach a place of justifying one’s own existence – deriving a sense of personal value and purpose – from the fact that one is saving others. This is a problem on many levels, but maybe we need to think through the psychology of it a little more.
There is a huge difference between a relationship in which the other person acutely needs me and a relationship in which the other person doesn’t. In the first case, I don’t have to face much in the way of insecurity: I am needed. It’s gratifying. It gives me a sense of strength and value. But in a relationship where I’m not acutely needed, I face a fearful question: will the other person choose to relate to me simply because he or she wants to, because he or she sees who I am (not just what I have to offer) and is either genuinely attracted or (which is perhaps even more comforting) glad to love me in spite of myself? This, in a word, is vulnerability.
A minister can shield himself from such vulnerability by crowding his life with relationships in which, in one form or another, he is constantly needed. Which becomes a self-feeding problem, because eventually he has no life apart from the ministry. When he looks in the mirror, he sees nothing that could attract anyone “just because,” and it’s a terrifying prospect to show himself to others apart from a ministry context. What if they see what he sees: that if he stops offering what he has to offer, there isn’t much of a life or a person left? He has become his ministry; if a person doesn’t need ministry, what else is there to be attracted to? So he goes on hiding behind ministry. He has one secure reason to exist, one sure basis for personal value: he’s saving people.
Of course, the way to deal with this is not to stop ministering! It is not to stop caring and giving oneself for the good of others. It is, rather, to keep watch on oneself and, by the grace of God, to open oneself to all the vulnerability and hurt that can come in a different sort of relationship: the sort in which one’s only basis for acceptance is the love of God in the heart of the other. It is to invite and explore relationships in a non-ministry context, where the basis for the relating is not acute need, but sincere desire. It should go without saying that human relationships don’t neatly fit into compartments of “need” and “desire”; but still, I hope what I am trying to get at is clear.
One avenue to this other sort of relating is for a pastor to do things simply because he desires to do so. There’s a time to go play a round of golf “just because”; there’s a time to go hiking in the woods “just because”; there’s a time to play a board game for no other reason than that it’s fun. These are activities in which the pastor is seen as a mere man; and these are contexts in which it is fairly easy for others to engage him as such. Maybe he will turn out to be a loser, and no one will want to come back for more – but that’s a risk we all have to take in this world, and it has so much to do with this thing we call grace. We are utterly vulnerable before the grace of God – we have no control over whether He will extend it to us. It’s no different in our human relationships. The one who will not embrace this truth will dwell in the prison house of his own self-protection. And it is hellishly dark and cold inside.
Amazing how beautifully this collect relates to the message I’m preaching this morning from Nehemiah 4!
“Lord we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to avoid the infections of the Devil, and with pure heart and mind to follow thee the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, p. 103)
“Lord we pray thee that thy grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Jesus welcomed children because Jesus was and is fun. Some of you don’t know that. Some of you are not fun. Repent and be fun.” (Mark Driscoll)
“Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy congregation; and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succor, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“The overweening presumption that one is doing the will of God so unequivocally that others must be either converted or destroyed cannot help but result in the seductions of proud power or the equally pernicious seductions of angry powerlessness.”
I really miss Richard John Neuhaus.
Last night I attended a book launch at Union Theological Seminary for a volume coauthored by my friend, Dr. David Innes: Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics. There’s a great deal I could say about the panel discussion, in which not only the authors but also Richard Land and Jim Wallis participated; but as a pastor and biblical exegete, I found one particular question from the audience especially striking. A young woman asked the three (apparently) white males on the panel: “How do you adjust for your whiteness and maleness when you read the Bible?” It was closely related to another question asked by the moderator to the authors: “If you are both Bible-believing Christians, how do you reach such fundamentally different conclusions about a biblical approach to politics?” At the heart of both questions is the problem of hermeneutical “lenses”: none of us reads the Bible “objectively” (we are always particular people in a particular cultural setting, ineradicably influenced in the way we perceive and understanding everything); so is anything we ever say about the Bible “objectively” true? Can it ever be?
I felt for the respondents. Tomes could be (and have been) written on these issues, and they had mere seconds to fire back an answer! Here are a few thoughts that came to me later as I thought about the questions.
First – and this isn’t intended saucily – one might just as well ask, “How do you adjust for your femaleness (or color, or whatever) when you read the Bible?” What this throws into relief is that there are multiple perspectives/lenses in reading the Bible. Why should we interrogate one, but not others?
Once this variety of perspectives has been identified, there are three possible approaches. One is a political approach, which seeks (or assumes) the preeminence of one lens (e.g., female, male, black, white, Latin American) over others. This is power hermeneutics; whether it proceeds from a culture of majority privilege or a culture of minority under-privilege, it is fundamentally about power; it is about imposing one lens on the interpretive community to the subjugation of others.
A second possible approach is the rationalist one, which assumes that we can (theoretically, at least) throw away all the lenses and just read the Bible “objectively.” This Cartesian notion has been shot to death so many times in the last fifty years that I won’t bother doing it again here.
But, of course, we must be careful of an opposite ditch. There is, thirdly, a relativist approach in which (contra rationalism) it is assumed that because none of us is objective, all of our readings of scripture are so biased that none of us can ever say, “Look, that’s absolutely and universally true.” In this approach, whatever objective truth may exist “out there somewhere,” we certainly have no access to it; we have only what we see through our lenses.
Two things, quickly, by way of analysis:
As some of Barth’s disciples (and others) have pointed out, each of these three approaches seems not to take adequate account of the God of the Bible in reading the Bible. God Himself speaks in scripture with divine authority, His Spirit bears witness to the Word, thus every time we come to the Bible we (and all of our lenses) come under divine judgment. The issue is not whether I can get hold of my lenses and, if necessary, throw them off; the simple fact is that God will! He is the key “player” in the hermeneutical process; and He speaks and acts as sovereign Judge. Anyone who does not come to scripture with a humble awareness that he or she is sinfully biased and that God will expose his or her biases and command repentance, is coming to scripture as its lord and judge; and the object of the interpreter’s judgment is no longer the Word of the Lord, but mere text.
Let it be said that this divine judgment on all human interpretation is decidedly applicable in the North American context. Much was made last night of how “American” our reading of the Bible ought to be. I would say that we Americans in particular should come to scripture ready to be judged: the Bible is a Middle Eastern book, the Word took flesh as a Middle Easterner, and we have no idea how much our comfortable lenses will be smashed by the thought-world in which God chose to enculturate His revelation to humankind. If the gospel was an offense to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, how will it rock the applecart of post-Enlightenment Western culture?
There is a further point I would want to make. When it comes to our biases in reading scripture, we are immeasurably helped by the fact that we are part of a holy catholic church. I was actually amazed that this never came up last evening. I am not permitted to claim a personal monopoly on biblical interpretation, nor is any local church community permitted to claim a monopoly, for the simple reason that we are all part of a worldwide interpretive community that stretches from the days of Jesus right down to the present. If my lenses are judged by the Lord in my reading of His Word, they are also judged by the readings of my brethren, even as their readings are judged by mine. Even those who preach and teach the Word profit from the Berean “judgments” of those who hear them. None of us should ever shy away from the challenge to our reading of scripture that comes from other Christian communions. This is part of the glory of being members of the Body of Christ.
“Keep we beseech thee, O Lord, thy church with thy perpetual mercy: and because the frailty of man without thee, cannot but fall: Keep us ever by thy help, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”