In faithfully obeying the will of His Father and loving His neighbor with self-giving love, Jesus not only showed the goodness of cultural activity and artifacts (e.g., the woodshop of Nazareth), He also subverted the evil that animates human culture, transforming the ultimate instrument of violence and brutality (the cross) into the ultimate icon of peace.
Archive for November 2012
We must not . . . confuse the problem of toleration with [the] solution of the question of truth. Tolerance is a humane attitude, which respects the personality of the other, but it has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the “other’s” opinions and ideas. In this sense the genuine Christian missionary in particular will be “tolerant,” yet at the same time he may not believe that there is any truth in the religion of those among whom he lives; he desires that the “heathen” whom he is trying to convert shall be treated with all respect, even in their unconverted state, and he will not try to force the true religion upon them. This tolerance is often sadly lacking in the very persons who profess a relative attitude toward the question of truth and revelation; on the other hand, genuine “tolerance” is often practiced by those who are opposed to all “relative” views of Christianity. (Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Faith and Knowledge, p. 219)
Since I think a case can be made that cessation of conflict is central to the mission of God and His people in the world, I’m fascinated by conflict resolution. Maybe this is a throwback to my legal days; certainly it has a lot to do with my current work as a pastor. Anyway, with many others I have observed that almost all conflicts happen because of disappointment, of frustrated expectations. Party A didn’t measure up to Party B’s standards, and Party B is upset. In short, conflicts happen because someone thinks someone else isn’t doing enough.
Not long ago I was on the receiving end of criticism from a person who thought I wasn’t doing enough, and it got me thinking again about the problem of falling short of another person’s standards. There’s something peculiar about this accusation: “You’re not doing enough. There’s so much more you should be doing. How could you not have done this, that, or the other thing?”
In the first place, the power someone can wield through this accusation is mind-blowing, for the simple reason that it’s always true and, in that sense, always unanswerable. When is it not the case that one might have done more, done other, and/or done better? There’s not a moment in my life when someone couldn’t look over my shoulder and say there’s more I could and should be doing. Could I love God more? Of course! Should I love Him more? Definitely. How about my neighbors – could I love them more, and should I? Without question. There’s not a person in my life I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) love more. So the accusation “You’re not doing enough” is cheap; it packs more wallop than it ought, because while true, it merely states what is and will always be the case – which means it doesn’t really say anything. It’s like a petulant child saying to a sibling, “You keep breathing. It bothers me.” Well, duh. The issue is not whether the accused should be doing more, but whether the accuser has a right to expect more. So why does the accusation so often have such bullying power? This brings us to a further consideration.
There are always reasons why someone isn’t doing more. Finitude, for one. There may be less excusable reasons. But the accusation “You’re not doing enough” doesn’t require the accuser to care about these reasons in the slightest. He or she can simply fire off the accusation, it will sting every time because the accused knows it contains an element of truth, and then the accuser can buzz on without bearing the slightest burden to think about (or mention to anyone else, in cases of public accusation) why the accused has not done more. It’s a win-win for the accuser: all the force of an argument without any need to examine the evidence.
The simple fact is: one can’t do everything. So, while there are many things one can (and should) be doing, one must be selective, and selectivity (as anyone knows who’s ever tried to practice it) takes a ton of wisdom. There will always be good things – really compelling things – that must be left undone. And at day’s end, this isn’t wrong, it doesn’t mean one is failing culpably; so perhaps we need to revisit the language of “should” or “ought.” Is it really the case that because there are people starving in the world, I ought to drop out of school or quit my job and go feed them? Is it really the case that because I have friends who are lonely, I should be out multiple evenings a week offering them society? Is it really the case that because my spouse has told me it means the world when I respond in certain ways, I’m duty bound to respond in those ways every single time an opportunity presents? Certainly not – though these are very good things to do, and in some qualified sense I “ought” to do them (there are always more horizons of love before me).
Thinking about all of this led me to something else, and it hit me hard. Perhaps we shouldn’t feel too badly when we hear we’re “not doing enough.” Yes, we ought to take the criticism seriously and learn from it what we can. But there’s Someone Else who suffers the same criticism all the time, and He doesn’t even have the excuse of finitude! God is a disappointment to everyone who has ever worshiped Him (except Jesus); no human has ever been grumbled against as much as God. And He’s perfect! “Did He bring us out into this wilderness to kill us?” “Why is He healing on the Sabbath?” “Why couldn’t He have let me be healthy on a day when I have so much work to do?” It makes you think, again, that the problem is not with the accused, but with the accuser. I’m frustrated: God ought to be doing more for me. Really?
Let me offer an encouraging word to you if people don’t understand (or want to understand) why you’re not doing more, and if you’re in the teeth of their grumbling and criticism. Your critics are not your judge, God is, and He sympathizes as no one else can with the pain of being snarled at by disaffected people who’re supposed to be on your side. He has suffered long over millennia with a grumbling, demanding, critical people. Yet being reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not. Don’t try to answer your accusers (unless they’re the sort of friends with whom you can speak constructively about these things and learn together); commit yourself and your works to Him who judges righteously – who takes account of your deepest desires and motives, your finitude and frailty, your many competing callings and duties. He will receive the work of your hands with grace; He has made it all acceptable through the imputed righteousness of One who did all that He requires, whatever the human critics of that One may have thought. If the conflict with your accusers doesn’t cease, at least the conflict in your own heart will; and that is a peace not to be taken lightly.
The more man lives in his artificial man-made reality amongst man’s structures and machinery, the more strongly he receives the impression that he is the creator of his own existence. . . . This does not mean that technics or productivity inevitably estrange man from God. Even the most creative mind, and even the man who has to live entirely among machinery and within a man-made surrounding, can remain God-conscious and can do whatever he does for the glory of God. Human creativity and the man-made reality is not the reason or cause, but it is the great temptation to Godlessness. The more creative man is, the more he is tempted to confound himself with the Creator. The danger is the titanism of the creative man who, inebriated by his feeling of creativity and in a kind of mystic ecstasy, thinks himself to be God. It is that old phenomenon of [hubris], of man’s forgetting his limits, which brings him to ruin. (Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation: Foundations, pp. 151–52)
Remarkably, this is from a lecture delivered in 1947!
In the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, “reasonableness” denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth – a willingness based on the judgment that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true. (Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, p. 15)
Vocational holiness . . . means self-knowledge: to be holy is to know oneself and to accept oneself. In the language of Teresa of Avila (and Catherine of Siena), this is humility. Such holiness and humility will be at least partly evident in knowledge of one’s calling, having clarity about what one is called to do. We know who we are and choose to live not by pretense or by wishing we were someone else but in humility. We know ourselves and accept who God has made us to be and what it is that God, who alone is the potter, has called us to do. We turn from envy and wishing we were someone else with their gifts and opportunities. Hence, vocational holiness is not about doing everything or even trying to do all we can do; we leave it to Christ to be the “Messiah,” and we graciously recognize and accept our part in the kingdom work of Christ. It is about doing that and only that to which we are called. It is the grace of living in a way that is faithful to the reign of Christ and consistent with the truth of our own identity; this is humility, living without pretense. It is about living faithfully in space and time without anxiety and with no need to run about frenetically. (Gordon Smith, Transforming Conversion, p. 101)
Last week, Brad Littlejohn and I exchanged briefly on the subject of voting for a pro-abortion candidate (see the comments following his post-election essay). Today he posted a much fuller response to my question. My thanks to him for considering it so extensively, and for his efforts to promote greater understanding among Christians who are seeking to be faithful in their political engagements.
The antiphony of gloating and wailing since Tuesday’s presidential election has been almost as wearisome as the months of inane clamor that led up to it. I have, however, been grateful for a few pieces of truly profound and enriching analysis. Here are four that I commend to you:
1. From Toby Sumpter
2. From Brad Littlejohn
3. From Peter Leithart
4. From Alastair Roberts
So how do you know if you’re succeeding as a Christian parent? My first decade of parenting has been a whirlwind, I can hardly believe my eldest will be in double digits next year, and now and then I get my head above water and wonder how I’m doing as a dad. Here are three things I look for that help keep me oriented:
1. Do our children know the Word, works, and ways of our God? Do they understand the “what” of our faith and practice?
2. Do our children love our life with our God? Has our way of life with Him and for Him been explained to them so it makes sense and is desirable to them? Do they understand the “why” of our faith and practice?
3. Do our children advocate the things of God that they know and love? In verbal and non-verbal ways, do they testify of the goodness of the Lord?
I actually think there’s a progression here. In the early years, my wife and I have been occupied mostly with teaching our children the “what” of God and the gospel (not just in words – reading, explaining, praying, catechizing, etc. – but also in the rituals and “atmosphere” of our home and community life). The fruit of instruction, enactment, and sometimes discipline has been that our children have developed a great taste for worshipful living. In time, as they continue to mature, they’ll be able more articulately to testify of the goodness of their God. Even now, it’s amazing to listen to them witness to their friends.
Nothing profound here, just a few things that help me keep my eye on the ball.
There is no wisdom (and thus no holiness) without education; indeed, this is precisely what education is. Education is spiritual formation precisely because it is formation in wisdom. One of the urgent needs of our day is to recover an appreciation of the power of education and learning for the Christian life. Education is an inherently deeply Christian act, and few things are so empowering to life as learning; the church by its nature is a teaching-learning community. Learning opens the mind, frees the heart, encourages the disheartened. We are animated (ensouled) by learning. Though education surely includes classrooms and libraries, the wise are deeply attuned to the rhythms of God’s creation: they understand, from the inside out, what it means to see and live in the truth (thus work in the library is complemented by work in the garden). (Gordon T. Smith, Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, p. 98)