How to Be a Jerk for Jesus

When I was in college, I attended a two-day seminar on apologetics hosted at a church in Austin. A group of students from our campus ministry organization went up together. I can’t speak for them, but at the time I was mildly excited. I had only recently read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the first time, and was a bit of a neophyte when it came to this field of study and rhetoric. However, I found the practice of making valid arguments for faith, and rebutting arguments against it, exhilarating, and I was stoked to learn more.

And yet, what I encountered at this seminar quickly doused these kindled sparks of excitement, and for many years after soured my appreciation for modern-day Christian apologetics.

It was not that I saw through the arguments presented at this seminar (and, believe me, the amount of rhetorical ropeadopes and dialectical mic drops presented by the main speaker was staggering!). No, most of them were pretty impressive maneuvers of logic and reasoned rebuke. Commendable, even.

The problem, it turned out, did not lie with the apologetics being presented. The problem was the apologist himself.

ugly suit

No, it wasn’t because he dressed like a crazy person.

In one of his wonderful essays for Release Magazine, “Telling the Joke,” the late Rich Mullins recounts a heated exchange he once had with a friend, in which he systematically knocked down every argument against the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ only to be shocked by his friend’s response. As Rich put it:

After I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable corner and hit him with a great inarguable truth, [he] blew me away by simply saying, “I do not want to be a Christian. I don’t want your Jesus Christ.” (Release, February/March 1996)

What left me feeling rotten about the seminar I attended was the unmistakable smugness and arrogant glee in the tone of the speaker (who had been touted as a sought-after expert in the field of Christian apologetics) as he walked us through his finely tuned workbook curriculum. Chapter by chapter, we learned, as each page put it, how to prove Mormons are wrong, how to prove Islam is a lie, how to prove atheists are illogical. (There was also a chapter on the fallacies of Catholicism, which in hindsight I realize should have been more of a giveaway of the kind of person we were dealing with.) It was clear that this man loved the work he did, and that, in and of itself, was fine. Indeed, I assume the Ravi Zachariases and Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world love what they do. This man’s devotion to his field of study was not the issue. Rather, it was how much of the man’s personality, passion, and energy seemed focused on not simply contending for the validity of the Christian faith, but absolutely obliterating every opponent he could think of.

Throughout the seminar, this man related stories of past exchanges with imams, Hindu priests, New Age adherents, even Satanists, and, with each subsequent story, he seemed to relish recounting exactly how he had put each one of these pagans in their place. Rarely did he describe these exchanges in a way that highlighted kindness, or gentleness, or even patience. Only flawless precision. These stories were tales of how he outsmarted his opponents and became the undisputed victor of each argument.

What it boiled down to was this. For this alleged expert in the field of apologetics, it seemed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was valuable not because of some inward transformation, but because he had determined ways to empirically and reasonably verify it. It was powerful because it was intellectually ratified, not because it was spiritually manifest inside him. I don’t mean to insinuate the guy is not a devoted follower of Jesus. But for three hours that night (and several more the next morning) the life of faith he exhibited had little to do with the fruits of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians, and much more to do with proving himself right in the face of all other faiths. In this tried-and-true notebook, he had clearly identified the enemies of Christianity, and his focus was not on loving them.

It was on beating them.

Now, apologetics can be a useful tool for Christians, especially in our increasingly pluralistic world. These days, if you are choosing to resist the anti-social hypnotism of your smartphone and are actually looking up at people and engaging with them, you are likely to encounter people who believe all sorts of things contrary to the gospel message. You will meet people who completely dismiss Jesus as a misunderstood and vastly overrated historical figure. You will meet others who are happy that you’ve found meaning in the Christian faith, but not to assume that everyone needs that particular belief system in order to find their own existential meaning. You may even meet full-fledged nihilists who, while outright rejecting any and all religious ideas presented to them, nonetheless surprise you by how well-rounded and gracious they are.

nihilists

Probably not these guys, though.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” writes St. Peter. St. Paul echoes him in a letter to his protegé, Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

If you are meeting people and truly engaging them in conversation and relationship, there will come moments in which you have the opportunity to talk about what you believe. Maybe not breaking out your Bible and flipping to the Romans road, but at least relating the fundamental narratives about who God is and how he interacts with humanity. And, in doing so, you may also find yourself entertaining questions about, or even arguments against, your beliefs. Apologetics is a way of organizing and articulating these narratives within various forms of dialogue. It is intended as a catalyst for deeper conversation, not as a club to bust the lips of skeptics.

Yes, it feels really, really good to win an argument. There is an exceedingly pleasant rush of dopamine that comes whenever you prove yourself right about something. In a day and age in which it has become increasingly rare to convince people they might be mistaken about even the smallest of issues, to actually win an argument is an extraordinary experience. But, like Rich Mullins’s friend showed him, there is more to faith than “proving” its legitimacy. The life of faith was never meant to be lived solely within the mind.

i-am-filled-with-christs-love-saved-mandy-moore-gif

The word evangelism refers to presenting the gospel in a way that persuades a person to surrender their lives to the salvation and direction of Jesus Christ. But the term is rooted in the New Testament word euangelion, which literally means “good tidings” and was later transliterated as “gospel.” From the very beginning this euangelion was far more than an intellectual exercise – an argument about the legitimacy of faith. It alluded to something much bigger – to the life-changing, reality-altering hope that God is not vindictive but gracious, and that his love for humanity knows no bounds.

At the heart of Jewish ritual prayer is the line, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength.” The Gospel of Luke  records Jesus quoting this line in response to a question about the greatest commandment, and the language includes “and with all of your mind” (in light of how the Greeks viewed knowledge as separate from the others). The point is simple: the life of faith is marked by a submission of the entire human experience – our appetites and emotions, our personalities and passions, our abilities and resources, and, of course, our intellects and memories. Genuine faith transforms the whole person.

So, if you’re in it for the rush of victory, or if the person with whom you are arguing rejects Christianity out of spite for the way you’re defending it, then you’re misusing the tool of apologetics. You might have fashioned a handful of clever points. You may have developed a shrewd and impressive polemic. You may have carefully honed the ability to make a captivating case for the validity of the Christian faith.

But have you made faith captivating? Have you exhibited a gospel message that transforms heart and soul as well as mind?

baby

You mean I have to be compassionate, too? What a drag!

May we never be so passionate to win an argument that we forget what we’re arguing for. May we encourage twice as much as we correct and rebuke, because, for many of us, that is weakest part of our interactions with others. And may we be people who trade a desire to be seen as right for the desire to be seen as whole.

“I am a Christian,” writes Rich Mullins in that same essay, “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many “unreasonable” ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing – it is a Presence that is compelling.”

On Discipline (Lenten Reflections, Week 6)

My father is a disciplinarian. Or, at least, he was when I was under his care. Corporeal punishment was commonplace in our home growing up. Not overly so. I do not believe in any way this was abuse. On the contrary, it was well-earned punishment. If a spanking was deserved, a spanking would be given. End of story.

Growing up, when I heard the word “discipline,” I thought of pre-adolescent spankings. I thought of sitting in my room waiting for what I knew was coming. I thought of mouthing off and getting a quick, sharp swat of medicine. Discipline was something that was doled out by a disciplinarian, an authority figure.

Then I began working in churches, and pursuing a call to ministry, and soon perceived discipline in an entirely different light. First of all, I recognized that the root of the word is “disciple,” which I had always equated with a student or a learner of some kind. Next, I became acquainted with sets of practices known as “spiritual disciplines,” and absent from every single one I learned about was an objective to punish. The further I studied, and the more I sought experiences in these so-called “disciplines,” the more I realized that they had one thing in common with my childish understanding of the word. That is, discipline is intended for correction, and no one ever really explained that to me.

When I was younger, discipline meant a spanking, and spanking was punishment, and punishment was what you got when you got caught doing something wrong. Later, I learned that spiritual discipline is not about retribution. It’s about remedy. To engage in discipline is to submit oneself for correction in order to put away false narratives and destructive habits that lead to “bad behavior.” But it is also the practice of good behaviors that turn into positive habits that eventually imbed true, healthy narratives deep in our souls. Discipline is the method by which God transforms his children.

As a child and a teenager in church, I learned a lot about the Bible. There were several very good and generous people who sacrificed their personal time in order that I would learn the truth about God and his plan of redemption. But one thing I was rarely taught was how I was supposed to live based on my belief in him. What specific actions – besides the standard “you should pray and read your Bible” – would help firmly establish this truth in me? What were the corrections that needed to be made in my life, and the remedies in which I could partake so that I would not just believe in Jesus, but actually, tangibly follow him? And so, like my false understanding that spankings were just retributive punishment, my grasp of Christianity devolved into a white-knuckled resistance of as much temptation as possible. It was a hold-on-for-dear-life, try-not-to-piss-God-off kind of faith.

And it was exhausting.

Undisciplined faith is like that.

When we avoid engaging in specific spiritual disciplines like fasting, solitude, stewardship, retreat, hospitality, or simplicity, our normal excuses is that they all seem too hard. But it turns out it is a lot harder to live the undisciplined life of faith than the disciplined one. Those who truly desire intimacy with God will submit to his correction, knowing we do not serve the stereotypical God the world makes its ignorant assumptions about – the capricious disciplinarian in the clouds. Rather, we serve a God who uses discipline to repair us, renovate us – to return us to his glorious image.

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
    as a father the son he delights in.

Proverbs 3:11-12, NIV

So, may you not be afraid to take your medicine. May you submit to the discipline of our holy God, knowing he has put away your misdeeds long before you put them away yourself. May you allow his gentle and gracious Spirit to show you the well trod ways of obedience, and may you experience the same delight in him that he has in you.

On Repentance (Lenten Reflections, Week 1)

I wish that I could change things
Testify to some deliverance
Yeah, I talk-show it right into the ground
Like some salvation experience
Yeah, I wish that I could change things
Say some new words for all these feelings that I’ve felt
We all want to change things
But can you change yourself?

from “Songwriter (Numb)” by Bill Mallonee
from the album, Dear Life

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The first day of the season of Lent.

Lent is a season of the Christian Year in which followers of Jesus acknowledge their struggle against sin and selfishness, and return – as a community of believers – to God. It is a day of self-examination, and, hopefully, repentance.

But what is repentance?

For those who grew up going to church, repentance can mean several different things. Some think of it in conjunction with the often stereotyped, turn-or-burn preachers of their youth; those red-faced, index-finger-pointing persuaders presiding over heavy-hearted altar calls Sunday after Sunday.

Others think of the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophets of old, dressed in tattered robes or wrapped in sackcloth, crying out to the masses with frightening conviction, “Repent!”

Still others hear the word “repentance” and smile. We think of the moment – or, perhaps many moments – in our lives when we grasped the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and prayed to be counted among the forgiven.

Every one of these images is a picture of repentance, because to repent of something actually means “to change one’s mind.” To see reality differently.

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, only a couple sentences after Jesus of Nazareth is introduced, we read the statement, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'”

In his telling of the greatest story ever told, these are the first words Mark ascribes to Jesus.

Mark chooses to introduce his readers to Jesus by attributing an astonishing statement as the core theme of the Nazarene’s ministry. Don’t miss the seditious nature of Jesus’ words. He is proclaiming the euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) of God to a people who had lived for centuries hearing only the decreed gospels of worldly authorities – Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, Caesar Augustus, Herod Antipas, and so on. An euangelion, which comes from a Greek word meaning “message,” was almost exclusively a political edict or proclamation, describing the “glad tidings” that would come to all those who accepted and supported the ruler’s rule. It was the inevitable legislation that proceeded from the will of an ascended governor, king, or emperor. And whether or not it was actually something to celebrate, it was nonetheless proclaimed as such.

So it is that Jesus, a poor tradesman from a minuscule village in the hill country of Palestine, proclaims his own euangelion. Only, this gospel is not of a military conqueror or a political premier. It is the gospel of God himself! And if that weren’t enough to saddle the upstart prophet with accusations of insurrection, Jesus insists that God’s Kingdom – as opposed to the kingdom of Rome – has drawn near. Essentially, what he describes is as much a geopolitical invasion as it is a spiritual reality. Another mightier Kingdom has begun its annexation of Caesar’s empire.

Simply put, when Jesus says, “Repent,” he is exhorting his hearers to make a choice of allegiance. Either continue living in the reality you’ve known – one in which your entire culture and nationality has been swallowed up by a seemingly overwhelming, irrepressible worldly power – or choose to look at your reality differently. Transcendently.

Repentance is not simply a time of confession. As a matter of fact, repentance is what leads to confession. This is because repentance is what happens when we choose to see our lives differently. When we change our minds about the very laws of reality. We accept that there is another world – another truth – that runs contrary to the one we have lived in for so long, and we make a choice to put aside the old beliefs and obsolete habits in order to now live according to that world and its truth.

For 1500 years, the Church has recognized that Christians of all shapes and sizes can benefit from a day set aside for this kind of reflection and repentance. A day to refocus our sights on a heavenly kingdom instead of lesser, worldly ones. A day to change our minds, and to confess the many, many times we have failed to live according to this new reality, this Kingdom of God, this euangelion that Jesus proclaimed. We call that day Ash Wednesday.

The ashes symbolize the helplessness of humanity. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But – and don’t miss this! – we receive the mark of ashes in the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ, which accomplished reconciliation between God and humanity. So, while we are but dust, the salvation we receive in Jesus makes us more than dust. More than the sum of our parts. Citizens of a new Kingdom.

Next week, I’ll write a bit about the process that comes after repentance – this putting away of old habits in exchange for the practices that align with God’s Kingdom, our glorious, new reality.

In the meantime, may you not be hypnotized by the worldly realities that so often envelope us. May you not imbibe the lies masquerading as truth, which are heaped upon us day after day by politicians and presidents, newspapers and news pundits. Instead, may you remember there is a greater truth – an absolute Truth – running counter to this world. It is invisible to the masses, but to those who search for it, it becomes as clear as day. May you open your eyes to look for it and perceive it. And when you catch sight of it, may you forever change your mind.

Slave

It must have been incredibly shocking.

I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.

When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.

John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.

“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.

“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.

You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”

And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.

James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”

Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.

Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”

They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.

So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.

Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.

Letting the Son of Man serve them.

 

Irregular Christianity

SCOTUSmarriage

Today was one of those days I am reminded how difficult it can be to live as a Christian in the United States of America.

I am not referring to any type of persecution, nor to defamation of character. Those Christians who claim to be under some kind of deliberate attack when social constructs or political entities don’t abide by their interests are woefully off base. American Christians know very little of religious persecution. For insight into what it really feels like, we might consider talking with the folks who worship at the mosque down the street.

At the same time, when I claim being a Christian in America is difficult, neither am I referring to the despondency many of my brothers and sisters have no doubt experienced since news of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality broke. Despite what some may claim – and what will almost certainly be part of the talking points of many a Sunday School class this weekend – rulings such as this one are not the savage blows to our faith we fear them to be. The Church has existed – it has even thrived – in societies with all sorts of political, cultural, and moral norms that contrasted with orthodox teaching. Not only so, but in these societies Christians strove to live ordered, submissive, gracious lives within “the state,” even as they maintained devotion to the God they believed reigned far above it all (see 1 Peter 2). Sure, at times the state has viewed the Church as obstinate, but mostly in regard to the latter’s refusal to bow to idols, not a spurning of compassion for her fellow man.

So, what is it that makes being a Christian in America difficult? If days like today have not made me afraid or driven me to despair, what struggle do I face?

It is living with and within the tension that exists between so-called progressive ideologies and the presumed hallowedness of ancient, biblical tradition. It is coping with the desire to live as a faithful citizen of the country while remaining a person of religious conviction and depth. It is constantly evaluating how to embrace the celebrated little freedoms of the City of Man while clinging to the grand Freedom of the City of God. It is forever asking the question, “How much of this can I support… how much of that should I ignore… how much is too much?” As a friend and I were recently discussing, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking a tightrope, desperately trying to keep your balance amidst cries to declare allegiance to this theological viewpoint or that political cause.

An honest example: the more I reflected on today’s Supreme Court ruling, the less anxious I felt about the whole thing. I could not help but think that – after reading statements from both sides of the decision – perhaps this was the good thing so many people were hailing it as. Had I become a supporter of the ruling, rather than a dissenter? If so, did that mean I’d lost sight of my religious conviction? All I know is, whatever disagreements I may have with the core practice at the heart of the issue, I also believe strongly in justice, especially when it sides with compassion. I can only imagine the anguish that would come from having basic rights withheld from me – rights that, in reality, I have almost always taken for granted – simply because my lifestyle was viewed as depraved or, at best, sub-standard. And given that it is not the Church but rather the state that affords such rights, I have found it difficult to balk at the crescendo of voices calling for marriage equality in America. To me, it seems justified. And today my appreciation of such fairness held firm, despite those who claimed the definition of marriage (which, confusingly enough, so many people seem to have different source arguments for) had been defaced.

Of course I understand the “can of worms” concern – that this only creates stickier situations for the Church – but part of walking this tightrope of faith is being very, very careful to not give in to one’s emotions. How much of a reaction is too much? To give in to anxiety (“If they legalize this, what’s next?”) would be to step out of the Spirit’s provision of peace and faithfulness and instead plummet into the turmoil of stress and worry. To react in anger (“This country’s headed to hell in a hand basket!”) would be to squelch the fruits of joy and patience from my life, a costly abandonment. And to fall victim to fear (“This is going to ruin everything!”) would mean to lay aside love and self-control. If I’m not careful, in my effort to contend for my Christian faith, I could end up losing the very essence of it.

“We don’t get to be Jesus in the story,” tweeted my friend, Mark. “When it comes to morality we have two choices: deal with our own sin or drop our rocks and walk away.” Such is the tension I am laboring to describe. How much of the desire to resist the movements of our society is the inclination not of the Spirit who indwells our hearts, but the selfish old man who was evicted when salvation came? So often I find myself wondering if we Christians are just as guilty of the culture-defining adage, “Do what you think is right,” as everyone else.

It is irregular Christianity, this faith I live. It is not the bigoted Christianity of the skeptics, nor the uninvestigated Christianity of the folk believers. It is bigger than me, reaching to heights and depths far greater than I have the capacity to explain. It is like reading Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – there is more here than I will ever comprehend, so I must appreciate it for all that I will never understand as much as the little that I do. And within this glorious, vast orbit of faith, hope and love, there stretches on into the darkness of future time a tightrope. It is thin, straight and taut. I walk it slowly, carefully, with as much ease as I can manage. After all, one cannot successfully walk a tightrope under strain or with knotted nerves. I must remain calm. I must breathe steadily. My eyes must be clear and watchful.

And now that I think of it, it wouldn’t kill me to smile.

Is Your Quiet Time Turning You into a Pharisee?

This is the third post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click here and here to read the first two installments.

Have you ever prayed to become a better Christian?

ManPraying

“Shh! If you say it out loud, it won’t come true.”

Well, stop it.

There’s no such thing.

Some believers are under the impression that a relationship with Jesus is meant to be an ever-increasing advancement – that the Christian life contains higher levels of capability and competence, like promotions within a corporation, and if we would just show up early, put in the work, and leave late, eventually we will climb the spiritual ladder. The worst part of this misconception is that a lot of new believers think that Christians who have attained these alleged higher levels don’t have to deal with the temptations and struggles that rage down in the mailrooms and custodial closets of faith. Up in the corner offices of Christianity are those who sit above all that stuff.

Sometimes we have to deal with this guy, though.

Though sometimes we have to deal with these weirdos.

While it is certainly true that we are meant to mature in our faith – to grow more trusting and find deeper reservoirs of strength – a relationship with Jesus is not about promotion. There is no such thing as “a better Christian.”

There are days when you may feel like you’re sitting high in that corner office of unchallenged commitment, but watch out, because before you know it, you may find yourself back down in the basement aimlessly sorting mail.

The misconception in Christianity that we can attain higher levels of faith is born out of a fear of failure. We don’t like to back-slide, to spurn our commitments and indulge in selfishness. So, we convince ourselves that there is some Rubicon within the Christian life – a point of no return that, if we can live obediently enough to reach it and cross it, we will never have to return to the laborious, unpredictable days of unripe belief.

"Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it." - the Metaphor Police

“Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it.” – the Metaphor Police

Of course, this belief drags several problems along with it. The first is that we can end up lying to ourselves about our spiritual health. If I believe in higher levels of the Christian life where fledgling struggles and beginner’s temptations no longer affect me, when those trials inevitably rear their heads, I may feel I need to pretend I’m not influenced by them. And, if I don’t end up lying to myself, then another problem I may encounter is self-devaluation. I will take my inevitable missteps and failures as proof that I’m incapable of attaining the higher levels, and will begin to hate myself (rather than hating only my sinful nature). Christians who continually deprecate themselves in their prayers and testimonies will find it very hard to accept the unconditional love of God.

But sometimes the biggest problem for people who believe faith is like a corporate ladder is that they can develop a sense of entitlement. If I am disciplined and obedient (to whatever predetermined extent), I deserve ______ from God. Some will fill that blank with recognition. Others, with particular blessings. Whatever it is, they unwittingly make God’s provision obligatory.

Several years ago, I found myself caught up in the throes of this third problem. So certain was I in the foolproof formula of a traditional quiet time that I truly believed my keeping it would rocket me upward into the stratospheres and ionospheres of faith. Maybe not right away – rocket boosters have to burn for a few moments before you see movement – but once I got going, “Houston, we have liftoff.”

"Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!"

“Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!”

But that feeling of incompetence continued, and after weeks and even months of seeing little difference in my attitudes and actions, I began to get angry. Angry at myself, but also angry at God. Couldn’t he see that I was trying? Didn’t he realize I was attempting to discipline myself? Why was he still standing far off? I was the lost son returning home – why wasn’t he running out to embrace me? Where was the party? Where was the fatted calf?

The only thing I knew to do, and was counseled to do by various church leaders, was to keep at it. God would show up, eventually. Read those Psalms, they told me; those folks had to wait on God, too, and they kept right on praying and praising.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

And so, for years, I believed that strict adherence to a specific quiet time method would eventually result in some kind of breakthrough. I would wake up one day and my prayers would flow like a mountain river, the words of 1st Chronicles would suddenly become life-giving, and every sentence I wrote in my journal would be more profound than the last. Life itself would reverberate with meaning. Things would finally be easier. I would have reached that corner office, and all my present struggles and feelings of discontent would seem so small, so very, very far away. But that breakthrough never came.

Why?

Because my daily quiet time had morphed into devotion to a system rather than devotion to a Savior.

Without meaning to, I had become a Pharisee.

I really should grow a beard.

I really should grow a beard.

The if-you-will-do-this-then-God-will-do-that system of thought comes up time and again in Scripture, and time and again people get it wrong – the most famous example being the Pharisees of first-century Judaism. These people were the most influential sect of teachers, scribes and lawyers, and the ones who seemed to clash most often with Jesus. We often criticize the Pharisees for being legalistic and close-minded, and yet they appear to be the closest comparison to Christians in America today. In reality, among the people of the first-century, Pharisees were the most faithful students of the Scriptures. They were devoted to prayer and theological reflection, and they were adamant about the importance of an obedient lifestyle. Some of the most famous and gifted rabbis ever to arise in early Judaism were Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed strongly in the if/then promises of the Torah, and were careful to faithfully keep the “ifs” so that God might follow through with the “thens.” Several times, Jesus pointed out the main problem with this. The Pharisees had lost sight of the goodness of God, particularly the fact that he was even willing to offer promises to human beings at all. In so doing, Jesus informed them that they had fallen out of a real relationship with the God they so desired to please.

The irony was that the Scriptures – which they knew better than anyone due to such rigid devotional methods – are replete with reminders that what God is after is not a process, but a posture. In Psalm 51, David prays, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Long before Jesus came on the scene, the prophet Hosea bore witness to a sacrificial/devotional system that had lost all meaning, stating the people’s worship was “like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears,” to which God responds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In Matthew 9, Jesus tells the Pharisees they ought to take another look at Hosea, because no matter how ironclad the process might be, transformation is impossible without the right posture.

"Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?"

“Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?”

The Pharisees believed that God owed them something – that their status as God’s chosen people was not only based in history, but also sustained by their faithful keeping of the Torah. They believed their rigid loyalty to the Law of Moses had caused them to attain the higher levels. And so, they lived as if they resided in those corner offices of the faith. Jesus was disgusted with this sense of entitlement, as well as the fact that the Pharisees so often made life difficult for the mailroom clerks and custodians just trying to make ends meet spiritually. Those who had seemingly mastered obedience made no effort to help others with it.

There is no such thing as becoming “a better Christian.” And when it comes to quiet times, the most dangerous thing you can do is become a slave to a formula, believing dogged tenacity will accomplish the kind of spiritual growth you’re hoping for.

I will continue this series next week with an argument for why the traditional formula itself is faulty. However, may we be mindful of our motivations when we seek communion with God. In the same spirit as the Teacher’s advice regarding worship in Ecclesiastes 5, may we “draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

Is There Something Wrong with Your Quiet Time?

In a post dated August 5th, I promised to expound on the misconceptions of “quiet times.” This follow-up grew so lengthy that I feared it would put off even the most dogged of blog readers. I decided to break it down into five smaller posts, each detailing a major problem with keeping a traditional, daily quiet time. Here is the first installment of this series. 

young man reading small bible

A daily “quiet time” isn’t biblical.

Please don’t get me wrong – spending time with God is totally biblical. The Bible is filled to the brim with examples of people who intentionally spent time in prayer and individual worship, not to mention reflection influenced by the scriptures. However, at no point in the Old or New Testaments is there a clearly described plan for what we in the Church today refer to as a “daily devotion” or “quiet time.”

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

Now, when I refer to keeping a personal Bible study and prayer time, I am referring to a genuine desire to spend time with the Creator and invite his Spirit to transform your life, bit by bit, inch by inch. If, however, you are the kind of person who keeps a quiet time out of obligation and cold compliance, it is safe to say you’ve already got the whole endeavor backwards. (More on that in a later post…)

So, how dare I insinuate that a daily quiet time isn’t biblical?

It’s not to argue against the value of a quiet time, but rather to dispel the myth that keeping one is an explicit command found in Scripture.

"Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers's MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior..."

“Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers’s MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior…”

First of all, let’s look at the individual parts of a standard quiet time. (I am going off of the allegedly tried-and-true formula passed down to me by many a Sunday School teacher and youth camp leader when I was growing up).

  • Bible study – Let’s ignore the fact that the closest thing ancient and first-century Jews had to devotional books was Rabbinic midrash; it would have been nearly impossible for common folk living in either testament’s time to engage in personal Bible study as we know it today. While we have evidence that portions of the Oral Tradition was written down as early as the second millennia B.C., it wasn’t like these writings were available to common folk. Thus, the Jewish people are reminded many times in the Pentateuch that Scripture (specifically the words and acts of God to his people) was not something to be studied over time, but intrinsically remembered. Which brings us to the second component…
  • Scripture memorization – This discipline was actually quite prolific. As Judaism developed its educational system, the core curriculum was the memorization of the Torah, and for those who progressed into higher levels of training, it expanded to rote learning of the entire Hebrew Bible. This is one of many aspects of Jesus that is so fascinating. While he showed a phenomenal, interpretative grasp of the scriptures and taught with a level of authority that suggested deep advancement within rabbinical training, he is also derided as a country bumpkin and the son of a blue-collar worker. Given the importance of scripture memorization to the general public back then, my own struggle to commit to memory two measly verses from Ephesians seems pathetic by comparison.
Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

  • Prayer – The question isn’t whether the people of the Bible prayed, but how many of them compartmentalized their prayer lives into one specific time of day. Not many. For one thing, it was Jewish custom to pray at multiple times during the day, publicly or privately as circumstances dictated. Secondly, we are reminded several times by NT writers that one’s prayer life should be unceasing – that we pray continually throughout the day, rather than in one pre-determined time. This wasn’t a radical new teaching, but simply a return to the kind of faithfulness implied in the Law, the goal of which was deep communion with God.
  • Journaling – Most of us are aware that very, very few biblical heroes had access to writing materials with which they might accomplish this part. A chisel and stone, maybe, but papyrus was pretty hard to come by. Sure, the Jews had been writing things down for centuries, and Peter, Paul and the apostles were able to write letters. But always having a Mead notebook at the ready has been a luxury reserved only for the last century’s worth of Christians. Perhaps this is why Jesus wrote in the dirt – it was readily available.
Rich boy.

Rich boy.

To sum things up, what we find in the Bible is that the children of Israel – and, later, early Christians – are commanded to remember the laws and stories, and to pass them on to future generations. Scripture, therefore, was not just a self-improvement tool, but a living, definitive history that enveloped the nation. Even before it was written down for a select few to access, there was a deeply communal aspect to the receiving of Scripture. This is something I never considered when I used to sit alone in my room trying to come up with modern-day applications from 2nd Chronicles.

So, how does this reality shed light on why and how we engage in a quiet time? Simply that what Scripture encourages is a regularity and an intentionality to a person’s Bible study and prayers. It does not insist on a set pattern. Sure, the ancient Israelites had a very strict set of regulations for temple sacrifice and worship, but those constraints didn’t carry over to the disciplines of prayer and reflection. These balls were left in the court of the worshipper, to not neglect but go about in a humble, authentic manner. This is why we can read the Psalms today and recognize a great variety of expressions to and about God. Because no one was requiring one particular method of devotional articulation.

"You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?"

“You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?”

If you feel your quiet time has lost genuineness – if it has become more about doing something for God rather than being with God – I encourage you to take a lesson from the very scriptures through which you’ve been slogging. When it comes to righteousness, what counts “is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.

Having opened this series with what quiet times shouldn’t look like, in my next post I will do my best to consider how they should look. There’s certainly more that needs saying. However, may these words from Frederick Buechner be a point of reflection in the meantime:

Be importunate, Jesus says – not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door… because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.