Worldly Discipline and Dark Fire

I see, and smell, that even under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few sound old vintage Pharisee. Well, well, well. This is like old times. Hold it beneath your nostrils for a moment, gentledevils. Hold it up to the light. Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending. As so they are. You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands… How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire.

– C.S. Lewis, from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Over the past couple of months, my church endeavored to make several weighty decisions pertaining to the congregation’s bylaws and its budget. Now, being good, historical Baptists, in order to make these decisions we were obligated to provide opportunities for open discussion prior to conducting a church-wide vote. This is something I appreciate about the Baptist commitment to local church autonomy; it is up to our own congregation, and ours alone, to determine its way in the world. We commit to civil, democratic discussion before gathering together to cast our vote.

But that doesn’t mean those decisions always come easy.

During the weeks in which these issues were discussed, I engaged in a number of pleasant and eye-opening conversations with my fellow church members who voiced passionate concerns regarding the various sides and stances orbiting these decisions. These conversations were insightful and sharp-witted. We learned from one another, and were better for it. However, I also experienced what seemed an unusually high number of angry or bitter exchanges. So many, in fact, that at first I figured some of the changes being proposed must have unexpectedly touched on an emotional nerve much more raw than usual.

And yet, the more I listened to the people who were upset, and the more I listened to the people who were upset that those people were upset, the more I realized that the issues being discussed were not overly sensitive or precarious. No, the raw emotion was not a new occurrence in the lives of our congregants at all. I realized that even before these issues were presented or discussed, we had already been living on a razor’s edge. We had been carrying around anger, distrust, and suspicion everywhere we went, and – at least subconsciously – had been looking for an opportunity to act on these qualities.

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I can’t carry all this stuff forever!

The anger and bitterness that bubbled over in these conversations and group discussions was startling considering just how mild the level of disagreement amounted to regarding some of the issues in question. But rather that handling our differences of opinion with patience, kindness, and an enduring sense of trust in everyone’s better angels, many of us lashed out as if personally attacked. We accused those on the other side of ulterior motives and intentions, or we labeled those who did not see it our way as ignorant, no matter how genuine and well-reasoned their alternative viewpoint might be. We drew clear battle lines despite the fact that no one had declared war.

The Superhumanity of Christians

Certainly, there are times in church life when difficult decisions must be made, when differences of opinion can erupt into actual conflict and ill feelings. This is a natural byproduct of life together – even in the context of a community built on the hope of God’s kingdom. But I do not think it is out of line to state these times of contention should be very few and far between. Otherwise, what is the difference between a congregation of Christians and a PTA, or an HOA, or a country club, or the U.S. House of Representatives? When conflict, suspicion, and side-taking abound, what is the difference between the church and the world in which it operates?

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PICTURED: An artist’s depiction of last week’s Senate hearings.

Christians are human beings. We function according to the same conglomeration of emotions and survival instincts. We get angry. We feel offended, or betrayed. We react emotionally. We know full well the self-preserving convenience of lies and duplicity. And we get the same dopamine rush from building up our “side” of an issue while degrading the other. These are deeply rooted aspects of the human experience that are extremely difficult to resist or control.

But, in another manner of speaking, Christians are also more than human beings. We believe that we have been transformed inwardly, and that we now live unto a different standard of being.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, NRSV)

As such, the usual suspects of our emotions are no longer given free reign. We do not accept their unparalleled influence in our thoughts, words, and actions. If we did, then the transformation we claim has taken place in our life comes across as nothing more than wishful thinking (or pathetic delusion). “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free,” the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia. “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13, NIV).

Serve one another. An action that, time and again, is revealed as the exact opposite of the prevailing sentiment in our world. Look no further than the current political sphere and its glut of grandstanding, hyper-partisanship, and army of news pundits wagging fingers and prognosticating the depravity of the other side. There is very little interest in serving one another, or serving with one another. There is only jaw-clenching hostility and resentment.

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There are three more pointing back at you, bud.

And if you are watching and reading about all this and you don’t realize how deeply it is affecting you – that it is writing its own set of negative character qualities upon your own spirit – it is time to wake up and smell the bitterness.

Christians are called to transcend the pettiness of human conflict. Not that we never experience conflict, but rather that we approach each case of it with patience, wisdom, and a tenacious commitment to peace in the midst of contention.

And yet, looking around today, or scrolling for a mere sixty seconds on my Facebook feed, all I see is misdirected anger, mounting distrust, hand-wringing despair, and vitriolic insinuations about “the other side.” I read the status updates of friends who bless the Name of Jesus and petulantly belittle every Democrat in the same breath. Then I read linked articles from others who liken any and all Republicans to human garbage. It’s almost as if we think that, since the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the concept of social media, Christians get a pass in that area.

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Oh yeah! Wait ’til I get on Twitter, bro. I’m gonna @ you so hard!

In reality, though, rather than embracing the way of Christ’s Spirit, and engaging the disciplines of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, far more often we immerse ourselves in the worldly disciplines of anger, distrust, cynicism, despair, suspicion, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and favoritism. Not intentionally, of course. No one chases after these things overtly. But our world is good at serving us regular helpings of each through cable news talk shows, unbalanced op-eds, small-minded social media posts, and exceedingly unpresidential tweets.

A Higher Standard

At first I was surprised by the amount of bitterness and contentiousness I encountered in many of my conversations with church members about the upcoming church vote. But then, in my own life, I recognized how quickly I have jumped to suspicion, how naturally distrust and cynicism crops up in my decision-making. And I realized that while I may spend thirty minutes or even an hour a day in prayer, spiritual reflection, and reading Scripture, I usually spend three times that amount bathing in the collective acrimony of the moment. I’ve become much more adept at defending my opinion about the Russia probe, the Kavanaugh hearings, or the midterm elections than I have at anything related to God’s kingdom. More often than not, the badge of citizenship I wear on my shoulder is of the City of Man, not the Kingdom of God.

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My name is King of kings and Lord of lords, and I alone approve this message.

It is one thing to hold an opinion, and to voice that opinion. It is one thing to disagree with a position or a proposal, and to make your disagreement known. But no matter how wrong or misguided you perceive the other side to be, as a Christian you are called to a higher standard – a much higher standard – of engagement with the conflicts and enmity of the day.

The eyes by which you view an issue are not your own. The mind with which you discern that viewpoint is not your own. The lips by which you speak your position are not your own. And the life that is shaped by these views you attest is not your own. You surrendered ownership to Jesus a long time ago.

Are you really sure you have a better idea than he how to think, speak, and act in this contentious, hurting world? Do you really possess the capacity to perceive how the ripples from the stones you’ve cast into society’s pond have affected the people in your own congregation? Because you don’t. You said so yourself when you tearfully confessed your selfishness, brokenness, and shame to the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Don’t worry, though. He wasn’t shocked. You weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.

The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

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The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

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If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

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And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

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And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.

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.