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.

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 Purgation (Lenten Reflections, Week 3)

In last week’s post, I compared repentance and the process of transformation that follows to the demolition and renovation of a house. I told you that spiritual maturity doesn’t come all at once, and that there is much work for us to do in order to experience the qualities of transformation.

So, exactly what kind of work am I talking about?

Early in the fourth century C.E., a Roman general named Constantine won a series of decisive battles against his political opponents, and for whatever reason, he felt that the God of the Christians somehow had a hand in this success. In his ascension to the throne, Constantine legalized and rapidly legitimized Christianity throughout the empire. And even if he didn’t end up professing the faith until he was on his death-bed, this was nothing short of a watershed moment not just for the Christian faith, but for religious history in general. Suddenly, it was perfectly legal to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world. It was completely above-board to gather regularly in order to praise “the one true God.” From that moment on, being a Christian wasn’t just harmless – it was the gold standard of Roman citizenship.

In response to this whiplash-like shift in Christianity’s relationship with culture, devoted followers of the Risen One realized that what once had been the ideal expression of faithfulness was no longer possible. Before Constantine, Christians who lived out their love for Jesus without compromise were often martyred – burned alive on stakes or pyres, tortured before gathered crowds, and, of course, crucified. And yet, as horrific an event as martyrdom was, the persecuted Church came to see it as the ultimate act of fidelity to God. Now, however, with the complete decriminalization of the Christian faith, martyrdom was off the table as a means of expressing one’s matchless devotion to God.

In response to “imperial Christianity,” many Christians who found this new, cultural faith suspect chose a new ideal expression of faithfulness. They withdrew from society and all of its creature comforts. They exiled themselves to remote deserts and harsh wilderness environments where culture could not tempt and taint them. And they began teaching a new method of spiritual practice – the way of asceticism. Granted, ascetics were nothing new, but joining fierce simplicity and the pursuit of suffering with Christian devotion had never been the norm. However, these “Desert Fathers” insisted not only on the need to remove oneself from the worldly trappings of civilization, but also to purge the carnal accumulations that affix themselves to our souls.

They spoke of something known as katharsis, the willingness to search our souls and identify the selfishness and weaknesses bedded down in the dark, hidden places within us. In order to rid ourselves of the earthly debris and spiritual rot pervading our inner beings, we must first recognize the extent of it. The standard practices of the ascetics – silence, solitude, fasting, even flagellation – puts the believer in a position for this deep “soul-searching,” and leads them to cry out for God’s divine, inside-out renovation.

As a pastor, while I don’t advocate full-blown asceticism, I do recommend believers learn about and attempt most of the ascetic practices (self-flagellation not being one of them). These ancient spiritual disciplines are incredibly powerful experiences, and accomplish much more than katharsis. However, the process of purgation is certainly one of their primary benefits.

Jesus himself seemed to support the concept of katharsis. A large portion of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” focuses on the inner catalysts for sinful behaviors. Consider the following statements from Matthew 5:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (27-28)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (38-39)

The worst thing we can do in our interpretations of Jesus’ sermon is to chalk these statements up to hyperbole. While the Savior does indeed make use of exaggeration in his rhetoric, none of the above statements are wholly hyperbolic. Rather, they are indicative of his understanding that sin is not simply something that is done, but also something that invades us like a parasite, festers, and methodically corrupts us. It is both a contagion and a cancer.

Concurrently, the other dangerous thing modern-day Christians can do is consider personal holiness to be an unattainable ideal – a pipe dream no normal person will ever experience. As a pastor, I am deeply committed to proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace – of unconditional, divine love that knows no bounds. However, just because believers live under God’s extraordinary grace does not mean we should be okay with our sin and weakness. While not necessarily biblical, the old adage, “God loves you as you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way” is a truth we must accept if we ever want to enter intentionally into the process of spiritual transformation.

These days, while we may get a rush out of shaming those we disagree with, when it comes to our own, individual sense of shame, we don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about it. If we pray about our sin, we are quick to name what we did wrong, ask for Christ’s covering of those actions, and move on. And while there is nothing incorrect about such prayers, they rarely reach the full, purgative experience they should – the kind of exercise in prayer and meditation that not only names our sins, but allows the Holy Spirit to point his searchlight into the dank recesses of a soul that has housed a capacity for such evil habits. We must not wallow in our sin, but we must not ignore its far-reaching roots either.

It is no easy thing to let the Spirit of God shine his light into the shadows of our souls. But it is an essential part of transformation. To return to the renovation metaphor, it is the moment we enter inside our decrepit houses and begin identifying all the things that must be purged, swept up, and stripped away before the work of renewal can begin. Sometimes, this cleansing is easy – shoving excess clutter into trash bags, or pulling down old screens caked with dust. Other times, however, we find cracked beams, rotting floorboards, and purposeless walls, all of which must be torn away, piece by piece, if this old house will ever be made beautiful again.

So, may you not shy away from katharsis, no matter how uncomfortable those first forays into the cobwebbed cellar of your life may be. This is dirty work – no one ever said it wouldn’t be. But you have a co-laborer with you every step of the way. He holds a bright light from which no dirt or decay can hide. He is here to show you everything this old, rundown soul can be. Trust him. He’s been doing this kind of work for thousands of years.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

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By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?