Month: March 2011

power to be weak

Sometimes I get the feeling that differences between particular groups of Christians get traced back to whether they’re focusing more on the cross or more on the resurrection.

This often happens with the differences between those who emphasise suffering, service and humility and those who emphasise victory, power and joy. How easy it is to think of the first group as cross-centred and the second as resurrection-centred (or Spirit-centred)!

I was even tempted to fall into this myself in assessing the disagreement between John Piper and Brian McLaren that I mentioned last week.

I wanted to place Piper at the resurrection-centred end of the spectrum and McLaren at the cross-centred end.

Why? Because Piper’s emphasis on answers seemed to resonate more with how God can redeem evil and tragedy — as Jesus did in defeating death.

Yet it’s finally unhelpful, I think, to go down this route. An old Northern Training Institute by Tim Chester paper on eschatology and mission has helped me see why.

It’s unhelpful to go down this route — pitting cross against resurrection — because while “there is an important sense in which through the Spirit we have resurrection life and power now”, that same “resurrection power is given to us that we might live the life of the cross”.

As Chester concludes (and as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4.7-12 and Philippians 3.10-11), resurrection power simply is “power to be weak”.

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God’s will for your life

I’m loving 1 Thessalonians more and more. Tonight I get to tackle that perennial issue — finding God’s will for your life. And the great news is that Paul tells us clearly and directly (1 Thessalonians 4.3-6):

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

This is how to please God. (Yes — you can please God! But that’s for another post…)

This is what God wants for you. He wants you to be sanctified. Made holy.

The content of sanctification here is primarily ethical — it’s about the distinctive way those who trust Jesus will use (or rather not use) their bodies; he’ll go on to speak more positively a few verses later.

But I can’t help thinking about the ‘sanctification’ or ‘consecration’ (in the original languages they’re built around the same linguistic root) of the Old Testament priests.

Sanctification, in the Old Testament, came at a massive cost.

There’s only one way to describe it: bloody — gruesomely bloody.

I challenge you to go and read Exodus 29, close your eyes and imagine it. Imagine the smells. Imagine the noise. Imagine the blood is dashed and splattered everywhere — even on you.

And we think sanctification for us is something warm and fuzzy — something God’s holy Spirit does to us and in us without much cost or effort at all?

Truth is, our sanctification comes at a massive cost too. And it too was gruesomely bloody. Yet we still cringe at the distinctive lifestyle God wants for us…

clash of the theological titans?

It’s on!

Two popular theological titans are battling it out over how to make sense of Japan. I’m referring of course to John Piper and Brian McLaren.

Last week, John Piper posted briefly on his Desiring God blog about the need for Christians to move beyond empathy and aid in responding to the ongoing catastrophe in Japan.

Piper strongly affirms the priority of empathy and aid. He then urges us to to take the next step: “When love has wept and worked, it must have something to say about God.”

For Piper, it seems that what this ‘something’ will consist in is primarily answers about the kind of purposes God might have in permitting what’s happening in Japan. (Here he is no doubt sensitive to the big question many will be asking — ‘Why didn’t God prevent such massive suffering?’)

This week, Brian McLaren weighed in with a very substantial reply at The Other Journal.

Against what seem to him to be Piper’s too-easy answers, McLaren pleads:

Evil and suffering, I suspect, aren’t properly responded to by simple explanations. They instead demand — certainly our empathy and our aid — but much more: our ongoing presence in shared agony and our passionate self-giving to our neighbors in pain.

I don’t want to be detained right now by where my theological sympathies lie — although, it shouldn’t be that hard to work out in light of some things I’ve said before on this blog (e.g., THIS, THIS or THIS).

What I do want to say is simply this:

Let’s be careful that Japan — its people and its very real need and suffering — isn’t eclipsed by a theological dispute we want (and maybe even need) to have…

where’s your theological centre of gravity?

I think the way you pray — and even sometimes the words you choose — can reveal a lot about where your theological centre of gravity lies.

I’ve been challenged by the way Paul prays for the little church he’d been involved in planting in Thessalonica — 1 Thessalonians 3.11-13:

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

The content of Paul’s prayer is, of course, inspiring. How often do we pray these kinds of things for each other?

But almost as inspiring is the way Paul prays here.

I’m not talking so much about the way he frames this prayer for God to stir up the Thessalonians’ love for each other and for all with dual references to ‘our God and Father’ and ‘our Lord Jesus’. (Although that is awesome.)

I’m talking about the fact that Paul doesn’t once ask God for “help”.

Look at the things Paul asks God about: intervention to open his way to return to Thessalonica, increasing and abounding love, hearts strengthened in holiness for a blameless verdict at Christ’s return.

This kind of ‘directness’ is often lacking in my prayer life. I usually find myself asking God to ‘help’ me do things (often good things — though, if I’m honest, not always). But I rarely ask him to work more directly — stirring me up, teaching me, guiding me, strengthening me, opening the way for me.

Yet Paul’s theological centre of gravity lies in a radically different place. For him, God’s initiative and action is far more decisive than ours. And it’s so refreshing!

the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination

I was struck by something as I prepared to speak on the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians a couple of weeks back. At the end of the chapter, Paul sketches out what it looked like for them to become Christian (verses 9b-10):

You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The three key features of this brief verbal sketch belong together — almost self-evidently. Right?

But according to Jeffrey Weima (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old), the combination of terms Paul puts together here is highly unusual.

‘Living and true God’ is an utterly unique description for Paul, drawing together significant strands of God’s self-presentation in the Old Testament. Likewise, the actions of ‘turning to God’ (from idols) and ‘serving’ him alone are only directly correlated in 1 Samuel 7.3.

This got me wondering: What moved Paul to put these ideas together?

Then it struck me. Although the may not occur together in the space of a single verse (or even across a few verses), these ideas all appear in roughly this constellation in Isaiah 40-66.

Isaiah’s majestic vision of God’s intervention to comfort Israel and restore Zion begins with a New Exodus and culminates in a New Creation, repeatedly striking the following notes:

  • The folly of idolatry (and the corresponding need to repent).
  • The truth/faithfulness and living authority of Israel’s God.
  • And the eschatological scene of the Great Assize, in which God judges his enemies and vindicates his faithful servant.

Isaiah reworks the familiar themes of Old Testament faith — monotheism and the supremacy of Israel’s God — against an eschatological backdrop. And this takes us straight to the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination!

another ‘undercover Christian’ adventure (sort of)

I’ve had another ‘undercover Christian’ adventure!

It happened yesterday — while I was sitting in the waiting room at the physiotherapist:

The receptionist was chatting with one of the other patients. And the conversation turned to the topic of football — ie. Australian Rules (I’m learning that this is pretty typical of most conversations in Victoria).

Both of them, it turns out, were fans of Collingwood (the team everyone else loves to hate and last year’s premieres). And both had different levels of membership — each higher level presumably attended by more privileges and benefits (and greater annual costs no doubt).

The receptionist was complaining that her ‘Legends’ membership was being devalued.

Apparently, one of the privileges of membership had been guaranteed tickets to games. But by the time Collingwood reached the grand final last season, so many new people had jumped on board as ‘Legends’ members that it would have been impossible for everyone to get the seats they felt entitled to.

Because of this, she wanted to see the ‘Legends’ membership capped. Which is understandable, I guess.

It’s a pretty common reflex. When you’re in the ‘club’ — whatever ‘club’ it is — you want to protect the meaning of belonging. You don’t want the benefits to get diluted.

But it’s got me thinking about how I might fall prey to this as a Christian. Belonging to the ‘club’ — being Christian or being part of this particular church or that well-known renewal movement — has its benefits.

And hanging in there can engender a certain degree of pride — particularly if the ‘club’ has been small and embattled: ‘I’ve been there since the beginning’ or ‘I didn’t bail out when we were doing it really tough’.

So I’ve started to wonder how often I subtly start adjusting the entry requirements. You know, bumping the bar up a bit in terms of ‘keenness’ or theological clarity or preferred temperament?

Because I wouldn’t want to see my membership being devalued now, would I?

what would it sound like to be filled with the Spirit?

I’ve been getting into David Powlison’s book on biblical counselling, Seeing With New Eyes (it is, as they say, an oldy but a goody).

Reflecting on the context of Paul’s exhortation to ‘be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5.15-20), Powlison says:

To be “filled with the Spirit” is to have your language alive to God, both your daily conversations with others and the inward conversation within your own heart. Your cognitive stream-of-consciousness and your social interactions are meant to be psalm-like and psalm-informed. That includes the ability to quote a psalm in a timely and relevant way, but it is something much more. Paul calls you to a lifestyle of joyous dependence on Christ, to live in faith like the Psalms. (‘Counsel Ephesians’, page 24)

My sense is that letting the Psalms shape our talk (and our self-talk) might protect us from developing an immaculate-looking, Ikea-Catalogue prayer life.

I also think it could help us pray honestly and well for victims of catastrophe as we seek to ‘show up’ for those who are suffering.

That’s what it’d sound like to be filled with the Spirit.

how do you pray in the wake of catastrophe?

As I look at the images of disaster in Japan, I’m having trouble processing them. I hardly know what to think or how feel. And I’m definitely struggling to pray about it.

Yet my experience suggests that there are at least three components to healthy prayer in the wake of catastrophe:

  1. Let it all hang out before God — lay out your confusion, grief, pain, hurt, shock, anger, resentment and even guilt in prayer; speak honestly to God about your reaction (or your inability to have a coherent reaction). God made us and the Lord Jesus knows our plight from the inside. We don’t need to hide or pretend.
  2. Call on God to do something about it — God is the God of life; death was not his intention for the world or human life. Although it may not be everything we have to say about God’s relationship to death and catastrophe, surely the first thing we must say is that they’re his enemies.
  3. Ask God to somehow bring good out of it — the crucified (and risen) Lord can use even the most tragic and horrible thing to bring about good. We probably won’t often be able to see how he might do this. But we can entrust ourselves to him.

My impression is that we often ignore point 1 and (usually muttering something about God working all things for the good of those who love him) put point 3 before point 2 — especially in our public prayers.

I can understand this, of course. What more powerful statement of faith is there than this in the teeth of an unfolding disaster?

I suppose nothing essential hinges on the order in which you pour out what’s on your heart to God. But I do wonder how often we allow ourselves — or the people we’re leading in prayer — to (a) feel the horror and depth of a catastrophe, or (b) beg God to intercede now in the way he’s promised to when Christ returns.

How do you pray in the wake of catastrophe?

John Piper hits a six

No. This is not a post about Piper’s infamous Tweet about Rob Bell. (at some point I might have some thoughts to share about the latest furore surrounding Bell. But I haven’t even ordered Love Wins, so I’m not going to start down that road.)

Instead, it’s about a post Piper published on the Desiring God blog last week: I Act The Miracle.

In the post, Piper comes down hard against any sort of ‘sit back and wait for God to work’ approach to dealing with sin and growing to maturity in Christ.

Whether it’s ‘waiting passively for the miracle of sin-killing to be worked on me’, as Piper puts it. Or whether it’s the kind of thing an (entirely appropriate) emphasis on ‘sanctification by faith’ can easily degenerate into — in which suspicion greets any hint that moral will and effort might be part of how we grow as Christians.

We’ve got big problems when we start suspecting any exhortation to obedience and effort of covertly smuggling ‘salvation by works’ in by the back door. If that were true, large chunks of the New Testament and Jesus’ own teaching would be in trouble.

It’s perfectly right, of course, to be concerned to see God’s sovereign initiative, work and glory upheld not only as we start out in the Christian life but as we continue in it.

But you don’t uphold the sovereignty of God’s grace it by denying the real role our willing and acting has.

For as you ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling … it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2.12-13).

remembering that you are dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday — the beginning of the church calendar season of Lent. Traditionally, people are signed with an ash cross as the words ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ or ‘Repent, and believe the good news’ are spoken.

I like the way this links repentance with accepting our creatureliness — our limitations, etc.

It highlights the way in which sin, by contrast, is typically characterised by us overstepping our creaturely limitations.

In the Garden, the serpent’s original temptation was an invitation to reach out for equality with God — ‘then you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.

Ash Wednesday speaks of God’s loving and holy response to this. Even as it reminds us of our inescapable limitations, it points us forward — not to their removal but to their fulfilment in that repentance with which we’re to greet God’s kingdom.