Divinely inspired imagery

One purpose of Scripture is to tell us facts that are true. Another, I increasingly believe, is to give us images to fuel our faith. I have found in the last few years that, when I need to pray or act and my faith is flickering, picturing things the right way can make a big difference, and the best source of such pictures is the Scripture.

For example, we know that God is able to provide for us, but when we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters” it gives us an image to use as we think about his provision. That image fuels our faith and helps us believe more genuinely and more enduringly.

I think this is especially helpful in prayer. When I’m praying, I ask God to bring Scriptures to mind to use as I pray, and often what comes to mind is a story or image from the Bible.

The image need not be connected to a promise made to us. If I am fighting a fierce temptation in my life, and I read about David defeating Goliath, I may be encouraged to trust God by that picture. I may imagine the temptation as Goliath, and myself as David, and God as helping me defeat it. None of this means that I interpret the David and Goliath story as promising me that I will defeat the temptation. My faith will not be a matter of “claiming” what God has promised. Rather, it is the kind of faith that asks God for victory, keeping the picture of Goliath’s defeat firmly in mind. My faith is in the God who really does things like that, without presuming that he must do them this time.

When I talk about imagery strengthening my faith, what do I mean? I am assuming that faith, while it has an intellectual content, is also something more than belief in an abstract proposition. I may believe something intellectually, and still have trouble emotionally committing to it (which is different than merely feeling like it is true). It is at that level that imagery helps.

Finally, I don’t mean merely that Scripture has a lot of images, and that imagery helps our faith, but that Scripture’s images are divinely inspired to do so. I realize this makes my view of Scripture a little mystical, but I’m willing to live with that as long as the mysticism does not nullify the process of sober, objective interpretation of Scripture’s meaning. It seems to me that Scripture speaks of itself as having not only accuracy but also power in our lives, power to stimulate faith and not only to direct it.

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State, Thomas G. Sanders

This book was published in 1964. It looks at the various ways that Protestants have tried to make sense of the connection between church and state from the 1500s all the way up to the mid 1900s. It distinguishes five major strands:

  • A theocentric view (e.g., Lutheran tradition) – There are two realms. God works through the church according to the principles of grace. He works through the state according to the principles of law. Christians can be in politics, but if so they should use the principles of conduct that God intended to apply to the state, not those intended to apply to the church.
  • A sectarian view (e.g., Mennonite tradition) – Christians are to be separate from the world. Christians may need to withdraw from political involvement if to get politically involved would cause them to compromise their Christian principles. For example, many early Mennonites felt that it was wrong for Christians to get involved in politics at all, because to be in government was to use force, and to use force was a violation of Christian principles.
  • A pacifist view (e.g., Quaker tradition) – The state tends to use war and violence, which are against Christian teaching. However, the church shouldn’t withdraw: it should work to transform the way the state functions to be in line with Christian principles. This differs from the sectarian view in that it expects the church to be constantly trying to change the direction of the government and make it more pacifist.
  • A separationist view (e.g., American ideal of wall of separation) – The church and the state need to keep a strict wall of separation between them.
  • A transformationist view (e.g., Reformed tradition) – The church and state need a moderate amount of separation between them, but the church should also work to influence the state in more godly directions.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about what the idea church/state relationship would be, especially in a truly pluralistic society. I’m frustrated that while we have a whirlwind of activism today around the issue of how much the church should influence the state, we have very little reflection on what the ideal would be.

When I learned several years ago that that the church/state question was historically important to early Protestant churches, I decided I wanted to learn more, but I haven’t found many resources about it easily available to a layman.

I picked this book up hoping it would help, and it did. The things I most appreciated learning from it were a) the division into five traditions mentioned above, b) the degree to which early Protestants struggled with the whole idea of Christians being in government at all, and c) the degree to which Baptists and similar denominations spent the early part of the 1900s fighting for a lot more separation between church and state. The last point astonished me because we spend so much time today arguing against too much separation, as though that was always what we’ve believed. (Apparently our earlier passion to build the wall of separation as high as possible was motivated by a fear of Roman Catholicism getting too much influence.)

The one disappointing thing about the book is how old it is. So much has changed since the early 1960s! I’d love to have heard the author’s take on today’s church/state furor.

Would I recommend it? It’s a little dry, and probably impossible to find now, but I suppose, yes, I would, to anyone who is curious about the same stuff.

Would I reread it? Maybe. I think I already got most of the ideas I need from it, though.

How would I rate it? 5/10, maybe. Interesting, worth the read. It didn’t blow me away.

When we can’t quite say what is bothering us

Recently for my quiet time I read Daniel 2. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which disturbed him, and asked the wise men to interpret it. When they asked him what the dream was, he refused to tell them, asking them to say both what the dream was and what the interpretation was. He apparently wanted to be sure they weren’t just making something up. When they couldn’t (and when they mouthed off to him for asking them to) he decided to kill all the wise men, including Daniel.

Daniel and his friends prayed that God would show mercy and give them the answer to the king’s request. That night he had a vision in which God showed him the answer. He praised God, saying

“Wisdom and power belong to him …

It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;

He knows what is in the darkness,

And the light dwells with Him.”

I often have thoughts or fears that disturb me. Sometimes they are even mysterious and deep and subconsciously powerful, like the king’s dream seems to have been.  It has been a great encouragement to me across the years that God is so wise that he can understand and reveal these profound and hidden things.

But sometimes I feel disturbed, stirred up, agitated, and do not even know why. I have the sense of having an urgent question, but don’t even know what the question is!

The great thing is that even that is not too mysterious for God. If he could give Daniel not only the interpretation of the dream but the knowledge of the dream itself, how much more can he reveal to me what is bothering me, along with its answer! After all, I at least have my question within me somewhere, however ill-defined it may be: Daniel didn’t even personally experience the dream that so disturbed Nebuchadnezzar, and yet God was able to reveal to him everything he needed to know.

In Genesis 40:8, Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” It is up to God to tell me how to make sense of the riddles in story of my life. In Daniel 2, we learn than even the riddles themselves belong to God. Not only can God answer all my questions, he can also teach me what the questions should be. (Compare Romans 8:26 and Psalm 77:2-6.)

Genesis 12

In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.

One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?

Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.

After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.

  • One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
  • I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
  • Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
  • The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
  • The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
  • Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
  • There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
  • When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
  • In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.

P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.

Is worship for us or for God?

Last week, Victoria Osteen apparently said this:

“… when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy… So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy … When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

Most people responded by saying this is nonsense. Perhaps it is.

But I want to ask a serious question: Is worship for us or for God?

On the one hand, the whole idea of worship is that we prioritize God and His glory and His pleasure and His will. We stop thinking of ourselves as being important, and focus on Him alone. So clearly, worship is for God. If we focused on our own needs and happiness in worship, it wouldn’t be worship any more.

However … does it hurt God if we don’t worship? No. Does God need my worship? Not at all. God needs nothing from me. That we have the opportunity to freely worship God is a tremendous gift from him to us, not the other way around. It is hubris to think we can bring anything to God, even worship, that he really needs. It is we who need to worship. Worship is created for us, not for God, and for our benefit, not God’s.

Still, when I say that God gives us worship as a gift, to benefit us, what I mean is that focusing on him instead of us is a great benefit to us.

Worship’s benefit is for me; worship’s focus must be on him.

One more thing to add to the mix: God chooses to be blessed by our worship. So in a way, our worship does benefit God — not because he needs it but because he takes pleasure in it.

Practically speaking, if you are tempted to indulge your own desires, it may be a really bad idea for you to think about worship as for your benefit. Worship is your chance to stop thinking about pleasing yourself and think about pleasing God instead. On the other hand, if you are tempted by spiritual pride you should probably stop thinking of worship as something you give to God. We glorify God when we see that he is the source of all good things, even our worship, and humbly receive it all from his hand.

Belief and uncertainty

I wrote in my philosophy blog about whether we are able to choose what we believe. The answer for most Christians will probably be, “of course”, but many secular philosophy students don’t understand how it could be. Aren’t we predetermined to believe what seems true to us? And don’t things seem true to us or not based on what we’ve been exposed to about them? We don’t really have the choice to see something that we don’t see, or vice versa.

My answer there was that we set the bar for how much evidence we will require before we believe something by our own choice. We decide how much proof is enough.

We also decide what kinds of things count as proof for us.

I think we do this constantly in our Christian lives, and we make mistakes in both directions. Sometimes we are too skeptical. Sometimes we are too naïve. Always, though, we have a tendency to be too arrogant. We are convinced, down deep, that we and we alone are seeing the world as it really is. All the other people around us don’t understand. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12.

The biggest thing for us to come to terms with is that we simply don’t know much of anything for sure. We are at the mercy of our senses, of our experiences, of our culture. We are almost certainly wrong about a great many things we take for granted. This should make us all the more hungry for the God who is truth.

It is fashionable in our Christian world to suggest that our era’s most dangerous intellectual error is the rejection of absolute truth. I disagree. I believe in absolute truth: God is omniscient, and so whatever he knows to be true is absolutely true. However, in practical terms, we are not so blessed. We are almost certainly swimming in half-truths (including this one). It’s not that dangerous to give up the pretense of knowing things for sure.

In fact, in my strong opinion, it is when we get comfortable with the idea that it is part of the human condition to be slightly uncertain about almost everything that the claims of Christianity become really attractive.

Christianity is not merely a series of true doctrinal propositions. Christianity is a relationship with a Person who is Truth. The Bible is not merely factually accurate. It speaks to us with power. We encounter the Logos through the written Word. Absolute truth exists, but it is a Him.

Selfishness

I heard someone preach a sermon recently about selfishness, and how it is the root of almost all sin. I hear this preached a lot, by lots of different people. It depends on defining selfish as “wanting things for yourself”. We are exhorted to deny ourselves, which is taken to mean that we stop paying attention to our own desires and instead focus on glorifying God. This is the tough, mentally disciplined approach that God wants from us.

So, to summarize:

  • Selfishness is the root sin
  • Selfishness means wanting things for ourselves
  • We should stop expecting to have our own needs met
  • Instead we should only worry about glorifying God
  • A life of doing this will be disciplined and well-ordered and pleasing to God

While there is some important insight in this overall teaching, I think it’s wrong.

First, every Christian should go read John Piper’s book, Desiring God, and then rethink the points above.

Second, the Scripture itself does not, to my knowledge, name selfishness as the root of all sin, although I admit it gets close. It talks about idolatry and coveting and pride and fleshly lusts. Here is how I see the different meanings of these terms, in the context of this discussion.

  • Selfishness: wanting things for myself
  • Idolatry: looking to someone or something other than God to meet my deepest needs
  • Coveting: comparing what I have with what others have and then becoming frustrated that I have to live my life instead of theirs
  • Pride: making it my highest priority to manage my own happiness
  • Fleshly lusts: impulses for short-term satisfaction — I should ignore them if that would be better for me in the long run

James 3 and 4 also talk about something closely related to selfishness. James 3 speaks of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” and explicitly says that all kinds of sin spring up from these. James 4 explains that our strife with others comes from envying them and coveting what they have. The passage goes on, though, to point to pride and idolatry as the real culprits. The problem is not that we want things; it’s that we look somewhere other than to God to find them.

The biggest problem with the selfishness doctrine is that it leaves faith out of the picture. Instead of telling us to realize how much we need God, it exhorts us to need nothing. A more Scriptural approach would emphasize these truths:

  • We have many desires, some of them deep and some less so.
  • Some of our desires are for things that won’t really satisfy, so we need to have a healthy skepticism towards our desires.
  • God Himself is the source of all true satisfaction. We need to pursue him with all our hearts to find our needs really met. (“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”)
  • Once we trust in God, he will call us away from pursuing many of the things that we think will meet our own needs. The test of our faith will be whether we are willing to let go of what seems to satisfy us and trust him to bring us real satisfaction.
  • Sometimes, he will call us away from even having certain desires. Even that, though, will be based on our trusting that His wisdom is greater than ours, and that He has a better set of desires for us to have.

The practical consequence of these ideas is this:

  1. Have all the desire you want, but …
  2. Take all your desires to God. Believe with all your might that he and whatever he gives will truly satisfy you.
  3. Because you are trusting him to take care of what you want most deeply, leave it with him. Hope, but don’t pursue. Instead focus on loving God and loving others. Expect God to bring you the desires of your heart as a by-product as you live for Him.
  4. When others are needy, don’t tell them to get over themselves; rejoice with them that God cares about the desires of their hearts too.

The difference is really important. It is one thing to say to someone, “Stop wanting so much! Focus on loving God and others!” and quite another to say to someone, “Trust God to fulfill all your deepest desires! Focus on loving God and others!”

We all make assumptions

I wrote in my philosophy blog about why philosophy never seems to make much progress. Well, sort of. I describe a paper by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in which he says that philosophy is almost never able to settle arguments definitively. The idea is that every proof depends on the assumptions you start with, and people can always reject the assumptions if they don’t like where things are going. Furthermore, the most important assumptions in philosophy are things that seem intuitively self-evident to some people and not even true to others.

This leads to, and is part and parcel with, a view of knowledge which says we don’t start from a neutral point of view. To think well at all, we need a rich set of beliefs about the world and ourselves and truth and so on. No one makes progress by throwing out all his assumptions to start with. (Perhaps there is no assumption we cannot examine, but we cannot reexamine them all at the same time.)

In other words, life is not like mathematics. In math, we pick a few axioms – maybe just 10 or so – and then prove all sorts of things based on those axioms. All the rest of our mathematical knowledge unfolds from those axioms. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter which axioms we pick, as long as we get interesting results.

Life is different. First of all, we can’t possibly reduce all the assumptions we need for thinking about real things to just a handful of axioms. Second of all, we can’t just pick the simplest or most interesting axioms, we have to try and pick the true ones. And that is the hard question – which axioms are really the true ones?

I think Christians should have this view of knowledge. It would affect how we defended and used Scripture. Instead of thinking of Scripture as a collection of facts and principles that we reason from – like a collection of several hundred axioms we use in doing our theological proofs – we would think of Scripture as a collection of (true) stories and statements and examples that are intended to push back against our network of pre-made assumptions. I don’t let Scripture teach me by clearing my mind and starting from scratch with no assumptions at all. I let Scripture push back on my ideas about life. I let it make me uncomfortable. I keep having to modify how I think to make it fit what I see in Scripture. Over time the Bible begins to mold the way I think to make it more Christ-like.

One cool thing about this is that we don’t have to make people agree with us first and then show them the Scriptures. We can carry the Scriptures right over to them in the middle of their muddled intellectual worlds and then let the Word begin to do its work.

Teaching and active learning

I had a moment of insight today about teaching. When active learning techniques work, it isn’t because they help students intellectually, it’s because they help students emotionally. If I break students into groups to discuss a concept among themselves, for example, it’s not because that helps them to understand the concept better, it’s because it helps them become more emotionally connected to the material. This goes against a lot of the things teachers say about active learning. But I think it matches what actually happens.

In general, I think that a surprisingly large factor in the learning process is the students’ attitudes towards the material moment by moment. I think the most gifted teachers are those who are highly attuned to that attitude, and instinctively aware of how it can be directed and nurtured on the fly.

Quality of life and suffering

In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”

One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.

Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?

I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God.  Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.

Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.

(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)