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!”

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Submitting to authority

[I’m back! After a two-month hiatus. I apologize for my long absence!]

In a recent post in my philosophy blog, I explored the relationship of morality to the laws and traditions of the culture we live in. I suggested there that possibly “we have no moral obligation to obey either the laws or tradition, but we have a moral obligation to be willing to obey the laws and to be willing to follow tradition, which is almost (but not quite) the same thing.”

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that we do have a definite moral obligation to obey the law. I held a pretty hard-line view of the importance of submission to authority, which I was sure the Bible supported. I would have pointed to the following Scriptural ideas:

  • The original sin by Adam and Eve was rebellion against God’s authority, and in one sense rebellion is still at the root of every sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
  • God has placed authority over us for a purpose, and if we want to trust God we must be willing to submit to that authority. (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 5:5)
  • There are specific spheres of authority in our lives and we are commanded to submit to authority in each of the relevant spheres. The spheres are: family, church, work, and government. (Colossians 3:18-25, 1 Peter 2:13-3:6, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Even when an authority figure is rejecting God, we are expected to honor their authority and wait for God’s deliverance. (Example of David and Saul. For example, see 1 Samuel 24)
  • When two authorities order us to do conflicting things, we should obey the higher authority. Especially, if obeying an earthly authority would require us to disobey God, then we must obey God instead. (Acts 5:27-29, Daniel 2, Daniel 6).
  • In addition to submission, we need to be respectful and show honor to those in authority, for the sake of their position. (Acts 23:3-5)
  • God is able and willing to change the mind of those in authority over us when we need Him to. (Proverbs 21:1 and several other verses)

I still agree with most of this, but my emphasis would be very different. Two things have changed my mind.

First, my interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13 changed. Here’s 1 Peter 2:13:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …

A couple of verses later, it adds:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

I used to read these verses as saying,

“By God’s design, you are under the authority of various human institutions. Now that you belong to Christ, stop rebelling and be a submissive person.”

Now I read them in light of the truth that we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of the kingdom of God. We are here only as ambassadors – foreigners who live here but whose allegiance is to another land. Therefore I take them to be saying,

“You are now free from human authority, and serve God instead. However, for the sake of His reputation, and as good ambassadors, and as those under His command, continue to humor the human systems around you by submitting to human authorities. That will serve God’s purposes best.”

The practical result is the same: obey human authority. The reason is very different: obey not because you are under human authority, but because you are under God’s authority.

So we have an indirect moral obligation to obey the laws, but no direct moral obligation to do so.

Second, I’ve begun to realize that if the Bible has, say, a gazillion warnings (by command or example) about the dangers of rebellion, it must have about two gazillion warnings about the dangers of unjust authority. Just as powerful as our desire to rebel is our desire to be tyrants.

I think a Biblically balanced view of authority will be careful to emphasize the warnings given to those in authority at least as strongly as the warnings given to those under it. It will encourage a healthy suspicion that those in positions of power will tempted to abuse that power. I believe my previous way of looking at things was too naively trusting of systems of authority.

Thoughts?

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Doing theology

Here is something I wrote about 8 years ago about theology for the ordinary Christian. I think I still agree with most of it. It’s very long, but I decided not to break it up into pieces just for the sake of doing so. Feel free to read it a little at a time 🙂

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Doing Theology in the Local Church

Doing Theology vs Using Theology

I love doing math. My favorite part of being in grad school getting a computer science degree was the chance to do research in mathematics. Most people that I talk to, though, don’t really understand what “doing math” means. Not realizing that there is a distinction between “doing math” and “using math”, they vaguely imagine me sitting at a desk doing rows and rows of arithmetic problems (or maybe calculus problems). Instead they should be imagining me inventing calculus (I wish!): studying the structures and patterns in numbers, exploring the logical implications of various mathematical hypotheses, or investigating the relationship between various mathematical definitions, both to create approaches that other people can use for problem-solving and simply for the sake of understanding itself.

Similarly, there is a difference between learning or using theology, and doing theology. Many pastors and writers are concerned about the first. They note that most Christians in America are sloppy about or ignorant of theological issues. They simply don’t know very much about their faith, and are distressingly willing to compromise on principles that previous generations of Christians fought long and hard to establish. My concern in this article is with the second: I believe we need to create a space in the culture of our local churches in which gifted individuals can do theology, i.e., can create their theological positions on modern questions in addition to responding to the traditional theological systems developed by past generations.

Critical Reflection on the Church’s Teaching and Practice

There are many possible definitions of theology, but one that I have found helpful is that theology is critical reflection on the church’s teaching and practice. It is in this sense that I believe we need to provide room for local church members to do theology.

Let’s dismantle this definition. First, note that theology is reflection, and reflection takes time. Some churches and church programs are constantly reinventing themselves and their aims in order to stay on the cutting edge. Leaders plunge into the fray of ministry without taking much time for analysis. They get a few details wrong, but most things right, which is enough to bring spiritual success. Afterwards there doesn’t seem to be much point in working out what should have been said or done differently, because it’s too late to do anything about it; the church has moved on to a different battle.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of fast-paced, rapidly changing ministry in and of itself. I believe God can use it greatly. However, I also believe that God places within each local congregation those whom He calls to do theology – and those men and women will need time to ponder what the church is doing and saying. Once they work out a careful and constructive critique, they can usually clarify what was good and bad in the church’s approach. Wise leaders will sit down at some point and listen carefully to this critique, even though it no longer seems relevant to the current programs and direction. The value of such post-program evaluations may seem small, but over time the positive effects of repeated evaluations will accumulate. Leaders will find themselves making more Biblical decisions without even consciously thinking about it.

Second, note that theology is critical reflection. That doesn’t mean that theology should tear down churches or their leadership.  There should be no negativity or complaining in theology – in fact, a balanced theology will take particular care to ponder what a church is doing and saying that is especially good, so that future generations will not take it for granted but continue to emphasize it. However, it does mean the theologians must have the freedom to question the church’s systems, traditions, values and culture. It is frighteningly easy for us as the people of God to become blind to our own greatest areas of sin, but through a courageous humility we can expose ourselves to God’s searching gaze, acknowledge our sins, repent, and begin to “grow up into all aspects into Him who is the head”.  The theologians in our midst can lead the way in this process, if we will listen carefully to their concerns without being offended by their questions or becoming defensive. In turn, it is the responsibility of theologians to avoid becoming rabble-rousers, to refuse to exaggerate their concerns or make major concerns out of minor ones.

Third, note that theology responds rather than initiates. It reflects on what the church is already doing and teaching, rather than initiating programs of its own. That means that theology, which always has the right to slow down and ponder what has occurred, never has the right to blackmail the rest of the church into slowing down with it. The church must be allowed to plunge ahead in mission and ministry as needs arise, and let the ponderers work it all out later. It also provides a practical safeguard for theology from its own self-destructive tendencies. First, by keeping things relevant: because of its self-searching nature and its predilection for fine-tuning systems of thought to make them better, theology is always in danger of losing its bearings in the real world. It is easy for theological thinkers to get more and more involved in complex but irrelevant systems of doctrine that are no longer related to the mission or ministry of the church. Second, it safeguards theology from elitism: having to respond to the practical initiatives of the church in mission keeps theologians humble. It reminds us what the central purposes of the church are – that living the truth is far more important than verbally formulating it. Third, whenever theory neglects empirical evidence, it degenerates into consistent logical systems which are fundamentally untrue. This is because the desire for elegance exerts a pressure on the theory which is unchecked by the messiness of reality. Having to reflect on what the church is really doing and saying forces theologians to rework their systems to account for the way things actually are.

Fourth, note that theology reflects on the church’s teaching and practice. Theology as I am defining it is not merely reflection on God Himself, nor on one individual’s personal relationship with God, nor on the world. God is infinitely more important than we are; and theology must necessarily ponder His character and nature, but having done so it must always go on to consider what our response should be to Him. Since the church is people rather than programs or official organizations, the spiritual health of the church is determined by the individual spiritual state of each of its members, as they stand alone before God in their hearts; nonetheless, doing theology is essentially performing a ministry to the rest of the body of Christ, and I must always pass from what is important to me in my spiritual walk to what can edify the whole body. The world with its ever-shifting culture is the source of most of the challenges theology must face, but in trying to answer those challenges theologians must look to the church, which is God’s appointed vehicle for communicating Himself to the world in this age.

Finally, note that theology reflects on both the practice and the teaching of the church. If we focus on the teaching of the church only, we will be critiquing only what the church says it believes, not what it really believes – which shows up in how the church makes decisions, uses its money, responds to crises, and so on. Sometimes the most important messages a congregation communicates are things they don’t even know they are saying. On the other hand, words do matter. If the church is to be a pillar and support of the truth, it must learn to articulate that truth accurately and clearly. For that reason, theologians must pay attention not only to what a church means, but to how it says what it means. The church, then, needs people who will evaluate and critique both what it says and what it really means.

Based on Scripture

One thing missing in the definition of theology given above is that Scripture must be at the center of the reflection theologians do. To do theology, we don’t just ponder the work and purpose of God in the world by the light of our own insight – rather we seek to compare every human activity and attitude to the truth of Scripture and discover where the differences are.

In many theological questions it is easy to discern two camps among Christians. One camp tends to blend Scriptural ideas with current philosophies and perspectives to make gospel truths more relevant. The other camp stands guard against worldly ideas and rejects all those that are not from Scripture. Both are being theologically sloppy, in my opinion. The point isn’t to accept a given position wholesale or reject it wholesale; it is to sift it carefully, separating out those things which agree with Scripture from those that do not.

Sifting a given perspective is not easy. Sometimes an idea arises from anti-Christian presuppositions but rediscovers Biblical truth despite itself. In other cases unbiblical ideas become a part of the church’s world view and are couched in Biblical language, with verses given to support them. In addition, theologians need to discover not only whether a given idea contradicts Scripture but also how it contradicts it. We need to bring the Scriptures up against the idea in question and compare the two all along the line, exploring the precise nature of the relationship between Biblical truth and the idea we are analyzing.

Usually a given “worldly perspective” is really a variety of related but distinct perspectives, some of which are farther from the truth than others. We must be especially careful not to set up straw men. We must listen carefully to the real objections people have to Christian thinking, not just find the easiest version to refute. I even believe it is important to look for ways to make our opponents’ logic sounder and their criticisms truer, so that we don’t miss important critiques which God meant for us to hear through their confused challenges. Ideally our understanding will grow until we are able to answer fully and satisfactorily the sincere questions of any honest skeptic.

Giftedness

The Bible never speaks of the gift of “theology”, but some of the other gifts it mentions – teaching, knowledge, perhaps wisdom or discernment – are well-suited for doing what I have described. In this sense, it is appropriate to speak of certain individuals as being gifted to do theology.

Because theological ability can spring from giftedness, those who are gifted for it must keep in mind some important balances. If I believe I am gifted for doing theology, first I must recognize that this will not be true for most of the church. I must not be frustrated if Christians around me seem sloppy in their thinking or indifferent to theological accuracy or resistant to reflection on the church’s doctrine and programs. Second, I must be willing to set a high standard for myself in theological responsibility. It is not enough for me to compare myself to Christians around me and decide “well, I’m doing better than most Christians are”. Rather I need to push myself to excel far beyond the norm. God has given me the gifts to do so, and I will be judged by what I was given, not by what others were given. Third, I should be careful not to push these standards onto others whom God has called differently. I must let God lead others to the priorities He has for them, refusing to believe that my calling is somehow special compared to theirs. Fourth, I can anticipate that as I faithfully fulfill my own calling, in fact the rest of the congregation will begin to raise the level of their own theology, because of my example. Though they will never emphasize it to the extent I do, nor should they, nonetheless the pace I set will help stir the whole church to do better. Finally, I must recognize that they have callings and gifts of their own. I must be willing to recognize the importance of the things God has called them to, to admit my own failing in the same areas, to let them set the pace for me, and steadfastly refuse to consider myself more spiritual than they on the basis of my calling being somehow more central than theirs.

Local

Global Christianity already has an institution which is well-suited for theologians: seminaries, which provide on a national and international scale exactly what I have been talking about. In seminaries, professors can work out the results of their thinking at their own pace. Afterwards they have a platform through their writings and the classes they teach to speak to the church at large about what they have seen. What I am advocating is a way for people in local churches to do theology.

Local theological work has several advantages. First, it allows more people to do it. Many people who are gifted theologians in God’s eyes may not have the academic bent that is required for success in a seminary. Most will not have the time or money to attend a seminary, let alone teach in one. Others may not be called to do theology exclusively but will be fruitful doing it part-time, in between their other ministries and responsibilities. Second, local theologians can focus on local issues and questions in a way that seminary professors don’t have the time to do. Third, when theologians form isolated enclaves of their own, as can happen in seminaries and thinktanks, apart from the pressure of daily ministry with real people, and away from the frustration of having to deal with Christians whose gifts differ from theirs, their thinking gradually becomes more ingrown, drifting away from its original purposes. Fourth, local theological work will actually increase the audience for the good things coming out of the seminaries, so that local and national theology can mutually reinforce each other.

Authority

Many people assume that the theologians in a church should be the pastors. I am arguing for a different point of view. First, I think that those who are pastors need to have a certain level of theological savvy, but I do not think they need to be doing theology very much themselves. Second, I think that those who are not pastors but are gifted for theological reflection need a way to contribute their gifts to the church.

If this is true, however, it implies something significant. When pastors do theology, it is relatively easy for them to implement their conclusions immediately. They can simply change the direction of the church accordingly. (I realize it’s not really quite that simple in practice!) When non-pastors do theology, the most they can do is suggest to the leadership what they have seen. They must be willing to leave the reins of church government where God Himself has placed them. That means we must keep doing theology separate from church authority.

Encouraging people not in leadership positions to reflect critically on a local church’s practices without undermining the respect and authority due to its pastors may be tricky at times.

Let me make several suggestions. First, theologians should see themselves as advisors, not decision-makers. They are accountable to God to alert the leadership to possible dangers; they are not responsible for the leaders’ response. Theologians don’t have enough facts to make the best decisions: it is the pastors who are most aware of the needs of the members and can judge best which of several competing needs should have the first priority at a given time. Theologians will also not be specifically gifted to make the decisions, whereas the pastors are those to whom God will give the specific grace and wisdom to lead the church.

Theologians also need to realize that other people have the right to disagree with them without explaining why. Often a spiritual leader may be correct in disagreeing with a theologian’s conclusion, but be unable to articulate the reasons for his position. My being able to out-debate my opponent says more about my forensic ability than about which of us is really right. If pastors find themselves being argued into a position intellectually which they sense in their hearts is wrong, they need to stick to their guns and not back down.

On their part, pastors must work hard to give a legitimate voice to the theologians in the church’s midst. They must encourage theologically-minded church members to feel the freedom, in appropriate settings, to challenge the most treasured church traditions and even to question orthodoxy (occasionally and temporarily).

Within every congregation there are doctrinal controversies. Theologians can be of immense help in such situations, not by settling the controversies but by clarifying them. Since theology thrives on the freedom to explore alternatives, both pastors and groups of local theologians should resist the temptation to legislate uniformity in such issues. The invaluable role of the theologians is instead in replacing heat with light by helping each side understand what the other is saying and by working out acceptable compromises.

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Why do I believe the Bible is inspired?

When people ask me why I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, I answer very differently than the average evangelical, although I share the same doctrines.

The first thing I became convinced of was the truth of the spoken gospel itself. I had heard the gospel before. I understood the theological statements in it. I comprehended the claims it was making. But one day it suddenly became real for me. All at once it seemed absolutely and irrevocably obvious that I was a sinner in need of forgiveness, that Jesus had died for my sins, that he was alive and calling me into relationship with him, and that the very illumination I was suddenly experiencing was the work of the Spirit of Jesus himself, showing it to me.

Second, I noticed than when I read the Bible, portions of it came alive in the same way. I had heard God speaking to me in the gospel; now I heard him speaking to me as I read the Bible. The transcendent intensity of this experience of “being spoken to” drew me back again and again. Sometimes I felt it when I read the Bible; other times I did not.

Third, I began to pay attention to what the Bible said about itself, and about this experience. The key concept was the “word of God”. Sometimes this referred to the spoken gospel, sometimes to the written Scriptures. Always, it was spoken of as having the power to penetrate to our hearts and convince us of its truth.

For example, these verses to the Thessalonians could easily be describing my own experience:

… our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction … 1 Thess 1:5

and

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. 1 Thess 2:13

Note what Paul did not say here: he didn’t say, “Good for you, for accepting our word as true”. He said, “Thank God that his word performed its work in you”.

Similarly in Rom 10:13 Paul said

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

By hearing, here, he means really hearing, i.e., the sharp burst of illumination in which you suddenly really get that it is true, and he says it is the gospel itself that brings that illumination and inspires faith.

Speaking of the written and spoken word of God both, Paul said:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God but a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 1 Cor 2:12-14

What does this mean? Obviously there are many intelligent people who are not believers who are able to understand the theological statements made in the Scripture. Paul’s point is that without the Holy Spirit they do not appraise them correctly. That is, they comprehend the meaning but are unable to see that they are true.

The author of Hebrews says:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12

This described very accurately what was happening to me when I read the Bible sometimes.

In this context, 2 Tim 3:14-16 is very relevant.

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work

In other words, all of the Scriptures, not merely the parts that have spoken to me thus far, have the capacity to speak to me.

That last set of verses is very important because it shifts the focus from my own experience of God speaking to me to the objective words of the Bible itself. God got my attention and convinced me the Bible was His word through the felt conviction of the Holy Spirit; in the future, I can believe that this is so even without that felt conviction.

Now, I understand perfectly well that to someone who is unsure whether the Scripture itself is inspired, none of the verses above can prove that it is – that would be circular logic. But to one who already keeps hearing God speak to him in the Bible, these verses explain what is happening and why.

Finally, I was taught the technical details of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures. That doctrine is important. At its best, it summarizes and synthesizes all the many things that the Bible says about itself and the Christian experience and understanding of those statements across history; it unwraps the complex implications of those statements; and it guards against heresies that have sprung up from age to age. In my case, though, I was’t taught much about the Bible’s inspiration until after I was already reading, believing, and obeying it the best I could.

Here’s my primary point: sometimes we evangelicals are say, “It’s important that people believe the Bible. If they aren’t willing to believe the Bible, how will they believe the gospel?” I think that gets things backwards. Most of the time, people believe the gospel first and the Bible afterwards.

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Shaping our emotions

I’m going to muse about emotions a little.

My wife wrote a very good blog post about emotions here. She said that emotions aren’t bad, and that there are three wrong ways to handle them (stir them up, stuff them, or store them) and one good way to handle them (surrender them to God).

I agree, but I want to expand on the surrender part with another S: we need to surrender them to God so that He can shape them. We need to let God change our emotional set so that we tend more and more to feel the way He feels about things.

Shaping our feelings will apply to both positive and negative emotions. I remember someone saying once, “We need to learn to let God break our hearts with the things that break His.” That seems deeply right to me.

It must be equally true that we need to learn to share in the joy of God. (John 15:11). I asked a few weeks ago what self-pity is. Maybe this is part of the answer: self-pity is a refusal to participate in the joy of God.

The two halves of an emotion

It seems to me that emotions come in two separate pieces. One half is the feeling itself, something which more or less just happens to us. We have little control over it. The other half is our attitude toward those feelings. That’s something we do have a choice about. For example, to feel angry is not by itself sin, but to embrace it and agree with it usually is (James 1:20). It’s similar for fear, sorrow, and other negative emotions. (Note that I’m not just saying that we shouldn’t always act on what we feel. I’m saying that even when I refrain from acting, I may sin in attitude by inwardly embracing a certain feeling.)

I suppose the same thing must be true of positive emotions. Sometimes we find ourselves simply gifted with a good mood. Several years ago God delivered me from a significant portion of the depression I was struggling with by waking me up one morning feeling deeply happy for no reason I could figure out. Even when the feeling passed, the memory of it lingered and changed how I saw life. I didn’t cause that: it just happened. When these positive feelings happen, though, we need to respond to them, to assent to them somehow with our minds and wills.

I don’t always know how to do this. When I try to “work up” positive emotions, it generally creates a feeling of underlying despair in me at the same time. So I tend not to do that. Most people don’t report the same phenomenon, so maybe that’s just something wrong with the way my emotions work. I speculate that instead of stirring up positive emotions the proper response is to give praise and thanks. I’m not sure.

I think a part of it is whether I identify with my emotions or not. I feel fear frequently. There is a big difference between whether I think “This is me, feeling really afraid”, or “Here I am, created to be brave in Christ, but being assailed by fear.” (2 Tim 1:7. See also 1 Peter 2:11.)

Scripture

I think the key to shaping our emotions, or rather, letting God shape them, must be Scripture. We need to figure out how to read the Bible in such a way that it changes how we feel.

When I first got saved, a lot of believers around me kept telling me to “stop thinking so much” and trust God’s wisdom rather than man’s.  I tried for a year not to think, but I couldn’t seem to help it. Finally I prayed: “God, I’m trying, but I keep thinking about everything anyway!” I felt as though God answered back: “Kevin – don’t you think I know how much you think about everything? Don’t you think I made you that way? You don’t have to stop thinking. Just be sure you always surrender your thinking to me.”

I think emotions must be similar. God says to us, “Don’t you think I made you to feel? You don’t have to stop feeling, just be sure you always surrender your feelings to me.” Just as I want my thoughts to be increasingly conformed to the Bible, so that my world-view becomes thoroughly Christian, I also want my feelings to be increasingly Biblical. (Compare Romans 12:2 with Colossians 3:2, KJV.)

There are some great resources in the Bible for re-orienting our emotions. Do a word study of “compassion” in the gospels, for example. Look carefully at all the gushy parts of Paul’s epistles – we usually skip past those parts because they don’t have a lot of doctrine, but in them Paul expressed deep affection for those he wrote to.  Do you have a distorted view of romantic love and/or lust? Then studying Song of Solomon is probably a great way to imprint a new set of desires.

Of course, by far the best place in Scripture to learn about emotions is the Psalms. There, more than anywhere, God says to us, “Here is how a man feels when he is pursuing me.”

Furthermore, the Psalms are prayers, which is important. The best way I’ve found of shaping my emotions around a Scriptural pattern is to pray it back to God. As I do, I think about my own situation and draw on the imagery of the Psalm to pray about what is on my own heart.

When I read Scripture doctrinally, I love to look for the surprises in it. I put myself in the place of the writer and try to imagine that I am saying it. Then, when I get to something that I wouldn’t have said, I ask why. It usually signals some way in which my thinking is not completely aligned with Scripture. We can do the same thing emotionally when we pray the Psalms. As we pray them back, we can look for the phrases, or the patterns of emphasis, that jar us, that seem a little out of tune. These can be signals that our feelings are not quite lined up with God’s ideal.

Isn’t it possible that some of the Psalms hold emotional patterns that are not good for us to emulate? Some seem overly depressing in places, for example. Others seem awfully vindictive. Some Christian writers have suggested that it isn’t really spiritually safe for us to pray the imprecatory Psalms (the ones that call down judgment).

I think, though, that we don’t have to worry too much about this. Compare what I’m saying to the parallel case of doctrine. We evangelicals believe the Scripture is “truth without any mixture of error”. Although God could have communicated his truth using a Scripture with lots of errors in it, those of us who affirm inerrancy as a doctrine don’t believe He did that. At the same time, we believe that context is important. There are times when Scripture records that a certain person believed this idea or that idea, and goes on to identify that person’s belief as false. To see whether an isolated statement in the Bible is doctrinally true, we have to read on and see how the rest of the passage comments on it.

If we believe that the Scripture is doctrinally reliable, I believe we can assume that it is emotionally reliable too. Yes, Scripture shows a lot of people with lots of different emotional responses, and yes, sometimes it goes on to comment on how their responses were inappropriate. But if we are careful to take things in context, and take the whole of Scripture into account, I believe we can trust the emotional heart of the Scriptures we read. The Psalms are emotionally as well as doctrinally true, and we can safely mold our passions around Scriptural examples.

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“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I heard someone say this weekend that he hates that saying. He sees it as a way for Christians to make excuses for their sin.

I love the saying, but I see it completely differently. I see it as a statement of humility. We stop trying to claim to the world that we have got it all together, and instead insist that the primary difference in our lives is not us but Christ and his grace. Of course, we still keep trying to live more holy lives, but we never see ourselves as having arrived.

My wife doesn’t like the saying. She sees it as too defeatist, as not recognizing all that we’ve been given in Christ. We aren’t perfect, but  neither are we just forgiven. God has done so much more for us than that. Our very natures have been transformed, the power of sin in our lives has been destroyed, and we’ve been given the destiny of becoming like Christ.

What do y’all think?

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Soul-searching petition

Two kinds of prayer

The kind of praying I love to do most is deep, self-reflective, and cathartic. I set aside 2-3 hours to spend time with God. I begin by reading a bunch of different Scripture passages. I ask the Holy Spirit to use them to reveal Himself to me. Sometimes I am shown promises I need to trust God for. Often I discover sinful attitudes I need to repent of. I do lots of soul-searching. At the end, my circumstances haven’t changed but I feel washed inside and re-centered.

When I don’t have the luxury of living in my head (which is where I am most comfortable), I do another kind of praying. I keep up a sort of running conversation with God as I work my way through the day’s responsibilities. I ask him to guide and bless my work as I prepare for classes, lecture, grade homework, talk to students, and so on. I’m not very naturally organized, so I talk to myself (out loud, often!) as I sort through the day, and I include God in the conversation.

I’ve tended to think of petition as belonging to the second sort of prayer. When I pray for specific needs they are concrete needs. I bring them to God when I am in the mode of arranging my activities and goals for Him. If it’s my responsibility to teach a math class, then as part of my responsibility I should pray for the students and for my lecture.

This week I’m being reminded that there is another kind of petition, a soul-searching, psychologically cathartic kind.

When I spent extended time alone with God in the past, He often pushed me to reflect on and confront the state of my heart, including the things that make me afraid or resentful, the sins I cling to, my secret ambitions, the wrong ideas I have about Him. Recently, I’ve tried to be vulnerable before Him about what I want in practical life and what has been a disappointment to me.

The key discipline in this respect has been petition. It is as though God says, “What do you want me to do for you?” In pondering that question, I find myself becoming aware of the things I’m frustrated or defeated by. I realize that so far God hasn’t answered my prayers in those areas the way I wanted Him to. That leads to a lot of reflection on why I wanted what I did, and whether it’s the best thing to want, and why God hasn’t come through as I expected, and what I should be praying for from now on. I end up discovering where I have faith and where I don’t.

I just said that this kind of reflective petition leads to my asking what I should be praying for from now on. That’s very important. In a previous post, I protested against the view that we pray only because of how it changes us. We don’t just pray to change our attitudes, we pray in the expectation that God will respond to our prayers. That’s definitely true of what I am talking about here. It’s not a matter of learning to be content with life as it is. It’s learning how to realistically trust that life can become something much more than it is. Soul-searching petition begins and ends with real petitions, and the real hope that God will answer them.

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