Jesus’ faith

I was thinking over the weekend about Jesus’ teaching about faith.

I love that when you consider the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, it’s so different than we we imagine it. He talked about money so much! He talked about the kingdom an awful lot. And he talked lots and lots about faith.

On the one hand, he seemed to have an almost carefree approach to life, because he was so sure the Father would take care of his every need, and he exhorted his disciples to think the same way. On the other hand, he never seemed attached to earthly *stuff* at all. He expected persecution and homelessness (Luke 9:57-58) for instance.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I don’t strike that balance well.

If I focus on expecting God to meet my needs here on earth, I become attached to what I’ve got and how comfortable life can be, and get too self-indulgent. If I focus on heavenly instead of earthly blessings, I tend to get *serious* and *responsible* and, eventually, worried.

Jesus’ way of living is very attractive to me. He seemed so free. He traveled so lightly through life, unburdened by either worry or luxury. (Matthew 11:28-30, 13:22b).

What does this kind of faith look like? For me, it is somehow connected to being simply happy.

Anyway, that’s one of my goals this week: to grow in this kind of everyday trust in the Father.

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Jacques Ellul

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, and finding it really fascinating. It’s a study of the way that the city in Scripture stands for the pride of man as he attempts to live without God (like a smaller version of “the world”). Babylon, especially, tends to signify this, all the way from the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) to the fall of Babylon near the end of Revelation.

In the most recent chapter, Ellul was talking about how we are called to live in the city as Christians and seek its welfare without adopting its values or worldview (like being “in the world but not of the world”). I’ve been feeling more and more in recent years that God is calling me to do the best I can in my secular job – teaching at a community college – and have been sorting out how to do this without getting tangled up in world-centeredness. Ellul’s ideas have made it a lot easier for me to think clearly about that question.

Ellul has also been emphasizing the judgment God has already pronounced upon the city (and the world), and that Christians wait for that judgment. That’s something else that resonates with me because in the last few years I’ve become aware how much the expectation that Jesus was coming back to earth one day was an important part of the gospel for the first-century Christians. In our day, we’ve replaced it by the hope of going to heaven, which means we’ve made the gospel something relevant only to individuals. We don’t see Jesus as the Lord and eventual Redeemer of society as well.

Ellul closed the chapter I just finished reading by emphasizing that even though we are waiting for judgment to fall, we should also be praying for mercy and revival, praying that it won’t fall yet. That’s an important corrective for some of the things I’ve been struggling with as I sort out our political duties as Christians.

Finally, Ellul’s approach to interpreting Scripture is one I find really valuable, although I was keenly aware as I was reading that most Christians would say it was bad interpretation. That’s got me reconsidering and expanding my views of what it means to interpret Scripture. I think we have sometimes been too narrow in our understanding of what the right kind interpretation must look like.

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Tithing as a prayer

We’ve been looking at these verses in Sunday School:

Honor the LORD from your wealth
And from the first of all your produce;
So your barns will be filled with plenty
And your vats will overflow with new wine. (Proverbs 3:9-10)

Apparently there’s a connection between whether we tithe (or, at least, give something off the top to God) and financial abundance.

I was raised to tithe regularly, and Kate and I have done so all our lives together, but we haven’t always had full barns, so to speak. I still remember when I was in grad school and we couldn’t afford to get a new light bulb when one burned out, so we just kept moving the working light bulbs from room to room as necessary. We’ve always somehow gotten by, though, and compared to the people in the Old Testament times I suppose anyone in the US is living in luxury.

But God seems to be putting this verse on my heart these days, so I’m trying to understand what to do with it.

Does it mean we need to give more? Of course we could be more generous (which of us couldn’t?), but I’m not aware of any sin on our part as far as that’s concerned, and I don’t think that’s the point God wants me to get from these verses.

Does it mean God is promising to bless us financially in some new way? Certainly, we’ve been more financially strapped than usual recently, due to several unexpected hospital bills and automotive problems. I don’t see anything in these verses to suggest that God is going to provide differently going forward than he has in the past, though. I don’t think he’s promising anything like that.

Rather, I think he wants me to simply become aware of the connection between our giving and his provision — not in pride, nor in guilt, but simply aware. As part of this I’ve started trying something simple. It used to be that, whenever I put our tithe into the offering plate at church, I would say silently to God, “This is for you, as an act of worship”. Yesterday as I placed the tithe into the plate I said silently to God, “This tithe is my prayer to you, that you would take care of us financially.”

I’ve never thought of tithing as a prayer before. It’s sort of cool, whether or not our financial situation changes in any noticeable way.

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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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Tough faith

In my devotional readings for this week, the common theme I saw was that sometimes God puts us in positions where we are expected to be strong in Him even though we feel particularly weak. It’s been a crazy week for me, and I am convicted that it is easy for me to trust less and serve less than I should when I think I have an excuse.

These were the passages:

Exodus 4:10-17, in which Moses asks God to send someone else because he can’t speak well, and God gets angry,

2 Chronicles 14, in which Asa has 10 good years followed by a sudden crisis, out of which God delivers him — the climax is verse 11 where he calls out to God as the one who delivers those who have no strength,

Job 40:6-14, in which God says to Job, “You think you’re man enough to accuse me? Let’s see how tough you really are!” (interesting how when we think we’re too weak to live by faith, we also think we’re strong enough to defy God),

Ezekiel 1:1-12 in which the Jewish leaders are huddled in their city, feeling self-pitying and defeated (see v. 3),  but not dealing with their own sin,

Luke 7:24-30, in which Jesus praises the rugged, uncompromising John the Baptist, and

Titus 1:5-10, in which the requirements for an overseer (elder/pastor) are given, culminating in the overseer’s responsibility to keep resisting false teaching no matter how much it keeps on arising.

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The reliability of emotions

Phase 1

During 1980s, I would have described myself as essentially unemotional. I made decisions by surveying the various options and choosing whatever made the most sense.When people talked about being led by the Holy Spirit’s promptings, I had no idea what they were talking about: either a choice made Biblical and rational sense, or it did not. If someone asked me how I felt about something, I always had to stop and work it out; it wasn’t something I was normally even conscious of.

Phase 2

In the early 1990s, God challenged me to live more emotionally. I tried to be more aware of my feelings. I tried to grow grow in feelings of compassion for other people. I looked for a way to understand the promptings of the Holy Spirit through my emotions that was consistent with my theology about living Biblically. I started paying attention to my intuitions about things.

Phase 3

In the mid 1990s I went into a fairly deep depression for a few years. It undid my emotional moorings. Eventually, I learned to “white-knuckle” my way through life; that is, I ignored my feelings and just operated on will and reason.  My emotional energy came from a kind of slow-burning angry rejection of anything hopeful or positive. If I kept reminding myself I’d given up, it was easy to just do whatever needed to be done.

Phase 4

In the late mid 2000s the anger gradually faded and I rediscovered hope and purpose. When I lived hopefully, though, I lost my ability to live a disciplined life. It was a dilemma. I could live hopefully and sloppily, or I could be determined and bitter. I could get lots of things done with a bad attitude or very little done with a cheerful heart.

Phase 5

These days I’ve figured out how to balance positive feelings with strength of will, but, oddly, the trustworthiness of my emotions fluctuates in predictable ways.

Every few days, for a few days at a time, the emotional part of my walk with God just flows. I’m aware of my feelings about things, and they serve as reliable guides for me. If I feel concerned for someone, it’s a sign that I should start praying for them; if I feel guilty about something, God is probably convicting me to change it; if I sense that a certain Scripture is important for me right now, it probably is. I make a lot of my decisions based on my intuitions about what would be best to do, and it all works out well.

Then, a few days later, my emotions become unreliable for a while. If I act on my concern for someone, I just make things worse; if I feel guilty, it’s usually false guilt that just becomes a burden; if I sense that a Scripture is important, I discover in hindsight that I misinterpreted it. My intuitions are ambiguous and misleading. When this happens, I revert to functioning by reason and will-power alone. I’ve also noticed that certain events in my life trigger this kind of emotional unreliability. I’ve learned to discount whatever I feel God is showing me during those periods, because I’ll get it wrong.

So that’s where I am currently: the first thing I have to do is to discern what stage I’m in, and emotional or a reason-alone stage. Then, I respond in kind.

What about you? Feel free to comment.

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Mysticism, emotions and the occult

A few weeks ago I watched The Green Lantern. In that movie, there are a bunch of people who have the power to just think things and make them happen. They do it using the power of will which is the greatest source of energy in the universe (who knew?). Also, it’s green. Except their enemies use the power of fear, which is the other greatest source of energy in the universe. And it’s yellow.

When one of the characters is considering getting hooked up with the evil yellow energy, he is told to surrender to the feelings of fear within him, to let them overwhelm him. It reminded me of the moment in Star Wars when Luke is urged to feel the hatred within him and surrender to it as a means of gaining more power. In both case we have (essentially) magical powers that are wielded by surrendering to strong emotions.

This is actually all really interesting stuff. Why is it that so many stories connect magical powers with really strong feelings? It’s nearly archetypal.

I think one reason is simple. No one really knows what it would be like to have magical powers, and storytellers want to portray magic-wielders in a way everyone can identify with. Strong emotions are an easy substitute. If we can see an actor scrunching up his face in agonized concentration as he battles with the enemy, we feel as though we know what it would be like to be him, doing what he is doing. When Luke has to resist being swallowed by his hatred, we know from our own experiences what that struggle is like, and that knowledge makes it easier for us to imagine being tempted by the dark side of the Force.

I think there’s more though. I think when fear or hatred overwhelms us, if feels to us like we lose ourselves a little. We feel possessed by our emotion, controlled by it, drowning in it.  It seems transcendent, bigger than life, bigger than us. It feels a little magical, a little supernatural.

Which brings me to an odd fact about the portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.

In the Old Testament, the word for “spirit” is used in three different relevant ways.

  • First, when people were chosen by God to serve Him in some special way, the Holy Spirit would fill them to inspire or empower them for that service.  For example, Samson gained supernatural strength when the “Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him”. Others were given the ability to prophesy or do miracles or even design the tabernacle.
  • Second, demonic and angelic beings were referred to as spirits. For example, according to 1 Samuel 16, when David was anointed as king by Samuel “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power”, but at the same time “an evil spirit” began to torment Saul.
  • Third, the spirit of a person is portrayed as the seat of strong emotion in the Old Testament. For example, people who get angry are “enraged in spirit” and people who are encouraged “revive in spirit”.

Often the senses are combined in one passage. Someone is said to be stirred up in spirit when the Spirit of God begins to work in them.

Skeptics of the supernatural assume that in ancient times people simply confused the feeling of being overwhelmed by emotion with possession by a supernatural being. If we accept the Biblical claim that there really are supernatural beings though, then the picture we are left with is that the strong emotions of the human spirit are a channel through which the spirits transmit power to the human. Perhaps surrendering to intense fear or hatred really is a little closer to literal demon possession that we would like to think. Maybe that’s partly why the moviemakers instinctively portray things that way.

That wouldn’t mean that emotions are bad or even that spiritual openness to the supernatural world is bad. The Old Testament warns people to stay away from the occult, but not so much because it is dangerous as because it is idolatrous. It doesn’t imply that we should remain spiritually closed and stay safe but that we should be looking to God in everything. The ideal Christian is not ultra-rational, emotionally cool, and opposed to mysticism — although he is self-controlled. He is passionate, sensitive to the mystical realities of life, and spiritually disciplined.

I’ve become convinced in the last few years that we have a deep hunger for a mystical connection with the supernatural. I’ve also been sensing God pushing me to be more open to Him emotionally, more emotionally vulnerable to His supernatural activity in my life. I wonder if that would increase my mystical connection with Him in a real way. Although a couple of my Christian friends are convinced that mysticism is wrong for Christians, I’m don’t think it’s wrong if God is the source. As Eric said today in my Sunday School class, that hunger comes from God, who has “set eternity in [our] hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). I don’t want to fake it, though, and I don’t want anything that doesn’t come from God, no matter how it feels.

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Emotional openness

Two ways of watching movies

A few days ago, my two daughters Hannah and Bekah and I had an interesting conversation about how we watch movies.

First, Bekah and I analyze movies as we watch. Hannah analyzes movies and her reaction to them after seeing them, but as she is actually watching it is very important to her not to analyze.

Second, Hannah evaluates a movie almost entirely on the basis of how intensely it makes her experience the story. She doesn’t mean that a good movie has to explore grand themes. Some movies are about routine, about the ordinariness of life. That’s fine. Other movies end in emotional ambivalence or even confusion. That’s OK with Hannah too. What she wants, though, is for the movie to allow her to live through the story in the movie as though she had experienced it in her own life. She wants to have really felt the happiness or the tragedy or the sense of routine or the emotional ambivalence.

Bekah and I are more concerned with enjoying or appreciating the various things the movie does well. We have fun when it makes us laugh and enjoy the tingle when it makes us scared, but I think we don’t live through it the way Hannah does. I think it’s a little more distant from us than Hannah experiences.

The reason Hannah can’t analyze a movie as she watches is because she doesn’t want to put any wall between her and the story the movie is telling. She doesn’t want to hold it out at arms’ length and inspect it. She wants to get inside it and then enjoy the ride.

It’s also important to her not to know anything about a movie beforehand. She doesn’t even like to know whether other people liked the movie or not. She wants to experience it naively, without expectations or preconceptions about where it will lead.

Emotional Openness

As Hannah described all this, I realized that I do something very similar sometimes. At certain points in my life, I find myself listening very closely to someone, trying to understand how they see the world. When I do that, I slide into a special frame of mind, in which I suspend judgment as much as possible about how they think and feel, and just try to get them. I try not to compare what they are saying to my own way of looking at things until after I’m sure I’ve really heard what they mean.

Or again, when I interpret a Bible passage, praying about what it means, I find that it helps if I suspend all my expectations for the passage. If I come to a passage with questions or needs they can get in the way. It’s as though I am trying to listen to what the passage is telling me, but I keep talking the whole time. What I have had to learn to do is to be quiet, even in my own thoughts, and just let the Bible speak. I can’t even maintain the goal of being convicted, or being encouraged, or finding something to obey. All these things mean I am interrogating the passage to find out what I want to know instead of letting it simply speak to me.

When I do slip into either of these two mindsets, it always feels to me as though I am opening myself up to the person or the Bible passage. What Hannah does with a movie seems similar to me. She opens herself up emotionally to experience whatever the filmmaker is wanting her to experience. She waits through the whole movie to be sure she gets it all as a whole. Then afterwards she analyzes what has happened to her and how it has changed her.

In daily life

One of the things I’m wondering about is whether God is calling me to learn to take Hannah’s approach to life in general. I’ve been becoming aware in the last few years of the ways I distance myself emotionally from life. I seem to have two emotional gears: in one, I wallow in my feelings, which isn’t very healthy; in the other, I observe them from a distance and live in my head, which is turning out to be not all that healthy either.

I talked a few weeks ago with someone who is going through a kind of charismatic revival in her walk with God. She is experiencing some intense emotional highs in her Christian life and has begun to actively seek that kind of emotion in her prayer and worship. I’m not interested in pursuing emotion for emotion’s sake, and I’m a little leery of becoming too emotionally vulnerable just to be able to feel things more intensely. But it’s also possible to be too much in control emotionally, and I sense that perhaps that is more commonly where I go wrong.

I started thinking after my talk with Hannah that her approach to movies could be my approach to life. By letting go of expectations about how I should feel or want to feel about the day ahead, I can just let myself experience whatever there is. I can let God do whatever He wants to do without trying to fit it into a package labeled “What Life Should Be”.

At the same time if I avoid passing judgment on my emotional experiences as good or bad, if I just let them happen without appraising them as I go, it will keep me from the worst part of wallowing. There’s a kind of protection from the roller-coaster ride of emotions in the very fact that I am not identifying with them or connecting them to my other hopes and fears but just letting them flow over me.

I’m not sure if I entirely trust this approach. It feels like it might be dangerous. I don’t think it has to be narcissistic. I suppose the real question is whether it’s Spirit-led. So I’m not sure where I go from here. Certainly I’ll keep mulling it over. If I can, I’ll spend a little extra time in the Psalms (a good place to learn how to feel the way we’re supposed to). And for now, whatever each day bring to me emotionally I’ll try to accept without passing judgment on it.


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More about entanglements

Read the initial post first or this one won’t make sense.

There I said:

He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me and to care more about succeeding at it. He’s drawing me to pray more as I prepare classes, to ask His blessing on my students’ attitudes and understanding.

That’s not quite right. That is being entangled. What I should have said is that He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me, to discover its purpose, and to care more about seeing that purpose fulfilled.

Here’s the difference: I teach because I want my students to learn. I need to care about whether they learn. I shouldn’t be worried about whether they learn because of me, or in spite of me. It’s not my personal success that matters, it’s whether they learn. That’s why I pray for my students’ attitudes and understanding rather than for my own teaching. I think it was John Hopler, years ago, who said “Pray for the goal of the teaching more than the teaching”.

But that would put me in danger of becoming emotionally detached again. So having made that modification, I also need to add, “I think it pleases Him when I throw myself wholeheartedly into fulfilling that purpose with the confident expectation that He can use me.

Here’s the new difference: Although I care about seeing the students learn more than I care about having to be the one God uses to accomplish it, yet I also realize that God loves it when I try hard and trust hard to accomplish it.

Then if I succeed, great! If I fail personally, but God blesses the students around me anyway, also great! I know that my effort and heart was valued by him, even if He chose not to use me directly.

What if I fail personally and the students don’t learn? I want to say, “Great again! God is still in charge and I can trust Him to be working.” But, for me, that is another way of being emotionally detached from my students.

Instead, I think a better answer is to seek God more about it. That means first of all to let myself be a little sad that the students aren’t learning. Second, it means to wait on God in prayer, asking God what happened. Specifically I ask:

  • Did I set my goals too high? Was I aiming at something that wasn’t realistic, that wasn’t really His purpose for the job?
  • Is God trying to teach me something? Do I need to repent of something, or do I need to work at improving something in how I teach?
  • Are the students learning in ways that are hidden from me? Is God blessing in ways that I don’t see?
Finally, I can ask God to help me start over again, with a clear conscience and with renewed faith and joy.

Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.  — Isaiah 40:31, NASB

Anyway, I guess this is the new version:

He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me, to discover its purpose, and to care more about seeing that purpose fulfilled. I think it pleases Him when I throw myself wholeheartedly into fulfilling that purpose with the confident expectation that He can use me. He’s drawing me to pray more as I prepare classes, to ask His blessing on my students’ attitudes and understanding.

I expect I’ll change my mind about it again tomorrow! 🙂 I think God keeps me thinking about this because I’m not very consistent in doing it yet.


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