The Tragedy of Misunderstanding

Great tragedy can result from misunderstanding. Most people can probably point to times in which other people have misunderstood what they said or did. However, we are still so, so confident that we know exactly what other people mean by their words or actions. Other people need to be careful, but we do not. Shouldn’t it rather be the other way around, in a sense? By that I mean (lest I be misunderstood!) that we should make every effort to be crystal clear in our own communication, and yet be very cautious about what other people say and do? Should we not make every effort to prevent misunderstanding by clarity in our own words? And yet shouldn’t we also be very generous (or at the very least patient!) in how we read other people’s actions and words? Yet we live today in a society that tends to encourage people to put the onus of responsibility on other people: it’s their fault for misunderstanding us, not our fault for being unclear. We tend to assume that our own words were clear, and that it is other people’s fault for misunderstanding.

The other problem we have is that postmodernism has put the location of meaning within the reader instead of the author, or at the very least unbalanced the relationship between reader and author. If past generations ignored the reader, today’s people almost ignore the author.

Should we not always ask this question: what don’t I know about what I just heard? Should we not always ask: what extenuating circumstances might there be? Should we not always ask: have I heard both sides of the story? I do not get the impression that very many people are asking these sorts of self-diagnostic questions about their own interpretive procedures. Could this be one component of why America is so very, very angry today? We hear one side of an issue, and we rush to a judgment. How about slowing down a bit and listening, especially listening hard to those people we don’t agree with? We might even want to listen MORE carefully, not less, to the people we “despise.” If we don’t, then we run the risk of letting our emotions cloud our judgment of what was even said, done, meant, etc. High emotions are not conducive to understanding. They aren’t bad, but if our goal is to understand, then they can get in the way if we are not careful. Of course, many people simply don’t want to listen anymore. That is the real tragedy of misunderstanding.

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On Confessing Specific Sins

I have heard many people confess sin in an exclusively generic way: “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” While it is certainly a good thing to acknowledge that there are sins that we have committed that we don’t know about directly, either because of our ignorance, or because of an underdeveloped conscience, or for some other reason; nevertheless, it is not healthy at all to confess this way all the time. Confessing specific sins to God comes with the following benefits (which can also be viewed as reasons to do so):

1. It helps develop our conscience. The work of the Holy Spirit is a gradual one in the Christian life. He sharpens our conscience, so that sins that we were committing unwittingly before become conscious later on. This process can have the incidental effect of tempting us to think that we are worse sinners later in the Christian life, when what is actually happening is that we are becoming more sensitive to our sin. Confessing our specific sins is integral to this process of discovery. We start to see the interconnected nature of our sins, and how one sin leads to another. Confessing only generically will actually deaden our consciences over time.

2. We develop a far more accurate picture of who we are in relationship to God and to other people. Confessing only in a general way tempts us to think that we are far better people than we actually are. There is an epidemic of self-satisfied Christians in the world, who might, on a theoretical level acknowledge that they are sinners, but who become extremely perturbed when told of a supposed actual sin that they might possibly have committed. Whereas, if we are confessing specific sins to God, we will not be so surprised to find out that other people have noticed some of our faults. Confessing only generically will grossly distort our own self-portrait.

3. Confessing specific sins helps us to empathize better with other Christians and with those whose consciences have been awakened to a realization of their sin. All Christians struggle with sin. All Christians fight the good fight. Isn’t that fight hard enough without other people constantly telling us how inadequate we are? Of course we are inadequate! If we were adequate, it would be because we were in heaven. But it seems clear enough that one of the reasons why some Christian lack empathy is because they rarely confess specific sins, and therefore think of themselves as only theoretical sinners, and not actual sinners, and thus better than their struggling church family members. In this way, point 3 connects very closely with point 2. Confessing only generic sin will result in a serious lack of empathy and love for other believers.

4. Confessing specific sins will sharpen our understanding of the law and its requirements, which will in turn hone our understanding of the gospel. The gospel cheapens in our minds when we think we have less need of salvation.

So, with all of this in mind, how do we confess specific sins better? For this, a study of God’s law is indispensable. We must understand the proper rubrics that WLC 99 so eloquently lay out: 1. that the Ten Commandments always lay out the most extreme form of the sin or duty in view. 2. that all sins of the same category are included under the most extreme form (as well as all sins which lead to the most extreme form); 3. that not only outward behavior, but also our inner thoughts are included; and 4. that where the law commands something, the opposite is forbidden, and vice versa; as well as that if something is promised, then the opposite is threatened, and vice versa. It is only as we understand the perfection that the law demands that our consciences will become more adept at self-judgment.

However, a growing understanding of the gospel is also essential, because if we forget the gospel with regard to the confession of sins, then we will simply lose all desire to confess our sins. We will forget the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, and we will therefore think that it is better to live with the burden than to try to rid ourselves of it through Christ. The gospel is the promise of the clean slate, due to Christ’s blood and righteousness, and the promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

What do you do with your guilt?

Lots of people have been raised on guilt like it was their bread and butter. If they didn’t measure up in any way, guilt! If they transgressed in any way (whether the Bible defined it or the parents defined it didn’t always matter), guilt! Guilt was made to seem like the way of the Christian. If you weren’t feeling guilt, then you wouldn’t stay in line. Guilt was the fence to keep people from going crazy.

This guilt came from fear, because Christian homes were afraid of the world out there, and the hedonism it advocated. They felt that they needed to erect barriers against the world’s influence. Guilt is a powerful weapon in the hands of scared parents. Of course, since many parents never told their children what to do with the guilt (since, if they did, they would lose their best weapon, and the children would go berserk!), the children learned to find ways to cope. Unfortunately, these ways of coping did not take away the feeling of guilt.

The various ineffective ways of dealing with guilt include distraction (food, entertainment, fun events, idealistic crusades, feverish workaholism), self-atonement (making oneself feel really bad, and even guiltier than before, even wallowing in it, so that one can atone a bit and feel a bit less guilty afterward), projection (if I make everyone around me feel guilty, then I will feel less guilty: one suspects this the real origin of the “Jewish mother” caricature), and ignoring it (this never works very well even temporarily).

Feelings of guilt can come from two sources, and these two sources must be handled quite differently. 1. Feelings of guilt can come from actual sin. There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says. However, some people have a proud streak in them, and they won’t let go of their guilt feelings even if their actual guilt before God is gone. Here is it vitally important to make a distinction between actual guilt and feelings of guilt. After all, it is possible to feel guilty even when one has done nothing wrong. It is also possible, through a seared conscience, not to feel guilty even if one has actually sinned. If a person is not letting go of their guilt even after taking it all to Jesus and repenting, then the theological point must be made: this is pride speaking. The person is saying that Jesus’ blood isn’t really good enough to cover all my sins. I need to “double atone” by feeling guilty, even after I read that Jesus has forgiven me. This is a deep theological problem, which can only be answered by stressing the divinity of Christ, and hence the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice.

2. The second source of feelings of guilt arise out of things that are not sins, but which the person has been duped into thinking are sins. These would be man-made additions to God’s law. The answer is different: education must take place about what God actually requires and what He doesn’t. Here we can think easily of the questions of alcohol, smoking, and other things that fall within the realm of Christian liberty. Of course, Christian liberty is always bounded in these matters by the weaker brother: we never want to make someone else stumble. However, and teetotallers seem to be especially prone to instigating this, we can easily be made to feel guilty by someone who believes in “not a drop.”

The million dollar question that remains is this: if we were to shed all this extra, unneeded guilt, how in the world will we stay in line? Several things need to be said here. Firstly, guilt does not keep people in line! If a person feels guilty, they are most likely to think, “Well, since I’ve already done this, what’s a little more sin?” They are not likely to think that they do not want to become more guilty. Secondly, the cross of Christ has resources not just for forgiveness and the removal of guilt, but also the removal of sin’s power in our lives. we have the Holy Spirit! Remember our theology: justification never happens without sanctification coming along for the ride! Actually, what we need to know is that the beautiful feeling of a clean slate is much more motivating to holiness than guilt is. For then we can plug into the gratitude that we know when we are forgiven. We then have a good thing: we wouldn’t want to damage it. This is a far more effective way of dealing with guilt than the ineffective ones listed above.

Warnings Against Presumption

A very incisive warning against false security is found in Eichrodt’s commentary on Ezekiel 5:5-17:

In both passages (he means Ezekiel 16:48ff in addition to 5:5-17, LK) we see the special danger which overhangs the God-given gift of grace. It is that false security, which prides itself upon its privileged position, making it into a pillow for human sloth and selfishness to slumber on. God’s free gift ought to be regarded as a call to service; it does not at all satisfy man’s lustful desires, but it does open to the human will a new possibility of union with God’s saving will. But man instead soothes himself with irrevocable assurances of the divine good pleasure, so as to save himself from having to make any efforts, and to make him the proprietor of a divine domain specially reserved for him alone to enjoy. This refusal to make the right response to the question which lies in God’s gift can have no other outcome but disregard for the ‘statutes and ordinances'” (Eichrodt, Ezekiel, p. 91).

Identity Crisis

There can be no doubt that many, many people are experiencing identity crises these days. How people see themselves is usually determined by what other people think about them, or else it becomes something that they set a standard for themselves. Of course, the “high self-esteem” gurus have held the field for decades now. The problem, they say, is that people simply have too low a self-esteem, and that we need to encourage people to build up their self-esteem. Is this the answer?

While I have several important theological differences with Tim Keller, the little booklet he wrote called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is not one of them. He starts off discussing the problem of self-esteem, and, quoting Lauren Slater’s New York Times article of 2002, notes that it is rather high self-esteem, or hubris, or pride, that seems to be the problem, whether it is that someone has an over-inflated view of themselves, or an under-inflated (implying a previously inflated) view. The imagery of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3-4 describing ego and hubris uses the amusing metaphor of bellows at a forge: empty, painful, busy, and fragile.

The biggest problems in this area are that we look for approval in the wrong places, and by the wrong people. A blogger can write just to please his readership and get that many more hits. Or, a preacher can tell a congregation what their itching ears want to hear. The problem, as Keller points out, is that looking for approval in these places is a black hole (citing the example of Madonna’s rather honest self-portraiture), a bottomless pit that can never be filled.

What matters is not how other people evaluate us, nor how we evaluate ourselves, but what God says about us. This simultaneously results in a feeling of being filled, contrary to the bottomless emptiness of what humanity can do in ascribing worth to people; and also, a justification in God’s courtroom. Keller connects true biblical self-worth to justification. We are worth what God says we are worth, and His declaration of innocence (Keller mentions the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) defines our worth. The quote of the book is on page 39:

For the Buddhist…performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that Christianity, the verdict leads to performance.

Of course, Keller is not addressing the fine-tuned discussions between Westminster East and Westminster West about the relative order and relationship of justification and sanctification. At any rate, contrary to the contemporary grace movement, Keller does not shy away from performance. One might wish that he would have included a statement to the effect that even the performance is based on the enabling grace of God. Presumably, however, he would not disagree with that. All in all, a helpful little exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.

The Importance of Distractions

When it comes to work and various forms of non-work, there are two, rather obvious extremes to avoid. The first is the lazy bum who can’t be bothered to get off his couch in order to stop being a potato chip. The other is the workaholic who works himself into an early grave. Both are rather common in America. The latter was more common when there was a better work ethic, which ethic has all but disappeared recently. However, it is the workaholic that I am addressing in this post.

There are at least two aspects to being a workaholic. The first is simply never taking a break. They would work 24/7 if they could, but they get as close as they can. Sometimes, they are motivated by thinking that busyness equals holiness.

The second aspect, which usually but not always accompanies the first, is obsession over certain parts of the job. Maybe it is a negative relationship that has the worker obsessed. Maybe it is an obstacle to doing the work correctly. Workaholics usually obsess in some way or another over their work.

This is why I believe that distractions are vitally important for the person who is tempted to be a workaholic. What do I mean by “distractions?” I don’t mean the five minute interruptions of work when a colleague drops by, although those can be welcome breaks as well. I am talking about having some form of distraction that takes a person out of the world of their work, and places them in an entirely different realm.

Just to take an example, I do not read much fiction that is about pastoral ministry. Why? Because that does not take me out of the realm of pastoral ministry. I might read such fiction as part of my regularly scheduled work, if that fiction were valuable enough (usually it gets buried at the bottom of the reading list, though). If I am going to read fiction, then I want to read something that takes me out of this world, so that I can come back to this world more refreshed, and with a less cynical eye. Epic fantasy usually does the trick for me in this regard. It is quite literally another world.

Another example from my personal life will help. 2015 was an extremely difficult year for my wife and I in many, varied ways. In fact, I can confidently assert that it was the worst year of our lives. Obsession about the church was always lurking right around the corner, wanting to grab me and ruin my work days, and keep me from sleep. If it hadn’t been for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I think my wife and I would both have gone insane (2016 is proving to be FAR easier so far, with many of the issues of 2015 resolved). It didn’t always work completely. Sometimes I would go back to obsessing over the church after watching STDSN. However, even the break was still helpful.

Remember this, however. Any distraction that might be healthy in itself can become unhealthy if it becomes itself a new obsession. This blog post is not addressing lazy people, but obsessing people. The dangers of becoming enslaved to entertainment are many, and many have pointed them out.

So, what kind of distractions would help fill the bill? Hands down, the most important thing about your chosen distraction is that it be full of humor. The cliche “Laughter is the best medicine” is not less true just because it is a cliche (to use another cliche).

So, stop obsessing, and take a break. I will close with a story of two woodcutters who decided to have a wood-chopping competition. One woodcutter started with his axe, and took no breaks whatsoever. The other one took frequent breaks. At the end of the day, the one who took no breaks was astonished to find that the other man had cut much more wood than he had. So he said, “I didn’t take a single break. How come you cut so much more wood than I did?” The other man replied, “Ah, but you may not have noticed that when I rested, I was sharpening my axe.” Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.

God at Your Right Hand

Psalm 16:8 has always been comforting to me. However, it just became even more so when I understood the imagery involved. One commentator has explained that this is military imagery. To be at someone’s right hand infers that the shield a soldier holds is in his left hand. He holds the sword with his right. This means that he is vulnerable to attack on his right side. However, if you have a good partner at your right hand, his shield (held in his left hand) can protect you from attacks coming from that direction. In other words, the Psalmist is saying that God protects you in those very places where you are most vulnerable to attack. This is immensely comforting to me, and should be comforting to all Christians.

This is especially relevant in terms of those sins that are habitual in us, to which we are most prone to fall. We need to stop thinking of God as adversarial to us in this struggle, and start thinking of Him as our greatest (and first!) resource to fight the sin. He is at our right hand. I know that I have had trouble thinking the wrong way about God in these kinds of situations. I am tempted to think of God only as accusatory, or disappointed. Now, God our Father does not like our sin, and He wants it gone from us. And he can be a stern Father, allowing us to face the consequences of our sins for our good through discipline. However, there is more to the situation than that. After all, there must be a reason why these sins are not completely conquered at conversion. There must be a reason why God does not wave a magic wand and all our sin is gone. There are so many layers to our self-reliance that God strips away throughout our Christian lives. A realization that all power to conquer sin comes from God is the goal here. Until we stop thinking of God as a last resort, we will still fall prey habitually to those sins. It is only when we run first to Jesus at the first sign of temptation that we can make any progress in fighting these sins. Run first to your Shield-Mate. When we run away from Him, our entire right side is exposed to the attacks of Satan. It is not wise, but it is all too often what we do.

The Fear of Man Versus the Fear of God

Most Christians have probably heard something about the fear of man and the fear of God. However, many Christians fail to see when they do not have the proper perspective on what they do. The fear of man is insidious, creepy, and sneaky. It can disguise itself in many ways, and people rationalize it in many ways. Carl Trueman has talked about one form of it in terms of conferences: only the best-known names get invited, and they get invited again, and again, and again. Why is this? Is it simple marketeering? Or is there a fear of man involved, in the sense that organizers think that only well-known names will be convincing. Where did the Holy Spirit go, I wonder?

Reasonably mature Christians will know that the fear of God, being the beginning of wisdom, constitutes a proper awe and reverence for the Lord God. However, what even mature Christians often forget is that the fear of man and the fear of God are on a teeter-totter. Austrian economics helps explain how wealth is created much better than Keynesian economics (in my opinion), but when it comes to the fear of man and the fear of God, it is a zero-sum game. As one goes up, the other goes down.

It seems to me that the more important a person becomes, the more famous, the more well-known, the wealthier, and the better placed, the temptations of the fear of man grow exponentially. Power is intoxicating, in whatever form one has it, and people who acquire this kind of power and respect become very loath to risk it in any way whatsoever.

In the Reformed world, this kind of respect comes from publishing a book, or becoming a professor at a seminary, or having a prominent position in the denomination, or having a large church. It is easy to forget how eminently expendable we are, and instead start to think (even if it is not as crassly put as this) how lucky God is to have us around.

The rubber really hits the road when these famous gurus are tempted to moderate their theological views for the sake of political expediency. If someone is just moderate enough, then he can win yet more influence. It can be rationalized by saying that we will still try to pull people over to the more conservative side by thus appearing more moderate. The only pulling that results, however, is toward the liberal side. Once we have begun to abandon our convictions, the game is up, and we have lost any ground that we thought to have gained.

What we really need is a return to the fear of God. Does God care more for how influential we are or how faithful we are? Do remember that Jeremiah, for instance, was told that no one would listen to him, but he should go anyway. How many of our gurus would be willing to go somewhere and preach if they were told that their message would pretty much automatically be rejected? Do we fear God at all? Or do we really fear man, and thus trust in our resources?

I say all of these things first and foremost to warn myself. I feel the pull of these things. I have never been a very good political operative. The joke about my family is that we aren’t precisely good material for the diplomatic corp. However, I do not relish conflict. Some of my readers will guffaw at this point, reading these words on a blog that has been known for debate since its inception. However, I have always been able to keep distinct in my mind debate from conflict. Debate is about issues, whereas conflict often has personalities getting involved, and tempers flaring, which I most certainly do not relish. Debate is often fun and as long as people stick to the issues and the logical arguments for and against, it can be helpful.

The thing about the fear of man is that it also tempts us to rather severe forms of narcissism. On that subject see this post I wrote about a year ago. The fear of man is what drives us to react in narcissistic ways both to praise and to criticism, things which ministers, in particular, get by the ream. A constant return to the fear of the Lord is a healthy antidote both to the fear of man, and to narcissism.

Advice to Young People

James Montgomery Boice has some excellent advice to young people in his sermon series on the Minor Prophets (volume 2, p. 510). He identifies a major problem with young people today:

As I counsel with people in our day, many of them young people, I am convinced that one of their biggest problems is that they expect shortcuts. They want a simple principle that will explain all the Bible and eliminate the need for concentrated and prolonged Bible study. They want an experience that will set them on a new spiritual plateau and eliminate the need for hard climbing up the steep mountain paths of discipleship. They want a fellowship that has all the elements of a perfect heavenly fellowship without the work of building up those elements by their own hard work and active participation. This is not the way God has ordered things. He could have given shortcuts, but he has not.

To young people out there: there are no shortcuts. And if there are, they usually lead to long delays, as Pippin would say in The Fellowship of the Ring. Things are not going to be handed to you on a platter. Life is not something you can simply let happen to you. This is not a popular message in an age of instant gratification.

Young Christians often think this way as well. After the euphoria of conversion is passed, they often come to a hard shock: the Christian life is hard work! They often think that they didn’t sign up for this. As Pliable turns back in the Slough of Despond, the very first sign of trouble, so also do many today who call themselves Christians. However, as any seasoned Christian can tell you, conversion is the peace with God that starts the war on the world, the flesh, and the devil. In many ways, life is far more difficult after conversion than before.

Do not think of the Christian life as having shortcuts. Study your Bible thoroughly and deeply. Pray over it and meditate over it. Wrestle with God in prayer. Prepare for the Sabbath Day every single week, so that the Word will dwell richly in you. The Christian life is cumulative.

Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

People often ask the question of whether good works are necessary for salvation. Of course, a great deal depends on how one defines salvation in the question. The Bible’s usage is various. It can mean the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). It can mean the future glorified state (Romans 13:11). Surely, it can mean the entire order of salvation as well. Normally, of course, we refer it to simple conversion, “when we were saved.” Realizing these different aspects of our salvation is important to understanding the place of good works.

The other word that can be defined differently in the equation is the word “necessary.” Necessary can mean more than one thing as well. Is the noise of a cannon necessary to its being fired? Yes, but not as the cause of the firing of the cannon, but as part of the effect. Similarly, the time when something is necessary is important to consider. Is something necessary before something else, or after that something else? So, with his usual care and precision, Turretin helps us to understand just how works are necessary to salvation (17.3.14):

Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.

Are works necessary for salvation? Yes, as long as we understand our terms correctly, and so avoid both legalism and antinomianism. If we identify good works as necessary for justification in a constitutive way or a causative way, we have lapsed into legalism. Rather, good works are related to justification much as the noise of a cannon is related to the shot itself. The noise obviously does not constitute the cannonball flying through the air, nor does the noise cause the cannonball to fly through the air. But the noise is always there accompanying and resulting from the cannonball being fired.

Conversely, if we deny any relation of good works to justification, then we lapse into antinomianism. One simply cannot be truly justified without at the same time having the sanctification process start. We cannot separate justification and sanctification.

One last thing ought to be mentioned here. It is fatal to over-react to one error by lapsing into the other error. We can see this happen in history (Richard Baxter’s neonomianism as an over-reaction to the antinomianism of his day comes to mind). The way to react to the one error is to come back to the straight and narrow central path of the gospel that addresses ALL our needs with regard to sin: its condemning power, its reigning power, and its existing power. Justification answers the condemning power of sin. Sanctification answers the reigning power of sin. Glorification answers the existence of sin. Our good works, empowered by the Holy Spirit are a necessary part of the whole picture, in the way that Turretin explained above.

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