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).

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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.

Don’t Try to Impress God

One of the easiest traps into which believers fall is the trap of trying to impress God. We do this in quite a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.

One way we try to impress God is by trying to pray in a certain way. This is a little difficult to describe, but some of the elements include using flowery language because we think it will be more easily heard (important caveat: if the translation you use is the KJV, and you are rightly trying to pray God’s Word back to Him, then your language will inevitably sound archaic, and in this case that is excusable); not being honest in our prayers (because we think God can’t handle the truth); trying to maintain always a perfect facade in front of others, no matter how torn up we are inside (forgetting that God sees the heart); and using fake emotion to try to manipulate ourselves into greater piety through an emotional jolt.

Another way we try to impress God is through busyness. I am more and more convinced that there are lots of people out there, even in the church (and maybe especially in the church!) who think that they will either get into heaven by busyness, or will get a substantially greater reward of another kind by being busy. Busyness is not inherently bad, but which kind of busyness are we espousing and for what reason? Being busy about our Father’s business for His glory is one thing. Being busy to try to impress (especially so that God will tell us how lucky He is to have us around) is no good at all.

Often going along with this busyness is an attitude of impressiveness. We try to take on a persona that is fake to anyone who knows us really well, but quite effective at making us feel important. It is only a small step from here to the belief that we are indispensable to God.

Of course, these ways of trying to impress God are often really an attempt to mask ourselves from the real problem, which is that we fear man. Putting on an aura of perfection serves as an excellent cover-up to the fact that when it comes to God, we really feel empty and lifeless. Sometimes it is even more than a cover-up. We can use our aura of perfection as a substitute for a good relationship with God. Or, we can often think that impressing our neighbors is a way of impressing God. Yes, there are people just this deluded on planet earth.

It has been said often, and quite correctly, that one of the most amazing things about grace is that God sees everything inside us and loves us anyway. He knows the worst bits, the parts we keep from almost everyone (sometimes even our spouses), and He still loves His children.

Remember that Jesus’ blood is more powerful to cleanse than any sin is to stain. As has also often been pointed out, thinking that our sin is unforgivable is a form of spiritual pride (“Jesus’ blood would have to be extra special to take care of my sins, because they’re so much greater than anyone else’s”).

It might sound trite, but it is still good advice: get real with God. Be honest with Him in your prayers. I have a sneaking suspicion that He can handle it. Read Psalm 88, which is an excellent lesson in honesty with regard to prayer.

Tullian Tchividjian and the Contemporary Grace Movement

Tullian Tchividjian has had to step down as senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church as a result of an affair that he had in reaction to an affair that his wife Kim had. This is tragic on a number of levels. This is a very high profile PCA church. D. James Kennedy was the founding pastor of the church, and Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian also brought limelight to the church. But it is always Satan’s delight to get ministers to fall in just such a manner. He can bring the church into disrepute. He can provide fodder for unbelievers to laugh at the church and say, “You aren’t any different from us. Why should we join you?” He can shake the faith of many saints in that church as well as other churches.

This affair, I believe, is not unconnected with his theology of sanctification. It would be overly facile to claim that his theology of sanctification is the sole reason for the affair. There can be many factors involved, of which I know none except what he told the Washington Post. However, the contemporary grace movement does not have a proper view of sanctification, however right they may be on justification. I have read Tullian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. The problem with the book is that it does not encourage people very much to exert effort (which must, of course, always be Spirit-empowered, grace-driven). Tullian was reacting to a performance-based religion. The problem was that he over-reacted to performance-based religion. As a result, he almost certainly did not cultivate sanctification as well as he should have done. Doctrine always has consequences in one’s life.

Lest any should think I am trying to sound like I’m better than him, I will be the first to admit that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Not only that, but I take his example as a negative warning example to look to my sanctification, and look to my marriage, not to mention praying for him, and being as compassionate towards him as I can. He is a fellow minister in the PCA, and therefore my brother. This should drive us to our knees, folks. It is tragic that his theology did not provide the safeguards necessary in his sanctification to prevent this. It is tragic for his family. It is tragic for his church, and his presbytery. It is tragic for the PCA. Nevertheless, we must believe that God will use this for His glory, in ways that we don’t know about yet.

Narcissism in Ministry

I have been doing a little bit of reading on narcissism recently for various reasons, including a realization that I have some characteristics of this mental condition. There are many ways of defining narcissism, but probably the easiest way to define it is to remember the ancient myth from which the condition gets its name: Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. Words like “ingrown,” “egotistical,” “selfishness” will readily come to mind in defining this condition. Being wrapped up in oneself might be the best single description we could use. Another definition I have seen goes something like this: the primary characteristic of narcissism is an inappropriate lack of boundaries between the narcissist and the other person, whom he will attempt to use in some way. The narcissist sees the other person as an extension of himself. So, the other person exists to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.

One of the things that has been interesting in the literature so far is that the authors I have read agree that our culture encourages narcissism. It is a respectable sin. We give huge amounts of both criticism and idol-worship to the rich and famous, and both of these things encourage narcissism. The fact of the matter is that pastors get this at both ends as well. We have people who love to encourage us, and we have people who love to criticize us. It is just as easy to get self-complacent with the adulation as it is to get defensive about the criticism. Without the grace of God, pastors will VERY often allow this two-pronged engine to drive us into full pathological narcissism. The ministry is all about the minister at that point. The minister usurps the place of Jesus Christ. He becomes the personal lord and savior of his flock. You know that your minister has a big problem with this if he both flares up at the criticism and practically fawns over those people who praise him. What is interesting about this mental condition is that the situation is usually encouraged, while the word describing the situation is feared.

However, it can actually be a relief to know that there is a name for this kind of malady. A lot of people cringe mightily when they hear the term “narcissism.” However, the term (in the literature) is used to describe a range of symptoms. Some people, like myself, have some but not all of the symptoms. It might therefore be more accurate to say that such a person has narcissistic tendencies.

For the pastor who has this, the hardest part is admitting it. Once it is admitted, however, in a very real sense, half the battle is over. Most pastors know from counseling others what needs to happen for people to become less wrapped up in themselves: things like attending the means of grace, service to others, evangelism, and simply making up one’s mind that they will be interested in other people’s lives for the sake of the other person, and not for what he can get out of it.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a narcissist? Here are some clues. 1. The person cannot receive criticism of any kind, no matter how gently phrased. Typically, the narcissist will turn the criticism back on the person offering it. The narcissist gets so good at this kind of deflection that the one trying to offer criticism will be made to feel extremely guilty. 2. The narcissist turns every conversation into something about himself. 3. The narcissist cannot converse on topics that do not immediately interest him. 4. The narcissist cannot understand why anyone cannot drop everything and do something for him.

What can a congregation do if their pastor is a narcissist? First of all, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Constantly keep your pastor in prayer, especially about this issue, if it is known that he has a problem with it. Secondly, be very careful about how criticism and praise come to the pastor. Encouragement is very important to a pastor, so we cannot go to a position where the congregation decides it will never encourage the pastor, lest he “get a big head.” The Bible itself commands us to encourage and pray for our church leaders. So, this is not an option. The question is this: how do we do this in a way that will both build him up and not feed the narcissism? My suggestion is this: phrase the encouragement in terms of praising the Lord for how He has used the pastor instrumentally. That way the pastor knows that his labor is not in vain, but he is also reminded that God provides the growth and gets the glory. Start the sentence by saying, “The Lord has been using you to…”

Criticism can feed narcissism just as thoroughly as inordinate praise can. There will be times when a pastor needs to be brought up short. However, there is a way to do this and a way not to do this. Most of the time, when a criticism comes the way of the pastor, the congregant simply lashes out without any kind of thinking whatsoever. They are angry and upset, and so they just blast the pastor. The congregant needs to make a distinction in his mind between two things. Firstly, is the hurt caused by a difference in perspective about what the ministry is about? Or is it caused by a genuine offense? These are two very different things. No congregant should ever blast the pastor because they see ministry differently. Instead, they should take up the difference of perspective in a calm, reasonable conversation about it. If the hurt is caused by a genuine offense, then the proper course is to tell the pastor in as calm a voice as possible, what the particular action (or lack thereof) made them feel. Do not turn the pastor’s offense into an offense right back at him. This is done so often these days. The offended person escalates the conflict because they want to make the offender hurt as much as they do. The goal of talking about it is reconciliation. Nothing is accomplished by lashing back. Nothing is gained by attacking the personal character of the pastor because of just one offense. Remember to aim with a rifle, not a shotgun. Concentrate on the one issue at hand, and do not ever broaden the scope of the discussion beyond the one single issue. Oftentimes, when a congregant has a problem, they “pile on.” Everything they dislike about their minister comes out in one unhealthy deluge. This is not healthy, and will usually put a pastor on the defensive, which is best avoided at all costs, especially if the pastor is tempted to narcissism.

I believe that this issue is under-addressed in seminaries, and is certainly under-addressed by Christian authors. I did not find a single Christian book on narcissism. They are all written by secular psychologists. This is a very intriguing fact to me. Can it be that narcissism is so much winked at in our society (and even encouraged!) that the Christian church does not even see it as a problem? I believe, on the contrary, that it is a far more widespread problem than any of us imagine.

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