What do we mean by "sinner?"

July 28, 2020

Romans 5.6-8

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

There is the familiar refrain that we all hear: Jesus died for us sinners. It is right there in Romans. It is “Biblical” so shouldn’t we start talking about the problem of sin in evangelism? At the heart of much evangelism has been this notion “You are a sinner in need of grace. Recognize this and receive Jesus.”

The issue here, however, how we are using the word “sinner.” Are we using “sinner” to recognize the reality that we as humans do commit sin? Or, are we using “sinner” to say something about the person that socially devalues who they are?

In the Gospels, the Pharisees used the word “sinner” in such a way that designated “sinners” as unworthy of social connection. You don’t eat with sinners. You don’t associate with sinners. You don’t have anything to do with sinners. The kingdom of heaven as revealed in Jesus subverted this way of describing and relating to sinners. In a similar way, we often hear “sinner” used in a similar way in modern evangelism, with more of a theological emphasis on how when we sin we are going to stand before God’s judgment throne to be sent into hell EXCEPT if you believe in Jesus and get your sins forgiven. The word “sinner” conveys the notion that God will all but abandon you UNLESS you do this one thing here about faith. In both cases “sinner” is used in the context of judgment, disavowal, and disconnection. When it is used in this way, the very worldview and anthropology of the Pharisees becomes reinculcated.

But Paul uses it in Romans. So what do we do? For Paul, being a sinner is about one’s actions, not one’s sense of “relational worth.” Essentially, Romans 5.6-11 is a restatement if and expansion upon Romans 3.21-26, with 3.23 being restated in 5.7. This is what God’s grace in Jesus Christ is about: that one’s sins have not cut the lifeline between God and us but God has actually drawn near. If we can go further in Paul’s anthropology and history of sin, the whole world is mired in the problems because of the sins of Adam; Jesus Christ has made the way out of the mire that the entire world is in. to that end, being a “sinner” is a recognition of the *behavioral* reality as a consequence of the struggles of the world we live in.

What is different about this usage of “sinner” though is that it does not devalue or dehumanize the person. It is simply a recognition that they do sin. There is a deeper explanation for people’s sin, but it is connected to people’s weakness in being of flesh, where the powers of sin and death inhabit. Our human, embodied reality as lived without the leading of the Spirit as God’s presence is one where the powers of sin and death act as imperial overlords: they conquer, they control, they devastate. To recognizing that one is a sinner for Paul is essentially recognizing, “Hey, there are these things inside me that cause me to go astray of what I know about God’s will. I need someone to get me out of this condition that I can’t get myself out of.”

Yes, Paul does talk about God’s wrath as judgment for sin, but the common evangelical assumption has been that God’s wrath sends people to hell for one sin, no matter how minor or grievous, that a white lie about whether one followed one’s diet would be as serious as a murder when it comes to God and our future with him. That is not even remotely close to what Paul says, however. The eternal judgment spoken of in Romans 2.6-8 is based upon what people were motivated for in life. No mention of perfect standards of righteousness that if one falls short of one will be condemned. God is not a “perfectionist.” What one sought in one’s life is what matters, and it is Jesus who has access to people’s secret thoughts who will be able to determine this (Romans 2.16). In this context, the justification in Christ’s blood spoken about in Romans 5.9 is about the *assurance* that we have in God that God has set our trajectory towards God’s righteousness by His justifying grace, even before we have ever done anything to take us down that pathway ourselves. It isn’t about saying “we know we were destined for hell but now we know we are destined for heaven,” but rather “we didn’t know where we would stand at the time of God’s judgment, but in Christ we are now confident that we will stand with the righteous.”

So, it is important to be mindful of the way we use “sinner” and the contexts in which we use it. Without being mindful of the “implicit” narrative people have about what happens to sinners, we may be communicating that a person is devalued, disconnected, abandoned, and deserving punishment. There is nothing essential about the label ourselves as sinner so far as we recognize (a) we do sin and (b) that we sin because of our weakness in the flesh and (c) that God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit provides the way out through the weakness of the flesh (but not in a way that immediately escapes the struggles, but a way that one is instructed and empowered to overcome them by the Spirit). There isn’t some necessary recognition about one’s personal identity as sinner that is necessary to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, if we are not careful about the label, the label “sinner” may colonize people’s personal identities in such a way that they deem themselves of inherently little value or worthless because of their sins and weaknesses. This is, however, the very opposite of the Gospel and how this good news comes in the midst of our sin: God has drawn near to us so that we may leave behind the trash heap that is the condemnation that Adam brought into the world. The present world we live in has been trashed and there is something better that God invites us all to be a part of in God’s emerging new creation, but we have to be willing to let God direct and transform us to see, understand, and realize it so that we can then participate within it and communicate about it to the world.

The nature of our relationship to God

July 26, 2020

Deuteronomy 6.5: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

What does it look like when we love God? How is it that we are called to loved God in our life? There are at least three answers I have heard over the years. Firstly, to love God is to make God first in one’s life. Here, we regard God as at the top of the hierarchical food chain, so God gets priority over everything else. Secondly, to love God is to be devoted to God alone. Here, we treat God and everything else in a zero-sum conflict that we are called to focus only on God. Thirdly, to love God is to put God at the center, where we think God is the source of all that we do.

However, I want to suggest that each of these three pictures of loving God gives us an inaccurate portrait of what the Scriptures speak of. They suggest that our relationship to God is somehow to be understanding by our relationships to everything else in the world, where our relationship to everything is either to have less priority, to be ignored, or to emerge from our relationship God. We have made the implicit assumption that our relationship to God is to be understood in comparison to the other things of life.

The command of Deuteronomy 6.5 casts perhaps a different image for us.

In counseling training, counselors, pastors, etc. are trained to listen to others by actively participating in the conversation with their client, parishioner, etc. Active listening entails more than simply hearing what someone says, but it also includes focus on the content of the communication, moving the posture of one’s body to signal openness and interest, making regular eye contact, and giving verbal encouragement by affirming and nodding in response to what is said.

In active listening, the whole person of the counselor or pastor is engaged in the act of listening. On the one hand, this is helpful for the person who needs to be talk and be heard, as it communicates to them interest and openness to communicate. On the other hand, active listening does not just benefit the client or parishioner, but it also engages the counselor or pastor into a different mindset with different ways of thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting than if their posture and attention were different. The skills of active listening actually create a momentary ‘transformation’ in the one who listens.

I would suggest that this is the most appropriate analogy for the Christian’s relationship to God. The love of God described in Deuteronomy 6.5 engages the heart, life, and strength, which is an elongated way of describing the engagement of the whole person to God. One’s whole life, both mentally and physically, is brought before the throne of grace where we receive and hear, learn and are transformed through our orienting our whole selves before God.

It isn’t that God is to be the “most” important thing in that God gets more of our time, more of our attention, more of our resources throughout the day,  or that nothing ever “distracts” us from God, etc. It is that God gets our whole attention, our whole focus, our whole being in a way that no other person or thing receives or competes for. Other people may get more attention, but when the word of God is heard or the will of God is manifest, our whole selves are oriented towards God in a way that we aren’t for other people or things. From this orientation towards God, we are then motivated and open to hear from God’s Word and be lead by God’s Spirit to love and serve others in life-giving ways.

As an analogy, consider what is regularly necessary for a happy family to function. A husband and wife may have multiple children to take care of that necessitates much of their attention, their time, and their resources. Nevertheless, for a happy family to continue, the spouses must consider the thoughts and concerns for their spouse of the highest concern, to receive the greatest attention, as they are a tag team whose relationships flows into the way their raise their children. When one speaks, the other gives their undivided attention. This isn’t to devalue their children, but it is to recognize that for two parents to love and raise their children well, they must love each other deeply.

Being faithful to God isn’t about how much time you spend with God on a daily basis, though being faithful to God does mean you will spend time listening and learn from God. Being faithful to God is about being attuned and wholly open to God’s purposes in our lives such that our relationships to other people and the things of the world are directed and formed from this most fundamental, life-defining, desire-ordering relationship.

The age of monologue and disruptive communication

July 25, 2020

Ephesians 4.15-16: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

We live in an age of contempt and outrage; new channels and social media confirms this. I would explain this, however, to a deeper reality: we live in the age of monologue. Our communication technologies have made it such that the way that we express our opinions, thoughts, and understandings are done through a form of communication where we do not receive immediate feedback as we communicate. Email, facebook statuses, blogs, etc. have all helped to fashion a communicative culture that takes the monologue as the default form of communication. Any form of speaking that we do not do with the immediate presence and feedback on another person inculcates within us into the world of the monologue.

There is a psychosocial dynamic that takes place with this. We get used to thinking and expressing our own thoughts and we become less accustomed to receiving responses from others. The repeated act of monological communication provides us a cacoon that allows us to avoid immediate feedback from others, thereby not learning to work through communicative anxieties that almost all humans have. In this space, we become much more highly sensitive to negative messages from others when the opportunity is provided.

To be clear, the monologue isn’t about the form, though the form does form the style of communication, but about our intent and approach to communication. We come with implicit expectations that we are going to say our piece and we expect minimal to no negative feedback. A momological communicative culture does not simply lead us to express our direct thoughts in a way that receive minimal feedback, but it leads us to communicate in ways that disrupts any sort of sharing back and forth in interpersonal communication, especially when there are differences between people.

As a consequence, we live in a culture that values being listened to over listening and sharing. We value being heard rather than dialogue and debate. We want people to value us rather than valuing mutual life. This keeps our ability to relate to people down to a bare minimum of those who we think will echo our own thoughts, feelings, and values in the way we want it to be done. We have increasingly less tolerance for the back and forth of communication between people who have different thoughts.

In lieu of this, we develop communicative strategies that lead us to minimally and indirectly engage, rapidly disengage, and escalate defensiveness. Twitter is a perfect example where we rarely see substantive engagement with other persons, people readily ignore and block, and you see many forms of group harassment and attacks through the medium. However, this happens in non-electronic communication. For instance, people may be tempted to triangulate, stonewall, and get angry with others quickly. When you see these three patterns, you are dealing with communicative anxiety. When this communicative anxiety takes control, it can hamper our ability to communicate effectively ourselves.

The strategies we have been taught with communication have not addressed this adequately well. We have talked about listening skills and asserting oneself. However, communicative anxiety is a deeper issue that both influences how much we do or do not listen and in what ways we do or do not assert ourselves. The more highly anxious we are in communication, the more disruptive we will be in our communication, being poorer listeners and in either failing to clearly and healthily assert ourselves. In such a state, people may be inclined to accuse others of negative behaviors, such as perceiving attempts to communicate as attempts to control them, rather than receiving the communication as an invitation to be in relationship to one another.

What we need to relearn is extending our relational buffers. By buffers, I mean the ability to deal with the inconveniences that come with communication without letting communicative anxieties take control. Various forms of communication, both in content and manner can provoke some anxieties. For instance, I have a problem with trying to jump into the middle of a conversation when I hear something that sparks a thought, but I also try to reign this habit back and I am learning to address this problem. To have a relational buffer with me would entail that one does not immediately disengage or get defensiveness because I overstepped a minor boundary once here or there, while at the same time being willing to remind me I need to wait a moment. By having a good relational buffer, one can endure the minor breaking of a communicative boundary and, at the same time, assert oneself about that boundary. I have experienced people who are able to speak that truth in love. Relational buffers allow truth to be spoken in love and to be received in that manner.

In other words, while a monological culture needs to learn communication skills such as listening and asserting oneself in a clear way, what is of more critical importance is developing relational buffers that comes from emotional regulation, by being willing to endure frustration. This doesn’t mean we need to have endless patience, as people get into unhealthy relationships when they have excessively large relational buffers that makes them endure all sorts of unhealthy behaviors from others, but it means we do need to learn how to extend our own relational buffers and learn how to communicate so as to help other people know about those buffers. By building our relational buffers, we learn to give other people who are a bit different an actual chance to be in relationship by directly engaging them as we also allow them to directly engage us.

Here is the truth that relational buffers allow us to understand and realize: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27.5-6)

Shalom and moving on

July 25, 2020

Romans 12.18 – “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

When I went to seminary, I had one desire that grew in my heart: to make the world a better place. My desire grew for a vision of shalom from my early seminary readings on the Kingdom. As a consequence, Romans 12.18 became a key verse for me. Unfortunately, life would throw me into a tumult that would make me fail in reaching for that desire, but as time and life passed, my God-given desire for shalom became renewed.

One of the things I have learned that is important about shalom is this: being able to move on from relationships. Paul’s advice for shalom implicitly recognizes a complex reality: accomplishing and maintaining shalom is a shared responsibility. One can go to the greatest lengths to try to make peace and good relations with someone but not find it to be successful. Sometimes people don’t want shalom; sometimes the communication isn’t always clear; sometimes there are difficult circumstances that make shalom hard. Whatever it is, because shalom requires the responsibility of all of the persons to participate in it, there are often a lot of roadblocks to realizing it.

Sometimes when these roadblocks occur, it is pretty clear there isn’t a want for a specific relationship. To anyone, the application of Paul’s message should be clear here. However, other times these roadblocks are evidenced by mixed signals, unpredictably shifting expectations, and dysfunctional communication, which is often times due to an ambivalence on the part of one or multiple parties. This may leave one party constantly confused as to whether to engage or not.

What I have learned through hard experience as one who seeks shalom: close the door to those who won’t take responsibility for what they want. When we get such ambivalent messages, it can lead those who are inclined to peace and love to get caught into a whirlwind. But I have learned this through hard experience: close the door. Close the door and don’t open the door again unless they knock and clearly say what they want, making them have to own their responsibility for having a healthy relationship. Move on from them, focus on pursuing other relationships, and hopefully for them one day they will pick up that they have a responsibility to participate in the healthy relationships that constitute shalom. Some will throw a fit, and if so, lock that door because shalom isn’t possible. Some will move on, so you let them, as this is a form of shalom, even if it is apart. Some will learn and knock on the door and make their intentions clear, which means shalom together might then be plausible.

Learning to communicate well

July 25, 2020

Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

One of the hardest things in all of social relationships is communicating effectively. To communicate effectively, you have to have a speaker who communicates in a way that a person who is actively listening can comprehend. This may sound simple in theory, but it is not a simple task in practice as people are complex creatures, who have various desires, fears, have different forms of attention, different interpretations of signs, etc., all of which can lead us to communicative and pay attention in ways that doesn’t always get the clear message across.

However, there is one thing that causes more communicative problems than anything else: communicative anxiety. We all have anxiety about communication. It is a natural phenomenon that we experience because we are always concerned about being rejected, being misinterpreted, etc. Communication, especially about matters that are of emotional importance, can be an anxiety-laden process.

Consequently, we often use implicit communication to try to get messages across. It provides a buffer for us to deal with things that cause us anxiety about messages we are concerned about. At the same time, it often functions as a form of control in that it allows us a form of plausible deniability if things don’t go the way we want. It simultaneously allows us to shield ourselves while trying to have an effect on another person. Implicit communication is an act of asymmetrical communicative power.

This is not an issue every know and then, as most people have buffers for such forms of communication. A person who flirts with another person in a largely veiled way doesn’t start a habit of implicit communication. The problem comes, however, when this implicit communication occurs habitually. Implicit communication becomes a form of control.

The problem with prolonged implicit communication is the way people have to fill in the gaps. Implicit communication leaves out explicit information such that people have to provide it in their interpretation. People’s desires, fears, past experiences, and the context it occurs in all play a role in filling in the gaps. However, at the same time, for those people who are more observant about the phenomenon of gap-filling, they tend to be put into a place of cognitive ambiguity and uncertainty and ask “Does this mean this?” This then leads the recipient of repeated implicit communication to have to deal with anxiety and uncertainty.

Under such conditions, one style of dealing with implicit communication that causes confusion, concern, or misinterpretation is to try to encourage explicit communication. This is typically the healthiest response. However, many people are not always forthcoming on this front. If is important to suss out what is being intended, another strategy to provide clarity is to try certain responses out to see what comes from the other person.

So, for people who rely on implicit communication, there are two things to consider the longer the implicit communication strategy goes on. Firstly, accept that your implicit communication may cause anxiety or concern and recognize this may actively interfere with your communicative goals. This is particularly important if you are communicating about matter that you know are related to a person’s trauma, as the traumatic memories may provide a lot of gap-filling if there is a lot of implicit communication to decode. In doing this, taking responsibility for your own style of communication will allow you to be more open to consider how to more effectively communicate.

Secondly, consider either moving to explicit communication or consider dropping the message altogether. Let Jesus’ words “Do to others as you would have them do to you” be your guide on this, as Jesus words are the most reliable words we have for trying to build the type of relationships we do or do not want. If you want people to understanding your communication, then be willing to have them communicate with you. Or, if you want people to leave something alone, consider if your implicit communication is keeping it active and leave it alone yourself. The problem with relying on implicit communication long term is that it works against Jesus’ words: it circumvents the righteous relationship building that Jesus’ words speak to and substitutes it for a form of control.

Loving the world

July 24, 2020

John 3:16: “God so loved the world”

In Christian thinking, the word “world” is often time used with a negative, pejorative sense. Throughout the New Testament, such as in Paul’s letters and James, “world” is used negatively. This language stems from the way that the the society around them engages in all sorts of practices that the God over Israel and in Jesus Christ has commanded against. So, it is natural for Christians to develop a Christianity vs. the world mentality, that see God and His People in a zero-sum conflict with the world that operates according to the following intuition: to love the world is to cease to be loyal to God.

Nevertheless, God’s own fundamental relationship to the world is described by love, not conflict. The familiar John 3.16 does not say “God was so angry and outdone with the sins of the world that he sent Jesus to fix their problems.” Rather, it was “God so loved the world…” This despite the fact that God knew their sins. This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures speak of God only loving, as the Psalms repeatedly speak of God’s hatred directed towards who live violently and destructively (Psalm 5.5-6, 106.34-40), but so many of the things that we fret over about sins that can make humans angry does not deter God’s love. The God who is slow to anger loves the world, even with all the times it fails to achieve God’s purposes for His creation.

How different would our mentality as Christians be if we didn’t adopt worldview that by default presumes a zero-sum conflict between the love of God and the love of the world, but rather saw the former leading to the latter?

Of course, we have to be clear what we mean by love. James warns against friendship with the world (James 4.4). But love and friendship are not the same thing. There have many people in my life that I loved and still love that have done some hurtful things to me that broke any friendship, but I still cared about their well-being. To be friends with the world is to celebrate and rationalize away the things that the world does, but one can love without rationalizing away the flaws.

As an analogy, consider the example of three different men who are in love. For the first man, his quarry can do not wrong. She is beautiful, fun to be around, and they enjoy some similar activities. She is self-absorbed with her wants and needs, quick to anger, incredibly manipulative, can needlessly stir up conflict, and avoids taking any responsibility. Nevertheless, he can see nothing wrong with her, but even supports and celebrates what she does. The second man is smitten by a similar female, but upon discovering her traits denies her entirely and eventually sets himself over and against her.

The third man, however, can see the multiple flaws of his beloved: she can be a little evasive and unwilling to communicate at times, she can be a tad controlling, she doesn’t always listen very well, and she can be a bit anxious at times. However, in his love he sees these things and does not celebrate them but his adoration still persists because he also sees her faith, kindness, strength, intelligence, beauty and how she came to his support through some rough times. He never idolized her. He expresses his concerns and frustrations only so that they can understand together where they are in the relationship, but he dreams of being the husband that can share a life with her and help her with her own struggles by being someone who listens to her, even as he accepts that this may not happen.

The first man resembles someone who makes friendship with the world. The second man resembles one who sets himself against the world after the world fail to live up to what he wanted. The third man, however, resembles God’s type of love, who loves with knowledge of the weaknesses and imperfections.

Too often times, Christians have made themselves live like either the first or the second man: either in unqualified friendship with the world or a deep, existential conflict with the world. In the West, we see this division often manifest with those Christians who identify as hard-line evangelicals as that who stand against the world and those who are committed progressives who make friends with the world. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ rejects both of these orientations: God’s love is for the everlasting blessing of the world through His Son in spite of and actually because of its problems. The Spirit of God has gifted the Church with gifts to build up the Church but also to reach out to the world, but these gifts and opportunities are stymied by unqualified friendship that see no need for the gifts and existential conflict that blinds them to the opportunities.

Doing what Jesus says

July 23, 2020

Matthew 7.24-27:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

There is a problem that we as Christians have. We have replaced a Gospel of grace that transforms our lives so that we can become sources of life, hope, and peace for others into a religious ideologies from which we derive a system of ethical obligations.1

This is no more evident than how we often look to the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount has been looked to as a source of ethical reflection about what it means to be a (really) good person. We hear Jesus talk about addressing our angry behaviors, letting our yes be yes, loving our enemy, praying and giving not to be seen, not judging, etc. and we think to ourselves: “This is what a good person is like.” Correspondingly, we then also think if people don’t do these things, they aren’t being good people or, at least, not being good Christians.

However, we don’t always pay close to attention to the way Jesus concludes the Sermon. Jesus says that those who do Jesus’ words will be like a wise person who builds his house on a solid foundation that can withstand the onslaught of multiple disasters. The metaphor of building casts an image of progression and of development. For Jesus, doing or not doing the things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t about “being good” or “being evil,” but it was about being able to come to face the challenges of life and still be standing.

Put succinctly, the Sermon on the Mount is about spiritual formation, not a behavioral code righteousness. Jesus demonstrates that the value of the Torah is to then bring to light and address other interpersonal behaviors other than just what was explicitly given in various commandments that leads people to move towards the completeness of God’s love. The concerns about not being focused on the public praise for public piety and to not worry about the future allows a person to redirect their own hearts and minds towards the God the Father, His Kingdom and righteousness. It is through putting into practice Jesus’ words that we are brought into a new way of life, that we participate in the movement from the first Beatitudes about the poor in spirit, mourning, and meek that leads us to crave righteousness to the Beatitudes that speak of people being a life-giving influence through mercy, purity of heart, and becoming peacemakers, who are able to stand even when the persecutions come.

The problem for us Protestants is that we thought faith was the mark by which we lived and experienced God’s grace, rather than the means that we discovered, relate to God, and become conformed to the free, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. The Bible, including especially the New Testament, was divided instruction up into matters of faith and ethical law. Consequently, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole was treated more like ethical law that we used to identify and regulate people’s behaviors that didn’t have much to do with faith rather than an expression of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that our faith leads us to put into practice for the purposes of realizing God’s will for our life.

In my own spiritual life growing up, I sought to put Jesus’ teachings to practice, but it came with a perfectionistic mentality. With my Protestant worldview, I committed myself to want to go beyond faith, but I wanted to do what was good. I sought to do what Jesus said, as imperfect as I was at it. To that end, the attempt to obey was of mixed results. On the one hand, when some harsh trials came in life, I was able to keep the core of myself alive and standing, even when I experience the emotional chaos that emerged but, on the other hand, I had internalized a sense of moral judgment for my imperfections and failures that made the recovery from the series of calamities harder to get up from.

However, the Sermon on the Mount was never intended to be a way to judge who is or isn’t a good person, but it was about showing God’s People the way to come to realize God’s purposes in their lives in a way that the people of the Exodus failed. The Sermon on the Mount is a New Torah instruction to lead people through their wilderness, to bring to fulfillment what God’s Torah instruction through Moses did not accomplish.

When one appropriately addresses one’s angry behaviors, when one forgives, when one prays for God’s kingdom, when one seeks God’s righteousness, when we refrain from judgment and we do this because we believe Jesus has the authority, or expertise if you will, to teach this, we are allowing the instruction of God in and from Jesus Christ to shine light on and direct our paths, forming us to be new people.

Do what Jesus says for your formation. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t about you being “good” because of what you do instead of being “bad,” but it is about allowing God to define, mark, and direct your future so that you can be a source of the life-giving goodness that God desires for the world. If you aren’t perfect with forgiveness, if you struggle with feelings of sexual desire that would be inappropriate to act upon, if you find yourself thinking a little too much on money, if you can have a judgmental spirit on select occasions, don’t see yourself as somehow “bad,” but nevertheless continue to seek to live Jesus’ instruction in your life so that you build your life on a solid foundation. These struggles do not make us evil, but in seeking to continue to do as Jesus says, we put to death the deeds of the flesh so that these desires that we do have do not (re)gain a stranglehold to turn us to evil so that we can then discover and realize God’s goodness in all of our relationships with others.

Parables we are

July 21, 2020

Hidden in Christ
Obscured from view
Except to the few
Who learn from Christ
The kingdom of heaven shown
The rule of Jesus known
Parables we are

Humility and identity

July 21, 2020

James 4.10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

There is a very tenuous relationship between self-esteem and the ability to love. On the one hand, a person who has been relationally crippled may be unable to reciprocate love because they feel that they are not a lovable person. They may reject any positive response as not being deserved. 

On the other hand, a high-self esteem is not the automatic solution to this problem. Many people who have a high self-esteem are rather narcissistic. Consequently, they do not experience love as love, but they experience it as reflecting their own inflated sense of greatness, that they are being treat as they are because they are such a great person.

The problem with these positions isn’t, however, that of low or high self-esteem in and of itself. In fact, for the most part, self-esteem is more the result of the realities of our life than a cause. The problem occurs, however, when we begin to draw an “oughtness” about our self-esteem: that we ought to feel bad or good about ourselves. This “oughtness” of self-esteem leads to the colonization of personal identity in such a way that our feelings about ourself become an integral part of our identity. It is our sense of identity, not self-esteem by itself, that determines whether we will receive love or not.

These messages of “oughtness” are sent through various means. In some of the sin-focused evangelical churches, they inculcate a sense that one ought to feel like a bad sinner so that one can then receive the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. Far beyond simply recognizing the reality of our sins and repenting from them, they inculcate a sense of devaluation of ourselves. On the other hand, the “self esteem” movements of the late 20th century that still has a lingering influence today promoted the opposite message: you ought to feel good about yourself. It is not wonder then that my Millenial generation has been demonstrated to have higher degrees of narcissism than the generations of the past.1 The self-esteem movement may be in part a response against the guilty and shaming that sin-focused brands of Christianity had inculcated, to the extent that the sharp division we see between the “godless progressives” and the “hateful evangelicals” may in large part stem from this anthropological conflict of how we ought to see ourselves as humans and the differing social values that emerges as a result.

Other times, these messages of “oughtness” get implicitly conveyed through repeated interpersonal interactions. If a person is always regarded with judgment and disgust, they will habitually internalize their low self-esteem from each of those judgments into their identity. Similarly, if a person is only praised, they will habitually internalize that high-esteem. Consequently, they will become unable to receive from others the opposite of what they experience. This internalization takes on the form of an oughtness, even though no one may have said “You ought to think low/high of yourself.”

Here is where the problem comes down: as the Cartesian shift to the experience of the individual diffused more throughout the fabric of Western society, influencing our anthropology and psychology through the lens of of individual, internal experience, we did something. We replaced interpersonal identity with personal identity and with that, we came to believe that the basic capacity for interpersonal relationships stem from our own personal identity: what I feel about myself will determine how I will relate to others. However, the truth is that we as humans are by default created to be interpersonal; our sense of our personal identity both emerges from and molds our interpersonal relationships in a form of reflexive causality. Once we started focusing on personal identity, we then disconnected the way personal identity was caused by our interpersonal relationships, but instead made our interpersonal relationships a function of our personal identity. We existentially regarded personal identity as the beginnings and foundations for interpersonal relationships, which meant that my relationships to others is dictated by what I (ought to) think about myself.

So, when this individualistic emphasis of identity was combined with the Biblical messages of repentance and humility, it morphed what was an Scriptural message about an interpersonal dynamic with God into a statement about personal identity. Recognizing your sins before God got turn into recognizing  and thinking about yourself as a sinner. The repentance was intended to give life by bringing ourselves to God so that He would then lift us up had instead spiritually enslaved the people. Consequently, the anthropology and worldview of the Pharisees that Jesus and the kingdom of heaven resisted was reinculcated through the name of Christ. Furthermore, as the “self-esteem movement” increasingly fomenting psychological resistance to the Gospel, both because of confusing it with its distorted form AND because it has trouble with most any conception of sin.

Repentance and humility is not supposed to be about a universal evaluation of ourselves as reflected in our personal identity, but it is to how we relate and respond to God that opens us to receive the exaltation of life that God Himself has in store for us, instead of what we think we should have in store for us that our focus on personal identity has inculcated in us.

The problem with "authenticity"

July 20, 2020

Matthew 13.29: “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

Being authentic is a good thing. When we feel safe and courageous enough to speak the reality of our lives, it is a good to be authentic, as one has become free from the control of those who would silence and abuse you. Another reason being authentic is a good thing is that it allows us to make our sin and struggles known to others, so that we can be healed. Authenticity is a good thing. We should seek to be authentic with our lives.

However, when concerns about “authenticity” becomes a value that we are constantly on the watch for in others, it brings with it a deeper problem: the inability to trust. It leaves us always watching and suspicious of others to see if they are true and genuine. When we are constantly on the lookout for the “true” from the “false,” we show a misanthropic view of people. With this misanthropic view, we may become tempted to try to develop an ‘expertise’ in understanding people to differentiate the wheat from the tares that makes us believe we can see into people’s hearts. Such a worldview and “expertise” will end up placing an inordinate emphasis on the inner, unseen realities of other people’s lives.

We can enter into this word of suspicion for various reasons. Maybe we have been abused and trust is hard to come by, so we seek to find ways to protect ourselves from it ever happening again. Maybe it is someone who is inauthentic themselves while pointing to the perceived inauthenticity of others. Maybe it is someone who has recently learned about cruelty in the world and has become somewhat of a skeptic themselves.

Whatever the reason we enter into this mindset, there is a cost associated with it: in being unwilling to trust that is revealed by an inordinate emphasis on “authenticity,” we risk harming the wheat. The Pharisees are a prime example of this. They saw Jesus as “inauthentic,” demanding signs from heaven and accusing Him of casting out demons by the power of Beezlebul all to ignore the enormous good gift of life that Jesus was bringing that can only be understood as coming from the Finger/Spirit of God. Meanwhile, they have such a misanthropic view of the world that many of them would discard sinners, seek to purify Jerusalem of gentiles, and would focus on the specks in other people’s eyes while they had a plank in their own.

It is in this backdrop that Jesus gives his parable of the wheat and the tares, which ultimately points to Jesus’ own vocation as God’s King as one that is not out to uproot all the sinners and godless Gentiles, but rather to bring about a good harvest for righteousness. When wheat and weeds first start growing, they are indiscernible. You can’t tell the difference as they whether they are ultimately a wheat or a weed. In Jesus’ parable, the answers to the problem of there being bad seeds/the children of the devil amidst the good seeds/the children of God is not to go about trying to find all the weeds: you would pull out the wheat alongside them. Rather, when the wheat and the weeds are grown for harvest, then they will be seen for what they are.

The point of this parable: don’t aspire to rid the world of all the problems that you feel are lurking underneath the surface. This doesn’t mean we should be passive in the face of a glaring threat or harm, but it means that we don’t need to enter into a mindset where we feel we can just read people’s hearts, especially from afar. It is Jesus who will judge the secret thoughts of all people (Romans 2.15). It is above the pay grade of the angels symbolized in the parable of the wheat and the tares and it is therefore definitely above our pay grade. We can see the obvious problems of both a severe and a repetitious quality and we can even many occasions make sense of people’s unseen intentions from all that we do see and hear, but we can’t peer deep behind the surfaces of people’s words, facial expressions, actions, etc. to the fundamental core of who they are.

We might grow overconfident in our ability to know people because we saw something from that one person who hurt us deeply or we were suspecting someone and ending up being right that one time about some person, but we never actually saw their hearts, but we only saw surfaces. But in some cases, some of those surfaces that was unconvered to reveal a darkness in that one case you remember may in another case be covering a beautiful gift. Speaking as one who has had to deal with the trauma that has made it hard to trust: don’t ignore the surfaces and feel free to keep distances if you feel anxious but be careful trying to dig deeper into people’s hearts. Trust God with all the hidden, invisible problems of the world and obey Him by seeking to be the wheat God has called you to be.

There are the obvious inauthentic people out there in the world, but don’t let them lead you to fear everyone’s inauthenticity, or you might miss enjoying the blessing that is another person that God has planted.