Why you want to be born from above and not simply born again

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October 5, 2020

John 3.1-10:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

A little over a couple years back, I wrote a blog post entitled “Why it is better to be an atheist than be ‘born again’.” The title was intentionally provocative, but the point was is that in John 3, Jesus is actually talking about being born from above rather than being born again. However, when people today talk about being born again, it is often done with reference to their own experience of God, putting God into the boxes of their own experiences, thereby making it more about themselves. As a consequence, people will develop all sorts of talk about God, talk that may be more projection than revelation, and as a consequence, atheists who reject the truth of all God-talk are less inclined to believe false things about God than some people who say they are “born again.” However, the hyperbolic nature of that blog post obscured any sense of clarity in what I wrote. The point was brought forward that being “born from above” was focused on God’s activity rather than the inner religious experience of being “born again,” but there was not much further explanation given beyond that point. With more reflection on John 3 and on metaphysics over the past couple of years, perhaps a better explanation of what I believe can be offered now.

In the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus teaching about seeing the kingdom of heaven. In the Greek, Jesus says one must be born ἄνωθεν, which can be understood as “again” or alternatively as “above.” Nicodemus’ response indicates that he understands Jesus to be speaking about a second birth by the nature of his question of reentering the womb. Jesus then offers a clarification in saying that one must be born of Spirit and explains it by an analogy to the wind. Throughout the Old Testament, God was commonly understood to be in control of the winds, including bringing a strong wind to split the Red Sea during the Exodus (could there be an allusion to the Exodus in Jesus’ words about being born of the water and the Spirit?). Given the Spirit throughout the Old Testament as originating from God and that wind also came from God, the language of ἄνωθεν most likely is an indirect designation of God’s domain, heaven, and hence should be translated as born from above.

The exegetical and theological differences between being “born from above” and being “born again” are subtle yet profound. If it is understood as born again, then the reference is something that happens to the person. However, if it is born from above, then the focus is more so on the relationship of the person to God rather than simply some experience of the person. The analogy with the wind is instructive, as the point of Jesus’ analogy is to say that the person doesn’t understand what has happened when they are born from the Spirit, but they recognize that the Spirit has done something to them in an unforeseen way. Those who are born from above perceive the work of God, even as they can’t quite explain it. This coheres well with the perceptual language that Jesus uses in vs. 3, where a person who is born from above sees the kingdom of God. Jesus is explaining that those who have been born from above are able to perceive the activity and presence of God, both in the work of the Spirit and also in the kingdom of God. While the phrase “being born again” doesn’t contradict this reading, it doesn’t readily lend to such an interpretation either, as the focus on the phrase “born again” is on what happens to the person and not to whom one is born to.

The theological implications of this are even more profound. In modern evangelism, to talk about being born again is often understood against the backdrop of a conversionist point of view where a person can identify an event of conversion where everything dramatically changed. An experience of a dramatic change is taken as evidence of this new birth. However, the truth is is that many people, Christian or not, have profound and dramatic changes in their life that come out of nowhere. Could not one simply use the language of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to label a commonly occurring profound change and call it being “born again?”

With being born from above, however, something more profound is being said. Firstly, as Jesus’ words point to, being born from above points towards a perceptual awareness of God’s work and presence. This doesn’t mean one can just readily identify what God is up to immediately, but it means that a person born from above has an increasing awareness of the work of God in their lives and in the world around them. Secondly, even though it isn’t expressly mentioned in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, being born from above is also expressly acknowledging one’s relationship to God, that one is a child of God. Consequently, that would mean that one would come with maturity to become a reflection of God’s character. Being born from above is less about the experience at conversion, even though there may be a time where a person can identify such a change, and more so the telos and purpose we are progressing towards in our character. Being born from above means our relationship with God is becoming defined by our recognizing Him and coming to reflect His purposes in our lives.

In John 8.23-24, Jesus says the following: 

You are from the lower regions, I am from upper regions (τῶν ἄνω); you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.

Here, Jesus makes a stark separation between the audience who eventually seeks to kill him and Himself. The distinction he draws between them is expressed through one’s origins: the lower regions below or the upper regions above, which is then further clarified in the distinction between being of the world and not of this world, which implies the contrast between heaven and earth. Ultimately, the character of Jesus’ audience comes from their spiritual origins. Given their eventual murderous intent towards Jesus, what Jesus says about being born from above in John 3 beings to make more sense. In order to participate in the kingdom of God, which would be defined by righteousness, one must be someone who finds their spiritual origins from above. Simply having a dramatic change of heart and mind is not enough, because this change of heart and mind must come from the implanted seed of God’s saving word (James 1.21).

Even hearing God’s word when a dramatic change occurs is not sufficient. In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks of the seed sown on the rocky ground as referring to a person who immediately receives the word with joy, but they have no root that leads them to endure. In another parable of the unclean spirits in Matthew 12.43-45, an unclean spirit leaves a house, only to return and find everything in order but empty, so that he brings seven other more evil spirits along. This parable, and it is almost certainly a parable, reflects the way some persons may for a time have their life become relatively ordered and free from evil but then they fall into an even worse state than beforehand. These two parables together suggest that dramatic change in one’s life does not by itself suggest one is actually born of God and moving towards a growth in holiness. The changed experience that is often labeled as being “born again” is not itself the evidence of one’s spiritual origins being from heaven.

Now, if people use the phrase “born again” rather than “born from above,” it doesn’t mean people’s conversions are automatically not genuine. Being born from God is about God’s agency through His Holy Spirit and not the perfection of human speech. Nevertheless, our language does influence the way we think and a person who is born from God thinks about their conversion primarily in terms of their own experience in being born again, they may become stunted in their spiritual growth by not being more conscious about perceiving the power of the heavens coming to the earth and less attentive to the way their life is called to be a reflection of God’s love. Focus on the experience and the benefits of the experience can come to trump attention to God’s activity and character.

Also, this can also remind us that profound religious experience does not equal growth in true righteousness. While Christian oftentimes regard atheists as the most dangerous moral threat to Christian faith, and in large part this is fueled by the genocide and widespread evil committed in the name of atheistic Communism in the 20th century, the truth is that the most dangerous threat to Christian faith are other religious people who use the name of God to justify the agendas of their minds and hearts as from God. Atheists are at least bound by a sense of pragmatism in this world that recognizes that a peaceful society, which most everyone including atheists want, requires some degree of peaceful and cooperative behaviors to accomplish it, even if they are not inclined towards peace. However, the behaviors of religious people who learn to eschew every sense of real-world pragmatism towards peace are bound by their moral beliefs and habits, most of which are instructed from their religious principles. If those religious principles end up in a place where they call good evil and evil good, much like the Pharisees did of Jesus’ exorcism of demons, then violence and abuse can be justified in their minds, much like the religious leaders did to Jesus. Religious belief, even when paired with some moments of great and profound experiences, is no guarantor of peace and righteousness without it being a birth that comes from the Spirit above. While the true religion that comes from following Christ by genuinely continuing in His word is the world’s greatest hope for bringing life and peace, religion that does not have Christ life and teachings at the center of one’s attention, devotion, and purposes that would otherwise occur by a Spiritual birth from above is no safe-haven of righteousness, peace, and justice.

Rethinking our view of the heart in Jeremiah 17.9

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October 5, 2020

Jeremiah 17.9:

The heart is more hilly than all else;

as is a person.

Who can understand him?

Traditional translations of Jeremiah 17.9 read differently than my translation given above. Most of them reflect an interpreted rooted in the sinful nature of the human person. For instance, the NRSV reads: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?”  The NIV reads somewhat similarly: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” However, there are a few problems with these translations.

First, the Hebrew uses the masculine pronoun ה֑וּא in the second line, whereas the only noun reflected in most translations is לֵּ֛ב, which is a feminine noun for the heart. Consequently, it seems unlikely that the second line is referring to the heart. This leads to another problem. Most of them read as if the adjective in the second line is אָנוּשׁ, which means either incurable or disastrous according to HALOT. The issue is that in the Masoretic texts, the usual form of this does not occur. Rather, it reads with וְאָנֻ֣שׁ, lacking the shureq vowel and replacing it instead with qibbuts. While these sounds are functionally the same, the difference of form suggests that there may have been a different word here originally that the Masoretes didn’t readily identify and instead gave it the equivalent vocalic sound. Every other usage of אָנוּשׁ in Jeremiah has the shureq vowel. Likely what happened is the waw was not copied at some point in Jeremiah 17.9 and so the Masoretes had the make sense of a set of consonants that did not correspond to any known word, so they supplied the vowels associated as we have them. Yet, this leaves open the possibility that the original word could have been a different word with the same consonants. Another likely candidate is אֱנוֹשׁ, the word for a human being. The Greek Septuagint reflects this, with the second line reading as καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν (and a human is also). If the original reading was אֱנוֹשׁ, then this would explain the masculine pronoun ה֑וּא being used with that masculine noun to function as a copula. So, taking the second line to be a description of a human person eliminates some of the problems that the Masoretic Hebrew presents to us.

Secondly, the connection between the first and third line in the traditional translations is not exactly clear. If the correct rendering of עָקֹ֥ב is deceitful or perverse, then what does that immediately have to do with the inability to understand the heart? However, if the other usage of עָקֹ֥ב according to HALOT  to refer to uneven of bumpy terrain is what is intended, then the connection can be more readily imagined: a highly hilly, mountainous terrain is something that conceals much behind the rises in the terrain. As a metaphor, it is understandable about such a terrain may be seen as describing someone or something that can not be readily understood. The Septuagint takes a similar line of translating עָקֹ֥ב as referring not to moral corruption but rather using it as a spatial metaphor with the word βαθεῖα that is translated as “depths.” When combined with the language of searching in v. 10

Thirdly, the traditional translations don’t really make sense of the context of Jeremiah 17. Jeremiah contrast the ultimate desolation of those who trust in human power with the well-being of those who trust in the Lord. There is no sense of moral perversity at view in this discourse, but rather there is a differentiation between the heart of different people in terms of who they trust. Then in v. 10, God is spoken of as testing the mind and searching (בחן) the heart and giving to people according to their ways. Job 28.3 describes miners as those who search out far and wide for ores. A similar connection between בֹּחֵ֣ן and עָקֹב seems much more likely, with עָקֹב being used spatially. The implication of Jeremiah’s discourse is that God is able to see who trust in human power versus those who trust in God. Other person can not possibly comprehend the nature of a person’s heart, but God has understanding of the mind and heart. As testing in the Old Testament was more about forming a person than simply revealing a person’s character, v. 10 shows how it is that God’s testing of the mind and searching of the heart leads to the well-being of those who trust in the Lord and the desolation of those who trust in human power. With that in mind, the better translation of Jeremiah 17.9 would focus on the unknowable nature of the heart of a person, except to the Lord.

The implication of this is that Jeremiah 17.9 is not really a proof-text for the universal wickedness of the human heart. The emphasis is rather on the power of God to know and test the human heart. God sees and knows what no one else can know. While we as humans can get brief glimpses of people from their words and actions, we can not really survey the whole terrain and know who people are truly and deeply. Close friends and intimate spouses regularly discover things they never understood about the object of their affection for years. However, it is only God who so deeply understands and comprehends the human heart that He can successfully test it and search out who a person trusts. Much as God tested Abraham with offering up his son Isaac to find that Abraham would come to fear God above all else, so too does God test the hearts of those who trust Him.

Obedience and the second work of the Spirit

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October 5, 2020

John 14.15-17:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

1 Corinthians 12.13:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

John Wesley’s belief in entire sanctification was connected to an idea of a second work of grace, Whereas believers are first justified and forgiven of their sins when they come to faith, at a later point God bestows a further grace upon them that will lead to their purification from sin. At the heart of Wesley’s understanding of entire sanctification and the second work of grace is that God’s work in humanity does not stop when one comes to faith, but that God is actively seeking to put an end to sin and purify a people who will listen to His will.

While there is much to say about the notion of a second work of grace, there seems to be a foundation for such an idea. When Jesus tells his disciples in John 14.17 that the Spirit remains with them and then that he will be in you, Jesus describes two different “phases” of the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the disciples. However, this further bestowal of the Spirit is conditioned upon Jesus asking the Father to provide the Spirit as another Helper in place of Jesus’ absence. Yet, this even this act of Jesus is conditioned upon the obedience of his disciples, as their love for them realized through keeping His commandments is connected by to Jesus’ request by the word κἀγὼ, suggesting the request is a consequence of the disciples’ faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings. The disciples already had the Spirit with them, but in order for the Spirit to be in them would entail their obedience.

On the one hand, the Old Testament intermittently speaks of the Holy Spirit’s work. The primary persons spoken of as being influenced by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures are the leaders of Israel. Joshua is said to have the Spirit, the Spirit regularly raises up the judges of Israel, Saul is said to have had the Spirit, David multiple times refers to the Holy Spirit in his psalms, and the prophet Isaiah speaks of the Spirit of the Lord that will grow from the root of Jesse, that is the Davidic lineage. To speak of the Spirit being with the disciples would have conveyed more than the idea of salvation that it does to us, but it would have brought forth ideas of being some sort of leader among God’s people, giving wisdom and insight to fulfill the role given to them. Yet, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus indirectly alludes to the Spirit as the source of life, including most particularly through the image of living water. In John 7.37-39, Jesus saying about receiving living water is clarified as something that doesn’t come until after Jesus is glorified. This points forward to Pentecost in Acts 2, where the Spirit is powerfully poured out on the disciples as they preached. A new work of the Spirit has come about.

The Apostle Paul seems to be aware of this distinction between two “phases” of the Spirit’s relationship with believers. In 1 Corinthians 12.13, he talks about two Spirit in two different ways: being baptized into the body of Christ and having drunk from the Spirit. The idea of water is very prevalent in these two images, connecting the two images together. However, Paul’s description suggests that these two realities are not the same thing. The first image speaks to believer’s participation in the community of God’s People, whereas the second image best seems to relate to the spiritual gifts that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12, much as the outpouring of the Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost with tongues of fire.

The conclusion to draw from this is that there is a second work of the Spirit, but according to Jesus’ words, it isn’t a second work of grace, if by that one means it comes without regard to one’s works. Instead, the deeper, indwelling of the Spirit is given to those who are obedient. For Jesus, it is important that those whom He teaches have the right heart (John 2.23-25). While he takes the disciples in to teach them, we see this idea becoming evident even with them in regards to a further teaching from the Spirit of truth after Jesus has ascended: they must obey what they have learned from Jesus to receive more.

So it is with the Christian life. God freely welcomes and includes us in His kingdom through the Spirit even though we have done nothing to merit or deserve this. However, if we wish to proceed further, if we wish to be taught the deeper things of God, if we wish to bathe in the foundations of His wisdom, it requires us to believe in Jesus’ as the teacher who words are eternal life and then put them into practice. To that end, we may refer to this further bestowal of the Spirit as the second work of the Spirit of grace, recognizing that God’s grace is ultimately His own presence, who leads us into truth, which upon reception frees us from sin (John 8.31-36). While Wesley may not have gotten all the particulars precisely correct about the second work of grace leading to entire sanctification, this idea resonates deeply with the way Jesus speaks of the Spirit throughout the Gospel of John and how this is evident in the Acts narrative and Paul’s letters.

Psalms 14 and 53 and the God who sees

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October 5, 2020

Atheism is often taken to be the exact antithesis of Christian faith. While both are mutually exclusive in that you can not simultaneously be a committed atheist and a committed Christian, to listen to some Christians talk about atheists, one would imagine that they are mortal enemies. Contempt is heaped upon them. In part, this has been due to the emergence of the New Atheism in the 21st century, with figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens fueling the flame of an ‘evangelistic’ atheism. However, what is more responsible for the strong judgment of atheists are two Psalms, Psalm 14.1 and 53.1, both of which read in most translations as: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.'” Most of the time, we hear this against the backdrop of our theological point of views, interpreting it as stance on the ontic existence of God, with the (inaccurate) idea being drawn from the psalms that atheists are deeply immoral people.

However, as John Goldingay has pointed out, the Hebrew here is not intended to reflect such an abstract topic. Rather, it more so refer to the line of thinking “that God can be discounted from everyday life.”1 It is used in a similar way in Psalm 10.3-4 to describe the wicked and greedy who pursue their desires and speak against God. Given the phrase’s association with the villainous, scoundrel character being referred to that is often badly translated as “fool,” an appropriate analogy would be to imagine a thief saying “There are no cops” as they prowl a neighborhood looking for a target. It is a form of speech whose implications are implicit in what is said: no one is around to stop them. Thus, the Psalmist is describing a villainous figure who imagines that God is not around to do anything about what he plans to do.

Now, if you pay attention to the rest of the two psalms, their speech is technically correct. It is said that God “looks down from heaven” (14.2; 53.2). Such language implies that God may not seem to be present to stop the scoundrel’s actions. However, as the two almost identical psalms go on to sing, God sees all the wickedness that is going on. Even if God is not there in that moment to prevent their evil actions, God is not ignorant of the wickedness of humanity. He sees what the scoundrel thinks goes unseen so that God will act to deliver the fortunes of his people (14.7; 53.6). God will act as a refuge for the poor, common targets of scoundrels due to their defenselessness (14.6) and will bring shame upon the godless (51.5). The scoundrel is turning an incomplete truth, which fails to take into account that God can see in heaven what is going, and turns it into a misleading truth: that is, because God is not manifestly present in the moment of their plans, they draw the conclusion that God will do nothing because the corrupt desires of their heart take the apparent absence of God as something to exploit to their benefit. The point of the psalm is to shed light on the thinking of scoundrels (perhaps as a way to give people guidance as to when they are crossing towards wicked thinking) and remind God’s people that God sees what is happening and will take action on behalf of those who are exploited. Even as people face the harms and injustice inflicted on them from such figures, God does see and knows the affliction. They reason from God’s apparent lack of presence that He does not see so as to respond to uphold the vulnerable and bring to naught the wicked. Yet, God not only does God sees their individual wickedness, but He is able to see the flood of evil that has swarmed humanity (the Psalmist’s hyperbolic speech that is not to be taken literally). God is not limited in how much He can take in and know about human activity, but He sees.

We see a similar sentiment express by a victim of abuse in Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, who after being mistreated, Hagar decides to run away. However, God sends an angel and lets her know of His plans for her son. In response, Hagar calls God “El-Roi,” which means “God who sees” (Gen 16.13). While Sarah’ abusive behavior is due to her being a scoundrel figure, but rather her jealousy, the story of Hagar represents the same thought that Psalms 14 and 53 are expressing: God is one who sees the injustice and wickedness committed by humanity and he will step in to intervene on behalf of His people. God acts on behalf of His faithful people, who continue to trust in Him in the midst of the trying times; God’s intervention will occur on their behalf. To that end, the God who sees so as to intervene point forward to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, where God vindicates those who were wickedly treated without anyone to stop it.

Rather than taking these psalms of psalms of judgment against atheists, these psalms more appropriately apply to those people who underestimate God’s justice and vindication. An appropriate description of such people is that they do not have the fear of God in their hearts that would otherwise guide them to be diligent in faithfulness and righteousness. An equivalent form of speech today in Christian circles may be “God will forgive…,” being under the impression that they will not be held to account for what they do. However, it is God who sees, it is God who knows, it is God who delivers, it is God who rescues.

Sanctification, body, and the Missio Dei

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October 4, 2020

John Wesley once remarked “[Full sanctification] is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly God appeared to have raised us up.” As a distinctive mark of the early Methodists, entire sanctification/Christian perfection stood as a key distinctive. However, unfortunately, Wesley’s confidence in God raising up the Methodists for this doctrine did not last for centuries, as one rarely hears a doctrine on entire sanctification form Methodist pulpits today. Of course, perhaps this is more attributable to the shift in the content of preaching away from doctrine and more towards application to life, with the idea of entire sanctification being in the background. Nevertheless, what people identify with Methodist today is markedly different mostly due to the conflict surrounding the meaning of marriage.

To that end, it is fitting that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can be summarized as a letter addressing the practical realities of sanctification. As the Corinthians were divided against each other and were engaged in and approving of various sexual practices that Paul would go on to condemn, Paul writes to them with an eye towards holiness and sanctification. The letter starts off by referring to the Corinthians as those who have been sanctified and are called saints. However, as the letter goes on to reveal, the Corinthians have not exactly been acting in a saintly manner. It appears that many of the Corinthians had embraced a combination of Christian teaching and philosophical Stoicism, which, among other things, prioritized the mind as the center of reason over the body. In response, Paul’s letter addressing two recurring topics, wisdom and the body, with an eye towards pushing them away from this Stoicized form of thinking that make ‘knowledge’ one obtained as a foundation for ethics to a distinctly Christian pattern of life rooted in love. This love is expressed, ultimately, in the way one uses one’s body, such as Paul’s discussion on how one uses one’s body sexually, both in avoiding sexual immorality with a prostitute of an idol’s temple but also in the giving of one body in love to one’s spouse, and how one discerns the body of Christ in relation to the (bodily) presence of each other at the Lord’s Supper. Through challenging the attitudes and behaviors that the Corinthian’s Stoicism ‘rationally’ justified, Paul teaches the Corinthians to use their body in a different way that ultimately has love at the root. Paul’s letter climaxes in the resurrection discourse of chapter 15, which may be summarized as “What happens in Christ’s body happens also to you.” Ultimately, this discussion on the body is interconnected with the introductory theme of sanctification, much as he also does in Romans 6.19 and 1 Thessalonians 4.3-7. The body and sanctification are interconnected for Paul, with the body as the central place of action that allows for sanctification to occur.

Unfortunately, for Wesley, this connection is not clearly and emphatically made. There are repeated references to the body throughout His A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, but what happens to the body emerges as a result of sanctification, not its cause. Furthermore, Wesley describes the state of Christian perfection more by reference to inner thoughts and feelings, following the Augustinian pattern of attributing grace to an inner work of the heart before it is expressed outwardly. However, Paul does not attribute sanctification to some inner work that is labeled ‘grace,’ but to the name of the Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who unites believers to the body of Christ and from who people drink (1 Cor. 12.12-13). It is the action of the Triune God through the power and leading of the Spirit to unite people to the pattern of Jesus Christ that leads to sanctification, which occurs principally through the action of the body rather than simply some inward state and feeling (cf. Romans 6.19). The inward state of love, joy, peace, etc. is the consequence of a person who in faith follows the leading of the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the flesh so that the desires of the Spirit prevail over the desires of the flesh.

So, as Paul reaches the final, dramatic, resounding implication about the defeat of death in 1 Cor. 15.54-57, Paul draws a conclusion in v. 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The implication of Paul’s letter on the body, wisdom, and sanctification is that people be ready for the work that God gives them to do. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2.21, those who have become cleansed are prepared to do a good work. In 1 Corinthians, Paul immediately gives an example of this good work in the taking up of the offering for those in need in Jerusalem. In other words, the movement of sanctification is to direct one to be prepared and open to participating in God’s mission.

The thing with sin is that it actively hardens people (Hebrews 3.13). The more we give into the desires of the flesh, the more our hearts and minds are formed by the exaggerated nature of those desires, increasing their power over us. Our attention and our understanding of the world around us is determined by what it is we are actively desiring. If our hearts are set upon things that go against the will of God, then our hearts are resistant to hearing a word from God to calls us forth from a different direction. In such a state of hardness, a person may hear a word that has been spoken from God, but their hearts will constrain them from adequately understanding and receiving what God’s word is about, much as Isaiah 6.9b-10 describes. So, when we discipline our body so as to not let the out of control lusts of life to have control by the leading of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.13, 1 Cor. 9.25-27; 1 Th. 4.3-7), our hearts become open to the goodness of God’s leading and guidance through His Spirit towards what gives life and brings shalom (Rom. 8.6). As the Spirit leads believers into a deepening sanctification, the desires of the Spirit well up within us, opening us to hear, comprehend, and receive the will and mission of God in the world.

Wesley expresses a similar sentiment about the importance of God’s will to those who are (entirely) sanctified:

Agreeable to this his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do, not his own will, but the will of him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth. He has a single eye. And because his “eye is single” his “whole body is full of light.” “The whole is light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone. All that is in the soul is “holiness to the Lord.” There is not a motion in his heart but is according to his will. Every thought that arises points to him, and is in “obedience to the law of Christ.”1

For those being sanctified to the uttermost, there is the ever-increasing openness and desire to do whatever it is that God is doing. Yet, as already expressed, Wesley defines sanctification by the inner thoughts of the person, as if any thoughts towards sin have passed. However, even while Jesus can cleanse us from every sin, any statement that we have entirely blotted out sin as a principle from our lives is a lie, even if that principle of sin has no power over our purposes and actions (1 John 1.7-8). Rather than describing this depending sanctification as an absence of errant thoughts of sin, it resides deeper in the heart into the recess of the unconscious where sin no longer has an unconquerable control over what one hears, endeavors, and acts towards. God’s desire for love and peace always draws us, even if we still hear faint echoes of the principle of sin within us.

It is in this sanctification that our lives are given over to the mission of God. As Jesus’ beatitude about the pure in heart, reflecting those whose hearts have been sanctified to be wholly focused on God’s purposes, is then followed by the beatitude about peacemakers (Mat. 5.8-9), we see a movement from sanctification to mission, from being set apart and distinct from the world towards being sent out for God’s love of the world, much as Moses time in the wilderness prepared him to be called and sent by God speaking in the burning bush to go to Israel and Pharaoh and also like Isaiah in the sight of the holy God is cleansed of his sin and is open to go on God’s mission (Isa. 6.1-9a). Even Jesus, without being tainted by any act of sin, had to train and be disciplined through His own bodily struggle with fast in the face of the temptations of the devil, which then prepared Him to go and fulfill His purpose, starting off by proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near (Mat. 4.1-17).

Perhaps the reason that entire sanctification no longer defines Methodism, except for those who study the history of theology, is that entire sanctification wasn’t readily understood to point forward to something more. Whether intentional or not, it was understood as sort of the endpoint of the spiritual life here on earth, where sin had been entirely vanquished. If the primary purpose of humans living before God is to flee the wrath to come and overcome sin, then it is understandable why entire sanctification might be seen as the end goal of the Christian life in this life before death takes us. If, however, the blessing, well-being, and flourishing that is part of God’s righteous vision for human life is the end goal of those who believe, then the development towards a whole holiness can be better understood as the preparation of the heart for God’s mission in and to the world. In other words, maybe we can understand entire sanctification as the process by which God leads us to embody His righteousness in us as He has revealed it in Jesus Christ so that we can then be His agents in the reconciliation of the world (2 Cor. 5.18-21), allowing us to be an aroma of the knowledge of Christ’s death and life by having our purposes being wholly directed by our union with Christ (2 Cor. 2.14-17). That is to say, that churches’ involvement in God’s mission is empowered through the growth towards holiness in the believers.

We can discover this pattern of sanctification and mission being witnessed in two parts of the story of Christ. The first part, already mentioned is the example of Christ’s overcoming temptations to sin and then going on His mission to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. The second part is the cross and resurrection paired with the sending of His disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28.18-19). As our union with the cross and resurrection of Christ brings about our sanctification and freedom from the compelling power of sin, we are then ushered into participation with Christ in His mission in the world, as His authority leads to sending disciples out to make disciples. Sanctification leading mission is a reflection of both the beginning and end of the story of Jesus as contained in the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew.

Identity in Christ and narratives

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October 3, 2020

This past Wednesday at the church I have recently started attended, we have a discussion in a small group about the meaning and significance of worship. As a former pastor who has theological training, I tend to remain silent in such settings for fear of engaging in some form of theological intimidation, preferring to hear other people and their stories.  As I listened to everyone’s responses, a key idea came up again and again: worship is connected to people’s identity in Christ. Given that the Bible does not mention the word identity, such an expression about identity no doubt comes from these being people who are experiencing a life seeking to follow Jesus, along with some guidance from preachers and teachers. Being the analytic person that I am, I immediately started asking questions: “what do they mean about identity?” and “how can we connect that to the Scriptures?”

When we talk about identity, most of us have an intuitive sense of what we are referring to. Identity is about who I am or who we are. Our identity marks our what our relationships and life is about. Yet, when we peer deeper into the idea of identity, there are some things that aren’t immediately clear about identity to the average person. Identity is tied up with narratives. When we think about what it means to be ourselves, we may not explicitly come up with specific stories in mind, but our memories of ourselves are tied up with the various events, including regular, recurring events, that have made up our life. Our sense of our own personal identity is constituted by condensed narratives about ourselves that are expressed in more general, sometimes even abstract, language and ideas, but if we were to probe more deeply, we would likely discover narratives from our past that these more general understandings of our identity are drawn from. For instance, my identity for being a thinker is tied up to the various events in my past where I remembered achieve good grades, getting compliments for my intelligence, etc. These repeated events are off hand remembered in a general way without a lot of specific details, but if I reflect further I can remember various times where these things occurred. Underneath identity is a set of narratives, often in a very condensed and abbreviated form and often subconscious.

However, some researchers in psychology suggest that we don’t come up with integrated narratives about ourselves until adolescence.1 What is likely is that prior to adolescence, we have many smaller narratives that are relatively concrete and provide very basic information about ourselves, but in adolescence the emergence of abstract and complex thinking allows all these smaller narratives to fit together into a larger mosaic. Prior to adolescence, we have various small narratives that we remember about ourselves, but from our teenage years onwards, we begin to develop a more comprehensive picture of our identity as a collection of various, smaller narratives.

It is here where we can begin to draw analogy to our identity in Christ and narratives. For most of us who came to faith in their teenage years or later, we found something that drew us in to faith. Maybe it was believing that our sins are forgiven. Maybe it was coming to believe that God loves us. Maybe it was more of a negative fear of punishment that motivated us towards faith. Whatever the reasons, each of these events are a small narrative that constitutes our faith at such an early point. However, at this point, the question of how we further built our identity as believers in Christ can go in various directions.

On the one hand, some simply integrated these smaller stories into the other identities we had in life. Maybe we thought of God making us a good person and so we integrated that into our family life in being a good spouse, parent, etc. Maybe the sense of God loves us deeply was integrated into a larger struggle with other people we experience such that we set God’s love in the context of our social conflicts. Maybe our sense of being forgiven by God was integrated into a larger narrative of our own struggles to live what we considered to be a “good” life, so we thought of forgiveness as a license to do as we pleased. In this case, the smaller substories that belong to the Gospel of Jesus Christ were integrated into other narratives and identities that we had from life. The Gospel story in this case functions as a buffet from which we add what we want to our plate.

On the other hand, some of us moved towards immersing ourselves more deeply into the very story we believed in. We aren’t just forgiven of our sins by God, children of God, loved by God, called to be good people, etc., but all these various narratives that construct our identity are fit together into the whole story of Jesus Christ. We discover in our lives the emergence of events and realities that corresponded to the events of our Savior. We find ourselves called by God, we find ourselves lead by the Holy Spirit, we struggle with temptation (ideally not giving in, but forgiveness covers where we fail short), we experience suffering, we find ourselves experiencing events in life that feel like death, we feel like we have a new lease on life, we find an emerging sense of love for others, we experience events in our life that speak to God bringing His glory to our lives. All the smaller narratives that make up what it means to be a Christian are integrated together by one narrative that stands above all others: that of Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, we discover the work that God is doing in our lives through the Holy Spirit bears a remarkable resemblance to what God did in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to establish in Romans 6 and 8, our lives have come to share in the life that Jesus had.

The story of Jesus is such a deep part of Paul’s understanding of his own identity that he says in Galatians 2.20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by the Son of God’s faith, who loved me and gave Himself for me,” Paul’s life is not understood as simply believing in Jesus, but that his life was defined by the very type of faith that Jesus had. Elsewhere, Paul makes clear the distinction between his old identity and the new identity in Christ in Philippians 3, where he contrasts the previous identity that was embedded in the Jewish markers of identity that he considers to be lost with what he gains in knowing Jesus Christ, considering himself to participate in Christ’s suffers and to experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s identity is not simply as a believer in Christ who has been forgiven by God, who is a child of God, etc. His identity is comprehensively taken up in his knowledge of who Jesus is: his life is increasingly defined by the events of Jesus’ life.

The distinction between identity centered around other narratives that simply integrate Jesus into to and the identity centered upon Christ emerges from whether we believe in the name of Christ or we believe in Him, two different types of faith described in the Gospel of John. As we believe in the name of Christ, we consider Christ a figure of power who brings specific benefits to us, such as forgiveness, eternal life, sanctification, adoption, blessings, etc. Ultimate, we look to Jesus as simply an answer to the struggles we experience in our own life story and so we approach the various benefits of Christ as a buffet line for us to pick from. Believing in the name of Christ alone leaves us appropriating the smaller narratives that come from the Gospel into whatever mosaic they readily fit into the narratives that define our own concerns and desires. To believe in Christ, however, is to believe that Jesus has the words of life, that He is the way, the truth, and the life and not just simply provides a way, simply gives us some truth, and hands out something called life. We find in the story of the person of Jesus the way of salvation, and not just simply a set of stories that tell us how we got specific benefits from Christ. Here, all the other stories of our life come to be transformed and fit into the good news of Jesus’ incarnation, baptism and reception of the Spirit, His Spirit-empowered life and ministry, His death, His resurrection, His glory, His ascension, and His return to dwell with His Church in the New Jerusalem. Using slightly different language than that of the Gospel of John to refer to the two different types of faith, Paul himself sees a transition point between faith directed toward Jesus to a faith that is defined by Jesus’ faith in Galatians 2.16: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of Torah but through the faith of Christ. We have come to believe in Christ so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ…” It is as a person who believes in Christ comes to have a faith like Christ had in the Father (cf. 1 Peter 2.21-23) that one discovers that Christ lives in them, as Paul said in 2.20.

What we discover is that as we believe in Christ in this way which transforms our faith into the faith that Christ had, our identity increasingly becomes defined by Jesus’ story. For instance, in Romans 4, the story of Abraham is connected to story of Jesus, seeing Abraham’s faith as a prototype of resurrection faith (Rom. 4.17). In so doing, Paul connects the justification that comes with faith with the death and resurrection of Christ. Then, in Romans 6, Paul connects the baptismal union with Christ with the believer’s participation with Jesus’ death and resurrection, with it culminating in a sanctified, freedom from sin. Going further in Romans 8, Paul attributes the origin of God’s work in believers through the Messiah to the Spirit, which is leading to the eventual glorification of believers with Christ. Three of the theological foundations of the Protestant ordo salutis, justification, sanctification, and glorification, are all connected to the way believer’s own faith and lives are a reflection of Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans 8.29-30, it is because those who God knew first2 were predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son that then many other benefits that traditionally come under the ordo salutis are given in calling, justification, and glorification. It is only through the believer’s union with the life and story of Christ through the poured out Spirit of Christ, transforming us away from our sins and desires of the flesh and bringing us to a faith in God’s word and promises by which justification, sanctification, glorification, etc. are conferred to us as believers.

Where the Protestant Reformation fell short is how its theologies began to lead to insufficient narratives, as committed to the Scriptures as they were, because it with time began to focus on the benefits of faith as the most important narrative rather than the demonstration of the faithfulness and righteousness of God in Jesus Christ as the narrative from which the smaller narratives where we find ourself in right relationship to God, sanctified and prepared to do the good work of God, and brought to share in God’s glory fit into and are ultimately accountable to. Rather than salvation as mediated by particular metaphysical narratives that Christ inaugurated that we then seek to happen in our life, it is the Spirit who mediates the life of Christ to us in such a way that all the benefits of salvation are conferred through the course of a person’s faith that leads to obedience. It is the leading of the Spirit that leads the story of Jesus to become the salvation story that defines our lives, putting to death the old human with all its learned and habitual practices of sin and learning to be human through Jesus Christ in the way God intended for us, as we are made in the image of God.

This is the Gospel that Paul is not ashamed to preach, and this the Gospel that I confess. Wherever my life takes me, this is what I am committed to. Are you in?

What story are you telling?

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September 29, 2020

Romans 1.16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

There are many stories people tell in life. We tell stories about growing up, about our families, about all the events that took place when we were in college, about earth-shattered world events, about the time we met the love of our life, and so on. We resonate with stories, some stories more than others, because stories are usually a step-away from how we actually live and experience the world. A good story encodes thoughts and feelings through word usage, imagination of the action taking place, etc., that resembles what we are already familiar with within our life experience. As a result, stories touch what is familiar within us…. most stories that is.

Occasionally, events occur and stories are told that we have little real prior experience to make sense of. For instance, in psychological trauma, victims are often trying to tell a story they don’t really understand. As they try to piece together all the events that took place that they didn’t understand, their hearts and minds have great difficulty accepting the narrative as it seems to have occurred without falling into an existential sense of fear. Such stories often call forth a feeling of demonic forces. However, on the positive side, some experiences of falling in love are so novel that the only way one can describe it is through the language of the transcendent and the divine. Consider Franki Valli’s classic “Your just to good to be true” that says “You’d be like heaven to touch” and “I thank God I am alive.” These are the type of events and stories that upon first witnessing and hearing that don’t necessarily make sense to us, but rather they become sense-making for us; they come to define our lives. They dramatically alter the course of people’s lives.

This is what is happening in Paul’s letter to the Romans; Paul is telling the story of Jesus in a way that is life-altering that changes the whole shape of one’s life.

My hypothesis about the circumstances behind the letter to Rome is that Paul is addressing Jewish Christians in Rome who perhaps first received the Gospel at the day of Pentecost. However, as they returned to Rome, were exiled from Rome, and then returned to Rome but were all the meanwhile treated derisively, especially for their belief in one God, and often taken advantage of because of their lower social standing (the Wisdom of Solomon may be seen containing some literary representation of this), they began to fit the story they heard about Jesus Christ into a story of God’s Davidic King who would lead the faithful Jews to victory over like the Maccabees. In the story of the resurrected Christ, they saw a sign from God of their coming political victory over Roman powers that Jesus would lead, when God would reward the righteous Jews who stayed faithful to Torah and punish the wicked. The story of Jesus was, essentially fit into the story of the Davidic dynasty and hopes as then refracted through the lens of the Maccabean revolt: now, at last, the Davidic king has arrived in a way he didn’t with the Maccabees, and now God is going to fulfill His promises. (My argument rests on an abductive argument that this makes the best sense of the various features we see throughout Romans in comparison to other second Temple Jewish literature, but this is not the place to try to hash out evidence).

However, for Paul, the story of Jesus is something much more than just a fulfillment of Davidic hopes. It is not just God setting the world into its right place, but it is the story of how God changes history and the world. The good news of Jesus Christ is the story that will go on to define many people’s lives throughout the world. This is a powerful story, such a powerful story that it weaves the power of heaven with what is happening on earth, where believing the story of Jesus, even to the point of his resurrection, is to in effect bring one’s heart into harmony with the work that God is doing through His Holy Spirit. This is the story that defines everything. One is baptized with the Messiah, crucified with Him, raised with Him, will suffer with Him, and will be glorified with Him, and in the midst of all of this, receiving the Spirit of Christ. This story is the shape of our salvation; this story brings to light the way God is bringing His people to glory. So, when Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he is not just saying “Hey, this is a good story that needs to be told.” Rather, he is coming with the boldness of the claim that this story is THE story that defines those who believe, and not the political stories that might have been told in Rome about life.

How often are we like those who try to fit the story of Jesus into other, life-defining stories? We have our pictures of who God is like, what life is all about, what makes up people, and then from these other stories that we tell that make sense to us, we then try to fit Jesus into that story, perhaps because it makes us feel good to believe that God is validating my story and my way of life. We tell smaller pieces of the Gospel story, maybe about God’s forgiveness, maybe about going to heaven, maybe about being children of God, and make those stories the most important piece of the story we are telling about Jesus, and then tell these stories about Jesus to fit within the stories we have already been telling and that we want to tell.

No. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His resurrection, His Lordship is not our central, primary story, then there is no salvation. There is only imagination that fits our understanding of God into the categories and values of life that we are accustomed to. Much as the Gospel of John says that Jesus does not come to judge, but only those who actively disbelieved are judged, there is no fear if this is where you are. But, you are not experiencing the salvation in Christ if your primary story is not the story of Jesus Christ. If you try to turn the story into service for wider social and political purposes, your salvation is at danger of being an illusion, not submitting oneself to God’s righteousness but a human righteousness one wants God to endorse. If you try to turn the story into really about some of the smaller sub-stories, such as just about getting your sins forgiven, without concern for fitting it into the story of Jesus Himself, you are distancing oneself off from the fullness of Christ as the Gospel story makes it known to us

Let’s turn this even to the question of our own testimonies about God’s work in our lives. So often the narrative goes “I was lost in some sin and then I found Jesus, I know I am forgiven, and now I am changed person.” However, does your testimony reflect the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Does it reflect events that can be understood through the lens of being forgiven by God, being baptized with Christ, being crucified with Christ, being raised with Christ, suffering with Christ, and moving on towards glory with Christ, and receiving the Spirit of Christ? Does your testimony fit within that? If not, either one needs to probe more deeply to see the glory that God is bringing about in your life that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ that you have yet to see or you haven’t come to believe in *the* Gospel that brings salvation.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean our stories and knowledge about Jesus and our own testimonies have to contain every part of the Gospel story. As we come to Christ and are lead by the Spirit, God leads us to understand the depth of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension in increasingly deeper and broader ways. We don’t have to get it all correct from the get-go, or even have most of it right. But who are you attached to? What story is it that you are really believing in? Is it Jesus Christ and the whole story that reaches into His Lordship? Or is it to ourselves and the small, sub-stories about Jesus and the Gospel that we do want to accept? The former will open our heart to receive more of the fullness from God; the latter will continue to keep our hearts locked in chains, allowing the other stories of our life to be the primary stories that define us.

So, what story are you telling, both in your words and in your life? Who is at the center of that story and what all of that story if significant to you?

God has a sense of humor

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September 28, 2020

In recent years, my sense of humor has undergone a relative shift. When I was younger, my sense of humor largely derived from being pretty concrete so as to “misinterpret” what someone said by being very literal. As I got a little older, I began to use self-deprecation as a source of humor; I did that a lot, unfortunately. Gradually into college, my sense of humor shifted to hyperbole and sarcasm. However, unfortunately, sarcasm, even if its well-intended, is often ambiguous and for those who do not feel safe, sarcasm may seem like a barb rather than being playful. However, given my interest in language, I have begun to develop a sense of humor that is related to language and sound. For instance, if I ever find the opportunity to propose to someone, I will ask them “Would you like to be a wood doll?” Of course, if I want to actually get married rather than a loud groan (like the zingy zeugma there?), I might have to be more creative… maybe make a play off of her last name and me being the one who changes the name. For example, if her last name began with the letter E, I might say “I would like to be one with you,” with the letters of “one” sounding out to be my first name and the initial of her last name, while also playing off of the Biblical teaching about marriage as two becoming one. If you are groaning at that one, hey don’t blame me… my sense of humor has usually relied upon self-deprecation, but I am not really that good at it.

God has a sense of humor too. The Bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about it. Firstly, because the Bible is a text that address many life circumstance where life is lived in the margins, humor is not always a strong presence in such cases. Secondly, much of humor throughout history has been rather deprecating of others, which would make it far from the intentions of the writers of the Scriptures. Thirdly, however, is that whereas today we have people and books that specialize in humor and we have people who actively seek out laughter, but in the ancient world, laughter would have much more part of the daily life. The Scriptures would represent this by the way stories are told.

One such example is when Nathanael meets Jesus in John 1.44-51. When Philip talks to Nathanael about Jesus from Nazareth, Nathanael speaks derisively about him, saying “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the first think Jesus says to him is “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” At one level, this looks like an assessment of Nathanael’s character as being someone who doesn’t lie. It certainly is that at some level, but at another level, it is a positive reframing of Nathanael’s derisive speech about Nazareth. It is the equivalent of reframing someone’s rude speech as saying “Hey, you are honest.” However, the real humor of what Jesus does is in the irony of the event, where Jesus immediately knows Nathanael and what he said, even though Nathanael was entirely unaware of it originally. This revealed irony has the effect of showing Jesus to be a prophetic figure, but at the same time, it serves to heighten the humor of the event, as Jesus’ positive reframing right when he meets Nathanael shows He knows something about Nathanael that Nathanael, and the original audience wouldn’t expect Jesus to know. It seems to come totally out of left field.

Now certainly, trying to explain this humor doesn’t make it sound funny. Explaining humor is like dissecting a frog… it just dies. However, in showing this, we see a bit of the nature of God’s sense of humor. It is, effectively, a sense of humor that seeks to bring good light into bad cases. What Jesus does can be understood as a form of sarcasm, but not in a derogatory sense. It takes a bad event and finds a positive in it, seeing Nathanael as someone who will be honest, rather than as a curmudgeonly figure.

So next time you think about laughing and telling a joke, ask yourself the question: what is the nature of your humor? While you don’t have to be a legalist about it, seek to find the sense of humor that brings positive, non-deprecating laughter to a negative circumstance, which is a healthy form of humor, because in doing that, you are being more like Jesus.

 

Distinguishing between misleading truths and incomplete truths

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September 28, 2020

According to the Scriptures, the one thing we see about the devil is that he seeks to be raised up and exalted to the level of God. Whereas God tells Adam he will die if he eats of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent says the opposite to Eve. In the story of Job, Satan believes he can correctly see inside the heart of Job rather than God and accuses Job of being righteous only because of God’s blessings to him. When he tempts Jesus to give him authority over the world, he asks for Jesus to worship him. Jesus says he saw Satan falling from heaven and refers to him as the ruler of the world that is being driven out.

How did Satan accomplish his kingdom built on insecure foundations? By misleading truths. Certainly, Adam and Eve did not die right when they ate of the tree, but they sealed their fate for death. Certainly, Job had blessed God because of his blessings, but that was not everything that determined Job’s faithfulness to God. Certainly, Satan had an authority over the world that he could have given to Jesus, but it was kingdom that had feet of clay. Satan’s attempts at empire are built upon misleading truths: things that are true when one looks at the surface of it, but when one looks closer, the implications one might derive from these truths are false in a particularly egregious way: they fundamentally cut against God’s purposes and people’s relationship with God. Misleading truths build an empire by trying to build on a foundation other than that laid by God.

It is important to remember, however, that there are many partial, incomplete truths that can sometimes make us believe false things. Job’s sufferings made him believe some things about God that were not entirely accurate, but he did not deny and curse God. Many Protestant theologies profess beliefs such as sola fide that lead people to the conclusion that we only need a forensic righteousness from Christ through our faith rather than also an emerging, actual righteousness through Christ and the Spirit that comes through our sanctification (on this, see the blog post of Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, here). In the midst of personal sufferings through some difficult circumstances, I felt as if God had become absent when in fact God was holding back His protection so that I could come to understand some deeper truths through suffering. Not all truths that lead us to believe something false are misleading truths; one might say they mislead us at a cognitive, propositional level, but they do not mislead us in in what is most critical in regards to our faith, service, and love directed towards God, which is the ultimate grounds by which we come to have our errors corrected and reliably know truths about God. We can call such truths incomplete truths, as they allow our imaginations to draw wrong conclusions, but they don’t *fundamentally* mislead us.

We can come to understand that misleading truths are incomplete truths that are paired with temptation, such that the temptation provides a further sense of truth by association with and extended from the incomplete truth. In other words, misleading truths are the fusion of incomplete truths at a cognitive level with temptation at the level of motivations, where our motivations allow us to fill in the gaps with something that would set us in opposition to God.

As a consequence, it is our desires, not simply our less emotive form of cognitions, that merit the greatest attention and concern within the Church. Certainly, what we believe is important, but it isn’t until our hearts as the center of motivations are open to the truth that we can grow to know truth reliably. However, this concern for motivations need not be in a sense of harsh judgment towards those who have the wrong desires, but a patient, teaching spirit that is directed towards helping people to not see the world simply through the lens of what they most immediately want or desire, but fostering an independence of our sense of truth from our desires. While we can never entirely extricate the two from each other, because it is what we desire, including our desires to be safe from our fears, that determines what it is we will seek to learn and understand, we can teach the disconnection between truth and the imagination of our achievement of our desires or of our lack of achievement of them. It is here, at the level of imagination of the way things will be, that our sense of truth becomes constrained and we are vulnerable to being mislead, as our desires make us tempted to think we know the future and resistant to receiving the future as it arrives.

Is it any wonder that James 4.1-10 connects avoiding the pleasures of the world with resisting the devil in the same discourse? The devil misleads us because our desires make us vulnerable to the incomplete truths that allow us to legitimize the pursuit of whatever it is we want without concern for its goodness. A heart full of passion for what we desire makes us vulnerable and susceptible to turning incomplete truths into misleading truths.

Do you believe in a holy madness?

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September 28, 2020

1 Corinthians 4.10a:

We are fools for the sake of Christ

Do you believe there such a thing as a holy madness? As one who has been reared in a psychiatric-therapeutic background, I had been taught about mental disorders. Even though it took me years to understand them, I worked under this basic assumption: there are the fortunate people who see the world correctly who do not have serious mental disorders and then there are the suffering people who have serious disturbances that do not understand the world adequately. I don’t mean to undercut the fact that there are fortunate and unfortunate people when it comes to mental health, but what if there is another category of a holy madness? Allow me to explain. I don’t mean to say that everything a person going through a holy madness, if it exists, is holy. When we have been set apart by God, our sins don’t automatically extinguish, but as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2.20-21, people who cleanse themselves (i.e. being set apart and made holy) are then prepared for every good work.  But, in a holy madness, one goes through a deep mental anguish and burden that God places upon them for some purpose that prepares them to do a good work.

When I was early in my time at seminary, I had begun to get an image in my heart of me bearing the weight on the world of my shoulder. By that, I don’t mean anything as grand as what Jesus did on the cross, but I had wanted to be a hero to people to make the world a better place for them. I had suffered much pain and hurt over the years, and I wanted to change the world and make it a place of greater justice. In the midst of this, this recurring image of bearing this burden, whatever it is, kept coming to me, over and over again. Eventually, a word and vision that turned into a dream of being a servant come over me and I forgot that burdensome image. Yet, what I experienced over the past 8 years can in some ways only be described as a bearing of so many burdens for various sorts of people.

There come to be a fundamental split in my person; not in terms of schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder but something that I can’t quite describe or precisely put my finger on. On the one hand, there was the person of faith that believed, trusted, and hope in God. But, there was this other person, that became an exaggeration of my previous cautiousness that could blur into skepticism. This other person, however, was one who was many, because in the midst of this other side was a person who was so deeply analytical about the person in terms of our thinking, feeling, motivation, desires, actions, etc. for all sorts of peoples and cultures that I could find no center of gravity to determine what was real and true in that person. This person experienced all sorts of thinking, all sorts of feelings, all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of fears and worries and anger. The boundary between myself in this person and other people, real and those who I hypothetically constructed in my head, was so blurry that I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out sense of who I was, and this person took the person of faith I was and submitted that person to all sorts of criticisms, skepticism, and derision.

At this point, you might think that this was a bad thing, but yet there was something I also experienced: I was developing a way of thinking about people and the world that the person of faith kept consoling the person of chaos to hear. This person of chaos was slowly, over the course of time, beginning to make imagine and make sense of people from so many perspectives from different possible backgrounds, but with an eye towards God. When the bulk of all this was coming together during my time at St. Andrews, I remember a lecture that N.T. Wright gave about the role of the sympathetic imagination in studying history and the Bible. Looking back, it is almost as if what I was going through was the development of an incredibly broad-ranging sympathetic imagination that went deeper than a basic sense of emotional awareness and empathy. My thinking was a swirling of various topics that went deeper to the very basic sense-making constituents of life, such as worldviews, metaphysics (both formal and informal), modes of reasoning, including about reasoning about life, the basic structure of interpretation and understanding in its processes, etc. The various topics of my blog through that time reflected all of this.

However, in such a case, one’s sense of the truth and reality of the world becomes very uncertain, always shaky, never really having any basis for confidence for knowing what is true. Most of you can not understand how much people do take for granted in order to be able to function day-to-day in life, and yet I had so much of these basic assumptions about life being questioned, giving me an incredibly flexible and wide-ranging imagination and reflection, but leaving me unable to experience the source of confidence and hope that could always the anxieties, the fears, the feelings of isolation and being so unlike others.

Yet, as I have come to a place where I don’t feel this chaos living in me anymore, I am left to ask this question: was this a holy madness that prepared me to do the good work of God? Was I, in the midst of all this confusion, uncertainty, fear, defensiveness, and feelings of alienation, coming to totally reformulate a worldview, reformulate a metaphysics, reformulate a sense of reason, interpretation, and understanding, reformulate a sense of goodness that would undercut the sources of widespread injustice that the Enlightenment and then post-modernity has submitted the world to? For example, the atrocities and later injustices committed against African-Americans has always operated in the back of my mind as I thought through what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and our theological understanding that lead me to the formulation: the basic metaphysical underpinnings of “white theology” that determine how we interpret Scripture and construct theological systems has been formulated in such a way that it does not take the concerns of justice seriously enough, but it reduces the “oughtness” of life to basic personal, moral behaviors that relate to certain forbidden zones (sex, alcohol, drugs, etc.) but does not give great concern to equity and deep sense of respect for others. Or, our concepts of suffering, the problem of evil, and theodicy are woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, etc., because they worked under faulty worldivews that prioritize the metaphysical concept of free will that simply accepts evil as a possible part of the chaos of life.1

What if I went through a holy madness in order to be able to reconstruct a sense of justice, an understanding of theology, and even an interpretation of the Scriptures that avoided the pitfalls of the past few centuries and be able to come to a more solid ground? When so much has to be questioned, weighed, and sifted in order to find something true, one can not help but feel a deep, pervasive sense of uncertainty, fear, and confusion that may feel like madness at times. But what if that is what I went through?