Convergence and the will of God

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July 4, 2020

Romans 8.28: “We know that all things work together for God for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

As Christians, there are two places where we seek to understand God’s will. Firstly, we look to the Scriptures as a God-inspired testimonies to God’s will throughout history, with the faith and theological assumption that the God who spoke through Moses to Israel in Egypt, the God who came in the flesh in Jesus Christ is same today as He was then. However, if we believe that God is actively engaged in the world today as He has been throughout history, then there is a second place where see to understand God’s will: in the course of the events of our lives.

The problem with this second source, however, is that there is no clear manual for how to discern God’s activity in the world. We can look to the Bible to help us make sense of the events of our lives, but the Bible doesn’t come with a clear set of rules that says “this is how you apply the Scriptures to your life.” Even as we trust that the God of the Scriptures is the God of today, there is no readily discernible formula that tells us how to fit the events of our lives into the patterns of Scripture. Our faith in an invisible God is that God is faithful, loving, forgiving, merciful and not that God is known in any specific observation we find in the world. This is because the utter holiness of God precludes being able to understand God in the same way we observe and measure the world around us. As A.W. Tozer observes, “Our concepts of measurements embrace mountains and men, atoms and stars, gravity, energy, numbers, speed, but never God. We cannot speak of measure or amount or size or weight and at the same time be speaking of God, for these tell of degrees and there are not degrees in God.” Whether in formal measurement, observation and calculation or the intuitive, unconscious observations we are all capable of and do without being aware of it, the way we perceive and make sense of the events of our life is a fundamentally different way of knowing than understand and trusting God’s intentions and purposes. God consistent, loving purposes leads God to act to bring about specific, observable events, but God’s intentions are not reducible to those events. Now can we simply reverse engineer specific events to being from the hand of God simply because they look like things we believe God has done in the past.

Imagine an artist who paints. There is a certain characteristic and quality about the paintings that may be characteristic of the artist. However, at the same time, other artists may occasionally paint something similar at times that looks similar to what the first artist paints. Just because you have a painting that looks like what the first artist painted doesn’t mean it is authentically from the first artist. That means that any one painting may not be from the first artist but may have been manufactured by others. However, if someone wished to be skeptical about the first artist, they might conjecture that the possibility that some paintings that bear similar features to each other is explained to multiple other artists paintining in a similar fashion for some other reason and that there is no need to posit there is the first artist who explains the recurring styles and patterns throughout the various painting. Nevertheless, someone who believes in the first artist may respond that there is a convergence of multiple recurring patterns in the various paintings that can not be ascribed to multiple artists, even if occasionally artists may intentionally or unintetionally reproduce this style, but that when one surveys all the paintings that bear this specific style, the best conclusion is that there is one painter who is responsible for majority of the paintings that other painters then chose to imitate, for various reasons.

In the face of the possibility of many painters, what allows one to draw the conclusion that there is the first, original artist that the other painters are dependent upon? That there is a convergence across all the paintings of various features that are shared through many of the paintings. One similar pattern here or there doesn’t establish a single painter,  but that there are are an array of common patterns that are reproduced again and again that leads to the simplest conclusion that there is one original, first artist.

The point here is this: we discern the will of God in our lives by convergence. Convergence is a bit different from a similar phenomenon known as coincidence and serendipity. Coincidence is what happens when an unexpected similarity emerges. Two people who arrive at a meeting to discover that they are wearing the same colors without planning to do so is a coincidence. Then, lets imagine these two people are a man and a woman and they believe this was a signal of fate that they were meant to fall in love and be together: they believe this coincidence is a sign of their being meant to be together, which we can call serendipity, where some random occurence leads to a happy outcome.

Convergence is a bit different, as convergence does not rely on a single coincidence here or there, but in convergence, a person surveys the whole and see a converging of patterns that is best explained due to the intentionality of some agent, such as God, another person, etc. For an example, imagine a woman writes a secret love letter to a man that doesn’t directly express her identity, nor does it even directly express the man’s identity. He finds tihs letter in a place that he regularly visits. Upon reading this love letter, the man see it is identified to a person named “Charlie,” but it is known that he is a fan of the silent film actor Charlie Chaplin. Then, he sees that this letter contains may descriptions of this “Charlie” that seem to match qualities that he has, such as a love for talking and walking and a penchant for being a bit unclean. It is almost as if this letter is written to “Charlie” is really directed towards him in an indirect way. There is a convergence that suggests it is about him.

On the other hand, he sees the letter is from “Lauren K,” who he does not immediately know. However, he has suspicions that a certain female has had an eye for him in the past who writes her name reguarly as “Paula C.” Furthermore, the letter talks about how “Charlie” and “Lauren” reguarly rove around together the woods and this man knows that Paula has a dog named Rover that she loves to go out walking with. There are multiple other similarities between “Lauren” and Paula.

At this point, there are two convergences: many things that seem to be descriptive of him and many things that seem to be descriptive of her. It isn’t certain that it is really about him and really from her, but it sure does look like it. However, he hasn’t seen Paula in a while and he doesn’t have her number to call and ask her about it. So, he comes up with a plan to wait and see if he will ever get an opportunity to see and talk to Paula and then ask her about it if the chance comes up. If Paula wrote the letter with the intention of him coming to know it is her and she really wants to be in relationship with him, then she would give him the opportunity to see and talk to her. When she does and admits it was from her and for him, the two convergences become cemented as being a communication from her to him.

In a similar way than, when we trust and understand that God is at work in our lives for our well-being, we can come to see there are multiple convergences: both convergene related to ourselves and converegene that corresponds to what we know about God. This is not some coincidence or a human-made serendipity, but it is the hand of God that crafts events for a person’s life with intentional love that bears distinguish marks of both God as the “author” and the person as the recipient. As Proverbs 20:24 says: “The steps of a young man are from the Lord,” and “the way of a young man with a girl” is too wonderful to be understood (Proverbs 30.18-19) because when it is pure and holy it is implicitly God directing even those steps.

 

The Beatitudes as the Gospel for victims

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July 3, 2020

For my sermon last Sunday, I preached from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.3-10. Amidst my commentary research, I found a multiple sources that interpreted *all* the Beatitudes with a moral frame of reference. Most particularly, there are common tendencies to interpret the first three beatitudes about the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, and the meek as having some coded moral message. Not to pick on John Wesley, but his notes on the New Testament is a good example. Wesley believes the “poor in Spirit” are the penitent, that mourning is about sins, and meekness is about having control over one’s passions. In a somewhat different vein, Michael Wilkins in the NIV Application commentary on Matthew considers the beatitude about the poor in Spirit to be undercutting of a worldview that takes prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, those who are mourning to not be self-satisfied, and meekness about being gentle as opposed to domineering. However, as Ulrich Luz’s commentary on Matthew in the Hermeneia commentary series notes: “[T]he first four beatitudes probably do not have a unified religious or ethical meaning.”1

This tendency to interpret the Beatitudes with a moral frame of reference may in some sense of represent what we think Jesus, or religion, is all about. Insofar as we understand Jesus to be a bearer of religious and moral teaching, there can be a stark inclination to interpret the beatitudes as expression about highly revered moral virtues and traits. This is not a problem when it comes to the later beatitudes about being merciful, being pure in heart, and being peacemakers, as these beatitudes shout out a sense of ethical virtue. The problem is that we try to fit all the beatitudes as an expression about moral virtues, of who people must be to be blessed by God.

This reading has misdirected us towards what I think to be a more appropriate form of reading: the Beatitudes as Jesus describing the transformation of the victims, particularly those who have been burdened by the oppressive, burdensome teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. In this reading, there is a moral concern behind the Beatitudes, but it is in how all the beatitudes relate to each other as a whole in describing the way God reverses the fortunes of those who have been brought low and made powerless in life.

The first three Beatitudes are the expression of the sense of destitution, desperation, defenselessness of those who have been greiviously harmed by the current socio-religious-political realities for the people of Israel. As the foreing occupation of Rome fomented a deep sense of resentment among many of the Israelites, this resentment fueled a drive towards reproducing Torah purity in one’s own life in the hopes that God would restore Israel’s autonomy and blessed status. However, the danger with *behavioral* purity is that it judges persons who fail to act approriately/pure as dangerous and contagious. However, in addition, when an authoritarian streak combines with an unrelenting concern for behavioral purity, false accusations and attacks will be leveled against people for mere suspicion of standing against the authority.

Consequently, the poor and even those with some wealth were defenseless towards the social opprobrium of the Pharisees, much like King David feel poor and needy in the face of those hostile to him (Psalm 40.17). The LXX translation of the prophet Jeremiah in 12.4 expresses the mourning that comes with the wickedness that ravages the land, including those who feel that God can not see their secret dealings. Psalm 36.9-11 expresses the confidence that God will bless the meek when God cuts off the wicked, implying that the meek are those have been controlled and made powerless by those who wickedly seek to have control.

All this paints a picture: the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims is about the trasnformation of life that comes when people who have been victimized recognize and follow Jesus as the one who God from heaven has appointed as King.

The fourth beatitude is the transition that leads to transformation, as Jesus restores hope to the victims who would have otherwise been tempted to give up. The craving for righteousness is for more than just wanting to do what is right oneself, but a craving to see right relationships between others and with God. When one follows Jesus as God’s King, one longs to see the wickedness of the present era to be replaced with truth, love, and justice.

However, how this righteousness is realized is where the profound transformation takes place. Often times, victims are set up in a “game” where the only way to protect themselves is to beat the oppressor at their own game, that the tools of their oppression becomes the tactics that they feel they must use to be free and vanquish the wicked. The end result of this if victims do not give up, they may be at times tempted to take on the image of their abuser and oppressor and to join in among those who act wickedly in a dog-eat-dog sort of world. When victims do not have resources to protect themselves, they may feel they are put into a double-bind of either giving up or adopting the image of their oppressor. But for those who retain hope by following Jesus as King, they learn to be merciful rather the sharp condemnation of the Pharisees, their purity is of the heart rather than a behavioral purity that the Pharisees prescribed, and they act to bring well-being and shalom to others rather than load people down with burdens like the Pharisees. Jesus leads people away from the false vision of righteousness that begets a darker evil to one that produces the fruit of true righteousness.

Yet, the truth is that today most victims come to find themselves somewhere in between the poles of hopelessness and imitation of their abuser. Instead, many victims protect themseles by becoming prickly, like a cactus, that keeps all who would hurt them away. Yet, even here, one’s prickliness can hold people back from experiencing the blessings of love in belong to God’s Kingdom, because no one wants to hold and hug a cactus. In our day where we have given greater concern for those who have been grieviously harmed, the victims who find the resources to protect themselves don’t adopt the image of their oppressor, but they may still find themselves struggling to fully live into the blessing of life that the Gospel brings. However, when they don’t learn how to drop their prickliness but yet expect others to be close to them, they can still harm others, even if they are not acting with intentionality.

The word that is hard for victims who protect themselves by being prickly in today’s word to hear is “be merciful.” Many of us hear in the word “mercy” the idea that we let those who hurt us off the hook because we have been conditioned to think that “forgiveness” is about absence of  consequence for one’s behaviors. However, mercy is more about how we limit ourselves in the face of others who we deem to be somehow caught in moral trespass than it is denying or just absolving the offense. In mercy, our goal is not to destroy and ruin those who hurt us, even while we may still seek to bring about repentance and/or disempower them from doing further harm. Furthermore, as victims, we are often inclined to bring out the thorns anytime we hear or see anything from anyone that we think reminds us of our abusers and oppressors, treating the other person as essentially one and the same with those who caused us harm. Learning to by merciful like King Jesus calls us to not react with such strong accusations when we find people violate our ethical systems of behavioral purity.

The challenge in accepting the call for victims to be merciful in this society is that we have been taught not to take responsibility for ourselves, lest we make ourselves susceptible to the shouts of those who would blame the victim. We are encouraged and exalted when we use our voice to bravely speak up, but we are not taught to really bear responsibility for the direction our life takes after victimization. While we should never bear responsibiltiy for the victimization that we were not at fault for and were powerless to stop, growing beyond the victimization means we are transformed from the powerless to taking moral and ethical responsibility for our lives to be a blessing not just to ourselves but to others. When we set in our hearts that Jesus is our King, we don’t experience the blessing of God’s kingdom by being mired in the destitution, desperation, and defenselessness of the first three beatitudes, but in the fourth beatitude we find the transition that leads to transformation. This Kingdom transformation comes to full bloom as we learn to responsibility for ourselves to follow Jesus’ teaching and life, to put Jesus’ words into action, including those parts that may be emotionally hard such as forgiveness (albeit, not the false type of “forgiveness” that simply enables and denies the need for justice).

However, the Kingdom transformation that the Beatitudes express are true even for those who have not experienced a severe victimzation, because everyone has been hurt and harmed to various degrees, whether it be in minor harms inflict against you or hearing and witnessesing severe victimizations inflicted upon others. While you don’t need to play the victim that needs protections by exaggerating the harms done to you to recieve the blessings of God’s kingdom, you simply need to recognize that it is in your own forms of desperations, your disappointments, and your weaknesses that keeps you vulnerable that you are invited to dream a better way of life that you discover by following Jesus. Even the priviledged can come into the blessings of God’s Kingdom when one recognizes the injustices that one’s privilege has allowed you to otherwise safely ignore and in those seek to discover and bring about something much better for others and yourself through the instruction and example of Jesus Christ. So, in making the Beatitudes about the transformation of victims, I am not suggesting the Gospel is only for victims, but that the words and life of Jesus are a source of transforming power for those who have experienced the destitution, desperation, and defenselessness that life can bring, no matter how big or small they might seem, through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father gives to those who the true identify of Jesus as the Son and King has been revealed to.

We are not always in the right

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July 3, 2020

Psalm 19.12: “Who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”

We live in a society of expertise. By that, I mean we live in a world where so much of our life is defined by what experts have to say about the best practices. This has been no more evident recently than with the spread of coronavirus, medical and health experts have been given advice to the public and to government official as to how to handle the pandemic. Genuine experts, and not simply those treated as experts without the necessary background, are important because they help to uncover the veil of ignorance in our lives, reduce harm, and promote well-being.

Yet, there is also a hidden cost in a society of expertise. The judgment of those who make error. To the expert, error is to be avoided. That is how genuine experts become experts, as they burned away all the dross of their wrong thinking to come to some purer understand of their focus of study. This is how expert develop their skills and move up in the world. However, this personal practice of learning can readily morph into the social practice of judging others who make errors. Any look at social media can reveal the attitudes of contempt and derision for those who make errors as ignorant, foolish, evil, etc. To be in error, either in action or thinking, is often times treated as a symptomic of one’s own deeper, problematic character. The society of expertise often reinforces this as experts are often tempted to have to prove themselves by showing the errors of other colleagues.

Living in a society of expertise can have the effect of making us feeling worthless and useless at times, as it trains our minds to think error is something terrible and horrible. When it feels like people are trying to consistently point out the speck in your eye, it can make some feel downright demoralized. When error-finding and error-avoiding is a major social practice that determines one’s status in the eyes of others, it can make us search for ways to clear ourselves of all errors. When we come to feel that error invalidates our person, we seek to find the way to justify ourselves in the eyes of others. If we were patient to take the diligence to learn what is right, that would be one thing. However, much of the time we are impatient, tempting us to find flimsy pretexts and rationalizations for why we are right and, often times, why others are wrong.

The end result is that we may appear right in the eyes of others, but what we think, say, and do bears the fruit of error. When we feel being right is a necessary goal in life as a result of living in a society of expertise, we are immediately prone to justify ourselves. We become obdurate, unwilling to hear where we may be causing problems for others or even ourselves. One need look no further than countless discussions on social media where people act more confident in what they think about a topic, while they ignore and even conjure up conspiracy theories about anything that might say that they are in error. The impatient desire to to be right blinds us from seeing our error.

All this has an unfortunate impact on us spiritually. By seeking to be right, especially in the eyes of others, we lift ourselves up as our own judge. Consequently, we do not entrust our selves and lives to the One who judges righteously but yet also judges mercifully for the merciful. It is God who justifies, but yet we seek to justify ourselves. It is perhaps one thing to defend ourselves from falsehood and to protect ourselves from error, but when we seek to be right, we also seek defend ourselves from the truths about ourselves that we don’t want to accept and take responsibility for. That we are all sinners means that we are not right on our own account, but that we may make spiritual errors that even go beyond our comprehension. It is for this reason that we can not absolve ourselves of all faults because we sin has made a deep mark on our lives and we literally can not understand, know, and treat every sin, every error that we have in our lives. 

However, when we know a God who is merciful to the merciful, we can trust that our sin and error does not immediately invalidate us as people and our lives. We become freed to not have to always feel right so that we can then accept and learn what our hidden faults are, while being confident that this way of life in trusting God will lead us to be purer and wiser in our hearts and lives. By recognizing that we are not always in the right, we become spiritually freed to allow God to lead us into what is right, and good, and true.

To do this, though, we have to unlearn what the society of expertise has taught us about error. While we should not disregard genuine expertise, we should not let the way society often treats those in error with derision dictate the way we see ourselves before the living God and the way we treat each other. We have to unlearn the “potential Pharisaism” of wider secular society in order to live in faith in the Father who judges righteously in the way of Jesus showed and taught us.

God's everlasting purposes in a rapidly changing world

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June 30, 2020

Psalm 119.89-90:

The LORD exists forever;
your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast

The year 2020 has been nothing but frantic for the United States. We started off the year with a threat of war between the US and Iran. Then, word came of a virus in Wuhan, China that would rapidly spread to rapidly change the life of the whole globe. After a few months of social distancing and isolation, a nation was inundate with protests after witnessing police brutality against George Floyd. Just this weekend, my own state of Mississippi voted to get rid of the state flag that contained a confederate symbol. The state of our country and even my state has changed rapidly this year.

Life can often change and change rather quickly. The lyrics of Don Henley’s song “New York Minute” testifies to this: “In a New York minute/Everything can change/In a New York minute/Everything can change.” A sudden accident or new of a terminal illness can change a person’s life in an instant. Add on top of that the way technology has made life change rapidly, as we are more able to get information and respond more rapidly to whatever challenges that are faced than any point in human history. The way we used to do things are giving way to new methods and practices, with new technology to make it happen, which means we need to learn new things to move ahead in the world. In the midst of all the changes, we can sometimes feel pretty lost. What are we supposed to do?

Such rapid change can make us feel like there is no truth. With the constantly having to unlearn and relearn, it can make life feel like simply a bunch of surface appearances, with no real depth and deep, persisting meaning. What is true today is gone tomorrow.

The prophet Isaiah was familiar with the changing nature of life, even if it wasn’t as face-paced change as we regularly face today: “The grass withers, the flower fades.” (Isa. 40.8a) As the seasons passed, so too did the world show all the signs of change, with nothing lasting forever. Isaiah even compared all people to grass (Isa. 40.6), recognizing that social life is a series of changes that come and go. The only real difference between our day and Isaiah’s day is how quickly the changes come and go, but the impermanence of human life is as true today as it was for Isaiah.

Yet, amidst the changing truths of who was in power and without power, who was living in prosperity and who was living in destitution, the prophet Isaiah says with bold confidence: “The word of our God will stand forever.” (Isa 40.8b) Even as human life and purposes change, God has an unrelenting, endless purposes for human life. A time was coming when all the people would see the glory of God, where there would be no division between those who were set up in high places and those whose life had left them on the margins because God had raised the valleys and lowered the mountains (Isa. 40.3-5). Even as the world changes, God purpose is endless and continues to seek to bring forth His purposes for human life.

A.W. Tozer said: “The idea of endlessness is to the kingdom of God what carbon is to the kingdom of nature. As carbon is present almost everywhere, as it is an essential element in all living matter and supplies all life with energy, so the concept of everlastingness is necessary to give meaning to any Christian doctrine.” Without the eternity of God’s purposes, the Christian faith would be at risk of being an outdating, useless relic of eras long past. Indeed, if religion was simply about human efforts to strive for God, then this would be true, but the Gospel is about God’s ongoing purposes and activity in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit to bring about the full blessing of human life through the revealing of God’s glory to the world.

This is why we as followers of Jesus continue to obey His word, as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Even as the world rapidly changes, sometimes even witnesses the transformation of the seemingly changelessness of the mountains and the valleys, our faith is not in human power and purposes, but the loving power and purposes of God to accomplish what He has promised. So the words of Christ are for us today as valid as they were two millennia because they transform us to be agents of God’s purposes, because in the living and doing of them by the Spirit who leads us, we can become empowered to act in accordance to God’s wisdom in this rapidly changing world. While such teachings may seem outdated to many, it is Jesus’ words that invite us into a transformation of our own way of life through the Spirit so that we can bring God’s purposed peace and well-being amidst the chaos that rapid change brings about.

Word and Creation

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June 21, 2020

Psalm 19.1-4, 7-10:

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In theology, there is a regular debate on the relationship between natural theology and revealed theology. At its simplest, it pertains to how we can know about God. Can we know God through nature? Or do we only know God through revelation? While such theological questions are interesting and important, there is an important spiritual reality that is often masked in this discussion: our life in creation forms our confession in God. When we gather around a meal and give thanks to God for it, our faith in God is determined by what God has created. When Christians gather together at an Easter sunrise service to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the rhythms of creation serve as a testimony to the foundation of our hope. Christian faith lived on the ground is much more complex than the various debates in theological epistemology, for better and worse.

Psalm 19 does not easily fit into the questions of theological epistemology. On the one hand, the heavens do testify to the glory of God. On the other hand, there is no speech or words that are understood, even as the Psalmist then says their voice goes throughout the world. There is a mysterious disclosure of God through creation, which neither leaves us ignorant of the Creator nor lets us really understand the Creator. Reflection on creation may bring about awe, wonder, and a sense of splendor, but like an infant who is satisfied with the mother’s love, we appreciate and recognize in creation what we do not understand.

In the midst of the mystery of God in creation, God’s instruction forms us. Where creation does not speak, God does speak. As the infant grows into a child who can understand and converse in speech with their beloved mother, so too does our infant-like worship of God in and through creation bring us to a place where we can pray to, hear from, and being instructed by God. It isn’t that we leave behind the goodness of creation to some ‘revelation’ apart from the creation, but that in our spiritual maturation, it is the light of God’s Word that teaches us how to live with and appreciate the creation. However, much like those who Paul says reputed themselves to be wise, we may be tempted to raise the creation and our understanding of it above the Creator (Rom 1.19-23); even if we don’t set out an idol and still talk about God, we are tempted to long for the gold and the honey drippings more than God’s Word. 

So, our sense of life and survival become tightly bound with the creation and not our dependence upon the Creator; we become lead by our individual experiences of creation rather than the Word of God. So, we find in the cross of Jesus Christ a call to the death to the world for us, the death of our attachments so that we can then be raised to new life in the world, with new sense of dependence upon God our Creator who gives to us our attachments. It is this Word of the Cross that restores our infant-like awe of creation with a dependence upon the God’s instruction to guide us. It is this Word of the Cross that points us to the Spirit poured in our hearts, who leads us into a (re)newed attachment to God and new desires for life in the fruit of the Spirit.

Prayer as the union of our heart with the Spirit

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June 20, 2020

Ephesians 6.18a: “Through every prayer and petition, pray in every occasion in the Spirit.”

What is it about prayer that is important? Why is prayer central to the Christian life? Some answers may include (1) seeking help in time of need, (2) finding a place of intimacy with God, and (3) recognizing our dependence upon God. Each of these answers may have some place in understanding prayer, but I want to put forward from my own experience and understanding of the Scriptures that there is another, more overarching reason for prayer. Prayer is how we bring our hearts into unison with the leading and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

In Ephesians 6.18, Paul instructs the churches to prayer in the Spirit. Most translations do not do a good job bringing the centrality of the Spirit to prayer. Paul’s focus is on prayers that are offered in the Spirit. The point isn’t so much to say when to prayer or how much to pray (though Paul certainly endorses continuous prayer), but the very manner in which people prayer in all their various circumstances. Prayers are to be offered in the Spirit.

What exactly praying in the Spirit mean? At the core of Paul’s understanding of the Spirit is that Spirit leads people into holy desires that they may not themselves fully yet understand. In Galatians 5.16-26, the Spirit provides desires that comes into contrast with the desires of the flesh. In Romans 8.26-27, Paul expresses His hope in the Spirit who offers prayers that we can not possibly understand but that God who sees the heart can see, which Paul then connects to the good that God accomplishes for those who love God.

Prayer in the Spirit can be understood as bringing our own spirits with God’s Spirit, owning the hopes and dreams that the Spirit plants within us as our own hopes and dreams also. Our confidence that God answers our prayers is that God searches the hearts of those who love Him, but bringing our own life in accordance to God’s purposes is accomplish through our perception of and learning what it is the Spirit prays for within us.

Perhaps this explain’s Jesus instruction about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.5-15). Jesus’ language about praying in private most likely doesn’t literally refer to one’s social location in the presence of other people, as Jesus would pray in front of others. Rather, Jesus is probably referring to the inner chambers of the heart that no person can go into, rather than focusing on the public praise. In the inner chambers of the heart one will find the Father who is in secret, whereas focus on the public prayers would distract from seeing and hearing from the Father in secret. Likewise, focusing on heaping up words is needless, as prayer is about coming to the Father in secret. Just like Elijah discovered God is found not in the powerful displays of the natural world, but in the calm, quiet voice, so too Jesus calls people to prayer to God in the secret place of their heart.

It is through the Holy Spirit that the Father communes with us. Our act of prayer, then, is to give attention to the will of God through the Spirit leading us rather than give attention to all the other motivations and displays in the world. To pray in the Spirit is to acknowledge and own what God is already doing in our midst, both personally and corporately. It starts with the basic acknowledgement of our own relationship to God the Father, where the Holy Spirit brings the cry of “Abba! Father!” into our hearts (Rom. 8.15-16; Gal 4.6), but as we grow, so too our prayers in the Spirit grow as we can give expression to what was previously inchoate.

I speak this from the perspective of a person who has gone through serious trauma many years ago to the point that my memories and emotions were frayed and scattered. While I had a basic cry in my heart for God, for many years I didn’t know what to really pray for myself. I did pray for others when I saw the immediate need, but my heart was so frayed that personal prayer was not something I really even had the mind to engage in. Nevertheless, there were inchoate cries within my heart, cries for justice, cries for healing, cries for a new life that I couldn’t express and verbalize except occasionally in the throes of pain. In the course of healing these past few years and rediscovering the passion for the Lord that I had previously, I can say that my prayer life has become more tuned to this leading of the Holy Spirit, to seek for the good desires for the world that the Spirit brings forth in us.

We don’t pray so as to get from what is good from God, as God already sees and knows, but we pray so as to bring ourselves into union with God’s good purposes being planted within us by the Holy Spirit. We don’t pray so as to experience intimacy with God, but rather it is in intimacy with God that we focus on the groanings of the Spirit within us. We don’t pray so as to acknowledge our dependence, so much as we pray because we discover as God’s People that we are ultimately dependent on God’s Spirit.

Purity of heart vs. purity of doctrine

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June 20, 2020

Matthew 5.8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

In taking a hiatus from theological and exegetical topics, I am hoping to give myself an opportunity to “stretch” the other part of my “spiritual muscles.” I have always been naturally inclined to the traditional “intellectual” topics of Christian faith such as theological doctrine and exegesis, but I felt like somewhere along the ways this was to my impoverishment, both intellectually and spiritually. Spiritual formation is something that over the years has drawn my attention, even though I have never given it dedicated focus. Understanding Spiritual formation is one of the places where the intellect meets the (affective) heart. While I am by no means an expert in Spiritual formation, I have a background in psychology, I have ruminated, investigated, and experience the work of the Holy Spirit, and I have a deep appreciation for the important of Pneumatology in the New Testament and theology.

So, my hope over the next few months is to read and think about the life of transformation through the Holy Spirit, largely from the Scriptures, some from the masters of Spiritual formation, and even occasionally through spiritual reflections on poetry. The hope at least is that by blogging about it, I will have that added motivation to really exercise myself in a way that I have not done so.

My first thought actually relates to what may be part of the reason I felt a desire to take a hiatus from exegetical and theological topics: I have an  increasingly deep conviction that the Christian life is not about about right interpretation and right belief (orthodoxy) before it is about God’s vision of the good life for humanity in creation and His work to redeem us for that good life. Orthodoxy and exegesis is important, but it is instrumental to this deeper, more abiding purpose: to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ in order to be fully restored to our God-given vocation in creation. Exegesis and orthodoxy are important in that while not all errors and wrong beliefs are dangerous, there are some beliefs, such as heresy and justifications of sin and injustice, that if they take a hold can cause great damage to others and can mislead people away from God’s purposes for humanity. However, not all errors are of the same degree of importance; most errors are opportunities to learn that we need to have the humility to understand but they do not present immediate threat or dangerous to the Christian faith.

However, there is a strand of intellectualization of Christianity that seeks to pursue what may be referred to as the “purity of doctrine.” I understand the “purity of doctrine” to refer to the intellectual motivation to get to the precise, correct, and exhaustive understanding of what is true about God, Jesus, the Bible, Christian doctrine, etc. This mindset is common in conservative Christianity, which historically was influenced by an aspiration to be an alternative Christian “enlightenment” to the Enlightenment.

Given my inherent penchant to notice errors and mistakes in myself, I have been tempted towards this route from time to time with the following implicit belief: if we can somehow find the perfect theological or Scriptural understanding, everything in our lives will be set right.  Having come to faith in Christ from within the religious culture of conservative Christianity, my own sensitivity to error found an initially pleasant intersection with the aspirations for a “purity of doctrine” that often lead to social reinforcement: “Hey, you know a lot about theology.” “You are a dissertation idea machine.” “I have never seen anything like what you can do.” Combine this with my “theological ax” to grind against some of my Southern Baptist background, I had various motivations to try to find the “purity of doctrine.” However, underneath this intellectual life was a growing discontent; not with learning itself but with the fact that it left a continually gnawing sense of sadness and exhaustion underneath. I remember many times in college where I would dedicate large chunks of time to Bible study and theology to then conclude with a feeling of being tired and almost sad. Nevertheless, I persisted with the pursuit of “purity of doctrine” because I did find pleasure in the activity and it was often socially reinforced.

Somewhere along the way, I knew in my head that the “purity of doctrine” wasn’t enough but that what one does and the way one loves is of vital importance, but yet I still kept reaching for it. I knew one need to treat other people with grace, mercy, and kindness, but I was so increasingly focus on the “purity of doctrine” in myself and in others. I felt the appearance of a tension between grace and truth, which was really the tension between love and “purity of doctrine” that was increasingly motivated by a need to address every stray thought and idea. While I did not engage in such a pursuit with an idea of disdain for others as I myself saw myself filled with errors, there are some people who do not appreciate a striving for a “purity of doctrine” for various reasons. For some who struggle with self-esteem, the idea of being in error makes them feel attacked or worthless. For others who are in the beginning to learn, they may be overwhelmed by the information presented in pursuit of the “purity of doctrine.” For others with a more authoritarian streak, they may simply not want any accountability for or contesting of what they say or so. There are likely other motivations that I have yet to think of. Whatever the various motivations may be, when the “purity of doctrine” goes from being a personal goal to a social practice, it can feel like nails on a chalkboard to many. I myself have been guilty of letting the “purity of doctrine” needlessly lead my voice to become more like a noxious noise.

However, I don’t feel like I ever got to the worst form of pursing the “purity of doctrine,” though my own opinion does not exonerate me, but there is a darker, social impulse that this pursuit can present: the predilection towards judgment of all who do not share one’s ideas. When the “purity of doctrine” is motivated by a strong moral impulse that regards right belief as a deep, moral imperative, it has lead to endless amounts of spiritual and religious conflicts, if not even at times spiritual and religious abuse. I remember one time during seminary engaging with a fan of Karl Barth who was socially connected to a couple people who did not like me very much and in the midst of our back and forth on intense intellectual discussions, which I usually enjoyed, I was occasionally receive what seemed to be some personal jabs (and maybe he saw the same in me), including one time implying that I might be like those who say “Lord, Lord” in Matthew 7.21-23.  I had experienced what seem to be the more toxic forms of “purity of doctrine,” where theology is used more as a weapon than it is as a tool for building up. Fortunately, I did not let that turn me away from learning the positives about Karl Barth later at the University of St. Andrews from scholars such as Alan and Andrew Torrance

The thing is this: Jesus does not call us to “purity of doctrine.” Again, certainly our teaching and thinking is important, but its importance is instrumental to the way it leads and protects our devotion to God away from heresy and injustice, not as an end unto itself. Jesus instead describes as blessed those who are “pure in heart.” Far from simply describing the affective life, the language of the heart indicates the whole of what leads and guides a person. This includes  what we consider our emotions, our intelligence, and our motivations. The “purity of heart” is one that engages the full devotion of the whole person towards God’s will and purposes. If we can consider the Beatitudes as sort of a general description of people’s growth under the kingdom of heaven, then the “purity of heart” is the (long) step of Spiritual growth before becoming a peacemaker.

This is why the “purity of doctrine” is a potential diversion. The pursuit of a “purity of doctrine” doesn’t brings our whole hearts to God in Christ to form our right affect (orthpathy) and right practices (orthopraxy), but an *unrelenting* and *perfectionistic* concern for orthodoxy and right interpretation can squelch it. While orthodoxy and right interpretation is very instrumental in Spiritual formation as, among other things, it protects the way we know God through the three persons of the Holy Trinity, the relentless pursuit of the “purity of doctrine” risks engaging in a form of intellectual Pelagianism wherein our ability to get everything right and correct is practically considered to be the basis of our spiritual life, even if we repudiate Pelagianism intellectually. It in effect ignores the wisdom of the Proverbs 3.5-8:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
8 It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.

However, there is good news for orthodoxy. The well-formed emotional life by the Spirit  and well-formed practice in following Christ can be instrumental in deepening our understanding of orthodoxy and the Scriptures, but with a view to the deeper significance that connects to the rest of our lives rather than simply an attempt to find a “purity of doctrine,” because it is the “pure of heart” who will see God so as to be able to understand Him as testified in the Scriptures and in the orthodox tradition of the Church. This is what I lacked in my pursuit of the “purity of doctrine” during my early exegetical and theological training. While I had love for God and others and I had a concern for the way of life that Christ called us towards, I had over-focused on my intellectual capacities.

Edited to add after the fact: After posting this, I saw the a statement from Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, abouit Black Lives Matters which can be read here:

When we read their comments and official documents, when we survey the policies they propose and the worldview that guides their moral claims, it is clear that the Movement for Black Lives promotes a revolutionary and destructive agenda that is completely antithetical to a biblical worldview.

Mohler then goes on to say in the next paragraph:

While we affirm the sentence “black lives matter,” without hesitation and with full enthusiasm, we simply cannot use the sentence, because it will be heard, nearly universally, as a movement, not as a sentence. The sentence is no longer a sentence—it is a movement, a platform, an agenda of revolution at odds with the gospel, contrary to and destructive of God’s creational order.

I will simply put forward this as an example where the pursuit of a “purity of doctrine” has some damaging social implications. Critique Critical Race Theory fairly and not simply based upon its historical emergence from Marxist theory, critique individual elements of their platform and how they may be not sustainable or are not compatible with the Christian life, but to give a wide-spread sweeping critique of a phrase that seeks to correct racial injustice on the grounds an organization that bears the name being in opposition to “a biblical worldview” I would suggest is more grounded in a concern for a “purity of doctrine” that minimizes and diminishes the concerns for justice through overemphasis on a supposed orthodoxy.1 May those who are seeking to be pure in heart see beyond the “purity of doctrine.”

Black Lives Matter and people with black skin deserve a Church that is seeking to be “pure of heart” and not simply aspiring to “purity of doctrine.”

Egotonicity vs. egocentricity

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June 18, 2020

I am presently considering taking a hiatus from blogging for an indefinite period of time (3 months? 1 year?), at least when it comes to Biblical studies and theological topics. I picked back up blogging as I transitioned into an academic environment, with one purpose to be to help me to work through various ideas and work through my language skills. However, as I am preparing to return back to the pulpit, I am wanting to give my focus to that. While I anticipate that I will return to blogging about theology and exegesis in the future, I want to take time to focus on the intersection of my learning these past three years into ministry. While I may decide to blog about the task of ministry (I am on the fence about that at the moment) and the life led by the Spirit, I feel it is good to give my mind a rest from the three years of relentless intellectual work. I will continue to do some work in exegesis and theology, but I will not be as focused on those tasks as I was the past three years.

With that said, there is one final idea I wanted to write about before I come to the hiatus: about the self. These past three years have been a Spirit-led journey where I have had to come to grips with my pain, my struggles, my fears, and my traumas in light of the God who had grasped me so many years ago in a way I never could fully wrapped my head around. While I still haven’t ‘mastered’ understanding God, and none of us ever will, I feel that I have come to a theological “framework” around the Trinity that has integrated the strengths of my Wesleyan theological background with the theology of Karl Barth, all while building the integration based upon exegetical work. What I always thought about extensively at the same time was about the self and identity.

All our worship, all our theology, all our studies of the Scripture inevitably are an engagement of the self and yet, paradoxically, we are invited and called into a way of life that goes beyond ourselves towards God and for others. The life lived faithfully by the Scriptures entails what seems like a paradox on the surface: we are called to be for others and yet we can only be ourselves. How can this be?

I hope the following provides a way forward for me (and others) to think on the topic: there is a difference between egotonicity and egocentricity that is important. Egotonicity is a fancy way of saying that we inherently interpret the world from our own biological, cultural, and individual givenness. All my past experiences, all my fears and my desires, all of it impinges on the way we understand and know about the world around us. We literally can not escape it, no matter how hard we try. We may say that egotonicity is the basic, epistemic base for all that we come to know.  

On the other hand, egocentricity is a hermenutical activity: it is to interpret the world around us with reference to the self. Whereas egotonicity is where we start, egocentricity is about where we end up in our understanding. I may unconsciously love a piece of art, but if in my analysis of it, I ask the question “What is it that makes me love this art?” and I find something within myself to answer the question, I am interpreting the art egocentrically.

Egocentricity isn’t inherently bad. It is only through moments of egocentricity that we can actually come to understand ourselves as human beings, what it is we want, don’t want, that we know, that we get wrong, etc. The problem, however, is when egocentricity gets entrenched, where the sole focus of our concern is unrelentingly about ourselves, that we do not stop to interpret the world around us with regards to other people’s lives or, even more importantly, with regard to God’s will. Egocentricity is necessary to understand ourselves but it isn’t the secret to happiness or living well, because our lives are wired to be for others. Sans some sort of neuroatypicality, we are wired to have a deep craving for relationships, which begins to be fulfilled to its best when our worship, faith, and love for God orders our loving relationships with others.

This distinction between egotonicity and egocentricity is helpful, I believe, because most of us are trained to think about our selves with one idea in mean “being selfish.” We treat the relationship of ourselves to others in terms of this single moral idea by which some of us come to feel guilty if we ever do something for ourselves, because we think of it as “selfish.” Or, if we don’t understanding something about someone and we may feeling guilted for being “self-centered,” even if we were never told anything about it.

However, the distinction between egotonicity and egocentricity allows a little more nuance to recognize that our own selves are a necessary given, but that we don’t have to always be about ourselves. Egotonicity does not automatically lead to persistent egocentricity. But, egotonicity does not mean that we are not selfish simply for not knowing how other people feel, but that we are being entrenchingly egocentric only if we are unwilling to hear and respond to another and interpret their words with reference to their own thoughts and feelings.

I would say that privilege can make us entrenchingly egocentric, where everything is about our rights, our wants, our dreams, etc. Privilege allows us to make it about ourselves and not consider what happens to others. It is those who are disprivileged, those who are on the outside, who tend to be less entrenched in their egocentricism. This doens’t make them automatically more virtuous or moral, as sin is universal and not simply the monopoly of the privileged, but only that by virtue of their being on the ‘outside’ are they more apt to be focused outwardly, to understand others, to even seek and pursue after God with their whole heart. No wonder Jesus’ Beatitudes starts off with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They can receive from God in Jesus Christ the way of the kingdom of heaven that others may not be so readily open to hearing and receiving.

To be clear, privilege doesn’t automatically make us purely and unescapably selfish. If one has learned to love others in a way that it has become an engrained habit, privilege will not tear away what has been sown deep in a person’s heart. In fact, ‘privilege’ may even become something people use to help others; not as a upper class hero who pours down “blessings” on those below them,1 but as a servant who seeks to raises others up to be able to receive what they themselves have received. It is the servant who has learned the secret between when to be ‘egocentric’ so as to interpret and understand oneself and when not to be so as to understand and raise others up. Even the Servant of servants Jesus was ‘egocentric’ in that he would take time alone for prayer to be in communion with the Heavenly Father, even when he could have been ‘less selfish’ and healing more people.

Maybe with this in mind, I will be able to understand what self-care is. It has always felt like such a “selfish” thing, and it can certainly turn that way when self-care is used in a privileged way, but self-care is to make good use of the thing God has given to us, our bodies with its (affective) heart and mind.

We will see what the next few months have in store for me. But with that, I am letting work of the the past three years go to rest for a little while,2 with the hopes of dreaming sweet dreams and to wake up refreshed and ready to get back to task when the opportunity for academics rises up again, God willing.

Random ideas on theological epistemology

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June 15, 2020

Over the course of the past three years, I have dedicated a lot of my intellectual energy and effort over questions related to theological epistemology, especially through my research on 1 Corinthians 2 and my education under the professors as the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews. As a result, I have a lot of ideas that have come up over the years that I think are really helpful, but I don’t know how to systematically and coherently relate all of them together. So, instead of trying to write an intellectual narrative that tries to weave them altogether, here are a few of the ideas that have come up to me recently in light of my reflections on theological epistemology, some of which I have partially addressed in the past. Not all of these ideas have been thoroughly tried and tested equally, so some may be more needing of refinement, if not throwing away, even as others may have theological and spiritual value.

1) Revelation does not provide truth, but refers to events, speech, and the person of Christ from whom/which we are able to draw analogical inferences about God.

2) Analogy is cognitive, not ontological. As such, analogy only transfers our understanding from one domain of knowledge to another, but it is not a linguistic tool by which we cross the threshold of the Creator-creation boundary. The reliability of analogy to understand God is contingent upon God’s agency to make analogy reliable.

3) The recognition of revelation doesn’t tell us what the specific analogy there is between the content of revelation and God, but only that an analogy for understanding God can be found in the person Jesus and in the events and speech of revelation. Instead, revelation provides the content that both (a) allows for a person to recognize revelation as revelation (self-authentication) and (b) provides instruction which, if rightly understood, leads to truth ().

4) The self-authentication of revelation is conditioned to God’s agency to accommodate Himself to human understanding and not to some specific type of cognitive or epistemic state in the recipient of revelation. Consequently, from the human side, a person may come to recognize God’s revelation based upon prior epistemic foundations. However, the success of revelation disconnects the epistemic foundations for recognizing God’s revelation from the comprehension of the content of revelation.

5) The degree to which the content of revelation is understood is the degree to which the criteria by which a believer recognizes God’s revelation and activity in the future are transformed. As such, the way people come to know God is transformed over time based upon mutual love, where God in love accommodates to us and we in faith come to love and accommodate to God.

6) Love is not the beginning of knowing God, but it is the culmination of the mind and heart prepared to understand the fullness of God’s purposes by the fullness of Christ through the fullness of the Spirit’s inspiration of the Church.

7) The way we learn to draw the right analogy from  the content of God’s revelation so as to understand truth is through the direction and leading of the Spirit, both mediated through another, inspired person and through the direct instruction, leading, and guidance.

8) The leading of the Spirit is not intellectual before it is pre-symbolic and volitive. Also, the lead of the Spirit occurs over time, such that Spiritual formation, alternatively referred to as discipleship, pedagogy, etc., is necessary for a person to be able to understand in such a way as to draw true analogies from God’s revelation.

9) To the degree that the object of theology is not focused on God and His purposes but on the products of God’s agency within creation, theology can safely allow for analogies within creation to understand the creation, while still needed to be critically engaged. For instance, one may draw from an analogy of romantic love to understand the human love for God, while recognizing that the analogy may need careful qualification. This is not inherently unreliable to the degree which the objects of our analogical inferences are known asides from analogy, allowing for the possibility of self-correcting feedback for specific analogies.

10) There are two, interrelated reasons the analogia entis is inherently unreliable to understand an utterly holy God. Firstly, apart from revelation, there is not way to “test” the analogies that are being drawn to determine their truthfulness about God. In other words, the analogia entis is not self-correcting. Secondly, to the degree that the analogia entis does not provide self-correcting feedback, it risks created an entrenched confidence in the methodology that falls far off track from its lack of reliability in knowing God.

11) There is no redeeming the analogia entis for any sort of theological knowledge about God. At best, it may provide a grounds for deriving possibilities about God that may be beneficial in pre-evangelism and apologetics for breaking loose ideological strangleholds that preclude understanding God, but the risk is that through such analogies a person may come to believe the analogia entis is a reliable theological methodology.

12) The analogies of revelation are ultimately directed towards God’s purpose in new creation and, as such, analogies are not primarily intended to tell us about God’s nature abstracted from creation, but rather God’s activity and purposes in creation.

13) As such, the doctrine of the Trinity is to be ultimately understood as the description of how God has, is, and continues to be engaged in His creation and, consequently, how we come to understand God’s purposes through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the ultimate analogical target of new creation means that the Trinity is to be understood economically and not immanently, except insofar as the immanence of the Triune relations are exhibited in God’s activity in creation.

14) The distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity as a product of human thinking may be considered analogous to a modification of Kant’s phenomena and noumena distinction, where the noumena refers to the range of potential of which the phenomena is one instantiation. To that end, discussions on the immanent Trinity may be considered to be a reflection of the range of possibilities that have been exhibited of God as Father, Son, and Spirit throughout salvation history.

15) Worship that is shaped in relation to the Triune God, and not simply the recognition of Trinitarian doctrine, is the necessary condition for being capable of being able to comprehend God’s revelation to the fullest.

Moratorium on "idolatry"

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June 14, 2020

I am going to make a strong call that I am make little hesitation: we need a moratorium on using the word “idolatry.” At the core of my criticism is this: we don’t use typically use idolatry to refer to specific practices directed towards some ‘figure’ of power, but we use it to refer to what we deem to be the cause of injustice. While I support many of the motivations that people have when addressing “idols,” such language smells of sloppy ethical critique cloaked in Biblical language to give its legitimacy. Instead, I would propose that we find alternative terms that are more descriptive of the causes of injustice, such as ideology, sins, ignorance, etc., than use such a sloppy form of thinking where the referents of “idolatry” only resemble the historical practice of idolatry in terms of being “wrong.”

The reason for this criticism is two-fold. Firstly, in the Biblical world, to speak of idolatry immediately conveyed the solution to the problem: stop doing the things that venerate the idol. Today, however, the reference of “idolatry” have shift away from action in the world to a cognitive-affective internalism that is used to describe values, worldviews, cultural beliefs, ratonality, etc. When we use idolatry to refer to the way people think, rather than what people do, we unwittingly engage the internalist way of thinking ushered in by Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment, although Francis Bacon was one of the first philosophers to refer to mental processes as idols. The damage of this is that this is, essentially, a veiled form of mind-control in which one tries to control the content of persons thinking through, essentially treated them as equivalent of ‘infidels’ for getting it wrong. While most people do not actually use it to such language to its worst effects, the more people give in wholeheartedly to such a sloppy use of “idolatry” to refer to internal realities rather than specific classes of well-demarcated behaviors, the more potentially abusive it can become.

This is not said from a note of superiority on this matter, but it is something that I have felt a strong conviction about myself as I have used “idolatry” to refer to various sorts of thoughts and feelings. However, in the end, I realize such language was partly due to my inability to describe what it was I was observed and that it is language that does not provide a clear solution towards those “guilty” of idolatry. Rather, the fear of such language is that those who wield such language will determine what does or does not constitute, without clear, reasonable guidance as to how to avoid “idolatry.” It is convenient appeal to people’s moral pathos to try to persuade, but it isn’t really effective at bring long term comprehension and understanding towards transformation if the specific actions to take to remedy it are not clear.

Building off of that, secondly, by putting a “moratorium” on usage of the language of “idolatry,” we will be forced to dedicate our thinking to clear descriptions of what the concerns and causes of sin are and, with that, the potential for developing a clearer plan for action. We can’t just point to the Biblical texts as some authority without making sure that what we are describing is strongly analogous to idolatry as describing in the Scriptures, but we are called to engage in a social form of thinking and analysis that calls us to understand the people who are committing the errors. Furthermore, by not flippantly referring to something as “idolatry,” which puts the burden on the “idolater” to get it right, we are more open to recognize our own role in bringing the redemptive message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to redirect people’s lives away from the sins and injustices that have bound us, both in the doing of them and being the recipient of them.

Certainly, there are still some things that can be deservingly called idolatry that have come clear prescriptions, such as the idol of money which calls for a distinct distancing of oneself from the purposeful activities of needlessly acquiring and increasing one’s wealth. But this is the sort of things where a prescription for the problem can be given, even if the prescription is not an easy one for people to grasp (as Jesus said, it is easier for a camel….). But much of what we criticize as idolatries are very different things than idolatry in the Biblical sense.

Undergirding the spirit of calling things “idolatry” is an iconoclastic spirit that seeks to tear down and dismantle the “errors” of those we oppose. While their are times to do such, such as Barth’s bomb in the playground of theologians, iconoclastic action do not build peace and shalom, but they simply take power away. To that end, lets unveil what is really happening under much of the “idolatry” rhetoric: post-modern deconstructionism. I don’t use this as an evil phrase, but rather to point out that people are more focused on deconstructing the worldviews and values of other people, cultures, etc. Maybe they are willing to reconstruct a new worldview, which they may use Christ to justify, but how many are truly willing to allow the freedom and the space to allow people to grow to reconstruct a new worldview by their worship of God in Christ through the Spirit? Deconstructionism is not the Gospel, even as sometimes our worldviews must be deconstructing to come to and grow in Christ, and deconstructionism does not bring God’s shalom.

The way that Paul worked in his evangelistic ministry, at least in Corinth, was through Gospel narrative and demonstration of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit was the witnessed breaking down of the worldviews and ideologies that influenced Paul’s audience that also simultaneously testified to the power of God in the cross of Christ told in the Gospel narrative. As such, Paul’s evangelism became an invitation to a community gathered together in a Triune worship, which when faithfully lived out would lead believers away from the idolatries, ideologies, and worldviews taught and propagated by the various exalted figures of wisdom, power, and honor n that day.

To that end, rather than focusing on “idolatries,” it may be more pertinent for Christians to focus on the right and wholesome worship of the Triune God and to bring to light how our values, ideologies, and worldviews may be cutting off and limited this worship. However, the purpose here is not to direct control the worldviews, values, and ideologies that people should then hold to, but rather to bring people to live more faithfully before the One who gives His wisdom to those who have grown to love Him. If there is some clear and abiding action, such as the overvaluation of money, that works against the redemption had in Christ. then we can provide a clear account of this with a clear prescription. But if there isn’t a clear prescription to address the problem, using “idolatry” is not helpful, even if it may feel very emotionally satisfying to explain social and political problems as “idolatry” and create a feeling of “rightness” in one’s argument.