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What Piper, Bell, MacArthur, & Hatmaker Have in Common

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Saying that we’re all jackasses and we need to love more is different than saying that everyone is always right. We’re not arguing for some vague, anemic ecumenism or for universalism. We are not all right. In fact, we would go so far as to say we are all incredibly wrong in very different and important ways. There are things each of us lacks, things each of us overemphasizes. The thing that binds us together is our deep lack, our deep need, our deep inability to see clearly, understand fully, or live with integrity.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

John Piper is not exempt from this. NT Wright is not exempt. Martin Luther King Jr., John Calvin, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Science Mike, John MacArthur, and Tim Keller are not exempt. Your pastor is not exempt. We are not exempt. You are not exempt. We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly. Collectively we help to eliminate blind spots instead of increasing, perpetuating, or even parading them.

I love to do puzzles with my kids. But what the kids love most about doing puzzles is putting in the final piece. In fact, one of my kids loves to bypass all the work of putting together the puzzle by sneakily snagging a few pieces. He disappears for a few hours while the family labors over the puzzle, then returns at the end to victoriously put in the final missing pieces. This treasonous crime is easy to pull off because of the nature of a puzzle. A puzzle equally depends on every piece. It doesn’t matter which puzzle piece he takes. In the end, it will be the most important piece because in a puzzle the most important piece is the one that is missing.

“We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly.”

We don’t look at the body of Christ this way. We haven’t learned much since the Corinthian church. Or since Jesus’ call for unity. We don’t care about the pieces that are missing. In fact, we tend to think that the only pieces to the puzzle that are of any value are the ones shaped like us. Or perhaps the ones connected to us. But the most important pieces are the ones that are missing: the ones that have been cast aside, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Jesus warned us to enter his kingdom through the “narrow gate.”

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. Entering through the narrow gate has meant associating with the right camp. But this wasn’t Jesus’ point.

“We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. But Jesus is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others.”

Based on our patterns of association and disassociation, it seems we believe the narrow gate is about expository preaching, or only singing hymns, or emphasizing social justice, or being Republican or standing against abortion or promoting tolerance. None of these things has anything to do with Jesus’ concept of the narrow gate. He is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others. Jesus said nothing of worship style, he laid out no complicated doctrine. He commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28 to teach all that he had commanded, but when you look at the sum of Jesus’ commands, this is the picture we get: eat with sinners, serve the poor, and if anything hinders you from keeping in step with him, leave it behind. Never ever ever ever confuse religion for love, or self-righteousness for surrender. Ask, seek, knock, find. Don’t assume you know more than anyone else.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching (and therefore the narrow gate of surrendering to him) comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.

The Party

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Think of how much jackassery would be either healed or bypassed if instead of taking shots at one another and making false assumptions about one another we instead invested the relational energy of sitting down to enjoy one another. This is the beauty of the table. It brings people together. The table also has a celebratory element. By sharing a meal together, you are celebrating the goodness of life. And ideally, you are celebrating the people there.

In Luke 14, Jesus told a parable about a party as he sat around a table with the Pharisees. They had invited him to dinner, but Jesus could see that these Pharisees were using their table like jackasses: they were trying to establish their own importance.

A party is meant to be a celebration. When you throw a party, what do you tend to celebrate? Is this a chance to curate everything in such a way that everyone sees how put together you are? What good taste you have? What a gracious host you are? Or are you genuinely celebrating something other than yourself?

And who do you want to have there?

The people you like. The people who are like you. The people you’re wanting to get to know better. Maybe the people who are just a little cooler than you but that you’re hoping will lend your event a little more credibility, make everyone else a little happier that they came. The people who will ensure your party is fun and perceived as successful.

Jesus’ approach is different: Invite those who could use a celebration. Those who aren’t on the top of everyone’s social list. The table is about bringing people together. Not lifting yourself above. The table is about celebrating relationships and the gifts God gives.

Søren Kierkegaard offers a challenge based on this parable. He asks: What if a man threw a party, but instead of inviting his friends he invited the poor and marginalized? How would he describe this event later on to his friends? Kierkegaard says this man is likely to describe the meal as a charitable gesture, but not as a party:

“However good the food which they received may have been, even if it had not merely been, like the food in the poor house, ‘substantial and edible,’ but really choice and costly, yes, even if they had had ten kinds of wine—the company itself, the organization of the whole, a certain lack, I know not what, would prevent calling such a thing a party.”

In other words, maybe you’re not above feeding the poor. But would you consider it a party? Is it charity or celebration? Kierkegaard is confident about what Jesus would call it:

“So scrupulous is Christian equality and its use of language that it demands not only that you shall feed the poor—it requires that you shall call it a party.”

Kierkegaard: “He who feeds the poor but will not call this feeding A PARTY sees in the poor and unimportant only the poor and unimportant. He who gives a party sees in them his neighbors.”

Feeding the poor is important. But what you’d call an event like this reveals your heart. A jackass is perfectly fine feeding the poor if it makes him look like a charitable person. That’s the kind of thing that raises a person’s status. But to call it a party is too much for a jackass. If it’s a party, then you’re celebrating these people, not just condescending to them. That’s the kind of thing that lowers a person’s status.

“He who feeds the poor but yet is not victorious over his own mind in such a way that he calls this feeding a party sees in the poor and unimportant only the poor and unimportant. He who gives a party sees in the poor and unimportant his neighbors—however ridiculous this may seem in the eyes of the world.”

So what is your table for? How do you use it? Is it an opportunity to bless others and bring people together? Or a chance to lift yourself up? Is it about your enjoyment of your own status? Or your enjoyment of the specific people God has placed around you?

Jackasses have tables too. But Jesus calls us to use our tables for something greater.

*My Kierkegaard quotations here are from the Hong translation of Works of Love (New York: Harper Perennial, 1962). Definitely read the whole thing, but this argument comes from pages 90-92. The Hongs use the word “feast,” but I have chosen to substitute “party” to better convey in today’s English the celebratory component Kierkegaard is addressing.

The Feast

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Scripture says it in many ways, but basically, God is calling you to join him at the table for a meal. After all the heartbreak and rebellion and doubts and struggle, the Bible ends with a picture of God’s people joining him for a marriage feast. But even now, the table is open. God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:22–32), one son runs off to spend his portion of his inheritance while the other son stays at home with their father. When the young prodigal returns home in shame, the father runs to embrace and restore him, while the older brother pouts outside and refuses to join the party his father throws to celebrate the son’s return.

We tend to focus on the sons in this story, but we should ask: What is the father’s goal for each of his sons? To get them to sit down together with him at the table. What are each of the sons resisting in their own way? Sitting down for the family meal.

Why the table?

It’s a place of celebration. A place of relationship. A place of healing. Of mutuality. Of equality. Grace. Blessing.

The two sons are invited to join their father at a table. Not a classroom. Not a temple. What the father was after was not education or ritual. He was after relationship. It wasn’t about what they could offer. It was about them.

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When we are able to get past the madness that drives us to the far country in search of pleasure or significance or autonomy, we can set aside all of our shame and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know we simply belong. As is. We can stop trying to live large or make a name for ourselves. Stop running from the relationship we know deep down will be the purest and most meaningful we will ever experience.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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When we are able to release our outrage that the prodigal has returned, to stop demanding penance or some positive contribution from our brothers who have failed, we can set aside all of our self-righteousness and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know that we and all of our siblings belong at the table. There is no one we want to see excluded. We acknowledge that the table was made for this. We let go of our longing to celebrate accomplishments and we long to celebrate people. We see beyond the costumes and affectations and affiliations of our brothers and we simply see them. And our love for them leads us to first accept the father’s invitation to the table, and then to stand beside him as he invites the prodigal.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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Jesus ate his way through the Gospels. We often find him at a table. With people who are celebrating life (John 2), with all sorts of “sinners” (Luke 5, 19), and with his followers (Luke 22, 24). Jesus even ate with Pharisees (Luke 11, 14), which means he did not bar anyone from the table, though some meals were more awkward than others.

“God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat. You’re invited. But eating means celebrating that everyone is at the table again.”

The table is vital because a meal is more than a meal. It’s a celebration of the relationship. The meal is the relationship—the relationship takes place around the table.

You’re invited. But eating means celebrating. And actually, the feast is a celebration that everyone is at the table again. You don’t get to celebrate only yourself or only your favorites. The feast flows out of the father’s joy—we get to share in his joy. And his joy is over the gathering of all his children, including the ones who have not cleaned themselves up and those who nearly refused to come because of their disgust over the guest list. They all belong at this table. Celebrating means eating and drinking together. As equals. It’s more than a handshake or contract. It’s a party. The point is to enjoy being together.

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The meal continues at our tables. There we meet with Jesus still as we join with older and younger brothers to celebrate the relationship. How different would the Church look today if instead of whispered gossipy exchanges we actually sat down at a table, looked each other in the eyes, and enjoyed the relationship? Celebrated it?

The feast will happen with or without us. The question is whether our disapproval of the guest list will keep us from joining our brothers. And our father.

Heroes & Villains

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Stories can be compelling. You listen to people long enough and you realize that nearly every conversation is a form of storytelling. Some are like, “Dude, the other day I was moving my grandmother into her house and we dropped the dresser down the stairs! That sucked!” Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution.

Others are more subtle in their plot line. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such? Can you believe that?” It isn’t some super long narrative, but it is a narrative, told by a narrator.

Narrators get to decide who the heroes and villains of each story are. When your friend tells you “so-and-so said such-and-such,” the intonation of their voice, the purse of the lips, and the roll of their eye tells you what you should think about the story. They are immediately, even if unintentionally, offering you a hero or a villain.

Marital counseling brings out the 9-year-old in everyone. This is why marriage counselors like to meet with both partners. When it comes to conflict in a relationship, each person truly believes the other is to blame. If you only get one side of the story, you will often be wooed into perceiving the other spouse to be the villain. Even the worst and most obvious of offenses (e.g., marital infidelity) can be understandable depending on who controls the narrative.

You know who else does this? 9-year-old boys. I know because I have two. They tattle and twist, shift blame, and point fingers until they are blue in the face. Every time they are offended or hurt or frustrated it is at the hand of the other. They are constantly jockeying to get my wife and I to demonstrate that we do in fact love one of them more than the other.

In the Church, we have our heroes and we have our villains too. I read a critical article from the Gospel Coalition Australia on “the dangers of the Bethel Church,” which outlined the pitfalls of their global healing movement. The author says “Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, and Awakening Australia” are “gateway drugs” to Bethel’s weak theology and cultish revivalism. As much as I love the Gospel Coalition (and I really do), the voice in this particular article sounds awfully similar to my pre-pubescent twins. There’s so much finger pointing and so little charity.

This whole “unreliable narrator” phenomenon is actually happening right now as you read this article. In this story, I am the hero, sent to fight all the jackassery that turns us against our fellow believers and makes us feel justified in magnifying other people’s shortcomings like bad caricature artists. Meanie heads like the Gospel Coalition are the villains in this chapter because they oppose the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Of course, there’s always another way to tell the story.

If narrators are unreliable, who can we trust? What is true? Who are the real HEROES and VILLAINS?

Actually, this is the wrong question, derived from the wrong job description. Our primary mandate is LOVE: love of God, love among believers, even love of one’s enemy.

Jesus spent a long time going over this.

If narrators are unreliable, who will help us discern these things? Who CAN we trust? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not. Justice must get to the bottom of who did what to whom. Insurance companies need to calculate percentage of culpability, but love doesn’t need that. In fact, love can be given, and is best received, when it isn’t deserved in the slightest (insert the often told but never old story of “The Prodigal Son” in Luke 15).

If the Bible tells any story, humans have a single job: Love. Love God. Love others. God has a more complicated role. He must love. He must judge. But he is far more qualified, and is way better at seeing through our BS.

In the biblical story, human beings often play the role of the villain (with some help from the adversary). God is the hero.

“We are all unreliable narrators. So how will we determine who is the hero and who is the villain? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not.”

Sure, we have our moments when we get to play like heroes. People at Bethel worship Jesus with passion. It’s contagious. GLOBALLY CONTAGIOUS! In that way, and many more, they are my heroes. Leaders and pastors at the Gospel Coalition fight for the clarity of the gospel, and much more. Their passion for Jesus has carried me through very low seasons in life and ministry. But if I need to choose which child of God is the favorite, I can’t. I love them both. They are for now Spirit and Flesh. Which means for now, they are hero and villain. As am I.