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How We Disguise Self-Love as Love for Others

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I can’t stop myself from returning to Kierkegaard’s brilliant Works of Love. His take on Paul’s words that “love does not seek its own” is helping me to process how much of what I call “love” is actually just love for myself disguised as love for others.

Here’s Kierkegaard’s summary:

“Love seeks not its own. For the true lover does not love his own individuality. He rather loves each human being according to the other’s individuality. But for the other person ‘his own individuality’ is precisely ‘his own,’ and consequently the lover does not seek his own; quite the opposite, in others he loves ‘their own.'”

The picture here is of a person who truly sees every person around her and is fascinated by them. She sees what makes them distinct and is willing to put her effort into helping each person become more fully who they actually are, to dive deeper into the God-given distinctiveness they already possess. Kierkegaard sees that each person’s individuality is a beautiful gift from the Creator. In that sense, by helping someone lean into who God made them to be, we’re not even the true gift givers. The gift we give is a gift God has already given.

I love this way of considering self-sacrificial love. What are the actions I’d point to in order to prove that I’m a loving person? I’d probably talk about things I do for my wife and daughters or my friends. I’d think of the time I dedicate to those people or the ways I try to make them happy. But are these the best examples of true love? Kierkegaard would say no. When our acts of love are spent on people we are naturally attracted to, people for whom our acts of love also involve some benefit to ourselves, then these could be portrayed as acts of self-love.

Kierkegaard calls this type of loving small-mindedness.

The small-minded person finds others who are like him, or whose company he enjoys, and that’s where he’s willing to invest his time. But this is not love. Because the small-minded person is not giving himself to the one he loves. Instead, he loves that person because they already conform to him in some important way. True love, by contrast, seeks to pour itself out for the other. It seeks to make that person better. But making someone better is not the same thing as making someone more like what I want him or her to be. It actually means pouring out my own desires and interests in order to help the other be more fully who God has made them to be.

“One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, and behave just as I do. But true love invests in what makes each person unique.”

What do I see when I look at my neighbor? Do I see traits that I enjoy and so choose to invest my time there? Do I see traits that turn me off and so choose to make myself scarce? Or do I see what makes that person unique and value those traits for what they are rather than for the way they could benefit me? And do I see those traits as an opportunity to invest in that person, helping him or her to flourish more fully according to God’s design for him or her, rather than according to my preferences?

Imagine what our world would look like if we all looked at people in this way! Or forget about the world: what would our churches be look if we could adopt this mindset? What if we were a group of people who were serious about “stirring up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24)? Kierkegaard calls this approach to life “squandering our lives”:

“In a certain sense his life is completely squandered on existence, on the existence of others; without wishing to waste any time or any power on elevating himself, on being somebody, in self-sacrifice he is willing to perish, that is, he is completely and wholly transformed into being simply an active power in the hands of God… His labor consists simply in this: to aid one or another human being to become his own, which in a certain sense they were on the way to becoming.”

One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, behave, and believe just as I do. But if we were all “squandering” our lives by investing in the things that make each person distinct, we would stop needing other people to match our preferences because we’d be so intrigued by their individuality and all of the potential that is simply waiting to be unlocked. Potential not to be more like what we imagine they could become, but potential to be more fully what God has created them to be.

Memorial Day’s Lesson for Our Polarized World

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I’m not the best one to write about Memorial Day. But as I grow increasingly disappointed with the polarization of seemingly every aspect of our world right now, Memorial Day seems almost shocking by comparison.

I’m not pro-war by any stretch. I have major questions and concerns regarding my country’s spending on and general approach to war. Honestly, I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll refrain from saying anything ignorant. But with Memorial Day, we remember military personnel who died while serving in our Armed Forces. In other words, we’re celebrating people who laid aside their own self-interests. I don’t believe I need full confidence in the righteousness of every military campaign to recognize the goodness of a person sacrificing themselves. (Isn’t this how a whole generation felt about the Vietnam wars?)

By contrast, it seems to me that our division stems from each individual’s unwillingness to concede a point. It seems that each person is demanding that everyone else agree with their perspective. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. Anyone who doesn’t belong to the party is an idiot or a nazi or an enemy of humanity. Everyone is demanding their own rights. No one acquiesces. No one is willing to live with tension or conflicting beliefs. When a person’s actions don’t fit our approach to life or politics, we mock them.

“When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.”

It should be shocking to us. In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed all humanity was united in a common experience. Now people are being mocked for wearing masks in public, even as people are being mocked for refusing to wear masks in public. We have lost the ability to see things from another’s perspective. To concede that they might have a legitimate concern or—even if we can’t understand where they’re coming from—to grant that it’s okay for them to do things differently. You’re a fool and an agent of evil if you believe and follow what the government says. Or you’re a fool and an agent of evil if you don’t believe and follow what the government says. And when the government changes policies, the shoe is suddenly on the other foot, and we make the same accusations that were just hurled against us.

When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.

Meanwhile, walk through a military cemetery. The gravestones are uniform, and unless you take the time to look at individual names, it’s a nearly-endless repetition of the same theme. And that theme is startling in contrast to our current political-social-theological moment. The theme is willingness to sacrifice oneself. Again, I’m not trying to make every fallen vet into a saint. I’m not trying to paint war as noble. There are plenty of others who will do all of those things for you. What I’m saying is that giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests feels like something from a distant past or another planet. It seems to me that most of those soldiers probably retained their will to live. But they weren’t demanding their right to live on their terms or at all cost.

“A military cemetery carries a theme: giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests. In this climate, that feels like a lesson from the distant past or another planet.”

There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We pour contempt on congress every time they vote entirely along partisan lines, refusing to work together for the greater good. But what indication is there that American society is any better in any way? Are we not repeating the party lines as delivered by the news outlets to which we pledge our allegiance?

I’m not saying I’m above any of this, by the way. Only that I’m convicted. And that I’d like to improve. I’d like to see an America where people can yield their rights for the sake of others. Where people are willing to serve rather than insist. Where we listen more than we protest. Where relationships matter more than party platforms (or at least are not chosen solely on the basis of party affiliation).

And as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that I’m also describing the many people who have been going to work in hospitals and first responder jobs every day and setting aside their best interests for the many people who desperately need their care. And the law enforcement officers in my own church who lay aside their political beliefs to provide crowd control for protestors demanding their political beliefs win the day.

I’m honestly not trying to paint anyone as evil here. We have a political process that allows us all to hold firm beliefs and express them. You have the right to do that, you don’t have to listen to me. But let’s also consider our opportunities to honor and serve someone else by giving up our rights here and there. We have cemeteries full of people who have shown that this is possible. Perhaps Memorial Day this year could be a reminder of a nobler element of society than we typically see in an election year.

Clanging Cymbal Theology

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“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1–3

I have only one question in this post: Was Paul serious when he said this? Because these are strong words. In fact, I think these are the kinds of words you or I would take heat for saying were they not recorded in the Bible.

Think about it. What if we didn’t have these verses in the Bible, and I told you that you could have perfect theology, knowing everything about the mysteries of God, but it would be absolutely meaningless without love for the people around you? Or imagine that I told you that you could have perfect faith, or put that faith into practice by giving away all of your possessions, but that without love for people this wouldn’t matter whatsoever. What if I told you that you could be a fearless martyr for the faith, but that if your life wasn’t marked by love, you’d gain nothing and be nothing?

I honestly think that if Paul hadn’t written these words, and if I came making statements like these, that I’d be shut down by people quoting chapter and verse on why doctrinal accuracy is most important, why God wants us to rebuke heretics rather than love them, and why we should be careful not to “love people into hell.”

But Paul’s words here are stunning. Get every theological nuance exactly right, he says, and without love, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Say anything you want, no matter how right or beautiful or biblical it is, and if it’s not saturated in and motivated by love, then your words sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

We don’t take Paul’s words seriously. How much of the Christian internet could be classified as clanging cymbal theology? Every sarcastic correction of someone’s theology, every “farewell” to a Christian leader who puts a doctrinal toe out of line (or is assumed to have done so). Honestly, I wonder if less than 99% of the theologically-related tweets launched into the twittersphere would pass Paul’s test.

How different would our culture be if we took Paul’s words seriously? Would the words “Christian” and “church” be synonymous with “hypocrite” and “judgmental” if we had been heeding Paul’s warning?

If we did pay attention to what Paul said here, what would it look like?

“Theology is not the main concern. People are. Actually, people are the main concern because God is always the highest concern. And God is love. So Theology without love is not theology: it’s heresy.”

I’ll make an important admission here: If my daughter says something theologically inaccurate, my initial response to her is very different than my initial response to someone on Facebook who challenges something I post. Why? Because I love my daughter deeply, and I’m so concerned for her personal growth and human flourishing that I try to avoid tearing her down. I want her to know and love God deeply, which is exactly why I don’t tear her apart for theological thoughts. Instead, I want to push her to wrestle, to think, to consider all of the information, to come to know the biblical texts, and to encounter Jesus for herself. In these moments, the last thing I want to be is a clanging cymbal. I want her to actually hear what I’m saying.

But when I respond quickly on social media, I’m often just trying to defend my point. The theology is my main concern, not the person. And this is exactly Paul’s point. The theology is not the main concern, the person is. And the person is the main concern in any given situation because God is the ultimate concern in every situation. And God is love. It’s NOT that theology doesn’t matter. But it IS that theology without love doesn’t matter.

Consider this last thought. Since I first started getting serious about theology, I’ve made it my goal to collect and develop answers to doctrinal questions. Love is one of those doctrines I believed in, but Paul’s strongly stated point here was lost on me. That’s not because I was a great theologian who was lacking one peripheral quality (love(. It’s because I was immature. Look at how Paul ends this passage:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–13)

It’s eluded me for ages but it now seems so obvious. Paul’s “childishness” was not his inability to lay out theological arguments. It was his lovelessness. A child can speak confidently but lack love. But once Paul grew up, he realized that love was the greatest of all.

How childish I have been. How childish so much of the church insists on being (myself still included). If only we actually believed that the greatest of these is love.

All In

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When Rachel Held Evans passed, I watched her memorial service online. I’m sure that tons of her fans watched with me, and I’m equally sure that none of her critics did. Because isn’t that the way things go? We like to critique and pick apart and argue against people like they are the sum of their beliefs; just don’t ask us to actually remember that they are humans, with people who dearly love them and compelling stories of how they came to see what they see. One of the mottos that RHE used to guide her writing was incredibly simple: “Tell the truth.” I have been trying for some time now to figure out how to do that anymore.

Because the truth is the last few years have left me exhausted and disillusioned by the amount of noise and fist raising, fear-based panic I see in the Church that raised me. I feel a little orphaned at the moment, not sure where I belong in all of it anymore. TRUTH doesn’t seem as simple and one dimensional as I was once told it was, and I’m tired of needing to hold the corner market on every angle, nuance and extrapolation of it. Honestly, I’m wondering if there’s room in the church for someone who believes in Jesus, but just really isn’t sure which way they lean on a whole lot else anymore. Is that even allowed?

I read an article a week or so ago that really bothered me and have been trying to figure out why. This article didn’t pull any of your obvious jackass moves. It wasn’t blatantly disrespectful or insulting of other people, but in a very subtle and disheartening way, it basically told me: “No. No there really isn’t a place in the church for your questions. There is no place for not knowing where you stand on secondary issues. There is only certainty and deep conviction about all the little things. Certainty is where you will find belonging in the church; pick a camp and you can have a family.”

“We seem to be saying: ‘There is no place for someone who doesn’t have a firm stance on secondary issues; certainty is where you will find belonging in the church: pick a camp and you can have a family.'”

The premise and title of the article was “If the Bible is wrong, I’m so so wrong.” In it, the author sets up a scenario in which people either believe the Bible in its entirety, or they are the “pick and choose type” who aren’t really “all in.” (Five bucks if you can guess which type the author decided to pat himself on the back for being). The problem is, the author then goes on, paragraph after paragraph, stating not simply WHAT the Bible says, but an extrapolated version of his interpretation of what the Bible says. He then says, if you don’t believe his interpretation, then you don’t just think he’s wrong, you’re saying the Bible is wrong! He equates his hermeneutics (fancy word for the lens through which we read Scripture in order to determine its meaning and therefore our theology) with the very Word of God itself so that the only option presented to the reader is “You believe MY understanding of what God means by these stories in the Bible, or you, poor reader, don’t believe the Bible!” Tsk tsk.

Do you see the problem here? What arrogance!

As a recovering people pleaser, reading this article triggered parts of my younger, ‘rule following’ self. I was not a boat rocker growing up. To question authority felt rebellious and if there was a worse title you could label me with than rebel, I didn’t know it. But these last few years have awakened a protective rage in me for those who ‘toed the line’ in their youth and never asked questions. I think a lot of us are deconstructing right now because we took so much of what we were taught at face value. Believing of course that the big “C” Church and all its mainstream leaders were being careful and fair; seeking Jesus’ face and character and heart with every nuance and interpretation they championed. Submission to their “wisdom” was never hard for me because I never dreamed they’d have an agenda other than loving God and His Word. Unfortunately that trusting side of me broke somewhere around the 2016 election and I just don’t buy it anymore. I have seen one too many authorities use the Bible and tradition as excuses to promote and protect their own privilege. I have seen Scripture twisted and slung at human beings to preserve hierarchy. I have seen NFL jerseys burned and hateful signs constructed and despicable behavior defended in the name of Jesus. So when this article makes the reader out to be “wishy washy in their faith” or someone who “calls GOD a liar” if they challenge the human author’s personal perspective, I get a little ticked.

It’s a jackass move to question someone’s commitment to their faith because they aren’t sure where they land on WIDELY disputed interpretations of certain parts of Scripture. It’s a jackass move to write and teach as though there aren’t intelligent, Jesus loving, BIBLE loving people who disagree with you. It’s a jackass move to declare that THEOLOGY is the line in the sand between the people who are “all in” and those who aren’t. Theology is NOT the “narrow gate.” If it was, Paul might have been a little screwed: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2).

I’m sorry. Why is Paul the only one allowed to say this? I guarantee you if someone used this tactic today (without actually reminding everyone they were quoting Paul’s own words) he, and definitely SHE, she would be met with arrogant eye rolls and assumptions that they clearly do not have a deep love of Scripture or theology. I’m not exaggerating or being uncharitable, I assure you I have heard these comments with my own ears.

As Mark and Ryan like to say, we have yet again, become more biblical than Bible.

Paul goes on to challenge the Corinthian church to cease their pettiness over whose leadership they follow because there is ONE church and one foundation and that is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:4-11). I take this to mean that if I believe in Jesus Christ and him crucified then I am “all in.” That there IS a place in the body of Christ and in the Church for me. And I don’t need to agree with every or even ANY of your extrapolated interpretations of other portions of scripture in order to belong or give my whole heart to Jesus.

The truth is, I am holding on by a thread these days. I am clinging with the stubborn, toddler type hope that there is still room for me in the church. It feels more like defiance that starry-eyed hope at this point, but whatever works. I’m not leaving yet. I’m with Paul in believing the church is bigger than the wise think it is and messier than the clean want it to be (1 Cor. 1:22). And I think he’d be heartbroken over the ways his words keep getting twisted around in order to justify exclusion when his entire ministry was to bring simple invitation to those others assumed weren’t worthy or welcome.

Why Jesus Is the Cure for Jackass

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Here’s our problem: we’re entrenched in our own opinions and we often fail to treat other people with dignity. It’s not because we’re cantankerous or hateful (at least, not in most cases), it’s because we are fully convinced of the correctness of our own views. If my view is right—and I know it is, because I’ve put in the time to think these things through—then why would I allow you to continue in the delusion that your incorrect view is perfectly fine? It’s not. And when I take the time to correct your misunderstandings and you persist in your ignorance, then what am I to conclude but that you’re a dummy and incapable of rational dialogue?

That’s putting it all pretty crassly. But I’m not convinced it’s overly dramatic. In the nicest possible scenario, we are so convicted of the truth that we believe it would be unfaithful to let an untruth go unchallenged. Truth is truth, and therefore it must be fought for.

I don’t disagree with that nicer scenario. But as we’ve been insisting, the final assessment is not simply “are all of our views correct?” There’s a higher standard. Truth is nonnegotiable, but Jesus is the ultimate standard. So it’s not just a question of “am I right?” It’s also a question of “Do I hold that truth in such a way that I look like Jesus?” Because if my theology (or politics, or whatever) makes me less like Jesus, then it’s wrong. Regardless of how many verses I can cite. Regardless of how boldly I believe I can “own” my opponent. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, then it’s not true.

“If my theology (or politics) makes me less like Jesus, it’s wrong. Regardless of the verses I cite. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, it’s not true.”

And here is where the powerful reminder of Christmas is helpful. It’s not difficult to imagine that God has some strong disagreements with human beings. And when this happens, we can safely assume that God is right and we are wrong. Read the Old Testament prophets and you’ll find God calling out all sorts of untruths and horrible behaviors. God is not exactly an agree-to-disagree kind of guy. He’s right and he knows it. And his plan is ultimately to lead us into actual Truth.

And yet, how did God choose to lead humanity into that Truth? He didn’t send us a perfect argument from on high. He didn’t send a meme to own the libs or dunk on conservatives.

He joined us.

It’s as simple and earth-shattering as that.

God led us to truth and life by becoming human and living amongst us. Think about what Christmas actually means. There was a time when God himself actually became human. And not just a well-admired adult. He first became a baby. There was a time when Jesus, who was also named Immanuel (God with us), couldn’t control his arms or legs. He drooled and pooped his pants. If his feeble human parents (who held plenty of wrong views and lived sinful lives, by the way) hadn’t fed him and cared for him, he would have died an infant. And yet Jesus was willing to live with them. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.

“Christmas reminds us that THE TRUTH came as a baby. Jesus made himself dependent on his flawed and theologically imperfect parents. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.”

He lived a solid thirty years as a Jew in Roman-dominated first century Palestine. That culture was marred by sin and untruth and blasphemous dictators and self-righteous religious leaders. And yet Jesus lived amongst all of that for thirty years. He participated even as he graciously pursued his divine purposes.

And when he launched his three year ministry that would culminate in his death, he said some hard words to people who considered themselves religiously superior to everyone else, and he fearlessly spoke truth and life to everyone he could, but he was also gentle and gracious and patient and loving. Ultimately, he wasn’t concerned with condemning everyone around him for being wrong, his whole life was a statement of love that culminated in the greatest act of love the world has ever seen: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

We have a tendency to be jackasses. But the little baby Jesus lying in a manger is a perfect picture of the alternative. It’s not about caring about truth less. It’s about caring for people more. It’s not about compromising on your convictions, it’s about allowing your life to overlap with people you believe are in error. It’s not about being a theological pansy, it’s about holding your convictions so deeply that you’re willing to lay yourself down for the betterment of someone else. The goal is not to win an argument, it’s to love God, and that requires loving flawed human beings with all of your flawed heart and flawed life. Let Jesus’ embodiment of God-with-us set the course away from jackassery. He came to be with us so we could be with him and be like him.

Merry Christmas.

John MacArthur’s Disgusting Comment: Go Home, Beth Moore

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This is a weird post for me to write. Maybe I should first tell you that I graduated from John MacArthur’s seminary. You should probably know that I chose that seminary above all others because I was drawn to John MacArthur’s fearless preaching of the truth as God revealed it in Scripture. I value the education I received at the Master’s Seminary.

But—oh my gosh—I just heard an audio recording in which John MacArthur demeans and dismisses Beth Moore. I’m shaking. If I conjure up every ounce of optimism and benefit-of-the-doubt-ness I possess, I still can’t find a way to describe it as anything other than disdainful and mean-spirited. If I try to give an honest assessment of how it sounds to me, I think I have to say his words sound hateful and anti-Christ.

Here’s the scenario. John MacArthur is part of a panel discussion, and the moderator asks this: “I will say a word, and then you need to give a pithy response to that one word.” The word that MacArthur is asked to comment on?

Beth Moore.

MacArthur’s response is swift: “Go home.”

This was met by cheers and applause the audience. A roomful of people (attending the Truth Matters Conference which is celebrating 50 years of MacArthur’s ministry) cheered when a PASTOR dismissed a woman made in God’s image with a demeaning phrase. That word “pastor” means “shepherd.” This crowd joined a shepherd in collectively dunking on a woman who loves Jesus and loves Scripture and carefully does her best to promote Jesus wherever she goes.

This is absolutely disgusting. I’m seriously doing the theological equivalent of dry heaving right now. Once more I find myself pleading: Stop treating Beth Moore like garbage!

MacArthur chose to elaborate a bit: “There is no case that can be made for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”

Huge applause.

Except that there is a case that can be made for it, and this case is made by a huge number of scholars and followers of Jesus. MacArthur is allowed to disagree with Beth Moore. Holy smokes. Of course we can disagree about something like this! But he states with absolute confidence and condescension that no one can argue otherwise. And yet I’ll stand here as a graduate of his seminary, as someone who still employs the hermeneutical tools and methods I learned at his seminary, and make a strong argument to the contrary. So many do. It’s misleading, harmful, and disgusting to claim that one’s view on this—regarding which there are between one and a handful passages (depending on which passages one considers relevant) that say anything about this issue.

Phil Johnson, one of MacArthur’s right hand men, also on the panel, chose to answer the same prompt with the word, “Narcissistic.” He said, “When I first saw her I thought, ‘This is what it looks like to preach yourself rather than Christ.'”

I cannot tell you how disgusting it is to hear someone say this. It’s so unfair and cruel. It’s wild to publicly demean a preacher of the gospel who’s not even in the room. Again, this kind of dismissive attitude and contemptuous statement is anti-Christ. All of the many many many calls for love, grace, unity, patience, gracious speech, humility, etc. are thrown out the window. All of the biblical warnings against causing division and controversy are ignored.

MacArthur went on, “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hocking skills. Natural abilities to sell. They have energy and personality and all that. That doesn’t qualify you to preach.”

You can tell the audience doesn’t know how to respond to that.

And that’s where I died. Those words are so condescending. They seem calculated to wound. To dishonor. To destroy. When I close my eyes and try to picture Jesus saying words like these, I gag. But these words would be right at home in the mouths of Pharisees. I feel qualified to make that last statement because I personally have Pharisaical tendencies. I’m constantly tempted to make myself the measure of orthodoxy and to define my preferred crowd as the “true people of God.” But I know I’m wrong in this. That’s why we started this blog. Jesus is too beautiful and his mission is too important for us to be jackasses in the name of Jesus.

“I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and to Beth Moore, ‘You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.'”

I can’t tell you for sure that my motives are entirely pure in writing this. I’d like to believe so, and I’m honestly praying and checking my heart here. If there’s something I’m missing about this discussion, I’d love to hear it. But I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, “I have no need of you,” and to the foot “You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.” I doubt they’ll read this, and I don’t expect to be heard favorably if they do, but this breaks my heart, and I’m confident it breaks the heart of Jesus, who gave his very life to serve and unify his church.

Mystery & Humility

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The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:

“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).

His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.

We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.

If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?

Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.

There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?

Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.

Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.

But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.

“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson

Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.

Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”

In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).

When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson

What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.

Benny Hinn Changed: Do We Celebrate or Scoff?

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What was your first reaction to the news that Benny Hinn changed his theology regarding the prosperity gospel? If you need a little context, there is a video in which Hinn denounces the teaching that made him famous: that if we have enough faith (and give enough money), we can gain health, wealth, and prosperity.

In the video, Hinn acknowledged that in many circles all you hear is a “feel good message” about “how to build the flesh.” He said, “I’m sorry to say that prosperity has gone a little crazy, and I’m correcting my own theology. And you need to all know it. Because when I read the Bible now, I don’t see it in the same eyes I saw the Bible 20 years ago.”

Anyone familiar with Benny Hinn and his reputation will be shocked by that news. It’s something we never thought we’d hear. But you can watch the video. He says it.

A friend asked him if he was ready to make this shift public, and Hinn said, “Well, not totally. Because I don’t want to hurt my friends, whom I love, who believe things I don’t believe anymore.”

To me, that’s understandable. Many of us are under enormous pressure to stay in line with our theological camps. This is true in my experience as a pastor, and I can imagine it must be 1,000 times more true for pastors who are well known. As a matter of fact, Francis Chan recently got raked over the coals by some in his own camp because they were SUSPICIOUS that he might be inwardly endorsing the theology of Benny Hinn, despite his explicit and repeated words to the contrary. I actually want to say more about that episode in a minute because of its obvious relevance here, but let that stand for a moment. There is tremendous pressure to never betray your camp or never even to be perceived as doing so. Take a picture in the wrong place or preach to the wrong audience and receive your “Farewell!” So Hinn’s words here resonate with me. I can see why he didn’t want to say anything.

AND YET, HE DID! He knew it would be hard, but he felt compelled by the force of the truth and decided he had to speak against a theological system he had previously endorsed. A system that had made him famous and successful. I respect that.

Here’s the substance of it: “I will tell you something now that’s going to shock you. I think it’s an offense to the Lord, it’s an offense to say ‘Give $1,000.’ I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it…I think that hurts the gospel…If I hear one more time ‘Break the back of poverty with $1,000,’ I’m going to rebuke them. I think that’s buying the gospel, that’s buying the blessing, that’s grieving the Holy Spirit…If you’re not giving because you love Jesus, don’t bother giving. I think giving has become such a gimmick it’s making me sick to my stomach. And I’ve been sick for a while, too; I just couldn’t say it. And now the lid is off. I’ve had it. Do you know why? I don’t want to get to heaven and be rebuked. I think it’s time we say it like it is: the gospel is not for sale. And the blessings of God are not for sale. And miracles are not for sale. And prosperity is not for sale.”

It’s a surreal experience for me to hear Benny Hinn utter these words. And I’ll be honest, my first reaction was not joy. I was skeptical. I sat there thinking, “Okay, sure. We’ll see how this goes.”

Why?

Here’s what my response should have been. I should have spent the last few decades praying for Benny Hinn. Asking God to give him a clear understanding of Scripture and a heart that burns with love for Jesus. I don’t think I was wrong to disagree with his theology. I think it’s likely the indignation I felt was righteous when I saw him doing what I took to be selling the gospel for personal gain. I still feel that way about the prosperity gospel. Actually, I now agree with Benny Hinn: I think it’s an offense to the Lord to place a price on the gospel. But I should have been praying for his wellbeing and the wellbeing of his followers, which would undoubtedly include a correction in his theology. I don’t recall doing this once.

“Benny Hinn has renounced the prosperity gospel. I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with him. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would.”

But now that I was watching the miracle I should have been praying for, with Benny Hinn publicly correctly his theology and denouncing the prosperity gospel, I wasn’t celebrating. I wasn’t thanking the Lord. My initial reaction was skepticism, mocking, and criticism. I’ve seen a couple responses like this online: He can say whatever he wants, that’s not true repentance. We’ll see what happens from here. Etc.

Here’s the thing: I doubt Benny Hinn now has perfect theology. I know I don’t. He won’t do everything perfect from here. I definitely won’t. And maybe it’s all a sham and he’s just trying to get attention or something. It’s possible, but I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with and for him at this point. My initial response was full of jackassery. I’m sorry for that. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would. Praise God for Benny Hinn!

And back to Francis Chan for a quick minute. He was “farewelled” for taking a selfie with Benny Hinn. Apparently he was supposed to stay the hell away and only say mean things to Hinn. I don’t know that Francis Chan had any role in Benny Hinn’s realization. But I know that Francis decided not to treat him as a complete enemy and curse him. Francis apparently treated him with love. Now that Benny Hinn is on a new path, Francis’ decision seems like a good one. Are we willing to acknowledge this? Or do the farewell Francisers simply move on as if they did everything perfect? I know what my assumptions are on that one, but I also know that these assumptions come from my inner jackass. I’m trying to let go of those impulses and simply celebrate what I see God doing.

If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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You might think we fight so much because we all care too much. But I’m convinced it’s the opposite. And it’s a Kierkegaard quote that makes me think this. In one of his journals, he wrote:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know… It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? …What use would it be if truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know…to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Kierkegaard makes me wonder if a major problem in our discourteous theological debates is that we don’t care enough. Maybe that sounds crazy. Our debates seem passionate. The level of disagreement and our unwillingness to budge or consider where someone else is coming from seem to be symptoms of caring too much. But I wonder…

Maybe our problem is that we treat the truth as a thing that “stands there before us, cold and naked.” In this paradigm, the truth is something purely external, something set off to the side. It can be seen, acknowledged, assented to, but it’s not within us, doing the difficult work of transforming us. If the truth is like a list of rules printed out and displayed on a wall, then it can be applied and wielded legalistically. Weaponistically. In this model, we look at the truth externally as we sit around referencing “common sense” and criticizing everyone because “only an idiot could see things differently.”

Here is precisely where Kierkegaard’s pursuit could help us so much. Because truth is not meant merely to produce an “anxious shudder” within us. It’s meant to produce “trusting devotion.” It’s not about finding the cold, dead list of words that we will judge everyone by. It’s about finding a truth that so shapes our internal lives that it is true objectively, and also subjectively. It is true in reality, but—significantly—it is also true FOR ME. That’s not relativism, that’s heart-appropriated, deep-seated ownership of the truth. It’s the refusal to be a “hearer of the Word” only, but rather a “doer of the Word” (see James 1:22).

What if we stopped policing comments and diving into debates over matters where the truth has not so purchased our souls that we are being shaped by it at the deepest level? What if we disciplined ourselves to have fewer opinions and instead threw ourselves into growing more passionate for the realities of Jesus and his gospel?

“I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity.”

I honestly think this would change the Church. I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity. We’re not confident in our view of the truth, we’re worried that someone else is going to see things differently or devalue our perspective, so we lash out because we’re afraid a simple explanation of our beliefs won’t be enough. But so what if it’s not enough? Why do we need everyone to agree with us? The answer is that we don’t. If the truth matters so much to us in a certain area that it has changed and is changing us, we can share that truth winsomely without the desperation and aggression that characterizes the fearful.

I have always loved a certain line in Francis Schaeffer’s book Art and the Bible. After detailing the biblical case for making art that doesn’t need to be overtly religious, he says “When you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear. And with this truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” He’s talking to artists, but I think it fits here as well. When we begin to see the ways a certain truth is true not just in general, but specifically in me, then there comes the freedom of confidence and security.

We need to start caring more so we can start fighting less.

The Heresy of Unity

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There’s a danger in the Church today where people claim to be speaking for God, but they are either embarrassed or afraid of speaking God’s truth clearly, so they water it down. Changing God’s Word to fit our own agendas and desires is called heresy. We have no right to come before God, decide that we don’t like some of the things he says, and then water things down so we and the people we’re speaking to can feel better about themselves. If God says something, we have to believe that he’s right. It shouldn’t be difficult to accept that he knows more than we do. When I disagree with something God says, I have to assume he’s right and that life will be better for me if I embrace his truth rather than trying to create my own.

In case it isn’t clear at this point, I’m speaking about those people who lift their pet doctrines and self-made theological boundary lines higher than the commands Jesus clearly identified as the most important: to love God and to love our neighbors.

Here’s the irony that Ryan and I have found as we’ve tried to expose Jackass Theology. The more we try to speak clearly and boldly in the ways Jesus spoke clearly and boldly, the more we’ve been criticized for watering down Scripture. We’ve been dismissed as “liberal” and “compromisers” when we have said that the command to love and not slander someone like Beth Moore is more clearly emphasized in Scripture than statements about how women are to serve in ministry. We’ve been portrayed as spineless because we’ve said that God values love, joy, and peace.

Here’s the thing. I believe in being biblical. I went to an extremely conservative seminary where we learned to take Scripture at face value. I learned to interpret Scripture literally at almost every turn. That’s still my default: if the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

But here’s what I’m finding: conservatives will call you “biblical” if you follow a literal view of hell or the millennium or homosexuality. But so many conservatives get upset if you take a literal interpretation of:

“Live in harmony with one another” – Rom. 12:16

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Rom. 12:18

“Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” – 2 Tim. 2:14

“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” – 2 Tim. 2:23–25

“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” – Gal. 5:19–21

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” – Rom. 1:28–32

“If I take a statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called conservative and biblical. If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal, soft, cowardly, and compromising.”

These passages are the very tiny tip of the very large iceberg of the consistent New Testament teaching against disunity, slander, division, and quarreling. There are certainly commands to avoid false doctrine and instructions to correct those who teach something other than God’s truth. We need to take those seriously. But here’s what I’m having a hard time getting across: There are many commands to love others, to be united with others, to avoid quarreling and division, and to promote peace. These commands are also in the Bible, and they need to be taken seriously. Literally, even.

And here’s the problem I’m encountering: If I take a biblical statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called a conservative and my stance is considered “biblical.” If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal and my stance is considered soft and cowardly and compromising.

That’s wrong. We all have to make choices about which parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally. All of us. I can’t tell you every passage that is meant to be taken purely literally (Selling all of your possessions? Plucking out your eye? Wearing head coverings?). But I can tell you that I’m extremely confident that Jesus’ commands to love and be unified and to avoid controversy are meant to be taken literally. You’re free to interpret those passages figuratively or to decide that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said in those places. But if you make that choice, please acknowledge that I’m the one who is interpreting the Bible literally when I fight for unity in the church rather than dividing over every man-made boundary.