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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.

Francis Chan’s New Book on Unity Is His Most Important Yet

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Francis Chan is releasing a new book on April 1: Until Unity. I’m saying it’s his most important book yet, and I know how big of a statement that is. Crazy Love has been hugely influential in helping so many recover from Lukewarm Christianity. Forgotten God has helped many conservative Christians—including myself—rediscover the person and the power of the Holy Spirit. But Until Unity is hugely important in a way that I think will have an even greater impact. Here’s why.

This book starts with Francis doing what many of us have done recently: He lifts his head, looks around, and observes the staunch and growing divisions in so many areas of our society. While it’s pretty gross out here in a lot of spaces, Francis is most grieved with the division within the church.

Of all people, Christians should know the importance of unity. As we’ve been saying for a while now, if you start talking about unity these days, you’re immediately dismissed as liberal, or as fluffy, or as someone who doesn’t take the Bible seriously. But Francis overturns all of those lazy and inaccurate accusations. How? By simply listing some of the many Scriptures that directly call for unity. How, he wonders, can someone who insists on taking a literal interpretation of Bible passages about avoiding division and preserving unity be condemned as unbiblical? There is a sense in many branches of the church right now that anyone who disagrees with you about something you consider “biblical” can and should be dismissed and warned against. But Francis in effect argues that because there are many biblical commands to be united, to avoid slander, to not be quarrelsome, etc., the case could be made that the person who is insisting on pursuing unity is the biblical conservative.

Until Unity is certainly not a plea to ignore doctrine. Francis is as strong on biblical truth as he’s ever been (which is very strong). Honestly, I’ve never met anyone as prone to take Scripture at face value and to respond in obedience to a literal interpretation of the Bible as Francis is. This includes passages like “sell your possessions and give to the poor,” which is a passage that his critics tend to dismiss as figurative or situational. Rather than dismissing doctrine in order to find a light weight version of unity in the church, Francis calls us to a deeper theological unity.

We all have things we are passionate about. That’s as it should be. A lot of disunity comes because we’re passionate about these different areas. What if we could acknowledge each other’s passions and stay united around the gospel itself, around the mission that Jesus gave us to make disciples, around the strongest emphases of Scripture? Why should we expect to agree with every member of our churches on every matter of doctrine? Unity amidst diversity is actually something we should strive for, and Francis paints a compelling picture of how this should look.

In one of the strongest sections of the book, Francis unpacks Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one—in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one!—and that this unity amongst Christians would serve as evidence to the world that Jesus really was sent from God. Francis notes all the strategies and efforts we make to help people see Jesus for who he really is, meanwhile we all ignore the one strategy that Jesus actually gave us: be united and people will believe that Jesus was sent from the Father!

While we may be prone to see the divided nature of the church as a point of sadness, an inconvenience, or a source of frustration and pain, Francis calls division what it is: sin. He calls us throughout to repent of the pride, selfishness, and lack of love that leads us into increasing disunity.

If Jackass Theology makes you nervous, I understand. We really are trying to call everyone to take Jesus and Scripture more seriously by loving as Jesus loved, but to many this has sounded like a call to disregard Scripture. If that’s you, I highly recommend you read Until Unity. Francis makes a compelling case for a literal reading of the biblical commands to be united. And he goes to great lengths to help us understand how this works out in practice. He even talks about the friendly fire he’s received when the Christian community has attacked him over the years.

I’m certain this is his most important book yet. It will draw you deeper into Scripture and help you live more fully in the love of God that comes to us through Jesus.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Our Wicked Tendency to Use the Bible to Oppress

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Tim Keller says that religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not. To think, ‘We are on the side of truth,’ can give people internal warrant to be abusive to those they believe have heretical opinions.”*

Can you imagine anything worse than abusing other humans in the name of God? Can you think of anything God desires less than people using his words to demean and attack others? And yet it’s a real problem. That’s why Keller wrote those words. And it’s the reason we started this blog in the first place. God gets a bad rap because we are constantly claiming to be speaking for him, and we are constantly jackasses in the process.

Religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not.” – Tim Keller

Before I say what needs to be said here, I want to offer a confession. Many, many, many people throughout history have used religion—including (especially?) Christianity—to demean and oppress. So many have used religion to gain, expand, and preserve power. This is disgusting. I offer that confession on behalf of the religious tradition I stand in. But I also confess personally that I have considered myself to be orthodox, correct, and “on the side of God,” and have thereby hurt other people. I have used the truth to ostracize people. I have used my view of orthodoxy to exclude. When this has happened, it has been ugly. We can’t keep doing this. I’m actively fighting against this tendency in myself.

But we need to be careful to say that this type of abuse-in-the-name-of-God does not mean that God himself or truth itself is abusive. Keller explains that while the Bible and Christianity has often been used a tool of oppression, when we do this we’re fighting against the very nature of God and of Scripture. God has always stood with and fought for the oppressed. Though his people have often tried to lift themselves up by pushing others down, they can only do this by directly violating what God is working to do in this world. The fact that we often quote Scripture in doing this only highlights the monstrosity of it.

Throughout the Bible, God constantly uses second sons, the weaker and less attractive, people from smaller tribes, the smallest and youngest members of a family (e.g., David). We see Jesus lifting up women and tax collectors and sinners. Keller: “It is always the moral, racial, sexual outsider and socially marginalized person who connects to Jesus most readily…God repeatedly refuses to allow his gracious activity to run along the expected lines of worldly influence and privilege. He puts in the center the person whom the world would put on the periphery.”

This is because this is who God is. It’s significant that this is the lot Jesus chose when he became human. It’s not an accident that Jesus was born poor rather than rich, that he fled his home country as a refugee rather than being raised in privilege, that he was crucified as a criminal rather than crowned as a king. Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He was the oppressed.

For all these reasons, Keller points out how absurd and incongruous it is when we use Jesus and the Bible to oppress others: “Of course believing in universal moral truths can be used to oppress others. But what if that absolute truth is a man who died for his enemies, who did not respond in violence to violence but forgave them? How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?”

“We need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God.”

You have to betray the story itself in order to do this. Richard Bauckham insists that the biblical story is “uniquely unsuited to being an instrument of oppression.” And yet we use it as an instrument of insult, oppression, and exclusion all the time. I frequently see Christians taking the Bible and use it to dunk on other Christians. I see Christians doing this to non-Christians. I see liberals doing this to conservatives and fundamentalists doing it to liberals.

I don’t have all the answers here, but honestly, it sounds pretty simple to me: We need to re-engage with the story that we claim shapes our lives. Because if this story is about a God who loves the outsider and who enters into their pain to elevate them, then we need to repent of our self-exaltation. We need to renounce the use of Scripture as a means of proving how bad and wrong people are. Perhaps we need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God. Anything less is a betrayal of the God and the story we’re claiming to follow.

*The quotes from Tim Keller in this post are from his excellent book Making Sense of God, particularly Chapter 10: “A Justice that Does Not Create New Oppressors.”

Beth Moore vs The SBC

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Or more accurately, the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) versus Beth Moore. I want to be nuanced and careful here in terms of what specifically is being said and who specifically is saying it. But I also think it’s important to say that this whole thing feels gross and has a major jackass theology vibe. I can tell you that if you try to defend Beth by writing (or poeticizing) about how Moore is being mistreated, you’ll find people choosing their perception over her clear statements and talking like she’s the enemy of Christianity.

This episode, in which the conservative church weirdly and suddenly turned on Beth Moore, continues, and I believe it offers us a helpful lesson in jackass theology.

Here’s what’s happened recently. Moore tweeted that contrary to the arguments of some, the SBC has not been consistently opposed to women preaching. In doing so, she cited a couple of examples. Josh Buice, an SBC pastor who has called for the SBC to “say ‘no more’ to Beth Moore,” complained that he is being “hammered by all sorts of slander” and then accused Moore of being a full-blown egalitarian, despite her actual claims.

One thing that is strange in all of this is that from where I’m sitting, it looks like Moore is being attacked more than the male pastors who are inviting her to preach. I’m thankful for people like Wade Burleson (an SBC leader) for calling out this inconsistency and the attending intimidation and degradation. Burleson recently warned his friends in the SBC:

“If you continue to go after people like Beth Moore and others, you will destroy the Southern Baptist Convention that you say you love. I for one will never again allow our SBC leaders to betray our trust by convincing us that our friends are our enemies.”

Beth Moore had this gracious response to this round of controversy:

“In a Twitter dialogue earlier today, I reiterated the point that Southern Baptists have historically held varying views regarding the specifics on the role of women in the church. In doing so, I inadvertently caused confusion, for which I apologize. I linked to an example of these varying views, not intending to align myself with them, as I knew little about the author or his views. When this was brought to my attention, I deleted the tweet so as not to cause further confusion.

“Similarly, when I referred to generous orthodoxy, my point was that we should be generous in our interactions because there are different applications of complementarianism within our shared beliefs. There is plenty of room in my church’s and my denomination’s doctrinal statement for where I (and countless others) stand. I know there are many who hold to different views on the application of Scripture and still deeply love the gospel as I do. I’m a soft complementation, and that view fits under the Baptist Faith and Message (which speaks specifically to ‘the office of pastor,’ and with which I concur).

“For more than 40 years, I have ministered alongside those who differ from me on these issues, because I want to make the most of every available opportunity to proclaim Jesus and to encourage people to come to know Him through the study of God’s Word. That’s my heart and my passion. That’s what I live for.”

As I said before, the problem is not that these pastors want to be complementarian. The problem is that I’m not seeing many treat Beth Moore with the kind of grace she is exemplifying here. She’s being humble, she’s carefully clarifying, and she’s calling for an end of the poor behavior that is being allowed in the interest of dogmatic theological precision.

I want to be careful with this part. Right now the SBC is buckling under the revelation that many of its pastors and missionaries have been sexually abusing minors, and that many of these instances were covered up by leaders in power. That’s awful, and all good SBC leaders are acknowledging the evil of this and working to bring repentance, healing, and safeguards against future wickedness. The SBC is allowed to continue debating female preachers even in the midst of such a scandal. But it felt jarring for me to read a recent tweet by Al Mohler in which he states his shock that many are calling for a renewed discussion on female preachers, which he considers a settled issue. He calls this a “critical moment.” Mohler has strongly denounced the pedophilia and scandalous behavior in the SBC. I’m not saying he has to choose which to care about. But honestly, how can women sharing God’s word be a “critical moment” with everything else that is going on?

People aren’t okay with this.

We’re getting caught up in these intense debates, where good servants of the Lord are the casualties, while serious evil is being perpetrated. Let’s get some perspective. I’m much happier with a statement Tom Schreiner (an SBC theologian) made in response to the “re-opening” of the discussion. He re-affirms his strict complementation view, but states:

“Of course good people who are evangelicals disagree! I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a complementarian, even if I am worried about their view and its consequences for the future. I worked in schools for 17 years where I was a minority as a complementarian. I thank God for evangelical egalitarians! And I thank God for complementarians who I think are slipping a bit. Still, what we do in churches in important, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and I am concerned about the next generation. But we can love those who disagree and rejoice that we believe in the same gospel.”

Amen! We need more of this approach.

“Beth Moore sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced from conservative church leaders as an actual service to the SBC. And she’s right.”

I don’t think we help anything by pretending theology is unimportant. Schreiner is right that these issues matter. He’s also right in his tone. We’re not helping anything when we act as though everyone who disagrees is villainously trying—always with the worst intentions—to make everyone else miserable and usher in the kingdom of Satan. That’s just not how it works. In this case, I think we need to call out the voices who are actually misogynistic and focus on the real issues. One of those issues is whether or not women should preach. But the one I’m more concerned about is whether or not the conservative church will continue to demonize people like Beth Moore. As I cited before, she sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced as an actual service to the SBC.

She’s right.

You don’t have to care about my opinion, but I think it’s time for the SBC and every conservative, myself included, to change our tone and rethink our priorities.

“I have loved the SBC and served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible school. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it right now.”

– BETH MOORE

Inglorious Pastors

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The Hebrew word for GLORY (kabod) means HEAVINESS, WEIGHT, IMPORTANCE.

This week I got another glimpse into why our current culture increasingly feels as though pastors and Christian leaders are UNIMPORTANT and culturally IRRELEVANT.

Hang with me for a second while I explain:

I am a pastor in a denomination called the EFCA (Evangelical Free Church of America). I am proud to be a part of this particular denomination for a number of reasons, but one key theological reason can be summed up by this simple phrase:

“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”

I love that phrase. I deeply desire to live and lead by it. It really is what Jackass theology is all about!

This week I am in Chicago for EFCA ONE, our national conference/business meeting. This year’s conference has the highest attendance in years. Can you guess why? It’s not because there is explosive numerical growth in our denomination. It’s because there is a controversial matter being voted on. Controversy always brings people out of the woodwork.

Do you know what the controversial matter is? No, it doesn’t have to do with racial tensions, roles of women, sexual identity, or any of the other relevant or controversial topics flooding social media today. The vote is over ONE SINGLE WORD in the doctrinal statement regarding ESCHATOLOGY (end times theology).

The proposed change reads:

“We believe in the personal, bodily and premillennial glorious return of our Lord Jesus.”

The denominational leadership is proposing this change for the purpose of charity in non-essentials. They want to be more inclusive of differing views. I am 100% supportive of this change. There are things in the Bible that are clear and straight forward. End times theology is not one of them. Remember, in non-essentials…CHARITY.

The disheartening part of this whole experience was all the passion and debate that led to this point. I will spare you the details, but this has been a 10 year journey. For the last 3-4 years the leaders of the EFCA have been flying around the country, asking regional denominational leaders if they support the change. In 2017, it officially became a motion, to be voted on in June of 2019. Countless hours have gone into this discussion.

Just before the vote, I sat in a 3 hour session where people passionately debated against this matter. There were threats of churches and entire districts leaving the denomination if this change was accepted. The opposition spoke about leftist thinking, the abandonment of biblical authority, and the deep fear of the dreaded amillennialism destroying the EFCA ethos.

It was sad to watch. Sad because all this energy and effort, all this time and conversation, has been spent on something so radically unimportant.

Look, I’m not saying understanding the Bible is unimportant, I’m saying this kind of debate has zero importance to the lives of everyday human beings. Feel free to develop a stance on eschatology, but when you see your opinion as an ESSENTIAL, as a hill to die on, you’ve got some re-prioritizing to do.

Remember, glory means WEIGHT. IMPORTANCE.

God is GLORIOUS. He matters. He is important. One day he will be seen and worshipped as the one who spoke creation into existence.

Jesus was GLORIOUS in the real world lives that he touched. He mattered to the prostitutes, the poor, the widows, the outcasts. He gave new purpose to everyday fisherman. He lived a life-alteringly relevant life.

As pastors, unfortunately, we can settle for an INGLORIOUS ministry of GLORIOUS God. We argue over the parsing of Greek words, theological nuance, eschatology, ecclesiology. We expend enormous amounts of energy on things that only matter to other highly schooled church people.

Meanwhile, there is real pain in the real everyday lives of humans we are called to love.

Aside from our love for God himself, PEOPLE MATTER MOST. Not ideas, not theoretical interpretations. People and their pain, and their struggle to know God in hostile world.

During an open mic session, a military chaplain said it best (my paraphrase):

“While ministering to young men and women in the military, I am constantly counseling them through matters of sexual identity, depression, addiction, and finding meaning in a hostile violent world. Never once in all my years, have I ever had someone ask me about eschatology.”

“The inglorious pastor (or layperson) snubs the woman at the well, rushes past the beaten man on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters.”

This is it. Nobody in the real world cares a rip about the details of eschatology. Our hope is set on the promised return of Jesus. The only people who care about this level of granularity are pastors like me locked in ivory towers living in a bizarro subculture.

You see, it’s the inglorious pastor who snubs the woman at the well, who rushes past the man beaten up on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters. It’s the inglorious pastor who writes off the 1 and tends only to the theology of the 99.

I applaud the EFCA for broadening their doctrinal statement. I do believe it was worth the effort. I’m grateful that after years of work and hours upon hours of debate, we took a vote, and it passed. 79% in favor. 21% opposed.

But the whole exercise was a warning to me. A shot across the bow. There is a tendency for me as a pastor to lose touch with real pain, real need, and settle for theory and theological debate. While all of this has its place, if it isn’t producing real love for real people, then I’m just another inglorious pastor!

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.

Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

Even Trump Has the Spirit

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According to John Calvin, even Donald Trump has the Spirit. And that goes for Mussolini, Mueller, and Ronald McDonald.

If you’re thinking, “I thought only Christians have the Spirit,” keep reading. Calvin doesn’t completely disagree with that sentence, but he has an important clarification.

The problem we’re trying to address here is that we can all be jackasses. This leads us to dismiss and demean other human beings. We have this hard-wired tendency to equate the Spirit with ourselves and the people who are very similar to us. It’s easy to see the Spirit of God working in someone who is all about the things you’re all about. But what happens when the Spirit is working outside of the boundaries you carefully maintain?

John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of everyone around us. This goes for those you admire and those you don’t. It goes for Christians and non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, perhaps, given Calvin’s emphasis on human depravity. But he insists that the knowledge and abilities of human beings—including unbelievers—are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”

– John Calvin
“If the Spirit is the sole fountain of truth, we shall not despise the truth wherever it appears, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit. For by holding his gifts in slight esteem, we blaspheme the Spirit.” – John Calvin

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that everyone—including non-Christians—have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but we had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus told us that anyone who speaks against him will be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10). There’s debate about what that means, but let’s agree it’s a strong warning. John Calvin isn’t Jesus, but in this passage, he’s connecting the demeaning of another person’s gifts with the unforgivable sin.

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”

– John Calvin
“Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.” – John Calvin

The word “ingratitude” is important. Calvin is saying that the Spirit of God has placed many gifts all around you. He is trying to show something to you, to give something to you. So when you look at what another person has to offer and refuse it (often in the name of being “spiritual” or “biblical”), you are being a g*sh d@rn ingrate.

If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that person theologically. Regardless of the degree of heresy or paganism you associate with them.

We’ll all have to apply this to whatever people we have a hard time with. As an example and a confession, I have a hard time with Donald Trump (hence the title). It’s okay for me to disagree with many of his policies and be grieved by many of his tweets. But if I treat him as less than human and dismiss everything about him, I’m the one resisting the Spirit. And I don’t want to be that kind of jackass. Who do you need to apply Calvin’s quote to?

If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by the people around us, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

When you talk to a person who is very different than you—even someone you might be tempted to view as an enemy on some front—can you still hear the voice of the Spirit? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

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.