Monday, January 19, 2015

Therapy or Jesus?

A friend called me Saturday about a woman in his Sunday school class dealing with guilt. A few weeks ago another friend talked to me about a man he met on his job dealing with guilt. Both of these people struggling with guilt are advanced in age, both of them are wrestling with things that happened long ago, both of them are weighed down with the crushing burden of guilt and remorse.

My question in the Saturday conversation was, “Does she know Jesus?” My question to my other friend, when I see him again, will be, “Does he know Jesus?”

In a therapeutic society, and in a therapeutic church, our tendency is to seek emotional or psychological healing – we think that the alleviation of pain, in this case the pain of guilt, is what our first response should be; and so our first question is, “How can I give this person immediate relief from pain?” This may be a fair question in terms of medical triage (but even there further pain may be necessary to save the patient), but it is a dangerous question in matters of the soul, and it is an especially dangerous question when guilt is concerned.

While there can be false guilt in different forms, I am not addressing false guilt right now; I am addressing God-given merciful guilt; for just as physical pain alerts us to a medical condition, the pain of guilt alerts us to a sin condition – and alertness to a sin condition is meant to drive us to Jesus Christ in repentance and seeking forgiveness.

The default response to guilt in our society is to deny it and by denying it we deprive ourselves of God’s forgiveness. We use pleasure, we use alcohol and drugs (legal and illegal), we use materialism, we use false religion, we use self-help, we use sex – we use whatever we can to deaden guilt, to deny guilt, to justify ourselves. In much of the professing church Jesus has become one therapist among many – He’ll make it better without repentance, without confession, without remorse – of all the medications available, Christian feel-good-about-myself medication is the most insidious for it hides the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. In church we can be so close and yet so far away.

As passages such as Romans Chapters 1 – 5:11 make clear, God wants us to know guilt so that we’ll be driven to Jesus in repentance and confession – and keep in mind that repentance means turning around and following Jesus, it means (in the Biblical context) following Jesus Christ as Lord. True repentance manifests itself in a relationship with Jesus Christ and it is only in a relationship with Jesus that we can know forgiveness and a conscience at peace with God, with others, and with ourselves.

In this sense, guilt is good news! Our response to those struggling with guilt need not be, “I’m so sorry,” but rather can be, “That’s great news that you have a sense of guilt, let me introduce you to Jesus Christ! He knows about your guilt because He knows about your sin, He knows about all of our sin – let me tell you about why Jesus came and died and was buried and about His resurrection.”

The world has made guilt a bad thing, but guilt, operating the way God designed it, is a good thing because it is meant to lead us in confession and repentance to the God who so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son.

As followers of Jesus Christ our calling is to share Jesus with others, to make disciples by teaching others to obey all that Jesus Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20). God has broken into this world in His Son Jesus and He is our Lord and we are His disciples, His followers; He is our Master and we are His slaves; He is our elder brother and we are His family; He is the Head and we are His body. Knowing Jesus Christ is everything – therefore our threshold question must always be, “Have you come to know Jesus through repentance, confession, and are you following Him?”

The Crucifixion was not a therapy session, it was the Son of God bearing the sin of the world; because of the Christ of the Cross our sin can be forgiven and our consciences cleansed from guilt (Hebrews 10:19-22) and we can know intimacy with God and with each other.

“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” [Romans 5:1-2.]

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Seeking Signs - Wedded to this Generation or Married to Jesus?

Here’s an extended quote from Frederick Dale Bruner, commenting on Matthew 12:40 [For just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights]. (Commentary on Matthew,    Vol. 1, Revised & Expanded, page 575ff emphasis mine:

“Whenever the church has joined “this generation’s” lust for signs, that is, whenever the church has sought sensational events and movements in church or history as God’s Word, she has been seduced from Center. The German Church Struggle in the 1930s may be the main twentieth-century example of this aberration (see the Barman Declaration, 1934). Jesus in his Word, not signs in history – His-Story, not history – is the Christian agenda.

‘Finding out what God is doing and joining him there’ (an expression popular in some theologies) can [certainly not always] be a call for a march into a wilderness of subjectivity and false causes. This call to find God in history is off center when it does not look for God in the one place in history where God put himself to be surely found: in the proclamation of the history of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection and presented to us in the church’s means of grace (Acts 2:42) and in the world’s poor (Matt 25:31 – 46). The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said it well in the middle of the last century: ‘The church that marries itself to the present age will find itself a widow in the next generation.’ “

I want to be informed but not obsessed with the news. I don’t want to mistake the news or what is popular in church or culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t want economics to be my North Star, but rather love for God and love for neighbor in our Lord Jesus Christ. I don’t want to be seduced into thinking that numbers measure spiritual ministry – for no matter what man may say the Scriptures teach that the true Gospel will never be popular. I don’t want the acceptance of others at the expense of not knowing what it is to bear the reproach of Christ. Jesus says that the slave is not greater than his master and that if they have persecuted Him that they will persecute his followers -   why no persecution?

When I think of how my errant compass was once tuned into the latest Middle East conflict, or political movement, or economic scenario – I wonder at the time I lost in growing in Christ and sharing Him with others. When I think of the times I wanted to be “relevant” by dating the popular culture and buying into the latest Christian faddist thinking – I marvel at the time lost away from His Word. And when I listen to us talk about what we need as a church, what pastors need as leaders, and at what the world needs from the church – I hear (it seems) everything discussed other than a return and commitment to the Bible, His Word, and His Gospel. Just like the generation that Jesus lived among, we clamor after signs – when the only sign we need is Him, Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.

Whether it is a popular media preacher creating a following by a constant emphasis on the “”Last Days”, or a local pastor striving to make Sunday morning an “experience” rather than a time of worship and submission to His Word [Lord forgive me when I’ve done that!] – we seek after signs. The thing about signs is that once you start down that path you’ve got to continue to produce greater and greater signs as followers become addicted to them; signs become the measure of success. The last special series on the Middle East has to be surpassed by an even greater series, the last special event has to be exceeded by the next extra-special event (the subject of the event doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it is a special event!).

The sign that Jesus gave was Himself – crucified, dead, buried, and raised from the dead. Perhaps we would do well to be identified with Him, taking up our cross and following Him in self-denial – for isn’t the seeking of signs so often the equivalent of saving ourselves? Could it be that the sign that we are following Jesus is not spectacular success and acclaim – but rather learning what it is to know Him in His sufferings, to know Him on the Cross, to be dead to this world, to ourselves…and alive unto God? [Romans Chapters 5 – 8; Galatians 2:20.]

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Man’s Ancient Folly

As I begin to read the Bible in this new year I’ve been thinking about a quote from Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) that I read in Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew (Vol. I, page 437, Revised & Expanded Edition):

"Man's ancient folly is in thinking he can understand God better from his freely assumed standpoint and from his notion of God than he [could] if he would subject himself to [God's] Word." 

While I may not have much shared Old Testament theological ground with von Rad, I can certainly say “Amen” to the quote. Today I can write that we’ve added to the folly by thinking that we can know the Bible by reading books about the Bible, or reading isolated verses of the Bible in what are often well-meaning contexts (and yet often contexts without Biblical meaning), or by listening to teachers and preachers without having our own encounter with the Bible and the God of the Bible. Training wheels can have their place in learning to ride a bicycle, but no healthy woman or man ought to be using training wheels – yet we think nothing of not actually reading the Bible – we would perhaps be embarrassed at offering reasons why we still use training wheels on a bicycle, but we have little or no embarrassment at offering excuses for why we don’t read the Bible.

This reads a bit hard, I wish it would read with a flavor of scandal, but we seem to be beyond feeling scandalous about the fact that few professing American Christians actually read the Bible on a daily or even weekly basis. When we do read it we often read it as von Rad warned against – we subject the Bible to our thinking and desires rather than subject ourselves to God’s Word.

The psalmist of Psalm 19 writes concerning God’s word, “More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” The Bible represents eternal reality, it gives us the only clear way to think about God, the world, our neighbors, and ourselves.

People may say they believe in cosmic chance, but they don’t live like it – we all live by some measure of right and wrong, of justice and injustice; we may disagree on the standard used, but we all have a standard unless we are insane. (Our society is engaging in self-induced insanity with its insistence that there is no transcendent truth – other than that there is no transcendent truth – the emperor’s new clothes). Even nihilists (which I believe is the logical alternative to Christianity) don’t live like they believe in nothing – their actions when it comes to justice and injustice can be louder than their words.

I think of wisdom, as personified in the Biblical book of Proverbs, crying in the streets for the simple to come for instruction. Do we hear the cry today? Or has the professing church reached the point where we no longer need God’s Word? Our actions speak louder than our protestations of honor and respect for the Bible.

Our concern should not be that the Bible has been taken out of schools, it should be that we have removed it from our own hearts.