Posts Tagged discernment
Much of my focus on this blog has been on pursuing an economics that pushes beyond earthbound thinking.
Over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I attempt to lay out a basic baseline of this approach, using Judas’ harsh response to Mary’s outpouring of expensive perfume as a starting point:
Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.
It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.
Leveraging a striking Whittaker Chambers quote, I point to some extremes that such thinking can lead us to (e.g. Soviet Communism). But as I go on to note, such a tendency is typically far more tricky to discern:
The same temptations Chambers indicates — of earthbound thinking and intellectual arrogance — can easily sneak into our personal plans for achieving God’s ends. We may, for instance, openly recognize that God has called us to meet the needs of the poor and alleviate poverty, but far too often we attempt to resolve the “God question” here, moving quickly and comfortably to our own personal plans and designs for how might get there (e.g. foreign aid, fair trade, a higher minimum wage, etc.). Rather than continuing to push toward the heart of God — toward a life full of transcendent reasoning and discernment — we look instead to the spilled ointment on the floor, frustrated and not bothering to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”
This is the most basic question, and we must ask it with sincerity and a heart of sacrifice. It is crucial that we observe the physical world, and it is necessary for us to ask sincere questions about why and how resources are used, but these questions need to be asked in conversation with our Creator, not in humanistic isolation.
Using the example of Abraham, who listened to God’s call to ditch his comfort zone, Oswald Chambers provides a lesson in self-denial and obedience:
As soon as you begin to live the life of faith in God, fascinating and luxurious prospects will open up before you, and these things are yours by right; but if you are living the life of faith you will exercise your right to waive your rights, and let God choose for you. God sometimes allows you to get into a place of testing where your own welfare would be the right and proper thing to consider if you were not living a life of faith; but if you are, you will joyfully waive your right and leave God to choose for you. This is the discipline by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.
Whenever right is made the guidance in the life, it will blunt the spiritual insight. The great enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but the good which is not good enough. The good is always the enemy of the best. It would seem the wisest thing in the world for Abraham to choose, it was his right, and the people around would consider him a fool for not choosing. Many of us do not go on spiritually because we prefer to choose what is right instead of relying on God to choose for us. We have to learn to walk according to the standard which has its eye on God. “Walk before Me.”
Such an insight is crucial if we are to successfully execute God’s plan for our lives. As it did for Abraham, such an approach will transcend our earthly concerns, impacting all of our decision making, whether economic, familial, personal/vocational, political, etc.
Without fundamental and intentional alignment to God—through his Word, prayer, the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, etc.—we are left to our own devices and our own short-sighted notions of the “good.” In our profit-making, we will tend toward rationalizing and justifying actions that are in our perceived self-interest. In our sacrifice, we will tend toward emotionalization—allowing humanistic impulses to guide and direct our giving, which will, in turn, lend toward constructing golden calves.
To serve God, then, we must first deny ourselves, and to deny ourselves in any truly worshipful or productive way, we must live with “the discipline by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.”
If we do not aim to achieve the right—i.e. the will of God, or what Chambers also calls the “best”—all of our petty, humanistic intellectualizing, emotionalizing, and excuse-making will lead to petty, humanistic outcomes. Surprise, surprise.
I have written previously on how Christians should embrace an entrepreneurial spirit in pursuing God’s will (here and here), grounding their innovations and risk-taking in a holistic Biblical worldview and executing their callings through active fellowship and spiritual discernment.
Over at Faith & Leadership, James K.A. Smith provides some related thoughts on Christian innovation, paying specific attention to the role of individual church bodies. For Smith, “good culture making” comes from a properly oriented Christian imagination, and such imaginations are most reliably fostered and achieved through “intentional, historic, liturgical forms.”
First, Smith’s survey of modern evangelicalism:
The entrepreneurial independence of evangelical spirituality leaves room for all kinds of congregational startups that require little if any institutional support. Catering to increasingly specialized “niche” audiences, these startups are not beholden to liturgical forms or institutional legacies. Indeed, many proudly announce their desire to “reinvent church.”
Clearly, the cultural labor of restoration requires imaginative innovation. Good culture making requires that we imagine the world other than as it is — which means seeing through the status-quo stories we have been told and instead envisioning kingdom come. Yes, we need new energy, new strategies, new initiatives, new organizations, even new institutions.
But if we hope to put the world to rights, we need to think differently and act differently and build institutions that foster such action.
Next, his solution:
If our cultural work is going to be restorative – if it is going to put the world to rights – then we need imaginations that have been shaped by a vision for how things ought to be. Our innovation and invention and creativity will need to be bathed in an eschatological vision of what the world is made for, what it’s called to be — what the prophets often described as shalom. Innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself.
That immersion happens most powerfully in worship — in intentional, historic, liturgical forms that “carry” the Christian story in ways that sink into our bones and become part of us. This is why the unfettered, undisciplined “reinvention” of the church actually undercuts our ability to carry out innovative, restorative culture making. The story cannot shape us, cannot become part of us, in a church that is constantly reinventing itself.
I certainly agree that “unfettered, undisciplined ‘reinvention’ of the church” diminishes our ability to “carry out innovative, restorative culturing,” but I’m curious as to how we might start (re)defining standards for Christian worship in modern evangelicalism—how we are to pick and choose “intentional, historic, liturgical forms” and how we are to gauge the success of any Read the rest of this entry »
I have previously noted the West’s tendency to project its perception of need on the poor — an inclination many Christians have come to share.
The most obvious problem is that not everyone prefers SUVs, organic tomatoes and modern plumbing in the same order as your run-of-the-mill suburban soccer mom. But the deeper issue is that such an approach elevates material needs and temporary handouts above spiritual vacancy and the ever-necessary whole-life transformation through Christ.
What the poor, broken, hurting, and abandoned really need is discipleship, not some mechanistic plan that tries to leverage Hipster Jimmy’s quest for a unique coffee tumbler into a noble, planet-healing event. Such schemes are mere “spiritual frosting,” as Steve Saint calls them: surface-level gloss that does little to nothing for the kingdom.
Many such errors are due to lapses in our thinking, which is why we often like to lob the reminder that “good” intentions (quotes intended) don’t automatically translate to proper thinking or productive action. (I apply this critique routinely.)
Yet at an even deeper level, we must be mindful that we are called to press further, beyond our God-given capacity for earthly wisdom, knowledge, and prudence. This does not, however, mean that we should return to Hipster Jimmy’s blind consumeristic emotionalism and draw from it where it makes us feel warm and tingly. It means we need to consult with the Divine himself.
Beware when you want to “confer with flesh and blood” or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings— anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.
In the end, no matter how promising our earthly schemes for sacrifice may seem on paper, or how effective they may appear in application, we need to ask ourselves who/what we are truly sacrificing for. Our efforts may indeed seem “promising” and/or “effective,” but according to whom?
The answer, as Samuel made clear to Saul, is that our actions must always be in sync with God’s will, but as obvious as this may seem, and as prevalent as many Christians think it to be in their own world outlooks, we often think this imposes far fewer demands than it really does.
When pressed on the spiritual legitimacy of our actions, we react by pointing to verses about loving our neighbors or taking in orphans or feeding the hungry (Jim Wallis, anyone?). Yet while each of these imperatives are important and necessary in the life of a Christian, they mustn’t be where we stop. Far too often we draw on the Bible’s generic calls to action while simultaneously rejecting the Helper he sent to assist us in doing the work. We think the message is his, but the method is ours.
But the Christian life is not about taking bumper-sticker slogans and applying them to our own petty schemes as we wish. It’s about transcending our Read the rest of this entry »
I have often argued that radical individualism — i.e. radical obedience to God — often translates into unradical earthly action: building a family, giving to others, befriending a stranger, starting a business, working at a factory, etc. Whether or not our obedience is “radical” can only be defined by the extent to which we are willing to deny our earthly sentiments for the divine.
This, of course, says nothing about what the divine is actually demanding.
Yet many seem to miss this basic point, believing that following God to the fullest should automatically translate into things like preaching to millions or giving away all our possessions to the poor (insert cherry-picked Biblical anecdotes here). The popularity of David Platt’s recent book, for example, indicates that for many, radical obedience needs to translate into action that feels radical in some tangible, earthly way (going on a missions trip, capping one’s income at $X, building a church without air conditioning, etc.).
In a recent article for Relevant Magazine, Andrew Byers does a nice job of countering such thinking, arguing that “radical can be dangerous” and “monotony can be its own mission”:
Scripture calls us into radical service — but that does not allow others to eviscerate tedious, less “spiritually” glamorous tasks of their meaning in God’s Kingdom. Scripture also calls us to embrace the mundane and ordinary as holy and beautiful: “… aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
Many of us want to do something awesome, something epic. We tend to think that the more normal, the less “spiritual.” So it is quite possible that our aspirations to be radical stem from dangerous ambitions to perform biography-worthy feats of global glory.
But radical discipleship is not adventure tourism.
Then, in a move that leads to some striking socio-economic parallels (unintended, to be sure — see here and here), Byers describes the real Christian pursuit as a bottom-up struggle, one filled with risk, relationship, faith, and Read the rest of this entry »
The budget talks are a’blazin and Jim Wallis is at it again, rallying left-leaning Christians everywhere to support a laundry list of progressive “anti-poverty” programs (i.e. all of them).
On July 20, Wallis and 11 other “religious leaders” met with President Obama to ask for a “Circle of Protection” around any program ”focused on reducing poverty.” (“Circle of Protection”–is that Orwellian, New Age, or something out of a 1980s RPG?)
“We made our simple principle clear,” Wallis said. “The most vulnerable should be protected in any budget or deficit agreements…We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.”
“This is what God requires of all of us”? You mean Medicaid, food stamps, and foreign “aid”? Inspiring, I do declare.
But, man, if we’re falling short on our redistributionist checklist, folks in the third-world must really need a sense of what God requires of them. Maybe Wallis can head over to Cuba or Zimbabwe and teach those tyrannical bullies a thing or two about how to properly manipulate and micro-manage their peoples toward greater prosperity. How I would love to see Wallis positioned in the former Soviet Union, trying to fix things by avoiding programs that “focus on reducing poverty” (i.e. everything).
As much as I appreciate Wallis’ attempt to intercede on my behalf, what God “requires of all of us” cannot be rolled into some quaint piece of legislation signed by Harry Reid or John Boehner. God’s “requirements” do not constitute a legalistic bullet list of progressive programs, and the church extends well beyond an “enlightened” majority with a tendency to sign and spend things quickly. (I’ve discussed this previously).
Why, for example, is our bloated, inefficient, fraud-laden Medicaid system the God-ordained method for helping America’s poor find healthcare in the 21st century? Why, might I ask, is such a system only God-ordained insofar as it remains untouched by budget cuts? If we cut the program by, say, 1% (or even .00001%), will judgment day come sooner or more harshly than it would otherwise? And to what degree? Paging Harold Camping…Al Gore?
What if I happen to disagree with page 3,500 of the legislation, but agree with the rest? What if I disagree with the whole thing and suggest Read the rest of this entry »
There has been quite a bit of hullabaloo over Rob Bell’s upcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book’s thesis, according to the publisher’s description, argues that “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”
Since the book is indeed an upcoming title, the chatter has largely focused around its marketing materials, particularly a promotional video in which Bell does what Bell does best: talks like a universalist. (emphasis on “talks like”)
After perusing the available materials, as well as some advance chapters, Gospel Coalition blogger Justin Taylor concluded that Bell may indeed be a universalist, after which John Piper chimed in with a simple, “Farewell Rob Bell.” These remarks spurred retorts from across the Web, resulting in a cacophony of Bell-centered banter.
Oddly enough, many of those who have been defending Bell seem to care little about the actual validity of his views and beliefs, which, although relatively vague, make some startling absolute statements about the nature of God’s love. Instead of arguing over whether Bell’s views do indeed mesh with true Christianity (and/or oppose universalism), many of his followers have backed away from matters of theology altogether — grounding their defenses in verses like “judge not lest ye be judged.”
The message seems clear: Bell’s beliefs should not be up for scrutiny because criticism is not the Christian thing to do.
This brings us to some larger questions about the role of judgment itself, particularly when it comes to Christians. Since there is already plenty of healthy debate over the contents of Bell’s book, it is here that I would like to focus our discussion.
How are we to respond to others when we disagree with them? More specifically, how are we to respond to Christians when we think they depart from the Read the rest of this entry »