There’s a book that I’ve been wanting to read for several years called The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith, so when the life group that Breena and I recently joined decided to start going through it together, I was very excited. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it was very insightful, and I hope to use this blog to post some of my thoughts and reflections on the book.

The thesis of the book is this: Transformation happens through training my soul. (20) Transformation is a vital part of life for the Christian, as God both promises and commands it in Scripture. It does not happen magically, however. Rather, it demands our full participation, though perhaps in a way that is different than you or I would expect.

Smith tells of a “false narrative” that almost all of us believe. That narrative is this: We change by our willpower. “When people decide to change something, they muster their ‘willpower’ and set about trying to change some behavior. This nearly always fails.” (21) It fails, he says, because the will actually has no power. The will is the human capacity to choose. (22) The will is not something that acts or has power. Rather, the will responds to outside agents, and there are three primary agents that influence the will: the mind, the body, and the social context. (22) In other words, we make choices based on the input we receive from our minds (I’m turning left on this road because I know my destination is in that direction), our bodies (I eat lunch because I’m hungry), and our social contexts (I cheer on the Buckeyes because I grew up in Ohio). Change, therefore, happens not because I muster up the strength to make a new choice, but because the influencers on my will are somehow modified (I learn new things, I exercise, I make new friends). “When new ideas, new practices and new social settings are adopted, change happens.” (22)

Rather than reinforcing the old narrative of willpower, Jesus created a new change narrative: We change by indirection.

If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. …We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change.” We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things – and we can – then change will come naturally to us. This is why Jesus said his “yoke” was easy. If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult. (22-23)

The first step toward change is to examine the fundamental narratives (stories) you believe to be true. How does the world work? Who am I? Who is God? Answering these questions, and ones similar to this, will help you to verbalize the narratives you believe. What are the fundamental narratives you believe to be true? Let me tell you mine.

One of the narratives that I’ve believed (in my heart, not necessarily in my head – and that distinction is important) is this: God makes prosperous the lives of those who step out in faith for him. I do not mean by this that all pastors and missionaries will be financially prosperous, but that their lives will be free from certain troubles and trials, like family health issues, necessary but inescapable debt (perhaps from medical bills), unjust job loss, and ministry failure. (Basically, all the things that have happened to me and my family in the past few months!) I have believed that bad things only happen to God’s servants because of discipline or punishment, and not as the natural course of living in a fallen world.

Besides being a demonstration of poor theology, my narrative is wrong in one rather large way. Can you spot it? Although God is the subject of that sentence, my narrative is fundamentally about me. I, and the quality of my life, are the center of that story. It’s all about me.

But Jesus’ narratives are fundamentally about God.

“God is good.”

“God is beautiful.”

“God is agape love.”

Perhaps the first thing that you and I need to examine is the subject of the stories we believe. Are we believing and telling and living stories about God, or stories about ourselves? “In order to change we first have to change our minds. …Adopting Jesus’ narratives is a way we come to have the mind of Christ.” (26) The world that Jesus saw and experienced was as broken as our own, but at the center of it all he could see, not himself (though he is God), but his Father. Jesus saw the truth, testified to the truth, and told stories of the truth. God is the truth, and in order to be set free by the truth we must learn to live and believe the narratives of Jesus.

What are the narratives that you have been believing and living?

 

This idea of being a parable of Jesus has been haunting me for the past week. What is that supposed to look like in my particular context? How can I be the visible description of the invisible Jesus in the face of job loss, a child’s overwhelming illness, and the death of a church? How can I be a parable of Jesus today, when life is as it is, and not as I wish it were?

At times like this I look to the words of Paul in Philippians:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

There’s a key phrase in there that often gets overlooked: I want to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. I’ve always thought that the way in which we participate in the sufferings of Jesus is through persecution. The suffering is inflicted upon us by an outside, human force that stands in opposition to the kingdom of God. While this is certainly a huge part of what it means to participate in the sufferings of Jesus, I’ve become convinced that it’s not the whole story. In the absence of persecution, we can sometimes take on the suffering of Jesus by becoming, as he was on the cross, Godforsaken.

It’s important to remember, here, that Jesus didn’t sin or do anything wrong that brought upon his Godforsakeness. That Godforsakeness was a part of the Father’s larger plan, and was soon followed by the resurrection, and an entirely new way of being Trinity. In the same way, we don’t necessarily do anything to bring about Godforsakeness in our lives; it can be (and I say “can be” because it is certainly possible that we are so stubborn in our sinfulness that God “gives us over to the desires of our hearts”) a part of the Father’s larger plan to create a whole new way of being human, that is, becoming like Jesus.

God has not forsaken you because you or he are unfaithful. On the contrary, God’s distance in the midst of our suffering is a part of his redemptive plan that always pushes toward resurrection – to new life arisen out of the ashes of death and decay. As Paul says in Romans 5:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope.

God’s aim in all of this is to produce, in you, the power of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of your own resurrection. Therefore, whatever suffering you are enduring now, know that God may feel distant, but he is not absent. You may be forsaken now, but you will not be forsaken then. Only persevere. Take courage, and be faithful. God is faithful even when it seems that he is faithless, and the stories of God’s faithfulness belong to those who persevere through their Godforsakeness and into their resurrection.

Ralph, a family friend since before I was born, sent me an excerpt from a book he’s reading called The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen. He knows a lot of my story, particularly the part of the story that we’ve been living for the past six months or so. Between Zeke’s epilepsy/autism, losing our church, and then losing my job, our family has really been through the meat grinder. I have often been left scratching my head, wondering where, exactly, God has gone to. Had I done something wrong? Had I veered off course while he kept going? Had I unknowingly broken his will and sinned? I didn’t think so. But I still had no explanation for why I felt so Godforsaken.

Then Ralph sent me this excerpt. It has been a long time since I have so deeply resonated with something.

To understand Godforsakenness we must rehearse briefly what has been said [earlier in the chapter] about call. Initially we hear God calling us to ministry, and we make covenant with him to follow the trail toward pastoral ministry. We undergo a process of preparation, sometimes rigorous and difficult. In it we learn to listen to Scripture, to listen to a person and to listen to God. At ordination the church formally recognizes our call and blesses us with the power of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. We begin our ministry, and we encounter many things. We work hard and have some successes and some failures. We find through difficult experiences that we have been made for this work. Our hearts are filled with compassion for people, love for the gospel and endurance for the painful parts of the job. We feel God at work in us.

Then one day, for unknown reasons, God just isn’t there anymore. The Presence that has guided and strengthened is gone. Our covenant with God feels broken and void. The Scriptures stop comforting. Every page condemns! We continue to read out of obedience, but the Word becomes the letter that kills.

Pastoral skills become worthless.

The church is no longer a warm, nurturing environment where friends gather. The church expels us from the secure womb. Evil rages against us. The boundaries of the church are not walls keeping evil out but a boxing ring keeping evil in, so that it can come back and strike us again and again and again. We can’t run.

I’m up a tree. High, far out on a fragile limb I cling. I climbed out there because God said that he wanted me there and that he would be with me. Now the limb is cracking off the trunk. God isn’t there anymore.

The picture changes like a dream. I am not out on a limb, but strapped to a tree. I am hanging from a tree. I am dying on a tree.

Pinched in God’s vise [an image he used while discussing how to make flies for fly-fishing], dangling helpless, I am made into the bait of God. But for whom?

Nobody pretty wants me now. The world wants winners. Nothing succeeds like success. Look good to attract the good-looking. Die to attract the dying. Suffer to know the being of suffering. Cry out to know Jesus’ crying out. Hear the blood of the innocents screaming; searing pain rises from blood-soaked dirt.

Only now am I a parable of Jesus Christ. [He said earlier that Jesus is a parable of God–that just as parables describe something visible so that we can understand something invisible, so Jesus becomes a parable of God. But then we become parables of Jesus, showing others what’s invisible (Jesus) in our own visible lives/stories.]

Jesus cried out, on the cross, “Eli! Eli! lema sabachthani!” This means, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me,” and is a direct quote of Psalm 22. I don’t think he was just quoting Scripture for fun, or to fulfill prophecy. I believe that Jesus cried out in guttural anguish, and the first words that came to his mind were the first words of this dark psalm. The Son of God was Godforsaken in his most desperate hour.

If I am to become like Jesus, then doesn’t it follow that I must also become Godforsaken? If Jesus was the visible description of the invisible God (a living parable), and now is invisible himself, then that leaves it to us to become parables of Jesus. We must become the visible descriptions of the invisible Lord, and in order to fully incarnate this reality, we must suffer. We must, like Jesus, become Godforsaken.

God forsakes us, not because we’ve sinned or left his will, but precisely as an act of his will, in order to bring us into fuller empathy for and identification with his son. It is for this reason that we must learn to embrace our exile, to press into the Godforsaken present in which we find ourselves in these dark days. There is no use in trying to get things back to where they were before. The important thing is to face the current reality with courage and faithfulness, so that we can say to Jesus on that day, insofar as such a thing is possible, “I understand.”

For more thoughts on this topic, check out the post A Suffering Participation.

Antony Flew was a leading philosopher and atheist of the mid to late twentieth century. He taught at several distinguished schools, including Oxford, Aberdeen, and Reading. He also taught at Bowling Green State Universtiy, near my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He passed away in April of this year.

In There is a God, Flew lays out his journey from atheism to deism, briefly sketching each of the arguments that influenced the evolution of his thought. Because I am not a philosopher, I will not attempt to summarize those arguments here. The book itself is short enough (less than 220 pages) and colloquial enough to not be overwhelming. Many of us may need a Philosophical Dictionary nearby to understand some of the terms, but most folks can easily follow the arc of the story.

antony_flewThe book is a narrative rather than a philosophical treatise, and it tells the story of Flew’s life as it pertains to the issue of the question of God. He tells tales of his many interactions with Christian and Theist philosophers in debates and dialogues. While there was no singular moment of illumination, it was the cumulative effect of these interactions which brought him to his “conversion.” (I put conversion in quotes because he did not become a Christian, so far as I know. He simply came to believe in a “divine Mind”.)

The “conversion” sent a shockwave through the philosophical and atheistic communities. Flew was a pillar of atheism, one of the greatest minds and most ardent defenders of the “faith”. His admission of the existence of a divine Mind was too much for some to bear. There were accusations that the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, manipulated Flew, by then an old man, into publishing this book. While Flew admitted that Varghese did the actual writing, he asserted that the thoughts were his. In the years leading up to his death, Flew publicly declared, again and again, that he had become a deist (and denied becoming a Christian or a Theist).

The guiding principle of Flew’s life, and the through line of this book, is the Aristotelian line, “follow the argument wherever it leads.” It was his commitment to this ideal that ultimately led him out of atheism and into belief in a divine Mind. The primary evidence, as laid out in his book, is the complexity of DNA and the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the evolution of reproductive capability. These issues led him to belief in a divine Mind, which of course is not all the way to the Christian Creator God, but is a large leap of faith for an atheist of his stature.

The book includes two appendices, one by Varghese and the other by N.T. Wright. While Flew was “converted” to the concept of a divine Mind, he did not believe in divine revelation, though he was open to being convinced. Of all the religions claiming divine revelation, he thought Christianity to be the only one worth noting.

“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. …If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.” (185-6)

Wright’s contribution is a brief but potent sketch of his defense for the existence of Jesus, his divinity, and the historicity of the resurrection. This alone is worth the price of the book, and if you’ve never read Wright (what are you waiting for?!), will give you a solid introduction to his three large volumes on Jesus.

I don’t know where Antony Flew stood on the issues Wright raised when he died in April. There’s something oddly refreshing, for me at least, that his book was about his conversion to deism and not to evangelical Christianity. It seems more honest that way, I guess. But of course I hope that he came to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, and to receive the forgiveness offered him from the cross.

Questions: How does the “conversion” of a notorious atheist strengthen your faith? What are the most important philosophical questions regarding the existence of God? What are the most important pieces of scientific evidence in this debate?

In the olden days (when I was an intolerant fundamentalist) I would never have read Bernhard Anderson’s book, The Unfolding Drama of the Bible. I would have dropped the book against a wall (funny how certain books are capable of defying gravity that way) at the first mention of Second Isaiah. But I’ve mellowed…a bit.

9780800635602What I appreciated about Anderson’s book is the brief, yet thorough, sketch of the Bible. I did this a while ago with my post on Metanarrative, so I appreciate Anderson’s approach of using biblical highlights as case studies to unfold the plot of the Bible. Each chapter has discussion questions at the end which are excellent conversation starters. It is a short read and would be profitable for small groups.

Reading this book has opened my eyes to the way that I can fundamentally agree with someone who comes from a more liberal perspective. Everything he writes about the Bible I agree with, but I don’t share his views on issues of authorship and dating. I’m learning to be more charitable with these issues, and reading this book was an exercise in growth as much as in learning about the Bible.

There is one little bit, however, that I can’t not mention. On several occasions, Anderson makes a comment along the lines of, “Don’t let the literal details of the passage trip you up.” I think what he means by this is, “Don’t let the silly or offensive parts of the story cause you to disregard the passage.” While I understand why he would write this, there seems to be a subtle undercurrent of condescension toward the text, as though we stand over it and judge it against our modern knowledge and sensibilities. What worries me is that this subtle condescension feeds our pride in our own particular historical moment, and that great beast of pride, when fully grown, will seek to conquer the text rather than be conquered by it. In my opinion, it’s far better to approach Scripture with a humble heart and a submissive spirit. The Bible is, after all, our authority, and not the other way around.