Moral Theory for Church Leaders

            As pastors and teachers in the church seek to exposit and apply the Bible to their congregations, they need to handle wisely the moral matters discussed in the Scriptures. We need wise positions on hot-button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but we also need a sound theoretical understanding of morality rooted in the Bible. As Paul told Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Titus 3:5-6).

Some parts of the Bible are more directly related to ethics than others. Questions of conduct cannot be avoided when teaching on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18; Deuteronomy 5:1-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). All of Scripture is profitable for guidance on how to live well before the face of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, all of Scripture, in one way or another, concerns the moral life—our obligation to do good and to avoid evil, our need to learn to become a virtuous person, and our doing of good works.

            It may not be obvious, however, that moral theory can help ground and organize the church’s teaching on ethics.1 Teaching ethics at Denver Seminary—and elsewhere—for nearly thirty years has convinced me of this. So, let me explain and illustrate a few basic elements of moral theory in the hope that preachers and teachers will appropriate them for solid and clear teaching for God’s people.

            In the first paragraph, I said that Scripture concerns “our obligation to do good and to avoid evil.” That phrase captures the deontological aspect of ethics. Deontology concerns moral duties or responsibilities. In the biblical context, duties are based on God’s commands. Our actions should conform to his directives. The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of biblical ethics.2 Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative: You shall not have another God, take God’s name in vain, worship an image of God, commit adultery, murder, bear false witness, steal, or covet.”3 Positively, you shall keep the Sabbath and honor your parents (Exodus 20:1-18). These commands all address actions to be done or avoided. When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus is not replacing the Ten Commandments, but rather getting to the heart of them. Loving God and neighbor needs the structure of God’s specific commands, lest “love” be reduced to untutored and unhinged sentiment (as it is so often today). For example, it is never loving to commit adultery, to dishonor one’s parents, or to murder. And Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). It cannot be loving to delight in what breaks God’s commands.

The demands and commands of God’s law for our behavior always call us up short and point us to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and new life. In fact, we are commanded to repent and come to Christ. As Paul preached, “God…now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; see also John 6:29).

Since the Bible is so insistent on obeying the commands of God, some Christians have neglected two other elements of ethical theory that are revealed in Scripture. The first is virtue.

Virtue theory dates to the ancient Greeks, principally to Plato and Aristotle. For them, someone cultivates particular character traits by finding a moral model and following his lead in the context of a virtue-forming community. The cardinal virtues of this tradition are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Christian thinkers added the virtues of faith, hope, and love to this list (taken from 1 Corinthians 13). While Christians should obey God’s commands in their actions, we are also called to be a particular kind of people on the inside. Our characters should be so shaped by the Holy Spirit that we obey God gladly and habitually and learn to respond affectively to situations in a God-honoring way. We may know well that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor (deontology), but learning to be content—through prayer and mental discipline—is a matter of virtue. Thus, the virtues assist us to want to obey God’s law and to do so in the right way, with a heart of love and service.

The second element of moral theory besides deontology is consequences or the consequential aspect of morality. Some moral theories, such as utilitarianism, make the achievement of good consequences the entirety of ethics. Utilitarianism teaches that we must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Now the question becomes, “What is the good to be brought about for the masses?” Utilitarians may answer this differently, but the standard model claims that the good is pleasure. God is not against pleasure, since he invented it as good in the beginning, but what fallen humans take pleasure in may not be truly good—for themselves or for anyone else. Think of the pleasure some derive from pornography or the pleasure derived from being a ruthless and heartless businessperson, who will do most anything to make more and more money. 

Christians can agree what we should do as much good to as many people as possible, but we should not attempt this apart from moral duties (deontology) and moral virtues. James tells us that our saving faith is verified by our good works (James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus tells us to serve “the least of these” who are his “brethren” (Matthew 25:31-46). God told the Jewish exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they were banished, because when it prospered, they would prosper, too (Jeremiah 29:7). Only as we our definition of good goes beyond mere pleasure can we bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. We cannot violate the law of love to bring about more pleasure for more people. Moreover, our moral goal is not pleasure per se, but the service of God and neighbor through lawful and virtuous obedience to God. One abolitionist, John Brown, said that American slavery had to be abolished even if all Ten Commandments had to be broken to accomplish it! Of course, no thinking Christian would every believe that. 

Christians can sometimes seek results at the expense of principles and godly character. I was in an evangelistic meeting where the teacher asked for eyes to be closed while he asked people to put up their hands if they wanted to become Christians. I kept my eyes open. Just after he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus as Lord, he said, “I see hands going up everywhere.” They weren’t. I looked. After he lied, other hands went up. Only God knows how many people were born again that evening, but deception is never the proper method for evangelism or disciple making. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young childrenamong you (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). 

Much more can be said about moral theory in relation to the Bible, but I hope I have shown that the categories of deontology, virtue, and consequences are pertinent to moral decision making and moral action for the Christian. Teachers and preachers in the church can help clarify the moral vision of the Bible by explaining these terms and showing how the Bible’s teachings about ethics can be understood in these terms.  


1 For an in-depth treatment, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), chapters 1-3.

2 To defend this claim, see the exposition of the Ten Commandments in The Westminster Longer Catechism.

3 On the significance of this negativity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “The Negativism of the Law,” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973).

Hospitality During the Corona Virus Crisis

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines—Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.

Although I am an introvert who doesn’t fear long hours alone in study and writing, I long to welcome people into my home. After long years of my residence being more of a hospice than a home, it has been recently transformed into a bright and warm place for others—a place for hospitality. That means a place to offer food and drink, a place for studying and a place for intellectual exploration as I show people around my capacious library and offer to loan books. In the last sentence, I kept writing a place. But now, in virus lockdown, this place is only for my wife, myself, and my dog, Sunny. Any hospitality I now offer is crimped by aloneness. Even time outside is hampered by fear of contagion and the ill-named “social distancing.”

Hospitality is the public outgrowth of love. Compassion and caring always moves outward, towards the other in hopes of friendship, fellowship, service, and community. As Pascal said, “Respect means put yourself out.” How much more does love mean “put yourself out”? Hospitality is a Christian virtue and without it, there is little if any spiritual life in the church and witness to the world. The Apostle Peter writes this:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8-9).

So many other texts could be cited, but we need to realize that the imperative to be hospitable is rooted in God’s own hospitality in offering us hospitality through Jesus Christ. The eternal Son took on a human nature and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, making the Father known (John 1).

Hospitality means welcoming or restoring someone into our good graces—or at least offering this. We can extend kindness to others through all the media available to us and perhaps reach into the lives of others we have neglected. We may seek reconciliation with those with whom we are estranged, as Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Since “love covers a multitude of sins,” we should not hold others sins against them. By so doing, we become hospitable and refuse to grumble. Even in our aloneness and retreat, we can ponder and pray about the meaning of hospitality being eager for its return to our homes, schools, places of worship, and our life together.

 

 

Jesus On Publicity and Public Virtue

We live in the great age of endless self-promotion. Anyone can ego-cast through the Internet by projecting images, talking points, endorsements, slogans, memes, pseudo-events, and more. But what is genuine virtue, and how should it be manifested in public? Followers of Jesus must seek out another way that avoids the dangers of image manipulation and various forms of puffing oneself up before the masses.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount charts another path for his followers. After he sees the crowds who are following him, he sits down to kindly teach them what the world would never forget: the beatitudes.

 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
  Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
  Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
  Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
  Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:3-12).

These God-bestowed blessings are countercultural, but they define Christian virtue. I commend to you John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, to elucidate these profound teachings, but suffice to note that the God-blessed life in Christ is one of God-focused gentleness, humility, and good works, even to the point of experiencing blessing in persecution for following the way of blessings. This way of life ensures blessings that move far beyond this present age, extending into the age to come in which the meek will inherit the earth and all who mourn before God will be comforted.

Jesus goes on to teach that this pattern of existence has public implications. Individuals can experience the divine endorsement as they follow Christ in meekness, mourning, peacemaking and more, but these spill over into the marketplace, the highway, the school, on capitol hill, and everywhere.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

Blessed people are salt (seasoning and preserving society) and light (exposing darkness and giving a medium for sight). Their virtue is to be public. This is holy publicity based on public virtue, not worldly publicity based on clever advertising. Virtuous influence is based on godly character and not on worldly celebrity—being “well known for their well knowness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it in The Image (1961).

Paradoxically, not trumpeting your virtue leads to godly influence through the discipline of secrecy. Later in the sermon, Jesus says:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4).

We ought not seek our reward through the attention we receive by doing good works. God knows our hearts and our acts and will respond accordingly, with or without the attention of the world. Our good lives and good deeds come through being people of the beatitudes. There is no need to announce it with trumpets or through the internet or to seek the honor given by others. If we do, we forfeit the way of Jesus and any true effectiveness we might achieved.

God wants the kind of publicity that comes when his people submit to his rule, are filled with his Spirit, and obey his Word. Public virtue comes from private devotion and the discipline of secrecy. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by seeing the crowds who came to him. This perfectly holy man drew many people to himself through nothing but his virtue. We should do the same in his holy power.

Letting others know how you can serve them is apt. Reporting on how God is using your gifts is fine. Selling yourself is neither. Let us follow Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Fire in My Bones

“Without fire, nothing.” I often say this to my students in the context of motivation for ministry. I have felt this fire for over four decades. It has gotten me through many rejections, depressions, and my own foolishness. “Fire in my bones,” comes from the prophet Jeremiah, a man with a rather miserable ministry of declaring God’s judgment. He was “the weeping prophet” and was often in trouble with the rebellious people of Israel. Yet through it all, Jeremiah wrote:

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot (Jeremiah 20:7-9).

The observant reader will note that this prophet was angry with the one who made him a prophet. He would rather do something else, since the cost is so high and painful. But, indeed, he cannot! I have sometimes decided to serve God even when I did not like him very much. He is my Lord, whatever my feelings may be. I’m grateful that I have not felt this way for some time now.

Similarly, when Paul entered Athens, he was upset at their idolatry. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Athens was not at the height of her glory, but was still a center of philosophy and learning. It was the home of Zeno, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as being a center of culture given its architecture, poetry, and more. Yet Paul was more exercised by its idolatry than by its celebrated achievements. As a loyal Jew, he knows that God commanded his people not have no other God besides himself and to not make idols (Exodus 20:4-6; see also Romans 1:18-32; Isaiah 42:8).

But instead of throwing a theological tantrum, Paul channels the first in his bones into courageous and brilliant witness. Luke tells us that because of his “distress,” Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). He went on to give his classic apologetic address at Mars Hill, in which he continues to reason with his well-educated and philosophically-astute audience (Acts 17:22-34).

Many more examples of “fire in the bones” can be culled from Scripture. Instead of doing that, let me say that this divinely-authorized fire is never bombastic, arrogant, or mean-spirited, since that would mean grieving the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:13-26). Rather, the fire is a holy intensity to explain and promote the truth of the living God, come what may. Let me reflect on what this idea has meant in my life and ministry.

The fire is from God, not myself. I ask God to give it to me and to protect me from vainglory and self-promotion. As a writer, teacher, and preacher, I want to make a wide, deep, long and holy mark on the world. That cannot be done through the work of the flesh and the ways of this fallen world. I have long said that we should pray that our influence would never exceed our competence or our calling.

The fire burns even when all else is dark. At the worst times of my journey through my first wife’s dementia, I still yearned to see God’s truth shed abroad in people lives and in the world at large. Yes, the fire dwindled a bit at times, but it could not be put out. What else could I live for? After many defected from Jesus’ ministry, he asked Peter

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).

During many years of hardship and fatigue, I would often intone this verse about myself from Ecclesiastes, “The grasshopper drags himself along” (Ecclesiastes 12:5), which is part of a poetic description of the trials of aging. But the grasshopper still had fire in his exoskeleton. Now, thank God, that is no longer my go-to verse; but the fire remains. I used to sign my letters to a good friend as “The Grasshopper” and he would address me as such. Now that I am experimenting with happiness, I’ve asked him to give up that appellation and I no longer use it myself. (See my essay at Christianity Today, “The Risk of Happiness.”)

The fire is a creative spark for ministry. Paul told the Romans: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). Yes, I teach at a seminary where many other Christians minister. I write for magazine for which many other Christians write. I preach at churches were many other Christians have preached. But I seek to bring Christianity places where it is rare or scares, such as in secular publications, in the secular classroom, and talking to those who may seek quite far from the gospel. Ecclesiastes has encouraged me in this.

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
  Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Sow your seed in the morning. . . .
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well (Ecclesiastes 11:3, 6).

What the text advises for finances, I apply to ministry ventures. I ask if I can speak at a Buddhist university. They ignore me (twice). I submit a creative article to a secular philosophy magazine. They say Yes! And so it goes, the first remaining constant in my ventures, however quixotic they sometimes seem. (See my article, “Casting Your Bread on the Waters” from The Christian Research Journal).

If you have no fire for the things of God, ask him for that fire. Jesus promised:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:7-12).

One way to acquire the fire is to discern and emulate its works in others. Of course, the biblical characters of Jeremiah, Paul, and, of course, Jesus, will warm turn up the heat in our cool bones, but there are many exemplars down through history. I have found that the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) to be exemplary. He had fire in his bones, but also tears in his eyes. It could write in The Great Evangelical Disaster that “truth demands confrontation,” but add “loving confrontation.” I recommend, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez (Crossway, 2008).

Whatever it takes, find the fire—and you will never be the same. Nor will the world be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for Those Suffering from Unrequited Love

God of all comfort,
you know the pain of broken relationships.
Many of your own followers left you
at the time of greatest need.
You know what sin has done to us.
That is why you came to save us,
at such a great cost to yourself on the Cross.

 

Grant comfort to your servant [insert name],
who is smarting from rejection.
Give him patience in his grieve
and wisdom for other relationships,
through your life-giving Spirit
and in Jesus’ holy name.
Amen.

Encounter

Essay written in about 1978 for a college course

at the University of Oregon (Eugene). Unedited from that time.

It was the disturbing spring quarter of my first year in college [1976]. The cavorting of the wild ruffians in my dormitory waned as the stillness of the maturing evening guaranteed a lessening of their activity. Having separated myself from them, I was now quite alone in my room, even though on any other night I would have found myself taking part in the activities of my companions. Having dispensed with my more mundane studies, I sat gazing at my imprisoned fish companion as he swam his circuits of impossible escape. The welcome quietness vaunted me to a high level of contemplation. I reached for the volume that had completed captured my interest through my History of Modern Philosophy class: The Portable Nietzsche. The ripening of my mood demanded that I again embrace the deeply disturbing prose of this infamous philosopher.

Existentialism was a word that I could barely define three months previous, but now it had become the object of my infatuation. Nietzsche was the prophet of its most iconoclastic side, screaming of the death of God (whom we have killed) and exhorting the shipwrecked individual to fly above the sickening weakness of man-qua-man and thus aspire to the realm of the absolutely autonomous Antichrist-like “Overman”. This message was hammered into my psyche in no uncertain terms. In relentless fashion this progenitor and personification of atheistic existentialism was dynamiting the last vestiges of my tottering and vague theistic conception one by one. The impediments of tradition were jettisoned. Overman beckoned.

These warring thoughts had made an unexpected entry. They surreptitiously gained power in my thinking. They were new, alien and incorrigible – sucking everything into their vacuum. My journey into philosophy had occurred quite accidentally during my first quarter when, while groping for classes, I captured a Social Philosophy course that fit neatly into my schedule. Most of my present state of being had its origin in this innocuous event. But as the year progressed I could no longer objectively analyze the schools of thought I encountered; I had to live them. After all, they represented some of the deepest thoughts of men concerning the very meaning of existence. This could not be taken lightly. Philosophy was not written solely to fill college lecture rooms or generate opaque dilettantish arguments.

This deepening of my philosophical investigations (no matter how embryonic they may have been) had also lead me into various religious philosophies, particularly those of the mystic East. But these theologies were savagely swallowed up in the urgency of the moment. I was impassioned with anti-theology.

After consuming a few hours worth of Nietzsche I laid the book down, bowing to fatigue. Yet any physical tiredness was superseded by the uniqueness of my predicament. How had I arrived at this position? This man, seventy years gone, whose name I could scarcely spell or pronounce, had exacerbated every hidden bit of despair in my consciousness, mixing it with a Dionysian excitement that left me in uncharted regions – regions where God no longer mattered. I faced the abyss, unaided by hope in the traditional sense. Providence could no longer afford me any relief. Everything would not just eventually work out. These sorts of optimistic maxims were destroyed because I was being existentialized. I was looking beyond dependence, for I was totally free to myself and from God. I had quickly arrived at an unexpected crossroads. This “philosophy” had transcended its ordinary title. The pompous aloofness that this definition connoted was obliterated. This philosophy had to be lived, not pondered, experienced not analyzed, embraced and not entombed in the graveyard of inaccessible erudition.

But wasn’t this all too ridiculously serious? Wasn’t I but a freshman just scraping the surface of philosophical inquisition? How could I have arrived at such a position? These thoughts did little to allay my anxiety; in fact, no comfort was allowed whatsoever. This was the existential dilemma. The comforting fluctuation of intellectual agnosticism was no longer permitted, for Nietzsche had adroitly dismantled its shallowness.

Epigrams besieged me with pure poignancy rising up from uncharted depths of thought-colliding and cannibalizing each other, yet all the time miserably failing to integrate into a coherent system. I navigated without bearing, craving stability in a metaphysical wasteland. As confusion and frustration oftentimes manufacture the intellectual recline of a recuperative depression, I was progressively aghast at the incessant insurrection of my psyche. I was granted no rest. My respect for social sanction had been shaken over the course of a few years of interest in radical leftist politics, but now a more iconoclastic mental revolution was underway which avalanched and destroyed the very bulwark of my presupposition: Was there any real order in life? Where was the overriding and underlying purpose and meaning? What is really left when God has vanished? My often clichéd-like questions had disappeared and been replaced by ones which evinced a new earnestness and seriousness. This was no game. Truth eluded me, yet I craved it. Where did it hide? Could life ever vouchsafe enough time for me to discover it? Was eternity long enough? I was choked in the straitjacket of human finitude. Would even the most dedicated emulation of “the intellectual” ever assure me of certitude in any area of my life?

I sat motionless at my desk, prideful of my understanding of such a difficulty philosopher, yet quivering at the consequences of my understanding. I reread the title of the book: The Portable Nietzsche. How fond I was of toting it around with me, letting the unenlightened know my status! This dreadfully misunderstood philosopher, whose core of atheism most people refused to take seriously, had become part of my identity. Yes, I had understood what I had read and it refused to give me rest.

Yet rest is a necessity for a productive college life so, after jotting down a few painfully brief notes in my journal concerning my turbulence, I waited for sleep to remove me from this predicament. It did not comply to my wished; my subconscious was not so easily placated.

After the darkness of the room and my mental and physical fatigue had given me sleep, a strange dream began-one that would continue where my waking thoughts had ended. My feelings of complete solitude were deepened as the scene of my dream was my very room. Surprisingly, my late night ruminations were not directly manifested in the dream, but the subtlety of its content was striking. The extreme lifelike quality of this chimera added intensity to an otherwise commonplace scene. Reacting to a small tapping sound I left my bed and stood before my lone third story window. What greeted me was, by itself, not a particularly gruesome or frightening sight, but its location accentuated the bizarreness of its appearance. My stare had been reciprocated.

A nondescript face shrouded in darkness appeared in the window. But I lived on the third floor. How and, more importantly, why would anyone climb to this absurd position? Or did they have to climb? My questions ended as I awoke from my abbreviated encounter. The terror of discovering this incongruent face was limited to a short few seconds in “dream time” but the underlying bizarre and haunting presence that the face represented was to remain.

I stared at the ceiling. The murky shadings of my box-like room enfolded me in a blanket of terrorizing solitude. I had rejected that presence that secretly sought me. I was completely alone. My conscience, even in its tremulous condition, held back tears – besides, they were useless. That hideous new conscience also halted prayer, for I was commencing the execution of God. In this state self-pity was unattainable. I hated God as a nebulous word, a by-product of weak generalizations, but I dreaded his concreteness, for if he existed he knew all – even this special agony: the agony of an existential autonomy that was rejecting him.

At this frozen moment time succumbed to ego and perished in thought. All existence ceased but my own. This anguished, fragmented self was infinitely separated from all. It despised its own company but had no other. It loved its despair; it clung to it with desperation. The brute reality of this situation could not be avoided. It was zero hour.

Shivering out of bed I hit a light. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, I began the impossible task of recording these maddening thoughts. The pen, squeezed by clutching fingers, began its jagged flight over the blankness of white. Fearing the dissipation of this bothersome brain-work I wrote with frenzied determination. The blankness of a few pages was conquered, the blankness of my soul was not. No degree of descriptive elegance could manifest the ineffable. The visceral danced with the cerebral in a desultory dirge. Heightened emotions which had gone unvented tore me asunder. Could this ever be explained – should it? Would I ever want to promote such horror in another? The danger of sleep now equaled the confrontation of wakefulness and my bed was as much of an enemy as my writing pad.

Emptiness. The avenues were blocked. Things had become existentialized to the supreme degree. I was my only real audience – and my only motivation. But I remembered that man hidden in a book I had tried to forget. Shelved in a dark corner of my room was a work by Kierkegaard. I had previously ridiculed him in a philosophy essay with gleeful abandon. He was in the other camp, like the face in the window. Though an existentialist, like Nietzsche, he had nothing more central to his philosophy than the belief in, and the encounter with, God. My scorn for him went beyond a personal animosity over a philosophical position; it went to the core of his message. My antithetical attitude toward him was more a protection from his disturbing thoughts than a judicious analysis of them.

A slim volume was now in my hands, one from which I had previously fled. Its title, alienating to most at first blush, characterized my condition: The Sickness Unto Death. I leafed through to a random page and began reading. My reading was of a queer nature. It was not the vicarious enjoyment received through the admiration of the author’s style and/or message. After reading a few sentences I knew at the roots of my being that I must not sink into that merely aesthetic trap. This was not the breed of book that could be read for aesthetic gratification. Nor could it be read simply to add another title to a list of books read which supplies the dilettante with another piece of pseudo-intellectual baggage. I could not so maliciously insult the author by adopting any of these positions. Instead, I listened to the sermon, a sermon unlike any that I had experienced. The moral prodding did not come from the sententious admonishments of a dogmatic moralist, but form the profound observations of a perceptive and honest man. The pages became mirrors luminously reflecting and magnifying the exactness of my precarious posture.

The book spoke of a despair so acute, so piercing, that the God-rejecting individual internalized his despair by putting it onto the singularness of his being. He cherishes his despair because it is his and his alone. His pride drives him to unheard of heights of suffering. In this state, even if God in heaven would make himself directly known, offering to banish the suffering, the individual would reject him, opting instead to cultivate his odious despair. A reversal had occurred, the book was reading me, picking me apart with scrupulous exactitude.

I was laid bare – dissected and amazed. Was this newly discovered vital message a disclosure of Providence or a mere chance occurrence activated by my self-made freedom in a random universe? Legions of interpretations besieged me. I could not escape them, but I could escape the box that enclosed me.

It was early morning now. A time of roaring silence for me. Stark aloneness followed me out my door, down the three flights of gray stairs and on into the street. The hint of a new day loomed. I walked without direction as a physical automation possessing a mental maelstrom. Was I free to respond to this call to decision? What could I do with this awesome moral prodding? Yet I continued to love my autonomous despair with nauseating stamina. I had discovered the unthinkable: God was dead. Or was he? What was causing this crisis? Why was I thinking what I was thinking? No one could answer my query, no one except myself, or… God.

An occasional jogger broke the dawn’s quietude. The melodious tones of freshly awakened birds filled my path but failed to provide even an ounce of inner harmony. My gait was hulking but constant. The gravity of my thought had seemed to increase the gravity on my body. I carried too much to bear.

Chalkboards were filled and erased in my mind. A regiment of seminal thinkers fought to gain my attention. Their ideas, which had only recently gained my attention through the classroom, cartwheeled in my head. Karl Marx frowned and jabbed me, reducing the sum total of my experience to economic factors. My thoughts of God were nothing but a bourgeois illusion to him. Sigmund Freud appeared and spoke of my overactive superego. He labeled my thoughts about God as neurotic. Nietzsche doomed me to atheistic freedom. He instructed me to rebuke the God I could not destroy… And there was that melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. There was an infinite chasm between he and the others. He urged me to seek God with all of my heart and to stand naked and pleading before the creator, free from excuse. He was a Christian.

It was now nearing sunrise.

After an indeterminate period of time I discovered myself at the highest point on campus: the top of a hill next to the Student Union Building. I awaited the sunrise with passionate expectation. Feeling unalterably drained I desired renewal. Sunrises had always reminded of the beauty and intensity of the cosmic drama: the drama of creation and of its helmsman. I was dwarfed by the spectacle. Awe and mystery colored my perceptions as a tiny bit of red grew into a radiant orb of transformation. The final instant of night gave way to the newness of day. Tingling with a vague feeling of reverence, I signed deeply. My quest had not ended. Resolution had net yet appeared because the agony remained, but something had been beheld in a new and stunning way, something that I could never deny or rationalize into oblivion. My moral existence was not to gather any more strength from the defiance or denial of the divine.

Testimony

At some point in a life deeply lived, one cannot go back. The tracks are laid and now set in concrete that cannot be broken or laid once again. To rethink it all would be a betrayal, and a betrayal of this sort is unthinkable. One simply is what one is—and more so than before, since the weight of the past increases daily on the present.

Innovation is not excluded or anathema, but it can only occur within the framework of the given. Nothing else can be taken, but the given. Repentance is required, but has its limits, given the weight of one’s past. Still, Christ is the supernatural Lord.

One’s unique life must press itself on itself and on others—or the life is not gaining gravity and force. One wants to be “a force for good in the world” (Coltrane), and one cannot relive the past and make a new self.

This is not fatalism; it is providence, the sculpting of the self and presented to one’s world—before the face of God.

Jesus for the Nominal Christian

Nominal means “in name only.” Some politicians, rightly or wrongly, are called RINOs: Republicans in name only. That is, they are not true Republicans. If there is a true and normative Christianity, then not everyone who says she is a Christian may be a Christian. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” knows the living God.

We name ourselves many things, rightly or wrongly—a friend, a father figure, a good citizen, and a Christian. Before discussing what a true Christian is, let us consider some nominal versions.

A nominal Christian does not self-identify as anything other than a Christian. She is not an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else.

She may consider herself a Christian because she believes in God. Perhaps she thinks Jesus was a master teacher, and she wants to love people. She prays, she was raised as a Christian, and she has spiritual experiences. She even becomes involved in religious events occasionally, such as church attendance or Christian concerts.

A genuine Christian will believe in God, esteem Jesus as a master teacher, want to love people; she will pray, have spiritual experiences, be involved in religious events, and more. However, she will not rest on how she was raised to define his identity. She might have been raised in an aberrant form of Christianity or no longer believe the true Christianity in which she was raised. She will certainly not deem herself a pretty good person, whose works are pleasing enough to God to merit heaven, since no one can be saved by the works of the law.

Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, called his followers to repent of their selfish sinful ways and turn to him as Lord. This was no small thing, no mere addition to life, no mere religious preference. Jesus’s first disciples rightly called him Lord and Master. Jesus cannot be domesticated. He issued radical statements. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. His disciples worshipped him. A nominal Christian merely compliments or salutes Jesus.

Rather than worrying about how to get on in life (with a dab of religion here and there), Jesus told us to seek first his Kingdom of love and service to our neighbor. We are to love our enemies and be eager to help the least, the last, and the lost—just as Jesus was.

Jesus summons us to deny ourselves and die to sin because he died for us on the cross. On that cross, he said, “Father forgive them.” Jesus’ true followers cast themselves on God’s mercy by having faith in what he has done for them through his death and his resurrection from the dead. They do not trust in their own goodness to earn salvation or lean on their own strength to do good works.

If we name the name of Christ as the Jesus and Bible intend, we will be born again and become a new creation, eager to do what is good and to worship God with his church in spirit and in truth.

 

Dave Barry, Dogs, and Holy Week

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! —Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16

Dave Barry is a funny writer who has made me laugh for years.

I seldom laugh out loud when I read, but I did so many times when reading Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Rock Songs. I love dogs. So when Dave Barry writes a book about dogs, Lessons from Lucie, I want to read it. When Dave Barry gives an author event in Denver, I want to see him.

Kathleen and I drove to the historic Trinity United Method Church (built in 1888) in downtown Denver for the event. We both received copies of Dave’s new book, which came with the ticket price. She read portions of the book to me as we waited for Dave to appear. We both laughed. We were impressed by the old and large sanctuary and its gigantic pipe organ, which is still in use. Thank God for that.

I predicted Dave would make a comment about it being strange that he was in a church for the event. He did, saying it made him a bit nervous. Why would that be? Maybe he was thinking that a holy place was no place for hilarity (not true) or perhaps he has bad memories of a church. Dave then spoke of several life lessons he has learned from his old mutt, Lucie, such as its good to make friends and to let go of anger. Kathy told me she was so happy that I got the tickets for us. Me, too. But that is really not why I am writing this essay.

Before Dave Barry took the stage, the pastor of the church came to introduce himself and welcome us. Before he said anything, I wondered how he would make the most of this time to address this audience of about three hundred people, who were in church, but not for a regular service of worship. I thought of what I would say. It was not what he said.

After introducing himself, he said that having Dave Barry was a great way to begin Holy Week. Why, I thought? He did not say. He could have said that laughter is a gift from God or mentioned a cause of laughter in the Bible. He didn’t. Then, like a good pastor, he invited people to the Easter service, but said nothing about the resurrection. He only made a lame joke—a case of bad humor. He also invited us to the Good Friday service, which would feature Mozart’s Requiem. I heard some sounds of delight and expectation from the crowd. But nothing was said of Christ’s death on the cross. That is the meaning of Good Friday. That was the occasion for Mozart’s work.

While the pastor skipped over the significance of Good Friday and Easter, he did make clear his church’s stance on LGBTQI issues. He asked if people had heard about the controversy in the United Methodist Church. I raised my hand along with many others. I knew what would come next. The denomination of which he is a pastor recently ruled to affirm traditional standards in sexual conduct and marriage. This pastor assured us that his church, on the contrary, opened its doors to everyone. That meant more than letting LGBTQI folks in the door. Every church does that. He meant not taking a stand for traditional morality. I did not applaud, as did most of the others there. Then, finally (after about three long minutes), Dave Barry appeared.

As much as I enjoyed the evening of Barry’s humor, I could not shake the Pastor’s comments. What an opportunity to invite people to his church and to say something about the incomparable good news of the Gospel! It would not have to be a sermon. In just a few minutes, he could have said something like this:

Welcome to our historic church, built in 1888. We are happy to host Dave Barry tonight. God knows how to laugh and Dave helps us laugh with him. I’m not here to preach a sermon, but we warmly invite you to remember Christ’s death for us this Friday at our Good Friday service, which features Mozart’s Requiem. On Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead. You will hear that wonderful organ behind me. Now, let’s welcome Dave Barry.

How long would that have taken? How difficult would it be to at least mention the whole point of Good Friday and Easter? But to this pastor, stating his unbiblical view of sexuality was more important than speaking of the founding and constitutive events of Christianity. But that moment has passed. Dave Barry was funny, but said nothing about the Gospel. Who would expect him to do that? He was not there for that, but if he was a Christian he might have said something. The pastor said nothing. He only tried to make people laugh, come to church, and proclaim his views on gender. I can only wonder if the church services themselves would be true to the events of Good Friday and Easter. At least Mozart on Friday would be good.

This eats at me. May I never miss an opportunity to confess the faith given once for all to the God’s people, never miss an opportunity to insinuate biblical truth in unlikely settings, and never miss a chance to witness to the only truth that can set anyone free for eternity.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!—Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16.