Who we Lost and What they Gave

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. -Psalm 115:16, KJV

As one year turns into another, much is made of those we have lost. Death has no victory for those who entrusted their lives to Jesus. Because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul can taunt death itself by writing, “Death where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?” We do not grieve our losses in the same way as those who have no true hope.

Still, we grieve, and we reflect. Two people died this year who gave me immeasurable assistance as a writer: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Let me eulogize both with a literary focus.

James Sire was editor of InterVarsity Press for many years. He was instrumental in getting the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness into print. No writers in recent memory have influenced me more than these two. They gave me knowledge and courage to defend and apply Christianity in the world of ideas, culture, and politics. I am grateful to Dr. Sire for this. He was not only an editor. His own books, particularly, The Universe Next Door profoundly shaped thousands of readers. Through five editions, it addressed the ins and outs of the Christian worldview compared with other worldviews such as deism, atheism, and existentialism.

Dr. Sire read a book proposal from a young campus minister in 1983, who proposed a book critiquing the rise of Eastern religion and the occult in American culture. That young man had few credentials beyond a philosophy degree, a few years of campus ministry experience, a smattering of graduate classes in theology, and a few book reviews. But the well-seasoned editor sensed a need for such a book and took a chance by offering Douglas Groothuis a contract. My book was originally entitled, The One for All: The Convergence of Pantheism in the West. This rather pedantic title was wisely changed to Unmasking the New Age (1986), although that phrase was never used in the book. It was my first and my best-selling book. It is still in print.

Jim and I interacted on book projects over the years. He would comment on my manuscripts and I would comment on his. We appear in each other’s footnotes often. The few times I was with him face-to-face were delightful.

When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.

Becky, or Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (her author name), came to write two superb works on gender roles and relations in the church: Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994) and Good News for Women (Baker, 1997. She co-edited a major academic volume called Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She also contributed several chapters to my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995). We co-wrote a number of essays as well. She wrote many popular and academic articles, mostly on biblical egalitarianism. Arguably, she was the leading thinker on biblical egalitarianism in her prime.

Becky edited all my books up through my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), which was my tenth. She had an uncanny ability to get the heart of things; she clarified and beautified my writing. If anything was unclear to her, she would put the dreaded question mark in the margin. She also corrected not a few errors, bad judgments, and verbosity. There will never be another editor like her for me. My last two books have been written without her. My last book was about losing her: Walking through Twilight (InterVarsity Press, 2017). I read part of Philosophy in Seven Sentences to her shortly after it came out in 2016. After reading a passage I thought was clever, she looked at me with an expression I learned to recognize without any attending words. “It’s too cutesy, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” she moaned. Her editor’s sense was there, but her words were not. I take some of her editorial sensibilities with me as I write and rewrite. “What would Becky think?” But it is not the same.

In 2018, we lost two superb editors and writers: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. I lost a friend and I lost a wife whose contributions to my writing were inestimable. Therefore, I give thanks and I grieve. And I will continue to write, God helping me.

 

 

 

Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Death and the Fall

Nothing screams, “This world is fallen,”louder than death. We were not created to die, but to live with God and each other in natural harmony and to develop creation in God’s will.

We were not made to have our souls leave our bodies. But that happens at death. The run up to this departure is seldom peaceful. It is not natural. The body wants to live. It was created to live. But it must die. It may die piece by piece, ability by ability, word by word. Those who die slowly must take a long and unbidden passage into darkness.

The body wants to live. It was created to live. But it must die.

In dying slowly, not all parts or functions of the body fade or fail at once. The eyes may see, but the brain does not know what is seen. The legs may be strong, but there is no sense of balance and no where to go, since agency is gone. The mouth can chew, but there is no coordination to bring the spoon to the mouth. The vocal chords are in working order, but the brain cannot make them speak or sing. No, death is not like turning off a machine.

My wife will receive a rich welcome when her soul leaves her body. But the process of leaving that body behind–after years of glacial decline–is torture. One second with Jesus Christ will dwarf all her pain and fulfill all of her longings. When she is gone, I can think of this beatitude and thank God for it. But I cannot experience it with her. Only her lifeless body will be left in a dying world; it must be prepared for burial by people we do not even know, whose services I have already paid for.