Reflection and Growing in Joyful Humility

John Webster once wrote, “Memory is the urgent business of setting before our eyes God’s great act of delivering us from death and giving us a share in his life, (Webster, Meditations of a Theologian, 152).

Christians should be people who have short memories toward those who have wronged us, but long memories toward the depths of our own personal sin. Without remembering the depths of our sin, we will fail to appreciate the heights of God’s grace.

Reflection is a necessary discipline to a healthy Christian life because it reminds us that God has condescended to us in the midst of our sin as a demonstration of His love.

In the Incarnation, Christ comes before humanity in visible form partly to deepen our fellowship with God and with one another. John writes, “[W]hat we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3 NAS).

We know that God takes our sins and casts them as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12), but this should not imply that we should so easily dismiss our sins.

Paul often recounted in his testimony the nature that he possessed before he was transformed by the gospel. Yet he assures us that we who have believed stand under condemnation no longer (Rom 8:1).

Though we are grateful that the Cross of our Lord has removed the curse of sin from us, we should not think that we should fail to reflect upon the sins from which God has saved us.

If we fail to remember the depth of our sin, we will certainly fail to appreciate the height of God’s grace toward us.

There is a difference between those whose reflection upon sin would bring despair and those whose reflection upon sin ends in delight.

For the former, reflection never moves beyond human depravity. Those who reflect upon their sin to the point of despair are caught in a reflection that is anthropocentric. Even though this reflection recognizes human sin for what it is, it fails to recognize God’s grace in Christ.

For the latter, one quickly moves from despair to delight. Delight, not because of our sin, but because of God’s grace. There is a genuine sorrow over sin, but this sorrow leads to rejoicing; rejoicing because–moving beyond sin–it recognizes that God’s grace has overwhelmed man’s sin.

In other words, if we reflect upon sin apart from God’s grace, we are led to despair, forgetting the true hope for our sinful state.

On the other hand, if we are too quick to forget our sinfulness in order to focus upon God’s “forgetfulness,” we will lose the reason that we stand in need of grace at all.

For Christians, it is wise that we return regularly to the depths of our sinfulness through reflection, but we dare not stay there. Through moving from reflection upon sin to reflection upon God’s grace toward us in Jesus Christ, we will grow in holiness as God’s measure of grace continually overcomes the depths of our sin.

The result will be a more humble yet joyful Christianity. Who of us would not welcome that?

“A Spontaneous Lament”

The following is taken from Kelly M. Kapic, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 34-35. It is a spontaneous lament written by a friend of Kapic’s reflecting on the various struggles of life. It is a fictitious conversation with God regarding suffering.

 

Why did my daughter’s husband break her heart?
I know, little child
Won’t you tell me Father?
I won’t, my son

Why does my wife have to live in pain?
I know, little child
Won’t you tell me, Father? It would be easier
It wouldn’t, my son

Who do parents bury their children? It isn’t right
It isn’t, little child
Then get rid of death, Father
I am, my son

Why are people abused, persecuted and killed? Can’t you protect them?
I can, little child
Then do something
I did, my son

Why do my parents need to finish their lives in unrelenting misery? How is that merciful?
It is, little child
Then I don’t understand mercy
You don’t, my son

But it all hurts so much sometimes
I know it does, little child
How do you know Father?
I have felt all the pain of sin, my son

Can’t you make it all stop?
I can, little child
Then do it, Father
I started 2000 years ago and will finish soon, by son

I believe you, Father, help my unbelief
I love you, my son.

Though I am less than one-third of the way into the work, I am delighted with it to this point. I would particularly recommend this work to pastors who are looking for a way to minister faithfully to church members who are suffering.

Thus far, Kapic has taken into account the theological and pastoral dimensions of leading people through suffering in a compelling way. In short, Kapic has not tried to explain God in an abstract, aloof way, but has tried to provide an existential comfort during one’s moment of need by pointing to God’s identification with those who suffer and His eschatological hope through Jesus Christ.

When Angels Laugh

One of the joys of researching the life of a famed theologian is that, after spending much time interacting with their work, you begin to notice characteristics of their personality. Those close associates and students who have written about the life and work of Karl Barth have indicated that one of the greatest characteristics of Barth was his self-deprecating humility. This personality trait often led to Barth expressing himself through humor. However, we should not see humor as purposeless. Barth’s humor was used to convey deep theological truths, even while providing a chuckle for his readers. For example, Barth, writing of his own legacy, delineates: 

The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” — and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the Angels laugh. (Karl Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 14). 

We may not (and should not) fully embrace Karl Barth’s theology. But may we learn to have a little self-deprecating humor as we seek to speak of the One who is higher than us. 

Monday Morning Reflections: Blessed are the Mourners

Currently I am preaching through the Sermon on the Mount in a series I have titled “Authentic: Living the Genuine Christian Life in a Disingenuous World.” I have preached through the Sermon on the Mount before, but this times seems different. Perhaps it is the rapidly changing world stage or the more subtle undercurrent of a yet-to-be fully realized societal change. Either way, every discerning Christian must admit that there is a transformation within the immediate environment that is going to test our strength (or weakness, as it may be).

Yesterday, in the third message of the series, we examined the second beatitude, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” After explaining how mourning is an experience that is directly correlated to the character of God, I sought to explain how Christian mourning is inherently different from non-Christian mourning. To put it simply, non-Christian mourning leads to despair while Christian mourning leads to action. I then proceeded to explain that Christian mourning manifests itself through four proper responses.

First, the Christian responds to mourning through intercession. This is the result of mourning over a fallen world that has normalized abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and addiction. The Christian who mourns does not let the attempted justification for these atrocities to lead them to despair; rather, they are driven to intercede through prayer and witness.

Second, the Christian responds to mourning through leadership. One of the realities that can prompt mourning in the heart of a dedicated Christian is the lack of seriousness that many professing Christians seem to invest in pursuing what they claim is the Ultimate Reality, namely, the Lord Christ. When exposed to a disingenuous church culture, the Christian may be tempted to despair over the state of many of the churches. However, true Christian mourning does not respond with despair — lest it contribute to the problem it laments.

Rather, Christians who mourn over the state of churches and Christians today are compelled to a demonstration of true Christian leadership. The devoted follower of Christ hears the continual echo of the voice of Joshua: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you shall serve. As for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.” The Christian who mourns fears being in Laodicea more than he fears being on Patmos.

Third, the Christian who experiences true, biblical mourning responds through confession. The earnest believer recognizes that he is not the solution, but he is part of the problem. He wrestles with personal sin that inhibits his ability to serve to God in a meaningful way apart from the fullness of God’s grace toward him. In other words, every witness is a hypocrite. The Christian who dares to do anything in the name of Christ cannot escape the eerie compulsion of the Holy Spirit leading him to confess, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, he finds himself far more in need of Psalm 51 than he readily admits. Therefore, rather than puff himself up with self-righteousness, he confesses his inadequacies.

Finally, the Christian who mourns does so because he recognizes that there is a separation from God that manifests itself through an internal longing for the restoration of all things. Though he finds joy through watching children grow, a marriage develop, or a career blossom, there is an overriding reality that beckons him to remember that this world is not his home. He suffers from a perpetual plague of being homesick.

In a sense, the Christian who understands the second beatitude can be spotted as the one who has a simultaneous tear in his eye and smile on his face. In Christian mourning, sorrow and joy collide. He is sorrowful because he is not immune from tragedy. He is joyful because he knows the fullness of comfort is yet to come. So, let us mourn with hope. Our Comfort will come.

Chrysostom on Pulpit Presence

John confronting the empress Aelia Eudoxia for her lavish lifestyle.
John confronting the empress Aelia Eudoxia for her lavish lifestyle.

“A preacher then should have loftiness of mind, far exceeding my own littleness of spirit, that he may correct this disorderly and unprofitable pleasure on the part of the multitude, and be able to lead them over to a more useful way of hearing, that his people may follow and yield to him, and the he may not be led away by their own humors, and this it is not possible to arrive at, except by two means: indifference to their praise, and the power of preaching well.”

John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood V.1.

Barth on the New Year: Christ has overcome the world

karl_barth Confidence in its cause and continuance and future and triumph depends absolutely upon the fact that it is always confidence in Him; that renouncing all other helpers it keeps only to Him who is not only a Helper but already the Conqueror, the Victor, the death of death, and who as such is not apart from but with His saints. For the community everything depends upon its readiness not to try to be anything more or better or surer than His people, His body, and to live and grow as such on earth. In every deviation from confidence in Him, it can only be deceived as to its preservation, and know that it is doomed and lost. There is no objective need, or even possibility, of concern and anxiety or despair concerning its preservation. This can arise only where there is deviation; when search is made for other helpers; when there is desertion of the Victor by whom the community — even though it may be threatened on all sides, even though it may be under assault or the cross, even though it may be secularised or sacralised — is objectively victorious, and thus able at all times to throw off every fear. There is objective need to rejoice in its actual preservation. As the community does this, it is in a position to take up its human responsibilities with new thankfulness, seriousness and soberness, not folding its hands, but when it has prayed, and continuing to do so, going boldly to work as if it were not threatened by dangers. Fluctuat nec mergitur. The One who is attested and attests to Himself in the Bible will never have any other message for His threatened community than that it should be confident, not because it has no reason for anxiety as it exists in the world, but because of the counter-reason which radically removes this reason — that He has overcome the world. [Taken from Church Dogmatics: Index, 303-04, “New Year’s Day”].