Behavior Modification

One of the hardest aspects of pastoring is riding with the Lord’s people (including ourselves) through our tumultuous struggle toward spiritual maturity. Any experienced minister knows the frustration of seeking to direct a disciple or a group toward loyalty to the Lord, only to watch helplessly as they flame out and crash. I think this is why so many of us subtly (or not) shift the foundation of our preaching from who Christ is and what he did, to who we are and what we must do. We change our emphasis from the gospel to character development out of frustration with the “slow growth” we seem to see. To do this we apply “less grace” in an attempt to elicit more obvious compliance. But bare compliance is not discipleship. Pastoral work degenerates into behavior modification. This is a huge mistake. Grace is what actually transforms character in a real Christian. And the real Christians are, after all, the ones the Lord charged us to nourish (Jn.21:15-18; Acts 20:28). Forcing goats to obey rules does not turn them into sheep. This is not to say that pastors should never be direct and forthright to the Lord’s people on moral issues. But the pastor’s theology must be clear on how spiritual formation actually takes place.

The fact is that simple character development (learning how to act better) is not necessarily the same thing as Christian Spiritual transformation. Oddly, it may be the opposite of growth of faith in Christ, the very antithesis of Spiritual development. It may be growth of faith in the Self animated by religious zeal and personal discipline. This is Pharisaism. The key element in this sort of change is human rather than divine, sourced in our effort rather than God’s lordship and grace. But the transformative dynamic in the kingdom of God is grace, supplied and applied by God in Christ through the Spirit—not the un-aided natural energy and will of the practitioner. (Phil.2:12-13; 1 Cor.15:10)

Saul of Tarsus was an outstandingly good man before Christ converted him on the Damascus Road. Many a pastor would love to have had a guy like this on our staff or board. It’s hard to imagine a more passionate, upright, moral, theologically straight (biblical?) “spiritual leader” than Saul. He was by his own admission growing past his contemporaries in religious zeal, traditional achievement, and theological enthusiasm (Gal.1:14). Yet, when Christ converted him his life took on an entirely new sort of goodness (Phil.3:2-11). He did not lose any of his moral integrity, but he changed dramatically in ways that sheer moral rectitude cannot produce. The source of his goodness (righteousness) shifted from his own strength to the grace of Christ. The upshot was that he became kind and loving.

Christian (Spiritual) transformation is a change that God the Spirit produces from the inside out by bringing about radical and repentant faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. He transforms people not through simple self-discipline, but through a change of relationship with God by grace. The moral characteristics of integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and so forth may be quite evident. But the formation of the spirit of the disciple will be because they actually believe they are sinners that are forgiven by the Lord of the universe, to whom they have given their lives and loyalty. Christian Spiritual Formation has a root system in Christ’s personal grace, radical forgiveness conferred upon a true sinner. It grows out of relief, not threat. Reconciliation and regeneration have been achieved, but not by us (2 Cor.5:11-21; Eph.2:1-10; Col.1:21-23).

So, how can we pastors help our flocks grow in grace and faith in Christ rather than just succumbing to behavior modification? Two suggestions: First we can be careful to preach the miracle of who Christ is and not morality alone as our primary message. Bryan Chapell, for many years the president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, warns against what he calls the “Deadly Be’s”: By this he means sermons that are aimed at moral transformation by telling people to “be like” this Bible character, “be good” according to this passage, or “be disciplined” so that blessing will come to you. Without meaning to, these messages all put the emphasis primarily on human behavior, sometimes completely ignoring the actual gospel—that Christ’s righteousness (not ours) is the basis of our relationship with the Father. Our sermons must begin and end with Christ, inserting the true biblical mandates for our life of faith between the lines of grace that the Lord has laid down.

Second, we can remember that a very common way to experience spiritual growth in grace (perhaps the most common way) is through brokenness and failure followed by healing and forgiveness. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle by utterly failing and being restored. Peter had a similar experience (Jn.21). True Christians usually “fail forward” so to speak. Reach always exceeds grasp in the spirit-filled life. Most believers live with a painful consciousness of their own unworthiness (Rom.7). Our joyful job as proclaimers of the gospel is to apply the truth of radical grace like antibiotic to the wounds of life in this age. A Christian’s peace of mind is not due to denial or the perception that they have become perfect, but rather to the deep conviction that they are always forgiven, reconciled, loved, declared righteous and embraced by God Himself in Christ, even when the Lord disciplines them (Heb.12).

We pastors have our work cut out for us and it is the most important work on earth. The Lord uses the gospel to save people (Rom.1:16-17), but He continues to use the gospel, from our pulpits, as the nourishment for continued growth in grace.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Be All There

Church growth is a big deal for pastors. We sometimes pretend it isn’t so, but inside most of us want our churches to flourish numerically and are worried when they do not. Partly this is for our own validation of course. We, like almost every other person in the western world, want others to see us as valid and successful in some way. But much of our angst is also for the kingdom of God. We want people to come to Christ and grow in Christ. The motives are mixed and we must admit that up front. Part of the way the Spirit sifts our motives and helps us mature personally is by adjusting the size of the church, even from week to week. It makes us check our priorities and bring our thoughts back to him.

I received a simple and practical piece of advice from an older pastor that has helped me tons through the years. He told me that on Sunday he would only think about, pray for, and teach to the people that are there, not the ones who aren’t. I once overheard a member comment during a slim summer service (lots of folks were on vacation), “Hey, where is everybody?” It stunned me and tempted me to obsess on the empty rows instead of praying for the full ones. That fellow was focusing on the church instead of the Lord and I needed to avoid slipping into the same Slough of Despond. We should trust the providence of God, the work of the Spirit that brings precisely those on this morning that He wants here. It’s an exercise of faith for us as pastors! But isn’t that what we’re telling our folks, to trust the Lord? The habit of focusing on the people I am with at the time, of being “all there” when I’m in ministry situations, has strengthened and stretched me much over 35 years of pastoral work.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

 

A Good Elders’ Meeting

All churches have boards that in some way work with the lead or senior pastor. Different churches use different titles in their constitutions, calling these leaders elders or trustees or whatever. They also have different official ways in which authority flows between the board and the pastors in the church. Frankly, it’s pretty well known that not all board meetings are pleasant or useful. Many are contentious or unproductive or both. Things can get pretty unspiritual the moment after we’ve “opened in prayer.” I read years ago about a church in which the deacons’ meeting got so heated that one of them pulled a gun and shot another board member, wounding him gravely! The guy didn’t die, but one would hope that the results of a Christian board meeting might have a higher standard of success than simply that nobody got killed. Fortunately, this was an isolated and rare incident (I hope).

So, assuming that your leaders are mature Christians (1 Tim.3; Titus 1) who actually want to do the right thing in discerning the Spirit’s guidance for the church, what are some practical pointers on a good meeting? I’ll offer just four of the many things I have learned in 34 years. We do have a unified, loving and very effective elder board in my opinion. But it’s not because I figured it all out as the senior pastor. It’s because through the years the Lord has brought mature guys who often added large pieces of wisdom to our way of doing things so that now we have a pretty smooth-running and Christ-centered model.

First, prioritize specific and personalized prayer over everything else in your meetings. Prayer meetings degenerate quickly into planning sessions and in doing so leave the Spirit out of most of their thinking. Take a long time of prayer at the beginning (not the end) of each elder meeting. Use a list of all the various ministries in the church, the missions, the departments, the key personnel. Work your way around the room until every ministry has been prayed for by the name of the director. We take at least 45 minutes, sometimes an hour or more, to pray for the church this way. Then and only then begin to look at the decisions and reports that will require board input or decisions.

Second, don’t let board meetings become staff meetings. Distinguish between what the board does and what the pastoral staff does. The staff implements the theological vision adopted by the board. When board members try to micro-manage staffing decisions it gets weird. The board should do large-scale and directional decisions, shaping a budget, discerning new overall ministry outreaches and directions, making sure that the church is “on mission.” If there are other pastors on the board than the senior pastor, these brothers need to know which hat they’re wearing when they come into the meeting. We have on many occasions had to redirect discussions back to policy and philosophy issues. It’s very helpful if the entire board knows that this is a point of organizational clarity. And it is increasingly important as a church grows numerically.

Third, use a real written agenda and stay on task with it. It’s amazing how many church meetings don’t use a serious agenda, so they have no way to know if they’re making progress. It helps to elect a moderator to keep the meeting on track, too. It’s his job to go through the agenda point by point until everything has been covered. We used to have an “open forum” time when anybody could bring up anything at the end of the meeting, but it was not helpful. Discussions arose with no actual shape, no real proposals, no research and no homework. We don’t do that anymore. If an elder wants to get something on the next agenda, he talks to the senior or executive pastor (who writes the agenda) and it gets added if there’s room. Many of these concerns are handled at the staff level before they even come to the board. It has streamlined our meetings wonderfully.

Fourth, be more patient than you think you need to be. Create enough emotional and temporal space to hear from each elder about any and all serious issues on the agenda. Here the lead pastor often needs to bite his lip, frankly. We pastors are accustomed to making intuitive spiritual discernments quickly in our daily work. That’s a good thing. If we were really unsure of spiritual things we shouldn’t be pastors in the first place. But a board meeting is a place to seek communal discernment from the Spirit. That means we need to take time for all the hearts to understand and bear witness to any new proposal. If a member is impatient (especially the senior pastor) he rushes the decisions. There is a saying, “Decide in haste and repent at leisure.” Take the time to get consensus. There must be no manipulation, just clear proposals that are presented well and defended practically, followed by enough discussion to reach true communal discernment. If members feel pressured into a decision they don’t have spiritual peace about, it comes back to bite the board later if anything goes wrong with the implementation.

There’s more to good leadership meetings than what we see here, of course, as any experienced pastor will attest. But we have found these four practical points foundational in creating an atmosphere of unity and spiritual decisiveness.

Just a Thought

Pastor Rick

Crisis Intervention

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’

“Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” Acts 4:23-31 NIV

 

Acts 4 records a major crisis breaking over the fledgling Christian church. Peter and John had healed a man at the temple, then Peter had told the crowd about the Lord Jesus. He explained pointedly about the Jewish leadership crucifying Jesus the Messiah, who then came back from the dead! This did not sit well with the Sadducean Priests, who not only winced at the accusation, but who rejected the very idea of this sort of divine intervention. Resurrection was not on their list of favorite topics. They ordered the temple guards to arrest Peter and John and put them in jail for the night. They then threatened them and released them. The heat was on.

Upon hearing these things, the brothers and sisters gathered for prayer, always their first spiritual instinct. Luke records the substance of their intercession, emphasizing the most practical aspects of it. There is wisdom here for anyone seeking the Lord’s help in a crisis.

First, they prayed for effectiveness rather than simply protection. It is not wrong to pray for protection. In Acts 12 that’s what they prayed for Peter, and the Lord supplied it impressively. It’s what most people pray for in most emergencies. Yet, could it be that the Lord occasionally has more important goals than our protection? These disciples pleaded for spiritual effectiveness in communicating the gospel. Every crisis is an opportunity to do something good and represent Jesus in some way. They were confident of the message of Christ and primarily looked for opportunities to explain it to people. They couldn’t do the miracles, but they knew the Lord could, so they prayed, “Lord, you do the miracles. We will proclaim Jesus.”

Secondly, they trusted God’s providence rather than their own analysis of the situation. Note how they addressed the Lord. “The creator of heaven and earth,” (a quotation from Psalm 146:6). They also acknowledged the Lord’s direct hand in the crucifixion, “What you predestined to occur.” Providence is a neglected truth in many Christian circles today. We tend to focus on the ways in which our decisions have caused our circumstances. It is not wrong for us to analyze our own actions, of course. But we need to remember that the Lord uses even our free decisions to bring about his long-term purposes, to shape our lives and present us with opportunities to trust him, to grow in faith. These early Christians did not try to explain this philosophically, but they firmly believed God was in charge—even of calamity. This knowledge set them free from constant anxiety about the fact that they didn’t see this pain coming, or where it would end. It didn’t bother them that it came “out of the blue.” They viewed it as something the Lord was using and they trusted him. Solving the mystery of “how this happened” was not their primary worry. Responding redemptively to the crisis was their goal. They were more committed to the advancement of the kingdom than to avoiding stress.

Third, they received courage rather than explanation. He answered their prayers with new strength through his Spirit. But he did not unravel the mysteries of his timing or purposes in the current situation. And we need not unravel the mysteries either. He calls us to pray and serve and represent him, not explain the why and wherefore of God’s will. Often in the spiritual life (life with God in Christ), we must put one foot in front of the other, carrying on without detailed explanation from the Lord as to how or why things happen. This is what Paul meant in 2 Cor.5:7 when he reminded the Corinthian believers that we “walk by faith and not by sight.” He didn’t mean we never get guidance, but that we rarely know everything we wish we knew about the circumstances we face. Massive elements of God’s good purposes are hidden from our eyes.

Remember, the Lord transforms us in crisis (Jas.1:2-4). He deepens our prayer life by reducing our self-confidence. He develops our character by focusing our attention on his purposes instead our natural desires (in this case gospel proclamation over protection from the chief priests). And he promotes the gospel in and through us as we “suffer forward” in the stress of this life.

Here are a few questions we might ask ourselves when we face unexpected stress: How would I respond to this situation if I viewed it as something the Lord is using for good? How can I reflect Christ in this thing, even if I cannot solve or explain it? How might I respond here if I were radically committed to sharing or representing Christ effectively rather than protecting myself? How can I think like Jesus in this circumstance?

We all need the Lord’s guidance when we face various trials. Answering these simple questions may help clarify the Spirit’s voice within. The Lord never lets us suffer needlessly. He always has a purpose and always will supply a way in which we can trust his grace more deeply (1 Cor.10:13).

 Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Darkness on Maundy Thursday

Many Christians today don’t think about Maundy Thursday, the day before Christ’s crucifixion. They leap directly from Palm Sunday to Easter, perhaps offering a moment of silence on Good Friday. But Maundy Thursday is an important day, even crucial I would say, for understanding much of our role in God’s kingdom. On this night Jesus met with his disciples in the upper room for the last Passover and the first experience of The Lord’s Table.  The term Maundy (not “Monday”) comes from the Latin word for commandment, Mandatum, found in the Latin Vulgate translation of John 13:34. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you that you love one another.” He gave this command late Thursday night and thus the title Maundy (Commandment) Thursday.

This was the evening that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, a precious and memorable event in our spiritual history. On this evening He also delivered His longest recorded teaching, The Upper Room Discourse, sometimes called The Farewell Discourse. He filled this time with encouragement, promise, and instruction.

But Maundy Thursday has a dark side to it. It is the night that Judas confirmed in his unregenerate heart to betray the Lord, the night that he let Satan influence him to “betray innocent blood” as he himself later puts it. We often overlook the fact that the glory of the new commandment shows brightest against the contrasting darkness of this faithless world. In many ways Judas represents all faithlessness, all rebellion against the grace of Christ.

Faithlessness is a more important subject than we might think. For one thing, the fact that God holds us responsible for our unbelief indicates the gravity of human moral responsibility. At no time do we see Judas acting against his own will in this situation. Even when Satan apparently nudges him directly at the heart level (John 13:2) there is no indicator of Judas resisting. It is a reminder of human culpability. We can blame no one but ourselves for our unbelief.

Secondly, the existence of Judas’s faithless unbelief reminds us that humanity’s problem is one of a fallen will rather than simply ignorance (see Romans 1:18-20). Judas had every reason to trust Jesus like his friends did. He was there for all the miracles, the preaching, the implications of Jesus’ divine identity, even for the foot washing! He let Jesus wash his feet along with the other disciples, for heaven’s sake! He nodded along with everybody else up in Caesarea Philippi when Peter blurted out that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God (Matt.16:16). He had his own basket of leftovers after Jesus fed the five thousand (Matt.14:20-21). But he was faking it all along (John 12:6). It is simply illogical, unreasonable, and irrational to reject Jesus as Messiah after seeing firsthand what Judas saw (John 14:11). Which means that Judas had a will that was in opposition to the realities confronting him about Jesus. The mind is the servant of the will and the will is bent in on itself (Luther’s image).

Which brings us to the final point here. Judas must have been a thoughtful person, one who watched, listened, analyzed, and made decisions, like all rational humans do.  But he was thinking autonomously. That is, he held his thoughts, his analysis, his opinions aloof and above the words and works of Jesus. He reserved the “right” to “disagree” with Jesus and the other apostles. This is exactly what Eve and Adam did. After observing and hearing God’s Word, the human creature takes upon himself/herself the divine mantle and “demurs” with regard to God’s expressed and gracious will. Satan cheers people on in the deadly illusion that our rational analysis is more important that God’s expressed word. And the result is darkness if every kind. After serving supper and washing everyone’s feet, Jesus handed Judas the dipped morsel and said, “Get on with it.”  Whereupon Judas immediately went out…and it was dark… (John 13:30). That darkness so overwhelmed him that, in a further faithless act of disobedience, he hanged himself in an effort to atone for his own evil (Matt.27:5).

But you, Christian friend, are not like Judas (Rom.8:9; Heb.6:9-12). When you sense a conflict between your will and the Lord’s will, you pray and repent and seek to do what He wants. When you fail in these, instead of trying to atone for your own sins you cry for mercy to the One whose Spirit is in your heart and He forgives you every time in Christ (1 John 1:8-2:2). When you reason, you do your thinking within the realities of your faith. Anselm called this “faith seeking understanding.” When you doubt and wrestle with skepticism in your heart, you resist with your faithful reason aided by the Spirit and God’s Word (1 John 3:20). You reject the amoral autonomy of this world and choose rather to shape your thoughts in grace through the Word of the gospel. For you, the upper room is filled with light, the presence of the Lord drawing you into the warmth of the Trinity, His table nourishing your soul deeply and often. You are safe in the grace by simple faith in Jesus Christ, the one reality Judas would not submit to. The good news is so much brighter when we see it against the backdrop of the darkness the Lord has delivered us from.

Unbelief is crucial to our understanding of true faith. No gray areas here. If you trust Jesus Christ, it’s all yours. If you don’t…it’s all dark. I find this sobering, but quite clarifying.

Just a thought,

Pastor Rick

The Shack…Again

A brief review by Rick Booye

The theological novel, The Shack, by William (Paul) Young, is making the rounds again, thanks to the release of the movie based on it. As it did back in 2007, it is causing sometimes heated discussion for a simple reason—it imagines God’s personal identity in a way nobody would guess (or even recognize) by studying the Bible.  This means that despite disclaimers, Paul Young is saying something theological to his readers.  A novel in which people talk to God, who is personified in the plot as an actual player in the story, is saying something about who God is.  That is theology and it carries an implicit claim to authority, a challenge if you will, whether the author admits it or not.  In other words, it’s not just a story.

In The Shack, Young essentially “incarnates” the Father and the Spirit, not to mention the mysterious “Sophia” figure (all as women, interestingly) as they interact with a grieving man (Mack).  The God/gender thing bothers people.  It is true that God has no gender in the human sense of that term.  In order to have gender one must have a human body, whereas God is pure spirit.  So both feminine and masculine traits are present in God.  He created male and female both in His image and together they represent his life.  On the other hand, we need to be careful to represent him in the way he represents himself in Scripture or we run the risk of violating something very important—the second commandment—which forbids us to create anything physical to visually represent him (Ex.20:4).  In Scripture the Lord uses masculine imagery and pronouns to describe himself and we should, too.  But he specifically tells us not to imagine or make any image of him.  The reason is that God was intending to become human in one man—Christ—who would be the one and only “image” of God that we should focus on (John 1:1-18; 14:6-11; Heb.1:1-3).  So, when we “imagine” God, we should do so by thinking of Jesus Christ.  By portraying the Father (‘Papa’ he/she is called in The Shack) as a great, jolly black Mom and the Holy Spirit as a diminutive Asian woman, Young deliberately tweaks the biblical revelation of who God is.  The “tweaking” is not simply about gender, however.  It is about the “incarnational” issue.

The problem is not that we should not imagine God as a woman (or a group of women?); it is that we should not imagine him as a human.  In our efforts to think of Yahweh (God’s chosen name for himself in Ex.3:14) in “more” personal terms we need to stop “re-imagining” God the Father and the Holy Spirit as humans.  The same problem presents when Morgan Freeman appears as God in the movie Bruce Almighty, (Universal Pictures, 2003) or George Burns portrays the cigar smoking deity in Oh God! (Warner Brothers Pictures 1977).  Even Michelangelo’s famous imagery on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel makes God look like an old man (albeit a pretty buff old man). Yes, these stories and images are trying to get us to relate to God personally, but they are completely wrongheaded (not least because many of them have nothing to do with the gospel or Christ).  God is a Person with a Name and has become a human in Christ.  These fictional portrayals of God imply that people can relate to him without Jesus Christ, an implication that is the exact opposite of the real gospel. (Note, for instance that none of the “God” movies include Jesus as the incarnation of God, the only way to relate to God on a personal level; and even in The Shack Mack meets Christ only after he meets “Papa.”)

Something else that bothers me about The Shack is the fact that the gospel is not highlighted (though it is sort of footnoted) and Jesus isn’t the main figure, the cosmic, sacrificial, world-changing hero, as the New Testament presents him.  In the Bible the gospel is the astounding good news that God permanently became human in Jesus Christ, who is the real star of the redemptive show.  He is the divine/human Lord of the universe, the one and only material image of God (John 14:8-11), who died and rose and will return, and who right now rules the entire cosmos, offering in His name the forgiveness of sins and membership in His eternal Kingdom.  He is also the coming judge of humanity who will renovate the universe and rule it personally and graciously forever (a theme conspicuous by its absence in The Shack). In the gospel the Lord Jesus introduces us to God the Father, not the other way around.  In The Shack these things are blurry and seem almost inverted, which means that the “gospel” in The Shack is at best obscure, and at worst distorted.  After reading The Shack, a person might have a warm feeling about God in general and even a sense of the “three-ness” of God, but one would not exclaim with Thomas, about Jesus,  “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:27-29).  One would not be awestruck with who Christ is, what He did to bring us into his eternal love, and how we didn’t deserve it.  In fact, one might not want to become “a Christian” at all according to Jesus himself in the story (speaking of hypocritical Christianity I guess, but that is not evident in the dialogue).  Many people who like this book treat it as a form of good news (gospel) about God, yet the gospel itself (the one presented in four long documents and many letters in the New Testament) is only faintly present. Is this important theologically? Yes! The gospel of Jesus Christ is not simply an isolated aspect of the broader biblical revelation. It is not just one of many things that God wants us to know, like one of several college classes in our spiritual degree program. The gospel is the Trinitarian Message of God. It is what the Bible is all about. (See Luke 24:25-27; 44-47; Rom.1:1-4; 1 Cor.15:1-10; Heb.1:1-3). To write a theodicy/theology, even in “fictional” form and not highlight the gospel is actually preaching something of a different gospel (Gal.1:6-11). A partial truth, presented as a whole truth, becomes a whole lie. Christians should think deeply and critically about any message that purports to represent the message of God in any other way than the way God presents it in Scripture.

On a positive note, though, one of the main aspects of the gospel of Christ is highlighted in The Shack. This is the story’s strongest point.  It shows God personally overriding human evil and pain in this world in a very graphic way, while gently and compassionately rebuking Mack for not grasping how loving and powerful the Lord is.  I think this aspect of the book is challenging, comforting and insightful.  Among scholars this is called theodicy, defending God’s love and power in light of the agonizing sorrow in this age, explaining how evil can temporarily exist in his world and how the Lord can and will turn it around for eternal good.  The Shack is a theodicy of sorts.  Young dramatizes how God could use even terribly violent and sorrowful things to bring long-term blessing to his people (which is precisely what the Bible says he does through the gospel).  Along the way, Young emphasizes the love, joy, wisdom, compassion, personality, and active involvement that God offers to us.  This is good, too.  Folks who find comfort in The Shack usually find it here, and I do not intend to deny that comfort for a minute.  Young is right to remind us poignantly how sovereign, providential, good and loving the Lord is in spite of how evil our age is.

Remember, The Shack is “theological fiction,” a genre that, when you think about it, seems odd in itself.  So, eat the meat and spit out the bones.  For a more serious look at how God reveals himself to broken humanity, defeating death and redeeming even the worst of human evil, read the four real gospels starting with John.

Humility and How I Achieved It … ???

Many have pointed out that humility is the essential virtue that we cannot “work on.” Think about the fictitious book, Humility and How I Achieved It. It’s a joke, right? If you’re writing a book about how you achieved humility, how much humility do you really have? Humility by definition does not focus on its own presence or quality. This is what Paul had in mind as he wrote his Philippian friends about how to live together:

“… complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because humility is a supremely Christlike virtue, we often find in the Christian community the oxymoronic attempt to act humble. The reason is clear; we wish to acquire the respect that comes with being perceived in the Christian community as a Christlike or humble person, while at the same time enjoying a very hefty prestige based on this “humility.” How odd. This is especially present among long-time, well-churched Christians. It is a spiritual malady of the “mature.”

How should we respond then? Since we can’t “cultivate” humility like we would certain other virtues, is there any hope for us to actually grow in it? Good News: There Is! Christlike humility is attempting to spring up within us all the time.  It is growing through the only means possible in a pride-saturated world—humiliation. Interestingly, our culture treats the idea of humility as a virtue and the concept of humiliation as a vice, even though they come from the same root. Nobody in western society, tutored as we are in the gospel of self-esteem, embraces humiliation in any form. We are nagged relentlessly to “stand up for ourselves,” “demand respect,” “fulfill our potential,” and “get our best lives now.”

Humiliation is the acquisition of genuine humility through the most honest means available. It need not be public humiliation, or even very severe for that matter, but it is the piercing, conscious awareness of specific failure coupled with a sense of needing and receiving grace from the Lord. It is one of the essential ingredients in what the Bible calls repentance, the first step into eternal life. But it’s not just the first step, is it? Do we not learn to walk in this humble repentance always? Is this not walking in the Spirit? (Gal.5:25-26).

Let me suggest that true humility is actually growing in us when the Lord arranges for us to be sinned against, slighted, ignored, embarrassed, or in some way hurt by others. At moments like these, when angry self-righteousness so naturally erupts, we might ask ourselves the same question God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be so angry?” What would our reaction be if we really didn’t care about our reputation or prestige and only cared about the truth, the needs of others, or the will of the Lord in the situation? In other words, what would it be like if we thought like Jesus on the subject at hand?

I have heard Christians seriously teach that, “It’s a sin to allow anybody to sin against you,” which would mean of course that our Lord is the worst sinner of all time (!). Do we have to let others sin against us in every case? Of course not. Justice is also a virtue. But as Christians we have the right and the power to let others hurt us unjustly without retaliating. And the exercise of doing just that is the one way we can cooperate with the growth of humility in our hearts. How else could our Lord teach and demonstrate his famous instruction to turn the other cheek (Take a moment to look up the following verses: Matt.5:38-42; Romans 12:14-21; 1 Peter 2:19-25). Jesus saved the world by doing precisely what he instructs us to do in strategic situations—let pain and humiliation happen to us. The result in us is a true selflessness, a relief from the burden of appearing perfect, of living up to the unbearable weight of our own reputation for maturity. Under the grace of the Lord, we will sense the love, joy and peace—the relief—that comes from simply loving and being loved by the Lord himself (See 1 Cor.13).

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick