Despondency

By Rick Booye

 But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4

 Life in this age can feel utterly devoid of purpose, hopeless, grievous, and empty.  There are times when all the color drains out, all the taste withers, all the joy dissipates, leaving us wondering why God has ordained that we continue to use up oxygen.  In this verse, nestled in the second of Isaiah’s famous Suffering Servant Songs, we hear the heart of the Lord Jesus himself prophetically expressing the despondency that touches us all sooner or later. He feels like a failure.  What a completely and universally human emotion!  The words “no purpose,” “vain,” and “for nothing” in the original clearly describe the sense of hopeless uselessness that descends on the human soul in times of desert and darkness.  

 It shocks us to see a prediction that the ultimately victorious Lord Jesus should experience such low moods as this.  Yet, it’s true.  On more than one occasion in his earthly life the Lord expressed grief and frustration in the face of the overwhelming devastation of sin and death.  And in the garden on his last night he is so torn up by the prospect of what lies ahead that he sweats blood.  He asks his closest friends plaintively, “will you not watch with me one hour?” By the following afternoon he is crying out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!”  This sharing of human misery under sin is why the author of Hebrews reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb.4:15).  Apparently despair is not a sin.

 But despair was not the last word at the cross, and it is not the last word here. Despondency is no sin, but neither is it a permanent condition.  Jesus did cry out to God in desolation, but the last thing he said was, “It is finished.”  Something deeper than his feeling of despondency was happening and he trusted God in that.  In the second half of  our Isaiah verse he reveals what keeps him from utter and final darkness and points him toward hope—his faith in the Father’s goodness, favor, and fairness toward him despite his human feelings of failure and rejection.  He counters his internal sense of failure with this true statement: “What is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” (See also Paul’s attitude in 1 Cor.4:1-5).  That means he trusts the validation that God brings by grace rather than the self-sourced confidence we so often crave.  This knowledge does not make his despondency disappear instantly, but it gives a perspective that makes it bearable.  This is true and honest faith.

 The bottom line here is this:  Feelings of grief, darkness, hopelessness, emptiness and futility often coexist in the heart of a believer with the deeper truth of God’s free and complete validation, grace and goodness.  In other words, faith in the Lord and his plan (Rom.8:28) lives side by side in our hearts with depression and despondency brought on by the hardness of this age and even by our own terrible choices.  We don’t need to be “happy” all the time to be faithful.  We can trust God completely and be thoroughly bummed out—simultaneously.  This is better news than it sounds at first.  How so?

 The fact is that he loves you, Christian friend, whether you’re depressed or not.  He does not source his love and grace toward his people in their attractiveness, their hard work, their ability to obey, their “stiff upper lip,” or their cheerful attitude.  The source of his love is his love itself (God is the eternal source of his own life at every level), permanently and graciously bestowed on depressed sinners who throw themselves on his mercy at the cross.  Oddly, one of the best ways out of despondency is to embrace it, to admit it and let it be, while at the same time letting God’s word continue to remind you that he loves you anyway and will do what is good and right for you forever by shear personal grace no matter how you feel at the moment.  The despondency we Christians may experience is real, but it is temporary.  The “happiness” that the world synthesizes in various ways to anesthetize itself is also real, but it too is temporary.  If I must choose, I’d rather be a depressed Christian than a happy pagan.

Christmas and Saturnalia?

By Rick Booye

 Conversations at Christmas time often come around to the question of the date and provenance of the holiday itself.  Critics love to question Christian traditions.  Was Christ really born on or about December 25th?  Wasn’t Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Should Christians celebrate Christmas?  Here are some simple answers:

 No, Jesus was probably not actually born on Dec 25.  Some scholars hold out for that date, but most agree that we don’t know for sure.  Some speculate it might have been in late summer.  It really doesn’t matter.  Celebrating Christ’s birth is a valid thing and the Lord knows what we’re doing it for.

 And yes, the Church did decide to convert the existing pagan winter solstice holiday (Saturnalia) to Christmas sometime in the early 4th century.  There were so many Christians in the Roman Empire by then that it seemed the right thing to do.  Conversion is the way of the gospel.  We are all converted from paganism to Christ.  It has been a long-standing tradition among Christians to take what is meant for evil and use it for good.  I know of a group that turned a defunct porn theater into a church.  It’s what we do.  It’s called redemption.

 Sometimes people think that just because the Lord did not command us to celebrate his birth, to do so is wrong.  This is not true.  Israel was allowed to create “extra” feasts beyond those commanded in the Torah.  They added Hanukah (feast of lights/dedication) to their calendar in the 2nd century BC and Jesus himself celebrated it (see John 10:22).

 Others think that all human traditions that do not find their origins in Scripture are automatically evil by definition.  This is also untrue.   God told us to cultivate the earth, which means to create culture, write music, live together, make good traditions etc.  What makes a cultural tradition good or bad is not simply the fact that we created it, but what we do with it.

 Still others delight to point out that when the Pope instituted Christmas there were many un-converted people who simply retained their carnal and pagan practices under the guise of Christian celebration.  This is true, but quite beside the point.  The presence of hypocrisy in this age is no surprise and does not negate true worship among real Christians.

 When real Christians celebrate the birth of Christ they are worshipping the Lord.  Of course many do not worship the Lord at this time. They just buy stuff and party.  But that is true every day of the year anyway.  We Christians should not stop worshipping Christ simply because there are hypocrites or unbelievers in the world.  Nor should we stop creating traditions of praise simply because ancient pagans (or current pagans for that matter) had crude parties at the same time of the year.

 So, yes, it’s OK for Christians to celebrate Christmas and sanctify it as a true time of praise to God for the incarnation (see Romans 14:5-10).

Metaphysician Heal Thyself

Metaphysician, Heal Thyself.

By Rick Booye

Metaphysics is the science of the unseen.  It is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, especially the relationship between mind and matter.  The term itself comes from two Greek words “meta” which means “beyond” or “after,” and “physika” from which we get our words “physics” and “physical.”  In our language, metaphysics usually refers to the study of realities that transcend the things we routinely accessed with our five senses.

Christians are deeply involved in metaphysics, even though the word may be unknown or even suspect to many of us.  But if the message of God in Christ is not about the nature of ultimate reality, what is it about?  And if we are not talking about the invisible world and its interaction with the material world, what are we talking about?  The apostle Paul did not hesitate to instruct us about invisible realities.  He says pointedly that we should concentrate not on the visible, but the invisible, because the visible world is temporal and the invisible one is eternal (2 Cor 4:18).  So the nature of Christian thought is metaphysical by definition.  The message of the cross—the gospel—is a metaphysical message.  It conveys a body of knowledge about reality, personified in Jesus Christ and revealed by God in the sacred writings known as the Scriptures (see 2 Tim 3:14-17).  It conveys the ultimate facts of life.

New Age spirituality has pretty much hijacked the term metaphysical over the last few centuries.  If you ask a stranger on the street where to find the local “Metaphysical Bookstore” you are apt to get directions to a small shop smelling of sweet smoldering organic matter, papered with posters of various Maharishis, and featuring an assortment of crystals and copies of The Secret.  At the till you might encounter a pleasant, spiritual person who will insist if asked that organized religion (meaning Christianity in its historic forms) is all wrong (mainly because of its assumption that it is right) and that ultimate truth is found “within.”  You might even receive an invitation to join a small group seeking enlightenment at the knees of a local channeler or guru.  Payment for this session will not be metaphysical however.  You will need hard currency in significant amounts.

Many people see the above New Age spiritualities as wrong-headed.  I agree and so might you.  But why to we reject such claims?  I suggest that we instinctively shun them because they do not fit our idea how reality works.  Our culture has forcefully tutored us in the ways of naturalism—the idea that all reality and knowledge are limited to empirical facts only.  Our educational structures uniformly teach us from the time we are young that what we cannot see or demonstrate mathematically is not real in any substantive way.  It is this basic worldview that I think is the true foundation of our skepticism regarding New Age material.  But is this the right way for us to critique these views?  I don’t think so, because if we discount invisible realities like our culture does, we will become “double-minded” regarding our own understanding of the Lord and His ways.  He talks a lot about invisible things.  Maybe this is why many churchgoing people rarely pray or worship with existential confidence.  They secretly simply do not believe anything they have not learned through the empirical sciences.  They rely on the sentiment of faith and never put full confidence in the facts of it.  In short, their metaphysic is inadequate to their profession of faith in Christ.  It’s like owning an antique car they never drive.  They may push it around, trailer it to car shows and impress their friends with its pristine condition.  But the reason it is pristine is because they never actually use it for anything meaningful.  They have other cars for that, cars more suited to the roads of reality in daily life.

I propose that we wrestle the word metaphysical back from paganism.  We Christians do know things about the invisible world that have specific connection to the world of history and science.  Creation itself is an example.  The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history is a parallel event to creation.  We need to keep this connection firmly in mind as we pray (see 1 Corinthians chapter 2).

Let me suggest two thoughts we should think if we would think like Jesus.  First, we should remember that the material world is the product of the spiritual dimension and not the other way around.  This surprises some Christians because they have never thought of it that way.  God is Spirit (Jn 4:24) and He is the Creator of the material universe.  Clearly then, the spiritual realm is the source for the material world.  This is why Paul is so enthused by the advantages we have in the spiritual realm, the heavenlies (Eph 1:3-14).  But we are apt to approach this like our surrounding culture does.  It teaches that the physical world produced the spiritual, or that entirely physical beings thought up the idea of spirituality, calling it religion.  No wonder people think the Bible is just another religious book, praise is just singing, and prayer is self-generated mysticism, talking into the air.

Second, and following on the previous idea, we should see the universe not as a machine, but as a kingdom (see Psalms 47 and 104 among others).  In a machine the natural, material forces are all there is.  This is what we learned in public school and it forms our default thought pattern about reality.  But in a kingdom, the word of the king is the authority for what takes place (Matt 28:18-20; Col 1:17).  The Bible sees the universe as physical and material to be sure, but as a material world functioning under the spiritual power of God, not on its own “impersonal intelligence” (which is an oxymoron anyway).  Could this be why Jesus controlled nature by speaking to it?  If He is God in the flesh, the king of the universe, could he not simply speak to the natural world (which functions in any case because of His original creative word) and thus temporarily alter its normal activities?  Miracles are not “violations of the laws of nature” because the natural “laws” are nothing more or less than the normal patterns of physical life as God’s mind arranged them.  If He decides for His own reasons to suspend the normal pattern for a moment, how is that a “violation” of anything?  And if He is actively involved in the workings of the universe, is that not precisely why He instructs is to pray in the name of Jesus confidently?

Christians do think differently about metaphysics than this age does, whether we realize it or not.  I suggest we start realizing it and stop apologizing for it.  Eugene Peterson once wrote: The Reality is God … Worship or Flee.  Now there is a metaphysical statement with material application.

 

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick