Practical Theology

IMG_0145The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (specifically Romans 1:18-32) are familiar to most Christians. This opening argument in Paul’s discourse is one that sticks out in our heads particularly because of the way it confronts our very idea of what it means to be a created being living under the rule of our holy Creator. Our most basic conceptions of authority, morality, the human condition and idolatry are all deeply challenged in these few verses. What makes this section of Paul’s letter especially biting is that the longer we meditate on it, the deeper it cuts to the heart of the problem: it is our very heart that is the problem.

The thrust of Paul’s argument in this opening section to his letter is simple: God is creator and he alone is worthy to be worshipped and praised, but we humans turn created things into objects to be worshipped. We all know better – for the entire cosmos cries out to the power and glory of our Creator – but we cannot help but go our own way and chase our own idols.

What idols are you chasing? Power? Money? An Instagram-perfect marriage? Reputation? The Romans 1 reality is that the longer we search ourselves, the more idols we will find. Often it is those we suspect less that have the deepest grips on our hearts.

I have come to the realization that for the last several years I have chased the idol of the ideal: the ideal income, the ideal house, the ideal work-life balance. My most selfishly and deviously disguised idol has been that of the ideal church; the place that would run exactly as I think it should, where everyone would believe exactly what I believe, and where everything would go exactly as I think it should.

Most Christians chase the idol of the ideal church to one extent or another. When we begin to feel unfulfilled by a church community, when conflicts begin to arise, or when we simply don’t like the music – we all feel that question arise from deep within us: “So I guess I should leave?”

However, I think this temptation might actually be more severe for those who have committed to a life in vocational ministry. I think the reason is pretty obvious. Many of us spend countless hours in classes and reading books on church leadership and government. We develop strong opinions about how things should go when we hear lessons from mentors we look up to. And so, as we chase our idols of the ideal, we mask it with “holy” words like polity or philosophy of ministry. We develop abstract arguments and tell ourselves that if a church’s elder meetings don’t look exactly like the Jerusalem Council, then it must not be a very good church. Oh, how we claim to be wise but instead reveal ourselves to be fools (Romans 1:22).

I know how to mask my idol of the ideal church well – in fact, I think I’ve become quite the expert at it. Having served in three churches now which all fall on a very wide spectrum, I’ve seen the strength’s and weaknesses of multiple approaches to ministry. With a critical eye I look at other churches and think, “Fools. If only they did it this way, all their problems would go away. If only they had a better system, nobody would have gotten hurt.”

As I’ve been on my perpetual chase for the idol of the ideal, I’ve pursued the perfect system. The system where everything in the church goes smoothly and perfectly. The place where nobody would be able to hurt or wound someone else because the system would protect them. The church where every sermon would be completely and perfectly doctrinally sound because the confessions and catechisms would make it so. In other words, the system where knowledge rids a church of its sin and weaknesses.

However, the truth is that knowledge is not our problem. Knowledge can no sooner rid someone of her sin as it can rid a church of sinners. Knowledge cannot produce change at the deepest fibers of someone’s being; knowledge cannot restore a broken heart; knowledge cannot bring dead people back to life.

Only love can do that.

So we find that our never-ending chase for our idol of the ideal only ends in death. Death to ourselves, and the death of Another who gave himself up in love.

I must confess that this idol runs far deeper than I yet know. But here is what I do know: systems won’t fix sinners, and systems won’t fix churches. Only love can do that; a kind of love which is only found in a Shepherd who gave up his life to serve the people whom he loves and restore their affections for their Creator (Mark 10:45).

What does that mean for me? It means it is time to forsake my chase for the ideal. It is time to pray for an increasing desire to serve a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed church; where I can seek to model Christ’s love for them as I come to understand better his love for a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed sinner like me.

Arizona Sunset

Below you will find audio, handouts and articles I used for three of the eight weeks in my class entitled “Fear, Anxiety and Depression.” I hope they will be useful for you.

1. Introduction and Personal Story

2. A Biblical View of the Person and How it Impacts our Depression-Anxiety Care

3. The Place of Psychiatry and Medicine in Depression-Anxiety Care

Other:

Worship

In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.

One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.

Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:

1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.

2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.

3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.

4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.

5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.

Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:

“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.

The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.

A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”

Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.

This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.

When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?

Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.

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To read this article as a PDF, click here.


We’ve all felt it.

That pain in our soul that lies somewhere in between that ache in our chest we felt when we first experienced grief and loss, and the cold sweats we have in the evening before a big presentation at the office. The exhaustion that comes from spinning thoughts in our heads over and over. It’s the inexpressible confusion that can only be summarized by the question, “Oh God, why is this happening to me?

This is the question we all ask when suffering hits and we do not know how to process it. We swing back and forth between emotions like a grandfather clock gone haywire. Our cultural influences tell us to react in one of two ways. On the one hand, we are told to rise above our suffering and our circumstances in order to remove ourselves from the situation. The other tendency, which is perhaps more dominate in Western culture, is to suppress and avoid suffering altogether. This view could best be summarized by the last great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid you, that pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits…When then you are discontented about any of these things (pain), say to yourself that you are yielding to pain.”[1]

While the cultural norms instruct us to believe that purpose is found above or away from suffering, the Bible teaches that hope and purpose is found in the midst of our suffering. The best way for us to understand this is first by briefly looking at a Christian theology of suffering. We will then be able to see God’s purpose for us in the midst of our afflictions.

A Theology of Pain and Suffering

It is impossible to avoid suffering in this life. From the moment of conception to the day we are laid to rest, we are subject to pain and sorrow in this life. There is a popular misconception that individuals turn to Christianity in order to have suffering alleviated or altogether removed. But this is entirely antithetical to the message our God gives to us.

Did you know that there are more Psalms of lament than any other genre? Surely this gives us a clue to how common the experience of pain and suffering is going to be in this life. Jesus promised us in John 15 and 16 that we will suffer for following him. The entire letter of 1 Peter is written to a group of Christians who are facing trials and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17 that we are children of God if we suffer with Christ. Again he says in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The author of Hebrews reminds us that those who are not disciplined by God are illegitimate children (12:8). Many Christians today are taught that suffering occurs as a lack of our own faith. It is a sobering thought to examine just how much we’ve bought into this lie in light of the Bible’s cohesive teaching on the subject.

The message is clear: Christ-followers will suffer in this life. But what does it mean to experience pain and affliction as the Bible teaches us? I think most of us are led to believe that these passages speak to some unique form of Christian persecution which comes from publicly following Christ. While this aspect of suffering is certainly included, these passages are not speaking of only this kind of suffering. Dr. Richard Gaffin summarizes Christian suffering well: “Christian suffering, then, is everything in our lives in this present order, borne for Christ and done in his service. Suffering with Christ includes not only monumental and traumatic crises, martyrdom and overt persecution, but it is to be a daily affair – the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives, when they are endured for his sake.”[2] Any and all suffering and affliction we endure in this live – when we endure them for Christ’s sake – are uniquely Christians sufferings.

You might be asking, “How can this be the case?” After all, don’t Christians experience many of the same that non-Christians do? Cancer isn’t uniquely Christian, so why is it that if a Christian is diagnosed with cancer it becomes Christian suffering? The answer lies in the fact that as children of God who have placed their faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, our suffering is redeemed. God uses the very things that are intended to destroy us to mature his children and make them more like Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9).

Purpose in Suffering

But why does God allow us to suffer? It is impossible to know the exact reasons for what we are going through: it might be a result of the general state of the world and natural forces, it might be a result of someone else’s or our own sins, or it could be from a host of many other reasons. However, the important question to ask is not “Why is this happening to me?” More often than not, we will not be able to answer this question. Instead, we should be asking “What is God’s purpose for me in the midst of my suffering?

In today’s Christian subculture, we love to make signs, posters and desktop backgrounds with “inspirational” Bible verses (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 John 3 all come to mind). Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible is often skipped on these signs. That passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Apostle Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

This is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. Paul teaches us that God is the source of all mercy and comfort, even in the affliction we cannot see or feel him working in. We are told that although we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share abundantly in comfort as well. God comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort others in their affliction.

So what does this passage teach us about the purpose of suffering in the Christian community? Our suffering is meant to create an army of Christian counselors who become uniquely equipped to comfort others in their suffering. This is a part of God’s glorious and beautiful outworking of redemption in his people! While the world around us tells us to flee suffering, God instead equips us to live out the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). For this reason, we agree with Charles Spurgeon who wrote, “I am almost persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favoured have suffered more times of darkness than others.”[3] It doesn’t matter whether your suffering is depression or cancer, God’s purpose for you is to receive his comfort and then take it to others who are suffering. As we suffer, our churches are collectively strengthened. In this way, the church is to be marked by Christians who faithfully provide godly counsel to one another – even in the midst of their own pains and afflictions.

You could be tempted to doubt that this is the purpose for all Christians in the midst of their suffering. Perhaps you think that you can provide no comfort to anyone else because you’re barely hanging on. However, don’t underestimate your ability to comfort and provide counsel to someone who has already thrown in the towel.

Recently I’ve been weighed down by an immense fear over the future – job, finances, family, children, etc. In moments where my fear is especially strong I become overwhelmed with the temptation to just give up and pursue a new vocation with more stability and predictability. During one of those moments this week, a friend of mine emailed me telling me that he would be experiencing a job change soon. He asked me to pray that he would remain faithful during his transition. Even though he didn’t know it, he provided so much encouragement to me! Just when I was tempted to despair, a friend was able to motivate me to keep going simply by a demonstration of his faithfulness.

Friend, don’t underestimate what God is doing for his people in the midst of your suffering and affliction. God’s purpose for your suffering is to be a benefit not only to you as he makes you more like Christ, but also to bless and benefit his other children who are suffering. The counsel you bring to others as they experience pain and affliction will have a ripple effect in your Christian community that you will likely never see. It is a beautiful thing when we all play our part in the household of faith!


 

[1] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 54.

[2] Richard Gaffin, “The Last Adam, the Life-Giving Spirit” in The Forgotten Christ, 231.

[3] Charles Spurgeon, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, The Journal of Biblical Counseling Number 3, Spring 2000.