Destroyer of Worldviews

In Christian circles, we often talk as though the truthfulness of Scripture was the most crucial doctrine to uphold. Once you lose the Bible, you lose everything.

There’s a great degree of truth to that. But one of my seminary professors pointed out that there are some doctrines that strengthen or weaken this one, and in particular the doctrine of total depravity. He said something like “Man will not deny his need for Scripture until he has denied his need for a Savior.”

There is much wisdom here as well. When we fail to take our sins seriously and instead puff ourselves up, we are likely to see the Bible as irrelevant.

But as I’m listening to The American Mind, I’m reminded of another ancient explanation for why a people walk away from the faith: the experience of depravity. That is, denying depravity will cause you to doubt you need God, but drowning in depravity will cause you to doubt God could help to begin with.

Historically the problem of evil is the one that has driven people away from the faith. How could a God who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing allow the evils we find in the world?

Guelzo makes this point specifically with the Civil War. According to Guelzo, the Civil War permanently changed the relationship between America and Christianity. Before, the church was taken for granted, and America’s intellectuals were often clergy. But afterward you find the accelerated growth of secular America.

And when you think about the millions dead, of all the destruction, all the brutality, of the great resources wasted, should we be surprised?

It reminded me that many historians trace the end of modernity to World War II. Enlightenment rationalism filled the void that Christianity left behind, first on a small scale, and then across the West. But after World War II, people lost confidence that reason could bring about a better world. Reason gave us the atomic bomb.

And when I think back to how Descartes began his exercise in methodological doubt, it seems the pattern continues. Rather than beginning with received wisdom as Christian thinkers in past generations did, he began by doubting everything he could to try and find something certain, something we could all agree on. Why? Because in his day, Europe was ravaged by perpetual religious war.

So it seems to me that while the problem of evil may cause a person to doubt, there is a deeper problem—the problem of war. War seems to be the worldview crusher. It doesn’t simply cause you to doubt your relationship with God, it causes you to doubt the world’s relationship to God. Or reason. Or whatever else you have put your trust in.

It seems to me that long ago war didn’t have this effect. For example, Israel’s military victories over the Canaanites in the Bible sometimes cause people today to doubt God. But at the time, those same victories caused the nations to fear Israel’s God and even to believe in Him. Or in later centuries, Augustine and Aquinas spoke of just war, war undertaken for the right reasons and in the right ways.

So what changed? How could war in one era have the opposite effect of war in another?

I don’t know much about war. I’ve never served, and the wars fought during my lifetime have been waged on other continents. But I can easily understand why it is devastating. The horrors of modern war are in the magnitude of their destruction, but the horrors of classical war are in their intimacy. Either way, war is horrible.

But if I had to wager a guess, I would say war causes us to doubt only because our frame of reference for evil is so much smaller in peacetime. In peace, we turn to God for help in our sickness, in our injury, in our lack, in our personal conflicts, in our everyday temptations. When war comes, I suspect we think the kind of God who handles all this relatively small peacetime strife isn’t up for the challenge of modern warfare. It’s easier to trust God with a skinned knee than a severed knee.

Even so, maybe my professor is still right. Maybe war is so devastating to our worldviews simply because we’ve underestimated our need for God to begin with. We were too hopeful about who we are, and even more than our trust in God, our faith in humanity ends up shattered.

I like to quote Tim Keller when he says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

War is the most extreme reminder of that first reality, of the sins and flaws of the human race. We must learn that God is bigger even than this, that the grace, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love He offers is that much greater than we dared to hope. And if people see that hope in us, maybe they will be able to find it for themselves when the world has turned upside down.

The Sons Are Exempt

Do you ever read a story in your Bible and think “I know this means something…I just have no idea what it is.” For years that’s how I saw the ending of Matthew 17. It’s a very short and memorable story; in the end Jesus does a miracle by having a fish deliver His taxes!

Really it’s probably not that difficult a passage, but even though I had read it many times and even memorized it at one point, I couldn’t track with it. But now I’m amazed to see another tiny picture of the Gospel tucked away somewhere between the Transfiguration and “Who’s the Greatest?”

It begins with a tax collector approaching Peter to ask whether Jesus pays his taxes. Peter says “yes” and walks away.

As my friend Stephanie likes to quip, “Good story.”

It seems as though nothing has happened. But then Peter goes into the house where Jesus is, and Jesus—who missed the conversation—brings it up right away by asking a question about taxes in general. And this is where, as a minor with nothing to file, I would get lost.

Jesus asks whether the kings of the earth collect taxes from their sons or from strangers. But that’s not trivia. Taxes are a sign of authority, and whether or not you are taxed and how much you pay reveals your relationship to those in authority.

Peter rightly says that kings don’t tax their own children; that wouldn’t make any sense. Kings tax strangers, people of no relation. And so Jesus fills in the blank and says, “Then the sons are exempt.”

And this is where the scene pivots. Up until now it seems like they have been talking about Roman taxes or tax law in general. But here we see Jesus is talking about something else entirely. The sons are exempt, but—and here’s the twist—I’ll pay it anyway.

Did you catch that! I love subtlety in art and language, and this is a prime example. Jesus just said (without saying) that He is the Son of the King. He is royalty. This is His kingdom! Suddenly we’re not talking about taxes anymore but about who Jesus is.

But Jesus says more than that. He just revealed in chapter 16 that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and earlier in chapter 17 we get a glimpse of His glory. But now notice that Jesus is including Peter. “So that we do not offend them . . . give it to them for you and Me.” Peter isn’t the son of God, but he’s going to be treated like a child of the King.

And what’s more, look at exactly what the perk is here: Jesus is paying taxes He doesn’t owe. And He’s paying Peter’s taxes, too. What a beautiful picture of what Jesus will do on the cross, paying a debt He doesn’t owe and paying it on behalf of His disciples. Peter, not a child of the King, gets treated like royalty because Jesus, the actual Son of God, pays his debt for him.

Now that a new year is upon us, tax season has come with it. The wrong thing to do would be to claim you don’t owe any taxes because you’re a child of the King. (And it doesn’t count as evangelism either.) If it’s good for Jesus and Peter not to offend the tax collectors, we should probably follow suit.

But as you do your paperwork—whenever you get around to it—remember this brief exchange. Remember that this world belongs to Christ. Remember that He provides for your needs. And remember that He has paid the debt to allow you entry into the royal family. The sons are exempt.

Approaching the King

Last year I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my eldest daughter (in the correct, published order). One of the many things that strikes me throughout the series is how the characters interact with Aslan, the god of Narnia.

It almost always begins with fear. Truth be told, it begins earlier—with the way Aslan initiates contact. He sometimes comes stern, sometimes angry, but then sometimes loving and joyful. Before the characters can interact with him, his approach tells them how they should respond.

Most characters begin by facing a stern Aslan. Yet as they come to better know and understand him, their love and trust in him grows, and his approach becomes easier and gentler. Then there are times when characters approach on their knees only to be lifted up and embraced by Aslan.

Of course everyone knows that this is intended to be a depiction of God—specifically God the Son, Christ Jesus. And it reminds me of a tension we discussed in Sunday School a few years ago, about how we should approach Christ when we finally meet Him.

Our class was divided.

Some said that because of God’s love, we will be able to run to Christ and embrace Him. After all, the veil was torn in two, our sins have been washed away, and we are now part of the family of God—if we have put our faith in Him. As adopted children, as people who have had God the Spirit dwelling in us, what could separate us from Him?

Others said that because of God’s holiness, we would fall to our knees. Even though we are cleansed and set apart, we are still unworthy, we are still “from a people of unclean lips” as Isaiah said. His radiance, His power, His other-ness would all drive us to our faces—if we didn’t already find ourselves there voluntarily, out of reverence to Him.

It’s hard to know which group is right because both point to crucial truths about God’s nature and character. Jesus is God made flesh, humble and approachable, tender to the meek and faithful. But even though He is human, He is still God, and when He returns it will be as King.

And I think this highlights the strange position we find ourselves in as God’s children: we are lowly creatures, but we have been exalted to the family of God. One truth does not cancel out the other!

But as I read about the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, I get a glimpse of what I understand to be the future. Jesus reveals His true glory. And strangely enough, Peter is still standing and speaking! But then the Father shows up in a bright cloud and speaks: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”

And at this, they fall to the ground.

Obviously this is before the crucifixion, before the rent veil, before Pentecost. The disciples then are not what they would be, and not what we are now. Nevertheless, I think it’s indicative of how we should expect to respond.

Whether by the Son’s radiance or the Father’s voice, it still seems appropriate to fall to your knees.

But don’t miss what happens next: Jesus approaches. Jesus touches them. Jesus raises them up. Jesus dispels their fears. And if you are in Christ, I believe this what you have to look forward to. It will be an incredible joy and honor to be raised by the King.

Either way, I think Narnia author C. S. Lewis has it right: how we approach the King will depend entirely on how He approaches you. But for those who approach in humility, faith, and love, there is the promise that however the interaction begins, it will always end with Christ’s welcome.

How (Not) to Find Your One Thing

Today I got back into some of my usual podcasts while working. I began with some of Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing, which is a relatively new discovery for me. But then I moved on to one of my favorites from the past year: The Moment with Brian Koppelman. (Strong language occasionally finds its way into both, so be advised.)

I like interview podcasts in general, but The Moment is unique because I always walk away inspired and challenged. Koppelman more than others I’ve heard really tries to get at what practice or characteristic makes someone successful. When their big moment came, what was it that carried them from what they were to what they would become?

Most of what I get out of the show is a challenge to create something. I get ideas and strategies for becoming more creative, more productive, more purposeful. This blog is a result of that. The hope is that if I practice writing for a public audience every day, I’ll become a better writer.

But often this urge to create has no place to go. In the past I’ve dabbled in other projects: art, music, web design, curriculum, fiction, and more. But I can’t do it all at once, and I can’t do much of it well. So I have to choose what I want to invest in. And what all the smart, successful people tell me is I should figure out where I want to end up and it will help me plan how to get there. What does success look like to you?

But when I zoom out to the big picture and I ask myself the Big Question, I run into a conflict.

What is the Big Question, you ask? One of my seminary profs asked the class some version of this question: if you had the power to accomplish anything for God, what gift would you offer Him? If you dreamed as big as you dared to dream and you could only lay one completed project at Christ’s feet, what would it be?

The intent of course is to get at what you value most, understanding that the unique way God has designed you will push you in a certain direction. And this is one (admittedly grand) way to try and figure out where you want to end up and thus what you should do with your life.

And I’ve been trying to use it to help me pick my projects.

So what is the conflict? I don’t know how to answer the question. I’m supposed to say something like “build the next great Christian university” or “write the definitive systematic theology of the 21st century.” But when I think of the big picture, I have a hard time landing on one thing. Sometimes I’m not even sure I could.

It seems to me that the kinds of creative projects I’m considering can’t bear the weight of the Big Question by themselves. They have to serve a greater purpose. And often, for me, that greater purpose isn’t something you could hold or buy or measure—it’s a state or a quality.

For example, I want to raise my children to love God, to devote their lives to serving Him, to be people of wisdom and character. But how do you measure that? The product isn’t a person, it’s a quality of person. And I don’t succeed at this by slaving away in my workshop for months on end; I have to achieve a kind of quality myself and find a way to pass it on.

So I’m trying to chase virtue, but I also know both the desire and ability to create come from God. On a good day I even know that our creations can be good in themselves, that they don’t have to serve some greater purpose in order to have meaning and value. I believe God takes joy in our small creations.

But how do we align them with that greater purpose? Do we need to?

Maybe the Big Question is a flawed approach. A person should have some sense of direction, some foresight if he or she is to steward wisely what God has given. But one thing? I’ve been trying to make it work for years, but it hasn’t been helpful for me.

The other day I saw a friend had designed a personal mission statement, and I’ve done that for resumes in the past. Maybe that’s the difference: the Big Question is about a thing, whereas a mission statement has more to do with an activity. Activities adapt far more readily.

I don’t know that I’m any closer to answering my initial question of where to focus my creative energies in the short term, but I do feel like I’ve tested the Big Question method and found it wanting. And I’m told that if all you’ve done is disproven a hypothesis, you’ve still had a productive day.


This Shall Never Happen to You

Today I read the end of Matthew 16. I purposefully stopped my prior reading after the “Good Confession” and before Jesus started explaining the next phase of the ministry.

The first half of 16 is full of puzzles that I haven’t solved yet. Who is the rock? What are the keys? Who gets them?

But the second half of 16 is pretty straightforward, albeit surprising. Jesus tells them to keep His Messiah status a secret! Then instead of victory and glory, He is preparing for suffering and death! Then Peter rebukes God! Then Jesus calls Peter Satan! Unbelievable.

I’ve always had a hard time relating to Peter in this moment. How on earth could you not only correct Jesus but rebuke Him? You’re going to put God in His place?! It carries the idea of strong disapproval, not simply correcting a misunderstanding. It feels heated. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”

But when I read the rest of Jesus’ reply, I realize I say the same thing often—although hopefully not in the same tone.

When it’s not Jesus on His way to Jerusalem, but me, I balk. I must deny myself and take up my cross. I must be willing to lose my life for His sake. I don’t at all believe in asking for trouble, or pursuing suffering, or even use it as a test to see if I’m living a radical enough life. But it seems pretty clear that I should expect suffering. I should be loyal unto death. Or as Jesus said in Matthew 10, if they treat me this way, don’t think you’ll get any better.

And this is when it happens. This is when I start sounding like Peter. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to me.”

I signed up for the life abundant! I signed up for brotherhood and power. I’m here to check my spirit of fear at the door. I signed up to be more than a conqueror. Suffering? Pain? Martyrdom? “This shall never happen to you.”

It turns out I, too, have in mind man’s interests and not God’s.

It’s easy for me to tell Peter he’s off-base, that if Jesus said He’s going to the cross, you don’t challenge it. But it’s much harder to confront the fact that I’m off-base, that if Jesus said I can expect the same, I shouldn’t challenge that, either.

I remember growing up reading books on the End Times and being terrified about the Great Tribulation. I remember being so relieved by the teachings of a pre-tribulation rapture, that I would never have to face that kind of scenario. And in my mind it was because God would never let those awful things happen to one of His children.

But if I understand Scripture, that’s exactly what He did: He let unbearably awful things happen to His one and only Son. The promise is not that Jesus suffered so I won’t have to; the promise is that just as Jesus was raised, I too will be raised. The promise is that God will be with me in my suffering.

I don’t know anything about suffering. The fear I’m describing is a fear of the unknown. But I need to face these fears if I want to follow Christ. (Again, not that I’m volunteering for any particular suffering.) Just as Jesus placed His life in the hands of the Father, so following Him, I must do the same. “Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.” My life is in the Father’s hands, and He will not abandon me.

If you are in Christ, He will not abandon you either.

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