Are You Frustrated with Your Local Church?

Jonathan Parnell posted a very helpful reminder concerning how we should react to our frustrations with our church. In his post, Are You Frustrated with Your Local Church?, he quotes three paragraphs from Dietrich Bohoeffer’s Life together. I will reproduce it in its entirety below.

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should never complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.

. . . let [the pastor or zealous member] nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God.

Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein, (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 29.

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What do economics and suffering have in common?

What do economics and suffering have in common? Your first response might be, “a bad economy makes me suffer.” Or, you might say, “if I had more money I would suffer less.” While those may be true (though I am not so sure that they are) I was thinking that economics and suffering are both nearly impossible for us to fully understand.

Justin Taylor recently posted a blog titled “Economics in One Lesson.” In his post he discusses a book written in 1946 by Henry Hazlett called Economics in One Lesson: the shortest and surest way to understand basic economics. Taylor explains that the basic premise of this book is that a good economist cannot merely look at the immediate circumstances and results to understand the economy but must always be taking in the larger picture.

He quotes Hazlett, saying:

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic EconomicsThe bad economist sees only what immediately strikes the eye; the good economist also looks beyond.
The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; the good economist looks also at the longer and indirect consequences.
The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; the good economist inquires also what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.

     To illustrate, he articulates the famous “broken window fallacy”:

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies.

After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Two hundred and fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $250 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace the window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $250 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer. The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

The point seems to be that because thing happen in a community, all economic decisions have a nearly unending consequences. While there are some things we can know (i.e. creating of new goods is better than not creating new goods), it is nearly impossible to take into account all the ramifications of any economic event, much less to understand how a limitless number will work together in reality. Our minds are simply too small and our perspectives are too limited.  It seems that in the world of economics, the best we can do is understand some of the principles and act in faith that it will all work out.

Suffering is much like economics in this way. Who can possibly conceptualize all the good or bad that comes from any event? Our minds and our perspectives are so small that we could never possibly be aware of all the effects of any one instance of suffering, much less many instances of suffering. This makes us no different than the crowd, pontificating about the economic effects of tossing a brick through a window, while only being able to see the event from a limited perspective.

The good news is that there is one who has an infinite perspective and infinite wisdom. God is able to look at every single instance of suffering and know its every dimension. He knows the pain that it causes and He knows the good that it brings. He knows how it affects you and he knows how it effects everyone else. In the domain of suffering, God is the good economist. By placing God in Hazlett’s criteria we get a glimpse of just how good he really is:

The bad economist sees only what immediately strikes the eye; only God can also fully look beyond.
The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; only God can also fully look at the longer and indirect consequences.
The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; only God can also fully see what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.

While God stands as the only master economist in the world of suffering, He has revealed some principles to help us work through suffering wisely. We may not be experts on suffering ourselves, we can still wisely follow the advice of an expert.

1. God is sovereign – Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens outside of the plan of God. Even the greatest evil of all time, the murder of God himself, was the express plan of God to bring the salvation of all the world. “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him, he has put him to grief… the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is. 53:10-11). Therefore, no suffering is outside of the plans and purposes of God.

2. God is good – When Israel faced persecution the prophet Isaiah sought to refocus their attention on the truth of who God is saying, “I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Is. 63:7).

3. Suffering offers us a chance for self-reflection and repentance – Sometimes God uses suffering to discipline us as His beloved children. In these cases suffering is the “rod of correction” that trains us to live righteously. While not all suffering is a direct response to a specific sin that we committed, all suffering is a result of sin. So whether suffering is caused by a specific sin we have committed or if it is a consequence of living in a sinful world, we are always wise to say along with Hosea, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hos. 6:1).

4. We must rejoice even in the midst of suffering – When we suffer we must constantly return to the first two points. Only God is big enough to control all things and good enough that we can trust Him to control all things. Therefore we can be confident that any suffering that God allows will work out for His good, and for our good. Thus James says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

The Reformation: A Prequel to the Matrix of Bible Study

If you grew up watching movies about robots that take over the world you probably understand the phrase “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.” In movies like the Matrix or Terminator you start off with computers designed to make life better for people. But as time goes on the computers begin to think for themselves and then declare war on their human creators. What seems like a good idea at the time ends out becoming the destruction of the very thing it was created to do. If nothing else, these movies give us a healthy fear of what can happen when technology gets out of control.

However, technology wasn’t the first great discovery to take a turn for the worse. Today there exists a kind of Bible study that destroys the very purpose of the Bible. Rather than drawing our heart and minds closer to God, this kind of Bible study is designed to breed skepticism and distrust in God. And perhaps most interesting is, if this form of Bible study were the equivalent Matrix, the Reformation would be the prequel where the computers were first made.

Meet Werner Kummel
The German scholar, Werner Kummel, wrote a work called The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. In this work, he writes his history primarily from the perspective of the Matrix. That is, he celebrates the path that Biblical scholarship has taken. He seems unaware that the machines are now working against the very thing they were created to do. Regardless, his work is very informative and helpful for teaching us how we got to this place.

For Kummel, true scientific study of the Bible doesn’t really begin until the 18th Century. The first line of his book explains,

It is impossible to speak of a scientific view of the New Testament until the New Testament became the object of investigation as an independent body of literature with historical interest, as a collection of writing that could be considered apart from the Old Testament and without dogmatic or creedal bias. Since such a view began to prevail only during the course of the eighteenth century, earlier discussion of the New Testament can only be referred to as the prehistory of New Testament scholarship.

Bible study during the Reformation was like the forerunner to the Matrix. It was the computer system designed to help the world, but it was also the foundation from which one day the Matrix would be built. This doesn’t mean that the Reformation was wrong or that their ideas of Bible study were bad. Instead it just shows us how easily we can take a good thing and use it for our own destruction.

Bible Study During the Reformation
Before the Reformation the average Christian had little or no access to the Bible. For many, their only exposure to the Word of God was at Mass where the priest would read from the Bible in Latin. But as the average person couldn’t speak Latin, this can hardly count as real exposure. Instead, these churchgoers were dependant on their priest, not only to read the Bible for them, but also to provide an official interpretation of it. Even scholars who had the tools to access the Bible for themselves had to read it under the watchful eye of the church. No interpretation could be put forth that was contrary to the church’s official interpretation.

Then the Enlightenment and especially the Reformation changed everything. A German monk named Martin Luther, one of the few who had access to the Bible and could read it in its original language, became convinced that the official understanding of the Bible offered by the church was wrong. On October 31, 1517 he began the great Reformation by nailing a list of 95 reasons he disagreed with the teaching of the Church and the practices of its leaders to the door of the church in Wittenburg.

A few years later Martin Luther was tried at the Diet of Worms for the heresy of contradicting the church. In 1521 he went to trial for his stand against the Pope and the official teachings of the church. His famous response was,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by plain reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.

With this powerful line Martin Luther has opened a new door and laid a new responsibility on all Christians. No study can provide more sure and binding results than the study of Scripture. From here on out the Bible must be read and evaluated apart from the authority of the Church. It must be its own authority and it must be read on its own terms.

The problem that arose is that even though everyone was reading the same Bible (or at least very similar Bibles), not everyone was coming to the same conclusions. Christians clearly needed some guide to help bring consensus. Further, the Catholic Church refortified their position at the council of Trent that no true interpretation of the Bible could ever contradict official church doctrine. The new question was not whether the Bible had authority, but how could a Christian know they were interpreting the Bible correctly?

This led Christians to begin to adopt a sort of “scientific” study of the Bible. While others tried to offer a process, perhaps none were so well organized and influential as those of Matthaeus Flacius Illyricus. In 1567 he published a work called the Key to the Scriptures. Kummel describes this work as the first hermeneutics and summarizes his major tenets saying,

Flacius not only lays down the rule that the grammatical sense must be expounded first and foremost, but he also admits a symbolic interpretation of the text only when the literal interpretation would be meaningless. And then, if all other possibilities are excluded, he accepts it as the only meaning. Consequently he wholly rejects the teaching of a multiple sense of Scripture… It is clear that Flacius was quite aware that if the literal meaning of a biblical text is to be grasped it is necessary to understand the text in the sense that it conveyed to its original readers, and furthermore, to recognize the purpose that the biblical writer had in mind; in other words, to listen to what the text has to say.

The Good as a Prequel for the Bad
At this point in history we see the good contribution of the reformation. The Bible is being handed to all men to study for themselves. The rules of interpretation are being clearly and accurately put forward. One may question how this could ever lead to a negative outcome. The answer lies in the little word “scientific.”

During the Reformation scientific study simply referred to a methodical approach to Scripture that took seriously the text of the Bible and sought to understand that text in light of its historical origins. However, as time went on, the scientific study of Scripture imported some of the uglier features of science. The problem didn’t exist yet, but by 18th century the scientific study of the Bible began to take on the skepticism of the larger scientific community. Anything that referred to the supernatural became suspect. The Bible began to be treated as a myth that was only loosely tied to history.

Flacius understood that to read the Bible on its own terms it must be read as the Word of God. To Flacius, this meant an unwavering commitment to the trustworthiness of the Bible. He firmly believed that all the Bible stood as one unified word from God. Any part that was difficult to understand should be viewed in light of the rest of Scripture for clarification. The one incontrovertible truth was that Scripture was never wrong. He explained,

Nowhere is there a real contradiction in Scripture, but where there appears to be one, we are to assume that we and our great ignorance are to blame for the impression, either because we do not understand the matter or the discourse or because we have not taken the circumstance sufficiently into consideration. Consequently, what appears in Scripture to contradict something else, when one fails to consider the causes, persons, times, and motives, actually is not contradictory when one gives due weight to the tacit or express difference of causes, motives, places, times, or persons.

Kummel bemoans this thinking as pedantic. From the point of the view of the Matrix, that is from one who supports the “scientific” study of the Bible, Flacius had some good things to say concerning studying the historical origins of the Bible. The problem (according to Kummel) was that he should have assumed that those historical origins were purely human and did not include any divine influence that would make the Bible more trustworthy than any other book. Kummel concludes,

For the time being, then, no really historical approach to the New Testament was possible. Nevertheless, in connection with the new attitude of Reformed theology towards the Bible some essential steps in the direction of a historical understanding of the New Testament still were taken.

This is why the Reformation is only the prequel to Matrix of Bible study.

Indifferent Actions and Christian Hedonism

The Dangerous Duty of Delight: Daring to Make God Your Greatest Desire (LifeChange Books)If you have read the blog for long you may have picked up on the fact that I have been significantly impacted by John Piper’s understanding of the Christian life that he calls “Christian hedonism.” I have alluded to it in several posts, most prominently in the posts titled “Luv is a Noun” and “The Value of Suffering and Love.” I highly recommend Piper’s Desiring God for a full treatment of the idea, or his mini-book titled The Dangerous Duty of Delight if you would prefer a cliff notes version.

In short, the basic premise is that a Christian is simply someone who truly loves the true God. This is the first and greatest commandment because it is the key responsibility or duty of mankind. Piper goes one step further to say that love, be it for God or for anything else, cannot be properly understood as something we can dutifully preform but is instead a sense of desire, delight, or pleasure we have in something. What we love the most is what we desire the most. What we desire most is what makes us the most happy, or at least what we believe will make us the most happy. This brings us to the name “Christian Hedonism.” Piper believes that the Christian is called to pursue his own happiness at all costs, with the understanding that nothing brings greater happiness than knowing and loving God. His famous summary of Christian Hedonism is, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied (happy) in Him.”

I can say without reservation that this was simultaneously the most simple and the most profound thought I have encountered in my walk as a Christian. I say it was simple because it described love in exactly the same way I conceived of it. I don’t want my wife to view loving me as her job. I want her to be excited to spend time with me and to think that no one makes her as happy as I do. It makes sense that God understands love in the same way.

The thought was also profound in that it changed the way I viewed my Christian life. It was no longer okay to simply give money – I had to look at my heart to see if I was a cheerful giver. It was no longer okay to simply read my Bible – I had to read it expecting to know God better and to love Him more every time. Basically, Christian hedonism meant that I could no longer think of my Christian life simply in terms of what I must do. Instead it called me to always look beyond the action itself to the relationship that both affected and was effected by the action.

I make this confession to say that when I ran across Paul Helm’s recent criticisms of Christian Hedonism I was no impartial reader. I feel highly motivated to reject his arguments simply because of how important Christian hedonism is to my own worldview. However, I recognize the danger in this type of thinking so I have decided to read Helm’s criticisms and try to evaluate them somewhat objectively. I am going to try to respond to some of his objections in his most recent article, “Christian Hedonism.” I hope that you will read them along with me and offer correction, either to my thinking or to his.

Helms states that the basic problem with Christian hedonism is “distraction.” If I understand him correctly, the problem of distraction for hedonism is that one can never do an activity for its own sake, but only for the sake of the satisfaction that will be found in the activity. That is, the focus of an action is shifted (or distracted) from the action to some motive behind the action. Helms explains why he finds this problematic:

And of course such glorifying of God is the ‘chief end’, not the only end. It provides a place not only subordinating what we do to God’s glory, but also for enjoyment, including the enjoyment of creaturely gifts for their own sake. The Catechism makes room for the hobby of growing insectivorous plants, or of collecting old opera programmes. This is a vital feature of Christian morality, according to which there are actions that are commanded, and actions that are forbidden, and ‘indifferent’ actions, neither commanded or forbidden. ‘Indifferent’ actions provide the space that Christian liberty occupies, and it ought to be jealously guarded now, as at the Reformation. Systems of Christian morality ought not to add to the commandments or prohibitions of God. The trouble with hedonisms, Christian and other, if they’re taken seriously, is that they confine us to a moral or spiritual treadmill from which is not easy to escape.

At first blush we may be tempted to find this persuasive. Shouldn’t we be able to enjoy a hobby simply because we enjoy it? Does everything always have to have some greater purpose? If so, won’t this inevitably suck the joy out of life (and thus work against everything that hedonism seeks to accomplish in the first place)?

A Summa of the SummaThe problem is that it is difficult to maintain such a thing as “indifferent actions.” Thomas Aquinas admitted that an uncommitted action (for instance, the notion of collecting plants), may be indifferent, however as soon as it becomes a reasoned action (for instance, when a person actually collects the plants) it takes a definite moral value. Aquinas explains this in his typically dense manner:

I answer that, it sometimes happens that an action is indifferent in its species, but considered in the individual it is good or evil… And every individual action must needs have some circumstance that makes it good or bad, at least in respects of the intention of the end. For since it belongs to reason to direct; if an action that proceeds from deliberate reason be not directed to the due end, it is, by that fact alone, repugnant to reason, and has the character or evil. But if it be directed to a due end, it is in accord with reason; wherefore it has the character of good. Now it must needs be either directed or not directed to a due end. Consequently every human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the individual must be good or bad. (Summa of the Summa I-II,18,9)

That is, according to Aquinas, while collecting plants may be a morally neutral past-time in and of itself, we are not able to partake in this pastime in a morally neutral way. We will either partake of the past time in a good way or a bad way. Aquinas believes that if we collect the plants in a way that honors the end for which they were created as well as in a way that honors the way in which we were created, then our plant collection is a good thing. If however we distort the created ends for either the plant or for ourselves, then our plant collection has become an evil.

Luther's Works, Volume 44: Christian in Society I (Luther's Works (Augsburg))And it is not only Aquinas who maintained that every action contained a moral component. The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, instructs us on how to act in a way that reflects the moral component of all that we do. Perhaps this series of quotes from Luther’s “Treatise on Good Works” will make his thinking clear.

Accordingly, we have to learn to recognize good works from the commandments of God, and not from the appearance, size, or number of the works themselves, nor from the opinion of men or of human law or custom, as we see has happened and still happens all because of our blindness and disregard of the divine commandments… The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ… For in this work all good works exist, and from faith the works receive a borrowed goodness.

Now everyone can notice and feel for himself when he does what is good and what is not good. If he finds his heart confident that it pleases God, then the work is good, even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw. If the confidence is not there, or if he has any doubt about it, then the work is not good, even if the work were to raise all the dead and if the man were to give his body to be burned… A heathen, a Jew, a Turk, a sinner may also do all other works; but to trust firmly that he pleases God is possible only for a Christian who is enlightened and strengthened by grace.

In this faith all works become equal, and one work is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, many, or few. For the works are accepted not for their own sake but because of faith.

Now where are those who ask what works are good, what they shall do, how shall they be good?… Does not this single first commandment give us more work to do than any one man can do?… Now since the being and nature of man cannot exist for an instant unless it is doing or not doing something, putting up with or running away from something (for we know life never stands still), well then, let him who wants to be holy and full of good works begin to exercise himself at all times in this faith in all his life and works. Let him learn to do and to leave undone all things in such continual faith. Then he will find how much work he has to do, and how completely all things are included in faith and how he may never grow idle because his very idling must be the exercise and work of faith.

With this in mind I must question Paul Helm’s charge that “Indifferent actions provide the space that Christian liberty occupies, and it ought to be jealously guarded now, as at the Reformation.” This category of actions are no staple of the Christian faith, either Catholic or Reformed. Indeed, it seems to stand in contrast to Paul’s own instructions in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

In addition to questioning whether “indifferent actions” exist, we must ask if we would even want them to. Helm seems to imply that if we can’t enjoy something for its own sake then we are somehow failing to achieve the maximum enjoyment available to us. (I find it interesting that his problem with hedonism is that it may distract us from being as happy as we might be. This seems to simply be another form of hedonism. It would make no sense to say that we should pursue these morally indifferent actions, such as hobbies, without a view of the enjoyment they would bring. Who would ever take on a hobby that was not enjoyable to them). However, is enjoying something for its own sake truly the most desirable way to enjoy our hobbies or interests, or anything else for that matter?

When I buy my wife flowers I want her to enjoy the flowers for their own sake, but not only for their own sake. I am happy that she finds the flowers beautiful and I hope they provide some sort of pleasing aroma. However, I want the flowers to be enjoyed on a level that goes beyond the simple beauty of the flower itself. I want her to see and smell the flowers and to think of my love for her. When I give her flowers they are not simply flowers, they are also a token of my love for her. It is my hope that recognizing these flowers as a token of my love makes the flowers even more beautiful and more enjoyable than they would be if they were enjoyed simply for their own sake.

Christian hedonism asks us to not enjoy a action simply for its own sake but to push beyond it to recognize its full beauty. This does not mean failing to recognize the beauty of the actual flower. Instead it means not being satisfied to see the beauty of flower and to stop there. Instead, it pushes us to another level of enjoyment that, as Luther explained, can only be reached by faith.

The fact that every action we perform has moral quality is a beautiful thing. It means that at every turn we are given the opportunity to interact with and to please God. Luther criticized the church in his day for thinking that some activities were spiritual and others were not. He challenged us to recognize that every action of our lives has the ability to either please or to grieve God. It is not the type of action that God is concerned with (i.e. a spiritual action vs. an indifferent action) but the way the action is performed (i.e. in faith or without faith).

The challenge of the Christian hedonist should not be to avoid distraction but to embrace it. If your hobby is running, don’t seek to enjoy running only for the sake of running, but in faith seek to run for the glory of God. This was the mindset of the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, of the Chairots of Fire film. He said,  “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” Later he said, “To give up running would be to hold Him in contempt.”

The Christian hedonist is convinced that you are at your happiest when your level of marvel at the greatness of God is at its highest. The way to secure this is not to fight for some “morally neutral” ground that Christianity doesn’t touch. Instead it urges us to train our minds to see God’s glory in the most mundane parts our our lives. If we collect plants, then we should collect them in faith. We should be eager to marvel at the beauty and sophistication knowing that God has provided these plants to display his glory. To enjoy these plants for their own sake, without recognizing them as a gift from God to teach us to know and love him more does not heighten the experience of plant collecting, it cheapens it. Thus, the distraction offered by Christian hedonism does not hinder our ability to enjoy our hobbies, but when we do our hobbies in faith, our enjoyment is heightened.