Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’

“He cried in the manger… without whom all human eloquence is mute”

December 16, 2016

st-augustine-of-hippo-icon-703In a culture—even a church culture—in which we too often overemphasize Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity, Augustine’s words are healing tonic. I especially like the last line: He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,/ without whom all human eloquence is mute. (h/t Preaching Today):

Our Lord came down from life to suffer death;
the Bread came down, to hunger;
the Way came down, on the way to weariness;
the Fount came down, to thirst.
—Augustine, Sermon 78

He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,
without whom all human eloquence is mute.
—Augustine, Sermon 188, 2

Psalm 139: The curse that we deserve fell on Jesus instead

October 14, 2015

psalmsPsalm 139, which I preached on last Sunday, presents a challenge to us Christians because it includes literal cursing—words of imprecation against God’s enemies: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!… I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

How do we deal with these kinds of verses in the Psalms?

First, we appreciate that this psalm is a prayer. Among other things, psalms such as these teach us that God gives us permission to honestly express our emotions to him. We don’t need to censor ourselves. Why would we even try? As this psalm says, God “knows our thoughts from afar.” I’m sure that psychologists would be the first ones to agree that being honest with our feelings is a necessary step toward healing.

Second, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “hatred” (שָׂנֵא, or sane) doesn’t connote quite what we think it does. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her commentary, says that this kind of hatred

refers to an emotional reaction of aversion to someone or something. But the aversion does not necessarily invoke a desire for harm to come to the other, but rather a desire to distance oneself from the other. In Prov. 19:7, we read, “If the poor are hated even by their kin, how much more are they shunned by their friends!” Isaac says to Abimelech in Gen. 26:27, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” In the Old Testament, God “hates” particular actions and behaviors rather than particular people. Moses says to the Israelites in Deut. 16:21-22, “You shall not plant any tree as an Ashram beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God; nor shall you set up a stone pillar—things that the Lord your God hates.” And in the Psalter, the psalm-singers affirm that God hates “evildoers” (Ps. 5:5), “the lover of violence” (11:5), and “wickedness” (45:7).[1]

Be that as it may, the psalm reminds us that there are proper objects for hatred. God’s sending people to hell would certainly be a justifiable act of hatred in this biblical sense (even if, as I’ve argued in the past, it springs from a loving God’s commitment to justice). Hell would be the ultimate instance of God’s “distancing” himself from human beings, for eternity.

Augustine wrote in his commentary on this psalm that we are commanded to love our enemies, but not to love God’s enemies. To be on the safe side, I would assume that none of my enemies are God’s enemies, except for sin and evil in the world and, especially, within myself. So we can rightly internalize the psalm, as many Christian thinkers have suggested, using these words allegorically, to root out evil within us. When we pray, for example, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” we are asking God to slay what is wicked within us—those darkened corners of our own hearts that have yet to be redeemed; those things within us that lead us off the straight and narrow way; those thoughts, habits, and practices of ours that lead to death instead of life. And not to mention Satan and his minions. I want God to slay them, too!

But I’m speaking as a comfortable middle-class American whose life has never been directly threatened by physical enemies. The psalmist, David, didn’t have that luxury. And he didn’t intend these words allegorically. Since I’m not a pacifist, I do believe in justifiable violence and warfare. I can easily imagine situations in which we may rightly pray for God to slay the wicked.

Theologian Miroslav Volf can too. He lived through civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Inasmuch as he is a pacifist—and he at least comes close—his pacifism isn’t based on the mistaken belief that God himself is non-violent, or as some modern-day theologians put it, “God is perfect non-coercive love.” No: God judges the world and God takes vengeance. This is the only justifiable basis, he says, for the practice of non-violence.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[2]

Finally, I believe the best way for Christians to read psalms such as these is to remind ourselves who we were apart from Christ. David says, “Slay the wicked, O God!”—because they are God’s enemies who deserve death. And I say, by all means! Apart from what Christ accomplished for me through his life, death, and resurrection, I was an enemy of God who deserved death (Romans 5:106:23). Or as I put it in my sermon:

The curse that deserved to fall on us because of our sins—this death penalty that we deserved to pay, this hell that we deserved to suffer—fell instead on Jesus, was paid for instead by Jesus, was suffered instead by Jesus—and Jesus is God, God in the flesh. God loved us too much to let us to suffer death and eternal separation from him without doing something to save us. So God came to us in Jesus and offered the way for us to be rescued—and it’s a free gift, fully paid for by the blood of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

And if we understand this, we can make sense of all those psalms in which the psalmist asks for God to vindicate him on the basis of his righteousness. We can read them and say, “I’m not righteous, except that Jesus has given me his righteousness. Praise God! Jesus was righteous on my behalf!” And we can read all these psalms that invite curses on God’s enemies and say, “I was an enemy of God. That curse deserved to fall on me, but God the Son put himself in between me and the curse—and let it fall on him instead. Hallelujah!”

1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al., The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 966.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

Follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon… more on “forgive us our debts”

February 13, 2015

Last Sunday, in my series on the Lord’s Prayer, I preached about the petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that makes reference to something that we’re supposed to do—forgive the debts (or sins) of others. And this has caused distress among some interpreters over the centuries.

Is God’s grace conditional? Does God’s forgiveness of us depend on our forgiveness of others? If we don’t or can’t forgive someone, are we therefore unforgiven—excluded from God’s kingdom, bound for hell?

I hope not! 

These are important questions, made even sharper by Jesus’ postscript to the prayer, in verses 14-15:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I confess that I am extremely Reformed in my outlook on these words: In my mind, Jesus can’t be saying that we have to forgive first in order to be forgiven. For one thing, that would make forgiveness a kind of meritorious work, a contribution that we make to our salvation, which cuts against the grain of so much else in the New Testament (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, our forgiveness of others is a response to God’s prior forgiveness (or justification) of us.

As Bruner writes in his commentary, Jesus already assumes that within the lives of his disciples—the ones to whom he’s addressing these words—a “prior massive forgiveness” has already taken place, as seen in their answering his call to discipleship and being baptized. This prior forgiveness “precedes and makes possible disciples’ praying the Lord’s Prayer at all.”

We would not even be able to address God as Father if we had not first been given the Father through Jesus and then authorized to ask the Father for the several gifts of this prayer. Only the Father’s forgiveness mediated here through his Son makes it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer at all.[†]

He then quotes Augustine: “For what will He not give to His sons when they ask of Him, who has given them that first that they should be sons?”

Nevertheless, as in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), if we have an unforgiving spirit, such that we’re chronically unable or unwilling to forgive others, then it proves that we haven’t understood the enormity of our own sin, and God’s costly forgiveness of it. In which case, our inability or unwillingness to forgive may be a symptom of the fact that we remain unregenerate, that we still need to receive God’s justifying grace.

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 310-11.

How often are my prayers are merely “worrying in God’s direction”?

January 7, 2015

kellerIn Timothy Keller’s new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he discusses an essay on prayer that Augustine wrote. I find these words helpful:

Augustine’s first principle is that before you know what to pray for and how to pray for it, you must become a particular kind of person. “You must account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.” The scales must have fallen from your eyes and you must see clearly that no matter how great your earthly circumstances become, they can never bring you the lasting peace, happiness, and consolation that are found in Christ. Unless you have that in view, your prayers may go wrong.[1]

Do I really believe I’m “desolate” in this world apart from God? What does my heart think it needs more than God?

Keller connects this first principle to an important theme in Augustine’s theology: the disordered desires of the heart. We tend to love people and things more than we love God—even though, as Augustine famously prayed, “our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

Unless at the very least we recognize this heart disorder and realize how much it distorts our lives, our prayers will be part of the problem, not an agent of our healing. For example, if we look to our financial prosperity as our main source of safety and confidence in life, then when our wealth is in grave jeopardy, we will cry out to God for help, but our prayers will be little more than “worrying in God’s direction.” When our prayers are finished we will be more upset and anxious than before. Prayer will not be strengthening. It won’t heal our hearts by reorienting our vision and helping us put things in perspective and bringing us to rest in God as our true security.[2]

In other words, our prayers are requests for God to facilitate our idolatry: “God, would you please enable this other god I worship to meet my deepest needs?” God is obviously not interested in doing that!

1. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 84.

2. Ibid., 85.

One challenge related to prayer: God’s omniscience

March 6, 2013

Foster’s book is a masterpiece on the subject.

In my sermon on Sunday, I said that one obstacle we face in developing the kind of prayer life that Jesus wants us to have is believing that we are doing it wrong—praying incorrectly, praying selfishly. I hope I disabused my congregation of that idea!

Obviously, there are other obstacles that hinder prayer. One is God’s omniscience: the idea that God already knows what we’re going to ask (and what we need), so why bother telling him what he already knows? Once again, Richard Foster handles this objection nicely in his masterful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.

The most straightforward answer is that God likes to be asked.

We like our children to ask us for things that we already know they need because the very asking enhances and deepens the relationship. P.T. Forsyth notes, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[1]

That sounds good, of course. My wife doesn’t need to say she loves me for me to know that she loves me, but I like hearing it. I tell each of my three kids nearly every day that I love them, although usually they have no reason to think that anything has changed in our relationship since the last time I told them.

There is, however, a theological doctrine at stake in this discussion: God’s impassibility. Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have said (including heavyweights like Augustine) that human beings can do nothing to affect God in any emotional sort of way. God is unchanging, therefore nothing we do has the power to change God. To believe otherwise, they say, is to shrink God down to human-size, to make God in our image.

I cling to the idea of impassibility when I feel as if my sin has “let God down.” No, Brent. You don’t have the power to affect God in that way. Who do you think you are? How powerful do you think you are? Besides, disappointment almost kinda sorta implies that God expected more from me, as if God were surprised at how badly I behaved—and how is that possible for a God who already knows, from all eternity, everything that I (and everyone else in the world) will ever do? God’s impassibility seems to affirm God’s omniscience.

But not so fast… We are made in God’s image, which means that God ought to be at least a little like us. More importantly, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, certainly wasn’t impassible: He allowed the money-changers in the temple to make him angry. He allowed the death of his friend Lazarus to make him weep.

We could sidestep this objection by saying that in his humanness, Jesus didn’t have omniscience, and so these events were able to surprise him—that outside of time and space, God wouldn’t respond this way.

I’m not so sure… After all, the Bible itself has no trouble depicting God as emotional— just like us, except without sin. It even depicts God being surprised. At what point should our loftiest theology conform to scripture? By the way, one thing I admire about John Goldingay’s excellent Old Testament commentary series, For Everyone, from Westminster John Knox, is that he lets the Bible speak for itself without spackling over the rough patches with neat and tidy theology.

For me, the larger issue is the nature of love itself—God’s own nature. Isn’t love about reciprocity, give-and-take? Can’t we imagine that our loving God—even in his omnipotence and omniscience—freely chooses to limit his power and knowledge in order to have a relationship of give and take? Richard Foster thinks so:

Besides, I am not so sure that God knows everything about our petition. It seems that God has freely chosen to allow the dynamic of the relationship to determine what we will eventually ask. The fact that God is all-knowing—omniscient, as we say—does not preclude his withholding judgment on matters in which the decision depends on the give and take of relationship… For now, be encouraged that God desires authentic dialogue, and that as we speak what is on our hearts, we are sharing real information that God is deeply interested in.[2]

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 181.

2. Ibid.