Posts Tagged ‘David Zahl’

God is not “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit”

September 20, 2017

In Monday’s blog post, I complained about this effort by a United Methodist writer to say something meaningful about hurricanes—and disasters in general. I wrote,

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

I now see that Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde beat me to the punch years ago, when he wrote the following (h/t David Zahl and Mockingbird Ministries):

Contemporary theologians talk much about the problem of evil. Some think it is the most difficult problem for theology today and one of the most persistent causes of unbelief. … Since suffering is itself classified as evil, it is of course simply lumped together with disaster, crime, misfortune of every sort, abuse, holocaust, and all manner of notorious wrong as one and the same problem. So it is almost universally the case that theologians and philosophers include suffering without further qualification among those things they call evil. … Evil does cause suffering — but not always. Indeed, the usual complaint is that the evil don’t seem to suffer. However, the causes of suffering may not always be evil — perhaps not even most of the time. Love can cause suffering. Beauty can be the occasion for suffering. Children with their demands and impetuous cries can cause suffering. Just the toil and trouble of daily life can cause suffering, and so on. Yet these are surely not to be termed evil. The problem of suffering should not just be rolled up with the problem of evil…

Identification of suffering with evil has the further result that God must be absolved from all blame. Thus, the theologian of glory adds to the perfidy of false speech by trying to assure us that God, of course, has nothing to do with suffering and evil. God is “good,” the rewarder of all our “good” works, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit. …Meanwhile, suffering goes on unabated. If God has nothing to do with suffering, what is he involved with? Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering, Luther asserts in his proof, does not know God at all.

I made the following comment on the Mockingbird site:

Most of life is suffering to some extent—or at least my life is. (What am I doing wrong?) To conflate suffering with evil, and say that God has nothing to do with either of them, is to assume that suffering represents an interruption to the life that God wants for us. Therefore, as Forde implies, God must be displeased with me because I’m not living “according to his plan”!

Wait… Do I live most of my life feeling as if God is disappointed with me?

I’m serious! That last question is not rhetorical! If God has nothing to do with suffering and evil, what does he have to do with me?

“Expectation is a planned resentment”

November 22, 2016

I read the following from the November 22 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional. I’m including the first paragraph here, so I can remind myself of it from time to time:

Alcoholics Anonymous has a popular saying: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[†]

To these examples of unmet expectations that turn to resentment, we can add plenty more. I myself have been, at times, a raging cauldron of resentment—whose culprit, I now see, was an unmet expectation, a sense that life wasn’t going the way it ought to go; that life wasn’t fair; that I wasn’t getting what I “deserved.” Worse, I felt as if other people were getting something I wanted, which they didn’t deserve.

Last week, I wondered aloud how we can “enjoy God forever,” as the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. One way, surely, is to surrender to God our expectations: If I recognize I have no right to anything good, I can receive the good that comes my way as nothing but pure gift.

Wouldn’t that be something? Don’t you want to live that way? Wouldn’t you be happier if you could live that way?

On second thought, let’s hold on to one expectation only: that God will continue to love us and work through every circumstance for our good. Let’s replace every other expectation with that one. Let’s learn to say, “This may not be what I planned. This may not be what I wanted. But it is what God wanted for me at this moment. God will give me the grace to handle it. And God will use it for my good.”

There’s probably a Thanksgiving message in there somewhere.

David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.

Sermon 02-21-16: “In Spirit and Truth”

March 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus exposes the woman’s sexual sin—an uncomfortable topic that she would rather avoid. So she changes the subject: Where is the correct place to worship God? Why does Jesus let her do this? In this sermon, I argue that it’s because Jesus recognizes the connection between worship and sin: In a way, sin is “worshiping wrongly.” Straightening out our “worship problem,” therefore, helps us straighten our our “sin problem.”

Sermon Text: John 4:16-30

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I’ll never forget my first day on Emory’s campus when I started seminary. One of the main things I had to do on that first day on campus was go to the Financial Aid department and check on the status of my scholarships and loans. Now, I know from my experience at a large public university like Georgia Tech that dealing with the bureaucracy of Financial Aid means waiting in long lines, putting up with employees who don’t seem happy with their jobs, and who seem to enjoy telling people “no”—all of which is enough to make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst when I went to the Financial Aid office at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

But Emory is not a large public university. I walked into the Financial Aid office of the theology school. I looked around. There was no line. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, I was ushered into the office of the director, who said, “Hello, Mr. White, how may I help you?” And I looked at my shirt to see if I was wearing a name tag or something. I wasn’t. And I’m thinking, “How does she know me?” And all I can figure is that she had names and photos of new theology students who were financial aid recipients. And she had been studying it to match faces with names. I had no other explanation… How did she know me?

And of course, the Samaritan woman at the well must have wondered the same thing after she tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” And she’s never met Jesus before in her life! How does he know me? she must have thought. Read the rest of this entry »

As Christians, we struggle with sin. There is no “but”

February 17, 2016

IMG_5758

This little book has been a life-saver to me. Just what I needed at just the right time! Thank you, Jesus! I’m tempted to scan whole chapters and post them on my blog, but I’m sure the good people at Mockingbird Ministries would prefer for me to point you to the Amazon link and have you order it for yourself. (It’s only $10.50. Money well spent!)

Still, I would like to highlight a few ideas in the Appendix entitled, “Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel.” It begins with a Luther quote and some words about it:

“The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom.”
– Martin Luther

A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—”the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide.[1]

Here are a few points that speak to me:

  1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.
  2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.
  3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.[2]

I had to think about this for a moment. If we say we’re spiritually “A-okay,” then we’re lying or in denial. That makes sense. But what’s wrong with saying, “I’m struggling, but…”? The authors’ point is that there should be no “but”: We are struggling. We have problems. We are sinners. There’s no “but.”

The “but” comes from a desire to justify ourselves—to appeal to the Law to prove that we’re A-okay after all, or at least not as bad as we seem. As the authors say elsewhere in the book, “The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it.”[3]

big_but

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.[4]

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 85-6.

2. Ibid., 86

3. Ibid., 91.

4. Ibid., 86.

You can never outgrow the gospel

February 3, 2016

lgcoverOne theme I’ve explored recently on this blog and in sermons is the relationship between justification—that part of salvation during which our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us—and sanctification. When we evangelical Christians talk of being “saved,” we’re really talking about justification. Sanctification, by contrast, is that process of inner transformation that the Holy Spirit works within us.

With some embarrassment, I confess that early in my ministry I preached and taught that justification isn’t the main point of the Christian living: the main point is what happens after justification. Yes, we need to be justified, but we are justified in order to get on with it. And getting on with it, of course, was a self-improvement program that I wrongly called “sanctification.”

See, no matter how much I talked about sanctification being a work of the Spirit rather than something that I do, I could never live it out without becoming enslaved to the Law (after I had already been set free from it)—and with the Law came guilt and condemnation.

All that to say, I now believe that justification actually is the main point; it’s at the very center of the gospel, and it ought to be at the center of our lives. Every day we should be amazed all over again that our God, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” saw fit to send his Son to reconcile us to God through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Read the rest of this entry »

How do Christians live with guilt?

January 29, 2016

Iron_eagleI shared this homily at last night’s church council meeting—on January 28, 2016.

Homily Text: Psalm 103:12

For my generation, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger thirty years ago today was one of those “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” kind of moments. Those of you who, like me, were in the metro Atlanta area may remember that it was a snow day—not because it actually snowed, but because it was unusually cold. The buses wouldn’t start or something. So they closed school.

So we teenagers needed something to do. And I remember what I was doing: my friend Brian and I went to see a movie at a place next to Northlake Mall, where the WSB tower is. And the movie we saw was called Iron Eagle, starring Lou Gossett Jr. This was not the greatest movie ever made, and there’s no good reason that I should remember that on this date thirty years ago I saw this otherwise forgettable movie. But it’s forever etched into my brain because I saw it the same day that the Challenger exploded.

You don’t forget stuff like that. In fact, we have a problem with remembering events that we’d just as soon forget!

I’m thinking of a radio interview I heard today with a retired engineer with Morton-Thiokol, the company that manufactured the solid rocket booster’s O-ring seals for the space shuttles. This engineer, Bob Ebeling, wrote a famous memo, months before the Challenger disaster, warning NASA that they shouldn’t launch the shuttle below freezing—that these O-rings seals would fail. And on that morning 30 years ago, the temperature was 18 degrees at Cape Canaveral. His warning, along with a briefing he gave to NASA officials on the morning of the launch, proved prescient.

In this interview today, Ebeling blames himself. He said he should have done more to warn NASA. Ebeling, whom the interviewer described as a deeply religious man, said: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job.” He said he’s going to tell God, “You picked a loser.”

You picked a loser… Isn’t that heartbreaking? Especially considering that Ebeling was one of the good guys! He tried to do the right thing! Could he have done more? I’m sure he could… but hindsight is 20/20.

But I want to say a few things about this: First of all, in a way, Ebeling is right: God did pick a loser when he picked him for the job! In fact, God always picks losers when he chooses to work with us human beings. God even picked a loser when he picked a man named Saul of Tarsus to be the apostle to the Gentiles. As Paul himself said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”[1] This same man said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”[2]

What a loser Paul was!

God always picks losers. Because he picks people like you and me!

I would also say that Ebeling is right when he says that God picked him to do this work. God chose him. Absolutely he did! Paul says in Colossians 3:24 that the work we do—and he’s speaking in this instance to people who are literally slaves, the most humble kinds of servants—Paul says that even they are doing this humble work for the Lord. So if Paul is right that Jesus is our boss, then that means he’s in charge. We can do our work and leave the results up to him. As pastor John Piper said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”

So Ebeling can’t begin to comprehend how God was using him and the work that he did! But that’s up to God, not him.

Finally, and most importantly, I would say this: For thirty years Ebeling has been haunted by memories… He remembers mistakes he made.

And don’t we all! Don’t we all remember mistakes? Don’t we all remember sins? Don’t we all have a hard time letting go of the past? And don’t we, like Ebeling, feel guilty?

And so here is the most important thing I would tell Bob Ebeling if I had a chance to counsel him. God doesn’t remember his mistakes… his sins.

In fact, I would tell him that God gives us the most amazing promise in his Word: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”[3] Or as Isaiah tells God: “you have cast all my sins behind your back.” And he has God tell us, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”[4] Or as the prophet Micah says, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”[5]

It’s as if God forgets. Once we confess our sins, we should let go and move on. Why? Because God has let go! One theologian rightly refers to this as divine amnesia. No, this doesn’t necessarily, or even usually, mean that God shields us from all the consequences of our sin—this can be a form of necessary discipline for us—but it does mean there’s no longer any guilt.

Why?

Because in God’s eyes we are perfect. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, an exchange has taken place once and for all. On the cross, it’s as if we have given Christ our unrighteousness and he has clothed us in his righteousness.

Maybe it’s too easy to simply say, “Once you confess your sins, you should forget it, let go of it, and move on” confident that Christ nailed these and all your other sins to the cross. That sounds good, but it’s hard to forget!

So instead of forgetting, I’m going to urge you to remember something… Something which is said very well in the recent book Law and Gospel:

The Gospel announces that we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. Our guilt has been atoned for, the Law fulfilled. In Christ, the ultimate demand has been met, and the deepest judgment satisfied. In his death and resurrection, our sin was imputed to him, his righteousness to us. Note the past tense: This not up for grabs. Something has been accomplished, and that something is real. Remember, Christ’s dying words from the cross are “It is finished.” Which means that as far as God is concerned, the performance is at an end—gold stars all around. This leads to reconciliation with God, and even eternal life. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will be saved by his life” (Rm 5:10).[6]

Amen.

By the way, although I didn’t say this in my homily, this Romans 5 verse is an amazing statement about something that we Methodists don’t often emphasize: the perseverance of the saints—what is popularly referred to in evangelical circles as “once saved, always saved.” To be fair, Wesleyan theology might say, “once saved, nearly always saved,” but I struggle to accept this Wesleyan doctrine of backsliding.

Regardless, in the context of his argument in Romans, Paul is saying that God accomplished the “hard part” by dying for us through his Son Jesus “while we were enemies.” Having now been reconciled to God through faith—having been transformed from “enemies” to “friends,” indeed, children—the “easy part”—by which he means enduring until the end, arriving safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of death and resurrection—will surely happen!

If you’re someone who is prone to worry about your salvation, who feels guilty over the persistence of sin in your life, I invite you to spend a few moments reflecting on this verse.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15 NIV

[2] Romans 7:19

[3] Psalm 103:12

[4] Isaiah 43:25

[5] Micah 7:19

[6] William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 61-2.

Busyness as a “law-based barometer of self-worth”

January 28, 2016

lgcoverI’m working my way slowly through Mockingbird Ministries’ recent book Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints). One recurring theme is the way in which humanity is enslaved to the Law, which often manifests itself as enslavement to our self-created “little-l” laws. In the following section, the authors talk about our attempts to justify ourselves by being “busy” all the time.

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are,” essayist Tim Kreider famously observed, pinpointing one of the most inescapable pathologies of modern life. When asked how we are doing, we used to say, ‘fine’ or ‘well.’ Today the default response is ‘busy.’ Which is an honest answer. Smartphones and similar devices have largely chased away the uncomfortable idleness that once characterized society, quickening the pace of life to an almost absurd degree. People are busy. We are busy. Very busy.

But ‘busyness’ is more than a description of how we’re doing; it is one of our culture’s predominant indicators of worth and value, a measure of identity and therefore personal righteousness. The more frantic the activity, the better. Kreider spelled this out when he theorized that, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

What does it say about you if you’re not busy? Nothing good, so get back on the horn. The implication is that if we’re not over-occupied, we are inferior to those who are. As with all law-based barometers of self-worth (beauty, wealth, influence, youth, etc.), there is no ‘enough.’ Any justification we may attain through exertion is short-lived to say the least.[1]

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 60-1.

“Behind the hardened armor of self-justification”

January 6, 2016

lgcoverIn my Advent sermon related to Elf and Mark 10:13-16 (“Suffer the little children to come unto me…”), I discussed one important reason Jesus says we must become like children in order to enter God’s kingdom. Among other things, I said:

Recall that I spoke earlier about how salvation is a completely free gift. Now think about how we adults receive Christmas gifts. If a gift is too lavish, too ostentatious, too luxurious, too expensive, we will naturally be reluctant to receive it. First, we might worry that it comes with strings attached: Why are you giving me this? What do you want me to do in return? See, we don’t quite trust the gift-giver that the gift is really free. So we’re suspiciousBut more often, even when we know that the gift-giver has no ulterior motive, when someone gives us a gift that we perceive is too lavish, too luxurious, too expensive, we’ll be reluctant to receive it because we’ll say, “This is too much! I don’t deserve this!”

But when it comes to God’s gift of salvation, that’s exactly right! That’s the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ! You don’t deserve it!

By contrast, think about how children receive gifts. They couldn’t care less about how much it costs the gift-giver! Money means nothing to them. They don’t give a thought about somehow being worthy of the gift, or earning the gift, or paying the gift-giver back. They just gladly, joyously receive it. “Mine, mine, mine! This is mine! This belongs to me! This has my name on it!” And that’s wonderful, in a way—to receive a gift so wholeheartedly.

If you can’t receive this gift as a child, you’ll never be saved!

In the little book Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), published by the brilliant thinkers at Mockingbird Ministries, they examine another reason for our need to become like children: Each one of us, at heart, is a child. This child is the only part of us that’s real. What we perceive to be our “grown-up” self is really only protective armor we’ve created to protect the inner child. If we are to be saved, the gospel must reach the real self.

Poet Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Giant, shares the following insight in a letter to his son:

Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…

It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realize that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. When we meet people this is what we usually meet… [The child] is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced… At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality.[1]

Think of this in biblical terms: It’s easy to see how Adam and Eve fell into sin because they denied their childlike dependence on the Father and grasped for a kind of “adulthood,” as they perceived it, which meant self-elevation and independence. And we’re no different, obviously.

The problem is, we’re ill-equipped to be “grown up” in this way. We’re vulnerable. We need protection. Thus we create the armor of our “secondary self.”

As the authors point out, the good news—which is not yet the Good News of Jesus Christ—is first the Bad News of the Law:

In observing the secondary self, Hughes was, perhaps unwittingly, describing the Old Adam. And the Law, when it functions properly, exists to destroy and dismantle the armor, leaving the child vulnerable, afraid within…

[A]ny honest religion must… address precisely that child, the true self behind the hardened armor of self-justification and adaptation and calculation and coping and control. We may have the illusion of moral mastery when Moses tells us not to murder, but what about when Jesus says we’ll be liable to hell-fire for insulting someone?

Of course, Jesus did not speak to those with shiny secondary selves, like the Pharisees—except to condemn their righteousness as a lifeless pretension. Instead, the sinners and tax collectors, whose outer armor had long been shorn by addiction and shame and depravity, were the ones to whom Jesus addressed himself. Since only the inner child is truly alive, only that child can hear anything resembling Good News. The secondary self, or the Old Adam, hears only tasks and ways to increase his ego and standing—he only hears in the imperative voice. But the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us. Yet we still have no Good News, but only a quiet and lonely desperation, now that the illusory capabilities and consolations of the Old Adam are seen to be nothing but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[2]

This, this, thisBut the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us.

Oh my goodness, I know this desperation! Do you?

I’ve heard the accusing voice of the Law, over and over again: “I ordered you to do this. You failed. And now you deserve death and hell.” So now I listen desperately for the indicative voice of the gospel: Christ says, “Child, here’s what I’ve done for you. I’ve become your failures; I’ve suffered your condemnation; I’ve died your death. Now I’ll give you my life: it’s free; it’s perfect; you can’t ruin it. In fact, in me you’re perfect.”

What is that cliché about Paul’s letter to the Romans? Something like, “It has to make you sinner before it can save you”? Close enough… Anyway, it’s true. The role of the Law is to make us (or, rather, ensure that we know ourselves as) sinners. Otherwise the good news of Jesus Christ can’t penetrate that armor of self-justification that leads to both a lifetime of disappointment in ourselves and an eternity in hell.

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 36-7.

2. Ibid., 37-8.