Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

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An Uncomfortable Meeting with Jesus

If we met Jesus in person, would we love him, hate him, or be baffled by him?

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The nameless woman wipes Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Image by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, 20th century

Occasionally I fantasize meeting Jesus in person. What would the experience feel like? What would be my response? Would it mirror one of the many responses described in the gospels?

When we read those gospels, we hear of many people’s encounters with Jesus. Their responses are all across the board.

Some, for example, seem to fall passionately in love with Jesus. The most extreme example is the story (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9) of the nameless woman who interrupts a dinner party where Jesus is the guest. She pours an expensive perfume over his head and feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair.

The gesture is extravagant in the extreme. The perfume is expensive. It equals a year’s total wages for an ordinary laborer. All this is splurged in one sensuous moment. Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not alarmed by the gesture’s erotic overtones. He is deeply touched by it.

In the garden on Easter morning, we sense Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus by her instantaneous embrace of him when she recognizes him (John 20:11-18). Women are not alone in showing such love. At the Last Supper Jesus’ beloved disciple reclines next to Jesus, manifesting his affection for Jesus and Jesus’ affection for him (John 13:23).

Others in their encounters with Jesus show profound awe. In John’s gospel we hear the story of the meeting between the risen Jesus and his doubting disciple Thomas (John 20:26-29). When confronted with Jesus, Thomas blurts out “My Lord and my God.” It’s the most awesome acclamation of Jesus in all the gospels.

We also read over and over again of how the crowds who hear Jesus teach and see him heal respond with astonishment. They wonder where his authority comes from. (See Mark 1:21-28.)

Others respond to Jesus out of their sheer confidence in his power to heal. The story of the woman with a blood hemorrhage who pushes herself through the crowd to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe is one example (Mark 5:25-34). So too is the Roman centurion who feels unworthy to welcome Jesus into his house (Luke 7:1-10). He instructs Jesus to just say the word from a distance. He knows his slave will be healed. Something about Jesus has evoked such incredible confidence in Jesus.

Then there are those who hate Jesus. His enemies are numerous. In many cases they are religious authorities that, like the crowds, hear him preach and watch him heal. They respond, on the other hand, with hostility. Their anger seems provoked by Jesus’ subversion of their own authority and their inflexible rules for determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Jesus’ own disciple Judas ends up joining them out of motives we can no longer detect.

Baffled by Jesus

 And then there are those who seem baffled by Jesus. They just don’t know what to do with this strange man. He behaves in odd ways. They can’t fit him into one of the normal categories they use to pigeonhole the people they meet.

The Roman governor Pilate is one. He clearly sees Jesus as innocent, but can’t understand why Jesus does nothing to passionately defend himself against the charges brought against him. Jesus does not fit the pattern of most prisoners that Pilate is called upon to judge.

I find the most fascinating example of people feeling baffled by Jesus by the story in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:20-21, 31-33) where Jesus’ own mother and brothers come to take him home. They believe that Jesus is deranged. He must have been acting in a way so out of character with the boy and young man they had grown up with that they feel he has lost his mind. The ones who should have known Jesus most intimately are the ones now baffled by him.

The one response to Jesus that we do not seem to find in the gospels is terror. People may feel threatened by him, but they never seem to tremble in fear in his presence. (The one exception is the woman with the blood hemorrhage I mentioned above. Jesus quickly reassures her.)

I find that striking. By the time we get into the Middle Ages and the era of great cathedral building, the favored image that medieval sculptors placed over the central church door was usually a picture of the Last Judgment.

There a stern Jesus sits enthroned separating the saved from the damned. It was a fearsome image. It must have been meant to sear the consciences of the faithful as they entered into the church’s sanctuary. But I don’t find any sanction for that emotion of terror in the gospels.

As I said when I started out, which of these gospel responses would I mirror if I met Jesus in person? I don’t know. Knowing the complex and disjointed human being that I am and the complex and integrated person Jesus is, I realize I could be capable of responding with any of those responses I’ve described…and some others as well.

I am sure that my response to Jesus would surprise me. It would reveal something about me that I may not have acknowledged before. That would make me very uncomfortable.

 

The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.

 

Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.


* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.

Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.


* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.

 

The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.

 

Joy in the Midst of Tears

A seemingly ordinary psalm opens up with a surprising depth of meaning.

Yin_yangWhen I’ve read Psalm 13 in the past, I’ve been inclined to read it thoughtlessly and hasten on. Its sentiments seemed so conventional. Almost every line can be found in other psalms.

Recently, however, as I read it again, I was struck by how mature this particular psalmist is in his psychological/spiritual life.

The psalm opens up as a typical lament psalm. The psalmist is in some kind of deep distress. It is not entirely clear what the cause is. Hints suggest that it may involve some kind of physical pain. There are also allusions to attacks from an enemy. The psalmist fears that his enemy may get the better of him. All this is causing a bout of sleeplessness.

Whatever the causes, the psalmist wants God to come to his rescue. But God seems nowhere near. The psalmist cries out, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?” That “how long” gets repeated three more times. This underlines the psalmist’s sense of abandonment.

In its last two verses, however, the emotional tone makes a 180-degree turn around. The psalmist declares his trust in the Lord. He joyfully awaits his rescue. In spite of all that he is enduring, hope remains.

Then comes the line that struck me between the eyes. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me (verse 13:6). In the Revised Standard Version translation I was reading, this sentence is in the past tense, not future tense. It is not an expression of hope, but a memory of past experiences of God’s grace. They have been many, for the psalmist uses the word bountifully. (The Book of Common Prayer uses the word richly, a very evocative choice).

In this short lyric we hear the poet hold together two conflicting emotions: sorrow and joy, anxiety and hope, desperation and reassurance. The duality of the poet’s life is resolved by his holding on to both sides of his experience. He does not let his faith smother his pain, nor does he let his pain erase his joy and hope. He holds on to the totality of his life.

His stance is so reminiscent of the Chinese concept of yin and yang (the complementary opposites held together in a unity). That’s why I chose the taijitu, the traditional Chinese image of yin and yang, as the visual image for this posting.

This is a paradoxical way of living. But how does the psalmist hold these contradictions together? That is the question that I don’t feel I have the answer to yet. Do any of you, my readers?