Read this: “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor”

A friend of mine shared a great post the other day. It’s an op-ed by Russell Moore entitled “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor.” Read it. Go on. Read it.

I don’t know much about Flannery O’Connor beyond what the article mentions. Nevertheless, two things immediately stuck me as I read this and I think they’re worth noting.

One came as I read this:

“Some of our worship services are so clean and antiseptic, led by grinning preachers and praise bands, talking about how happy Jesus makes us, that we forget that the Spirit prompts us to “groan” at our sin and the suffering all around us… Some Christians, then, can wonder if something’s wrong with them when they feel as though God seems distant, or when, despite all the smiles at church, they still feel guilty for the way their hearts don’t seem to match up with their hymns.”

A hearty “amen” to that! I wish I could say I don’t relate, but I do. And right now it’s where I live.

On the one hand, I understand we need to strive for excellence. We shouldn’t get bogged down in our own sinfulness or the suffering of the world. But there’s got to be a better balance for our culture.

Sometimes we fail to compassionately meet people in their struggles. Isn’t it easier (and ostensibly correct) to just tell people to find their happiness and joy in Jesus? But what if our hearts are having difficulty being gladdened by that truth day to day?

Second point: I found this article really refreshing. Why? Because it’s one Christian praising the work of another Christian even though they don’t line up theologically on major issues.

O’Connor was Roman Catholic while Moore is a Southern Baptist. Those positions are pretty far apart yet Moore recognized something in O’Connor’s work that he saw as helpful to those in his tradition.

This shouldn’t be surprising or refreshing, but it is.

How often do we read about petty infighting instead of this kind of praise? In our noble quest for pure doctrine we’ve lost sight of our common ground. We’ve forgotten that as individuals we all have bents and we all overemphasize and underemphasize certain things. So do our churches and denominations.

Truth is truth, but Christ has many followers with many different perspectives. More often than not we have things to learn from other genuine believers – even those with whom we disagree theologically.


“We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity may one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love”

I’ve been part of a few theological discussions in my time. Some of these have been very worthwhile exercises helping me to figure out my beliefs. Other times they were lessons in pride – mine and others’ as we struggled to be right for the sake of being right.

I am now weary of such discussion particularly between people who don’t have personal relationships with one another. The internet is great a fostering such conversations. While I don’t want to dismiss the possible value in these discussions for everyone, I’ve often found them to be discouraging and disheartening.

Theology is important. It is practical and it is affecting – at least it should be. I do not want to downplay its importance nor do I want to parrot the cry “doctrine divides” although that is true in a practical sense. Division is not all bad, of course. We are called to be separate from the world. We are called to forsake false teaching. But at what point do we call something false teaching?

In the Christian life you encounter a series of seemingly paradoxical truths. We are saved by grace, not by works, but works demonstrate true saving faith. We believe God doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes yet He wants us to be involved in His work on the Earth. We are given righteousness when we are saved but the work of making us perfect is not complete until heaven. God is three persons and yet one God. Things like that are not easy to reconcile in our imperfect minds. Anyone who says it is easy – I’m really not sure that they’re taking the Bible or their brethren seriously.

Some strive after the best understanding of the Word they can have; others only see what they want to see in the pages of Scripture or ignore it altogether. It’s about the heart of the reader ultimately. Those of us who approach the Bible with right attitudes frequently come up with differing conclusions about all kinds of matters.

I recently observed a theological debate online. The topic is not important to this discussion. Suffice it to say that it was not a salvation issue. One party in the discussion considered the opposing party’s view contrary to the Bible while the other party considered both views as being “within the pale of orthodoxy.” Further, the first person on insisted that Christians ought to be in 100% agreement over theological issues based on 1 Corinthians 1:10:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

I had never heard such a thing before. The context of this verse was the quarreling in the Corinthian church. Paul informs us that different factions were claiming to follow different authorities: Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ. It strikes me that seeing this verse as meaning that all Christians should be in 100% agreement on all matters of theology is a stretch though I could be very wrong.

This person went on to say that while he didn’t question the other person’s salvation and would still pray for them, he would not fellowship with them in any other way due to their difference in interpretation. This struck me a really kind of harsh. Again, both parties agreed this was not a salvation issue; so breaking fellowship over such a thing struck me as extreme and unnecessary. That’s what really bothered me.

Whenever people fervently and seriously study the Word of God, they’re going to come to different conclusions about difficult truths. But our God is a God of absolutes. There is one right theology just as there is only one way to the Father. We can’t all be right with our various contradictory views and interpretations. Perhaps none of us have got it quite right (I suspect this might be true for a lot more than we’d like to think). I certainly don’t think anyone has got it all right. When we get to Heaven we’re all going to find out that at least part of our individual and collective pictures of God were wrong.

I’ve had a fair number of discussions with friends where we lamented the segmented Christian church. Why are there so many denominations? Why must we break fellowship so frequently? Why don’t people see things our way? Why can’t we all get along?

In a recent interview with newly-retired John Piper, the former pastor pointed out that the church’s effectiveness has never been dependent on its unity. The church is effective when it seeks and obeys God earnestly.

He’s right. As much as we may loathe our divisions and disagreements, God has chosen imperfect vessels to bring about His perfect will.

Nevertheless the Bible does call us to some sort of unity. Paul wrote this in Ephesians 4:1 – 6:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

I am convinced of two things. One is that we should not neglect seeking a good understanding of the Scriptures nor should we compromise our theology for the sake of pleasing others. Second, we should not insist that our understanding could be without fault and we should never let a disagreement cause us to be unloving toward one another. We cannot neglect the “bond of peace” for the sake of being right.

How does “be united in the same mind” and “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another” balance out? How do we fiercely contend for a pure understanding of scripture and yet love and accept our brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions? Where is the line between disagreement and heresy? These are not easy nor simple questions and I don’t pretend to be able to answer or even address any of them.

As for myself I need to pray. I need to pray that God grants me understanding. I need to pray for those with whom I disagree that they would come a right understanding or that if they are right and I am wrong, I would realize it. I should try my best with the realization that I may come up with wrong conclusions. And this realization should keep me from arrogance and unloving attitudes.

One glorious day we will all realize what we’ve gotten wrong; we will feel and know theology for real because we will finally be face to face with the person it’s all about. The unity of the Spirit will no longer be obscured by our ignorance, or pride. That, at least, is a comforting thought.

Thoughts for the New Year

It occurs to me that God did not give us a quota of souls to affect in our lives. He didn’t say “you must preach the gospel to this many people” or “you must disciple that many people.” As Christians we’re supposed to be doing that work but I often think that, given my previous failings in that area, I must now turn things around and make a huge impact. That line of reasoning is flawed, selfish, and just pain wrong.

For one thing, it places far too much emphasis on me. It insists that because I have done a poor job of submitting to the Lordship of Christ that I must now make up for it. But he already died for my failings. He died to set me free from theology of the Pharisees which binds salvation to a quantifiable set of rules and achievements instead of a changed heart.

If we are failing, it is not because we have failed to bring about the next Great Awakening; it is because we are failing to do the simple work of Christ in our everyday lives. Notice that the only servant who was rebuked in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) was the one who wasted what he was given. He buried it in the ground. He didn’t even try to make something of the opportunity he was given.

It is a lie to think that our success must be “great” (by human standards) if it is to be worthwhile. And this is the lie that I have allowed myself to believe without even realizing it. I have believed it about all kinds of areas in life, not just spiritually.

I have gotten off to a slower start this year than I had intended. It is my intention to be more consistent with my pursuits both professional and personal. By God’s grace, this will be a year of real growth – maybe not growth in the way I’d predict or plan, but growth nonetheless.

Happy (late) New Year to everyone!

The Election

Like a lot of people I hate election season. I hate the ads. I hate the rhetoric. The hate internet fighting over candidates. I hate the binary choice of two broken parties. I hate that people only see it as a binary choice. I hate that neither candidate will do anything to really fix or address the fundamental problems of the United States – even the ones they could effectively address as the country’s top executive.

This was the worst election yet for me. I had more debates with friends than I ever have before. Nasty ones at times. I hate how elections make people act. I hate the thinking it drives us to.

“If you aren’t for my candidate, you are a traitor.” “If you vote third party, you are voting for the ‘other’ guy.” “If you don’t vote, you’re voting for evil.”

I don’t even want to address that stuff at this point. I just don’t care about the debate over debate anymore.

At the end of it all I stand in front of the voting machine and stare blankly into the screen. It doesn’t ask me who I don’t want to elect. It asks me who I do. After all that build up it’s all over so quickly. I make my selections. I choose to the best of my ability and I walk out.

The rest is up to God. The results are his will. I have done what I can to affect temporal, earthly politics. Now, finally, I can go back to real life.

While I hate, hate, hate the conversation of modern American politics, I can’t really expect differently of most people. They are – most of them – unregenerate sinners who need Christ. I shouldn’t expect values like honesty and principle to govern their actions when they have so many incentives to forsake honesty and principle.

I’m really disappointed in my fellow Christians. Not all of them. But certainly some.

Romans 13:1-7 gives a succinct explanation of how Christians should relate to the government. We are commanded to submit to authority in scripture. We are commanded to show respect and honor where due. It is God who puts leaders in power.

Most scholars maintain that Romans was written sometime around 51 to 58 A.D. which would be during the reign of either Claudius or Nero. Neither of them were particularly nice guys and certainly didn’t have Christian values in their governance (especially Nero) and yet the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write Romans with that passage about submitting to authority.

There’s a lot that could be said about this topic. It has a lot application in our lives. But here are the two points I wanted to make to my fellow Christians given that context.

1. When you disrespect people who hold offices in our country; when you make fun of them; when you misrepresent them as something they are not; when you see them as an enemy to be thrown out of office even if it means abandoning some of your principles to do it, are you in accordance with what the Word of God has to say?

2. Your reaction to whomever wins the election should be consistent with a deeply-held belief that God is in control of everything and that we are citizens of an eternal kingdom foremost and not an earthly country. It should make no real different to your Christian walk who wins this election (though practical life changes might occur). Does the Bible change depending on the result? Does God change? No. I know you know this. Act like it.

And I am not innocent in these things either. I had to stop watching the Presidential debates this year because I couldn’t stop myself from getting angry and disrespectful toward the candidates (and indeed the whole system and culture). There is a point at which disagreement turns to disrespect and I’ve crossed that line more than a few times. We have to learn to see our leaders for what they are: God’s instruments.

Politics is far less important than my patriotic American upbringing has led me to believe. That’s not an excuse for not participating (I did participate) but it is a reason for not having my heart invested in this thing. It gets ugly when I do that. It gets ugly when you do it.

Assorted Thoughts on Suffering, Mortality, and Heaven

Last night my thoughts drifted toward a terribly serious and scary subject. That’s right: the future.

If my perspective is right, the future shouldn’t be scary. Death should be least frightening of all. It is our passageway out of this fallen existence. For the Christian that is a wonderful thing. But that isn’t the first thought in my mind when people talk about the dismal possibilities of the future. I am too bound by things of this Earth in my thinking for that kind of right thinking.

The thing that set me off was a couple of headlines. I didn’t even read the articles – just the headlines. I don’t remember them exactly now. Something about Israel, Iran, and war. I honestly don’t read too much news and I read even less about geopolitical conflicts and maneuverings. But I know enough for the stuff I read to be a little disconcerting.

What I don’t want to talk about here is the specifics of world politics or the validity of the idea that war might be on the horizon. What I want to talk about is where those thoughts took my mind and what that says.

What if conflict does happen in the Middle East or anywhere? What if it escalated? What if it comes here? What if we experience another World War?

I live a very comfortable life. I’m not “rich” by American standards, but I’m not going to starve or go homeless. I don’t have to work nonstop to make ends meet. I get to spend a fair amount of my time doing whatever I like. For those reasons I should count myself very blessed. Something like a war could threaten all of that.

People of past living peaceful lives weren’t planning on dropping everything and going to war but it happened time and time again. Why shouldn’t that happen now? The world is only superficially different. Some people think the world is ripe for such a conflict and they are not without evidence for a case.

The immediate thought is: what if I die? Well, that’s easy. I’m going straight to Heaven, right? That’s what I believe, isn’t it? If death is nothing then what do I have to be afraid of?

Though I have never stared it in the face, I don’t fear death. That is to say, I don’t fear the thought of it.

I don’t fear death. Theoretically.

What I do fear theoretically is suffering.

One of the most horrifying parts of The Lord of the Rings didn’t make it into the movies. Toward the end of The Return of the King, the Hobbits return to their home in the Shire to find it in ruins. All the trees have been cut down. The hobbits living there are enslaved. And Saruman is running the show.

That’s what I don’t want. I don’t want war to find my home. I don’t want to go through the ruins of my town, my neighborhood, my house and see the destruction. I don’t want everything I’ve ever known to be uprooted.

Is this natural? Absolutely. Is it okay? I’m not sure.

On the one hand, I don’t think scripture prescribes the sort of detachment Yoda recommends to Anakin in Episode III: “Learn to let go of everything you fear to lose.” On the other hand, scripture says to be “in the world, but not of it” along with many other such admonishments.

We have to be in the world. We are. To deny that fact and act in ignorance – or worse – in opposition to everything the physical world presents us is wrong. This the mistake of the Gnostics who believed that, in a nutshell, all things spiritual are good and all things physical or material are evil.

Paul addresses that belief in Colossians by emphasizing that Christ was both fully God (spirit) and fully man (physical). Jesus certainly enjoyed some small physical comforts now and then. He enjoyed the pleasure of food and wine. He expressed gratitude toward Mary sister of Martha when she anointed his feet with some expensive perfume.

So I have a problem with the thought that enjoying life for its physical comforts and pleasures is a bad thing. Yet that is the extreme I jump to when presented with the idea that it might all go up in flames. Indeed, in the end it will all go up in flames if only to be replaced with something better.

Through this thought process I have identified two great problems in me. One: I love my present comforts far too much. I would rather die than lose them through suffering. Two: perhaps even more fundamentally, my mind fails to grasp the future blessings which will come in spite of whatever suffering might occur in this life. If we could only truly and fully understand the depth of our depravity, the goodness of God, and the blessings to come, it would be much easier to live the life we are called to now.

I like C.S. Lewis’s concept of “shadowlands” – that the Earth we are living in is but a shadow of the true Earth to come. This idea is well presented in The Last Battle.

Two-thirds of the book detail the destruction of everything I’d come to love of the world of Narnia as described in the previous six books. Basically Narnia gets wrecked. The last Narnian king fights a losing battle as the bad guys of the series take over. All the while there’s this weird syncretic cult which combines Aslan with the false god of the series. It’s basically Lewis’s take on Revelation and I hated it as a kid. It gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach to see beloved places and characters suffer and seemingly lose. I reread all the other books, but never this one.

But the last couple of chapters talk about Aslan’s return and explore Lewis’s ideas about Heaven and the afterlife. They’re really great.

After the characters have come into Aslan’s Country (i.e. “heaven”) they look below and see England and this exchange takes place:

“Why!” exclaimed Peter. “It’s England. And that’s the house itself – Professor Kirk’s old home in the country where all our adventures began!”

“I thought that house had been destroyed,” said Edmund.

“So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are now looking at the England within England, the real inner England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”

I always liked that sentiment. I kind of suspect it has a lot of truth to it. Revelation speaks of a New Heaven and a New Earth – not completely new and different places. The implication is that they’ll have some relation to the lesser Heaven and Earth.

Whatever the case I am sure of this: all our speculation is missing the mark. We lack the capacity to properly understand eternity in any intimate way. Nevertheless there is one more wonderful quote from The Last Battle which I’d like to share.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

This Earth is not home. I fear pain, suffering, and loss because they are personally difficult. But I also know deep down (as I think we all do) that suffering is not meant to be. It is the result of evil and we must all suffer its consequences.

I believe suffering is coming in some form. Things are fairly ugly on the world stage right now. Something’s got to give. It’s simple cause-and-effect.

The truth is a lot of the time I enjoy my possessions, relationships, abilities, and comforts because they allow me to believe I have control of my life independent from God. I can do what I want. I can be happy in the way I want. That is a truly damaging and false line of thinking.

To enjoy the blessings of prosperity and cherish them to a degree is not bad so long as I am not kept from the task at hand; so long as I recognize and give thanks to the Creator of the gifts and not fall into the trap of thinking I had something to do with it.

I must give thanks more diligently for God’s blessings. I must be prepared to lose some of those temporal blessings. It is time I stopped holding on so dearly to the shadow of things to come.

I think the Apostle Paul sums this whole thing up best.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18, NASB

That’s pretty well put, Paul. Were you divinely inspired to write that or something?