Today I shall take aim at a quote which appeared on someone’s Twitter feed recently (Whose?  I don’t know.  Doesn’t matter).  This quote, and the sentiment behind it, is very much representative of that segment of evangelicalism which is influenced by Neo-Calvinist teaching and belief.  This quote would be perfectly at home in a John Piper book or sermon.

Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is disproportionately intense compared to the worth of what is desired.

There are two key phrases that this line turns upon:  “disproportionately intense”, and “the worth of what is desired”.  The unspoken assumption behind this quote is that God is worth everything and all else pales in comparison, and if you are a Christian then your desires and the enjoyment you feel upon the fulfillment of those desires ought to line up with that.  So if feel intense desire and enjoyment at certain pleasures and that desire and enjoyment is not HUGELY eclipsed by your desire for and enjoyment of God, then you are guilty of idolatry.

So if you’re enjoying a glass of really good wine…

Or excited to be spending time with the girl (or guy) you love…

Or happy to be out with friends at a favorite restaurant…

Or doubled over with laughter when one of said friends tells an ever-so-slightly off-color joke…

Or thrilled when your team scores the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of a key conference game…

You’d better watch yourself.  Because if you’re not prepared to go to church on Sunday and get COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY RIP-ROARING CRUNK during the praise/worship time, you are guilty of idolatry.

Come on, people.

This reminds me of an illustration from a Francis Chan message I heard a few years back.  Chan and his wife took her grandmother out to see a play.  Midway through the play, the grandmother complained that she was not enjoying it because she did not think it would be good for Jesus to find her there if he were to return in that moment.  Of course, they got up and left the play.  And Chan held this up as an example of true devotion to Christ, the sort of devotion which all of us who call ourselves Christian ought to strive for.

When I heard that message I thought of my own grandmother.  She was likewise devoted to Christ, yet never in a million years would she have asked to leave a play because she would not have wanted to be found there if Jesus were to return then.

Not too long ago there were signs on the sides of buses in some European cities which read “There is no God.  Just enjoy your life.”  Miserable excuse for a worldview.  But what a breath of fresh air compared to the sort of thinking embodied by the quote at the top of this post.

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

–Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

The pleasures of life–such as they may be in this world–are a gift of God.  Do we despise such a gift because we presume to think ourselves holier than God Himself?  If we have come to the place where we must choose–either/or, no in-between, no both/and–between God and the pleasures of His world which He has given us, then we are in a very sorry place indeed.

The Moment After the Moment


…But now, standing onstage at the [Royal Albert Hall], singing in front of a full orchestra and a huge crowd, I [felt]…a slight detachment, looking down on myself inhabiting this particular time and space, but also a complete sense of engagement.  I was in good voice, and felt like I was singing from somewhere deep inside, and we were making a big noise for once, which was enveloping the room, and the crowd seemed spellbound and entirely mine.  It felt like an obvious ending.  Cue the swelling orchestra, and … The End.  Credits.

I went backstage and hugged everyone, gushing about how it was one of the best nights of my life, then a few minutes later crept back on to the stage to collect something I’d forgotten.  Already the audience had gone, and the room was empty.  Roadies were dismantling everything, joking and swearing, and out in the hall bits of litter were being gathered and stuffed into plastic bags.  All the lights were on, and in the flat glare the room seemed suddenly vast and meaningless.  Whatever had happened there a few minutes before was over, the atmosphere evaporated, the space simply dead and neutral, waiting for the next night, the next thing to happen and fill it with some substance.  I looked around and wondered, did it mean anything, then, when it was so quickly gone?

Tracey Thorn, formerly the lead singer of Everything But The Girl and now a solo artist in her own right, relates the above experience in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen.

Those of you who have served at Passion gatherings have no doubt experienced something similar to this if you stayed around to help with loadout after the event was over.  You are in the final session, surrounded by tens of thousands of college students singing their hearts out.  The band is on point, the lights are blazing, and you are all making a huge noise to fill the cavernous arena.  It truly feels as if God is present here.

Then, a few minutes later, you are back in the arena and it is completely transformed.  All the seats are empty, all the students are gone, all the house lights are on, and all the stage and sound equipment are in various stages of being dismantled and hauled out.  Whatever was happening here just a few minutes ago is now clearly over.  All sense of God’s presence in this place is now evaporated, the space now dead and neutral, waiting for the next event to come and fill it with some meaning or other.  Like Thorn, you probably wonder to yourself if what just happened at Passion can really mean anything when it is so quickly gone.

If you have attended Passion but never volunteered, believe it or not there will come a point in your life when the only way you can go back to Passion is as a volunteer.  You have not yet experienced the above, but you will.  Trust me.

So what do we do with this?

First of all, let this experience disabuse you once and for all of any notion you may have that worship is nothing more than what happens when Chris Tomlin and friends are onstage, that worship begins and ends with the music set before the sermon.  Begin to take a much broader view of worship; one which includes the music, yes, but also includes the sermon, the sacrament, and everything else which happens during the service.  And things that happen beyond the service, especially when you serve those who are less fortunate.  Because it is among the poor, the needy, the oppressed and otherwise marginalized in our society that God has promised to be.  There is a boatload of Scripture to make this clear.

Let this experience disabuse you once and for all of any notion you may have that what happens in large gatherings like Passion will produce real, sustained life change.  The Christian life was meant to be lived out in community with other believers.  It is here, as you do life with a small circle of close and trusted friends, that real and sustained life change happens.  Evangelicalism has placed way too much stock in the Christian life as a “Jesus-and-me” thing.  But “Jesus-and-me” is no longer good enough (as if it ever was).  You need to be in community with other believers who are on the same journey as yourself.  You need a safe place where you can drop the masks of false piety and false certainty and be real, where you can share your struggles, doubts, and fears, and know that you are not alone.

Begin to look for God in the places where He has promised He would be.  Christian community (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” –Matthew 18:20).  The sacraments, especially communion (“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” –1 Corinthians 11:26).  Avail yourself of this as often as your church has it.  If your church doesn’t do it very often, find another church that does.  That’s okay.  And service to the poor (“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” –Matthew 25:40).  There are probably others, but this should be enough to get you started.

And you will begin to find God in the moment after the moment, when all the lights have come up and it seems that all trace of God’s presence has vanished.  And the moment after that moment.  And the moment after that moment.  Et cetera.

Thoughts of Faith and Practice and Life Transformation

Today’s post is going to be a melange of thoughts from blog posts that I have read over the previous week, in which I will attempt to retain some shred of coherence while wandering all over the place.  But then that’s the postmodern way, isn’t it?

I shall begin with a quote:

The reduction of faith to practice has not enriched faith; it has impoverished it.  It has let practice itself become a matter of law and compulsion.

–Juergen Moltmann

In our church we are beginning the year with a series called “Ask It”, which is centered around a single question which ought to guide all of your decision making:  “What is the wise thing to do?”  Or, put another way, “In light of my past experience, my present situation in life, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing for me to do?”

Excellent question.  If you keep this question front and center in all of your decision making you can save yourself a lot of trouble financially, relationally, emotionally, and in many other areas.  You would do very well to remember this question and take it to heart.

But if you subsist on a diet of this sort of preaching for any length of time, you start to get the idea that Christianity is all about making wise choices, learning principles to help you make wise choices, putting those principles into practice and watching your life soar to ever greater heights as you steer clear of the pitfalls of financial, relational or moral catastrophe that snare the unwise all around us.

Rick Warren did a short op-ed piece at The Christian Post last week entitled “The Aim of Preaching Is Life Transformation“.  I can’t say that I would agree with this.  When you make life transformation the ultimate goal of preaching, you reduce faith to telling people to think a certain way, feel a certain way, and act a certain way.

To be sure, Warren does not see preaching as being about giving out commands and expecting compliance.  Instead it is about something deeper:

Repentance is about changing minds at the deepest level – the level of beliefs & values.  We preach to produce the ultimate paradigm shift for people – the very transformation of their lives.  And it’s serious business!

But even this misses the point also.

We are called to make disciples.  Warren acknowledges this much.  But how do we do that?  The best answer is in 1 Thessalonians 2:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

–1 Thessalonians 2:7-12

Paul saw the ultimate goal of preaching as to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love.  Life transformation will follow from this, but it should not be the ultimate goal.  Certainly it did not seem to be the ultimate goal for Paul.

Evangelicals have a long and well-documented obsession with “transformation by information”.  The model of spiritual formation now prevalent in evangelicalism sees the 40-minute sermon as the end-all, be-all in driving spiritual growth (with the personal quiet time coming in at a close second).  But this is only good up to a point.  Because there comes a point in everyone’s life (and if you haven’t reached it yet, you will, one of these days) where information alone is powerless to effect life transformation.

Sure, there is immense value in the right kind of repetition.  Every teacher knows this.  The Gospel and biblical preaching demand it.  But what is being repeated?  Is it the Gospel?  In many places in evangelicalism, no.  It is enough information to fill the atonement section of a seminary library.  It is the same political rants or moral exhortations or prosperity promises or success principles that you’ve all come to know and love so well.  The same challenges to ever-greater levels of spiritual commitment.  These things may work for a short season, but in the end will fail to produce lasting life transformation.

Now we turn our attention to Paul.

The reduction of Paul’s writings to systematic theology and doctrine has not enriched our understanding of Paul; it has impoverished it.

Allow me to direct your attention to a review of a new book from N. T. Wright entitled “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”.  Coming in at two volumes and 1700 pages, this one’s a doozy.  It will take lots of time to read, lots more time to digest.

What we learn from Wright’s work is that Paul was a creature of a certain time and place.  His attitudes and beliefs were heavily influenced by that time and place, though they would undergo major revision after a significant spiritual experience in Paul’s life.

Paul was a Jew, living in a Jewish nation situated in a world dominated by Greek philosophy, pagan religions, and Roman empire.  After his conversion experience Paul reworked much of his Jewish worldview around Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

An example of Paul’s reworked beliefs is soteriology (this is the doctrine of salvation, for those of you playing the home game).  In the Jewish worldview, soteriology is not a “me and Jesus” thing.  Instead it is something located in the people of God as a whole, beginning with Abraham and continuing through the Jewish nation.  In Paul’s reworked beliefs, soteriology finds its culmination in Jesus Christ.  Paul never understood the people of God as being the beneficiaries of salvation, instead he saw the people of God as the bearers of salvation to the entire world.

When you understand Paul as a man of a certain place and time, you begin to understand Christianity as not just a system of beliefs and doctrines (though it certainly does have those), but rather as a story.  We are invited to participate in the story of God’s redemptive work for all of creation.  We take our place in this story, not by memorizing tomes of systematic theology or by learning and practicing good life principles, but by simply heeding the invitation of Jesus:  “Follow me.”