Lent IV: Judgment and Compassion

Not long ago, my pastor preached a sermon on the insidiousness of hypocritical judgment. This sermon was in the context of the theme “Every believer a minister,” and the goal was to motivate us to greater compassion for others. In my devotional reading earlier this week, I read the same passage that drove that sermon, along with some comments in my devotional book that compel me in a similar direction.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

~ Romans 2:1-5

“…it is interesting to encounter Paul’s words, and have these thoughts, during Lent. For read in the season of Lent, my judgmental comments seem to be, among other things, one of those barriers between me and other people–and ultimately between me and true self-knowledge.

If I criticize you, I don’t have to acknowledge the ways that we are the same, the ways I, too, have done foolish sinful things. I push away knowledge of my own flaws and failings by setting myself above you and your flaws and failings. Lent is an invitation to stop.”

~ Lauren Winner, “Second Wednesday of Lent,” God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

We have been attending our church for almost two years, and never before have I been as challenged in the matter of judging others as I have been here. This is not simply due to the preaching. It is in part due to the church’s efforts to be a multi-cultural church, crossing not only race lines but also socio-economic, educational/class, and political lines. As a result, there are many people in the church who are very different from me, and I have been surprised at my reactions to those differences, which I have needed to work through in order to learn to show love. It is also, I think, due to the crucible of parenthood, which has spanned about the same time frame and which brings me face to face with my own baseness. In any case, judgment is a favorite activity for most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Let us stop, and find ways of showing compassion, even as we bear witness to the truth.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice!
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
    the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

~ Psalm 72: 1-2, 12-14

Culture: Retreat or Renew?

Is It Time for Evangelicals to Withdraw from the Culture?

This series of articles on Christianity Today offers four responses to Rob Dreher’s article–The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village–in which Dreher calls for a tactical, circling-the-wagons approach to dealing with the evangelical church’s inability to be a powerful counterforce to both the decline of virtue and the over-enthusiasm for the market present in various segments of our culture today:

The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation….  If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

While there is much to be taken note of here–Christianity should be a way of life, and Christian community should be more than a social club, instead encouraging and growing us theologically and spiritually–these responses detail various reasons why retreat from culture, even for the good reasons of developing community and intentional spiritual practice, is perhaps not what we are called to:

The church is made who it is by being the church in the world. The church’s primary reason for being is to be in and among (but not of) the world (John 17:14–15)…. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are. The church does not have a mission. It is mission.

~ The Benedict Option’s False Dichotomy, David Fitch

Too often, our well-intended efforts to deepen Christian community leave us with people who look just like us, perpetuating divisions in the church over race, politics, and class. But the church of every tribe, tongue, and nation—and the church of every tax bracket, political party, and musical taste—requires more. Christians are called to overcome these barriers, for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.

~ The Benedict Option Falls Short of Real Pluralism, John Inazu

Robust theology will yield robust communities…. God’s story from Creation to Revelation is of a Covenant God empowering his beloved to persevere through hostility leveled specifically against them. The New Testament tells the beautiful story of persevering community, faith, and creativity in the context of cultural adversity…. [It] provides a model of persevering faith, creativity, and community. Anyone seeking a more dynamic, transformational, risk-taking church in America will humbly learn from both global and local leaders who are living its reality.

~ The Benedict Option’s Blind Spots, Karen Ellis

As counterintuitive as it sounds, evangelicals strengthen their local Christian communities by recovering a sense of responsibility for the larger communities in which we exist. It is the Great Commission that corrects the effects of secular individualism, actively confronting our consumerism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and classicism. It is the Great Commission that gives us a reason to exist beyond the solipsism of our own hearts.

~ The Benedict Option Isn’t an Evangelical Option, Hannah Anderson

Three-Part Faith

In academia, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude that people with religious faith are intellectually dishonest. While possibly excusable for non-intellectuals – the attitude goes – we enlightened thinking-types ought not rely on faith; after all, as Dr. Temperance Brennan in the popular TV Series Bones says, “Faith is an irrational belief in something that is logically impossible,” right?

cropped-fairy-tale.jpg

A fairy-tale wall tower at the Tower of London

Pardon the polemical introduction. I exaggerate slightly to make a point… although perhaps the exaggeration is not particularly far removed from reality in some cases? But as a Christian academic, I ask myself the question, what is faith? Is it really the irrational belief in the logically impossible? Perhaps if I have faith that the world will end on Dec. 21 or that fairytales are historically true accounts, I’m approaching that kind of faith. But what about faith in the Christian God and in his gospel (good news)? Are we crazy and irrational?

Rev. Mick Leary of The Church of the Redeemer, PCA in Cortland, NY recently preached on biblical faith, and its main points stuck with me as concisely capturing what true faith looks like:

What is Faith? 

Rev. Leary suggested that true faith comprises knowledge, belief, and trust.

Knowledge

True faith is first based on knowledge, or, more precisely, justification in its epistemological sense; in other words, faith has good reason to believe. Justification involves both good information or evidence and good reasoning. As Christians, we have good information about God and how he interacts with the world – especially his gospel.

Romans 3:21-26 (emphasis added)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (NIV)

We have a historically reliable book that claims to be the revelation of God’s word to his people through history: the Bible. Of great importance, then, the content of Scripture reveals much about who and what God is – invisible, eternal spirit, creator of the physical world and universe, sovereign over human beings, holy and righteous, etc. – and about how he interacts with human beings. The Scriptures contain verifiable historical events which demonstrate God’s reality, prophesies fulfilled that demonstrate his faithfulness, and future promises that may be presumed to hold true based on previous information.

At this point, the skeptics will already be ready to pounce, for the previous statements are based on further evidence – historical accuracies and a high level of agreement between manuscripts and archeology – (see Tim Keller’s chapter on biblical accuracy in The Reason for God for an overview of this issue) but also on a worldview that presumes the possibility of a God. This is a circular argument, they may say, but there is no way to argue for a world with God or a world without God without beginning with some given axiom that cannot be proven. Hence this discussion on faith. My point here is merely that the Scriptures are comparatively speaking the most reliable ancient book out there, and that they are considered historically definitive in many respects. As such, what they say about God and his people ought to be considered as worth study.

In addition, reason allows for and supports the existence of God from within the finite realm of human thought. Many have tried and failed to argue for or against the existence of God using merely “pure” reason. However, in approaching the possibility of God in existence, reason is more than compatible with such a possibility and can provide very compelling support. Rather than attempting to set a new argument out here, I will refer my readers to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; these two books demonstrate the philosophical reasonableness of God. Finally, the historic tenacity of Christian faith and the individual and corporate record of experiences of God provide further evidence in support of the existence of God and his redemptive plan.

Belief

With the solidity of Scripture as our main evidence and reason, tradition, and experience as our epistemological supports, we are then faced with a decision to whether we have enough epistemological justification to actually believe – assent to the truth of – the information presented. It is at this point at which the dividing line is most distinct between those who profess Christianity and those who do not. Many people who explore the information within Scripture and the supports along side it find it intellectually compelling enough that they cannot but accept it as truth (c.f. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis). Many others are unwilling to accept that the evidence is certain enough to be true. Members of both groups are easily found in both academic and non-academic circles.

But in any case, faith requires the belief that the good information is true. For example, consider Romans 4:18-25 (emphasis added):

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead25 He was delivered over to death for our sinsand was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Skeptics will immediately notice the phrase “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Aha! See the illogical belief here! But notice verse 20-21. In essence, Abraham faced the physical evidence and compared it to what he knew about God – the Creator of the universe, the God who had called him out of his hometown, the One who had provided for and led him every step of the way – and he recognized the faithfulness of God before and reasonably drew the conclusion that God, as the Creator, had the power to work with his failing physical body to fulfill his promise.

Trust

Surely justified belief is enough to constitute faith, right? To return to Rev. Leary’s sermon, the crucial point that transforms belief into faith is the trust that the information is so true that my life can be built on it. This is the toughest part. I may believe for good reason that if I put my money in the a Savings account it will stay there and gain a small amount of interest unless I withdraw it. However, I have to really trust that the bank is legitimate in order to put my money in an account to begin with.

Consider Romans 8:18-30, especially the following verses:

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (NIV)

To borrow almost directly from Rev. Leary, the basis of trust lies with and in God and Christ, in what he did before we knew him rather than on what we are doing. Romans 5:6-8 says, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Trust begins with the recognition that I am weak and that he has done for me what I could not do for myself. He pursues us in love, with grace, in his own timing; in fact, he is often willing to take time when we are not willing to do so. In order to “do” trust, then it behooves us to spend time reflecting on our life in the context of the Scriptures, to look at the way we spend our time on other things (what matters if God is real and his gospel is true?), to gather together and listen to each other as God’s people. We know he is there although we cannot see him. We believe he will act as he has in the past – faithfully, righteously.  We therefore trust in him.

To close, let me refer to Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)

In this brief definition, faith is defined as assurance and conviction rather than mere hope or wishful thinking. While assurance and conviction may be merely asserted by the unthinking person, this verse connotes a confidence that is supported. The NKJV uses the word “substance,” the idea being: faith is well-supported, substantial, evidence-based belief in, yes, the intangible and the not-yet; it is not irrational – or at least no more so than any sensible view of this complex world ought to be.

(See for reference some further thoughts on rationality and its place in human thought in this earlier post.)

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

An article by David Lyle Jeffrey addressing the deeply embedded preoccupation with human suffering prevalent in modernist art. He provides an analysis of Rouault and Chagall, each an example of an artist engaged with the horrifying reality of suffering and the redemptive reality of God’s love for us and his offer of life to us.

Chagall’s prophetic art is thus a splendid complement to the confessional work of Rouault. Rouault invites us to give up our masks, to accept the identification that Christ’s suffering affords as the “true image” of God’s love for us. Chagall’s work encourages us to choose life, and to nourish ourselves deeply, whether by day or by night, in the Word of the One who bade us to live in the joy of his giving. Each series is striking; when seen together we know how joy is an answer to sorrow, and beauty is made all the more urgent a choice when so much ugliness abounds.

Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird | Christianity Today

Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird | Christianity Today

Review by Peter Berger of Robert Wuthnow’s The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. This book addresses the way Christians in America sustain faith through a balance between naturalistic and religious worldviews:

Wuthnow, arguably the most productive and insightful sociologist of American religion, deploys rich empirical evidence against the widespread notion that faith and reason, religion and science, are engaged in a struggle for the soul of America. The evidence indicates that for many religious people there is no conflict but rather a creative tension, which they manage by establishing a balance between two distinct ways of looking at the world.

Pursuing Holistic Discipleship on Campus | Comment Magazine | Cardus

Pursuing Holistic Discipleship on Campus | Comment Magazine | Cardus

Is it possible to renew Christian scholarship (at both the student and professor levels) as one aspect of holistic discipleship?

Education used to be so much more than a dreary means to a materialistic end. In fact, the university was originally intended to be a place where students came to a better understanding of themselves and God’s created world. That is, universities were founded as places of wonder, exploration, and service…

If Christians are going to find their voice in the academic discussions taking place on campuses today—and across our culture—we’re going to need to re-discover our sense of curiosity, delight, and wonder. And we will need to develop an interest for more than the easy answers or trite sound bites. If Christians really believe that a God bigger than our imaginations holds the universe in being, and accomplishes this through his will executed via a multitude of secondary causes, then we’d better be ready to roll up our sleeves and dig down into the amazingly complex stuff of reality. We must be deeply and passionately curious about the world…

These are the kinds of questions, the sense of inquisitiveness, that can equip a Christian on campus to make one’s faith and discipleship something that takes a place closer to the centre of the academic enterprise on campus—not in ways which baptize the status quo, but in ways which make the Christian faith a constructive conversation partner which seeks to bless and serve the common good, both on campus and throughout the world.

A Prayer of Praise

Inspired by my study of Isaiah 7:1-9:7 and my current struggles with pride and lack of trust.

If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all. ~ Isaiah 7:9b

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
and he will be a sanctuary… ~ Isaiah 8:13-14a

O God, I am ashamed of my fear and unbelief.

How can I be afraid?

You are with your people,
more now than ever before.

How can I lack faith?

Your promises are always kept,
and even my life shows it.

O God, thank you for your act of self-sacrifice.

How can I be proud?

Your saving work is yours alone;
Your call to me effectual and sure.

How can I be anxious?

You saved my soul from eternal death;
You equip me to do your will.

O God, you are holy, beyond all praising.

How can I exalt you enough?

Your Son and Spirit exalt you,
transforming my inadequacy into exquisite melody.