Category Archives: Christianity and Culture

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imaging actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

Author Page at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

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Blessed are the Peacemakers in a Culture at War

In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Or the words of John the beloved disciple:

“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.

In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.

After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).

Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.

In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.

The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

Theme for Year Four: “Love Not the World”

My theme for year four of ifaqtheology will be “Love Not the World.” Christians always face challenges from without and temptations from within. But the ever-changing form of those challenges makes them even more dangerous. We seem always to be one step behind, fighting the last battle, bursting through open doors, reacting to past abuses, and correcting yesterday’s errors. In this series, I want to help us discern and examine the challenges to Christian faith and practice that we face today and are likely to face in the near future. The theme text for this year is 1 John 2:-15-17

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

This text is raises so many questions we need to address and is overflowing with implications for the way we live in relation to the world. What is the “world”? Does it mean the created world or the human world, that is, human culture? Or, does it mean the usual “way of the world” dominated by the devil, sin, and corruption? What does it mean to “love the world”? Surely, John is not condemning loving the people of the world, because the Gospel of John proclaims, “For God so loved the world that he gave…his Son… (John 3:16). What would it mean to love the “way of the world”? And what are the two lusts and the pride of which he speaks? Do these three misdirected loves cover everything it means to “love the world”?

In what ways and for what reasons do the love of the world and the love of the Father exclude each other? And what does it mean to love the Father in contrast to loving the world? John gives us two reasons not to love the world. (1) Its loves do not originate with the Father, and (2) they “pass away.” What happens to the one who loves only things that die and cease to be?

But what does it mean to love the world today, in our setting? In what ways does the culture we live in conform to the “world” John speaks about? How do the three misdirected loves take shape in our society? And in what forms to they pose the greatest threat to our practice of the Christian faith? How would purifying our loves from the three worldly loves and focusing our love on the Father, change our lives? How would it change the way we work, play, and relate to others? How would it change the way the church organizes and conducts its corporate life? How would it change the way we educate our children, spend our money, and relate to the political order? How would it affect our hopes and values?

I look forward to addressing these questions during the next year.