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Some thoughts on thoughts

For a while there it seemed that America’s Evangelical Christian sub-culture was obsessed with something called “spiritual warfare”. (Google it if you’re not familiar with the term.) These days, I still hear some people using the jargon associated with spiritual warfare, but it looks like that the fever has cooled a bit. One word that features prominently in the speech of believers in spiritual warfare is “stronghold”. This word, lifted from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, came to mean any sinful behavior or thought that is particularly difficult to give up. Yet, this doesn’t appear to be what Paul had in mind when he originally used the word. For Paul, strongholds were “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. These arguments are less like the out-right lie that Satan told Eve when deceiving her (“You will not surely die.”), but more like the faulty logic that he put before Jesus when he took Him up to the pinnacle of the temple (If you’re God’s Son, jump. The Bible says that God will protect you.).

Recently, one preacher that I listen to said, “A stronghold is an entrenched pattern of thought…contrary to the truth of God.” As an illustration of such an entrenched thought pattern, he told the story of woman who lived for thirty years believing that she was unwanted and unworthy because she grew up with her father telling her that a) she was unplanned and b) he had hope she would be a boy. Thirty years of dwelling on this in her mind fuelled perfectionism and robbed her of joy.

While I don’t think that this is what Paul was getting at with his use of the word “stronghold”, I do think that he had something to say about such negative thoughts. In the same letter, in the same sentence no less, Paul says that we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”.

That same preacher offered two ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the process of renewing our minds, one of which is basically a way to take our thoughts captive. He said, “We can think about what we think about.” Rather than remain passive when a thought enters our minds, we can seize it and critique it. Hold it up to the light of Scripture, of Christ and examine it. This is easier to do when we have the Scripture in our minds whether by means of intentional memorization or incidental familiarity born of lots of exposure. The more of God’s word (which are God’s thoughts) we have in us, the better we will be able to take every thought captive to obey Christ. In this way, we will not only gain ground against “arguments and pretensions” that are against the knowledge of God, we will also make progress in rooting out those “entrenched patterns of thought” that are “contrary to the truth of God”.

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What’s the problem with praying to saints?

Protestants get really uptight about the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) practice of praying to the saints. Generally, Protestants think prayer is communication with God. Catholics have a broader understanding of prayer. While it can be communication with God, prayer can also be simply asking for something. For Catholic apologists, praying to saints is merely asking dead Christians to do something for you, namely interceding with God on your behalf. They see this as essentially the same thing as asking living Christians to pray for you with the exception that the saints are perfectly righteous. The perfected righteousness of the saints is what makes their prayers on our behalf more effective than our own prayers. Protestants have a hard time getting past the fact that the saints are dead and therefore out of the reach of the living. (They also have a problem with the Catholic concept of “saint”, but we’ll leave that alone for now.)

Both groups appeal to the Bible to support their positions, so who’s right? On this issue, I’m going to side with the Protestants, but with some reservation. While I think Protestantism’s objection to praying to the saints is correct, I don’t think all of its arguments are sound . For example, I heard a well-known Evangelical apologist argue that praying to the saints is forbidden because it is analogous to consulting the dead, which is prohibited in Deuteronomy 18. I was very disappointed by his reasoning. Instead of seeing the prohibition of contacting the dead in its immediate context (divination and necromancy), this Evangelical generalized and stated that God doesn’t want any communication with the dead of any kind. The folks over at Catholic Answers stick with the context saying that there is a big difference between performing necromancy in order to get secret information from the deceased and asking a departed Christian in heaven to pray to God on your behalf. I have to agree. Deuteronomy 18 is not a good proof text for the Protestant position.

Is there a good proof text for the Protestant position? I don’t think that there really is. As they correctly point out, there’s not a single example of anyone praying to a saint found anywhere in the Scripture. How can there be a proof text when the subject simply isn’t ever addressed? At this point, Catholic apologists will likely disagree, saying that there are examples of praying to saints in Scripture and cite a passage from Revelation.

Revelation is a complicated bit of Scripture. It belongs to that unique genre called apocalyptic”. The book’s highly symbolic rhetoric makes it unwise to approach it as though John were a foreign correspondent on assignment in a far away land giving his eye-witness report of historical events. So when Catholic Answers turns to Revelation 8 and points at the angel offering the “prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar”, we should slow down and think this image through. Let’s begin by dealing with the image itself without addressing its meaning. In the image, there is no saint offering prayers to God, but rather an angel. Consequently, this text doesn’t illustrate dead saints praying on behalf of living saints and therefore doesn’t justify its citation. Then there are the prayers themselves. We don’t know the content of those prayers, so how do we know if they are addressed to God or to a saint? We know that the prayers come from “all the saints” but what does that mean? It might mean both the living and the dead ones, or it might mean only the dead ones (depending on what one means by the word “saint”.) The image alone, that is without interpretation, fails to do the job for which the Catholic apologist has employed it. The same applies to Revelation 5 where we see “the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Who are these “elders”? Are they saints themselves? (If so, would that mean that there are presently only twenty-four saints in heaven?) Again, what is the content of these prayers? The Protestant claim that there is no example in the Bible of people praying to saints is justified.

Without a good proof text, is there a good Protestant argument against praying to the saints? I think there is but I’m not exactly sure how to make it. Since Catholics see Tradition as equally authoritative as Scripture, I would have to know a lot more about Tradition to make a complete argument. However, I think I could put together a good argument from Scripture. My argument would include the simple fact that the Bible isn’t perfectly clear about what happens to Christians when they die. This would probably upset some Catholics and Protestants because they are so sure of what they believe the Bible says. For example, they are sure that the Bible says Christians go to heaven when they die, but does it really? Where? The Bible is clear that Jesus returns at the end of history, that the dead are raised and that there is both reward and punishment. The Bible is not clear about what happens between death and resurrection. In the Bible, we find Jesus telling the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in Paradise on that very day. Yet, we also find Paul saying that the Christians who had died before the return of Jesus were “asleep”. (I suppose the thief could be asleep in Paradise, but I don’t’ think anyone on either side is willing to say that.) We read in the Psalms that “the dead can not praise the Lord”. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses (who died) and Elijah (who did not die but was “taken”) were there with him. So what’s going on with the dead? Where are they really? What are they doing? Are they conscious, unconscious or semi-conscious? The Bible simply isn’t clear, so why should we believe that the saints are in heaven, hearing our prayers and presenting them to God? Without Tradition, there simply isn’t a good reason to believe this. I suppose that the Catholic response would be “Thank God we have Tradition,” which brings up a different problem Protestants have with Catholics.

I have heard a Protestant apologist argue against the Catholic distinction between “latria” and “dulia”. Catholics say that “latria” is worship which is only due to God, while “dulia” is service which can be given to both God and man. Therefore, prayers to saints are “dulia” while prayers to God are “latria”. I think that the Biblical case he presented was sound, but unfortunately he got very close to being ungracious in presenting it. I would probably want to work that into my argument.

The problem with praying to saints from the Protestant perspective is that it appears too much like worship which is only due to God. Catholics deny that praying to saints is worship. Either way, it’s enough for me that there’s no good Biblical support for the practice, which means that my Protestant roots are showing.

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Intimacy with God

In July, I’m going to be speaking to/with a group of young Christian leaders about intimacy with God. I’m thinking the topic through and these are some of my thoughts.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is that characteristic of a relationship which can be called “closeness”. We can think of it as a deep knowing of the other. Often, we associate acceptance with that deep knowing, but not always. Sometimes, that deep knowing results in rejection, which is why intimacy can be frightening.

What is intimacy with God?

God is The Other. The regular word for that is Holy. Separate from all, particularly His creatures. If He is by His nature so completely Other, what are we talking about when we talk about intimacy with God? How is it possible to be close to Him, to have a deep knowledge of Him? I think we are talking about knowing God deeply. Not knowing about Him, but knowing Him. I think this is possible because God wills it. He wants us to know Him deeply and so He reveals Himself to us, becomes vulnerable to us.

How do we know that God desires intimacy with us?

There are many ways to characterize the story we find in the Bible. One way is to see it as the God’s pursuit of intimacy with his creatures. The story begins with God and mankind living together in Eden. After the relationship is fractured and even though He drives Adam and Eve out of the garden, God spends much of the rest of human history attempting to “be their God” and getting them to “be His people”. This is particularly true of Abram and his descendants. The history of Israel is a constant vacillation between being close to God and fleeing from God with frequent expulsions by God. Yet, the promise always remains: one day God will restore the relationship with His creation, with mankind. Then He comes to be Immanuel, “God with us.” Most people call Him Jesus. Jesus lives and dies among us, and then when He is raised to life, He leaves us. Yet, He gives us His Spirit and through His Spirit He is always close: with us even. Finally, when Jesus returns, we read in the Revelation that “the dwelling of God is now with men”.  This is the story of God’s pursuit of intimacy with us.

How can we become intimate with God?

Jesus did not come to show us how to have an intimate relationship with God. He came to make it possible. So, intimacy with God begins with Jesus. Once we become His disciples, He gives us His Spirit and our journey into intimacy with God begins. Pragmatically speaking, we can get close to God in a variety of ways. We draw near to Him through worship, prayer and obedience. We come to know Him through studying the life of His Son and emulating Him. We learn about Him through the stories, songs, poems and revelations found in Scripture. All of these things take time and effort. History is the story of God’s effort to have an intimate relationship with His people. We should expect that our story of intimacy with God will involve effort on our part as well.

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(Beginning) Thoughts on Fasting

There’s a chance that I will be speaking to a group of young (in the faith) Christians this summer about intimacy with God. The material that I’ll be using lists fasting as one of the ways we can nurture intimacy with God. As I read through this section of the material, I was deeply frustrated and disappointed with the misapplication of Scriptures to support various statements about fasting and as a result, I’ve been reading and thinking about the subject for the past several days.

Fasting is not something that Western, Protestant/Evangelical Christians as a whole do either well or often. Consequently, coming from neighborhood of Christianity, I don’t know much about the practice. I can only think of one time that I fasted for a spiritual purpose (incidentally, without receiving the desired result). Obviously, I’m not exactly qualified to speak about it, but I have begun to develop some more nuanced thoughts on the subject.

Previously, my lone thought on fasting was that it’s not required. That’s it. Since it’s not required of Christians, it’s not worthy of further consideration. That was before. Now, I still think that fasting is not required of Christians but it’s definitely worth much further consideration. (Funny how having to teach on the subject has been the catalyst for my further consideration of fasting.)  For example, why bother fasting if it’s not required? What are the benefits of fasting? What are acceptable and unacceptable ways to fast? And finally, with regards to the material that I may be presenting in July; does fasting really nurture intimacy with God?

These are the questions that I’m in the process of answering for myself. At the moment, my answers are not fully formed. I can say with confidence that fasting with proper motives and attitude coupled with prayer nurtures intimacy with God. Not because God is enamored with fasting. It’s not something that God finds more or less desirable in comparison to the other activities which also nurture intimacy with Him. Fasting simply is one of many ways we may choose (or not) to draw near to God. And like every imperfect act motivated by love for God and desire to please Him, God responds graciously according to His wisdom.

I’m not planning on taking up fasting any time soon…but I might.

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Stewardship and the Tithe

The Bible tells us that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”. This is not only poetry but a fact of the material universe. All matter, space and time belong to Him simply because He is the Creator.

We are His Creatures, along with all of the animals, however we were set apart from them from our beginning. God made humans to “subdue” the Earth and to “have dominion over the fish… birds… and every living thing that moves on the earth”. Our purpose from the beginning is to serve God by ruling His over His Creation and our fellow Creatures. The Earth and all that is in it belong to God (ourselves included), but we have been entrusted with caring for His possession. We are by design God’s stewards and as God’s stewards, we must give an account of our stewardship to Him.

It is with this firmly set in our minds that we begin to think about stewardship of our personal finances.

The Bible affirms that “a worker is worthy of his wages”. The use of our skills, talents and physical labor are genuine contributions that we make to the world and it is right to expect a measure of compensation for them. In the days of Moses, when God entered into a unique relationship with the people of Israel, He required that a tenth of “the increase” of every Israelite be given to God. This tithe was to come from the produce of  their labor. While I know that this ten percent came from their crops  and animals, I think it might have included any cash which made up their “increase”. This 10% was then given to the priests for their use in the performance of their duties before God and for their sustenance. Today, despite the absence of a priesthood and a temple, many Christians believe that God still requires ten percent of their income to be devoted to doing the will of God in the world.  Are they correct?

In the Book of Acts, James tells the church, particularly Paul and Barnabus, that the Gentiles who were turning to God through faith in Jesus should “abstain from the thing polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood”. The giving of tithes was not imposed on Gentile Christians at that time. In fact, at no point in the New Testament, are Christians instructed to give ten percent of their income. However, the apostle Paul does have something to say about giving.

When he wrote to the church in Corinth, Paul praised them for their generosity toward the church in Jerusalem. He explained his reason for sending some “brothers” to them to “arrange in advance for the gift” they had promised to give to the Jerusalem church. His reason was that he wanted their gift to be given willingly, “not as an exaction”. With regard to this specific occasion of giving, Paul says that “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion…” He also goes on to note that the Corinthians’ generous contribution to the needs of the Jerusalem church was directly tied to their “confession of the gospel of Christ” which came from their “submission” (possibly to his apostolic authority or to God Himself).

There is no command here, but certainly there is a principle. That principle may be worded like this: Christians should willingly give of their means to meet the needs of others (particularly other Christians) with the understanding that doing so is an extension of their confession of the gospel.

Some people need more than a principle to guide them on this matter. They want a commandment. Since the Law of Moses gives such a commandment, many Christians are keen to seize upon it, give their ten percent and move on. Personally, I think that setting aside ten percent is a good place to begin when learning the discipline of giving. However, I believe that we should not settle on ten percent without revisiting our giving ever again. As we become more conformed to the likeness of Jesus, we should expect our generosity to increase as well. I think that teaching the tithe as a requirement of God upon Christians today is misguided and prevents many from maturing in their relationship with God.

God, make us more confident in your provision and more generous with what you have provided.

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(Im)Perfect Love

I’m not perfect.

You’ve said it. Or you’ve heard this said by someone else. Usually, it’s an excuse. It’s a common attempt to justify a defect in one’s character or a moral failure of some sort. Rarely is it ever a confession.

I confess. I am not perfect. Specifically, I’m not perfect in love…for anyone. Particularly God. Over the past several months, I’ve been made acutely aware of the imperfection of my love for God. Not surprisingly perhaps, this awareness has come about through experiencing intense fear. Deep, gut-churning fear. Fear of cancer. Fear of death.

I’ve been struggling with depression and what appears to be an anxiety disorder for probably more than year. I’ve had panic attacks in connection to some minor illnesses and stress. It began when migraines lead me to fear a brain tumor. A case of pneumonia drove me to obsess over my ability to breathe. Acid reflux in conjunction with my obsession with my lungs resulted in two emergency room visits. An infection in my intestine (like giardia lamblia) had me worried about colon cancer. In sum, no matter how minor or fleeting my illness, in my mind I was terrorized by the expectation (not the mere thought, mind you) of my imminent death.

As I have prayed about and through these experiences, God has comforted me in unexpectedly intimate ways. He has also given me a new insight into our relationship; while His love for me is perfect, my love for Him is not. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of 1 John 4:17-19 says that perfect love leaves no room for fear, particularly fear of death and  fear of judgement. Another translation says that perfect love drives out fear. (I can’t help thinking of Jesus driving out demons.) I can’t help but think that there would be no possibility of panic attacks, irrational fears of impending death, if I loved God as perfectly as He loves me.

When I talk about loving God, I’m not talking about that emotional sensation of affection. I’m talking about the intentional choice to believe that He is set upon doing good to and for me. If I were choosing constantly to believe His promise to raise me up to new bodily life, why would I fear dying? Wouldn’t I be like Paul and say that dying, for me, would be gain? Would be a benefit?

I have confessed to God the imperfection of my love for Him. It’s not been a guilt-ridden confession, but rather an expressed agreement with what He has brought to light in our relationship. And for His part, God has been faithful and just. He has comforted me as He promised he would (faithful) and He has forgiven me as He promised He would (just). The panic attacks have subsided, however the fear has yet to completely abate. But I believe it will. I believe that ongoing confession of the imperfection of my love for Him which leads to my fear (whether in formal counseling or not) will keep me honest before God. And God, in honest relationship with me, will in His own time perfect my love for Him and release me from my fear of decay, decrepitude and death.

I will wait on the Lord.

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Who are the Children of God?

A few days ago, I read a news story about the new pope and an address he made to a crowd outside the Vatican. In the story and in his address to that crowd, the phrase “children of God” appeared and it got me to thinking. Who are the children of God?

There are basically two views on that question. One view says that all human beings are children of God. The other view says only some humans are children of God. In the first view, every person on the Earth is a child of God because God is the creator and we are his creation. In the second view, only some people are God’s children because God has made a distinction between those who are his and those who are not. Both views are appealing in one way or another. In the West, we like to say that “all men are created equal”, while at the same time we also like to say that “everyone is special in his or her own way”. The first view appeals to our democratic values while the second appeals to our sense of self-worth. Which view is the correct one? Or could they both be correct in some manner? If there is answer to the question “Who are the children of God?”, I believe it is going to be found in the Word of God.

A simple search of the exact phrase “children of God” over at the Bible Gateway yields only New Testament references from the English Standard Version. Now, I must admit that such a search is hardly scholarly, but it is not without merit. In fact, it’s probably as good as any leaping off point to begin a detailed study of the concept. However, this will not be a detailed study. After all, there is a reason that this blog is called “Armchair Theologian”.

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we see that the children of God are those who receive Jesus and “believe in his name”. In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul speaks about those who are “in Christ Jesus”. He says that the Spirit “bears witness” with the spirits of those who are in Christ Jesus (himself included) that “we are the children of God”.  Finally, the third chapter of 1 John says that it is “evident” who the children of God are because they no longer make it a practice to sin.

There is much more that can be said about who are the children of God. I’m thinking particularly about a conversation Jesus had with his fellow Jews about who was his father as opposed to who was their father. Then there’s the question of becoming a child of God. Whatever we may say about the technical aspects of how someone becomes a child of God, we must agree that the Word of God says that those who put their faith in Jesus receive the Spirit of God and are counted as God’s children. Since not all humans put their faith in Jesus, not all humans receive the Spirit of God and consequently are not counted as His children. I’m sure that’s not an appealing view to most Westerners these days (both inside and outside of the church) but I’m also pretty sure that this is the view contained in Scripture.

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