From Empathy to Chaos: Considerations for the Church in a Postmodern Age

Below is an essay I wrote in Feb 2018 for my entrance application for school. I’ve noticed a recent interest in this topic as an article by Joe Rigney has caused a stir. It’s an excellent piece. It made me think that this might be a good time to add these thoughts to the mix. I’ve been mulling over empathy and its inherent problems for a number of years, mainly because it’s reeked some havoc in my heart and it had to be dealt with. My view is similar to Joe’s, but I think it’s important to recognize the peculiarly feminine nature of empathy and to understand that there seems to be good and intentional design features in that. It’s not that all empathy is bad––it can be very good in regard to mothering an infant, but it was never meant to subvert reality.

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I first encountered Shusaku Endo’s book Silence as a freshman at Bethel University in 2000. Widely regarded as a thoughtful, albeit torturous, examination of the tensions of Christian faith, it was just the sort of book to put in the hands of green, hopeful English majors. Written in 1966, Silence tells the fictional tale of a Jesuit priest sent as a missionary to Japan in the 17th century amid horrific persecution of Christians. While in Japan, Rodrigues, the protagonist, seeks his mentor, Ferreira, who was said to have apostatized. The book details Rodrigues’s inner turmoil, both that his mentor could have done such a thing, and also that he himself is being drawn closer and closer to doing the same. In the end, Rodrigues must either refuse to deny Christ and be the cause of torture and death for others or deny Christ by trampling on an image of him and save others from a terrible fate. Faced with an untenable situation, he imitates his mentor. In his mind, he hears Christ giving him permission to apostatize to save the innocent. Yet, the cock crows when the deed is done.

Lately, Silence has received renewed attention as the book has made its way into film. Patricia Snow’s insightful article, “Empathy Is Not Charity” opens with an examination of the real story that the fiction book is based on. The historical account is quite straightforward and lacks the unique diabolical tensions of the book in favor of more familiar horrors. The Catholic missionaries are themselves tortured and they apostatize (Snow, 2017). There is no threat of harming others if the missionaries resist apostasy. She says, “What this means is that the deeply disturbing, polarizing drama at the heart of Silence is an anachronism. It is a projection of the modern mind, a hallucination of an anxious, confused, and codependent imagination” (Snow, 2017).

In Endo’s made-up world, “Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God,” and when caught within its confines it is difficult to grope through the fog and grasp hold of anything solid (Snow, 2017). Arguably, that’s the point: how do we cope, how do we love, when love contradicts itself? In Silence, empathy¹ is the only real means of love. The postmodern age that was superimposed on 17th c. Japan likewise presents us with untenable versions of contradicting love: either affirm same-sex marriage and transgenderism or hate people; either dismantle the “patriarchy” and male authority or oppress women; either view people solely as a consequence of their race or be a racist. In a world where postmodernism² has pulled up the anchor of reality and truth and empathy rules as the primary virtue, societal chaos that mimics the storm of each individual’s emotions follows; therefore, the church must grapple with the virtue and vice of empathy and make itself impervious to an entitled, chaotic empathy without jettisoning love.

An entire age is being shaped by the idea that our feelings are ultimate reality and that to love someone is to believe, value, affirm, and feel their feelings—in other words, loving someone means empathizing with them to the point of agreement or at least non- disagreement. If we drill down to the root of this species of empathy there seems to be a demand: you should stop being you, stop thinking like you, stop seeing the world through your eyes and become me; see the world as I see it and adopt my point of view. It is postmodern, entitled empathy.

But empathy isn’t all bad—there are elements of love in it. Bible stories and passages spring to mind like: Jesus’s compassion on the crowds (Matthew 15:32), or Jesus being moved in his spirit over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33), or the good Samaritan’s help of the assaulted man (Luke 10:33), or the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). All of these examples have empathy in them—a willingness to use our feelings to relate to another with compassion. But when we look closely, we see a clear demarcation between a sympathetic feeling and maintaining one’s own judgement. Empathy in the Scriptures never divorces from a proper and true assessment of the facts. Our cultural moment is one that hasn’t just divorced objectivity from compassion, but pronounced an annulment on objectivity’s existence. What we have left is a reckless, short-sighted compassion that’s very likely to send people to hell in bubble-wrap and band-aids.

Even the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this fulfills the Law and the Prophets,” while embracing an imaginative sympathy, still protects individual judgment (Matthew 7:12 ESV). If we pass the Golden Rule through the sieve of empathy-as-the-ruling-virtue, it would come out saying, “Whatever others wish you would do to them, do it.” This makes nonsense of the rule, because the Bible doesn’t ask us to substitute our own Christian judgement for another person’s. Rather, when we do to others as we would have them do to us, we are the arbiter of what would actually be for our good, and therefore, what would be for another’s good. We value others as much as we value ourselves by being objectively kind and loving toward them.

Every parent knows that implementing the Golden Rule toward our children requires us to maintain a proper understanding of what is good and what isn’t. If our child wants to play ten hours of video games or eat ten pounds of candy, we must do to them what we would want a good parent to do to us—not what our foolish eight-year-old self would want, but what our mature, wise, Christian, grown-up self knows to be best. Similarly, if our son wants us to treat him like he’s our daughter, we lovingly refuse because of the Golden Rule, not in spite of it.

The cardinal sin in a society that has inverted the Golden Rule is to make a distinction between felt needs and actual ones—which is just another way of saying we’re making distinctions about what is right and wrong or good and bad. If a teenaged boy says he feels like a girl, then to love him is to now call him a girl, because that’s how he wants you to treat him. If a woman feels she’s oppressed by “the patriarchy” then to love her is to start calling it out (whatever it is) and using the hashtags she promotes and supporting her decisions, whatever they may be. The facts of either situation aren’t relevant and trying to uncover them will result in a further confirmation of the oppression they perceive themselves to be experiencing. But what does become obvious when interacting with the feelings-are-reality crowd is that they really do have one hard truth that won’t let go of: their feelings are unassailable, not yours. This can lead to infighting among the ranks of people who all use the same inverted golden rule.

Michelle Goldberg catalogues this problem with the genuine question, “What Is a Woman?” where she explores the rift between radical feminism and transgenderism (Goldberg, 2014). Radical feminists convinced a generation of women that because they felt marginalized by the differences between men and women that there actually weren’t any significant differences between men and women. Transgender activists have convinced a new generation of young people that if they feel like the opposite sex, then that’s what they are. These are incompatible views, but fundamentally predicated on the same reason-eschewing value: you help and care for me by feeling what I feel about something—thinking is largely unhelpful, even detrimental, to this task. Only now feminists have changed lanes with nary a turn signal. The same objections those opposed to feminism used to use like, “Women and men are different,” are now being used by the feminists who oppose having a man (called a transgender woman) win a woman of the year award (Goldberg, 2014). Who could be surprised that their late-in-the-game appeals to biological facts over feelings are falling on deaf ears? 

It’s important to note that women tend to be more empathic than men (Simon-Thomas, 2007). The reasons for this are likely many—but what seems obvious is that women have been designed to grow and nurture life. Infants and young children require constant care and give little in return, from a utilitarian standpoint. Empathy may very well be how women are made by God to thrive and endure such circumstances. Babies can’t communicate their needs rationally, but do so with small, almost imperceptible indicators of facial expression, noise, and body movement. A woman’s attentiveness to needs that are not communicated rationally, but hinted at or communicated at a primal level means she exercises a part of her brain that isn’t tapping into objectivity, but intuition and empathy.

Many mothers know their baby’s needs, seedling thoughts, and feelings before any of them can be articulated. This is an amazing design feature in women—the ability to mirror the feelings and emotions of others (Simon-Thomas, 2007). Women bring this empathic nature to every relationship, not just babies. This may be why women are particularly adept at forging communal bonds and are the heart of families. They put themselves in other people’s shoes and are attentive to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their more visceral nonverbal communication. They actually experience the feelings of others as if they were their own to a greater extent than men do.

By and large, in a Christian setting, a woman’s tendency toward empathy should be viewed positively, as necessary design feature that enriches the lives of the whole community, especially men, and grows them in compassion and charity. But, in our postmodern mindset, empathy is in dire need of truth and simple facts. Understanding the direction of the current sway of the world can help us evaluate our churches. The elevation of empathy in the culture, to the exclusion of truth, has made for a perverse ruling feminization, where offended-ness is the primary currency. The local church will likely experience the push in that same direction, even if all their leadership is male.

But, each local church must evaluate carefully its own tendencies and culture, willingly aligning them with the one perfect example of compassion and truth: Jesus. As Jesus interacted with the Samaritan woman, he gives us a template for relating to those who are different than we are with integrity, truth, and love: 1) Don’t ignore them, approach them (John 4:7–9); 2) Point them to what is for their ultimate good (John 4:10–15); 3) Don’t play games or ignore the hard facts (John 4:16–22); 4) Tell them what is loving and true (John 4:23–26). If the church is a bicycle, it must ride on the wheels of truth and love, objectivity and empathy, reality and compassion. In our fallen nature, individuals will tend to pump up one tire at the expense of the other and local churches will do the same.

Robust complementarianism³ is the way forward for the church. Churches must have women who are empathic and wise, who avoid reactionary responses and folly, who have been deeply shaped by the truth of the God’s word, and who are aware of the power and influence they have over the men in their lives. These women must be willing to be helpers, helping the men around them see the marginalized and perceive other’s perspectives without resorting to manipulation or skewing toward subjectivity. And churches must have men who are leading with objectivity, avoiding favoritism, growing in compassion, eager for counsel from wise women, who can gently, and with understanding, steer people (including women) away from reactionary responses or entitled empathy when needed.

It’s worth mentioning that truth and love are not actually two tires holding up a bicycle. They are not two separate tires at all. God is love, and that love includes his truthfulness and justice (1 John 4:16). God is a consuming fire, and that judgment includes his mercy and compassion (Heb. 12:28). God is who he is (Ex. 3:14). So, a church that is heavy on truth, low on compassion, should also evaluate what errors exist in their “truth.” Because if you get truth right, you will get love right. And the church who is high with love, bereft of truth, should evaluate what is in their “love” that is tending toward hate. Because when we love as we ought, we will tell the truth. But the bicycle analogy can be practically helpful to get a church thinking in these categories when they aren’t sure how to address a clear discrepancy in the ratio of truth to love or vice versa.

The church, despite having the perfect word of the Lord and the perfect example of Christ, is not immune to the chaos of entitled empathy. It pops up all over the place, most notably in myself: a longing to protect others from the loving discipline of God, sympathizing with sin, a willful, strident need to be understood and––here’s where it gets dicey––be validated. When empathy takes the bit in mouth, perception is the only reality and there is no way to course correct with external reality. This leads to chaos, divisions, and disorder in the church, as people are left to figure out which narrative resonates most with them, rather than bringing everything under the authority of God’s word. It’s the ingredient list for James 4:1, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”

Without the tether of truth and reality, without men of steely spines holding fast and guarding that sacred deposit, empathy will tear the church to shreds making special interest groups out of everyone, with all competing to be the lowliest victim and as worthy of sympathy as possible, as the world has foretold in intersectionality, critical studies, and endless protests. But married and made one with truth, empathy will beatify the church, making it not just right, but good. Empathy, rightly deployed by the people of God, is the cushion round the steel, so that truth can be both pillar and pillow.

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1 Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious
experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another (dictionary.com)
2 Postmodernism: of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language (merriam-webster.com)
3 Complementarianism is the theological view that men and women are created by God in his image, equal in their personhood, but with different, complementary roles in life and church.
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Works Cited

Goldberg, M. (2014, August 04). New Yorker. Retrieved February 11, 2018, from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2

Simon-Thomas, E. R. (2007, June 07). Greater Good Berkeley. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights For a Meaningful Life: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/women_more_empathic_than_men

Snow, P. (2017, October 01). The Institute on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved January 2018, from First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/10/empathy-is-not- charity?platform=hootsuite

Thompson, A. (2018, February 10). The New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from nytimes.com: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/opinion/sunday/black-with-some- white- privilege.html?mtrref=t.co&gwh=E8429CC39F49C3FDFE496B6AD1A3F179&gwt=pay&as setType=opinion

On Being an Older Sister in the Lord

One role in life I didn’t anticipate or spend much time preparing myself for is that of older sister.

I’m the youngest in my family, so I naturally gravitate toward going with the flow, doing what people tell me to do, and listening to what those older than me have to say. It’s not that I don’t have (and express!) lots of opinions, I surely do. I’m just fairly used to those opinions carrying the weight that a youngest’s opinions carry––which is to say, significantly less than if I were an older sibling. I’m often scrappy and forceful with my words, sometimes when I don’t need to be, to make sure I get heard––another mark of being the youngest.

But none of us stay “youngest” forever––even if we’re the youngest in our family, we certainly are not the youngest in the family of God, which means we have to learn how to be older––an older sister, older brother, older family member. Paul writes to Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). Jesus says that anyone who does the will of the Father is his brother and sister and mother. And Paul commends various women as “our sister.” These familiar roles help us grasp our place in God’s family.

Being an older sister in the Lord means that you have more experience with the Lord and often greater knowledge of his Word than some of the spiritual siblings around you, and you have to use that experience and knowledge very carefully. Which is because being an older sister isn’t quite the same thing as being a spiritual mother––although Paul doesn’t mention older sister to Timothy, he simply says to treat older women as mothers. I still think he’d approve of the distinction. A spiritual mother has quite a bit more leeway to speak freely and with a measure of certitude. An older sister isn’t there yet, but she does have resources, knowledge, and wisdom to steward. She must be humble and teachable, yet must also be willing to share the truth with meekness and care.

One of the unforeseen blessings and challenges of my life has been the gift of being an older sister in the Lord to other women. I’ve had to learn to be quiet and ask good questions and help others come to the right answer on their own. I’ve also had to learn to speak and give my opinion with humility and appropriate fear, knowing that it will be taken seriously. Having younger sisters in the Lord is one of the sweetest, most joyful gifts I never saw coming.

But being an older sister in the Lord can be tricky and a bit harder when it comes to younger brothers. Recently, a woman came to me for advice, having been on the receiving end of some immaturity and carelessness from her younger brothers in the Lord. She loved these men and was confused that they would act the way they were acting. So, what is a woman to do in that situation? It’s quite straightforward––she should be a spiritual older sister to them, gently and graciously helping them see how to do better––but I find that we often complex-ify it because we are uncomfortable with the role of spiritual older sister to younger men. Often this leads to us forsaking our Christian duty to God’s family––we simply refuse to take on the role of spiritual older sister or mother when it comes to younger brothers–-seems too hard and too easy to get wrong.

It has dawned on me as I’m in classes learning alongside men much younger than me that, as time rolls along, the likelihood that I’ll have a pastor who is younger than I am increases with each passing year. Which means it’s also likely that I will be under the authority of a man or men who are spiritually younger than I am, less familiar with God’s word, and perhaps spiritually less mature. And, for those of us getting to the age where that is more likely to be a reality, I don’t think it should bother or concern us in the least, if we’re thinking rightly about the family of God. In the family of God, it is understood that everyone is growing up into the Lord. It is understood that there are young Timothy’s and older Lois’s and Priscilla’s and Titus’s and Apollos’s and Mary’s. There are younger men and older men, younger women and older women.

But, if we’ve determined that the men in leadership are in some sort of super-spiritual class of their own, and that they ought to have no need for older sisters or mothers or older brothers or fathers in the church to help them along and give wisdom and guidance as is fitting to their maturity and experience, then it will bother us to have younger brothers shepherd us, because we’ll be expecting something from them that they can’t be. We’ll be disgruntled that they aren’t farther along. We’ll be trying to force them to be older brothers when God has made us older sisters or mothers.

The thing is, being an older sister doesn’t mean you know better than everyone younger than you, although the temptation to think that is a particularly bad one for older sisters. Rather, a godly older sister can learn from those who are younger than her and she can fittingly encourage, exhort, and admonish those same younger siblings.

I’m asking God to make me the kind of older sister who can freely give away to others the good things God has given to me and to do so without strings or expectations attached. I want to be the kind of older sister who can offer helpful counsel when sought, yet never waver one second from submitting to the authority God has given to those placed over me. This is not an easy thing. We need God’s help to be good older sisters, but thankfully we have an eldest brother, Christ, who has paved the way for us in every respect. In Christ, we can walk by faith as older sisters, and trust that he will supply everything we need.

Poor and Meek: On Being a Servant Who Expects Better than their Master

There is a book by the Puritan, Matthew Henry, that I think every Christian should read. It’s called, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit. I first read it many years ago and have returned to it many times since. This is not a book he wrote for women. This is a book he wrote for Christians. Yet as a woman who is always battling my particular bent toward sin, this is a book I that has been deeply needed in my life.

As I’ve been thinking on Jesus coming to earth, the circumstances of his birth, that, “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), that he had no where to lay his head (Luke 9:58), that he was betrayed and denied by those who should have stood by him (Matt 26:75), that he became obedient to death (Phil 2:8), that he was humiliated and scorned and spit on (Mark 15:16-20), I’ve contemplated the many times I’ve thrown my lot in with the Lord, saying, “I’m yours! Tell me what you want me to do!” But I’ve cowered when he has asked me to be meek in the face of humiliation or misunderstanding.

I want the great exchange–I want the justification, the Good News that he did what I couldn’t and became sin for me, so that I could have his righteousness. But so often I want him to be poor in spirit, while I forsake the blessedness of being poor in spirit (Matt 5:3). I want him to be meek, so that I can have justice now. I don’t always want to follow him in meekness and actually turn the other cheek and patiently, with longsuffering, wait on the justice of the Lord. I want him to have no where to lay his head, so that I can have a perfect resting place now. His name was mocked, “King of the Jews,” but I want my name to be respected (Luke 23:37). He was misunderstood, but I want to be understood.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt 10:24).

The great exchange of the Gospel is absolutely glorious. But it isn’t the kind of glory that ends with me getting out of jail free so that I can live a life that is still my own, skipping off into the sunset of comfort and ease and zero heartache. I am a servant––a slave of Christ. I am not above my Master. That’s abundantly clear to everyone reading this, but the old, twisted remnants of sin in my heart still need to hear me say it out loud. Abigail, you are not above the Lord Jesus Christ. If it helps, you can put your name in place of mine. And that reality is for our good. It is a sign of our solidarity with the Lord. It is a sign of our sonship.

The great exchange of the Gospel means we have his righteousness and are now being equipped by it to forgive when forgiveness isn’t deserved, to love when hate seems more fitting, to be patient when we want what we want when we want it, to be meek and quiet when we want to give an answer and score a point, to be poor in spirit and absorb the cost of love when we’d rather pass the cost on to someone else.

Christ has come. Christ will come. The Holy Spirit is our real and powerful Helper now. Christ’s Spirit–the Holy Spirit–is the meekest, gentlest, kindest, purest, mightiest, most courageous, most hopeful, most happy, most groaning, and advocating Spirit in the world. And he lives in us. The Spirit that enabled Christ to say, “Not my will, but yours be done,” and enabled him to endure the cross and scorn the shame, will enable us to walk through our petty and not-so-petty trials. He will give us the grace to wait, with all patience, for the day when Christ will come again.

 

All of Life In Christ; All of Christ For Life

Below are a couple excerpts from today’s Reformation Doctrine: Union With Christ. This is the most glorious reality in the universe. None better. I realized the other day that this reality is what almost all of my writing has been trying to get at the last many years. I also realized that I never want to write about anything else–and happily, this reality incorporates everything, so there are no limits. I actually came up with mission statement for myself: All of life in Christ; all of Christ for life. That’s the truth I want to spend my life seeing and reveling in and causing others to see and revel in. You can listen to the teaching here and if you make it to the end you may even get to hear me blubber a bit–because this truth is too beautiful not to cry over.

“Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

You may have thought of your baptism as simply being cleansed. We often think of being baptized like being washed clean of sin. But Paul is giving us another picture to consider. Our baptism isn’t a bath, it’s a drowning. It’s a burial. We see it visually—in baptism we go under the water, as if buried in a water death.  Paul says, “Do you not know that those who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” I think he expects we DO know and, if not, he’s reminding us of what we ought to know.

He goes on, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So the point isn’t just that we die in baptism, but that we die with him. If we don’t die with him, we won’t be raised with him. We won’t walk in newness of life, because there is no life apart from Christ. None. If you aren’t killed with Christ and made alive in Christ, then you remain in Adam, in death.

Thought experiment: How can a dead person die?

We found out in Romans 5 that we are dead in Adam. And now we see that an absolutely essential part of being a Christian is: YOU MUST DIE. Here’s how we need to think about it: In Adam we are dead IN sin—in Christ we die TO sin. In Adam we are walking in death, walking in sin—in Christ we die to that deathly way of living. Paul says it like this in verse 5:

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Let’s keep on this thought experiment. Finish this phrase for me, “Jesus died so you could…” (live!). And that is gloriously true. But let’s think about what Paul is saying here. He’s not saying something contrary to that—he’s saying that, he’s just saying more than that. What Paul’s reminding us is that Christ died so that you could die. He lives so you can live. How can a dead person die? Because of Christ, that’s how. They are united to his death.

I have spent many years recovering from the notion that the being a Christian meant going from life to life. What I mean by that is, I thought, “Well—I was alive before I became a Christian, sinful but alive, and my sinfulness could lead to death… eventually.” Becoming a Christian meant avoiding that death and going from earthly life (although sinful) to eternal life. There are elements of truth there. Some of it is gloriously true.

But in this passage Paul is saying  that the Christian life is going from death to death. We were dead in Adam—we bore his name as our family name. We were dead in his sin, which was our nature. And the only way out of Adam is to die. But we don’t die with Adam, we die with Christ, in Christ. And when we do that, Paul says in verse 5, “you shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

One more point on this: When we die with Christ and are freed from Adam, we are immediately brought to life. The death we die remains dead, we leave an old self behind, but the new life that’s been given is the same motion as the death. We don’t die with Christ, wait a while, then get new life. Think of a baptism—it’s one motion: plunged below the water and brought up out of it. Death and resurrection. But not resurrection as the old man with a makeover, resurrection as an entirely new man (woman).

Martin Luther’s favorite analogy for the Christian life was not the courtroom, as glorious as it is to be declared righteous on the basis of another’s perfection, it was marriage. When we are united to Christ all that he has and is becomes ours and all that we have and are belong to him. He takes our sin and ugliness and we take his perfection and loveliness. But even as he becomes a curse for us, he also overcomes the curse for us and kills sin.

Eph. 5:22-33 is the marriage passage. Married people rightly read it to understand how this whole marriage thing works. But try reading it and thinking only of Christ and us.

Here are just a few verses. Ephesians 5:29-32

“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Can you hear our union with Christ? “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (ESV)

Friends. Our whole salvation, justification, sanctification and everything else is built on the fact that Christ will hold us fast. We belong to him. When you’re in the grip of the Son of God, when he has apprehended you, you don’t need to worry his grip will fail. He’s holding you and you are his.

We are not standing on one side of the room and he is on another and he hands us a present all wrapped in pretty paper that we open up and discover it’s righteousness. Then he goes back to his side of the room and we to ours. NO! The free gift of righteousness IS CHRIST—it’s through Christ! We get it when we are grafted into his vine—into him.”

 

The Secret Ingredient in Bible Study

Below is an excerpt of what I shared with the women at Bible study yesterday. It’s Luther’s rules for theologians. We’re studying Reformation Doctrine and if you want to follow along with us, you can do so here. Here is what I shared yesterday:

I wanted to take a minute and encourage you as you study your Bibles and seek to grow as theologians—as women who are knowing God better. Some of you may be overwhelmed with life. You’re here, but barely. You may be in the middle of something really hard. Luther has some encouraging words for you and me:

Martin Luther said in his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition, “I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm 119 and run thus: Oratio, Meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Regarding prayer Luther says:

“You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal…Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding.”

Regarding meditation, Luther says:

“Secondly, you should meditate. This means that not only in your heart but also externally you should constantly handle and compare, read and reread the Word as preached and the very words as written in Scripture, diligently noting and meditating on what the Holy Spirit means…Therefore, you observe how in this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night and constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments.  For God wants to give you his Spirit only through the external Word.”

Regarding trials he says:

“Thirdly, there is the tentatio, testing (Anfechtung). This is the touchstone.  It teaches you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme. This is why you observe that in the psalm indicated David so often complains of all sorts of enemies…For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you, will make a real [theologian] of you.”

Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word. 68 Thou art good and doest good; teach me Thy statutes. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes.

Nothing has put meat on the bones of my study like trials, friends. Our youngest son with special needs has neurological sleep problems, which means 4 years of really bad sleep and lots of throw-up every week because of his problems swallowing. It’s amazing how bad sleep and vomit can open the eyes of our heart to behold wondrous things from God’s Word. Trials give us the gift of desperation. They give us the testing ground for our beliefs and the unmatched joy of knowing and experiencing Christ to be the keeper of every promise. So I encourage you to persevere and let your trials be the hammer that drives you deeper into Christ.

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Doing the Spiritual Splits

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I was looking at my calendar and realized my church attendance on Sunday morning is less than 50% for 2017. I’m sure I’m not alone. This has been a brutal winter for illness in MN and I’ve found myself rocking an ever-growing and under-the-weather boy on many a Sunday morning.

Rocking this morning is as calm as you’d hope, but my mind has been anything but. I’ve been pinned, all the while the laundry goes unfolded, the dishes unloaded, the supper un-prepped, the Bible study undone, the garden unplanned, the knitting un-knit, the lovely sunshine un-basked in. And on and on.

I was chatting with a fellow mom of five last week, brainstorming ways to bring structure and discipline to our mornings with so many variables in the form of small people and exponential relationships and possibilities for things to go awry. Change, thou art steadfast. It seems we never do live the same day twice.

I’ve always been a go-with-the-flow type. Probably a fourth child thing. Going with the flow ensures that I am GOING! And WITH others! Nothing worse than being left behind for a fourth child. This go-with-the-flow personality has served me well in many ways. I’m not opinionated about many decisions, as long as the people I love are around, which means I’m usually easy to get along with. But, it’s not a personality forged from virtue, it’s forged from my desire to have maximum enjoyment in life–and I tend to think that going with the flow will make me and those around me happiest.

But I’ve learned over the years that it’s easy to mistake this go-with-the-flow style for true flexibility–the kind of flexibility that’s learned to be content in any circumstance. All it takes to learn the truth is take away the ability to go with the flow. What happens when I’m forced to stop the movement, forced to be still, forced to make my own decisions without the comfort and enjoyment of the company I long for? And then what if even my best laid plans are thwarted? Like today with the laundry and the dishes and supper and actual work that I’m supposed to do?

There are probably many of you reading who aren’t go-with-the flow types. Maybe your type A or you like to run the show and make the decisions. Maybe the idea of being a passenger in the ride of life is a thousand slow deaths by pin prick. It’s probably more obvious for you that growth in Godly flexibility is necessary. You know your rigidity, your fight for control. And hopefully you know that it needs to be crucified in favor of trusting God.

But, if you’re more like me, your lack of flexibility might come as a surprise. So I’m hoping this reflection is helpful for you. Spiritual flexibility is just my way of saying that we trust God in every circumstance, without bitterness or bucking, that is to say, with real contentment. How flexible are we when we aren’t even allowed to be flexible? When we’re just stuck in the same place over and over, learning the discipline we want to run from?

So my hope today is not in getting up from the rocking chair where I currently type away with my little boy’s head resting on my arm. My hope is not in what I will accomplish or how easy I am to get along with on lunch choices. My hope is in God. I can trust that while I sit in this chair, he is accomplishing everything he wants to in and through me. And when the time sitting here is up, by faith I will flex to do what he’s put before me next. I’ll mess up, but I can trust him. He’s teaching me the spiritual splits, so that I can bend and flex and never break as I stretch out to love others in Jesus. Oh that our arms would reach out with Jesus’ as his were nailed to the cross. And they do, because we are united to him in life and death and life.

On Being a Good Mom

New (ish) DG article that I forgot to post on being a good mom. Good thing this is such an easy topic! Ha. 😉

One of a mother’s most difficult tasks — nay impossible, apart from God’s help — is weaning her children and transferring their source of life, comfort, and home to Another. In all her loving and comforting and making home, she is simply a pointer to a better one, a lasting one — a home where she already has one foot in the door, a home she testifies to by her own goodness.

But are we good mothers? Does even the question cause some chafing?

Christian mothers are supposed to be good mothers — happy in God, while loving and disciplining our children — because of Jesus. Yet often we’d rather celebrate our failures as a need for more grace than to rehearse, “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3).

That goodness is a fruit of the Spirit seems forgotten among jokes about our mom fails and laments about how impossible it all is (Galatians 5:22). The pursuit of goodness is often quickly rebuffed as works-righteousness. But is it? Not if our goodness is the result of Another’s goodness. This imputed goodness is Christ’s, and through faith he increasingly imparts it to us, where it grows to decontaminate and purify our mothering hearts. His grace makes mothers good.

When God gives us children, he answers a lot of questions in our lives — even ones we may not have thought to ask. Questions like:

  • What should I do with my life?
  • What’s it like to give my body up for someone?
  • How attached am I to privacy?
  • How selfish am I when giving feels forced upon me?
  • Does my faith hold on during the third night or third week or third year of sleep deprivation, or is it a product of my ability to string together rational thoughts?
  • Do I trust my husband as a father?
  • How weird am I about food?
  • What strong opinions do I have about clothing? Sleepovers? Education? Extracurricular activities?

Being a mom brings it all to the surface. It reveals a more truthful version of ourselves, not because we were previously being untruthful, but because we now are shaping a life for someone else, not simply ourselves.

Mothers are making decisions every day that can and often will impact another person’s entire existence. This pressure to make sure we don’t mess up our child’s life is pretty intense. It creates some heat that tends to wear us down to the core of what we really believe about God, ourselves, and the world.

Read the rest.

The Prism of Womanhood

I’m grateful to have a post up at DG today. Here’s an excerpt:

“The unique influence of a godly woman is in transforming things. A woman is to be compared to a crown on the head of her husband (Proverbs 12:4). This is not because she’s merely decorative, but because she is the thing that makes her good man great. She transforms a promising bachelor into a purposeful, respected husband. He gives his seed and by some miracle and mystery, God has designed her body to nurture and grow a new person, as Nancy Wilson outlines in her address, Dangerous Women.

In this transformative role, whether single or married, a woman mimics her Savior. Like him, she submits to another’s will and, also like him, God uses her to take what was useless on its own and shape it into glory. Dirty things clean; chaos turned to order; an empty kitchen overflowing with life and food; children in want of knowledge and truth and a mother eager to teach; a man in need of help and counsel and a woman fit to give it; friends and neighbors with a thirst for the truth and a woman opening her home and heart to share it with them.

A woman is a prism that takes in light and turns it into an array of greater, fuller glory, so that those around her now see the rainbow that was contained in the beam. She constantly radiates reminders of God’s faithfulness. She reads the black and white pages of the word of God and takes on the task of living them out in vibrant hues for her children, her neighbors, and the world to see. When the Bible commands feeding, nourishing, training and love, a godly woman sets to the task, enhancing and beautifying everything around her.”

Read the rest.

Don’t Hate the Messes of Glorification

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I have an article at DG this morning. Here’s an excerpt and link.

“I survey the kitchen and living room, and my eyes are assaulted with messes. Mail, worksheets, art projects, toys, plates of food with a few bites left, an origami style army of paper tanks, counting blocks. The messes feel endless. And for a tired mom, the messes can feel like the enemy.

Of course, they’re not. They’re evidence of life and growth. They are the essence of learning, exploring, and doing. A home without messes is a home without people, without life. If I want my children to grow as people, I must invite them to make messes. To take part in learning requires physical stuff to be used, to be handled, changed, glorified.

Then I also must invite them to learn to pick up, put away, restore order, and turn their learning into more than mere mess. A messy kitchen ought not to be chaos only, but the evidence of raw materials being transformed into something tasty and warm and good to eat.

And as I study God’s word, I find the same to be true. His word is living and active, and the process of growth that happens as I seek to understand it, and live my life under its authority and protection, makes messes. Not the kind of messes that are atrophy and dust-collection, but the messes of life and growing and glorification.”

Read the rest.

Mothering and the Reverse of the Curse

 

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Holy week is here, again, and has me in awe, again, over how our God takes a curse and turns it into promise. He takes punishment and turns it to ultimate blessing.

Many are probably familiar with the “proto-evangelium,” the first reference to Christ in the Scriptures that is found in Genesis 3. This is God’s curse of the serpent. And in God’s curse, is also found his unmistakable hint of promise.

“The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 ESV)

Jesus will bruise the head of the serpent. The serpent will be put under Jesus feet. The best news of the universe and it was there in the beginning. And right under it is a parallel curse reversal that happens for women.

“To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 ESV)

Many women are familiar with this part of the curse. Pain in childbearing. In pain you shall bring forth children. How many stories of pain and near-death experiences have we heard of childbirth. I have my stories to tell–5 live births, 1 miscarriage and 3 of the births with stories of true drama, heart-pounding stuff–emergency surgery, hemorrhages, blood transfusions–you all know the kinds of stories and have your own.

Yet in two ways, God takes the curse of childbearing and turns it into redemption.

First, God ordains that his Son, the God-Man, be born of a woman. The Savior of the world comes through a birth canal, and enters the curse. He uses the curse in order to turn it on its head.

The second is found in this well-known (because of how hard it is) passage from 1 Timothy:

“Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:15 ESV)

How? How will she be saved through childbearing? I’m not a scholar, but I am mother. Could it be that part of how childbearing is redemptive for mothers is not that it is the atoning sacrifice that puts her in right standing with God, but that it is a means by which God keeps his daughters cemented to himself, humbled and reliant, as they care and pour out for children? This is a gift, a reversal of the curse, a privilege and nothing to scorn.

I read from the ESV study notes that the word “saved” is also frequently used to show perseverance and endurance in salvation. It need not mean that childbearing is the cause of salvation, which we know from all over the Scriptures is in Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone, but rather a means of an ongoing keeping, sanctifying, saving.

And childbearing has the connotation, not of mere birth, but of the ongoing care and raising of children–which applies to all women, mothers or not, by birth or adoption or some other connection. Childrearing is part of womanhood–aunts, friends, teachers, and on and on have incalculable roles in rearing the children around them. Which isn’t to say men don’t, but there is a distinction found here in the Scriptures and experienced in real life that we can all see in regard to a woman’s special role in the life of an infant and child and the reliance it produces in her on her God.

I’m in awe this Easter of our Savior who became curse and promise for us and who turned the curse directed at us into a means of painful, hopeful, miraculous redemption, even as I don’t fully understand it all–the glimpses are breathtaking.