Desiring God – Part Two

Previous: Desiring God Part One



Amazon.com
(https://www.amazon.com/John-Piper-Desiring-Meditations-Christian/dp/B01252LN4C

Hello, and welcome back to the book club!  Last time, we looked at the first half of John Piper’s Desiring God.  Now we look at the rest of the book.  In Chapter Six, Piper looks at the connection between prayer and Christian Hedonism.  As in the earlier chapters, Piper counters the criticism that his philosophy of Christian Hedonism reduces prayer to serving our needs and pleasures.  Rather, it is ‘the pursuit of our interest and our happiness is never above God’s, but always in God’s.  The most precious truth of the Bible is that God’s greatest interest is to glorify the wealth of His grace by making sinners happy in Him – in Him! … In John 14:13, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  In John 16:24, He says, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”  The unity of these two goals – the glory of God and the joy of His children – is clearly preserved in the act of prayer.’ (Pgs.159 & 160).

Piper goes on to elaborate that the reason we seek God’s glory is because He is able to give blessings from His presence, in the same manner that Jesus revealed to the Samaritan woman He was the everlasting water.  ‘God gets the glory; we get the delight.  He gets the glory precisely because He shows Himself full and strong to deliver us into joy.  And we attain fullness of joy precisely because He is the all-glorious source and goal of life’ (Pg.163).  We should also rejoice in God when He answers our prayer, not in a begrudging indifferent sense, but in a way that shows that we joyfully love the blessings that He gives us.  However, we should not be enamored with the things of this world otherwise we end up becoming what the Epistle of James calls an “adulterous people”, where we wish for “friendship” with the world.  The only antidote to this, while keeping God in mind is to see the material things and sensations of this world as gifts from God: ‘In other words, if created thing are seen and handled as gifts of God and as mirrors of His glory, they need not be occasions of idolatry – if our delight in them is always also a delight in their Maker.  Therefore, it may or may not be idolatry to pray for the mailman to come.  If we are only enamored by the short-term, worldly pleasures his uniform gives, it is idolatry.  But if we consider the uniform a gracious bonus to the real delight of the divine messages, then it is not idolatry’ (Pgs.166, 167).

Another aspect that Piper focuses on is the idea that, in praying, we are actually asking God to perform our needs, not asking if we can do His needs for Him.  Serving God is not, in itself, a bad thing; however in the Bible in texts like Acts 17:24-25 and Psalm 50:12, 15 it states that He is not bound with any temples, nor does he need human servants to help him do His bidding.  To treat God in a manner where we are just trying to do his work for him is saying that he is just the same as the idols that were denounced by Isaiah and Jeremiah, which cannot do anything because they were made of stone and wood.  In the end, ‘God aims to exalt Himself by working for those who wait for Him.  Prayer is the essential activity of waiting for God – acknowledging our helplessness and His power, calling upon Him for help, seeking His counsel.  Since His purpose in the world is to be exalted for His mercy, it is evident why prayer is so often commanded by God.  Prayer is the antidote for the disease of self-confidence, which opposes God’s goal of getting glory by working for those who wait for Him’ (Pgs.170-171).  Therefore we as sinful human beings must depend upon Him at all times because we are cannot do good without Him.

God is the giver of good gifts who provide us with these gifts to help us on our journey and, in turn, we give Him the glory.  Serving God without asking for his help and without any joy whatsoever, does Him a disservice and robs Him of much.  Therefore, prayer is important, because as our “nerve center”, it in turn gives us joy: ‘Separation from Jesus means sadness.  Restoration of fellowship means joy.  Therefore, we learn that no Christian can have fullness of joy without a vital fellowship with Jesus Christ.  Knowledge about Him will not do.  Work for Him will not do.  We must have personal, vital fellowship with Him; otherwise, Christianity becomes a joyless burden’ (Pg.175).  Also prayer is our “walkie-talkie” to Jesus during this battle on earth because it gives us power to fight the forces of darkness that would surround and stop us.  Prayer is not really a domestic intercom for our personal needs.  Besides, our joy in God will overflow to other people who will be touched and converted by our joy.  And that is the final reason for prayer: that it will touch millions and lead them to Jesus.

Most of us found the arguments that Piper uses in this chapter to be good.  GM says that we often pray for ourselves, however when he and his wife are praying for something they would like to happen, they are usually praying for someone else.  This led to the question I asked “Do we often feel glory and joy when spending time with God?”  In the case of J, she said that those feelings are generally present during her longer and deeper prayers.

In the case of Piper’s arguments, E says that it takes a bit to get your head around what he says, because he seems to turn everything upside-down.  Especially where he talks about not serving God, but being served by Him.  What Piper says needs thought.  Understanding what he says isn’t automatic, though he makes a good argument.  GM says that the whole book is a bit like that.  Even the book title, “Christian Hedonism”, is unexpected.  GK, in particular, had always thought of serving God as a positive thing and had not considered that serving God may actually be an insult to Him!  It does make sense when you think about it.  GM says that God wants us to do work for Him.  He doesn’t need it, but He wants us to be involved.  If you work for a higher cause, a better thing – at the end of the day you feel better for it – so by us working for God, it’s helping us.  We’re doing God’s work, therefore we have more worth, and therefore it’s better for us.  GK says that God gives us work to do because work is good for us – not because He needs the job done.

As for the topic of suffering, Piper goes on to say that you get joy and satisfaction from doing things for God – and that’s something that you gain.  You get happiness by becoming involved in something that’s good and working at that, and then you get the by-product of standing back and saying, “ooh, I’m happy in what I’ve been doing.”  We’re worshiping God, not for God, but for our sake.  It’s good for us to worship God.  Anything that we do that God is encouraging us to do, comes back to being good for us.  In a way that’s what ‘hedonism’ is.  It’s getting something good out of things, and that’s what happens as a Christian.  For example, Piper shares that all the good times Malcolm Muggeridge had in his life, came from suffering. This in turn lead to us discussing the word “hedonism”.  E says that the dictionary definition of ‘hedonism’ is,  “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.” So what Piper is saying is that satisfaction of your desires is found in God, so the highest good is found with God.  J says that, in the secular world, hedonism has an entirely different meaning.  It relates to seeking pleasure by sensual means, such as wining, dining, parties, having plentiful sex etc.  Which is why Piper used that word, because higher seeking of good is NOT found in that word.  For both Christians and non-Christians alike, it is an inflammatory word.




Money
Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mone)

In Chapter 7, Piper turns his attention to the subject of money.  On the one hand, he says that there are verses in the Bible such as 1 Timothy 6, where Paul tells Timothy that the “love of money is the root of all evil”, especially since false teachers ‘think that godliness is a means for gain’ (Pg.186).  This is very relevant to our capitalistic society where even the church is trying to get in on the act: ‘The godliness market is hot for bestsellers and music makers and dispensers of silver crosses and fish buckles and olivewood letter openers and bumper stickers and lucky-water crosses with Jesus on the front and miracle water inside guaranteed to make you win at bingo or your money back in ninety days.  These are good days for gain in godliness’ (Pgs.186-187)!

But Piper also points out that, while Paul adds a caveat against gain in using godliness for money, he is not against Christians being motivated by profit.  Rather he wants them to find greater gain in godliness with contentment: ‘Godliness is the way to get this great gain, but only if we are content with simplicity rather than greedy for riches,  “Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (Pg.187).  Also, Piper says that there is a difference in how we use our money, some people use the money to gain a power boost and an excuse to make more money, while others use it for an altruistic purpose.  The difference is how a quality like contentment can help us handle wealth.

Piper shows how contentment can help us deal with wealth by citing from 1 Timothy 6:7-10 three reasons why wealth should not be our main goal:

‘1. In verse 7 (Paul) says, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” ’ (Pg.188).  In other words, we came into this world empty-handed and we cannot take material things with us beyond the grave, so there is no point in storing for something that will be left behind!

‘2. Then, in verse 8, Paul adds the second reason not to pursue wealth: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”  Christians can be and ought to be content with simple necessities of life. … First, when you have God near you and for you, you don’t need extra money or extra things to give you peace and security.  …

Second, we can be content with simplicity because the deepest, most satisfying delights God gives us through creation are free gifts from nature and from loving relationships with people.  After your basic needs are met, accumulated money begins to diminish your capacity for these pleasures rather than increase them.  Buying things contributes absolutely nothing to the heart’s capacity for joy.

‘Third, we should be content with the simple necessities of life because we could invest the extra we make for what really counts.’  Therefore, what Piper suggests is we send the money to evangelize the unconverted to Christian Hedonism instead of hoarding wealth for ourselves.  ‘The revolution of joy and freedom it would cause at home would be the best local witness imaginable.  The biblical call is that you can and ought to be content with life’s simple necessities.’

(Pgs.189-191)

‘3. The third reason not to pursue wealth is that the pursuit will end in the destruction of your life’ (Pg.191).  Part of the reason is because all the images associated with our Western culture will tempt and lead astray, but instead of getting better, we will only be more disconcerted and unhappy.  Therefore, Piper encourages us to simply say “no” to the desire for more riches and “yes” to the Christian truth, especially when we learn to be content with what we have already.

The only way for Christian Hedonists (especially rich ones) to live with wealth is to pursue the rewards of heaven, our union with God, which is the only wealth that we should aim for in this life.  We should also share with others this reward and, by doing so, bring them to salvation.  Ironically, some commentators have said that this is “selfish”, but Piper says that it is only selfish when we do it for material gain.  ‘The aim of this parable [of the Shrewd Steward] is to instruct the disciples in the right and loving use of world possessions.  Jesus does not say that the result of such use is to receive eternal dwellings.  He says to make it your aim to secure an eternal dwelling by the use of your possessions’ (Pgs.194-195).

This leads to Piper’s advice concerning wealth, derived again from 1 Timothy 6.  First, we must not let our wealth lead us into a false sense of pride concerning our money and possessions, such as who has the most toys.  ‘Money’s chief attractions are the power it gives and the pride it feeds.  Paul says, Don’t let this happen’ (Pg.197).  The second admonition is that we should never set our hopes on material gain and, in doing so, lose sight of God.  Piper goes on to criticize the “prosperity doctrine”, saying that it does nothing except contribute to our own welfare, with nothing to offer the rest of the world materially and spiritually.  At the same time, when Piper asks us to be content with the “simple necessities of life”, he is not asking us to be content with too little.  Rather, we should have what he calls a “wartime” lifestyle, which is ‘style of life that is unencumbered with nonessentials –… A wartime lifestyle implies that there is a great and worthy cause for which to spend and be spent (2 Corinthians 12:15)’ (Pgs.199 & 200).

The third and final piece of advice to Christians is to ‘“be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).  Once they are liberated from the magnet of pride and once their hope is set on God, not money, only one thing can happen:  Their money will flow freely to multiply the manifold ministries of Christ’ (Pg.201).  There is nothing wrong with having material gain, the only sin is letting it get in the way of both God and helping others.  Therefore, a Christian should simply use his or her material wealth for the good of others.

E thinks that money should be a no-brainer.  You cannot be more keen on money than you are on God.  GM says that money isn’t actually the thing.  No-one actually gets excited about the notes, the coins.  It’s what they feel money can do for them, what thing you can get.  E says that sometimes it is about the status people get from money.  GM agrees, saying it is not the money itself, it’s what you aim to do with it.  That’s what Piper is saying.  It’s what comes with money, and that is material things.  J in turn wondered about where the boundary is with money, how much is OK to spend on small treats for oneself.  The ideal is of course to not want anything but God.  GK adds that we should also accept the blessings He showers on us.

This lead to asking  if we should keep money to look after ourselves.  GM posited that if you said, “I’ll give everything away”, someone’s then got to look after you.  God will actually do it, but someone will have to give you the money.  Paul talks about being married and the responsibilities that go with that.  GK says that it is all about having the right level of money that makes you most effective.  Having more, or having less than the right level of money, makes you less effective.  If you’re not looking after your family, yourself, or even your local church, then you’re not being effective. GM says that most people look upon money as a form of security, e.g., the large numbers of people who always buy tickets in Tattslotto.  J says that the media have followed the lives of some of those who won $1 million, and the major finding was that they had more comfortable surroundings, but the money hadn’t solved any of their other problems.  E says that you need to be sensible and practical with money.  We were born with a brain and God expects us to use it.  One of us mentioned the example of St. Francis of Assisi who gave up all he owned, but maybe not everybody is called to do that.  In the end, it is all about your attitude to money.  To which GM added the old saying: “The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.”



Marriage of the Duke of Burgundy by Antoine Dieu
Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage)

In Chapter Eight, Piper turns his attention to the subject of marriage.  He starts off by focusing on Ephesians 5, where husbands are encouraged to love their wives in much the same way that Jesus loves the church.  Jesus also wants to cleanse and sanctify His bride in order to make her holy as well as sharing His joy with her.  However, as mentioned in the introduction of this book, there are some who object to this passage, saying that it should be a “selfless” love, especially in keeping with Christ’s command of “hating” his life and “losing” it for the sake of the gospel.  But Piper disagrees:

‘According to this text (Ephesians 5:29-30), love is the pursuit of our joy in the holy joy of the beloved.  There is no way to exclude self-interest from love, for self-interest is not the same as selfishness.  Selfishness seeks its own private happiness at the expense of others.  Love seeks its happiness in the happiness of the beloved.  It will even suffer and die for the beloved in order that its joy might be full in the life and purity of the beloved.’

(Pgs.206-207).

As for the text about “hating” our lives, Piper says that Jesus did it for the joy set before Him, of saving our lives from sin and bringing us to salvation.  The same applies to the saints who, at the end of the age, ‘were willing to be killed for Jesus, but by hating their lives in this way, they “conquered” Satan and gained the glory of heaven: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10)’ (Pg.207).

Piper says that humans have a natural desire for seeking happiness, joy, and delight in everything.  Piper even quotes Paul on the subject of loving our neighbor but in the dispassionate way we are (assumed) to love ourselves in the same way.  The same also applies to marriage where the husband would love his wife in the same manner as he loves himself and not for any selfish and lustful gain.

Piper then goes on to give us a biblical definition of marriage, that Ephesians 5:31 gives quoting Genesis 2:24: ‘ “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  Paul adds in verse 32: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Pg.210).  Piper then looks at the creation of Eve because ‘God made man to be a sharer.  God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of His bounty, but conduits.  No man is complete unless he is conducting grace (like electricity) between God and another person’ (Pg.210).   It was for this that God created Eve because only she can be a counterpart to Adam, not like any other animal because animals cannot appreciate grace in the same way a human can.  However, in Eve there are also some subtle differences as well:

‘By creating a person like Adam, yet very unlike Adam, God provided the possibility of a profound unity that otherwise would have been impossible.  A different kind of unity is enjoyed by the joining of diverse counterparts than is enjoyed by joining two things just alike.  When we all sing the same melody line, it is called unison, which means “one sound.”  But when we unite diverse lines of soprano and alto and tenor and bass, we call it harmony; and everyone who has an ear to hear knows that something deeper in us is touched by great harmony than by mere unison.’

(Pg.211)

This is also re-enforced by the words that Adam uses for Eve: “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” because it illustrates the fact that Eve is a part of Adam, which is also described in Paul’s writing about why a man should leave his parents and become one with his wife.  ‘Verse 24 (in Genesis 2) draws out the lesson that marriage is just that: a man leaving father and mother because God has given him another; a man holding fast to this woman alone and no other; and a man discovering the experience of being one flesh with this woman’ (Pg.212).  Piper then elaborates on the marriage being a mystery that shows that we, as Christians, are one with Jesus and share His grace with others.  In his epistles, Paul mentions the relationship between Christ and the church as a husband and wife.  Some think that Paul was using marriage to describe the relationship between Christ and the church, when actually it was the other way around:

‘Therefore, marriage is a mystery – it contains and conceals a meaning far greater than what we see on the outside.  God created man male and female and ordained marriage so that the eternal covenant relationship between Christ and His church would be imaged forth in the marriage union.  As Geoffrey Bromiley has written,  “As God made man in his own image, so he made marriage in the image of his own eternal marriage with his people.”

(Pg.213)

Piper then goes on to give the proper definition of the roles between wives and husbands.  In the case of the wife, we need to properly understand it’s meaning in scripture, especially with the claim that “wives should submit to their husbands”.  Piper says that we need to look at what Paul wrote in context with classical writers.  For example, Philo, a contemporary of Paul’s, wrote that the husband should be “head” in the same sense that an actual head be in charge of the whole body in the sense that it is supreme.  In Paul’s case, however, the husband also possesses authority over his wife, but, because he is “head” of a “body” the husband gain “nourishment” from his wife, especially in terms of the five senses and other forms of nourishment.  But even Piper states that there are limits to the idea that wives should submit to their husband:

‘The reason I say a disposition to yield and an inclination to follow is that no submission of one human being to another is absolute.  The husband does not replace Christ as the woman’s supreme authority.  She must never follow her husband’s leadership into sin.  But even when a Christian wife may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband, she can still have a spirit of submission.  She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.’

(Pgs.216-217)

The same applies to the husband, that he not be a complete and utter brute but, rather, be the submissive leader that Christ was for His bride, the church.  And sometimes, their roles can change from time to time, for example a husband who may not be good at Bible reading would often allow the wife to lead the family devotions.  In the end, though, what Piper is saying is that most marriage and human sexual roles have become tainted by the Fall and both need redemption: ‘The redemption we anticipate at the coming of Christ is not the dismantling of the created order of loving headship and willing submission, but a recovery of it.  This is precisely what we find in Ephesians 5:21-33.  Wives, redeem your fallen submission by modeling it after God’s intention for the church!  Husbands, redeem your fallen headship by modeling it after God’s intention for Christ!’

(Pg.220)

We talked about the “perfect marriage”, and we agree on one point: it’s non-existent.  GK thought that the idea that marriage was a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church and not the other way around was an interesting view.

Most of us agreed that Paul’s view of husbands and wives is not a popular one these days.  E says that, when people talk about it they always focus on the wife, when actually it’s the husband that has got the hardest job.  He has to love his wife the way Christ loved the church which is to give himself completely to her.  Our modern version of the word submission has connotations that don’t help things.  Piper does allow all that there may be something that the husband is not good at, such as the example given above, of a husband whose his wife does the Bible readings.  It’s not ‘submission’ in the sense that the husband always has to be right and has to do everything perfectly.  The husband does have the final responsibility for making the decisions.

However, this chapter also puzzled us.  We noted that, elsewhere, Piper seems to turn everything upside down but somehow it all makes perfect sense.  Here, one of us, GM, was unable to see how this chapter fits in with the rest of the book. In all the other chapters he turns things on their head – he attends to switch things around – but in this chapter it’s all pretty classical.  It doesn’t mesh with the general style of the book. It was noted that the church has not been the submissive bride to Christ that it should have been, and it is suffering because of it.  J expressed sadness regarding the damage done to God’s reputation. The world doesn’t seem to make the distinction between the bad behaviour of Christians, who are human beings – and Lord Jesus/God, who is perfect in every way.




Members of the Pentecostal church of God in Lejunior, Kentucky pray for a girl in 1946
Source: Wikipedia
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_healing)

In Chapter Nine, Piper turns his attention to the topic of missions, especially in relation to Christian Hedonism.  Piper begins by quoting from Ralph Winter, founder of the US Center for World Mission who stated that most people in retirement die within two years.  Winter and Piper use this to show that even Christians today who retire can still use their time and talent to foster the Christian faith, especially in other countries.  In fact, even figures like Moses and Paul didn’t just “retire” in today’s sense of the word, they still did God’s work and died with their boots on!  This is relevant in today’s Christian culture where even Christians just shrug at the concept of evangelization and assume that God can save everybody even if they haven’t heard the gospel preached.  But Piper disagrees saying that (t)hose who have never heard the gospel will be judged by their failure to own up to the light of God’s grace and power in nature and in their own conscience.  …  Apart from the special, saving grace of God, people are dead in sin, darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, and hardened in heart (Ephesians 2:1, 4:18).  And the means God has ordained to administer that special grace is the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Pgs.227-228).

The best way of achieving this is to become “World Christians”, in which their sole focus is the conversion of the world.  But all they need to do is to believe that God can do the impossible, which is something that Piper uses from the account of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31).  ‘If God were not in charge of the affair, doing the humanly impossible, the missionary task would be hopeless.  Who but God can raise the spiritually dead and give them an ear for the gospel?  “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5).   The great missionary hope is that when the gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, God Himself does what man cannot do – He creates the faith that saves’ (Pg.235).  Our God is a powerful God who can do mighty miracles and He can lead people from different countries to faith.  And Christian Hedonists really delight in the missionary emphasis of leading others to Christ.

‘This great confidence of the missionary enterprise is given again by Jesus with different words in John 10:16:

‘ “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

‘Notice three powerful encouragements in this text for frontier missionaries:

‘1. Christ does indeed have other sheep outside the present fold!’  There are many sheep out there and God not only sends out missionaries but encourages them even during the most difficult of circumstances, as in the case of Paul, who had encouragement in a dream when working in Corinth (Acts 18).

‘2. … Christ is under a divine necessity to gather His own sheep.’  God can bring men to faith, but He chose to use us to do so.  This is especially true in the case of the missionary William Carey, who considered himself ‘ a poor and helpless worm”, nevertheless was instrumental in bringing others to Christ.

‘3. The third encouragement from this verse is that the sheep He calls will surely come. … What is impossible with man is possible with God!  When Paul was finished preaching in the city of Antioch, Luke described the result like this:  “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).  God has a people in every people group.  He will call them with Creator power.  And they will believe!’

(Pgs.236-238).

Another great piece for Christian Hedonists from Mark 10:17-31, is that the missionaries who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and the Gospel’s will receive a hundredfold in the life to come.  This will be of great comfort to missionaries who suffer greatly because their main desire is found in God alone and nowhere else. GM noted the interesting worldwide trend in relation to people being converted.  The way it is going, it looks like everyone will soon be converted.  Missionary work is not so much about converting people.  It has more to do with letting people know about the Gospel and leaving it up to God to do the rest.  Our job is to let as many people know about the Word as we can.  In today’s modern secular society, past missionaries have received a lot of flack for the harm they did to the non-Christian cultures they came across.  To someone like GM, all other religious beliefs are misguided, or wrong, or worse than that, because they’re not Christian.  But that’s looked upon as being very arrogant and intolerant.  What right have I to say that they’re wrong?  Well, my right is that the Bible says they’re wrong.  But that’s not counted as an argument, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the Word of God. There might be some aspects of other religions that might come close to seeing God, however the idea that we’re all going to end up going the same way, we’ve just got different names for God…well, they’re different.  They have different ideas, and the ideas don’t mesh.  To be a missionary, you really have to have a strong desire for God, because missionary work is not easy work.




Vision of John on Patmos by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Revelation)

In Chapter Ten, Piper focuses his attention on suffering.  He starts off with a quote from a Cistercian abbot about whether, after his life on earth is done, he will discover that there is no God and all his prayers and activity were for nothing.  The abbot replied by saying that ‘ “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves, even without promise of reward.  I still will have used my life well.” ’ (Pg.254).  This statement, to Piper, runs against what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19 “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  This runs against the grain of our prosperous Western societies:

‘The answer seems to be that the Christian life for Paul was not the so-called good life of prosperity and ease.  Instead, it was a life of freely chosen suffering beyond anything we ordinarily experience.  Paul’s belief in God and his confidence in resurrection and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection.  No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering.  Yes, he knew joy unspeakable.  But it was a “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12 NASB).  And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of those for whom he suffered.  If there is no resurrection, Paul’s sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable.  Yes, there was joy and a sense of great significance in his suffering.  But the joy was there only because of the joyful hope beyond suffering’ (Pgs.255-256).

Piper points out that ‘Christians accept as part of a choice to be openly Christian in risky situations’ (Pg.256) can lead to suffering.   Now there maybe different types of suffering as well as many different reasons behind it.  However, a Christian can still suffer when caring for the sick and vulnerable because it reflects the Christian’s commitment to God and to undergoing any type of torment for His glory.  Piper even says that suffering can come from the devil as well as God but there is a big difference between the two:  (Suffering is) intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith’ (Pg.257).  This is true in the case of the apostle Paul who, in 2 Corinthians, complained of having a thorn in his flesh and, in spite of begging God to be rid of it, realized that this “thorn” was a way of making sure that Paul would rely less on his own strength and more on God’s grace.

It is this attitude that helps to differentiate the Christian hedonism from just indulging ourselves in gluttony.  In earthy gluttony, we are merely being satisfied with what is only temporary, while in fulfilling our glory with Christ, we are residing in what is eternal.  This includes suffering in both persecution and illness.  The reason is because, in our flesh, we are revealing Christ’s sufferings:

‘As Paul contemplated the path of his Master, he was moved to follow.  But just at this point I have been astonished by Paul’s words.  When he describes the relationship between Christ’s sufferings and his own, he speaks what seems unspeakable.  He says to the Colossian church, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up (antanaplero) what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (hustremata) for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).  This may be the most powerful motive for Paul’s choosing a life of suffering.  These words have filled me with longing for the church of Jesus Christ.  Oh, that we would embrace the necessary suffering appointed for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world!

What does Paul mean that he “fills what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ”?  Is this a belittling of the all-sufficient, atoning worth of the death of Jesus?  Did not Jesus Himself say as He died, “It is finished” (John 19:30)?  Is it not true that “by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14)?  And that “he entered once for all into the holy places … by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12)?  Paul knew and taught that the afflictions of Christ were a complete and sufficient ground for our justification.  We are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9).  Paul taught that Christ chose suffering and was “obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).  That obedient suffering, as the climax of a perfect life of righteousness (Matthew 3:15), was the all-sufficient ground of our righteousness before God.  “As by [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).  So Paul does not mean that his suffering complete the atoning worth of Jesus’ afflictions.’

(Pgs.267-268)

To illustrate this point, Piper looks at a whole variety of Christians who suffered for their faith such as Epaphroditus and a 20th century Russian Christian named Natasha Zhdanova, who underwent much sufferings and touched the lives of all who witnessed their sufferings.  Suffering might also help the church to grow in numbers and influence.

But the most important question to ask is what has suffering got to do with Christian Hedonism?  To this Piper answers that, after the end of all pain and persecution, the chief end of all is the hope and resurrection in Jesus:

‘Christian Hedonism says that there are different ways to rejoice in suffering as a Christian. … One way is expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5:11-12:  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (cf. Luke 6:22-23).  One way of rejoicing in suffering comes from fixing our minds firmly on the greatness of the reward that will come to us in the resurrection.  The effect of this kind of focus is to make our present pain seem small in comparison to what is coming.’ … . Another way of rejoicing in suffering comes from the effects of suffering on our assurance of hope.  Joy in affliction is rooted in the hope of resurrection, but our experience of suffering also deepens the root of that hope.

‘Another way of rejoicing in suffering is kindled by the truth that our joy itself is a proven pathway to glory.  Joy in suffering comes not only (1) from focusing on our reward and (2) from the solidifying effect of suffering on our sense of genuineness, but also (3) from the promise that joy in suffering will secure eternal joy in the future.  …

‘The fourth way of rejoicing in suffering we have seen already.  It comes from realizing that through our suffering others are seeing the worth of Christ and standing firm because of our faith in the fire.  …  This is the joy of Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”  When we suffer to show others the love of Christ and the worth of Christ, it is because every new convert that stands firm in faith is a new, unique prism for refracting the all-satisfying glory of Christ.’

(Pgs.283ff)

It is this view of suffering that Piper claims should make Christian Hedonists embrace suffering and to do it for the sake of God.

In my case, suffering has made me open myself up to my parents more often, especially when I have problems in my life that I can’t get my head around.  Sometimes it’s impossible to be self-sufficient.  J loved all the stories of extreme suffering for Christ in this chapter.  She felt very inspired by the descriptions of the great joy the people experienced, whilst in the midst of their profound suffering.  GM says that there’s the classic case of the martyrs and the way they withstood what was done to them.  They died so bravely that it converted so many of the Romans.  To which I added the quote from Tertullian: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

GM says that Piper is actually putting up with the suffering now because of the future glory that is coming.  So it is a hedonistic attitude, but we can also take pleasure in things right now, because we have this hope ahead of us.  For example, in Revelation chapter 7 where Christian martyrs rejoiced for in dying for Jesus.  Yet, the idea of suffering can be taken to a perverse direction.  For example, Thomas A’Beckitt, who died, and was found to be wearing a hair shirt underneath his clothing, plus in the example of some people who kept flogging themselves.  So, you can take the idea to an extreme.  There’s suffering for a cause, and then there’s just suffering.

I asked GM about the quote from the Cisterian abbot, because, to him, it seemed to imply that it means nothing.  GM says that he felt that it was a pretty weak answer, and that he sometimes think that we have lost our nerve in stating what is right and true.  In a modern society we’re too scared to make a stand.  We want to say, “It’s wrong”, but we say, “It’s not wrong”.  So we tend to say wishy-washy things.  Some examples GM cites is the debate on same-sex marriage and the attack on Israel Folau for expressing his views on homosexuality.  However, J says that she thought that it was the way the message was delivered by him that was the main problem, especially given today’s social media.  As for suffering for our faith, GM says that he has not had to do that.  But J says that she has a little bit .  Looking back now though, J can see that the problem lay in her delivery, when she was a much newer Christian, trying to share the Gospel, doing it badly, and getting frog-marched out of someone’s house.  Actually she had that done to her a few times!  She is not afraid to suffer in order to get some sort of message across, and hopefully her delivery these days is much gentler, though one can never be sure!

Smiley Face


Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley

At the end of the book, Piper gives seven reasons why he wishes to share his philosophy of Christian Hedonism:

Reason One: It’s My Pleasure

Piper sincerely feels that it is his pleasure to share this idea with the rest of the world, especially when he compares himself to the lepers in 2 Kings 7 when they see God’s victory over the Syrians.  Piper just wants to share the good news with others.

Reason Two: God is Breathtaking

Piper feels that God, seen through the prism of Christian Hedonism, is simply awe-inspiring.  This is evident given the human appreciation of beauty in everything, ranging from nature to material objects.  Yet these will not ultimately satisfy until we have tasted the eternal God.

Reason Three: The Word of God Commands Us to Pursue Our Joy

Piper urges us to eagerly pursue our joy in God.  Some people may object to it, stating that Christians are not meant to have any joy.  But Piper says that we should not treat our joy in God in a “mechanical” manner, nor should we place “lesser” joys above and beyond the joy of God.  As for scripture such as Exodus 32:32 and Romans 9:3, where both Moses and Paul express a wish to die rather than witness the destruction of their people, Piper explains that this is hypothetical conjecture on their (Moses’ and Paul’s) part rather than a legitimate wish.

Reason Four: Affections are Essential to the Christian Life, Not Optional

Piper argues that our affections are very essential to our enjoyment of God, and we are to take delight in Christ.  In fact, the Bible even mentions many emotions, such as joy, fear, and desire.  The only sin we need to combat against is that of cold-hearted sense of “duty” which would kill our affections stone-cold dead.

Reason Five: Christian Hedonism Combats Pride and Self-Pity

The reason Christian Hedonism is opposed to both boasting (glorifying in our works) and self-pity (glorifying in our suffering) is because they can lead to pride.  Both come from pride, especially pity because it comes from a wounded ego, and when we glorify God, we take the axe to our proud behaviour and leave the rest in God’s hands.  Even Matthew 6 says that we should rejoice in our suffering!

Reason Six: Christian Hedonism Promotes Genuine Love for People

Piper says that, once we are born of God, we will love to be kind and, once motivated by a true love for God, we will want to share with the rest of the world.  We also should do so cheerfully because “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor.9:7).

Reason Seven: Christian Hedonism Glorifies God

Finally, we should place our own pleasure in God.  This is against doing things that do not honour Him, such as taking part in “solemn assemblies” and not delighting in God alone during the Sabbath.  ‘The enjoyment and the glorification of God are one.  His eternal purpose and our eternal pleasure unite.  To magnify His name and multiply your joy is the reason I have written this book, for:

‘The chief end of man is to glorify God

by

‘enjoying Him forever.’

(Pg.307)

One of the things we liked about his book was the topsy-turvy aspect, except for the chapter on marriage.  Piper has deliberately twisted everything around and made a very good case in most instances.  GM like the general idea that we should have emotion and should enjoy our experience with God.  We’ve come from a tradition of things being very solemn in church.  Piper is reinforcing the idea that there is emotion in worship, and there should be joy in worshipping God.  Especially given those who remember growing up in church, where it was solemn, and you had to wear your Sunday best too.

We discussed the difference between happiness and joy.  Also noted the importance of attending church and groups with fellow Christians, as often our joy in worshipping and glorifying God is magnified at those times.  GK said ‘joy’ is not an emotion.  As for E, she says joy is a state of being more than anything.  We all agreed that we had enjoyed reading Piper’s book.  Whilst she enjoyed this book, J said her favourite for the year had been Tim Keller’s book, as she found it deeper and more satisfyingly complex.

Thanks for joining us on our discussion of John Piper’s book.  Join next time as we look at Part One of Tim Costello’s A Lot with a Little.

John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Multnomah Books. (Rev. Ed.) 2011

Desiring God Part One

Previous: Kneeling with Giants Part Four

51YjIJaOibL

Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/John-Piper-Desiring-Meditations-Christian/dp/B01252LN4C)

Hello, and welcome back to the book club! Last time, we looked at Kneeling with Giants by Gary Neal Hansen. Now, we turn our attention to Desiring God by John Piper. In the Introduction, John Piper mentions the reasons why he chose to write this book. The main one is that, from an early age in the seminary, he thought that one was not meant to derive much pleasure from worshipping God

‘When I was in college, I had a vague, pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness.

‘I figured that the goodness of my moral action was lessened to a degree that I was motivated by a desire for my own pleasure. At the time, buying ice cream in the student center just for pleasure didn’t bother me, because the moral consequences of that action seemed so insignificant. But to be motivated by a desire for happiness or pleasure when I volunteered for Christian service or went to church – that seemed selfish, utilitarian, mercenary.

‘One of the most frustrating areas was that of worship and praise. My vague notion that the higher the activity, the less there must be of self-interest in it caused me to think of worship almost solely in terms of duty. And that cuts the heart out of it.’ 

(Pg.18)

Later on, however, Piper would gravitate towards a different philosophy of life and worship, one that he has dubbed “Christian Hedonism”. He first got an inkling for this in the works of theologians such as Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards, in which they point out that all people desire happiness, even though our notion of that happiness has been corrupted by the fall. That all of our praise towards God, especially in the psalms, betrays a desire to reside in God. And that all of our joy and worship is reflected in our lives. That it is not our nature to have a stoic philosophy to do good without ever thinking about gaining any pleasure from it.

At the same time Piper is aware that there are some objections to Christian Hedonism and tries to answer some of them in the Introduction:

‘First Christian Hedonism as I use the term does not mean God becomes a means to help us get worldly pleasures. The pleasure Christian Hedonism seeks is the pleasure that is in God Himself. … Christian Hedonism does not reduce God to a key that unlocks a treasure chest of gold and silver. Rather, it seeks to transform the heart so that “the Almighty will be your gold and your precious silver” (Job 22:25).

‘Second, Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of pleasure. It says that one has already made a god out of whatever he finds most pleasure in. The goal of Christian Hedonism is to find most pleasure in the one and only God and thus avoid the sin of covetousness, that is, idolatry (Colossians 3:5). 

‘Third, Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when we seek Him out of self-interest. A patient is not greater than his physician. …

‘Fourth, Christian Hedonism is not a “general theory of moral justification.” In other words, nowhere do I say: An act is right because it brings pleasure. My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion. My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected, fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all worship and all virtuous acts. I do not say that loving God is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving God: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). I do not say that loving people is good because it brings joy in loving people: “[Let] the one who does acts of mercy [do so] with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8).

‘Fifth, I do not say that the relationship between love and happiness is this: “True happiness requires love.” This is an oversimplification that misses the crucial and defining point. The distinguishing feature of Christian Hedonism is that pleasure seeking demands virtue, but that virtue consists essentially, though not only, in pleasure seeking.’ 

(Pgs.24-25)

Another objection comes from a theologian Richard Mouw who accuses Piper of distorting Reformed creeds such as the Heidelberg Confession, which, according to Mouw, states that ‘ “I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” ’ (Pg.26), leaving no mention of any “hedonistic” pleasure in God. Piper replies that the Confession itself begins with asking what is our true comfort, then goes on to address the question of our happiness, which provides this answer: ‘ “Three things: first the greatness of my sin and misery; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.” ’ (Pg.27). From that point onwards, the Heidelberg Confession goes to address the redemption of our sinful state and to be thankful for it. Therefore, Piper claims that such creeds like the Heidelberg Confession support Christian Hedonism, and he is not distorting them for his aims.

Finally, Piper hope to use this book to help others understand Christian Hedonism in a more nuanced light.

We agreed that there is a very pervasive notion that if something makes you happy then it is less good. This in turn led us to ask ourselves some questions: is the music that we use in our worship a distraction at church? Or is it a help for us to get caught up in the atmosphere? Or do we get distracted by how good the musicians are? Are they using their gifts for the glory of God or drawing attention to themselves?

J said that she’s had great pleasure at AHOP (Adoration House of Prayer) when God gives His anointing. R thinks the issue is if we try to simulate the anointing of the Spirit by whipping people into a frenzy with the music we play. GM said that his generation’s attitude to church was to be somber – out of respect for the worship of God.

As for the use of the word “hedonism”, it is used to shock the reader in order to make him or her think about the idea of finding pleasure in God. In reality, the desire to be happy is not sinful – if you make happiness your final and ultimate goal, that is when it becomes sinful.

800px-SNice.svg

Smiley Face

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley)

In Chapter One, Piper looks at the idea of the “happiness of God”:

‘The ultimate ground of Christian Hedonism is the fact that God is uppermost in His own affections: 

‘The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever.’

(Pg.31)

Piper then goes on to elaborate that when we worship God we are actually worshipping a God who takes delight in Himself, not one who is a perennial grump:

[I]f God is not a happy God, Christian Hedonism has no foundation. For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God.’

(Pg.33)

But the most important aspect of this happiness of God is to acknowledge His sovereignty as well. This means acknowledging it during the most dismal and evil parts of human history, because even the evil aspects of our life, including pain and suffering, are all under His control. ‘This was the reverent saying of God’s servant Job when he was afflicted with boils: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). … The evil Satan causes is only by the permission of God. Therefore, Job is not wrong to see it as ultimately from the hand of God. It would be unbiblical and irreverent to give Satan (or to sinful man) the power to frustrate the designs of God.’ (Pg.35). This power over creation and history even includes the crucifixion and death of Jesus because God ordered it for our salvation as well as the various moments that happened to other biblical patriarchs such as Joseph because God ordained them for good purposes.

However, we ought to remember that the God in whom we delight in is a happy one. One particular aspect is His glory, which Piper claims is the chief aspect that He delights in:

‘Glory is not easy to define. It is like beauty. How would you define beauty? Some things we have to point at rather than define. But let me try. God’s glory is the beauty of His manifold perfections. It can refer to the bright and awesome radiance that breaks forth in visible manifestations. Or it can refer to the infinite moral excellence of His character. In either case it signifies a reality of infinite greatness and worth.

‘God’s ultimate goal is to preserve and display His infinite and awesome greatness and worth, that is, His glory.’

(Pg.42)

This same glory is also shown in His Son as well as in the whole of creation itself. But this leads some people to wonder if God Himself is vain, if He is full of Himself. For one thing, it is because the Bible is against those who seek their own glory, and for another thing, we are habitually against those who Piper calls “second-handers”:

‘First, we just don’t like people who seem to be enamored with their own intelligence or strength or skill or good looks or wealth. We don’t like scholars who try to show off the specialized knowledge or recite for us all their recent publications. We don’t like businessmen who talk about how shrewdly they have invested their money and how they stayed right on top of the market to get in low and out high. We don’t like children to play one-upmanship (Mine’s bigger! Mine’s faster! Mine’s prettier!). And unless we are one of them, we disapprove of men and women who dress not functionally and simply, but to attract attention with the latest style.’

(Pg.46)

But Piper says that God is not like a vain or proud human being, He is God and has no weakness and we ourselves owe our existence to Him. Another reason to praise Him is because we praise Him for His glory, His work in creation and therefore such praise completes our joy in Him. This sums up the happiness of God.

Describing God as happy is something we admit we haven’t though of before. In Piper’s book, he doesn’t describe God as a gloomy or a depressing presence. We think that on pages 32-33 Piper has offered a good description of Greek and Roman gods more than the God we know and love. We think of God being wise and serious and so on, not happy. But it’s something that we want to agree with.

GM pointed out that worshipping God is good for us. If we find pleasure in doing good things, then that is good. It’s a gift from God, which produces a warm feeling.

As for the idea of God getting enjoyment from Himself, it only works because God is perfect, the highest. As for human beings, getting enjoyment from ourselves doesn’t work because we are imperfect, sinful beings and such enjoyment will end up as short and fleeting. GM agreed that God is satisfied.

We’ve been taught a lot that happy is “wrong” and joy is “right.” But a happy father (in an earthly family) displays God better because happy parents have good relationships with their children, which is a perfect illustration for the love God has for His children.

Battesimo_dei_neofiti_2

Baptism of the Neophytes by Masaccio (1425-1426)

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism)

In Chapter Two Piper focuses on the issue of conversion, especially since it assists in the creation of a Christian Hedonist. The reason why conversion is so essential is because it is not merely a lip service where we say one thing and yet believe in another:

‘First, we are surrounded by unconverted people who think they do believe in Jesus.

 

‘It does no good to tell these people to believe in the Lord Jesus. The phrase is empty. … So I use different words to unpack what believe means. In recent years I have asked, “Do you receive Jesus as your Treasure?” Not just Savior (everybody wants out of hell, but not to be with Jesus). Not just Lord (they might submit begrudgingly). The key is: Do you treasure Him more than everything? Converts to Christian Hedonism say with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).’

(Pgs.54-55)

To further elaborate on this theme of conversion, Piper states six truths from Scripture:

  1. God created us for His glory.
  2. Therefore, it is the duty of every person to live for the glory of God.
  3. Yet all of us have failed to glorify God as we ought.
  4. Therefore, all of us are subject to eternal condemnation by God.
  5. Nevertheless, in His great mercy, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save sinners by dying in their place and rising bodily from the dead, and
  6. The benefits purchased by the death of Christ belong to those who repent and trust in Him.

In these points, Piper addresses themes such as our creation, the fall, which led us into sin, the fact that because of our sin we are deemed worthy of punishment in hellfire, but Jesus came to save us through His passion, death and resurrection, and, through conversion to Christ, we can enjoy His glory and salvation. In fact, Piper links the nature of conversion as a kind of joy. But it can be activated by the power of the Holy Spirit and result in a new birth. That new birth, in turn, will then allow us to treasure Jesus alone above and beyond anything else, even acts that once gave us pleasure, such as reading and watching movies and TV. The reason is because now, as Christian Hedonists, we have new pleasure in Christ, and therefore will have no need for anything else.

J thinks that more than repentance and conversion is needed for Christian Hedonism and pleasure. Praying, worship, singing, Bible reading, is all necessary. But conversion is square one!

GM says that more gratitude for God’s forgiveness and awareness of God’s grace would lead to worship and thankfulness, which is a cornerstone of Christian Hedonism. J says that her pleasures have changed since her conversion and there are many things she can’t enjoy now. But she doesn’t feel the lack, which is a good thing. For my part, I confessed that I often watched movies to kill time. This is brought about what G.K. Chesterton said about saying grace before reading a book or seeing a play, and maybe that should also apply to watching movies, which is a interesting point to consider. If we can’t invite Jesus to watch with us, should be we watching or reading anything at all?

We know lots of people who claim to be Christians but we don’t see the fruit of it in their lives. Do we really treasure Jesus? It’s exciting when we see people start to treasure Jesus. It gives both us and them great pleasure.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Worship

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_worship)

In Chapter Three Piper focuses on the theme of worship. He begins this chapter with a look on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. In this episode Piper points out that the main issue here is worship:

‘Worshiping in spirit is the opposite of worshiping in merely external ways. It is the opposite of empty formalism and traditionalism. Worshiping in truth is the opposite of worship based on an inadequate view of God. Worship must have heart and head. Worship must engage emotions and thought.

‘Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full (or half-full) of artificial admirers (like people who write generic anniversary cards for a living). On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine.’

(Pgs.81-82)

This leads to Piper to tell people that, as Christian Hedonists, our worship must be a combination of heart and head. On one hand, because of the glory of God in creation, we must worship Him “gladly” by showing an eager appreciation for God, which must be heartfelt and sincere. On the other hand, while we may worship God with our “lips”, we must never have our minds elsewhere. Some evangelical see feelings as only “optional” to Christian worship, thinking that they might not have any benefit. But Piper disagrees, using the ideas of Jonathan Edwards to state that the feelings are not just physical sensations but are an essential part of the soul:

‘There is a connection between the feelings of the soul and the sensation of the body. This is owing, Edwards says, to “the laws of union which the Creator has fixed between the soul and the body.” In other words, heartfelt gratitude can make you cry. Fear of God can make you tremble. The crying and the trembling are in themselves spiritually insignificant. … But the gratitude and the fear are not optional in the Christian life. Yet these are what most people call feelings.

‘Minimizing the importance of transformed feelings makes Christian conversion less supernatural and less radical. … Christian conversion, on the other hand, is a supernatural, radical thing. The heart is changed. And the evidence of it is not just new decisions, but new affections, new feelings.’

(Pg.89)

Another important thought is that we should treat worship as an end in itself. Piper clarifies this using a real-life situation: ‘For example: My brother-in-law called me long-distance … to tell me my mother had just been killed. … One thing is for sure: When I hear news like that, I do not sit down and say, “Now to what end shall I feel grief?” As I pull my baby son off my leg and hand him to my wife and walk to the bedroom to be alone, I do not say, “What good end can I accomplish if I cry for the next half-hour?” The feeling of grief is an end in itself, as far as my conscious motivation is concerned’ (Pgs.90-91). Feelings are an actual, gut-felt reaction to any situation. They should not be over-analyzed to the point of intellectual discourse, which can sometimes be found in Christian worship, where we keep a tight lid on our feelings, something that is more likely from the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the Stoics rather than from true Christianity, which expresses itself in a joy and passion in God’s presence.

In order to better cultivate a true worshipping spirit, Piper comes up with three stages:

‘1. There is a final stage in which we feel an unencumbered joy in the manifold perfection of God – the joy of gratitude, wonder, hope, admiration: “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5). In this stage we are satisfied with the excellency of God, and we overflow with the joy of His fellowship. This is the feast of Christian Hedonism. 

‘2. In a prior stage that we often taste, we do not feel fullness, but rather longing and desire. Having tasted the feast before, we recall the goodness of the Lord – but it seems far off. We preach to our souls not to be downcast, because we are sure we shall again praise the Lord (Psalm 42:5). Yet, for now our hearts are not very fervent.

‘Even though this falls short of the ideal of vigorous, heartfelt adoration and hope, yet it is a great honor to God. We honor the water from a mountain spring only by the satisfied “ahhh” after drinking our fill, but also by the unquenched longing to be satisfied while still climbing to it.

‘3. The lowest stage of worship – where all genuine worship starts, and where it often returns for a dark season – is the barrenness of soul that scarcely feels any longing, and yet is still granted the grace of repentant sorrow for having so little love: “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast towards you” (Psalm 73:21-22).’

(Pgs.96-97)

It is by keeping these feelings in mind during time with God in worship that we can be willing to greet Him with wide open arms and never to settle for anything less.

As Stoic philosophy is making a comeback, it’s good to be reminded that Stoicism is NOT Christianity. That we are allowed to feel things, which Piper sees as important for Christians. We do need to keep worshipping even when we don’t feel it. We need to keep “stoically” doing the things BUT we are allowed to feel emotion as well.

We agreed that feelings are useful for worship, but they can get in the way of worship too. True worship can help you to lift your eyes above your own petty emotion and feel the emotions given by worship of the Lord. Worship for us means being connected with a deep love for God. We need to love God for real worship. Even if we feel dry then we know we need God and so we worship anyway. We worship because, as GR puts it, God is God – it doesn’t matter how we feel, and we shouldn’t rely on our feelings. J says that on very dry days she uses the Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers, to help her pray, which shows that Christians can use devotional materials to help them get through dry patches of their prayer life.

Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa_September_2015-2a

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_Ávila)

In Chapter Four, Piper turns his attention to love in the life of a Christian Hedonist, especially in love for each other. In this section, he states that he has often been criticized for stating that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. In 1 Corinthians 13:5, the apostle Paul appears to be saying that love does not seek its own, and other texts seem to state that we should do good just for the sake of doing good, and not for any emotional reward. But Piper disagrees, citing Jonathan Edwards to further elaborate this text:

‘ “[The error 1 Corinthians 13:5 opposes is not] the degree in which [a person] loves his own happiness, but in placing his happiness where he ought not, and in limiting and confining his love. Some, although they love their own happiness, do not place that happiness in their own confined good, or in that good which is limited to themselves, but more in the common good – in that which is the good of others, or in the good to be enjoyed in and by others … And when it is said that Charity seeketh not her own, we are to understand it of her own private good – good limited to herself.” ’

(Pgs.113-114)

In other words, we should not be looking out for own selves when we love both God (“vertical Christian Hedonism”) and our neighbor (“horizontal Christian Hedonism”) but in deeply loving and caring for both God and neighbor, we find our happiness in their wellbeing. It is this same love that motivated Paul, seen when he mentions throughout his writings of his deep love for God and other people. This includes his converts when Paul says that they are his “glory and his joy” (1 Th.2:20), not because they are some numbers to be added to a machine, but because he loves them. It is this same joy of God that can lead to the charity that the Macedonians offered (2 Corinthians 8):

‘First, it is a work of divine grace: “We want to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1). The generosity of the Macedonians was not of human origin. Even though verse 3 says they gave “of their own accord,” the willingness was a gift of God – a work of grace.

‘Second, this experience of God’s grace filled the Macedonians with joy. “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and the extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (v.2). Note that their joy was not owing to the fact that God had prospered them financially. He hadn’t! In “extreme poverty” they had joy. Therefore, the joy was a joy in God – in the experience of His grace. 

‘Third, their joy in God’s grace overflowed in generosity to meet the needs of others: “Their absolute joy … overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (v.2.) Therefore, the generosity expressed horizontally toward men was an overflow of joy in God’s grace. 

‘Fourth, the Macedonians begged for the opportunity to sacrifice their meager possessions for the saints in Jerusalem: “Beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favour of participation in the support of the saints” (8:3-4 NASAB). In other words, the way their joy in God overflowed was in the joy of giving. They wanted to give. It was their joy!’

(Pgs.118-119)

Piper even addresses the issue of 2 Corinthians 2, where Paul mentions ‘love is what exists between people when they find their joy in each other’s joy’ (Pg.123), which, at first seems like a contradiction to 2 Corinthians 8, but Piper says that ‘love not only delight to cause joy in those who are empty (2 Corinthians 8), but also delights to contemplate joy in those who are full (2 Corinthians 2). … The grace of God delights to grant repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), and it rejoices over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7). Therefore, when our hearts are filled with joy in the grace of God, we want not only to cause the joy of others, but also to contemplate it when it exists in others’ (Pg.123). This is different from what C.S. Lewis calls a “mercenary” love, where we expect this love to lead onto something better in return. This is a love that takes its delight in its present object, God and neighbor, not as some “disinterested benevolence” where we possess a “controlled” admiration for God, and it is this love that should motivate our actions.

It is also different from world pride or achievement: ‘The all-important difference between the non-Christian and the Christian Hedonist in this pursuit of joy is that the Christian Hedonist has discovered that self-confidence will never satisfy the longing of his heart to overcome finitude. He has learned that what we are really made for is not the thrill of feeling our own power increase, but the thrill of feeling God’s power increase, conquering the precipices of un-love in our sinful hearts’ (Pg.140). This love itself should be a stepping-stone to a closeness to God and His grace.

In the case of suffering, Piper says that a true, loving Christian Hedonist should not be a stoic, but be called to weep when others weep and suffer when others suffer. But Piper also says that love suffers for joy, and he cites Hebrews (10:32-35, 11:24-26, and 12:1-2) to make his case, which states that Christians should always suffer for the glory to be revealed, that biblical patriarchs such as Moses endured the loss of present glory in order to be united with the glory of God Himself, and finally Jesus Himself ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Pg.132). Here Piper is talking about joy, not fun. The way to the cross was not “fun”, and someone like Dorothy Day who cared tirelessly for the poor in order to have the “joy” that she wanted, also wasn’t having “fun”. But piper is talking instead about a deep joy. This for Piper, is Christian love in action and both stems from, and is found in, our love for Jesus.

R thinks she often does things because they are “the right things to do” but hopefully that at the back of that there is worship for God. This made us look at different people and their motives and whether or not they do things for God. Selfish love is seeing some sort of glory for yourself in the here and now. As for Godly love, it is the feeling that when something good happens to someone else you feel joyful where with selfish love you just feel unhappy.

In the end, it is for our joy, but for His glory. We can ask whose glory are we doing this for? Not whose joy are we doing this for? The reason why is because we can get joy in this life and in the life to come. And that can be a gift from God.

Many of us are on rosters at church, not for the joy of or love of it. But because we joy to serve the church. There is satisfaction in doing the Lord’s job.

Gutenberg_Bible,_Lenox_Copy,_New_York_Public_Library,_2009._Pic_01

The Gutenberg Bible

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible)

Finally, in Chapter Five, Piper focuses on the relationship between Christian Hedonism and the Bible. Piper addresses the fact that our feelings can change from day to day and that we can go from happy moments to depression. This means that we need to be recharged daily with the scriptures: ‘Normal Christian life is a repeated process of restoration and renewal. Our joy is not static. It fluctuates with real life. It is vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. … (W)hen Satan huffs and puffs and tries to blow out the flame of our joy, we have an endless supply of kindling in the Word of God. Even on days when every cinder in our souls feels cold, if we crawl to the Word of God and cry out for ears to hear, the cold ashes will be lifted and the tiny spark of life will be fanned. For “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” ’ (Pgs.143 & 144).

Piper then goes on to list the benefits of scripture in our life of faith. First, the Bible gives life as well as imparting wisdom, because it tells of God, the fact that He created the universe and upholds it. It sustains our physical and spiritual life: ‘ “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). Our physical world is created and upheld by the Word of God, and our spiritual life is quickened and sustained by the Word of God’ (Pg.145). Piper cites the case of an English Reformer known as “Little Bilney”, who after a period of spiritual dryness, read Erasmus’ New Testament, especially 1 Timothy 1, which led him to a new inspiration for life.

The Bible also inspires faith as well as life. To support this claim, Piper recalls the story of Tokichi Ichii, who was tried for murder in early 20th century Japan and was unrepentant about the fact until two Christian missionaries, read him the story of Jesus. The fact that on the cross Jesus forgave His enemies moved Tokichi so much that he began to reconsider his life and past and, as well as converting to Christianity, he humbly accepted his execution, seeing it as the act of a just God. He also hoped that people might hear his story, be touched, and converted in the same way he was. Piper shows that the point of Tokichi’s story is that ‘(f)aith is born and sustained by the Word of God, and out of faith grows the flower of joy’ (Pg.148). This joy is, in turn which is contained, and can be sustained by the Holy Spirit, which is contained, and can be reveal by, scripture itself: ‘We drink in the Spirit by setting our minds on the things of the Spirit, namely the Word of God. And the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22)’ (Pg.149).

The other benefits from Scripture are a hope in the upcoming salvation as well as putting our hope in God; freedom from sin and the joy that that leading us to further holiness; and wisdom that is better than that offered by the secular world. Not only that, but the Bible also offers us protection from evil, from both our own sins and the Devil respectively. The former can be overcome by finding our comfort in scripture, especially in its offer of eternal life. As for the Devil, he can be defeated by scripture which can also help us survive the Devil’s attack. This was seen in the case of the missionary Hudson Taylor, who used dedicated bible study, used it to help sharpen his faith against insurmountable odds: ‘The Sword of the Spirit is full of victory. But how few will give themselves to the deep and disciplined exercise of soul to take it up and wield it with joy and power’ (Pg.152)!

Piper finishes this chapter with an exhortation to read and immerse ourselves in Scripture:

‘So the Bible is the Word of God. And the Word of God is no trifle. It is the source of life and faith and power and hope and freedom and wisdom and comfort and assurance and victory over our greatest enemy.’ (Pg.152). But the most important thing about God’s Word is to wear it everyday if we mean to wield it. Piper recommends that we do as George Muller did by studying God’s Word everyday and, by doing so, allow it to saturate our lives.

We liked how George Muller used the Bible and meditation to help him pray. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read. As for the question whether Christians need to have the desire to read the Bible, the answer to that question is a “yes.” But, like worship, we need to keep reading. We do agree, however, that some books in the Bible like 1 Chronicles seem boring because it is just a long list of names and it’s hard to meditate on them. But even books like that are still essential to Bible study.

We spent some time discussing Bible study methods, and we agreed that we like the ones that dig out information and insight. We also agree that we can feel joy in the Bible. GM gets angry with liberal commentaries that just treat the Bible as an old book, just like any other book. Reading and memorizing the Bible is great. Even our songs of worship help bring the words to mind to combat the devil.

Having gone through the first half of Piper’s book, we found ourselves challenged by his use of the phrase “Christian Hedonism” and the idea that God takes joy in Himself and we too can take joy in Him. We also agreed with some ideas such as feelings in worship and Bible study. So, in Piper we have found a new way to view our love and worship of God, which is very helpful to bring to mind now and again.

Join next time as we look at the second half of Piper’s book.

John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Multnomah Books. (Rev. Ed.) 2011

Next: Desiring God – Part Two

Kneeling with Giants Part Four

Previous: Kneeling with Giants Part Three

81XTTifk0eL

Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Kneeling-Giants-Learning-Historys-Teachers/dp/0830835628)

Hello, welcome back to the blog! Last time, we looked at Part Three of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, which looked at different ways of conversing with God in prayer. Now, in the final section, we look at intercession. The reason why Hansen puts this last is because, why intercessory prayer is important, he does not want people to have a ‘lopsided relationship with God’ (Pg.173). The earlier sections in this book help us to develop a clear reverence for God and, in turn, would allow us to have a better of how to intercede with God without reducing Him to a mere genie or wizard.

Laying_on_of_hands

Members of the Pentecostal church of God in Lejunior, Kentucky pray for a girl in 1946

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_healing)

Hansen begins with Agnes Sanford and her method of intercession. Sanford sums up intercession which is a fourfold process:

The first step is to simply connect with God and do everything in our power to deepen that connection. It is pointless to pray for somebody else when without an intimate connection with God. It is also acceptable to bring to God all our fears and anxieties, because we can place them in His hands before asking for anything else. Sanford has good practical suggestions about [centering ourselves before God]. First, she recommends we pick a daily time to practice prayer. Second, she tells us to relax our bodies and minds, finding a physical position that can be alert and comfortable. … Third, she has us focus our minds on God – not empty our minds, but fill them with God. Finally, she has us call out to God, but not yet to ask for healing. We ask God to be with and fill us’ (Pgs.179-180).

The second step in Sanford’s system is to simply make a specific request. To do that ‘ “we must decide on some tangible thing that we wish accomplished by that power, so that we can know without question whether our experiment succeeded or failed”’ (Pg.180). We trust that God will hear and answer our request. Many Christians are reluctant to rely on God to answer their requests, preferring to say ‘His will be done’, but Sanford believes that this only reveals a distrust in God and a skepticism about whether or not He can hear our prayers. The request should be followed by thankfulness, which ‘shifts the weight of our attention. Worried repetition of the request nurtures obsession with the problem. Giving thanks fills our attention with the truth of God’s goodness, mercy and power – and that is the stance of trust. Sanford has us building our faith, brick by trustworthy brick’ (Pg.182).

The third step is to be present with the person who is afflicted and to focus attention on God alone. ‘Sanford advises those praying for someone’s healing not to try to think too hard or put their prayers into perfect words. She tells of receiving this advice from someone more experienced with healing … simply to be with the sick boy and lay her hands on his head, knowing that God is God and that God is present’ (Pgs.182-183). Hansen even tried this on his sick son, where he laid his hands on him in prayer. He admits that nothing miraculous happened, but Hansen himself admits to a great feeling of God’s peace that helped to deepen his faith.

The fourth and final step is to turn the intercession into a game of rejoicing. On the one hand, we should not be too flippant when asking for healing, but we also should also rejoice during this time. Rejoicing can also help to deepen and expand faith. ‘ “If we try this as a solemn duty, it may not work. Prayer needs wings of joy to fly upon. But if we do it happily and spontaneously, as a sort of game, we see it work right before our eyes”’ (Pg.184).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sanford’s teaching is the use of the imagination. The first thing to visualize is the completion of healing, which turns our attention away from the problem (the illness and/or injury) and onto the solution, and can help build up faith. The second is to imagine the process of healing, which can range from seeing the light of God’s presence shining over the person being healed to “seeing” the healing process being done. A third aspect to imagine is the reason for the healing, which is illustrated in the episode of the boy with a bad heart, where he imagines himself in the future as a famous football star. ‘To this little boy, a heart valve was probably a pretty vague concept. On the other hand, playing football in high school must have looked like the peak of success. Playing football would be the purpose for the healing; it is the life he would want to live if the healing were to happen’ (Pg.188). This process can take our minds from the present worry and raise up the person we are praying in a sense of joy.

However, with Sanford’s teaching there is some controversy. One objection is that some of her teachings appear to border on “New Age” or “prosperity gospel” doctrine, especially in the use of the imagination. Another is that fact that she relies too much on her prayer being “scientific”, especially comparing the power of God’s healing to electricity. Another is ‘saying we are “part of God” (rather than creatures distinct from our Creator)’ (Pg.190) and calling prayer “thought vibrations”, which displays an inadequate grasp of doctrine and theology. But, Sanford’s teaching gives us a fresh perspective on intercession.

We mulled over the idea of Sanford’s teaching, and we concluded that this is supernatural healing and the word ‘scientific’ doesn’t work. One of our members, J, has been in a group where they prayed for healing like this and people received healing. As she says, ‘you shall know them by their fruit.’

‘You don’t have because you don’t ask God.’ James 4:2 John Wimber when asked about his healing ministry said that when they didn’t ask for healing, they didn’t see any healings, but, when they did ask, while not everyone got healed, some did – more than when they didn’t ask.

As for other aspects of Sanford’s teaching, like ‘thought vibrations’, we did not think highly of that. It did not feel exactly Christian to us. We do think that a connection to God is important. But we need to trust God’s mercy. As for Sanford’s claim of “scientific method” we were very skeptical about it. We believe that her language shows a lack of education rather than a lack of faith!

We liked Sanford’s idea of imagining the person in a healed state – it stops us from using prayer as a “worry” method and helps us to pray in faith. In fact, in Mark 11:24, ‘believe that you have received it, it will be yours.’ Anyone can pray for healing but some people have a gift of healing. But that doesn’t stop the rest of us from praying.

GR told a story about our former rector who prayed for healing for a deaf woman, and when he asked later she was still deaf. At first the rector was sad that his prayer had no effect, but the deaf woman told him that she was going blind and his prayer stopped that instead! This highlights a case of “collateral healing” where God often heals people in the most unexpected places!

Andrew_Murray

Andrew Murray

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Murray_(minister))

The next method was from Andrew Murray, he also teaches intercession. The basic method as outlined by Hansen is to start with small requests, pray for members of our church, family, and community, be specific about prayer requests, always use the Bible to show us the will of God, watch for answers and also be persistent at prayer, even when answers are not obvious. But the more radical aspects of Murray’s ideas is to his call for holiness, to abide in Christ, and to take up Christ’s priestly ministry.

The call for holiness is to make sure our lives and thoughts are in line with God: ‘ ‘“It will not be difficult to say what is needed to live such a life of prayer. The first thing is undoubtedly the entire sacrifice of the life to God’s kingdom and glory.” The real condition of right prayer, according to Murray, is holy life – a life dedicated to serving and glorifying God’ (Pg.200). This call to holiness is evident in scripture especially in Jesus’ life. We also are to pray for His will and bring our lives both our lives and prayers in sync with His will.

This leads to Murray’s second point, that we need to abide in Christ, in the same manner that Jesus encourages us to abide in Him as the life-giving vine (John 15). As Hansen puts it: ‘Our prayers go unanswered when we are not living close to Jesus, in the abiding love that expresses itself in full obedience. “It is as our faith grows into obedience,” Murray says, “and in obedience and love our whole being goes out and clings itself to Christ, that our inner life becomes opened up, and the capacity is formed within of receiving the life, the spirit, of the glorified Jesus, as a distinct and conscious union with Christ and with the Father.” The person in union with Christ is the one whose prayer is answered’ (Pg.201). This adds a contemplative edge to Murray’s teaching – the idea of a Christian abiding in Christ, and Hansen says that it is a much-needed remedy to the “me-centered” culture that even finds its way into the church.

The third and final point is that Christians need to share in the work of Christ. This means that the Christians should be members of a “holy priesthood” as described in 1 Peter 2:5. Here, the priest is the one who intercedes for others before God, which is odd given that we are broken and sinful people. ‘We certainly all need others praying for us, weak and broken as we are on our own. Murray aims at something higher and more mysterious, with intercession not only our personal calling but also the ultimate sharing in Christ and his work. … We are joined to Christ, whether we think of union by faith or of our place in his body, the church. And joined to him, we share Christ’s own personal ministry. Murray is not encouraging prayer in which we impose our will on God or act as if we are in control of the universe. He is helping us step into a role we should feel too humble to take, but which is inherent in the nature of our relationship to Jesus. As we take up intercession as our ministry, we are lifted up and transformed’ (Pgs.203-204).

Hansen encourages us to take time to mull over Murray’s teachings on prayer before putting them into practice. Some Christians feel inspired by his teachings, yet others feel daunted by them. For those who rush in headlong, Hansen says that they should rely solely on Christ, allowing Him to help them mature into true intercessors. In fact, Hansen says that it would do Protestants some good if they look into prayer as a lifelong vocation in the same manner that Catholics and Orthodox Christians do in monasteries and convents. All we have to do is set aside ten or fifteen minutes of our time and abide in Christ as Murray encourages. Then allow Christ Himself to guide our prayers as we intercede for others.

We found that Murray’s method is similar to many different forms of intercession. One is AHOP intercession where, after 45 minutes of worship, you pray and expect these prayers to be what God wants you to pray. Another type of intercession is the ACTS acronym – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. One other example is the YWAM intercession method, which is performed in a group, and begins with confession, then binding Satan in Jesus’ name, then denying your own thoughts before you sit still and try to listen to the Holy Spirit. Then, you share the words, scripture, pictures, etc, that come to you with the group, then you pray about these things. It is wonderful to see how the members of the group get all the same words and pray for the same things. Another method is having a list of people to pray for, which is what GM and his wife have. They both notice that it keeps getting longer and longer – it is now a list of names two pages long.

As for Murray’s idea of holiness, we admit that we find it daunting – we can strive towards it, but we should not give up on intercession just because we feel we are not holy. We should do what we can, then ask for forgiveness when we need it. It is sad when people skip communion when they feel they are not worthy or nor perfect. They people feeling this way are, of all people, the ones that should take communion. In the end, we are more likely to not worry about this too much. At the same time, however, we will try to work towards holiness.

Having gone over Hansen’s book on prayer from start to finish, we found it a useful introduction to a types of prayer. For many of us the only prayer we do is intercessory prayer. But it is good to look at all these other methods, especially listening to the Lord by reading the Bible. We agree that not all prayer methods are helpful, such as the Jesus Prayer and the Cloud of Unknowing. Yet, all this shows how many ways there are to talk to God.

Thanks for joining us for our discussion on Hansen’s book. Next time we shall look at John Piper’s Desiring God.

Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012

Next: Desiring God Part One

 

Kneeling with Giants Part Three

Previous: Kneeling with Giants Part Two

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Kneeling-Giants-Learning-Historys-Teachers/dp/0830835628)

Hello, welcome back to the blog, and I hope you all have had a relaxing Christmas as well! Last time, we looked at Part Two of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, which outlined methods for incorporating the Bible within our prayer. In Part Three Hansen looks at different ways of conversing with God, something which Hansen acknowledges as a topic beyond our comprehension:

‘Moses himself seems to have gone two opposite directions, sometimes engulfed in a dark cloud and other times talking so intimately with God that he shone with reflected glory. Unlike the ways of prayers in the earlier sections [Parts 1 and 2] in these chapters the conversation is not shaped by any performed words or mediated by Scripture. And unlike those in the concluding section [Part 4], here we are not necessarily asking God to do something. Here prayer is primarily about being with God, whether we converse in our own words or contemplate in silence.’

(Pgs.115-116)

Peter_Paul_Rubens_138

St. Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_Ávila)

Part 3 begins with St. Teresa of Avila and Brother Lawrence, Hansen is focuses on the art of prayer as a “conversation”. It is a conversation that many would find odd to say the least:

‘It is an imbalanced conversation: whether imploring God for mercy and forgiveness, crying out in lamentation or asking for a miracle, prayer is usually our speech to God. Thankfully, Scripture not only invites but commands us to speak to God, even if we know that in a real conversation we must also listen.’

 (Pg.118)

Hansen mentions that it is also part of God’s grace that we are able to have these conversations with a God who came down to save us from our sin. He even recommends a book by St. Teresa called The Way of Perfection because it offers plenty of biblical models for the art of conversation.

Here, conversation is known as “recollection”, meaning that we “recollect” our fragmented minds before God. The word “recollection” also refers to many pictures of God that St. Teresa offers in her book, especially that of king, father and bridegroom. Before one reaches these recollections, Teresa advises simply beginning with “vocal prayer” before moving onto “mental prayer”, where the mind joins with the mouth in reciting the prayer. In other words, ‘when you pray, you have to mean what you say’ (Pg.121).

Another important issue is that of “perfection”, which is rather different from what we often view as perfection: (Teresa) understood the goal of the spiritual life as union with God. Teresa wanted all her nuns to be united with God in love, which she sometimes called spiritual marriage. Contemplative prayer is at the heart of such union, so contemplation is at the far end of her spectrum of ways of praying. While some kinds of contemplative prayer are “acquired,” meaning that we can take them up and practice them by choice, the form Teresa aimed for is different. The contemplation that embodies union with God happens to us by God’s action. She called it “infused” contemplation to make sure we know it comes from outside ourselves. It is a pure gift, transforming the inner life of the one who receives it’ (Pgs.121-122). In this way the mental prayer uses images of God in various roles in order to “recollect” God in front of us, while “infused contemplation” is God’s way of “recollecting” Himself before us. However, in the case of “infused contemplation” and our emotional states, Hansen also warns against getting the two confused: ‘It (infused contemplation) is internal but, if it is authentic, it leads to external change. A real connection with God can’t fail to make us more loving in relation to our neighbors. Experiences, however moving, that leave us with a sense of our own superiority and specialness are not the real deal’ (Pg.122).

Before we begin, Teresa suggests that we “look” at an image of God, which means not approaching God with just our intellect but rather with our eyes:

‘Looking is different: it is about presence and relationship. (Teresa) is a contemplative, and contemplation is about looking toward God with what she calls “the eyes of your soul.” We look at the One who loves us, and this draws us into relationship.’

(Pgs.123-124)

The first image is that of a king who, on the one hand is high in his office, yet has stooped to our level to talk with us. ‘We might well be impressed and burst forth in praise. We might remember blessings received and pour out our thanks. If we feel oppressed, we might seek mercy and peace’ (Pg.124).

A second image is that of a father, who we feel drawn to approach in a loving and intimate way: ‘If God is our Father, responsible to love us, raise us and provide for us, what do we want to say? Perhaps we have needs that a father should provide: food and shelter, work and relationships, and many other things. Perhaps the bullies of our neighbourhood have been hounding us; we need our Father to defend and protect us. Perhaps, as a little child does sometimes, we just want to sit close and have a cuddle. Picture this Father and see what flows from your lips in prayer’ (Pg.125).

The third image is of a spouse, a metaphor for Christ, especially in Song of Songs, which was embraced by mystics such as Teresa. It is an image that is echoed in a famous statue of Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini:

Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa_September_2015-2a

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_Ávila)

This image of Christ as bridegroom prompts Teresa to see Jesus on the cross as an act of love for her brokenness and sin: ‘ “Art Thou so needy, my Lord and my Good, that Thou wilt accept poor companionship like mine? Do I read in Thy face that Thou hast found comfort even in me?” ’ (Pg.126). Having Christ as a lover helps us feel that we can be on intimate terms with Him and can approach Him in love.

The same intimacy is found in the fourth image of a “friend”. The idea of God as “friend” ‘fills Teresa with wonder. Affection makes us want to stay with our friends and makes us want to know them better, so we take every opportunity to be together. She wants friendship with Jesus to motivate us to stay in a state of prayer, where we can speak to him and know him’ (Pg.127). This makes an intimate relationship with Jesus much easier for us and helps us prepare before saying the Lord’s Prayer.

Recollecting these images is the first step into contemplation as we seek to dwell in the presence of God, and allows us to be on intimate terms with Jesus.

Brother_Lawrence_in_the_kitchen

Brother Lawrence by Anonymous (c.1900)

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brother_Lawrence)

Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk, might have been familiar with Teresa’s work. His prayer practices bore great similarity to hers, in particular the image of God as “friend”. Hansen describes the three steps of Lawrence’s method, which begin with a clear decision to stay consciously in God’s presence. The second step is recollecting that we are in God’s presence: ‘ “I keep myself in His presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God which I can call the actual presence of God.” ’ (Pg.129), and this flows directly into the third step, of prayerful conversation with God.

Other examples from Lawrence include using imagery from Isaiah where God is our mother, and images of ourselves where we are a block of stone to be carved by a sculptor, or a beggar waiting upon His Lord. All of this stems from Teresa’s system of recollection.

One issue that some people have with recollection is that they find that the image of God as King and Father often hinders rather than helps them to pray. Hansen recommends spending time with a loving gaze towards God, along with searching out the many ways that God is portrayed in Scripture. If this does not lead to easy conversation with God, he recommends the following experimental approach.

Firstly, take one of these biblical images and, after considering who God is, listen to your heart and speak whatever comes up. Try a different portrait on the next day.

Secondly, try listening to your heart to know what you want to pray about. Then take several of the portraits of God in turn, and spend a few minutes with each, thinking about the same issue. Then take one of the portraits of God that is better suited to your query, and bring the issue Him while thinking about that portrait.

What’s important, is that we feel joy and a warm faith in the same manner that both Teresa and Lawrence felt when they approached God – something they called “favours” and “consolations”. It is something that every Christian could benefit from.

We talked about the different images of God being appropriate to different aspects of the Trinity:

Jesus:              Friend

Father:            Father God, our King

Spirit:              Mother

It is an emotional connection with prayer. Therefore, it suits people who are very in touch with emotion.

We also talked about the Catholic tradition being more physical and emotional, especially as Catholics focus more on words and images than Protestants. Protestants are more cerebral, involving ideas and concepts. We discussed the use of an image. It’s important that we don’t WORSHIP the image, however we can use the image to HELP us in our worship of God. This is helpful in that we are worshipping something we can’t see or understand.

We noted that the image of God the Father is the one most commonly used by Christians, whereas other images are little used, one example being God the Lover.

GM told us his Connect Group used the Prayer of the Senses from St. Ignatius of Loyola to bring to life the story of Jesus and the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). Each person imagined themselves to be playing a specific role in the story as well as the atmosphere of the story itself, experienced through their five senses. GM and his group members were all impressed at how this method bought the gospel account alive.

Feelings can bring us close to God and the Psalms are filled with a variety of emotions such as anger, joy, sadness, etc. They teach us how we can use our feelings to help us to pray.

Cotton_Mather

Cotton Mather by Peter Pelham

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_Mather)

Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustin

The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo)

In Chapter Seven, Hansen focuses on the use of writing, or journaling, to aid prayer. Here, he uses the examples of the Puritans and St. Augustine of Hippo, especially the Confessions. He selects these texts and suggests using the work of the Puritans is because they ‘brought single-minded passion to their pursuit of God. They lived with a focused, prayerful longing to be made new in Christ. They may have been more conscious of sin than most Christians are today, but they were also more aware of God’s blessings and grace’ (Pg.138). He illustrates three themes in the writing of both the Puritans and Augustine, and how they can contribute to our prayer.

The first theme is simply finding traces of God in both creation and our lives. This is summed up in the Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian by John Beadle. This journaling can also be divided into smaller subtopics:

1 Keeping a strict account of our calling, beginning with our spiritual autobiography of God’s help throughout our journey.
2 Taking note of God’s presence, in work, sin, danger and/or temptation
3 Remembering how God rescued us during severe trials and tribulations, and thanking Him for deliverance.
4 Keeping a list of people who have helped us on our spiritual journey and how they benefited us.
5 Keeping a journal of answered prayers.

Augustine’s Confessions also look at his conversion and the events that led to it, especially the prayers of his mother, Monica. Hansen notes that where you are going about life, you rarely notice the hand of God in everyday events. He recommends keeping a written record of each experience of God’s help, in order to increase our awareness of His work in our lives.

The second theme of journaling is telling God the truth or self-examination, which is clearly illustrated by the Puritans: ‘As well as looking for God’s actions in the world, Puritans looked very hard at themselves. They wanted to come honestly before God. We should often take an account of our lives, said [John] Beadle’s friend Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), to see what progress we are making in godliness. … The point is not to wallow in guilt, but to live in truth before God and neighbor. It was not enough to be born again: a Puritan had to grow up again … they took time to examine their lives, often recording the result in their journals’ (Pg.142). Hansen refers to Hooker’s Character of a Sound Christian. This includes talking about the times when our love for God has grown cold over a period of time, how we handle our troubles (whether in rage or sadness), and how we bring our lives in line with the Bible. Augustine gives us an example of self-examination: in his youth when he stole a pear, and later he faced everyday temptations in his church office. More importantly this self-examination should help us be more attuned to God: ‘Prayerful self-examination … can refocus our lives on loving God. … When we are honest, there is a place for God’s grace to land. If praying in a journal can help us know who we are right now, we can spend our energy on becoming the people God calls us to be’ (Pg.151).

The third and final theme is that of finding God in Scripture and creation. This is illustrated in Christianus per Ignem by Cotton Mather, which encourages a fifteen minute exercise where Christians examine their lives on a passage of Scripture: ‘ “Let the first part be, to Inform our selves, and the second to be to Affect our selves” ’ (Pg.145). Mather made observation about everyday objects, then went to the Bible to see how his observations related to its teaching. He then turned to God in prayer for help in living by the Biblical advice. An example of Mather’s meditations is his meditation on a pair of fire tongs – the idea that we rescue others from sin in the same way that he took objects out of the fire via the tongs.

Augustine frequently meditated on the account of Creation in Genesis which occupied many chapters in the Confessions, prompting Hansen to comment that putting ‘our Bible study into writing in a journal can clarify our thinking and make our encounters with the Bible more prayerful’ (Pgs.151-152). It allowed Augustine to ponder many mysteries, including sin and memory.

When beginning this method of prayer, Hansen advises starting small before progressing onto bigger themes, then using inspiration from both the Puritans and Augustine to stimulate prayerful discussion

This method was a lively topic for discussion. For GR and J, it doesn’t work. E, on the other hand, writes when there’s no other option. R uses a journal as a “brain dump”, but it’s not necessarily a conscious prayer. J uses prayer for clarifying and working things through. She can see the value in keeping a journal of blessings and answers to prayer.

E and R liked the idea of growing up again. Paul says it too: “you should be on meat, but you’re still on milk.’ According to GM many people get ‘religion’ when they are kids and leave the church as teenagers, and their knowledge of religion stays very juvenile. We do need to grow up in our faith.

R liked the idea from Cotton Mather of making illustrations from everyday things, however GM thought it would require the art and skill of a preacher. ALL of these models of prayer can lead to introspection. The Puritans were famous for banning fun. However, Hansen points out that while they were very aware of sin, they were also more aware of God’s blessings and grace.

Augustine’s Confessions are written with the intention of sharing with others whereas R’s journal is for her eyes only. This led to a chat about how people willingly share the intimate details of their lives on social media and then get themselves unpleasantly surprised when it blows up in their face.

High_Desert_Fog

Fog, in the form of a cloud, descends upon a High Desert community in the United States

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fog)

In Chapter Eight, Hansen turns his attention to a 14th century work The Cloud of Unknowing. Like Teresa of Avila, the Cloud is part of the contemplative tradition and can be both difficult and controversial for modern-day Christians to grasp. There are some Christians who are antagonistic towards mysticism as Hansen admits:

‘The word mysticism puts many Christians on their guard. Many assume that mysticism is inherently non-Christian, a characteristic only of Eastern religions. However, historians of Christianity have to acknowledge that many of the most significant theologians, East and West, have written positively on the topic.

‘There has always been a mystical element in Christianity, and according to [Bernard] McGinn, it includes not only the direct encounter with God, but also things people do to prepare for it and the ways life is changed as a result of it. I find it ironic that it is often Reformed and evangelical writers who are most opposed to mysticism. [John] Calvin often treated the Christian faith as “union with Christ,” and evangelicals almost invariably call it “a personal relationship with God or Christ. Both descriptions express brilliantly the idea of an unmediated encounter with God. So it seems like mystics who do not know they are mystics are being critical of mystics who do.’

(Pgs.157-158)

The Cloud it is steeped in mystical theology, which originated from Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite. It states that there is a gulf between us and God, particularly a God who is beyond our understanding. Which is why a work such as the Cloud of Unknowing is helpful because it puts us in this place, like being up in the clouds in an airplane on a rainy day. On the one hand, there is a “cloud of forgetting” that is placed between us and creation (it also prevents us from using metaphors to address God), and there is also a “cloud of unknowing” which shrouds God completely from our sight. All we have to is simply “be” in the presence of God and look upon Him. As mentioned before, the Cloud advises us not to use any metaphors to describe or even write down anything that comes to mind because there should be absolutely nothing between us and God. As for any intrusive thoughts, a suggestion is to gently push them aside, treat them as physical objects and toss them over our shoulder, or just admit defeat and give these thoughts up to God. The same applies to our feelings because sometimes the sensation of God’s presence can be too awesome to handle, especially since some describe God as a consuming fire. Therefore, this does not line up with our feelings and they will become irrelevant. One possibility is to use a series of words to help direct our thoughts back to God, in this case three: “God”, “love”, and “sin.” Hansen states:

‘The most important {word} is God.   God is, after all, the one we are praying to. Saying “God” is a helpful reminder to return our fundamentally wordless attention to God. Second, he [the Cloud author] suggests we repeat the word love. Since love is the faculty we are trying to direct toward God, this also is a helpful way to refocus. Third, he suggests that sometimes we should say sin. He does not want us to get puffed up about our contemplative practice, so saying “sin” brings us back to honesty and repentance. Slow and gentle repetition of an appropriate word can be a tool to bring our focus back.’

(Pgs.165-166)

There are some objections to this method. One is whether this is really “Christian”. Hanson says this type of spirituality dates back to texts such the Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (which depicts the biblical patriarch staying in a similar cloud for a number of days), and that Christians have always performed spiritual theology alongside doctrinal works: ‘The sound spiritual theologian starts with good doctrine firmly in place, but asks different questions – like how a finite, sinful, created person can enter into prayerful communion with the infinite, holy Creator God’ (Pg.161). Another is its similarity to Eastern and modern meditation techniques, which Hansen counters with the fact that the only words that you use are “God”, “love”, and “sin”. These are not a series of meaningless words but are pregnant with meaning and we are not using this technique to simply empty our minds or relax ourselves but to feel God’s presence and allow Him to fill our hearts and minds.

One final objection is that it seems to take up too much time, especially in our busy day-to-day lives. Hansen says that, in the medieval world, religious life consists of the “lower” life, which is dedicated to everyday affairs, and the “higher” one, which is more about contemplation. The irony is that we are fighting against a way of life that would help us pray more often and spend more time in God’s presence: ‘Augustine would say that if we do love God above all, our loves for all other things fall into proper proportion. That will include serving our neighbor as ourself. But there are different ways of serving others. One is to serve the community as a whole by offering more of the prayer that we all owe God. I would add that if you are really directing your love to God in prayer, he will be reshaping your life so that you have some actual love to give to your neighbor. Contemplation is no excuse for selfishness, and you can measure the reality of an encounter with God by whether it produces love of neighbor’ (Pgs.170-171).

It may seem odd to do this type of prayer, but Hansen says that some people actually find themselves relieved that they do not always have to have “ecstatic” experiences during their time with God. It might be more time-consuming but, if it’s the right routine for you, then maybe it might work.

We confess that we really didn’t care for this method. Not using metaphors for God doesn’t seem biblical because the Bible uses all sorts of metaphors for God. It does show that we are limited in our understanding of God as he is infinite. But God can help us respond to Him. R can see how this can take the pressure off people who don’t feel much when they pray.

E liked the method it suggested for getting rid of stray thoughts. The words suggested, “God”, “love”, and “sin”, are part of the Christian faith. It is like the Jesus Prayer in that it is a complete contrast to the prayers St. Teresa.

Regarding the presence of mysticism and the supernatural, at one time mankind used the supernatural to explain everything and as we gained more scientific understanding it weakened people’s faith. Nowadays we say there’s a rational explanation for everything but we still reach for the supernatural.

Having looked at this section, we can conclude that there are some parts we liked and some that we didn’t care for. We liked the idea of using journal writing for prayer because it has an applicable use. We think that most Christians today wouldn’t really care for the Cloud of Unknowing. With St. Teresa’s method of prayer, we have a feeling that there some images of God you could use and some you may have little time for. As in Parts 1 and 2, these methods of prayer might be useful for some individuals, depending on their personal needs.

Thanks for reading this piece. Join us next time as look at Part Four of Hansen’s book.

Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012

Next: Kneeling with Giants Part Four

Kneeling with Giants Part Two

Previous: Kneeling with Giants Part One

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Hello, welcome back to the blog! Last time, we looked at Part One of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, where he focused on the language of prayer. In Part Two, Hansen moves onto a new aspect of prayer, in this case praying with scripture. The reason why he focuses on this part is because the ‘Bible can help us find words to say in prayer, and it can help us listen to God’ (Pg.73). By reading and meditating on the Bible we can rely on something other than our own intuitions when praying to God. In order to help us understand this better, Hansen looks at two figures from the period of the Reformation, John Calvin and St. Ignatius of Loyola and their two different approaches to Bible-based prayer.

John_Calvin_Museum_Catharijneconvent_RMCC_s84_cropped

John Calvin by Anonymous

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Calvin)

In the case of John Calvin, Hansen looks how Calvin learned to pray with the psalms. Calvin spent most of his life studying the psalms, and utilized them in both his sermons and his private devotions. The psalms themselves offer a variety of prayers.

‘The psalms teach by example. Most of the Bible speaks in God’s voice or tries to explain things from God’s perspective. By contrast, the psalms are the voices of God’s people at prayer, crying out to God in all manner of circumstances. And coming inside the cover of the Bible, these human prayers seem to have God’s stamp of approval. … In the psalms (Calvin) saw overflowing joy, rapturous praise, awe and reverence, peaceful stillness, but he also saw boastful pride, brokenhearted depression, vindictive rage and lonely abandonment. As biblical prayers, the psalms invite us to include this full range in our own prayers. God wants to hear even the feelings we are ashamed of, the words we would never speak to another human being. The psalms give us a profound invitation to be completely honest, completely open to prayer.’

(Pg.78)

Hansen summarizes Calvin’s approach in three steps. The first one is hearing the text, which involves a study of the psalm using our mind and soul. Hansen likens it to a medieval method of biblical study known as lectio divinia:

‘ “Reading [lectio], as it were, puts the food whole into the mouth, meditation [meditation] chews it breaks it up, prayer [oratio] extracts its flavor, contemplation [contemplatio] is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes.” ’

(Pg.80)

Processes such Calvin’s study and lectio divinia take up a great deal of time and concentration and shouldn’t be treated lightly. Therefore, it makes sense to have a paper and a pen with you and not to expect to have to come up with anything polished. Just pray for the Holy Spirit to give you the right insight, look at the psalm, then write down a series of thoughts and questions that you come up with (on pages 86-87 Hansen shares some of his own examples). Then read and study it again until you find yourself able to addparts of the psalm into your prayer-life.

The second step is simply “listening with your life.” This involves relating the subject matter described in the psalms to our lives. To do that we need to compose a series of questions, such as the ones Hansen provides on page 91. He suggests we use ‘the one that is most fruitful and pray a bit further on it, either in writing or in silence. Of course, this prayerful meditation may well lead us to say in some cases, “I have never felt or faced anything like this!” … another question will prompt us to say, “That is exactly what I’m feeling!” or “I remember when my life was just like that!” If we make such a connection, we can pray the words of the psalm about our feelings and experiences, or we can hold on to the topic the psalm brought up and pray in other ways’ (Pg.89). If we do not have any such experiences, we can ask God why we do not have such feelings and whether or not we should have experienced them. Either way, this will help deepen our prayer life.

The third and final step is simply using the psalm itself to express your prayers in a more creative way. This involves looking at a psalm, pulling it apart to get at the general ideas, then using different words that reflect our own experience:

‘The words we put down must capture the essence of another person’s thoughts, and we must also craft something beautiful. That is hard enough, but to do this requires meditation and reflection; we still have to bring our lives into conversation with the text.’ 

(Pg.93)

By looking at a biblical text like the psalms in this manner, via lectio divina, question and reflection, and creative expression, we will be able to get something out of these texts for our spiritual benefit.

One of our book club members, J, studies the Word and prays during and after study, although she doesn’t always make notes. What is suggested in Hansen’s book is a much fuller Bible study. As for the idea that we make “craft something beautiful”, we do not think we are quite capable of writing anything that well, since we don’t feel like we are poets. We do admit this idea tends to blur the line between prayer and Bible study and that perhaps we also blur that line. In the end, it is all worship.

God speaks to us through His Word so this is a great way of listening to him so this is a great way of listening to Him. As for the art of lectio divina, we agree there can be some difficulty in defining each step unless one has a greater awareness of what they mean. For example, “meditation” is pulling the verse apart word by word and thinking about what each word means. Whereas “contemplation” is studying and looking at all you have learned and just thinking on it. Upon further analysis, Calvin’s study of the psalms and lectio divina are different from an average Bible study, but we think that some Christians can get something out of this to enrich both study and prayer.

St_Ignatius_of_Loyola_(1491-1556)_Founder_of_the_Jesuits

St. Ignatius of Loyola by Peter Paul Rubens

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignatius_of_Loyola)

In Chapter Five, Hansen takes a look at the ideas of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founding father of the Society of Jesus, more popularly known as the Jesuits. Hansen looks at are the concept of the “coach”, the “examen” or examination of conscience, and the “prayer of the senses” based on Ignatius’ famous work the Spiritual Exercises.

The “coach” helps us through a series of “exercises” that are used to rid Christians of anything that leads to sin and to bring their focus to God. This in turn leads to both the “examen” and the “prayer of the senses”:

‘There are two separate processes here. First, the “disordered affections” need attention: sin has messed us up inside, and so we want the wrong things. Ignatius’ examination of conscience teaches us ways to look hard at our inner lives through a biblical lens so we can begin to work on corrections. This new clarity helps us figure out what we really need to ask God about so we can take the second step and “seek and find God’s will.” Ignatius’s “prayer of the senses” teaches us the way to bring our questions to God and listen for answers, all through a prayerful engagement with Scripture. That makes sense because God’s Word is where we most expect God to speak, a standard to weigh all promptings and inner voices. These ways of praying combine, first to focus our attention on our life in Christ and the decisions we face and then to enable us to ask for God’s guidance, hear it and follow it.’ 

(Pg.99)

Hansen states that a coach or retreat director should possess a gentle and patient spirit and the ability to be flexible when dealing with people on retreat (who are also known as “retreatants” or “exercitants”). This is especially so when a retreatant reaches a decision where he thinks that God is leading him in a specific direction, when it might not be the case and he may need some nudging in a different direction. For this reason why Ignatius’ “four weeks” of retreat are very flexible and may run for a lot longer or shorter duration, to accommodate the personality type of particular retreatants. All of this helps them to make better decisions in their spiritual lives.

The “examen” or examination of conscience, is a method of where a person looks at any particular sin or defect and seeks God’s will on how to improve it. Hansen looks at three types of examen. The first one is a “general examination of conscience” where we first thank God for the blessings in our lives and then look at the sins that still dominate our lives. In Ignatius’ case, he uses models from both the Bible (the Ten Commandments) and church teaching (the seven deadly sins), in order to help the person understand how he or she has misused his or her will, intellect or memory and then try to bring them to back into alignment with God’s will. Hansen praises this method since it relies on biblical models to help us understand the will of God in our lives; at the same time, however, he advises us not to get too obsessive about any particular faults and to take it gently as we try to correct our sins.

The second examen is a “daily particular examination of conscience” where the Christian goes over this one thing he or she has to reform and, day by day, tries to minimize its impact in his or her life:

‘Every day we are to go through three steps: When we wake up, we pray for help on the chosen issue. At noon, we think back over the first half of the day, counting the number of times the problem behavior came up. We mark a dot on the top line of the current day for each occurrence. Before bed, we look back on the last half of the day and add any necessary dots to the bottom line. Then we can look back at the chart, looking for improvement. Fewer in the afternoon than in the morning today? That’s good. More today than yesterday? That’s too bad. How does this week’s total compare with last week’s?’

(Pg.102)

To most modern ears, this may seem too “naval-gazing” but, like the “general examination of conscience”, the daily examen can, according to Hansen, help improve our lives as disciples in Christ and lead us away from sin.

The third examen is a modern one that is known as “examination of consciousness”. The aim of this method is to look for God’s will in all things and at the “motions of the soul” that can either turn us to Him (“consolations”) or away from Him (“desolations”). A “consolation” is more than a superficial happy feeling; it is a deeper interior sensation that can lead to happiness with God, which may involve tears of sadness as well. “Desolations”, on the other hand, are things that can may make us feel happy for a while, yet, on the other hand, can make us feel separated from God. Hansen elaborates further: ‘From places of persistent and surprising consolation come discoveries of God at work making us new. From repeated desolations come awareness of ways we need to grow and wounds that need healing. Or careful attention to desolations may reveal the underside of grace – that God is present and working even in the darkness. We will know where we have problems or questions, and we will be much more prepared to hear God speak’ (Pg.105). Hansen says that either examen will help us know God’s will in our lives and show, via prayer, how we can align our own ideas and thoughts with His.

The “prayer of the senses” is where we meditate on a biblical story via the use of our imagination:

‘On an Ignatian retreat, we would be given a passage of Scripture, typically a Gospel narrative, and would spend several hours prayerfully studying it throughout the day. We would pray for God’s help, review what we learned in our study and call to mind the question we need to ask God. Then the application of the senses: we would pray through the text several times, each time imagining what one of our senses would experience in the scene. That is, we would first go through the story with imaginative sight, then hearing, then taste and smell, and finally touch. To use our senses, we would have to be inside the biblical scene, so part of the process is to imagine ourselves among the characters. Then, deeply immersed, we would speak to the people, and especially to Jesus, bringing our question. Finally, we would listen to what they say in response.’

 (Pg.107)

Hansen says that using our five senses to access and experience the text enables us to more fully engage with Scripture on both an emotional and intellectual level. Being fully immersed in the imagination leads to new insights in our relationship with Jesus and also brings our understanding of Scripture to a deeper level. However, Hansen adds a note of caution, especially when it comes to hearing the voice of God: ‘Really hearing God requires discernment, and that takes place over time, in an ongoing dialogue with prayer and Scripture. We need to return to the text to listen again; then we bring our question to another text, and another. We must weigh today’s word alongside what we know of God, Christ and Scripture as a whole’ (Pg.111). Other challenges to the prayer of the senses and other Ignatian exercises are simply finding the time and discipline to engage with them, as we may have to set aside a great deal of time for these exercises. Others may lack sufficient imagination to really engage with the prayer of the senses, or may even consider the technique a bit touchy-feely for their tastes. But Hansen says that our imagination is no less a tool in hearing God’s Word than our intellect, provided that we never deviate too much from the God of Scripture.

Again, as in the case of John Calvin, we are merging prayer and Bible study. There is a fear that our imagination would tell us what we want to hear. But there are ways that you can pray and ask God to use your imagination. This is also the case with the “prayer of the senses”. If one can do it properly, it can make things come alive.

When we as a book club thought about the coach, we thought that it would be good to have an excellent, learned retreat leader. It’s different in our church Bible study groups because we tend to look at scripture more intellectually. We tend to immunize ourselves against the truth of scripture – the retreat and coaching would help us to read it properly in terms of experience as well as the mind.

On the subject of the examen, we thought that most modern thinking tends to move away from the idea of sin. And that the examen is good because it is better to realize that you are a sinner. But then again, trying to reduce your ‘dots’ each day could be like trying to earn salvation by works. And you tend to move towards what you focus on, so focusing on your sin may not be helpful. It could easily be an obsession or a pharisaical thing.

The methods of Bible study using the imagination bring life to the stories. There are great stories throughout the Bible that we really could work with. We thought about the prayer of the senses and about the smell of the temple during the burnt offerings!

In regards to both Bible study and the language of prayer we think that these take time – how much time are we prepared to put into our relationship with God? It’s good, though, to see all these options available.

As for the question “what is prayer?”, we admit that it is not defined in this book because prayer appears to have a much wider definition now, including reading the Bible. Prayer is just being with God, having a loving relationship with Him. We hope that, with some proper guidance, we can get closer to Him with the techniques that Hansen describes.

Thank you for joining us. Next time, we look at Part Three of Hansen’s book. See you then.

Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012

Next: Kneeling with Giants Part Three

Kneeling with Giants Part One

Previous: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

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Hello, and welcome back to the book club! Last time, we focused on Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Now we are turning our attention to Kneeling with Giants by Gary Neal Hansen. This book is interesting since it looks at different aspects of prayer from many famous Christians in history and how those might help modern Christians to further enrich their own prayer lives

Hansen’s book begins with a look at language: Which words should a Christian use when engaging in dialogue with God? To answer this question, Hansen looks at three methods used by three teachers:

‘All three ways of praying in part one of this book help us pray by putting words in our mouths, giving us language when we have none or giving us better words than we could think of ourselves. They all start with ancient prayers rooted in Scripture. Still, these three approaches could hardly be more different from each other. St. Benedict of Nursia taught his monks to pray using the words of the liturgies from the church’s daily services. Martin Luther taught the early Protestants to use their own words, but to follow the outline of topics in the Lord’s Prayer. And teachers in Eastern Orthodoxy have taught that we should pray by constantly repeating what they call the Jesus Prayer.’

(Pgs.17-18)

Benedict_of_Nursia

St. Benedict (Orthodox Icon)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia)

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Thomas Cranmer Unknown

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In Chapter One, Hansen starts with the Daily Office as exemplified by St. Benedict. This is the set of scripture readings, hymns and psalms that are used by both monks and laity throughout every day of the week. The Daily Office is also known as the Liturgy of the Hours and usually consists of seven or six offices.

Hansen also includes the Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, which is an amalgamation of some monastic hours into two distinctive prayer services (Morning Prayer consisting of elements from the morning offices of the Catholic Daily Office, while Evening Prayer features those from the evening offices).

In Hansen’s case he has been using both Catholic and Anglican versions of the daily office for some time, and he has found them to be helpful. He highlights some benefits of using the Daily Office:

‘First, praying the office can bring order to our busy lives. Even outside a monastery, people really can stop what they are doing and pray multiple times throughout the day. … In a fifteen-minute break, a Western Christian can pray Terce, Sext or None and still have time for coffee’ (Pg.23). Sometimes, due to the busyness of our lives and work, we often find that we have little or no time for prayer. But, with the daily office, we can at least keep touch with God during certain hours of the day (e.g. either morning, noon, and night) and we can even use prayer to even help inform our work schedule: ‘If you pray morning and noontime prayer, the workday looks like two open stretches between times of prayer, rather than a frantic scramble punctuated by a sandwich crammed in at your computer terminal. The rhythm connects us to the eternal, so temporal demands fall into context. This is not squeezing prayer into a busy schedule. Prayer creates the schedule, so the day feels less busy and more productive’ (Pg.23)

Second, the Daily Office can teach us how to pray in that it provides the actual words for praise, confession and intercession. ‘The office leads us through the whole range of ways people really need to pray: confession of sins, praise and thanks, asking for help for ourselves and others. It does these things with clarity, depth and wisdom. By giving us good words, the liturgy builds our skills. Then, when we go to pray on our own, what we have learned is waiting there to help us’ (Pg.24). It can help those whose prayer-lives have fallen into a rut to move beyond that point and be able to pray more effectively. (The office helps to push) us toward a complete conversation with God. It prods the neurotically guilty to thankfulness, the obsessively grumpy to praise and the annoyingly cheerful to some honest complaint. It might even help us grow as people’ (Pg.24).

The third benefit of the Daily Office is that it can help make prayer possible during the most trying and/or depressing times. ‘With the divine office, all we have to do is read the words, moving through the liturgy. At first it may seem more like listening in on other people’s prayers, but eventually we notice that some fragment of the service expresses our own longings – some biblical cry for help or bitter lament. Even convinced we can’t pray, we find we actually have prayed’ (Pg.25).

A fourth benefit from the office is a sense of peace, a peace that is derived from the rhythm of life that opens people up to God and eventually can open them up to new forms of prayer.

Hansen encourages that the best method of starting the Daily Office is to pick one from either tradition (Catholic, Anglican or otherwise), pick a time of the day and then move on from there. For beginners, he recommends the night office of Compline because it ‘has few daily variations, (thus) making it easy to learn’ (Pg.28). He does acknowledge that it takes some time to get used to going to-and-fro between different parts of prayer-books, and he encourages people to simply practice at getting better at using the office. He then moves on to Scripture readings (in the case of the Book of Common Prayer the readings are often given in a lectionary), psalms, and seasonal prayers known as collects (pronounced as CUL-lects), which will deepen and enhance the Christian’s prayer life throughout the year. In the case of the Catholic daily office, it is a little more complicated since it involves a more intimate understanding of the many parts of the prayer books, and Hansen tells his readers to begin with a part like the Ordinary or the. But, above all, it is just simply a case of patience:

‘Whether it feels exciting or a bit stiff, press on. Each hour is different, so try to get to know its “personality” before moving on to another. If it begins to feel boring, press on; you may move from familiarity to affection. Press on even if some parts bother you: Protestants may be troubled by the theology of some Catholic prayers, and many today cringe at traditional masculine language. Think of it as praying with your older, slightly curmudgeonly friends. Stick with it until you can enter the flow of the service. A solid try takes at least a couple of weeks; give it that before you switch to a different version.’

(Pg.30)

Hansen does admit that some people may find themselves uncomfortable with the idea that the office originated from Catholicism (invoking the presence of saints and angels), or with the repetition involved in the office.

Hansen also highlights certain other advantages from the daily office. One is perspective, where the office helps us to see things in God’s perspective, which is illustrated in the life of St. Benedict himself. ‘ “By searching continually into his own soul he always beheld himself in the presence of his Creator. And this kept his mind from straying off to the world outside.” This was not a permanent retreat from conflict; Benedict returned to active ministry, and with great success. Prayer enabled him to see his life in perspective, in relation to God, and that equipped him to serve’ (Pg.33).

I confess that, ever since I first read Hansen’s book, I have used the Daily Office to guide and enhance my own prayers because it gives an ordered structure of prayer. J felt that she preferred to pray in her own words or to pray through passages in the Bible, but she admits that the Daily Office was useful when she was going through a dry spell. On the one hand, we do not care for praying to saints and angels, but, as for the structure of the daily office, we agree that it is helpful. We noticed this in particular with the use of different prayers and the lectionary as well as the structure it gives to the day. Plus the fact that the structure itself helps us not to ask for a long list of things but to help us keep things simple.

R talked about how devotional books are often written in the northern hemisphere in that they often reflect that environment and culture, so we need to first get our heads around that difference in order to use them. This led to a discussion of the different devotionals that we have used over the years. J’s example was My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. GM talked about the prayer book type of prayer, because that was what he learned first, before learning to pray in his own words. We also discussed about using the Bible in our prayers, even the less exciting bits such as the genealogies as well as our favourite stories. We talked of the benefit of the Anglican lectionary, which stops us just reading our favourite parts of the Bible. Another benefit is the use of familiar prayers that are often shared in the Daily Office, giving modern Christians the chance to use prayers that have been handed down from generation to generation. The one problem we saw with this method is the constant flipping back and forth between different sections, which can prove distracting during prayer. I recommend that anyone who wants to use the Daily Office might try the Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle because Tickle’s way of structuring the Daily Office means you only go through a certain number of pages without the need to flip to another section. Otherwise, we have nothing but positive things to say about this type of prayer.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther)

In Chapter Two, Hansen focuses on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the teaching of the Reformer Martin Luther on how Christians should use this prayer as a structure for their prayers. Hansen mentions the benefits:

‘First, using the Lord’s Prayer as our outline ensures that we pray for a wide range of things. Clearly Jesus did not want our prayers to be dominated by a single issue, whether praise or confession or intercession. This can help those of us who tend to bring the same issues over and over. Second, it reminds us that prayer is a requirement: Jesus commanded us to pray. Since Jesus said, “Pray then in this way” (Matthew 6:9 …), we can’t leave these topics behind. With Luther’s method, any time of prayer, short or long, can follow the pattern Jesus gave us. And third, according to Luther, this helps us pray with confidence. If Jesus commands us to talk about these things, by implication God promises to listen to these things. That can especially help people who are afraid to pray.’

(Pg.40)

Both the Lord’s Prayer, and Luther’s teaching on the different sections of this prayer, can be divided up into two halves: the first dealing with our addresses to God, the second with our own personal petitions. The first half consists of “Our Father in heaven. Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” The first part “Our Father in heaven” addresses both the intimate side of God (He is our loving Father, especially in connection with Jesus) while at the same time He is “in heaven” meaning that He is the Creator who is all-powerful and beyond our control. It is this balance of awe with affection that Luther says can place us on intimate terms with God: ‘ “Now through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your father’s love, and let us experience the sweet and pleasant savor of a childlike certainty that we may joyfully call you Father, knowing and loving you and calling on you in every trouble” ’ (Pg.42). Then, comes the next phrase “Hallowed be Your name”, which addresses the name of God, because His name is linked completely with His essence, and hopes that this name may also be honored in various aspects of our life. In Luther’s case this prayer was for holiness in his own behavior before changing later in life to an appeal for evangelism.

The third phrase “Your Kingdom come” means that we must pray for the coming Kingdom of God. On the one hand, it may seem redundant to pray for a coming Kingdom where God is already King, but, according to both Hansen and Luther, God’s Kingdom represents the highest pinnacle of service and justice and therefore we need to keep our will in line with God’s or else it only reflects our own glory. ‘If we are not living as God intends, Luther think we are robbing God of territory where he should reign – our hearts – and living like citizens of the kingdom of the devil. (Luther) was also particularly aware of the opponents of the church and its work, and he prayed with tenderness and passion, “They are many and mighty; the plague and hinder the tiny flock of thy kingdom who are weak, despised and few … Dear Lord, God and Father, convert them and defend us” ’ (Pg.44).

In the fourth phrase in the prayer “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we display humility to allow God to transform us and conform us to His will. Although it might seem odd that a powerful God wants us to pray for His will to be done on earth, it does make us ‘partners in his planning’ (Pg.44) as well as making us feel more confident in our prayers. It also allows us to intercede on behalf of others and to make sure that our life and ministry reflects that of God’s will, even though it may not be heard or answered differently. It also makes us examine ourselves carefully in God’s light: ‘Luther knew his own will always got in the way. “O Father,” he prayed, “do not let me get to the point where my will is done. Break my will; resist it. No matter what happens, let my life be governed not by my will, but by yours.” He suggested we look hard at the ways we willingly seek ungodly goals and at selfish motives we disguise as good. … This can also be the place to ask for help in the struggle to live as God calls’ (Pg.45). Above all, it is to place our behavior in God’s hands, making sure that we behave as He directs us.

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer deals with our personal concerns: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial. But rescue us from the evil one.” The phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” deals with our own basic needs such as food and clothing, as well as those of others. We need to depend upon God but not in the sense that He is some kind of “genie” giving us more material wealth: ‘we are also challenged to simplicity, not luxury; we are not praying for daily cake. Of course we can talk to God about anything, even our desire for luxuries. However, this petition gives us confidence of a promise only when we ask for what we really need. Jesus gives us a measuring stick: we should pray for what is really good for us and for the world’ (Pgs.45-46). More importantly, we should also acknowledge Jesus as our “bread of life” as mentioned in one of Luther’s prayers: ‘ “Therefore, O heavenly Father, grant grace that the life, words, deeds, and suffering of Christ be preached made known and preserved for us and the world” ’ (Pg.46), which in turn led Luther to pray and intercede for other things.

The phrase “And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” addresses both our need for ask for our personal forgiveness as well as forgiving those who have wronged us. First, we pay attention to any wrongs that we have committed before forgiving others. According to Hansen, by forgiving others it allows us to forgive ourselves: Forgiveness is not pretending that no harm has been done – that is denial. Nor does it mean the painful feelings all melt away – that is healing, which may come much later. Forgiveness is when you have been harmed, but you actively, prayerfully lift the sentence and decide not to exercise your right to prosecute or avenge’ (Pg.47) And, even though it may seem unnecessary to pray for forgiveness because God has already forgiven us on the Cross, it does help us to give us a much needed sense of humility, especially in our prayers.

 

The phrase “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is best summed up in Luther’s prayer about temptations from “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” The flesh might be mistaken for asceticism, which is wrong because, according to Hansen, Luther enjoyed taking pleasure in lots of things, such as his wife Katherina and beer; what he is praying against is the idea of sins such as greed and lust becoming idols and taking God’s place. The “world” is the ‘the negative influence of society on our character and behavior’ especially ‘greed and lust for approval and power’ (Pg.48). The “devil” addresses “spiritual temptation”, which would be anything that causes us to either ignore or dismiss God’s Word, that could lead us to either pride or despair. In other words, the “time of trial” addresses every one of these temptations. The last phrase “But rescue us from the evil one” means that we ask for God’s protection from everything that might afflict us. This includes everything ranging from disease to disaster, and even God’s judgment itself.

Like the Daily Office, Hansen recommends we take some time to practice Luther’s advice and that individual Christians may need some time to practice praying from even the smallest part of the Lord’s Prayer. Hansen lists three further benefits from this prayer practice: first it makes us think of prayer in ‘three time frames: each petition in a sense accomplished already, and we give thanks; each petition applies to current needs, and so we ask; each petition will be truly fulfilled only at the end of the age, and so we wait with longing’ (Pg.51). A second benefit is that as we are led to pray to God for ourselves, we are also called to pray for our family, church, and society. And the third benefit is that each petition may even lead us to our individual prayers of praise, confession, intercession and/or thanksgiving.

It makes sense to use this prayer since it is how Jesus says we should pray. It is easy to just rattle it off without thinking but this method used by Luther is a good way of actually thinking it through more deeply. GM’s experience of going to the Catholic churches in Ireland was that the Lord’s Prayer becomes a quickly repeated chant, gone over once or twice without any pause for reflection.

Like the Daily Office, it too provides a structure. It helps us to not to skip over things when in prayer. It also provides some perspective in that it makes us know when and what to say during our prayers. We also liked the bit about forgiveness – forgiving others and forgiving ourselves as well as the quote from Luther where he says we don’t want to call down God’s wrath on anyone. The reason why is because we are not helped by their ruin and we would much prefer that they would be saved with us. Another positive aspect is that Luther was not writing for monks (like Benedict was) and it’s comforting to know that he (Luther) liked the good things in life!

Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(Moscow,_Russia)

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Orthodox_Church)

In Chapter Three, Hansen looks at the Jesus Prayer. This is a method of meditative prayer originated with and was used by the Eastern Orthodox Christians to achieve union with God, and it originated in two books the Way of the Pilgrim and the Philokalia. It merely consists of a repeating a phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, which is a phrase that comes from the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). It also relates to the advice the apostle Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which encourages Christians to pray without ceasing, which is the main focus of hesychasm or “stillness” in Eastern Orthodoxy: ‘The hesychast, and anyone who prays the Jesus Prayer, wants to draw near to God. It takes preparation, but of a paradoxical kind. God is not in a place you can get to with your body. God is not reached by your intellect alone, even if you study Scripture and theology. Feelings and emotions will not bring you to God. To approach God, one must bring all of one’s self, with the intellect drawn into the heart, a unified whole’ (Pg.56). So therefore, when praying the Jesus Prayer it involves bringing our whole self to God.

Praying the Jesus Prayer consists of three stages. Stage One is simply finding a time and a place to recite the prayer. This usually varies. Some use a prayer rope or chotki just so they can count beads every time they recite the Prayer; some recite for an allotted amount of time, say, five minutes; while a third method is to use a series of reminders to move Christians to say the prayer. Stage two is to concentrate on the words using the intellect. In the case of the Jesus Prayer it is simple. The first part “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” makes us know which God we worship: the word “Lord” places us in front of our “lord”; the word “Jesus” makes us trust in the God who was very merciful to those who He helped and healed during His lifetime, but with the word “Christ” it also reminds us that this is a God who is also the Messiah; and the words “Son of God” shows Jesus’ relationship to His Father. The next part of the Prayer “have mercy on me” reminds us that we calling for God’s mercy (“have mercy”), and when we say “on me” it reminds us of our individual relationship to God: ‘It reminds us that God knows us, loves us, hears us, and has mercy on us personally. Each of us has a multitude of needs to bring to God in prayer. Praying for mercy on ourselves urges us towards honesty and wholeness’ (Pg.63).

The third and final stage of praying “within the heart” is a complicated one, but it is something that actually involves the whole body:

‘The start of the journey, I believe, is to bring our bodily habit of prayer, well informed by the intellect, deep into the center of our being. Thinking about the meaning of the words has taken the prayer deep into our minds; now we can relax, still praying as we breathe, still meaning what we say, but without concentration. There is an inner concentration, though, that is not intellectual. It is an attention to who we are and what we bring as we enter into prayerful communion with God. We try to bring God a whole and undivided self, alive from the center of our being, as conveyed by the image of the intellect moving into the heart.’

(Pgs.64-65)

Now, Hansen admits some people have objections to this method of prayer. Some object on the grounds that it might drive them to insanity; others object to it because its resemblance to Eastern methods of yoga, while another objection is that it runs against the command in the gospels to avoid using “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7). In response to this, Hansen says that the Jesus Prayer has a Biblical basis; that it is not a nonsense word being uttered over and over nor does it invoke other gods, rather it is focused on Christ and Christ alone. It can help us to focus more on prayer and help focus our prayers to Christ. There are also physical benefits in saying this prayer:

‘Some learn to pray the Jesus Prayer when they are angry or anxious out of a related desire to be centered. I suspect that this is a spiritually more helpful kind of centeredness than just stopping to take a few breaths. … Though feelings are not the goal, researchers have used biofeedback techniques to show that praying the Jesus Prayer causes a particularly profound state of relaxation. The mind can remain peaceful and attentive long after praying the Jesus Prayer.’

(Pg.69)

But the main benefit from this prayer is getting a grip on God’s mercy and this, in turn, can lead into unceasing prayer ‘Asking for mercy, we depend on God for our every need. Breathing this prayer more and more, it carries body, mind and heart to God, to stand contemplating the name above all names, gazing at the mystery and beauty of the One who holds the universe’ (Pg.70).

We found that this prayer was a source of controversy. J says that she found the repetitive chanting aspect of the Jesus Prayer uncomfortable in its similarity to Hindu and Buddhist pagan meditation practices. Others, such as R and E, found it useful in certain situations, such as going back to sleep during a restless night, or driving to work. I went on to say that this prayer has some breathing techniques that Orthodox monks use, so in a way it is similar to yoga but more real. GM compared it to the rosary, where Catholics would recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary to focus their full attention on God. In the same way, the Jesus Prayer focuses our minds back to a central place, especially since our minds have a tendency to wander. However, we are not sure if Jesus prayed that way, and maybe the idea of ‘praying without ceasing’ is more like having a relationship throughout the day, not having a scrolled prayer running in the back of our minds. GR says that the idea is to keep your mind wandering back to God. But we’re not sure if this is the way to do it. Chanting a phrase is the least creative way to do it. We feel, especially due to the subject of the similarity of the Jesus Prayer with Eastern religious practices, that it is always going to be a personal thing. However, there is a big difference between this prayer and Eastern religious practices. With yoga meditation, you are simply emptying your mind to free you of all stress. With the Jesus Prayer, however, you are focusing on God. That is one benefit from this particular type of prayer.

Thank you for joining in this discussion. Next time we look at Part 2 of Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, which looks at praying with scripture.

Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012

Next: Kneeling with Giants Part Two

Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

Previous: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

51lVirxQkXL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Last time we looked at Part 2 of Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering, where he looked at the reasons for suffering, the reasons for God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ Passion in suffering, how suffering can help develop our faith, and the varieties of suffering. Here, Keller turns his attention to the use of the Bible and biblical characters to help us through our individual and collective suffering.

Dens

The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadrach,_Meshach,_and_Abednego)

In Chapter Eleven, Keller looks at the subject of “walking with God” through our suffering. This idea is in contrast to the modern idea of coping with suffering, which is taking time off, avoiding anything that can cause stress and finding supporting relationships that can help us overcome our suffering. But the idea of walking through our pain and suffering is more balanced as well as confrontational:

‘The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. …. The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking – through darkness, swirling waters, or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.’

(Pg.226)

To back up this idea, Keller uses a whole range of biblical metaphors such as those found in Isaiah 43 and 1 Peter, which speak of faith under trial being like gold being refined by fire. Keller also uses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3, who are thrown into the fire by King Nebuchadnezzar. In this story, the three men told the king that their reason for not bowing down in worship to the golden statue was due to their dedication and faith in God. They said that they believed that God would rescue them from the furnace, but even if He didn’t they would still not worship the golden statue. This statement of both ‘confidence and humility’ (Pg.230) may seem a bit of a contradiction but Keller says that it is indicative of a real faith in God:

‘The answer is that their confidence was actually in God, not in their limited understanding of what they thought he would do. They had inner assurance that God would rescue them. However, they were not so arrogant as to be sure they were “reading God right.” They knew that God was under no obligation to operate according to their limited wisdom. In other words, their confidence was in God himself, not in some agenda that they wanted God to promote. They trusted in God, and that included trust that he knew better than they what should happen. So they were essentially saying this: “Even if our God does not rescue us – and that is right – we will serve him and not you. We will serve him whether he conforms to our wisdom or not. We do not defy you because we think we are going to live – we defy you because our God is God.’

(Pgs.230-231)

This is in contrast to some Christians who pray that God will answer their request the way they want, only to either never get that answer or get an entirely different answer from what they expected.

Another aspect of Daniel 3 that Keller focuses on is the presence of the fourth person, who rescues the three youths from the furnace and amazes King Nebuchadnezzar, who says that the fourth person looked like a “son of the gods.”

Who was it? (asks Keller) In the Old Testament, there is a mysterious figure called simply “the angel of the Lord” – not just an angel but the angel – and later Nebuchadnezzar actually says that the Lord “sent his angel and rescued them” (v.28). Who was this? He is not like other angels who appear elsewhere in the Bible. When he appears and speaks in the burning bush to Moses, his words are said to be God’s words; his speaking is God speaking (Ex.3:2-6). When the angel appears, he is given worship (Joshua 5:15) in a way that other angels refuse (Rev.19:10). To see this angel was to see God (Judges 13:16-22). The angel is mysterious because he seems to be God in a visual form. And indeed, Christians have understood for centuries who he was. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer sums it all up well: 

‘“The Angel is revealed as a merciful ‘accommodation’ or ‘condescension’ of God, whereby the Lord can be present among a sinful people when, were he to go with them himself, his presence would consume them …. He is that mode of deity whereby the holy God can keep company with sinner. There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord. One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity …. is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners …. Jesus Christ.”’

(Pgs.232-233)

And yet, during Jesus’ First Coming on earth He underwent a completely different trial under fire: the crucifixion. Keller writes:

‘But when it came time for Jesus to enter the furnace of affliction, there was no one to walk through that furnace beside him. He was in it all by himself. No divine personage stood beside him, for he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “When the fire of God’s wrath (quoting Iain M. Duguid) burned him to the core and blazed unchecked over him he was entirely alone.” Why? Why should God be with three Jewish exiles but not his only begotten Son? The answer is that on the cross Jesus was suffering not only with us but for us. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were good men, but they were still flawed human beings. David said that if anyone were to keep a record of our sins of hand and heart, no one could stand before God (Ps.130:3). These three did not then deserve the Lord’s deliverance because of the perfect purity of their lives. God could walk through the fire with them because he came to earth in Jesus Christ and went through the fire of punishment they and we all deserve. That this why he can forgive and accept those who trust in his mercy. And that is why he can be with us flawed, undeserving people in the fire.’

(Pgs.233-234)

Knowing that God is with us in the fire and also that Jesus was Himself put on the cross we will be able to overcome and endure all the fiery trials in faith. Without this knowledge, we’ll become easily disheartened and will turn to either anger or despair. Enduring also means sticking to the walking plan, day in and day out: in prayer, Bible reading, worship with fellow Christians, as well as using various exercises from the Bible that Keller will be looking at in the remaining chapters.

We looked at this theme of “walking with God” closely. We said that God’s presence in trials gives those trials meaning. R in particular liked the walking metaphor because it is something that’s possible. Not having to work ourselves up to fight or anything but just to put one foot in front of the other. Even when we cannot feel that God is there it still helps us to know that He is. It even reminded one member of a quote by David Jones “a faith that can’t be tested is a faith that can’t be trusted.”

When J thinks about Jesus suffering on the cross she thinks that she has nothing to complain about. GM thought of the Footprints poem, where God and the author walk along side-by-side until one day God carries the author in moments of trial.

This made us think further about walking with God. We noted that Jesus and His disciples walked a lot. Walking is a progression through. It maybe not be rapid but we still go through with our journeys. People even walk at different paces so there is no point in comparing yourself to others.

However, we can cast ourselves onto Jesus and then we don’t have to carry our suffering alone. For us, God’s greater meaning in suffering gives us comfort but if you don’t have faith in God then it must look like foolishness.

Beweinung_Christi_Erfurt_um_1480_detail

Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears)

Moving onto Chapter Twelve, Keller looks at the subject of weeping or lamentation. The reason why he writes about this subject is because most churches have a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards grief and lamentation. It dates back to the Reformation, where the Lutheran church was dead set against any expression of grief. ‘Christian were taught not to weep or cry but to show God their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of his will’ (Pg.241). Keller goes on to state that most Lutheran theologians were embarrassed by the Psalms of Lament and the Book of Job, one of the theologians even going onto say that the reason Job is included in the Bible is because ‘God wanted to show us he could still forgive and have mercy on someone with faith as weak as Job’s’ (Pg.241)!

But Keller disagrees with this idea, because even though Job did speak against God through the book that has his name, he simply began to lament when calamity came upon him and did not sin. Even though God did rebuke Job for not understanding His character, nevertheless He vindicated him and restored him to his fortunes. According to Keller, then, expressing our grief is natural for a Christian: ‘We should be more gentle and patient with (those who grieve)(Pg.242). We should allow those who suffer from grief and depression time to heal and recuperate. Even Jesus who was described in the Book of Isaiah as the Suffering Servant:

Who is this Servant? The Christian church has since its very beginning understood this to be Jesus Christ himself (Acts 8:32-33) and in Matthew 12:20, it is said that Jesus will not break the bruised reed or snuff out the dying candle. It means Jesus Christ the servant is attracted to hopeless cases. He cares for the fragile. He loves people who are beaten and battered and bruised. They may not show it on the outside, but inside they are dying. Jesus sees all the way into the heart and he knows what to do. The Lord binds up the brokenhearted and heals our wounds (Ps.147:3; Isa.61:1).’

(Pg.243)

Keller then looks at how God cared for Elijah when he felt overwhelmed by all his enemies:

‘If you read the narrative, you know this is not all that Elijah needs (food and drink). Eventually, God comes to him and challenges him out of despair. God asks him questions, gets him talking, and challenges his interpretation of things, showing him it is not as hopeless as he thinks. And God reveals that he still has a plan for Israel (1 Kings 19:9-17).

‘But reasoning and explaining are not the first things God does with Elijah. He knows the prophet is also a physical being – he is exhausted, spent. He needs rest and food. He needs touch and gentleness. Later, (God) talks to (Elijah). The balance is striking. Some today conceive of depression as all physical, simply a matter of brain chemistry, and so they just need medicine and rest. Others, often Christians, may instead come upon a depressed person and tell him to buck up, to repent and get right with God, to pull himself together and do the right thing. But God here shows us that we are complex creatures – with bodies and souls. To oversimplify treatment would be to break the bruised reed – to put out the smoldering wick. God does not do that. At the right time, a despondent person may need a confrontation, and be challenged. But he also may need a walk by the sea and a great meal.’

(Pg.244)

In other words, we should allow a space where people (including ourselves) can fully express their grief and have someone listen. And the Bible itself has some writing that helps to express that grief. An example would be Psalm 88. From that psalm, Keller comes up with three interpretations:

  • Psalm 88 is not scared to be honest about the darkness. In fact, it even uses the word three times! It does not even end on a note of hope! And to Keller, that’s alright: ‘Things don’t have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened’ (Pg.248). Therefore, it is reasonable for even a devout Christian to express pain.
  • Darkness can help reveal God’s grace to us in a new way. The psalm’s author, Heman the Ezrahite, does not pull his punches in saying that he wants to praise God yet he cannot and so ends up in despair. And yet, according to Derek Kidner: ‘“The very presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to His understanding. He knows how men speak when they are desperate.”’ (Pg.248). In other words, while it may seem blasphemous to speak against God, the very presence of Psalm 88 in scripture is proof that it is OK to express anger and despair at God. And soon, even in the darkness, God will reveal His grace towards us.
  • Finally, God can use these circumstances to rely on Him and His grace more and more. On the one hand, it may feel like that there is no point in trying to worship God and love our neighbor, yet what if, asks Keller, it helps to do both and rely more on His grace as well. It could make us see that there is no comfort in earthly things but in God alone.

In fact, even in our abandonment, Jesus is still there. He felt our sin and pain when he endured the cross. He even quoted from the suffering psalms, especially Psalm 22. While we may often feel abandoned by God, that is nothing compared to the pain that Jesus felt on the cross. And to deny our pain and despair would only lead to a false security. In fact, there will come a time when we’ll be able to rejoice when it is over.

We have often heard of certain phrases such as “stiff upper-lip”, “walk in victory” and “fake it till you make it”. We have noticed that our culture can view grief as weakness. The only place where problems can be fixed is in fiction, where they are resolved at the end of the story simply and neatly. This is according to the three unities of time, place and function as proposed by Aristotle. The same applies for Greek tragedies as well as sitcoms.

Obviously it is good for Christians to express their pain. In this case, Job’s reactions were quite reasonable! Asking “why” is not always helpful, just ask what would Jesus do with this?’ Sometimes, the best one can do is simple to take a nap and eat something. The reason is because we are physical beings and we need to remember to look after our bodies. Therefore, the best questions should may be, ‘we need to eat/sleep?’ Finally, we noted there are many fallible people in the Bible, which is very encouraging since we are fallible beings. The only thing we need to remind ourselves is that there is only ONE infallible Person. And he is NOT the Pope!

Joseph_in_prison

Joseph in Prison by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_(Genesis))

In Chapter Thirteen, Keller looks at the other side of the coin: trusting in God. Throughout this chapter, he uses the story of Joseph, especially his trials and tribulations. To begin Joseph was a young if rather arrogant man, but after being sent to Egypt as a slave and even wrongfully accused, he learnt a lesson of depending upon God in adversity. And after that, God raised him up to a position of power in Pharaoh’s court. Through that Joseph was able to save not only Egypt but even his family as well.

‘How did all this come? (asks Keller) ‘It came through suffering. Suffering for the brothers and Jacob, terrible suffering for Joseph too. The terrible years of crushing slavery for Joseph, the terrible years of debilitating guilt for the brothers, and the terrible years of grief and depression for Jacob, were all brought about by God’s plan. Yet how else could they have been saved physically and spiritually? He “disciplines us for our good.” After the pain, comes a “harvest of righteousness and peace” (Heb.12:10-11).’

(Pg.261)

The reason why God’s answer often feels slow to some is because He has a reason for this pain. God then becomes in Keller’s view, a “hidden” God. In the case of Joseph it was to attain a carefully planned out deliverance for his country and family, whereas in the case of the prophet Elisha God granted a miracle that saved Israel from destruction. In fact, Keller himself experienced a similar thing when he became pastor at New York City Redeemer Presbyterian because, of all things, the Watergate scandal! Because of one night watchman noticing suspicious activity, it led to a president being impeached, another one coming in, that president’s son providing an administrative complication that prevented a professor at Keller’s seminary from getting a visa delaying his arrival to the US till later, and when in the US, he was able to lead Keller to an interest in the Presbyterian denomination and later to that church in New York. All because of the plan of God.

In Genesis the plan of God helped to show Joseph and his family how sinful and conceited they were:

‘Joseph had two vivid dreams, each of which obviously meant that all of his brothers would eventually bow down to and serve him. Now, often dreams make concrete and vivid a desire we have been harboring secretly or subconsciously. Joseph’s eager announcement of the dreams shows that he had a growing sense of his own superiority. He was fast becoming a very arrogant young man, a narcissist with unrealistic views of himself, who would eventually have an inability to empathize with and love others. He was headed for the unhappy marriages and broken relationships and all-around miserable life that such people have. 

‘But Joseph was also blind to the toxins in the family system. His dreams only made his brothers more furious at him (Gen 37:11), poisoning their hearts with more bitterness. They craved their father’s love but didn’t get it. They hated Joseph and competed with one another. The interlude chapter 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, shows the effect all this had on the characters of Jacob’s sons. They were becoming callous, selfish, and capable of real cruelty. The future was dim for everyone. A lifetime of fear, jealousy, disappointment, violence, and family breakdown was ahead of them all.’ 

(Pg.256)

In his suffering Joseph learnt to humble himself and rely on God even through the blackest days. And in the case of his brothers it led them to acknowledge their sins and to reconcile with their long-departed brother.

But perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Joseph’s story and his trust in the hidden God was the fact that Joseph himself was a forerunner to Jesus in that that Jesus too went to Egypt as a babe and later endured His passion and crucifixion.   On one point, one may even ask why such as a powerful man would let himself die such an excruciating death? All because He trusted in God’s plan and was able to give us our salvation.

We agreed that Keller did a good job of bringing all the aspects of Joseph’s story together. We never thought about the dreams being a subconscious desire before. Why would Joseph take these to his brothers? We hadn’t thought about how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t been sold into slavery. He wasn’t the nice person we thought he was – he was a spoiled brat. God gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything He knows.

The only way we grow is by going through tough stuff. We wondered, ‘Is there growth in heaven?’ Heaven is an eternity, outside time, whereas growth is a function of time. This means that, maybe in heaven, there will be no need for growth.

But maybe we just don’t know how to grow without pain but maybe in a higher plane we won’t need pain to grow. Maybe growth in heaven will be like study but without the pain.

Job_and_his_friends

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_(biblical_figure))

In Chapter Fourteen, Keller looks at prayer, particularly in the case of Job:

‘’No other book in the Bible or, to my mind, in all of ancient literature, faces the questions of evil and suffering with such emotional and dramatic realism yet also with such intellectual and philosophical deftness. Obviously, the main theme is that of innocent suffering – why do so many very good people have a disproportionate number of afflictions and tragedies, while many dishonest, selfish, and greedy people have comfortable lives? The book of Job is uniquely balanced in its treatment of this theme. It treats it neither abstractly nor just viscerally. The problem of evil is examined through one man’s vividly described agony. His cries are poignant and provocative. Nevertheless, the long speeches of Job are filled with profound, thoughtful reflection. This perfectly conveys that the problem of horrendous suffering is both a philosophical and a great personal problem. To treat it as only one or the other is inadequate.

‘Another way the book of Job is unique is in its implicit critique of nearly all the common answers to the problem of evil. When suffering comes upon us, we wonder why it is happening to us. The traditional religious answer to this question is: You must have done something wrong or bad. The secular answer to the question is: There is no good reason. A good God wouldn’t do this – so he doesn’t exist or he’s cruel. One of the main messages of the book of Job is that both the religious and the irreligious, the moralistic and the nihilistic answers are wrong. Both are, in the end, pat answers that can be stated in a sentence or two. But neither the author of Job nor Job himself will go for such easy solutions. Both classic answers are given withering critiques in the book, and that is largely what creates the dramatic tension and makes the book so intriguing. The religious answer expressed by Job’s friends is revealed to be slanderously wrong: Job’s difficulties come upon him not despite his goodness but because of it. But the nihilistic view, which Job veers towards at times, is also a grave mistake.’

(Pgs.270-271)

Keller first looks at the beginning of the book of Job, where God and Satan debate the merits of Job’s worth. Satan says that, if God took away all the good things that Job has, such as family, wealth and health, Job will start to curse God to His face. And with that, God gives Satan permission to inflict whatever pain Satan can bring to Job. Now while it may seem shocking that a good God can allow Satan to inflict pain and suffering on a good man like Job, Keller says that this trial by fire is helpful in making Christians become true lovers of God:

‘There is a difference between external religiosity and internal heart love and devotion to God. That gap is to some degree in us all, and it is one of the reasons we don’t have the intimacy with God and the peace and the joy in him that we should. What is a real servant of God? Well, think of any love relationship. What if you fell in love with someone who seemed to love you back, but then when you had a financial reversal, he or she broke off the relationship? Wouldn’t you feel used? Wouldn’t you think the person loved the things you could give him rather than loving you for you yourself? It’s no different with God. We should love God for himself alone, not for the benefits he brings.

‘How do you develop a love like that? Let’s say you initially fall in love with a person, and, if you are honest, it was partly because of some of the person’s “assets” – his or her looks or connections, for instance. But as the relationship progresses, you begin to love the person for himself alone, and then when some of the assets go away, you don’t mind. We call that growth in love and character. Now, what if you grew in your love for God like that? What if you could grow in your love for him so that he became increasingly satisfying in himself to you? That would mean that circumstances wouldn’t rattle you so much, since you had God and his love enriching and nourishing you regardless of the circumstances.’

(Pgs.273-274)

In other words, God often uses hardship to help us to develop our love for Him rather than just the good things that He gives us. In fact, God has control of even Satan and it is not God who inflicts these things on Job, nor does God enjoy inflicting pain on Job. The point of these hardships is to develop a better relationship between God and Job.

Next Keller moves onto the debates between an embittered Job and his friends. As mentioned earlier in the book, Job’s friends are under the assumption of a moral theology, but it’s one that simply bases God upon a human idea of morality, in that He behaves according to human mores. Against this, Job argues that his friends are both wrong about his sinfulness and the nature of God. Job even complains about his treatment from the hands of God and wants to hear personally from God Himself the reason for his suffering, which leads to a new truth:

‘“If there is (quoting Francis Anderson) a grain of truth in Eliphaz’s teaching about the “the [correction] of the Almighty” (5:17), it is not in the negative sense of training so a person is restrained from potential sin. Job had long since attained this …. The readers know what Job does not know, namely that Job’s highest wisdom is to love God for Himself alone. Hence Eliphaz’s words, far from being a comfort, are a trap. The violence with which Job rejects them shows his recognition of the danger.”

(Anderson shows that Job) was being called to live on a new plane. Job shows that he has an inkling of this. Through all the speeches and prayers, Job repeatedly states his desire is granted, but not in the way he expected. When God actually does appear and speak to Job in the final chapter of the book, there are four great shocks and surprises.’

(Pgs.279-280)

The four “shocks and surprises” are:

  • God’s final appearance as a storm – He appears in front of Job in the form of a cloud, in a moment off power, as Yahweh. Yet He has appeared not to punish Job but to teach him grace, to enter into a dialogue with Job about His power and wisdom. ‘God comes both as a gracious, personal God and as an infinite, overwhelming force – at the very same time.’ (Pg.282). Keller even connects this appearance to Jesus who came down in the form of a hapless baby and yet revealed God’s power and grace at the same time to a sinful humanity.
  • God’s answer – His answer is different from that Job and his friends were expecting. Instead of explaining the reason for Job’s problems and affirming Job’s friends that Job is a sinner, God simply speaks about the natural world. In a paradoxical way, God does not answer Job’s cries, but His “absence” provides Job the experience to grow and develop into a true follower of God. (God) would have been cooperating with Job’s impulse for self-justification had (God) given (Job) those reasons (for his sufferings). Instead, the experience of suffering leads Job to the place where he loves and trusts him simply because he is God. Job becomes a person of enormous strength and joy, who does not need favorable circumstances in order to stand up straight spiritually. This makes the suffering – or, more accurately, the results of the suffering – a very great gift indeed, and it is doubtful that this level of reliance on the grace of God can ever be gotten any other way.’ (Pg.284).
  • God’s speeches – God gives Job and his friends a wide-ranging look on creation and finally asks Job if he will contend with the Almighty. Keller likens it to that of an ancient Israelite king behaving as a judge who sets things to rights, and that is what God is doing by asking Job if he has power like God’s. ‘Since Job does not have the power to be judge, he does not have the right. Job says that he can run the universe better than God – but that is simply a fiction. Job is being told to drop his claim that he can do so. (Francis) Anderson says that Job is being called to “hand the whole matter completely to God more trustingly, less fretfully. And do it without insisting that God should first answer all his questions”’ (Pg.286). This helps rid of Job of any pride and makes him rely upon God.
  • God restores Job and rebukes his friends – God restores Job to his former glory and also tells off Job’s friends for their false advice. Some modern readers have often questioned this segment asking why God would restore Job back to his wealth after Job has cursed Him to His face. But Keller says that the difference is that Job addressed these complaints in the form of a prayer, that ‘the suffering did not drive (Job) away from God but toward him.’ (Pg.288). In fact, it is ok for a Christian to turn all our complaints towards God: Like Job, you must seek him, go to him. Pray even if you are dry. Read the Scriptures even if it is an agony. Eventually, you will sense him again – the darkness won’t last forever. The strength you need for suffering comes in the doing of the responsibilities and duties God requires. Shirk no commands of God. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve, witness, obey. Do all your duties that you physically can and the God of peace will be with you’ (Pg.288). Above all, also re-examine your feelings and hopes, and allow prayer to change you. Keller refers to advice from a Christian psychiatrist John White: (W)hen you are despondent an effort to read the Bible “devotionally” – that is, looking for inspiration and uplift – is not the answer. Instead, (White) counsels that you should study the Bible for content. Get the truth out of the text. Remind yourself of who God is, and you are in Christ, and what he has done for you. Simone Weil says that it is important to at least want to love God. So do what you can to pray to him and ponder the truth. And wait. Wait like Job waited.’

This news vindicates Job and enables him to move onto a better understanding of God. But, like Joseph in Chapter 13, Job is also a type of Christ, in that He also underwent pain and torment under Satan and managed to bring about our salvation through that entire struggle.

R said she liked the idea that the whole process of God’s treatment of Job was to bring Job into a better relationship with God. Paul said, “I’ve learnt to be content in all circumstances” (Phil.4:11-13). Paul didn’t need the good things of God to be in relationship with God.   It is the same with what Keller is saying about Job. The more you know the Bible the more you can use it in life, which is better than a devotional book. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve witness, and obey – we all love this.

Saint_Paul,_Rembrandt_van_Rijn_(and_Workshop?),_c._1657

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt van Rijn

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Apostle)

In Chapter Fifteen, Keller turns his attention to the apostle Paul, especially in relation to his Epistle to the Philippians:

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil.4:4-9)’

(Pg.295)

According to Keller, this “peace” that Paul has received has helped him through many tribulations during his ministry. Keller says that this peace Paul possessed is different from an innate stoicism because Paul learnt it from God. Nor is it an absence of anything bad, but a “presence”: ‘Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself – by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be a short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them’ (Pg.297). In fact, even if bad things happen, the peace of God will keep many believers, like Paul, afloat. The way to learn this peace is via three things:

  • The Discipline of Thinking – in verses 8-9 of Philippians 4, Paul tells his readers to think about whatever is ‘true, …. noble, …. right, ..… pure, …. lovely, (and)(Pg.295). In Keller’s point-of-view, it is not aspirational, lofty thinking but rather basing our thoughts on salvation: ‘the specific teaching of the Bible about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature, and God’s plans for the world – the plan of salvation’ (Pg.298). It means turning our minds to the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead. It is different from the peace that wants us to deny anything bad and simply turn our thoughts somewhere else, which is what Keller calls a “stupid peace”. Rather, it means turning our minds to the bigger picture of salvation and deriving our peace from there, which Keller calls a “smart peace”.
  • The Discipline of Thanking – in v.6 of Philippians 4, Paul also says that we should not be anxious but make our requests to God in This is putting our trust in the God in charge of our history, even when we do not understand the bad things that happen to us. Keller quotes another of Paul’s writings Romans 8:28 where “all things work together for those who love God.” Keller warns us, though, that ‘Romans 8 must not be read in a saccharine way. It does not say that every bad thing has a “silver lining” or that every terrible thing that can happen is somehow “actually a good thing if you learn to look at it properly.” No, Paul says in Romans 8:28 that all things – even bad things – will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs – a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Only God now has the eternal perspective and vantage point from which he can see all things working together for our good and for his glory – but eventually we will occupy that place and will see it too’ (Pgs.301-302). We are, therefore, to thank God for everything, even if we do not always understand what is happening to us, even if His ways do not always answer our requests.
  • The Discipline of Reordering Our Loves – Paul then encourages his readers to turn their love to God ‘not just to order the thoughts of their mind but to engage the affections of the heart …. It is not enough just to think the right things. It is also important to love the right things’ (Pgs.302-303). This is different from Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, which argues for a complete detachment from everything that could cause us to feel pain. Here, a Christian puts his-or-her love in God who is above and beyond all material things and not to place our love for anyone or anything above and beyond God.

These three things, according to Keller, can help use our suffering to review our lives, to see if we placing our trust in the wrong things in life and to have a ‘rediscovery of the gospel of free grace. If we hear the accusation in our heart: “God will not save you; you are unworthy!” the only answer is that God’s salvation is not for the worthy but for the humble – those who admit they are not worthy. …. We do not save ourselves – it is unmerited’ (Pgs.306-307). It means looking at the Person of Jesus and His atoning death and to place it above and beyond everything else. Yes, we may love some things, but when Christians suffer it should make us rethink our priorities and place our love on Jesus. To illustrate this point, Keller tells the story of two actors:

‘Some years ago, I remember two young men at Redeemer who were actors. They both auditioned for the same role, and it was the biggest one for which they’d ever been considered. Both were professing Christians, but one, I believe, put all his emotional and spiritual hopes into having a successful acting career. He believed in Jesus, but it was clear that he could only enjoy life and feel good about himself if his career was going well. The other man was also a professing Christian, but after some disappointments, he had come to the place where he wanted as his main goal in life to please and honor the God who had saved him. He thought he could do that by being an actor. 

‘They were both turned down – neither got the part. The first man was devastated, going into a time of depression and drug abuse. The other felt terrible at first, and wept. But not long afterward, he was fine, and saying, “I guess I was wrong. Looks like I can please and honor God better in some other career.” See the difference? The second man held his acting career as a means to an end; the first man had made acting an end in itself. The circumstances of life couldn’t touch the second man’s treasure in life, but it was able to sweep away the first man’s treasure, and it was terrible for him. To be loved by God, to be known by God, is the ultimate treasure. And if you make it your ultimate treasure, then no “thief can break in and steal” it (Matt.6:19).’

(Pgs.308-309)

We all agree with the ‘think, thank and love’ disciplines because it would help deal with the problems of life. Both actors and authors are trained at being rejected, so most of them would develop a hard skin in relation to rejection. We then went on talking about social media and thinking on the right things while watching what we read and watch on TV and the Internet. Some people even go so far as to not watch the news. Maybe it’s better to use news websites or something that can allow to absorb the information at our own pace. But, then again, we need to keep ourselves educated, especially when trying to vote. In the end, it is all a question of balance.

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_236

Vision of John on Patmos by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Revelation)

Finally, in Chapter Sixteen, Keller turns to another apostle John, especially in the book of Revelation, where, in spite of tribulation and suffering, there will be hope for Christians:

‘John gave (the Christians undergoing persecution) the ultimate hope – a new heavens and a new earth that was coming. That is what he gave them to face it, and it is a simple fact of history that it worked. We know that the early Christians took their suffering with great poise and peace and they sang hymns as the beasts were tearing them apart and they forgave the people who were killing them. And so the more they were killed, the more the Christian movement grew. Why? Because when people watched Christians dying like that, they said, “These people have got something.” Well, do you know what they had? They had this. It is a living hope.

‘Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future. I was reading a story some years ago about two men who were captured and thrown into a dungeon. Just before they went into prison, one man discovered that his wife and child were dead, and the other learned that his wife and child were alive and waiting for him. In the first couple years of imprisonment the first man just wasted away, curled up and died. But the other man endured and stayed strong and walked out a free man ten years later. Notice that these two men experienced the very same circumstances but responded differently because, while they experienced the same present, they had their minds set on different futures. It was the future that determined how they handled the present.’

(Pg.314)

It is this hope, that God will come and bring a new heaven and a new earth that brings joy in the midst of suffering. It is the same hope that sustained the African-American slaves in their turmoil, as evident in their songs. But again it is in Jesus that provides this hope:

‘Donald Grey Barnhouse, was a pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years, lost his wife when his daughter was still a child. Dr. Barnhouse was trying to help his little girl, and himself process the loss of his wife and her mother. Once when they were driving, a huge moving van passed them. As it passed, the shadow of the truck swept over the car. The minister had a thought. He said something like this, “Would you rather be run over by a truck, or by its shadow?” His daughter replied, “By the shadow of course. That can’t hurt us at all.” Dr. Barnhouse replied, “Right. If the truck doesn’t hit you, but only its shadow, then you are fine. Well, it was only the shadow of death that went over your mother. She’s actually alive – more alive than we are. And that’s because two thousand years ago, the real truck of death hit Jesus. And because death crushed Jesus, and we believe in him, now the only thing that can come over us is the shadow of death, and the shadow of death is but my entrance into glory.” ’

(Pg.317)

This means that, because Jesus Himself bore our hopelessness along with our other sins on the cross, He has given us hope that will help us all even during our darkest moments. Keller himself felt this when he went under for an operation on his thyroid cancer: ‘And in the moments before they gave me the anesthetic, I prayed. To my surprise, I got a sudden, clear new perspective on everything. It seemed to me that the universe was an enormous realm of joy, mirth, and high beauty. Of course it was – didn’t the Triune God make it to be filled with his own boundless joy, wisdom, love, and delight? And within this great globe of glory was only one little speck of darkness – our world – where there was temporarily pain and suffering. But it was only one speck, and soon that speck would fade away and everything would be light. And I thought, “It doesn’t really matter how the surgery goes. Everything will be all right. Me – my wife, my children, my church – will all be all right.” I went to sleep with a bright peace on my heart.’

(Pg.318)

J loved the Donald Grey Barnhouse story. This makes us ask questions like how do we know that the darkness on our earth is the only place? There has to be life for there to be evil, meaning sentient beings, personalities, etc.

We talked about grief being always there, always with you. We liked that Keller ends his book with such triumph and hope. The hope that we have gives us the way through life, to walk through whatever life throws at us.

Overall, we enjoyed this book more than the last few we looked at the book club. It has given us some tools for life, not only because it helps us handle the most difficult aspects of our lives, but does so from a godly, Christian and biblical perspective. It is for this that we are grateful for Keller that he gave us the time and the resources to discuss this painful topic.

Join us next time as we look at the first part of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

Next: Kneeling with Giants Part One

Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

Previous: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering – Part One

51lVirxQkXL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog. Last time we looked at Part One of Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering, where he talked about the difference between the Christian and non-Christian views on suffering. Now, we turn our attention to Part Two, where Keller discusses suffering in specific Christian doctrines, God’s place in the suffering of our universe, and how the Bible views suffering.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubt)

In Chapter Five, Timothy Keller looks at any challenges to faith, continuing his theme of theodicy versus a defense of God’s existence and the problem of evil in Chapter Four. Keller says that, in particular, the visceral argument – that one has a deep, profound shock and horror at the evil done in the world – stems mainly from a heart level. (Blaise) Pascal’s insightful phrase “reasons of the heart” refers neither to mere irrational feelings nor simply to logical propositions. They are best described as intuitions – explanations that not only give some light to the mind but are also existentially comforting or satisfying. A “reason for the heart,” unlike an abstract proposition, affects and changes attitudes and actions’ (Pg.113). Therefore, this reaction is a reaction against evil itself, that is it wrong and should and must not happen. Keller claims that this intuition against evil stems from three Christian doctrines:

(1)      The Christian doctrine of creation and the fall, in which our world was made and put into existence by a good and just God but because of original sin, we have now inherited a world of suffering and darkness. Our intuition tells us that all this suffering is wrong and Keller relates this feeling to the fall. On the one hand, we are to do our God-given tasks but now under great duress. We also must not be quick to assign blame of a particular into anyone who suffers, like Job’s friends did with Job because the ‘world (itself) is too fallen and deeply broken to divide into a neat pattern of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives. The brokenness of the world is inherited by the entire human race’ (Pg.114). The only reasonable reaction is to admit that suffering and death is just judgment from God against original sin, and to rid ourselves of the Deistic view that we are good people and God permits us no harm, because it is so self-centered. This is made obvious with our sinful record and our inability to be good all the time. Paradoxically, Keller puts forward this question: ‘Why, in light of our behavior as a human race, does God allow so much happiness?’ (Pg.115). That idea, in contrast to the one where we usually ask ourselves the question on how a good and all-powerful God should allow suffering to happen, should make us pause for thought.

(2)      The Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment. The Christian believes that on Judgment Day, all past wrongs, pain, and evil will be done away and the whole world will also be restored to its original glory. This doctrine has often been seen as a rather gloomy one, but Keller reassures us that it is not, because it will restore creation, and all evil will be destroyed. The concept of final judgment will also help us have an idea of God’s goodness and courage because it can enable us to see that, in the darkness and pain, there is a good God who has a plan for us. All we have to do is depend upon Him and wait.

(3)      The Christian doctrine of Atonement. The idea that an all-powerful God who is in charge of the universe, whose will is hard to grasp at times, became a man and endured suffering on the cross is a radical one. ‘Here we see the ultimate strength – a God who is strong enough to voluntarily become weak and plunge himself into vulnerability and darkness out of love for us. And here we see the greatest possible glory – the willingness to lay aside all his glory out of love for us’ (Pg.120). It is this uniqueness that sets Christianity apart from other religions in that God Himself came down and suffered for us. By contrast, the God encountered in the Book of Job is beyond our comprehension, especially in relation to Job’s sufferings, but in the incarnation, we can appreciate God’s love for us and see for ourselves that He does understand our suffering.

Our intuition that something is wrong with the suffering in the world, and these doctrines, allow us to know that there is a God who knows and understands our struggle and pain, and that one day it will be gone from our lives.

We found that, on the issue of suffering, non-Christians cannot agree with us. It simply doesn’t make sense to them, which brings to mind the biblical passage “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor.1:18). In our case as Christians, Jesus is living and interceding for us and He helps us even now. Once you have experienced and received that succour you don’t want to go back to your old life. However, if you are an atheist, you would automatically want justice now, and will on rely upon a God to help you. As for us, we look forward to the day when things actually work properly. This is in sync with the Christian doctrine of the last judgment. We hope for a future that does not have the usual woes that befall society. Especially a future where everyone is a lot kinder to everybody else. We also agree that we don’t deserve happiness, especially a happiness that is only temporal and can easily give way to other feelings, such as sadness or anger. The only happiness worth waiting for is the one that comes at the end of this life.

The_Creation_of_Adam

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo c. 1512

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God)

In Chapter Six, Keller takes a look at the theme of God’s sovereignty, especially in relation to the issue of suffering. Here he looks at how the Bible as a whole describes pain and suffering and says that he finds it to be balanced about these issues:

‘Suffering is both just and unjust.

‘God is a both a sovereign and a suffering God.’

(Pg.130)

He first begins in Genesis, where the fall caused us to live in a universe of suffering and evil. Keller says that this is the fallen state of the world itself and that it is under God’s judgment. It also led us to be frustrated with the world itself: ‘Humans beings were not created to experience death, pain, grief, disappointment, ruptured relationships, disease, and natural disasters. … A frustrated world is a broken world, in which things do not function as they should, and that is why there is evil and suffering’ (Pg.131). Yet, as the wisdom literature of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prove, the causes of evil are many and varied. While Proverbs reiterates that a wrong action would result in judgment (e.g. a lazy person would not profit from his actions), Job and Ecclesiastes balance it by stating that sometimes people may suffer for no reason obvious to us. But in God’s plan, He is totally against the evil that permeates his creation and wants to restore it. In the Old Testament, God is there yet hidden and sometimes beyond our comprehension, but by the time of Jesus we have an incarnate God who is totally against the evil that He sees and actually hates it for what it is. This is apparent when we see the resurrection of Lazarus. But instead of destroying us completely for this sinful state, Jesus went to the cross instead:

‘Instead of coming as a general at the head of an army, he went in weakness to the cross in order to pay for our sins, so that someday he will return to wipe out evil without having to judge us as well. He will be able to receive us to himself because he bore our judgment himself on Calvary.’

(Pgs.137-138).

Therefore, we see two truths at work, that the suffering in our world is both just and unjust and we need the wisdom to know the difference, and that our world is also a fallen world that needs redemption and will one day reach that state. This in turn leads to Keller’s second supposition: that our God is a sovereign one who uses both good and bad events to shape our world and even participates in our suffering:

‘ “The God of the Bible (quoting Ronald Rittgers) … both suffers with humanity – supremely on the cross – and yet is in some sense also sovereign over suffering. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning and that the triune God is able to provide deliverance from it.”

‘What do we mean, first when we say that God is sovereign over history and therefore over suffering? The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in the Bible has sometimes been called compatibilism. The Bible teaches that God is completely in control of what happens in history and yet he exercises that control in such a way that human beings are responsible for their freely chosen actions and the results of those actions. Human freedom and God’s direction of historical events are therefore completely compatible. To put it most practically and vividly – if a man robs a bank, that moral evil is fully his responsibility, though it also is part of God’s plan.’

(Pgs.139-140)

This means that even suffering may have a purpose, though we may not be aware of it at the moment.

We liked the part about Jesus bellowing in anger at Lazarus’ tomb, which displays His anger at death and suffering in our world. In the case of free will and suffering, we agree that it seems like a contradiction, but it is like the Trinity, or, in the case of science, light being both a wave and a particle. This only highlights the fact that we possess finite minds, which cannot take in everything.

We discussed how we did not know even our own theology, which could lead us to possess an immature theology. When that theology is attacked, it doesn’t stand up and, as we do not study deeply, we cannot stand against the attack as well. “Now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor.13:12). As for the case of Scripture seeming to contradict itself, we would rather argue that it does not. The reason why it appears to be that way is because we don’t understand enough. Therefore, the failure to understand Scripture actually betrays Scripture. On a human level, we can feel that suffering often appears meaningless, and we can still feel it even when we stand in our belief in the sovereignty of God.

A34329.jpg

Pietro Perugino’s depiction of the Crucifixion as Stabat Mater, 1482

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus)

Moving onto Chapter Seven, Keller turns his attention to the suffering of God. The idea that a sovereign, all-powerful God has felt, and can still feel, our suffering is something that Keller says is what makes Christianity unique. On the one hand our God is a God who is all-powerful, but on the other hand He is not above and beyond our suffering. Keller says that the Old Testament is replete with references to God feeling the pain of His creation and people, and this reaches its culmination in the incarnation of Jesus. This is apparent during the Passion on the cross where Jesus endured our sin:

‘ “He was without any comforts of God (quoting Robert Murray M’Cheyne) – no feeling that God loved him – no feeling that God pitied him – no feeling that God supported him. God was his sun before – now that sun became all darkness …. He was without God – he was as if he had no God. All that God had been to him before was taken from him now. He was Godless – deprived of his God. He had the feeling of the condemned, when the Judge says, “Depart from me, ye cursed …. Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power.” He felt that God said the same to him. I feel like a little child casting a stone into some deep ravine in the mountain side, and listening to hear its fall – but listening all in vain….

‘ “Ah! This is the hell that Christ suffered. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable … He was forsaken in the [place] of sinners. If you close with him, at your surety, you will never be forsaken … “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [The answer?] For me – for me. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable.” ’

(Pgs.150-151)

In fact, even after His ascension Christ continues to suffer, as we see in Acts 9, where Jesus stops Saul from persecuting the early church because He can feel their pain! ‘If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless. … On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?’ (Pgs.152-153). God’s suffering gives our suffering meaning because we are not alone in an empty, meaningless universe but are sharing it with a God who can give it meaning. This also makes us view Judgment Day with a difference, because the book of Revelation mentions that the scroll is opened by, of all things, a slaughtered lamb.

‘Who is opening the seals on the scroll and carrying out judgments against the forces of darkness? A wounded lamb! That is hardly a figure we would associate with strength and power, and that is the whole point. The Bible says that at the very moment Jesus was dying on the cross, he was “disarming the powers … triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Through his death, he absorbed the curse for human disobedience (Gal 3:10-14) and so defeated sin and death and the evil forces behind them. For those who are “in Christ Jesus … there is no condemnation” (Rom 8:1) – death has no more ultimate claim on us. And so it is a wounded lamb who now is able not simply to judge wrongdoing but actually to undo the damage that evil has wreaked on the creation.’

(Pgs.155-156)

So, thanks to the ultimate irony, we will be able to escape death and judgment via the very forces that once held us so tightly in their grip! And it is thanks to this deliverance that we will, one day, be able to partake of God’s ultimate salvation.

As Christians, we feel that it is great to have different celebrations, that bring our minds back to the suffering of Christ . In everyday life a normal person may not think about it often but the Holy Week celebration makes more of it and concentrates our attention on the Passion of Jesus. At the same time, we cannot stay in the past forever, but we have to be in the present as well, leaving the future in God’s hands. Which makes us think that, if we do not have the lows, the suffering, then we will not be able to appreciate the high points in life. An interesting question to ask is what how will heaven be like if we don’t have suffering?

In the case of one book club member, R, it made her think about how having a suffering God is a comfort if you are suffering, because the usual idea of God is that He is too far away from our pain to actually experience it. But in Christianity, we possess this doctrine and helps us to elevate our suffering. Another member, GM, remembers a science fiction story that features time travellers going to Jesus’ death at Golgotha, only to find themselves the ONLY people there as witnesses to His death! To GM’s thinking, this story helped illustrate that it is our sin that put Jesus on the cross, in this case suggesting that through all history, people will STILL be drawn to this event.

Strand Magazine vol IV

The Adventure of Silver Blaze by Sidney Paget

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes)

In Chapter Eight, Keller turns his attention to the reasons for God allowing us to experience suffering first-hand. Keller quotes psychologist Jonathan Haidt in stating in how suffering can help us better cope with it:

‘First, people who endure and get through suffering become more resilient. Once they have learned to cope, they know they can do it again and live life with less anxiety. Romans 5:3-4 sums it up: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Second, it strengthens relationships, usually bonding the sufferer permanently into a set of deeper friendships or family ties that serve to nurture and strengthen [a person] for years.

‘But the third benefit is perhaps the most significant – suffering “changes priorities and philosophies.” Psychologist Robert Emmons has sorted people’s life goals into four basic categories – personal achievement and happiness, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and “generativity” (contributing something lasting to society). People who invest much or most of their energy into the goals of personal achievement and happiness are the most vulnerable to the adverse circumstances of life. Efforts to seek God, deeper relationships, and the good of society sometimes can be directly enhanced by suffering, but our freedom and comfort never are. And so trouble and trials tend to force us out of certain agendas and into others.’

(Pgs.165-166)

More importantly, the whole point of suffering is to remind us that the purpose of our lives is to glorify God alone. Keller offers three reasons why we should praise God:

‘The theology books struggle when they try to define it (the glory of God). I believe it is because the glory of God is actually the combined magnitude of all God’s attributes and qualities put together. The glory of God means what can be called his infinite beyondness. He is not a “tame” God, a God at hand. He is not someone you can always figure out, or expect to figure out. This is a God beyond our comprehension, and it is one of the aspects of the biblical God that modern people dislike the most. We are always saying, “I can’t believe in a God who would do this” or “I can’t believe in a God who would judge people.” One of the things that [this] may mean is that we don’t want a glorious God, one beyond our comprehension.

‘The glory of God also means his supreme importance. The Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which means “weight” – literally God’s weightiness. Fortunately, we have an English word that has the same lexical range and that functions in the same way – it is the word matter. Matter means “as opposed to the immaterial, something solid, something substantial,” but it can also mean “importance.” And therefore, when the Bible says that God is glorious, it means he should matter, and does matter, more than anything else or anyone else. And if anything matters to you more than God, you are not acknowledging his glory. You are giving glory to something else.’

(Pgs.168-169)

‘There is one more thing to say about God’s glory – it is his absolute splendor and beauty. The word for “glory” in the Old Testament means importance, the word for “glory” in the New Testament (the Greek word doxa) means “praise and wonder; luminosity, brilliance, or beauty.” Jonathan Edwards once said: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” It is not enough to say, “I guess he is God, so I have to knuckle under.” You have to see his beauty. Glorifying God does not mean obeying him only because you have to. It means to obey him because you want to – because you are attracted to him, because you delight in him. This is what C.S. Lewis grasped and explained so well in his chapter on praising. We need beauty. We go to lengths to put ourselves in front of beautiful places, or surround ourselves with beautiful music, or hang out with beautiful people. But these will leave us empty if we don’t learn to see all of these things are mere tributaries and God himself as the fountain, the headwaters of it all.’

(Pgs.169-170)

This means we must have no “graven images” i.e. no false gods or false notions of God Himself. Keller illustrates this point from a novel by Elisabeth Elliott where a missionary in the Amazon who relied on a native to help her translate the Bible into the local language finds herself in utter strife when her translator is dying. She prays for his relief but to no avail for the translator dies anyway. This in turns leads this character to the conclusion that the God she was worshipping was just a false god an “idol” in the strictest sense of the word and that the true God would never be bound by such restrictions. ‘The theme that runs through all of Elliott’s work is that to trust God when we do not understand him is to treat him as God and not as another human being. It is to treat him as glorious – infinitely beyond us in his goodness and wisdom’ (Pg.174). In turn we will be capable of presenting the glory of God to others in the same way as the early martyrs such as St. Stephen did. We will be able to cope with the sufferings in our lives, in much the same way as members of the Amish community in Pennsylvania did when they attended the funeral of a gunman who, in 2006, shot ten people before killing himself because they (the Amish) found the strength to forgive this person. It could give us the strength to understand how suffering can affect another person and how we can see God’s will in it, as in the case of Joni Eareckson Tada who struggled in her faith when someone she knew, Denise Walters, slowly died from rapid-progression multiple sclerosis, only to find consolation from the Bible which showed that Denise’s death did have a purpose. This is in contrast to the secular worldview which states that this world is the only one we have and that we should do our best to get rid of suffering altogether, whereas the Christian knows that there is a purpose behind suffering.

In response to the issues raised in this chapter, R thinks that the secular worldview is that if we can’t understand the reason, then the reason itself doesn’t exist. E talked about parents who remove any obstacles from their kids’ lives, which, while well-meaning, only leads to their kids having no resilience to handle the suffering of this present world. Another member, GM talked about character being built by cross country races at his old grammar school. If he had not been made to do it, he wouldn’t have done it and he wouldn’t have known he could run the 5km.

So somewhere between bubble-wrapping children and the hell of bullying there must be a small spot for building character. In particular, we all grow up with a false notion of God and, if we never rid ourselves of this notion, we will never understand him fully. We also all agree that we all reflect His glory badly no matter how we try.

Job_and_his_friends

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_(biblical_figure))

In Chapter Nine, Keller continues with the theme of the glory of God by focusing on how we can use suffering to improve our lives. By having a good grasp of God, we do not seek our own personal happiness but rather God’s righteousness. This runs counter to the Western view of individualism where we are trust in ourselves alone. It also helps to develop our characters further and help us to deal with life’s problems. Keller sums it up by showing how suffering can change us in four ways:

‘First, suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves. It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are. … It does not so much make us helpless and out of control as it shows us we have always been vulnerable and dependent on God. … Suffering also leads us to examine ourselves and see weaknesses, because it brings out the worst in us.   …. Suffering will throw these inner flaws into relief during times of stress in a way that enables us to get out of denial and to begin working on them.

 

‘Second, suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives. We will see that some things have become too important to us.

 

‘Third, and most of all, suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can. C.S. Lewis’s famous dictum is true, that in prosperity God whispers to us but in adversity he shouts to us. Suffering is indeed a test of our connection to God. 

‘Finally, suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials. Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise.’

(Pgs.190-192)

In other words suffering can help us to develop our faith in ways beyond our imagination. Keller likens it to a type of gymnasium where God is the coach who helps us to develop our faith. But the two main important outcomes are the development of our minds and our hearts. With the mind we need to have a deep knowledge of the Bible and what is says about suffering because it will prevent us from getting mired in the view of suffering as shared by the world. But the most important one would be the heart, where we find ourselves asking important, existential questions about our faith and why God allows suffering to enter our lives:

‘Philosopher Simone Weil writes that a soul in affliction finds it difficult to love anything. It must therefore almost force itself to keep loving God and others “or at least wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself.” If, during affliction, “the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.” So when suffering comes in, God, love, and hope seem unreal to you to begin with, then there is almost no way to do what Weil urges. Suffering will be like a river that sweeps us into despair. However, if our understanding and experience of God’s love was strong to begin with, they can serve as anchors that keep us from being sucked into the whirlpool.

‘If the mind is well-prepared, the coming of adversity will not be a complete shock. But when suffering first hits you, the gap between what you know with the mind and what you can use out of your store of knowledge in your heart can be surprisingly large. When troubles come, you will need God’s help to find the particular insights, consoling thoughts, and wisdom you will need to get you through. Some of these you may have already known intellectually, but God will have to make them real and relevant in a new way. Others you will not have seen before and will have to learn. But that is how you survive. If you are going to get through it all, you will need God being with you, helping you pick your way through by learning, grasping, and cherishing many ideas and truths that become powerful and consoling to you.’

(Pg.199)

By using both the mind and the heart we can become capable of dealing with suffering as God sees fit, see His will and purpose in our suffering, and be ready to handle it in a balanced way.

As GM puts it, pain is God’s way of saying you are still alive. R liked the point about doing the study in the good times so that you have something to hold onto during the bad times. We can see this in the case of Jesus, when He used the scriptures he had learned as a child to help Him during His time in the wilderness.

As to the question concerning how the Bible helps us to handle suffering, we all stated that the scripture we had memorized had helped us during our lives. It is often hard to remember chapter and verse, but you can recognize whether its Paul or John or whoever is writing.

Suffering is not guaranteed to bring good things and we think that it is good that Keller is clear about that. Suffering definitely causes us to stop and think about things. We have life so good that its easy to ignore God so suffering is almost necessary.

To share in His sufferings is to share in His glory (Romans 8:17; 2 Cor.1:5). How do we share in His sufferings? Even if we have just been rejected for our faith we have in some way shared in the sufferings of Jesus. If we are feeling cut off from God, then we’re sharing in suffering of God.

We need to trust God that He will give us the suffering that we need. We don’t need to seek it out, but just accept what comes. We live in the most blessed place in the world. We have it very easy. So that makes us ask this question: What does God want us to do with the riches He has given us?

NOR Skrik, ENG The Scream

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream)

In Chapter Ten, Keller turns his attention to some various forms of suffering. He reiterates the fact that suffering can help us to grow, yet we need to know how to handle the different external factors:

‘Among the other measures we have already addressed, it is critical to recognize the remarkable variety in the Bible’s teaching on pain and adversity. One man is suffering from drug addiction in prison because he attacked and maimed someone in a fit of rage. Another man’s whole life changes when he accidentally kills a seven-year-old boy who suddenly runs out into his car’s path. A young mother with three little children at home is dying of a brain tumor. A family with teenage children is devastated when their father commits suicide. Finally, there are the young parents who just gave birth to a severely impaired child. All of these people are suffering, but the causes and shapes of their pain and anguish are wildly divergent.’

(Pgs.205-206)

Understandably, everyone wants a once-and-for-all cure for whatever they suffer from, but Keller says that is not possible, since we all have different forms of suffering. Fortunately, the Bible has a wide range of people and solutions to deal with suffering:

(a)       Suffering we bring upon ourselves – this is exemplified by the biblical figures Jonah and David because they committed actions that had consequences. In the case of Jonah, he at first refused God’s command to preach to Nineveh, then, when Jonah did so, he was angry at God for forgiving the repentant Ninevites. God, in turn, created a tree to cool Jonah before destroying it, angering the prophet before making him realize that God is just as concerned for Nineveh as Jonah was for the tree. As for David, it was his affair with Bathsheba that God did not approve, thus paving the way for the breakdown of David’s family and kingdom. Keller does not describe this suffering as payment for any particular sins, because Jesus’ atoning death did away with that penalty for sin, however ‘God often appoints some aspect of the brokenness of the world ….. to come into our lives to wake us up and turn to him’ (Pg.208). This was what God did with the suffering of Jonah and David, in order to wake them up to their faults and repent of them.

(b)      Suffering of betrayal – this type of suffering is exemplified by the apostle Paul and the prophet Jeremiah, where, for their dedication to God’s work, they were betrayed, tortured and imprisoned because it upset and angered people who did not want to hear it. This suffering is different from the one described above, which is to correct wrongs in a person’s life. This type is meant to help develop our character: ‘The temptation will be to become bitter and to hide your growing hardness and cruelty under the self-image of being a noble victim. Often confrontation and the pursuit of justice is required, but it must be carried out without the spirit of vengefulness that will allow the experience to turn you into a worse person rather than a better one’ (Pg.210).

(c)       Suffering of loss – this is evident in the account of Mary and Martha when they lost Lazarus. Often the problem of death is that it comes in many varied forms and we need to recognize the right approach to suit the suffering that comes from death. There may be some need for some ‘examination and repentance, or confrontation and forgiveness’ (Pg.211). But, in spite of any differences, we Christians need to turn our attention to the eternal rewards that lie ahead and always remind ourselves of that.

(d)      Suffering of mystery – this is found in the case of Job who lost everything, such as wealth, family and friends. ‘Job’s suffering, then, was not a chastisement or a lesson aimed at changing a particular flaw in Job’s life. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful vehicle for Job’s personal growth and for God’s glory. Job had looked in vain for a specific “lesson,” but the lesson was really a revelation about the whole tenor of his life, and his need to base it fully, with all his heart, on God. However, it was a long, long journey from the beginning to the end of the book of Job, where Job began to see this. And when this kind of mysterious, inexplicable suffering comes upon us, our journey is also a long one. It certainly may entail repentance, forgiveness, and fixing our eyes on our hopes. But Job-type suffering requires a process of honest prayer and crying, the hard work of deliberate trust in God, and what St. Augustine called a re-ordering of our loves’ (Pgs.212-213).

However, there are also internal factors in suffering as well. Keller uses a definition by the philosopher Simone Weil to describe affliction and its five signs. One is “isolation” where the sufferer deliberately puts up a barrier between him-or-herself and other people, which could in turn lead to a change in identity. The second sign is “implosion”, which automatically renders the sufferer incapable of thinking of anything else but his or her pain and ignore everything else. It can even render a person incapable of feeling love and/or concern for anyone else. The third sign is “condemnation” where the sufferer possesses a great degree of guilt towards some action he or she did and make he or she keenly aware of their faults. ‘This sense of condemnation is even persistent in Western cultures, in which all efforts are made to see sufferers as victims and not responsible for it in any way’ (Pg.215). The fourth sign is “anger”, where the sufferer inflicts his or her fury at many things: God, the world, other people, etc. The fifth and final sign is “temptation” where the sufferer is tempted to keep his or her pain always in mind and even become comfortable with it. It could lead the sufferer to feel either noble for possessing this pain; to allow it to become an ‘excuse for all sorts of behavior or patterns of life you could not otherwise justify’ (Pg.215); or maybe leave the sufferer with a permanent sense of guilt.

The lists of both external and internal factors for suffering may seem a bit daunting. But, for Keller, it does help us to know the difference and enable us to help ourselves as well as others who suffer profusely and help us all out of our despair. It does not give us license to put all sorts of problems under a neat label and it gives us the resources and the patience we need to help anyone who is enduring a particular crisis in his or her life.

Keller talks about different ways to help people who are suffering and shows that a way that helps one person would irritate another. It makes us scared to say anything and perhaps it is better not say anything at all. For example, the length of the book of Job emphasizes how long suffering can go for!

There is also suffering which we can bring on ourselves, so it does not always come from God but from the consequences of our own actions. For example, drug addiction brings the suffering of ill health. We recognize the signs of affliction as ways we deal with suffering. One of us, J, felt despair before she came to Christ but being close to the Lord now brings her out of that despair. Therefore, Jesus replaces despair and He, in turn, gives us security, comfort and hope.

Thank you for spending time with us on Keller’s book! Next time, we will look at Part Three, and discuss the Christian methods to handling suffering. See you then!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

 

Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering – Part One

Previous: Beautiful Outlaw – Part 3

51lVirxQkXL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog. Last time we looked at John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw. Now we’ll turn our attention to a different book: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering by Timothy Keller.

In the introduction Timothy Keller states the reason why he wrote this book is because suffering is everywhere and no matter how hard we try, it will come for us: (t)he loss of loved ones, debilitating and fatal illnesses, personal betrayals, financial reversals, and moral failures – all of these will eventually come upon you if you live out a normal life span. No one is immune’ (Pg.3). Keller quotes from a journalist named Ann Patchet who was describing the “Beltway Sniper”:

‘We are always looking to make some sort of sense out of murder in order to keep at bay: I do not fit the description; I do not live in that town; I would never have gone to that place, known that person. But what happens when there is no description, no place, nobody? Where do we go to find our peace of mind? … 

‘The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol of having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot, not into a crowd but through the sight, reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random.

 ‘And it is absolutely coming.’

(Pgs.2-3)

Keller and his wife Kathy would grow to understand this suffering, through not only the suffering of people whom Keller has ministered to but also through their own personal trials, which led to a “dark night of the soul” for both of them and, in turn, has led Keller to understand suffering, especially in relation to God. For some it was proof of His non-existence, while for others it led to experiencing a greater awareness of Him, which they never had before.

‘Over the years, I also came to realize that adversity did not merely lead people to believe in God’s existence. It pulled those who already believed into a deeper experience of God’s reality, love, and grace. One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction. …. Believers understand many doctrinal truths in the mind, but those truths seldom make the journey down into the heart except through disappointment, failure and loss. As a man who seemed about to lose both his career and his family once said to me, “I always knew, in principle, that ‘Jesus is all you need’ to get through. But you don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

Finally, as I grew in my understanding of the Bible itself, I came to see that the reality of suffering was one of its main themes. … The Bible, therefore, is about suffering as much as it is about anything.’

(Pgs.5-6)

Keller has written this book to provide the reader a way to understand and cope with the topic of suffering.

We were all in agreement with Keller’s premise that at some time in our lives suffering will come to each of us. Whilst suffering may often appear to be ‘random’, GK strongly disagreed that is always so. He pointed out that people can be the cause of their own suffering as a result of their foolish actions or words. GM identified how what we believe in affects our view of suffering. As an example, he referred to the Book of Job, and Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – who each believed that Job was at fault and had caused his own suffering. J said that she had experienced times of intense suffering, and that her trials have helped her to grow in trust and relationship with God, so that He has now become her ‘first port of call’.

We concluded that the reasons for suffering are not always straightforward, especially from our tiny human viewpoint.

We all talked about how much easier it is for Christians to cope with death and pain, compared to non-Christians. While, as GM stated, the statistics for death for everybody are high indeed (100%), because of the sure and certain hope Christians have in Jesus, the prospect of death is much less threatening. ES spoke of losing her husband, saying that whilst it was very sad, the knowledge that she would one day see him again helped her greatly with coping with the loss.

Having written the blog posts on St. John Climacus (The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Introduction), I noticed that he urged his readers to always keep death in mind, especially when it comes to God judging our souls. To quote Ecclesiastes 7: 2 and 4:

‘It is better to go to a house of mourning

than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

the living should take this to heart.’

(v.2)

‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,

but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.’

(v.4)

J mentioned that we are already crucified with Christ (Romans 6:5-7) and she referred to the passage in Romans 5:3-5, which shows that suffering is an expected part of the Christian life: ‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.

NOR Skrik, ENG The Scream

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream)

In Part One, Keller looks at the many responses to suffering in our secular Western culture and the ancient/non-Western cultures in comparison with the Christian worldview. In the ancient/non-Western cultures there are about four different methods of dealing with suffering. In the “moralistic” culture, such as Hinduism, suffering is the result of some misdeed done in a past life and the only way to deal with it is to simply do good in the present life in order to gain a future reward. In the “self-transcendent” culture such as Buddhism suffering is seen as an illusion and the best one can do is to develop a sense of detachment in order to gain enlightenment. In more “fatalistic” cultures such as Islamic cultures, our suffering is a part of destiny or the will of God/gods and therefore all we require is a heroic endurance in the face of it. The fourth culture is dualism, which sees the whole universe divided between good and evil and we need to recognize that, one day, good and light will triumph over evil and darkness and all we need to do is patiently endure our suffering.

All these world-views possess recognition of the supernatural and the idea that our world has a certain order that it adheres to. Suffering is therefore a natural part of the world and can even help us to develop our moral worth. However, the modern Western world does not possess this idea of the supernatural due to the fact that it sees the physical world as the only thing there is. Therefore, in the Western worldview, the only thing we can do is simply be concerned for our personal pleasures and try to avoid suffering as much as possible. In other words the Western world-view moves from a reliance upon a supernatural order to that of man and man alone to do away with suffering:

‘The first (thing we can do to lessen our suffering) is to manage and lessen the pain. And so over the past two generations, most professional services and resources offered to sufferers have move from talking about affliction to discussing stress. They no longer give people ways to endure adversity with patience but instead use a vocabulary drawn from business, psychology, and medicine to enable them to manage, reduce and cope with stress, strain, or trauma. Sufferers are counseled to avoid negative thoughts and to buffer themselves with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships. All the focus is on controlling your responses.

‘The second way to handle suffering in this framework is to look for the cause of the pain and eliminate it. Other cultures see suffering as an inevitable part of the fabric of life because of unseen forces, such as the illusory nature of life or the conflict between good and evil. But our modern culture does not believe in unseen spiritual forces. Suffering always has a material cause and therefore it can in theory be “fixed”. Suffering is often caused by unjust economic and social conditions, bad public policies, broken family patterns, or simply villainous evil parties. The proper response to this is outrage, confrontation of the offending parties, and action to change the conditions.’

(Pg.26)

The Christian worldview differs from all five of these worldviews. Although Christianity does acknowledge the supernatural like the first four worldviews, there are some key differences. Unlike the fatalistic world-view, Christians do not causally accept suffering and can even be permitted to rail against it, and decry it for being unfair. Unlike Buddhism, Christians do not see suffering as an “illusion”. It is very real and therefore an ingrained part of our life. In fact, Jesus Himself underwent kinds of suffering, especially in leading up to the cross. Unlike fatalism, Christians do not see suffering as a part of God’s plan or destiny, it is simply evil and part of our fallen world. This is clear in the life of Jesus as well: ‘As (Max) Scheler writes, the entire Christian faith is centered on “the paragon of the innocent man who freely receives suffering for other’s debts … Suffering … acquires, through the divine quality of the suffering person, a wonderful, new nobility.” ’ In the light of the cross, suffering becomes “purification, not punishment.” (Pg.29). And, unlike dualism, Christians do not see ‘suffering as a means of working off your sinful debts by virtue of the quality of your endurance of pain’ (Pg.29). In contrast to dualism, as well as the other non-Western worldviews, Christianity puts forward grace as a means of salvation:

(T)he Christian understanding of suffering is dominated by the idea of grace. In Christ we have received forgiveness, love and adoption into the family of God. These goods are underserved, and that frees us from the temptation to feel proud of our suffering. But also it is the present enjoyment of those inestimable goods that makes suffering bearable.’

(Pgs.29-30)

As for the modern Western world (which Keller will look at in Chapter Three) Keller agrees that it is right about the fact that there is suffering in the world and that we need to address it. However, Christians also have the Person of Jesus, which can offer us salvation: ‘The example and redemptive work of Jesus Christ incorporates all these insights into a coherent whole and yet transcends them. … While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.’ (Pgs.30-31).

We agree that there is a big difference between the Christian view of suffering and the secular one. According to GM, most Christians in the West have tried to eliminate suffering because they see an imperfect creation that needs God’s help, whereas the secular one is trying hard to take God’s place in deciding to rid the world of suffering. Some people even try to alleviate their suffering by the use of drugs and alcohol. As for atheists they feel like they have to have a say in determining their own fate. J agree with this, saying that secular psychologists use cognitive therapy, which aims to empower people and allow them to take control over their lives. Techniques borrowed from various types of Eastern mysticism and given new titles, such as “mindfulness”, “meditation”, “positive affirmations”, are employed to teach people ways of controlling their mind and thought processes. This contrasts hugely with a psychologist she met later on who is a Christian. This psychologist often referred to Scripture, which enabled J to view her circumstances and suffering in a completely different light. In connection to other life-issues, this psychologist gave Christ-centered advice, which J found invaluable.

And as for Keller’s own summary of the different philosophies in Chapter One, we were impressed with how he summarized them all. Especially the explanation of the peace that Christianity gives, compared to stoicism . We do not need to be tossed around by our emotions all the time but we do need to be able to express emotion.

Paolo_Monti_-_Servizio_fotografico_(Napoli,_1969)_-_BEIC_6353768

Zeno of Citium, Founder of Stoicism, Photo by Paolo Monti, 1969

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism)

In Chapter Two, Keller looks at the history of Christianity’s influence on how the Western world viewed suffering, especially in comparison with both pre-Christian and post-Christian societies. The earlier Greco-Roman philosophy (especially Stoicism) looked at the universe as having a ‘divine rational structure to it called the Logos. They (the Stoics) did not believe the universe is made up strictly of physical matter, but neither did they believe the universe had a God in the sense of a personal God who created and transcended it. … They believed, therefore, that there were moral “absolutes” – right ways of behavior that were in accord with the order of the universe – as well as wrong ways of living that went against its grain.’ (Pg.37). Stoics tried to give reason preeminence over emotion and to avoid being attached to anything in life. To live in the present with no desires or regrets. This is similar to Eastern thought, in particular Buddhism, which believes that we need to be detached from desire in order to avoid suffering.

In contrast, Christianity offered a difference. It offered hope in the life to come: (Philosopher Luc) Ferry says that what human beings want “above all is to be reunited with our loved ones” ’ (Pg.43). All this ties into the belief in the Logos, the Person of Jesus, the fact that we can have a personal relationship with Him and the Hope that He can he give to believers. It was this same hope that allowed early Christians to tend their sick, and to even weep freely at funerals for the loss of a loved one, which was prohibited by Stoicism: ‘Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship. Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions. And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God. … Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace. Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope’ (Pg.44). It was also different from the karmic idea of paying the penalty for sins, because the reasons for suffering are many and various: ‘Some suffering is given in order to chastise and correct a person for wrongful patterns of life (as in the case of Jonah imperiled by the storm), some suffering is given “not to correct past wrongs but to prevent future ones” (write St. Gregory the Great) (as in the case of Joseph sold into slavery), and some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love (as in the case of Job and his suffering)(Pg.47).

It is the Christian concepts of hope in Jesus and on suffering that sustained Western civilization up until the modern era. However, that idea of God’s grace and suffering became lost when the idea of the “Immanent Frame” emerged. This idea is of the world as ‘a completely “ ‘immanent’ world over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.” … Because there is no transcendent, supernatural order outside of me, it is I who determine what I am and who I will be. I do not need to look at anything outside myself in order to know how to live.” ’ (Pg.53).

This rise into this “Immanent Frame” occurred during the 1500s onwards where a superiority in technology and science placed man first and foremost. It did not get rid of a belief in God, just altered it to that of Deism, which separated God from the material universe. This meant that we would be in charge of our destiny and that God created this universe for our benefit. However when a disaster occurs (such as the earthquake at Lisbon) this made us question a belief in a good and all-powerful God and wonder if he exists at all. This has led many Christians today to possess what Keller calls a “residual Christianity” which more or less share the same ideas as Deism, and is greatly challenged when suffering occurs. It is only those who adhere to traditional, orthodox Christianity who are able to understand the concept of suffering in its proper context and not get caught up in the views held by modern secular thought.

As we discussed this we considered that it is arrogant of the Western world to ignore all the religions of the world and to consider that we have got it right. The terms “Immanent Frame” is useful in describing this situation. We all agreed that, in Christianity, suffering has a purpose. R prefers to think that there is meaning in suffering and GM says that atheism, in their efforts to rid the world of suffering, only take so much away. However, we agreed that we should not say to others that their suffering has meaning or purpose. That advice may help us but it is not something we should lay upon others. As for the resurrection, it becomes more of a comfort as our earthly body suffers more aches and pains. As for the secular idea of happiness being our sole aim in life, that is rather individualistic (which is also very selfish) and, in fact, it becomes rather impossible due to the amount of pain and suffering in all our lives.

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Smiley Face

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley)

In Chapter 3, Keller looks at the secular concept of consoling those who suffer. He finds that, in spite of the fact that many people in the Western world do not consider themselves Christians, they still find consolation in traditional religious modes of thought, such as praying for the loss of loved ones. Some atheists such as Susan Jacoby object to this, stating that they cannot believe in the existence of an all-powerful God because of the problem of evil. ‘This escape from the burden of the problem of evil “frees up” the atheist “to concentrate on the fate of the world” ’ (Pg.67) and would encourage greater activism against the suffering in the world as well as a consolation of the fact, that after we die, we become nothing and therefore do not suffer. While Keller admits that secularism is admirable in that agrees with religious thought that there is evil in the world that needs to be combatted, he finds Jacoby’s reasons for people to find consolation in atheism to be a bit “shallow”. First, up until the modern era, religious people had a mindset that helped them cope with evil but it was only when the “Immanent Frame” mindset was adopted that we began to be preoccupied with idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God and the problem of evil. Secondly, in history, many social justice movements were religious, because of the fact that their concerns came from religious ideas and motivations. Thirdly, atheism does not help us determine any final ideas of what would make a just society because there are many different beliefs of what constitutes human freedom being held by different people. Finally, the idea that we cease to exist after we die is pretty inhumane and offering such an idea to someone at the point of death would appear to be rather cruel: (t)he secular consolation that “the dead do not suffer” seems thin in comparison to the Christian consolation of the resurrection’ (Pg.69). The concept that we are more than creatures of flesh and blood is still so persistent that even some dyed-in-the-wool atheists feel greatly moved when participating in a funeral ceremony with religious overtones.

Keller then goes to cite three reasons why secularism does not provide an adequate response to suffering. First, it is based upon a rather simplistic view of suffering and evil: ‘The Western approach (to suffering) oversimplifies the complex causes of suffering, reducing it all to “victimization as the dominant account.” Of course this does account for suffering in many cases. … But plenty of suffering – even much illness – is caused to some degree by the sufferers themselves. Too much of suffering simply doesn’t fit into the straitjacket of Western analysis’ (Pgs.73-74). Other cultures, by contrast, have a way of dealing with suffering that gives a variety of ideas of why suffering happens (ranging from destiny to one’s own personal sin) as well as various ways of how to deal with it. A second objection is that secularism offers a rather naïve optimism in finding happiness in the here and now and that we need to eliminate any suffering that comes our way. But, as we seen, suffering is just too complex an issue to be dealt with in a single stroke, whereas religion can provide consolation in saying that all our problems will be gone when we die and enter the afterlife. Secularism can only look for some future happiness on earth, which, given the amount of suffering at hand, looks very unlikely to be realized.

But perhaps the most jarring criticism to the secular approach at handling suffering is the fact that we lack an “overarching narrative” in our lives: ‘Andrew Delbanco …. says that a cultural narrative must accomplish two things. First, it must give us hope. … Second … the narrative must enable a society to cohere instead of atomize into a million individual parts. It inspires us to put self-interest aside for the community, by delivering “the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self” ’ (Pg.75). Delbanco comments upon how American society evolved from one that was centered around the concepts of God, Nation and Self, and become focused on the concept of individualism which in turn led America away from the worship of a transcendent God to open mockery of it.

In contrast, Keller says that the Christian view of suffering can help offer us two things. First, it can make look at suffering in a new light: ‘Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story. Suffering is the result of our turn away from God, and therefore it was the way through which God himself in Jesus Christ came and rescued us for himself. And how it is how we suffer that comprises one of the main ways we become great and Christlike, holy and happy, and a crucial way we show the world the love and glory of our Savior’ (Pgs.77-78). The second thing is that it gives us a sense of humility in order to cope with suffering. On the one hand, we cannot be passive in the face of evil, yet we must always recognize the fact that for our knowledge and technology, we cannot solve the problem of suffering because it is too complex to be tied down in simple categories. We must use this humility to help grow in an appreciation of what God wants done in our lives, especially when we deal with evil in our lives.

In this chapter we saw that in the modern Western world, happiness has become our ultimate aim, and it is part of a very individualistic worldview. We discussed that happiness in this world is actually impossible to achieve because others impinge on you. It only becomes possible when you turn your focus on something that is much bigger than yourself. As for talking with people when they are suffering, we agreed that you will need to be very careful, and as for talking to people about pain, there is always a danger of become simplistic about their pain. When GM talks about a relation of his who is currently suffering from a life-threatening illness, GM often finds that talking about this suffering often reveals how it is affecting people, especially within GM’s own family. R mentioned the stories of Corrie ten Boom, how her struggles during the Second World War influenced her faith in God throughout this period. In the end, the response to suffering is different for different people, because, for some, it deepens their faith while, for others, it sadly takes it away.

Muller Collection - Dr. W.E. Bok of Pretoria in robes and wig

Dr. Willem Eduard Bok (1880-1956), Lawyer in robe and wig

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawyer)

Finally, in chapter 4, Keller focuses on the problem of evil, especially when atheists object to the existence of God because of suffering. Most Christians, when trying to prove the existence of God in world of suffering, often rely on theodicies, which are a ‘justification of God’s ways to human beings. … A theodicy seeks to give an answer to the big “Why?” question. Its goal is to explain why a just God allows evil to come into existence and to continue. It attempts to reveal the reasons and purposes of God for suffering so listeners will be satisfied that his actions regarding evil and suffering are justified’ (Pg.89). An example is the “soul-making” theodicy, depicting the world as one where God makes us grow and mature into a place of spiritual perfection, or the “free-will” theodicy where humans are depicted as having the ability to choose between good and evil. But Keller says that most theodicies possess problems of logic (the free-will one runs into problems of moral choices and violations of human rights), an inadequate grasp of the biblical understanding of God, and a failure to grasp the many complexities of evil.

He says it would be much better to mount a defense of God in a world of evil and suffering. ‘A defense shies away from trying to tell a full story that reveals God’s purposes in decreeing or allowing evil. A defense simply seeks to prove that the arguments against God from evil fails, that the skeptics have failed to make their case. A defense shows that the existence of evil does not mean God can’t or is unlikely to exist. In making a theodicy, the burden of proof is upon the believer in God. … But in a defense, the burden of proof is upon the skeptic.’ (Pgs.95-96).

One example of an objection to God is the “Noseeums” objection, which is summed like this:

‘1. A truly good God would not want evil to exist; an all-powerful God would not allow evil to exist.

2. Evil exists.

3. Therefore, a God who is both good and powerful cannot exist.’

However, the Christian’s response would be:

‘It may be that someone has a very strong desire for something and is able to obtain this thing, but does not act on this desire – because he has reasons for not doing so that seem to him to outweigh the desirability of the thing … [so] God might have reasons for allowing evil to exist that, in his mind, outweigh the desirability of the non-existence of evil.’

 (Pgs.96-97).

In other words, God has reasons for allowing some evil and suffering to happen in a person’s life in much the same way that a parent and/or teacher has for dealing with a child who would do the right thing: in order to teach that child to AVOID it!

Another argument is the “Boomerang” argument, which says that there cannot be a good God because there is so much suffering in the universe. However, the only fallacy in that argument is the fact there has to be a “moral” reaction to the evil from the skeptic’s point-of-view and the Christian’s defence would be to ask the skeptic why he or she finds some action to be “evil”? This then leaves the skeptic into something of a blind spot because he or she would have to think hard about why he or she possesses these moral feelings. And therefore they would not have any ground for criticizing Christians for believing in such a God.

It is a reliance on defense rather on a theodicy that Keller is encouraging Christians to embrace when it comes to defending our faith in the light of much suffering.

When we had finished this chapter, we all thought that the different theodicies were laid out clearly. We also found it interesting to note how, at first, they seem to be something good until Keller picks them apart. We also found it interesting that the “defences” that Keller provides in this chapter offer an interesting contrast to the theodicies where we turn the attention to the atheists and see how their objections to God stand up.

This led to a further discussion about the atheist worldview. J’s sister, who is an atheist, says that evolution shows what is good or not. However, we discussed that this would lead to us killing off the weak or disabled children. To quote from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “to decrease the surplus population.”

People think that “what is generally thought to be right” is right, but that definition of right changes over time. Unfortunately, this leads to a slippery slope with no absolutes. It is also leads to the issue of removing the supernatural, or God, from everyday life. Once that has been done, there appears to be no justification for morality. Therefore, even though arguments like theodicies and defences may appear to be a waste of time, they are essential on keeping the idea of God in a world of suffering.

To conclude from the first part of Keller’s book so far, we agree that he does a superb job on summing up the Christian view of suffering and the many non-Christian viewpoints that are used to explained. Our only quibble is that this part of the book seems to be a bit dry and technical for those who are just beginning the book. But we do agree that Keller is good at summing up suffering and how both Christians and non-Christians view it.

Join us next time as we look at Part 2 of Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

Beautiful Outlaw – Part 3

Previous: Beautiful Outlaw Part 2

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Outlaw-Experiencing-Extravagant-Personality/dp/1455525707)

Hello, and welcome back to this edition of John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw. Sorry for the delay! As dedicated readers of my blog would know, I was busy this Lent working on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. But now I will look at the final six chapters of Eldredge’s book.

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Book of Common Prayer

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Common_Prayer)

In Chapter 13, Eldredge addresses the issue of how we should love Jesus. He gives us three pointers:

  1. To love Jesus with all that is within you. This is the first and greatest command. Everything else flows from here.
  2. To share your daily life with him; to let him be himself with you. On the beach, at supper, along the road – just as the disciples did.
  3. To allow his life to fill yours, to heal and express itself through yours. There is no other way you can hope to live as he did and show him to others.’

(Pg.140)

In other words, religion should rely less on mere ritual, such as the ones found in Catholic and “High” Anglican, which often put forward barriers that prevent us from having an intimate relationship with Jesus because it makes Him too unapproachable or “holy” for us to reach and more on loving Jesus. Another obstacle that Eldredge wants us to get rid of is that of trying to fellow the ethics and teachings of Jesus without loving Him, which Eldredge likens it to a friend and/or family member who does a lot of chores for someone, yet does not spend enough intimate time with them. Therefore, against both ritual and the legalistic following of Jesus’ teaching, Eldredge says only one thing: love Jesus.

We talked about this issue. One of us, R, feels that we can have a great relationship with God while also using the traditional liturgy. Another member, J, says that praying the daily hours helps her to come into the presence of God. In fact, while Eldredge is critical of relying on liturgy alone for our life with God, we also noticed that he was good with memorizing scripture and something like the Book of Common Prayer is based on scripture, in both its set prayers and the lectionary readings. We do not need to throw the liturgy away. On the other hand, the trap is that following the liturgy can become mechanized or become an idol, so in that case we might need to rethink our relationship to the liturgy and whether or not it hinders our relationship with God. As for the issue of trying to put the ethics of Jesus into practice without loving Him first, we all agreed that it is simply doing it the wrong way around! If we love love Jesus first and our actions will come out of that. We also agree that religiosity will subtly twist us so we get things in the wrong order. In the end, Jesus’ strength is made perfect in our weakness.

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Stained-glass window from Nancy (France)

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window)

In Chapter 14, Eldredge continues telling his readers how to avoid falling into the trap of the religious fog. He tells the story of a woman called Jolie who, after having undergone an abusive past, managed to find intimacy in Jesus even though she felt that she was unworthy of His attention. Instead, she soon found out that He loved her and wanted to bring her into a relationship with Him, which touched Eldredge deeply. This has led him to wonder why others who suffer from the religious fog never hear of these experiences. The answer that Eldredge comes up with is summed up in a parable:

‘One day a man decided to board himself up inside his house.

‘He sealed off the doors, the windows, even the chimney. He left only one opening – the kitchen window – through which anyone wished to speak to him was forced to speak. Fortunately, there were people that still wished to speak to him, so they called on the man at his kitchen window. 

‘Over the years this fellow came to the conclusion that the world was such a place in which people only speak to one another through kitchen windows. He wrote a book in which he argued that human discourse cannot and does not take place in any other way than through kitchen windows.

‘The Kitchen Window School was founded shortly after his death.’

(Pg.154)

Eldredge was making the point that there are ways in which we often miss out the intimacy with Jesus, by making him speak via our kitchen windows, because we are the ones who place limits, either intentionally or unintentionally, which in turn hinders our relationship with Jesus and only gives a partial glimpse of Him. However, there is evidence in Scripture that Jesus can still come down and dine with us if we just ask Him to. Therefore we need to get rid of the fog and the debris that stops Him from coming to us and us receiving Him so we have the full experience.

Among some of the limits we impose on Jesus are our sense of unworthiness (i.e. thinking that we are too sinful to let Jesus into our lives) and feeling angry towards Him for letting some painful event happen. In the case of the former, we need to recognize the fact of our brokenness by simply writing down a series of questions and statements that address this, then inviting Jesus into our lives and allow Him to heal our brokenness. The second case is simply to forgive Jesus for any wrong that we have felt that He has done to us. This act of forgiving Jesus may not exactly lead to a direct answer of why the suffering happened, but hopefully it might lead to a restoration with God and be a means to getting rid of a lot of the barriers that affect this relationship.

We discussed and agreed that there is an element of “kitchen window” in everyone. When things go wrong, we always say “why me?” and we don’t know why. Therefore, we need to remove the blame game and try to do our best to avoid it. Another fact is that we need to always align our will with God no matter how awful everything may seem, and sometimes our perseverance may help to increase our faith.

As for the concept of blaming God and then “forgiving” Him, we had some difficulty in mulling this over because it presupposes that God has done something wrong. It is true, though, that biblical characters like Job often ask the question of why God allows such suffering, so, in a sense, it is a perfectly natural reaction to this situation. I even put forward the question of whether Angry Atheists ever felt this anger against God, and the answer was that maybe their anger came from a place of hurt.

High_Desert_Fog

Fog, in the form of a cloud, descends upon a High Desert community in the United States

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fog)

In Chapter 15, Eldredge goes into more aspects of the “religious fog” and how it threatens to exclude Jesus out of not only our churches but also our very lives. He mentions some examples: ‘My mom went to Catholic school; it made her walk away from church and God. The fruit of that seems pretty clear. A friend went to seminary, gained a theological degree, and lost his faith. (The inside joke is to call seminary “cemetery.” How sick is that?) A good friend was subjected to rigorous Bible classes as a child; she now hates the Bible.’ (Pgs.168-169). In other words, the religious fog, especially with its rules and the various posturing that tend to come with it often distracts and can even prevent people from having a relationship with the real Jesus: ‘A wing nut talking about Jesus does far more damage than fifty atheists’ (Pg.171).

Throughout this chapter, Eldredge posits a series of questions about how to know if the religious fog is really operating in our churches. Such as how things as power displays, religious activity and false reverence can distract us from Jesus, how rule-keeping and even Christian service can often be not so much a case of serving Jesus as either serving the community and/or ourselves, and how a sense of false humility is often invoked when, in reality, Jesus got rid of the need for it because we can now approach Him daily. But the one that Eldredge is most critical about is the idea that it is far better to keep a safe distance between Jesus and us.

Now, on the one hand, it is understandable how this type of piety has evolved because of the “unsettling” nature of Jesus. However, it can threaten to not only limit our encounters with Jesus but also keep Him away from the people outside church. But Eldredge says that all of the events of Jesus’ life on earth were spent outside a religious context and were out there in the secular world and that you are more likely to find Jesus OUTSIDE church than INSIDE one:

‘For heaven’s sake – there are 168 hours in your week. Are you really going to say that the one or two you spend at church are more important to God than the other 166? That’s religious spirit stuff. The spiritual life is meant to be lived out in everyday life. In this sense, Jesus was a very spiritual man, but never a religious one.’ 

(Pg.179)

We were rather puzzled by this term and concept “religious fog”. We thought if it would be more accurate to call it a religious “prod,” which is pushing people away from Jesus. We all agree that Jesus is very important throughout our whole week rather than just at church. We do admit, though, that the church has bad press about being full of really strict rules; when you go in and become a Christian you can see that it is not really about the rules. The Anglican church has, in the past, been very formal but that has changed a lot. We do agree that some Christians do need to get out of religion and into relationship.

We believe, unlike Eldredge , that Jesus Himself was often in a religious space. He may have been critical of the religious authorities in first century Palestine but He still participated in a religious space.

altobello_melone_-_the_road_to_emmaus_-_google_art_project

The Road to Emmaus by Altobello Melone

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Emmaus_appearance)

Moving onto Chapter 16, Eldredge turns from the religious fog to personal encounters with Jesus. He goes through quite a number, ranging from St. Augustine’s conversion to personal encounters with people such as Eldredge’s friend David and Eldredge’s son Sam, who both, prior to their encounters with Jesus, had been going through a period of depression. These encounters Eldredge uses to illustrates not only how Jesus is able to heal them but even how His playfulness is still apparent, especially in the case of Augustine who, despite being a complete and utter bookworm, needed to pick up and read the gospel in order to convert him to Jesus. More interesting is the encounter that David had with Jesus where He uses David’s experience of someone who had made him feel sad (a math and science teacher) in order to lead him (David) to joy and healing. Now, in answer to any objections that such a series of experiences would not seem biblical or even “kosher”, Eldredge simply states that all we have to do is to see Jesus is residing in the life of the person:

‘First. Where does Jesus Christ now reside, in the life of the believer? Inside us; more precisely, in our hearts: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph.3:14-17). So we should expect to experience Christ within us, as well as “with us”, or alongside us. 

‘Next, is there any aspect of our personal history that is beyond the reach of Jesus Christ? Never. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps.139:16). Would the faculty of our memory be a realm beyond the understanding of Jesus Christ, or – more important – beyond his access? No. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb.4:13). So, Jesus within us is also Lord of our memory.

‘Finally, if our relationship with Christ or our witness for him in this world is being hindered because a part of our soul is not yet fully under his loving rule, would Jesus want to address that? Of course he would. Remember his fierce intention.’

(Pg.189)

It is this relationship, with its fierce, tender and even playful aspects, that Eldredge claims we should welcome in our lives and so lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus.

We were touched by these beautiful stories of healing but we would prefer that the opening up of these places of hurt in us would be done in a place where trained counselors and leaders would be present and that there be lots of prayer as well. However, we do agree that there isn’t any one way that God leads. There are different ways, different things and different times for the same person. We also think that we should not rest on your religion, don’t get stuck in a rut, always press on to learn more, experience more, fill more in love with Jesus. But, with Eldredge’s book, we do sense that there is a great deal of American culture present and that one may need to separate that from true spirituality.

 

Transfigurationbloch

The Transfiguration of Jesus by Carl Bloch

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus)

In Chapter 17, Eldredge states that Jesus is Life itself, especially in the fact that He did all sorts of amazing things in His life on earth and the fact that he represents the life that courses through our creation, especially in the case of His miracles. ‘Now for a wonder of wonders – not only do you get Jesus, you get to live his life. Really. Everything you’ve seen here, everything you’ve read about, this life is yours for the asking. That is what Jesus believed.’ (Pg.199). However, in spite of this generous offer, there are people who still get it wrong. They either gain a false humility where everything that is asked for them in the Christian life is optional, or they try to do everything at once and became exhausted in the process. But Eldredge says that we don’t need to either give up on the Christian life or just struggle via our own efforts: all we have to do is simply just repent of our own attempts at self-salvation and rely upon Jesus daily, not just in a lifetime but ALL the time:

‘How do we remain in vital union with him? By loving him, by obeying him, by surrendering more and more and more of ourselves to him. This is how Jesus lived, by the way. He modeled for us a totally surrendered life, a life lived in union with the Father: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing … For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 5:19; 12:49). He came in part to show us how it’s done. All that dynamic life you see coursing through him, he received it as we must do – through ongoing love and dependence upon God.

‘Now, we must give our lives over to him in order to receive his life. Not just once, but as a regular practice. Of course there is more to this than saying a prayer. It would take another book to describe the ways we make ourselves available to his life. We find those practices that help us receive the life of God. Whether it be prayer, worship, silence, sacrament, or the gift of sunshine, sitting beside a stream, music, adventure – we seek out those things that help us to receive the life of God. You have a personal guide now; ask Jesus what to take up and what to set down, so that you might receive his life.

‘By the way, this is the bottom-line test of anything claiming to be of Jesus: Does it bring life? If it doesn’t, drop it like a rattlesnake. And you will find that the religious never, ever brings life. Ever. That is its greatest exposure.’

(Pgs.208-209)

To sum up what Eldredge is saying it is to simply avoid the religious fog, which could lead to either inactivity or too much activity in Jesus’ name without experiencing His presence.

We thought that Eldredge seemed to be against anything that makes Christianity static and dead. He is trying to bring back joy into worshipping Jesus. We do agree that nature is incredible and exuberant in its quality and quantity and that the Creator must be awesome. We also think that Eldredge is trying to shock us out of sitting in church and doing the stuff without really thinking about it. And that is a good thing. We agree that Eldredge’s heart is in the right place in that he is trying to bring us closer to God and also to be real in our relationship with him. Sometimes, however, religious rules are all we can hold onto when we are going through dry times. And the really big anchor is actually church on Sunday. This can keep us in until we’re in a good place again. Also, our emotions cannot be trusted, and therefore having habits like reading the Bible and constant prayer can help us to keep close to our creator even when our emotions have changed.

In the epilogue, Eldredge takes a look at the issue of suffering and a new heaven and a new earth. He says that, while we live in a beautiful world, it is also one caught up in immense suffering. The main concern about suffering is how it separates us from Jesus. On the one hand, Eldredge does not want to diminish the role of suffering in a Christian’s life, on the other hand, he wants us to be careful as well:

‘Be very, very careful and pay attention to how you interpret your suffering. Don’t jump to conclusions. Interpretation is critical. Beware the agreements that you make. This is where the enemy can destroy you. Agreements such as God has abandoned me; it’s my fault; I’ve done something wrong, and a host of others. If you’ve been making these agreements, you will want to break them. They allow a chasm to form between you and your Jesus.’

(Pg.214)

The only answer Eldredge gives to us in our suffering is to simply see a breakthrough, seek Jesus through prayer and allow His sufferings to be shared with our own. Jesus will also comfort us in our pain, allowing it to overflow in our lives.

Another question that Eldredge looks at in the epilogue is this: ‘ “What are you looking forward to with Jesus?” ’ (Pg.216). The answer is that, Eldredge believes we will be spending eternity forever with a playful Jesus. It will not be as those under the religious fog have us see it, as ‘when we die we go to church forever, there to sing hymns for millennia’ (Pg.217). It will be a ‘renewed heavens, a renewed earth. My friends, I hope you understand that we get the entire glorious kingdom back. Sunlight on water; songbirds in a forest; desert sands under moonlight; vineyards just before harvest – Jesus fully intends to restore the glorious world he gave us. Paradise lost; paradise regained. A hundred times over. … I know this beautiful world will be ours again and so will Jesus, and all the time imaginable to play together. Beauty. Intimacy. Adventure. The very things we were given at the dawn of time. But honestly, more than all that, I’m just looking forward to seeing him [Jesus], looking into his eyes, hugging him as Peter did on the beach and not letting go for a very long time.’

(Pgs.217-218)

The only thing that matters for Eldredge is the fact that we should love Jesus more and more and even spread that love to others in our lives. Therefore, everyone will come to know, love and spend eternity with this “beautiful outlaw.”

We looked at this statement in the epilogue and we agree that it has nothing to do with “prosperity gospel”, in fact, it has more to do with Brother Lawrence. The new heavens and the new earth will be better than the old. One of us often wonder how many “Christians” have these misconceptions that Eldredge talks about. Could it be something to do with the “Church of England” Christians only? Here in Australia, at the present moment, one doesn’t go to church unless one wants to but in both England and the US there are many Christians who maybe do not believe in God. And only God knows what people really believe.

Thank you for spending time with our discussions on Eldredge. See you next time when we talk about Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering.

John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw. Faith Words. 2011 (Rep:2013)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering – Part One