The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Jeremiah 17:9
Everybody else but me; everybody else but me
He was talking to those people back in Galilee
Anybody else but me – Don Francisco
The most frightening book that I have ever come across in my life is not one that comes from the pen of Stephen King, Dean Koontz or any one of the many horror writers who earn their living by scaring people out of their wits. No, it is a book with the seemingly boring title Mistakes were Made (but not by me).
Written by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the book is a fascinating study of the way in which human beings refuse to accept information that conflicts with their dearly held beliefs. Conflicting information causes ‘cognitive dissonance’, and the way in which the human brain reduces this mental discomfort is to create blind spots that blocks out the information that causes the dissonance. And so, Tavris and Aronson tell us, we end up deceiving ourselves in order to sustain our mental equilibrium.
This explains why we are attracted to information that confirms our own biases, why we love to play the blame game and why our memories are so highly selective. It also explains why a number of American presidents referred to their own massive blunders by saying ‘mistakes were made’, as though the mistakes made themselves.
The scary thing about the book is that it exposes the reader to the dark mechanisms at work in his (or her) own heart and mind, revealing how wrong we are when we think we are not quite as wrong as others.
I heartily recommend this book to all believers, especially to my fellow recovering Pharisees.
“Dere be two sides to de gospel,” said the old Negro preacher, “de beliebing side, and de behabing side.”
He was right: The gospel has a God side as well as a human side to it. And in case you hadn’t noticed, it is this very fact that has led to theologians wanting to throttle each other for centuries. Was Jesus God or man? Are we saved by divine election or by free choice? What is more important: Grace or works? Or, in the Negro preacher’s words: Beliebing or behabing?
An Age-Old Division
These are but some of the debates, and they all prove an interesting point: Like the ancient Gnostics, we have noticed that there is both a spiritual and a material element to life. But we struggle to work out the relationship between the two. We struggle to understand how they exist together, and, in our efforts to do so, we often embrace the one at the cost of the other.
Diagrammatically, the relationship between the spiritual and the material is oftentimes presented as follows:
According to our diagram, grace represents the spiritual, the higher, the heavenly, the invisible. Nature represents the material or fleshly, the lower, the earthly, the visible. This would put God above the line, and people below the line. The big question is: How do they fit together?
The Gnostics believed that they had found the answer: They reckoned that the lower storey of “nature” was very much like a prison. The spirit or soul of man was being held captive here, and what was needed was some form of “escape”. This escape could only take place by a denial of everything that was “natural” or fleshly. Celibacy, self-castigation and strict dietary rules are some examples of efforts to escape the lower storey of nature.
Had Plato lived in the second century, he might have sued the Gnostics for stealing his ideas. Plato was much concerned with the division between the upper and lower levels of life, and so the term “dualism” is narrowly associated with Platonic thought. Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens is mostly interpreted as presenting the tension between the heavenly and the earthly dimensions: Plato and Aristotle are seen in the center of the picture, with Plato’s finger pointing up and Aristotle’s hand gesturing down. It has often been said that every great Greek philosopher can be seen in the picture. The challenge to understand the relationship between so-called “first causes” and its earthly manifestations was a common one at the time.
The Birth of Christian Dualism
Many years later, these ideas would infiltrate Christianity under the guise of monasticism. It was basically the same old Gnostic idea, heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, with a Christian whitewash over it. It was also a fulfillment of a chilling prophecy that Paul gave to Timothy long before:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5
Along the same lines, Paul wrote to the Colossians:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 16:23
Note that the effort to deny the lower storey of matter, through “severity of the body”, is accompanied by efforts to make manifest the higher spiritual storey, through visions and an obsession with angels.
A Stairway to Heaven
Christian dualism is what you get when you subscribe to a mystical and otherworldly view of spirituality (not in the Barthian but in the Platonic sense). It is rooted in the assumption that our salvation, according to this definition, has come in its fullness and that we can and should live on this planet as super-spiritual beings. Due to the fallenness of our environment, however, we are held prisoners, and thus we dedicate our lives to planning and implementing our escape. This we do by creating various spiritual compartments in our lives that allow us to act out our otherworldliness. We have done so over the centuries, from the early years of Monasticism to that which we call the “full-time ministry” today – the ultimate modern compartment of super-spirituality, and, as such, the object of envy for millions of Christians.
Some of us have crossed the threshold between matter and spirit, between worldliness and divinity, and we live our lives on a different plane.
Dualism and the New Covenant
Of course this is not what the Bible teaches. Christianity is an integrated lifestyle – being in the world, but not of the world. The Old Testament picture of compartmentalised religiosity has been done away with as a result of the dawning of a new, better covenant: A covenant where the Sabbath is no longer restricted to one day of the week, but where it becomes a lifestyle of rest due the finished work of Christ; a lifestyle where the ritual of sacrifice is no longer restricted to certain times and events, but where it becomes a permanent reality in heavenly places; a lifestyle where prayer is no longer something we do only at set times, but something we are admonished to do at all times; a lifestyle where our giving is no longer restricted to one tenth of our income, but to everything we own; a lifestyle where we no longer fast at certain times for certain purposes, but where fasting becomes a lifestyle of continuing sacrifice – where we become the sacrifices, as Paul puts it; a lifestyle were the ministry of the priesthood is no longer limited to a select few, but where each and every believer carries the title of priest; a lifestyle where the art of loving is no longer something we do only where we find those who qualify for our love, such as the image we find of the “neighbor” in the book of Leviticus, but something we do at all times to all people, such as the image we find of the neighbour in the parable of the good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount – where we do not look for a neighbour but we become the neighbour – living a life of love, as Paul instructed the Ephesians; and lastly, a lifestyle where we need not break into the holy of holies because our God is hiding there, but one of continuous fellowship with a God who is with us.
Compartmentalised spirituality has become the great enemy of the church, partly due to its extreme form of godliness and the religious pride it injects, and partly due the excuse it offers the rest of the spiritual plebs for just being the unspiritual creatures they are. The one side of the dualistic coin is legalism, the other side is worldliness – and these two have proven to be the greatest barriers to the life preached by Christ.
Dualists are people who do not realise that the call to discipleship is not a call to “doing” but a call to “becoming”. They do not see that God’s restorative action in our lives took place not because he introduced more or better ritual, but because he introduced the concept of the “new creature”, something unheard of in religion. And by introducing this concept the death of ritual was announced, for ritual no longer served any purpose. We now understand that its only purpose was that of a shadow, a symbol, pointing ahead to the good things that were coming.
The Great “There” Promised by Dualism
Dualism fuels the religious rat race, for it offers a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a higher state of being, an Archimedean point of absolute spirituality. Of course there is no unanimity as to exactly what this state consists of – the only unanimity amongst dualists being their collective discontentment with ordinary humdrum spirituality, and their subsequent desire and efforts to escape from it. And so we are always on our way somewhere, but we never arrive. We are always on a fast train to nowhere, which is why the trip feels great but the destination not. And whether we are chasing revivals, new waves of teaching, apostolic reformations, or whatever, like astronauts we always find ourselves coming back to earth after a season in space – only to begin planning for the next trip.
To use C.S. Lewis’ quip, “we live in the Shadowlands”, forever searching for that glorious spot of sunlight that so constantly evades us, forever searching for a stairway to heaven. Like the Samaritans, we believe our worship will be possible once we have identified the place to do it, and in the process we have created many mountains and even more Jerusalems. Feverishly active as both travelers and tour guides on these pilgrimages, Jesus’ crystal-clear teaching seems to have completely passed us by: “…a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
Spiritual worship is possible worship, for it requires nothing but inner submission to God. It is the only fitting response to Jesus’ unorthodox and earth shattering statement “The kingdom of God is within you”, made to a group of religious separatists who were forever arguing the benefits of tradition, ritual and ceremony. By pointing inward, Jesus once for all settled the debate as to where God’s seat is to be found. An inner kingdom demands an inner response, an inner journey, and an inner kingdom places God within reach of all people. We no longer need to go to the mountain, the mountain has come to us. We are still pilgrims, yes, but our pilgrimage is a spiritual one.
Like the foolish Galatians, we have been bewitched. We who started of with the Spirit have halted in the flesh. Unwilling to accept that there is such a thing as a free meal, we have stubbornly refused to live by manna alone, and instead have slaved away at erecting a golden calf.
What Actually Happened on the Day of Pentecost
As a young Christian, eighteen at the time, I joined a Pentecostal denomination, and it took me nearly another eighteen years to find out what the day of Pentecost was all about. Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense when I think about it in hindsight. For many years I had the notion that the Spirit of God was a vague, impersonal, disembodied vapour who did little more than “energise” people. Certainly no-one ever taught me to believe this in so many words, yet this is what I perceived. In retrospect, it is clear that these beliefs came about as a result of the continual “search” for the Spirit that I observed in my denomination – as if He had disappeared. Phrases and prayers like “Come, Holy Spirit”, “I sense the Spirit of God in this place” and “Allow the Spirit to touch you” all contributed to my belief that the Spirit was far away and hard to find, yet that He appeared at times out of the blue, like a distant uncle popping in for a surprise visit.
Many years later I realised that the Spirit of God is not a force, nor an entity apart from God, but in fact God himself. And this changed my perception of Pentecost. Rather than an outpouring of raw power that had to be repeated over and over again, Pentecost became the day that the God of the heavens came to visit, and stayed. God was finally with us. The Spirit was no longer restricted to the holy of holies, but now made his dwelling with men and women. In order to become spiritual worshipers, the Spirit was needed, and it was on this glorious day that the Spirit came. It was not the beginning of a new era of successive visits and outpourings, but the birth of spiritual worship – a continuous relationship with the God who is with us.
And, as you would guess, it was the day that dualism died.
In his classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen offers some penetrating insights into the symbolism behind the younger son’s departure. He says: “Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. It is a denial that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”
The prodigal son experienced what we would call today an “identity crisis”, a term coined by the sociologist Eric Erikson to describe that period in our teens when we struggle to dissociate ourselves from our parents with the hope of forming a secure identity. This explains the turbulence of those years. We are like strangers in a storm looking for the bridge that will take us to adulthood and safety.
The prodigal tried to solve his particular crisis by dreaming of a “distant country” where he believed he would discover himself. He had not come to terms with the fact that he was the beloved of the father, and that this constituted his identity. Instead, he chose to be defined by the world.
In his book Nouwen draws a striking parallel between the prodigal’s fantasies and the temptations of Christ. Satan offered Christ instant gratification, worldly treasures and the acclaim of the people – a shortcut to self actualisation. Yet Christ resisted these: He had just heard the voice of his Father, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
These words tell us who we are and where our true home is. When we are in touch with our sonship, as Christ was, we become immune to the onslaughts of the tempter.
I bow my knees before the Father… that you may have strength to comprehend… the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19
The “fullness of God” is a subject that has been receiving a lot of airtime lately. Everyone wants to be full of the Lord, it seems.
The problem is that not everyone agrees on how to receive this fullness. Some think they need an evangelist to pray for them during a revival service and shout “Fill!” Others retreat to a quiet place, such as nature, and spend time in deep contemplation before the Lord, waiting to receive the Spirit’s fullness. Others believe that the Lord only fills the obedient, and so they try to live blamelessly. And so on.
Whilst all of the above may be perfectly legitimate expressions of Christian devotion, the Bible portrays the fullness of God differently. According to Paul, a Christian can only be “filled with all the fullness of God” as the result of a profound revelation: The comprehension of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love.
To know this love, Paul says, surpasses knowledge. It cannot be taught in a classroom, studied at a seminary or learned during a clever sermon. The lover does not use messengers. He himself wants to say to the beloved “I love you.” This explains why Paul does not lecture the Ephesians on this topic, but prays to God that he will reveal it to them.
The Bible is a divine love story. The good news is that you are the bride on whom the Bridegroom wants to bestow his love, and herein lies your fullness.
I went for a bike ride this morning and ended up sipping a hot cuppa in the corner of a delightful coffee shop. What a blessing to enjoy God’s goodness and beauty in the small things of life! Truly, he is everywhere if we would only look.
As I paged through the day’s paper my eyes fell on a quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Success does not lead to happiness, happiness leads to success.” How true.
It took me many years to discover that God’s perfection is best expressed in humanity’s contentment. (By the way, this has been a cornerstone of many Christians’ theological understanding long before John Piper was born, and you most certainly do not need to be a Calvinist to grasp it!) Our satisfaction testifies to the sufficiency of God’s grace, to put it differently. This means that Christians are meant to be truly happy people. It also means that if you are not truly happy, you are missing some pieces of your theological puzzle or its application to your life.
Perhaps a personal reference would be in order here. I came into this world with an inexplicable melancholia that ended up haunting me on a near daily basis. This continued for many years after my conversion. I eventually concluded (rather prideful, I should add), that the hollow emptiness at the core of my being was the downside of my artistic and bookish inclinations. And so I imagined myself as being in the same band as Hemmingway, Churchill and all the tortured poets who constantly had to fight their suicidal tendencies.
I was mistaken. My “impenetrable fog”, as Abe Lincoln used to refer to his depression, vanished when the sun of God’s love shone over it. And in its stead an indescribable joy bubbled up from deep within. I was no tortured genius. I was a poor lost soul who took way too long to grasp the central message of the Bible, namely that God loves me just as (JUST AS, get it?) he loves Christ. When that penny dropped my years of theological training, articles I had written, sermons I had preached and theological battles I had fought underwent a baptism of mammoth proportions. And what emerged was… new. Very new. In fact, so new that it appeared to be a different gospel to the one that I had been spreading for many years. Paul put it well: It all amounted to nothing because it was not based on love.
The man who writes these words is now a very, very happy man. I am indeed obsessed with the love of God. I sleep it, drink it, think it, talk it, preach it. This discovery has been my treasure in the field, and I gladly rid myself of everything in order to buy the field and unearth the treasure. And what a treasure it is! I have subsequently discovered that the two greatest motivators on planet earth, fear and fullness (or happiness, if you wish), are directly linked to the love of God, the former negatively and the latter positively. I have discovered even more, much more than I can ever share with words. This chest has no bottom. Truly, the love of God is beyond description. It is as infinite as God is infinite, for God is love. And if all else pass away, love will remain… and remain… and remain…
I dedicated my weekly newspaper column to this glorious truth. As it will only be out tomorrow, I cannot post it yet. But I will do so the moment it hits the streets.
I always enjoy ‘light-bulb’ jokes and usually make an effort to remember them. My favourite ones have to do with church people:
How many Reformed Christians does it take to change a light-bulb?
As many as is needed to write a treatise on the theology of changing light-bulbs.
How many Charismatics does it take to change a light-bulb?
Seven. One to change the bulb and six to share the experience.
How many Fundamentalists does it take to change a light-bulb?
Change? Are you out of your mind?
You may smile, but these jokes convey an important truth. Different religious movements are usually known by the particular truths they tend to emphasise.
Throughout the ages certain denominations have excelled in the study of the Scriptures as well as in expository preaching and teaching, and they have been used of God to supply the church with mind-boggling volumes of rock solid theology. Others have emphasised a vibrant and personal relationship with God, and they have been used of God to fire up the hearts of God’s people. Still others have emphasised the fact that Christians are called to be holy and separate, and they have been used of God to resist the spirit of the age as it constantly seeks to infiltrate the church.
Who is right? Clearly they all are. We need the one as much as we need the other. We need the head, the heart and the hand. We need the thinkers, the feelers and the doers. Or, as Jesus instructed us, we need to love God with all our mind, all our heart and all our strength.
The challenge for Christians is to integrate all three these dimensions of our faith. Choose one at the expense of the others and you run the risk of ending up with intellectualism, fanaticism or pharisaism.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark 9:5
Peter’s awkward suggestion to put up three shelters on the mount of transfiguration presents us with a striking metaphor of our human tendency to try and capture the glory of God. It teaches us that God not only reveals himself to us in extraordinary ways at times, but also that we find it exceedingly difficult to deal with such revelations.
The history of the Christian church contains a number of remarkable and exceptional accounts of God’s intervention in human lives and churches. More than one supernatural incident has been reported by eye witnesses of the great revivals of previous centuries, and also by biographers of John Wesley, Andrew Murray and others.
However, church history also records that for every transfiguration a cluster of shelters is left behind. When the glory departs the shelters remain as hollow shrines – grim testimonies of our doomed efforts to prolong divine visitations, or even fabricate them.
These shelters come in many shapes and sizes, and usually differ from denomination to denomination. What they have in common is the underlying assumption that we are responsible to house the Spirit of God somehow, to make him stay with us, to possess and own him. We can try and do so by containing God in our creeds, in the imagery and statues of our buildings, or by scheduling healings and miracles as though God’s power is a magic at our disposal.
Let us remind ourselves that Jesus once likened the work of the Spirit to the wind, blowing when and where it wishes. We can capture God’s sovereign Spirit no more than we can catch the wind.