The Sting of Death

Death.

We don’t really like thinking about it too much do we? I know I don’t.

I also feel that as a Christian death becomes even more complicated to deal with. The belief in eternal life makes the idea of death difficult to know how to react to. I believe it, but have a hard time echoing Hosea 13:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55.

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

To tell the truth, even though I believe in the idea of eternal life, death still stings quite a bit. Part of this is just the fact that even though eternal life is available, we don’t really know the ins and outs of who will be granted it. We aren’t the judge of that, God is. People we may think are in, may not be. The opposite could be true as well. It presents an uncomfortable unknown.

Death also stings because you have to deal with missing the loved ones who have died. Even if there is the idea that one day you will meet again, the reality is that you still miss them here and now. It’s been hard in our lives to move past the death of my grandmother at the end of last year.

It’s hard in the getting used to planning and doing family gatherings without here. It’s hard when you realize that you’re able to move on even though she’s no longer there. It’s hard when you hear your four year old brings it up every once in awhile and realizing it had a larger impact on him than you have realized.

This aspect of death has also been the topic even in a book and show that I’ve been watching. I’ve been making my way through Wizard and Glass the fourth book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and it is largely an extended flashback of the main character, Roland,  recounting the loss of his one true love. Even though her death was a long time ago, it still haunts Roland. Part of this is because he blames himself, but I don’t think it is all of it.

Another source of my thinking about death lately has been the anime Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day. This story is about a group of childhood friends and how the accidental death of one of them ten years ago has impacted this group. The friends have largely all drifted apart and are dealing with the pain, guilt, and grief of this incident in different ways. It’s a sad story that shows that the sting of death can have deep roots.

So I feel I live in tension with death. On the one hand I do believe it is something that has been overcome. That God has sent the means to overcome it and that this way is available to anyone. On the other hand, death is still painful. Death is still hard to deal with and the loss of loved ones is not easily glossed over. It can leave scars for long after the actual loss. This tension is not a particularly comfortable one, but it is where I am regarding death.

Trying to Pin Down Humility

Pride was the focus of one of my posts last week, and I said that I would focus on humility for this week. To be honest I find humility much harder to pin down than I do pride, even with its somewhat complicated nature. This is because humility has often been defined and modeled in very different fashions in my life. It also doesn’t help that while the Bible speaks of and promotes humility as a virtue, it doesn’t directly present a guidebook on how to be humble.

For a bit too long I thought of humility as thinking poorly of oneself. This way of looking at humility was to believe that you were not worth a whole lot and that your only worth was ultimately found in God working through you. I’ve since changed my opinions on this. While I do believe that our ultimate worth is in following and allowing God to work in your life, I also believe that we all have intrinsic worth as humans made in God’s image and by being loved by God even though we were enemies.

This type of humility is rather bleak. It can even lead for us to think too much of ourselves because we are always the cause of every misfortune and disaster. It was because we were worthless that things went wrong in our lives, and that is not a very healthy view to hold.

There are also those who want to present humility as not really thinking about yourself at all. Peter Kreeft in his book Back to Virtue presents a view like this by saying that humility, “isn’t so much thinking about yourself in a low way but not thinking of yourself at all.” This also seems to be a view taken by Tim Keller. In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness he says this, “…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

While I think I understand what these attempts are getting at, they seem insufficient to me. The idea of self-forgetfulness seems to be too much of a reaction to the view where humility is always thinking of yourself negatively. We cannot help but think of ourselves at times. One could say that thinking of our needs is a way to keep ourselves alive. Also, what do we do with ideas like self-reflection or evaluation? Isn’t there a need to think of ourselves to some degree? Done properly, thinking of yourself would not be a hindrance to humility or a road to pride.

So with these definitions of humility seeming to come up short, in my mind anyhow, my thoughts have been led into a slightly different direction. To me humility, and particularly Christian humility, seems to be about understanding one’s proper position. This position changes depending upon whether we are relating to God or to the fellow men and women around us.

In terms of being humble before God, the Bible seems to indicate that humility is exemplified in understanding the fact that we are not equal to or over God, but that God is over us. A brief example of this is in Genesis 18:27 where Abraham in an exchange with God says, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Here Abraham is understanding that his position compared to God is lower. Using language that would bring up echoes of the creation story, Abraham is highlighting his understanding of the creator being over creation. This isn’t stopping him from questioning God or anything, but Abraham knows his place while doing it.

There are other examples that could be used like how Deuteronomy 8:2-3 uses humility that highlights following God’s commandments and relying on God for certain provisions. It again presents the idea that people are not equal to God, but rather subject to God. Rejection of this setup is considered sinful, because humanity is trying to be equal to or over God.

Humility has different nuances when we are relating with other humans. In this case humility is the understanding that we are all equal even in our diversity. I’ll give a couple examples of this. To take a direct verse we’ll look at 1 Peter 5:5, which says,“In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,“’God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”

Now one may expect that with the idea of the younger submitting to the elders that humility would be on the shoulders of the young, but that doesn’t seem to be what follows. Instead a call for everyone, I’m assuming both elder and younger, are to be humble towards one another. To me this presents the idea that while there may be some hierarchy to follow in certain cases, true humility is the understanding of each of us all having a different combination of weaknesses, sins, strengths, gifts, and a united dependence upon the forgiveness, love, and grace of God.

I think this is what is on display in 1 Corinthians when Paul is talking about the body of Christ. Some people within the church at Corinth were starting to view certain gifts as higher than others. This was leading to pride among some of the members, who believed that they were better than others with so-called lesser gifts. Pride also seemed to follow along economic lines as well as the rich were abusing the communion to the point of drunkenness while the poor had little to nothing to eat and were left hungry.

Yet Paul lays out the idea of the body of Christ. It is a model that displays one of unity and equality, we are all part of the same body. However, at the same time it is a model of diversity as well. In a body there are many different parts doing different things. We will all have different gifts, personalities and talents to bring to the kingdom of God. It is not prudent to expect that everyone within the faith would have the same gifts, talents, interests, and personalities. We can all be quite different, but even in our differences there is to be an equality and unity.

This is also true in a more negative way too. We all have our own sins and struggles that we face. They will not always be the same struggles and sins, but they all require us to repent and draw near to the grace and love of God. It’s easy to look down on the sins of others, especially if they are not our particular sins, but just because the sins and shortcomings may be different they do not place us as better off.

We are all on a level playing field in that regard. We are all in the need of daily grace and forgiveness. Due to our great need for this grace, I would hope our desire would be to display it to those around us as well no matter where they may be in life.

So this is what humility looks like to me in the Christian life. It is twofold. One part is focused on our position with God and recognizing that we are not equal to or over God. This doesn’t mean that we may never question God or display doubt, but simply that we have a proper understanding of the relationship between creator and creation.

The second part of humility is recognizing the equality that we have with one another. Whether we are looking at our sins or our gifts and talents, there is an equality in both. We may not all struggle with the same sins or have the same abilities, but we share a need for grace and we can’t do everything ourselves no matter how gifted we may be.

This is the basic view of humility I’ve attached myself to over the years. I feel like I could write more, but we’re already getting a bit lengthy. Next week I plan to look at some of the practical outworkings of pride and humility in a church setting. Until then what do you think of this definition of humility? Feel free to add any insights you might have here.

Perfect Balance? Part 2 of 4

This is part 2 of a little series I’m doing on the word balance. I said I don’t have a very good short definition of balance, but that there are three components that are a big part of balance. I want to look at the first of these today. This component is understanding our strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to the idea of balance, I think it is easy to assume that balance means that we all look pretty much the same at the end. This could be part of what gives rise to the balance as perfection idea. If balance is this fixed goal that doesn’t vary between people, then we run into some issues. It’s no wonder people want to toss the idea of balance to the curb. I mean think about these questions: What does this perfect balance that we’re all supposed to attain look like? Who decides? Does one person’s idea of perfect balance equal another person’s idea? With people as varied and diverse as there are in the world do we really think it is even possible to have one final picture of balance for everyone?

I know that there are those out there who think that their way is the only way. They may even try to claim that it is God’s way. I’m not convinced, while I do think that if you associate with following Christ there will be overlap and commonalities in our balance, we’re never going to look exactly alike in our thoughts, passions, pursuits, strengths, and weaknesses. I think taking this into consideration is a large part of thinking about balance. We have to find a way to be balanced even while recognizing that we may come into the picture with certain ways of looking at life, certain strengths, and certain weaknesses.

Part of the difficulty in laying this out though, is that I think balance looks a little bit different depending on what we’re trying to accomplish. Some of these aspects are easier to view as perfection than others. Like so many things it’s a bit more complicated if you really start peeling back layers.

Take something like personality traits. Perfectly balancing something like those would be more difficult, unless your personality lends itself to being balanced in the first place. Let’s use the example of extrovert and introvert. In the Myers-brigs tests that I’ve taken recently I tend to be rather balanced on this area with a very very slight lean towards introversion like 1% was given on the most recent test I took a few weeks ago. My wife on the other hand is extremely introverted. Just not having time to herself even from the kids or me can lead her to be very drained. I think these aspects are very hard to change, and that balance isn’t so much changing yourself, but understanding your limits and maybe trying to push them every so often.

For the introvert it may mean being willing to put yourself in social situations more than you would be inclined to. For the extrovert it may be to take time for self-reflection and spending time alone. For one who tends to be in the middle perhaps it means to include both and not neglect one side in favor of the other. The struggle here though is that each person is going to look a bit different even if they are trying to seek their own balance. The extreme introvert and extrovert will have different sets of challenges and may never be very comfortable doing what goes against their personality. I think as you go to more moderate and negligible degrees of introversion and extroversion the challenges again shift depending, but that at the end nobody will look quite the same but can still achieve a personal balance.

This may be true of a number of strengths and weaknesses that may be connected to our personality. We may tend to be organized or disorganized; logical or emotional; analytical or creative. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses, and we may be able to take steps to balance ourselves out. Even though one side might come a little more naturally, I think that if we understand strengths and weaknesses of these positions at least for us it can help us develop, at least a little bit of, the trait that we may be lacking.

There is an aspect to this understanding of our personal strengths and weaknesses that is helpful internally, but also externally. If we’re able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses, we may be able to adjust ourselves even a little to minimizing those weaknesses, or if not that, at least acknowledge where we are weak at. However, it also helps us externally, because if we understand our traits as having strengths and weaknesses we may just be able to view other people as having traits that are both positive and negative in nature. As such being an introvert isn’t a bad thing, it just has it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses. Being an extrovert isn’t wrong either, but again just has it’s own array of challenges and rewards.

If we’re able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of who we are and who those around us are, we can take balance beyond just a personal ethic, to a community ethic of a group that is able to overcome weaknesses because they are full of people who have different personalities, gifting, and interests. This can allow for a group to function in ways that one individual cannot. I believe it is this kind of idea that is presented in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

It is this picture of the body of Christ that comes to mind as I think about this external balance. A balance that understands our own place in a bigger picture, that appreciates those who are different than us, and also understands the limitations of our own abilities. We can’t all be eyes, hands, or feet, but that we are needed, and that just because someone isn’t the same as us doesn’t mean they are less needed either.

So this is a just a sketch of how knowing our strengths and weaknesses relates to balance for me. I’ll admit this post was hard for me to get out and took a bit longer than I anticipated. This is by no means an exhaustive post, but I hope it gives enough that you get what I’m trying to get at. The next component that I’ll be looking at is how tension is involved with my view of balance.

So what do you think? Does what I said makes sense? Do you have any push back? Feel free to leave comments below.

The Power of Empathy

It was either last week or the week before that I saw a story that talked of a personal trainer who planned on gaining a significant amount of weight and then proceed to lose it back. He wound up gaining seventy pounds before losing that seventy pounds back off. He has a website/blog that talks about his process and such at fit2fat2fit.com. What really strikes me though as you start from the top of the page is his slogan, “Personal trainer gains 70 pounds to empathize with the overweight.” He’s not giving the reason as doing it just to see if he could, but the reason is a word that I don’t think we see used very often, or even if we see or hear it used we don’t see it modeled.. He wanted to be able to put himself in the shoes of those who were overweight. I imagine that few people would put themselves in such a position.

Now I’m honestly not sure if empathy is necessarily a value of the culture. If it is I’d say we often desire empathy from others rather than giving it too much.  I could be wrong on that, but that’s just my observation. I can understand that from the culture. However, I wonder if empathy should be missing as much as it seems to be among Christians. If the book of Hebrews is to be believed we are claiming to follow the One who did the greatest act of empathy ever. Hebrews 2:17-18 says that, “For this very reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” So you can easily say that Jesus becoming fully human in order to die and save is the ultimate act of empathy. God didn’t just become human to see if he could, but it was so that He knew directly the temptations and sufferings of us. He literally put Himself in our shoes.

If this is the reality are we also called to be empathic to those around us? Was it just something that Christ was to do and we don’t have to worry about it? Paul’s discussion on becoming all things to all people seems in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 indicates a call to empathy. To have an attitude that is willing and able to look at things from a different perspective is encouraged by Paul. We may not be able to do this perfectly, but I do think than an attitude that desires to love others and understand where they’re coming from is important to our witness as Christians.

As I’ve thought about this one image comes to mind. This image is from my first time going to a Sunday morning worship service. I was intensely nervous. I do not sweat much normally, but I was sweating that morning. I had little to no experience in church, popular thought said that Christians are nothing but mean-spirited hypocrites and I was worried that I would draw the ire of that crowd. I worried about what I was wearing, if I was doing things right, you name it and I was probably worrying about it.

I’m not sure if everyone who goes to the church for the first time is necessarily that worried, but I wonder if we ever think about those people who wander in for the first time? Do we assume that they know about what we do on Sunday mornings? Do we judge them because of what they wear or if they don’t fit the mold of who we want sitting in the pews on a Sunday? Do we remember what it was like the first time we ever set foot in the church? If we grew up in the church, do we realize that many people do not grow up in the church and will be different than we are?

Honestly I think many Christians have a hard time being empathic with each other. Preference seems to be a ruling tenant of the church, at least in the United States. We tend to identify ourselves by our divisions with other believers instead of the shared and we often lack patience and understanding with those who are different. In worse cases we even lack love towards those who are different. I’m not even talking here about differences that take out of the orthodox Christian faith, so it is no wonder that I think we lack empathy for those who are not Christian. We struggle to have empathy and love with those who share a common center, it is no wonder then that we find it even more difficult to be empathetic to those who don’t come from that center.

For the most part I think that this is not intentional. It isn’t that we want to be thoughtless towards our brothers and sisters in Christ or nonbelievers, but I think it is actually that we just can’t get past ourselves enough to even get to that point. Let me take the example out of the church and back to the story that I started with.

Imagine you are a personal trainer like in the story above. Now I’m not a personal trainer nor do I have extensive knowledge of personal training, but I would imagine that those who do it are well versed in the fitness world and are probably in pretty good shape themselves. Maybe they’ve been people that have exercised and been in shape their whole lives or they are people who became interested in fitness at some point and wanted to help others with it. Now if the trainer has no idea or forgets how hard it is to get into shape when you are overweight or out of shape it could be frustrating for all parties involved as the journey toward fitness begins. If the trainer simply focuses on their own experience of being fit their entire lives, or their current experience of fitness even if they weren’t in shape at one point then I would imagine that could cause a rift between trainer and trainee. However, if one were able to gain firsthand knowledge of how difficult it was to get in shape from being overweight and remember it, it could help the trainer relate to the trainee better as well as help the trainee by both letting them know that what they’re experiencing is normal, but also how best to overcome these difficulties.

When you take this analogy back to the church, admittedly, it doesn’t fit perfectly, because it isn’t quite as simple as gaining weight and losing it back off. However, my point is we can easily get focused on ourselves. We get focused on our preferences that have developed over a lifetime of going to church or from adjusting to the church culture and forgetting what it was like coming into that environment as a young believer or even a nonbeliever. We expect those who come and be a part of our congregation on a Sunday morning to have it together, to look a certain way, or to know what is going on. Even when we don’t expect that right away, I think at some point we’ll expect them to assimilate to our preferences. We often do this without really even getting to know people and where they come from. We want people to come and fit into our preferences, but this just isn’t God’s way of doing things.

Both Jesus and Paul present a picture that causes the one who knows more to reach out and practice empathy. For Jesus, it was the Son of God becoming human. There is no bigger way or reaching out than that. Jesus became human so that he could experience the suffering and temptations that humans went through. God did not just wait for us to view things the way that He does, but instead learned firsthand what we as humans experience. Paul talks of being able to relate to different types of people in ways they’ll understand. Paul says that he does this for the sake of the Gospel. Are we willing to use the power of empathy for the Gospel? Are we willing to look at things from the perspective of others as much as we can?  Or do we continue on this path of personal preference and unspoken expectation of assimilation? That path is easier, but I hope that we all learn to look beyond ourselves, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others and ultimately for the sake of the Gospel.

Liberty, Morality, and Moderation: Part 1 – Liberty or Death?

The issues of Liberty, Morality, and Moderation as it relates to being a Christian have been something weighing on my mind the last few weeks. In my experience it seems that people trend towards either liberty or morality in their Christian walk. My purpose here will be to look at both of these positions, the cautions and advantages to each, and to see if a middle ground can exist. For this post the focus is going to be on Christian Liberty.

When Spring hit every year at Geneva College, the Christian Liberal Arts College I graduated from, a great discussion would take place on modesty. The discussion centered on how the girls on campus dressed as the weather got warmer. Now my purpose here isn’t to debate that topic, but one year the argumentation from one of the girls on campus was basically: I’m within my liberty to dress how I want and it isn’t my fault that boys might lust after me, it’s theirs. This set off quite the chain of letters to the editor as various people weighted in on the issue, men and women alike.

Is this an accurate view of Christian liberty? Most of what we know and teach about the idea of Christian liberty comes from the Apostle Paul. Two places to look at are the book of Romans and 1 Corinthians. In Romans a good place to look at is Romans 14. It provides and illustration of two men. One who can eat everything in good conscience and another who only eats vegetables (14:1-2). Both men are warned against looking down or condemning the other man (14:3). Another example is used concerning days that are considered sacred, but the end result is the same to not judge because whatever is being done is being done to the Lord (14:5-8).

Does this mean that there is no restrictions to what we can or can’t do? Well first off, we’re talking about issues that aren’t specifically condemned in Scriptures and upheld in both the Old and New Testaments. This isn’t a card to free license allowing anyone to do whatever they please. Another restriction is to be considerate of your fellow believers. Near a call not to judge one another, there is a call not to put a stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way (14:13). If we are eating something in the presence of someone who is distressed by it, we should not eat it in front of them (14:15). Ultimately the final warning is that the kingdom of God is more than food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (14:17). Therefore the focus is more on doing what is edifying to one’s brother rather than our personal liberty (14:19-21). However, it doesn’t mean we have to view this thing as unclean, but that it may be best to keep it between ourselves and the Lord (14:22-23).

For another reference 1 Corinthians 8 provides a similar discourse only focusing on meat sacrificed to idols. It is shorter than the teaching in Romans 14, but ultimately gives the same message. One of caring about others over our personal liberty and beliefs.

Given these passages, the person above doesn’t seem to have a grasp on Christian liberty. If one doesn’t care about the stumbling of a brother, then it simply becomes an idolatry of self. I can do whatever I want, and if someone has a problem with it that is their fault not mine. That’s not the attitude that Paul presents in these two chapters. Instead Paul is saying that it may be better not to do it at all than to cause someone to stumble. Does that mean that there is no Christian liberty and that we have to abstain if anyone disagrees or stumbles because of it? I don’t think so, simply because there would probably be nothing left that we could do if that was the case. However, I do think that it becomes a matter of showing restraint. We do not do what we feel free to do without knowing the thoughts and struggles of those we are around.

The problem with the idea of Christian liberty as it is often used, is that it doesn’t care about anyone but ourselves. It becomes a legalism of freedom. Where if you don’t feel free to do things that aren’t explicitly prohibited (or sadly in some cases things that are explicitly prohibited)  you are not a strong enough Christian and are only weak and immature or even bigoted and prudish. Ironically enough, it is this view that is actually childish and immature.

Does this mean there is no value to Christian liberty? Is there only warnings and misuse? I don’t think so. As with most things I strive to find a balance. The ability to have liberty in our walk with God on certain issues can be a stumbling block for some, but I also believe it can remove stumbling blocks from others. Those who are scarred from the legalism and strict morality (that goes beyond what Scripture teaches) of the church can see liberty as a new way to perceive Christians and the church. Not only that, but in my experience when you are in a group of Christians who share in the liberties you enjoy and hold, it can be a great joy. In the end it is about proper use and not simply about doing what I want to do. Our liberty can be freeing for some when used around them, but when used around others it can be a crushing weight. We must learn to use caution and know which case it would be before we act on that liberty.