Placing Ourselves Through the Narrow Door

A couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon on Luke 13:22-30. The story seems to be about how many people will seek to be saved, but only a few will actually make it through the narrow door. Now I’m not going to go into the passage too much, but something struck me as I was listening to this sermon. The one preaching usually always places themselves as one who has made it through said narrow door.

It’s strange that we can preach on a passage that says, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to,” and still come from a place from certainty that we are one of those who have entered. Everyone else may be questioned, and in this particular sermon it seemed that everyone else was, but the speaker is exempt. Is it not possible that we are mistaken?

I realize that functionally we all move forward in life with the knowledge and beliefs that we have the best that we can. I don’t think having a continual crisis of belief is healthy, but I wonder that always being certain that we’re “in” is any healthier. It seems to me that this is usually held on to and used as license to dictate who is in and who isn’t.

The ironic thing is that often people who think they’re in, will be excluded by someone else who also thinks they’re in. In a very real sense it doesn’t matter what we think. We can think we’re in and be wrong. We can think other people are out and have them be in. Our perspectives are so limited, only God is able to truly evaluate who is in and out. While we may be able to make educated estimates, there is nothing binding in our proclamations of who is in and who is out.

So where does this leave us? I find myself again drawn to the answer of humility. Humility in our own walk with God as we seek to follow him as best as we are able to. Humility in our interactions with other that displays the grace and love of God to those we may disagree with.

This sounds easy, but can be a very difficult thing to practice. Not everyone will respond to our disagreements, even rooted in humility, with that same grace. We may even be placed outside of the door by our stance. We can also not always do the best in displaying love to those who disagree with us and seek to ostracize them as well.

I guess I have just found myself more skeptical of those who want to set themselves up as the bastion of truth. While some like to point fingers towards conservatives or the religious in general, it seems to be something that many people regardless of their particular label do. We always want to set ourselves up as right and anyone who disagrees as wrong.

This isn’t to say that I have no views on what is right, or what is wrong. It is simply the willingness to admit that my perspective is limited, and that I could very well be wrong. In terms of my faith, I certainly hope I am through that narrow door. I believe in God and rely on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, yet I also know my failings and sin. Even if I am through that narrow door, it does not make me the gatekeeper of that door. There is only one who that door belongs to, and it is not us. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we remembered that.

3 Ways Churches Could Display an Atmosphere of Humility

When we moved back to Pennsylvania about two and half years ago we had to find a new church home. We didn’t particularly enjoy this process, but I remember one of the important aspects of a church being something I vaguely called atmosphere. This idea of atmosphere was more than just music, the seating arrangements, how many people said hello, or the sermon. After awhile I began to think that what I meant by atmosphere was humility.

I’ve talked about pride and humility the last couple weeks. I’ve presented the way that I view the concepts to give a basic understanding of where I’m coming from when I use the words. The truth of the matter is that I think I’ve experienced a lot more pride in churches than I have humility, there have been wonderful exceptions to this, but even in those exceptions pride still reared its ugly head from time to time.

As I’ve realized that humility is probably the most important aspect of a church to me, I wanted to present some practical ideas that I think would help foster an atmosphere of humility. I imagine there are more that could be added and more that could be said about each of these ideas. You may not agree with all of them, but my hope is to at least generate some thoughts about humility and pride in the church.

1. Increased Focus on Common Ground

We all have our pet doctrines and the aspects of our denomination that are distinctive, but I think we have to realize that not everyone who is sitting in the pews is at the same location. I remember visiting a church that stated during the sermon how it was a church that believed in a seven day literal creation. While I understand that is a belief that some people hold regarding Genesis 1, such a proclamation made it seem that unless you believed in that particular view of Genesis 1 you had no real place within the church.

A lot of times it seems like churches or denominations can double down on secondary or even tertiary issues and make them required components of the Christian faith. If you disagree you are viewed as not caring about the Bible, being “liberal”, or just dismissed out of hand. This can be about our view of creation, the end times, baptism, communion. We hold our personal or our denomination’s particular view to be completely correct and unfortunately seem to do a poor job at keeping the pride out of our convictions.

I’m not against people having beliefs about baptism, how creation came about, or the end-times. That’s fine, but I do think there needs to be more humility displayed when we espouse those beliefs. Displaying a knowledge of alternatives without disparaging them would be a simple way around this. I hold particular beliefs myself, but I also know that there are those who disagree with me. If any pastor, church, or denomination believes their specific interpretation is completely perfect, or at least really close, then I can’t help but feel that pride is involved in the equation in unhealthy doses.

I would also say that some kind of bedrock orthodoxy is needed. Personally, creeds like the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed are widely held among many threads of Christianity to create a firm common ground of orthodoxy. This should be where most of our focus in terms of understanding people as Christians or not should be directed to, not on if they believe in millennialism or amillennialism or some other relatively minor issue.

2. Be Prepared for Visitors of Varying Backgrounds

It is kind of easy to tell when you walk into a church that isn’t prepared for visitors. Sadly, of the churches we’ve visited the majority don’t seem to do a great job with visitors. Now pride may not be a reason why a church isn’t prepared for visitors, but I also think that it can be at least part of the problem in some cases.

Not being prepared for visitors can sometimes send the vibe that outsiders aren’t really welcome. Now perhaps the big question is what does it mean to be prepared for visitors? While the specifics may differ from church to church, I can think of a few general things.

First, having some kind of greeter or way to direct people to where they need to go and the things offered on a Sunday Morning can help. This is particularly helpful if you have kids and may need a place to go if the kids get a little rowdy during the service. I remember one visit where even the pastor seemed to have no idea what was available for kids of various ages during the service. This kind of sends a message that we only really care about those who already know what’s going on here. We aren’t really interested in informing new people. It may or may not be true, but it is sent either way.

Second, acknowledging the potential of visitors before/during the service at least in some way. I’m not talking about something like making the visitors wear some kind of label or having them stand during the service. One of my favorite ways I’ve seen this done is something as simple as letting visitors know that they are not expected to give to the church during the offering. Other things like letting visitors know how to give their info to the church, or personal greeting from the pastor before or after the service are other ways.

The last idea I’ll present here is the idea of making the sermon accessible for more than just the insiders of that particular church or denomination. I’m not necessarily talking about entertainment level, but more about content. Do you take the time to define terms that may be difficult for people with little to no church background to comprehend. Is there an acknowledgement of the world outside the church beyond generalized condemnation? A realization that there may be people at different stages of faith and life? If not I think there is a major problem and pride could be a cause of it. Now different sermons may require different things, but if the general trend is this way it is problematic in my mind.

3. Display a Unity Rooted in Love

This may sound like the vaguest idea of displaying humility I’ve presented, but I believe that it is an important one. Like the other ones, this can look a number of different ways and still be displaying humility, but I’ll give some of my own thoughts to make the vague idea seem a bit more concrete.

The main thing I’m getting at here is that there appears to be a love that unites the church, especially if that church is very diverse in any manner. Does your church look like one homogenized group? If that’s the case than your unity may be in love, but it may be a bit easier since you’re all from that same group.

In my view this would require diversity. Now diversity can look a number of different ways. One example could be age diversity. Are there a variety of ages in your congregation or is it predominately older or younger? This to me could be an indicator of an unwillingness to change or an unwillingness to appreciate the work of previous generations. I’ve seen both ends of it, and think that a diverse group that is willing to display diverse preferences can be a loving and humble environment.

This is just one example. There are other kinds of diversity that are possible for this. It could be economic, ethnic, or some other kind of diversity. The same question still remains though no matter what. How do you treat those who are different than you in the church? Does the church cater to the majority or is everyone treated similarly? Are there cliques that exclude certain types of people, while welcoming any newcomers that fit their mold? I don’t think it is wrong that we might have some people as closer friends than others within the church, but it can become a problem if certain groups in a church believe that they are better than other groups.

Churches seem so prone to either chasing the latest fad to stay relevant, or sticking to the traditions loved by the older members of the congregation that the main uniting factors seem to be these particular preferences. Those who attend could just be uniting around their common preferences and it may or may not have anything to do with loving each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This love and unity is the willingness to experience things different than what we may prefer. This may mean unfamiliar songs, different styles of music, or different expressions of faith included in the worship service (like responsive readings, corporate prayer, or confession of a creed).

I’m not calling for a massive free-for-all, but an intentional effort to craft worship services that reflect the variety in the congregation and in turn may encourage more variety. It is being able to see people appreciate the established prayers, songs, and traditions of the past, while also appreciating the new expressions of faith and expressions of faith, old or new, that may be outside of our cultural experience. Sadly, this is something that I have not experienced within many churches.

These are three ways that I thought of that churches could display humility. These certainly aren’t the only things and you may not even agree that these are good ideas. They are ideas that I’ve thought based on my time visiting churches and being a part of churches for longer times. Feel free to comment, push back, or add to any of these ideas. I’m also curious if there are any other ways you think that churches could do better at displaying an atmosphere of humility?

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.

The Vice Nobody Can Escape

“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty of themselves.” What is the vice that C.S. Lewis is talking about here? It is the vice of pride.

Pride is something that I’ve been increasingly interested in as I’ve grown older. Both because it is somewhat complicated, I believe there are both positive and negative aspects to pride, and because pride seems to be one of those things that is commonplace, but as Lewis says, not often identified in ourselves. I’m not even convinced that the bulk of Christians realize their pride all too often.

For whatever reason pride is something that we fail to take very seriously today. Earlier Christians warned of Pride as being the most deadly of the seven deadly sins and the sin which all the others sprung from. Yet, today pride seems to hold a much lower place on the list of sins we care about. As Lewis has stated, we don’t like it when we see it in others, or have been hurt by the pride of others, but that doesn’t necessarily cause us to turn from it ourselves.

So what exactly is pride? Well as I said earlier there is a positive and a negative aspect to pride. On the positive side, which this post is not so much about, it can be a feeling of accomplishment either in yourself or those around you. You can be proud of yourself for cleaning the house or proud of your kids if they did well on a test or behaved well in a trying situation. These are positive examples of pride.

The negative side of pride has been defined by a number of people over the years. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, wrote that pride was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for ones neighbor.” Personally, I like this definition, but I might include apathy and indifference to ones neighbor as well. Pride, in my mind, doesn’t always take an active route. It can manifest in animosity, but it can equally manifest itself in simply not caring about what anyone else thinks beyond yourself or a particular group you may identify with.

I also think that for the Christian, it also takes another dimension. It is about our interactions with God. We can place ourselves over God, in which we simply mold God into a form that is appealing to us. We can show contempt for God maybe by believing we could do a better job with this world than God’s doing. Or we simply show apathy by disconnecting God from having any meaningful impact on our lives at all.

It is sometimes easy to point to a particular group, whether in the church or outside of it, and treat them like they are the source of pride, but the truth is it’s more complicated than that. I’ve certainly run into pride in the church. I’ve heard statements from the pulpit that indicate that if you don’t believe what we do, you don’t have a place here. I’ve seen people make power plays because they believed they were right and were going to use all the power they could muster to get their way no matter what.

I’ve also seen the stories of pride in other churches. Places where saving the pastor’s or church’s reputation was often more important than looking into claims of abuse. Pastor’s whose ego seemed to eclipse the mission of the church they claimed to espouse. It’s there, and we’d be blind and foolish to say that it isn’t.

Yet I’ve also run across pride outside the church as well. There are people with no organized religion who are just as willing to dismiss you if you don’t believe as you do. I’ve seen people who question all authority, at all times, thinking that somehow they’re the only accurate authority.

The point I’m trying to make here is that pride isn’t a product of religion or even a product of a secular culture, it seems to be something that is in us all. It is ultimately even in me. It is ultimately the “vice of which no man in the world is free.” What I would like to see though is that it is a vice we call out a little more, particularly in the church.

Instead of embracing pride so thoroughly, like we seem to do in some corners anyway, it would be nice to see a bit more humility. Of course, humility seems to be something that is much more difficult to define than pride. That’s what I’ll explore a bit next week.

Morality: Friend or Foe to Christianity?

Soon after I became a Christian I remember an exchange that I had in defense of my new found faith. During that exchange I stated that even if what I believe in is wrong it would still help me be a moral person. My line of thought, at that time, was that Christianity at its heart was about making people moral.

Over the years my line of thinking has changed on that. I can certainly see why my young Christian mind viewed things the way it did, but I think that Christianity is about a lot more than simple morality. In fact sometimes I wonder if morality is a friend or a foe to Christianity. That may seem a strange way of putting it to some, but let me explain what I mean.

Let’s first start with the idea of morality as friend to Christianity. This is probably a more comfortable place for many of us to start. I don’t think it is a hard case to make that Christianity is related to morality in a positive way many times. A popular example of this would be the Ten Commandments.

We often view The Ten Commandments as the bedrock of morality in following God. There are ideas in there which are also reflected in our more popular culture, like not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery. In addition to these ideas, there are also a morality, of sorts, that is unique to the Bible which refer to only following God, not taking the Lord’s name in vain and keeping the Sabbath.

These aren’t the only laws that are found within the Old Testament or the Bible as a whole, but it is a fairly well known example that morality is part of following God and is displayed as something that we should strive after. It also displays that following God has it’s own peculiar sort of morality. There are aspects of the morality that would have broad appeal and can be found outside of faith, but at the same time there are parts of this morality that is very unique and focused in on the life of faith.

Moving out of the Old Testament you can still see morality presented as a positive by Jesus and in the Epistles. The Sermon on the Mount often builds off the morality of the Ten Commandments, but seeks to drive things much deeper than the surface. For example Jesus talks about even hating someone as being equivalent to murder in Matthew 5:21-26. He takes something that many people might claim to have never done, like murder, and reveals that even what we’ve been thinking and feeling about other people matters just as much as the actual physical act.

I’m could give you more examples of how morality is positively connected to Christianity, but I think this should be sufficient to lay out some groundwork for that position. What about the idea of morality as an enemy to Christianity? Is there any evidence of that being the case?

I would argue that there is. Even with Jesus’ comments in the Sermon of the Mount, is his equating of hatred to murder, simply to get us to be moral people or is there something else that he is getting at? What if the whole concept was to strip away the idea that we could be moral in the first place? That even if we haven’t murdered someone we may have still broken that commandment in our hearts and minds. Is this simply to get us to control our minds and feelings better? Maybe, but maybe it is showing us that complete morality, at least according to God, will always be out of our reach.

If this is true, this changes the landscape quite a bit. If this is what Jesus is getting at, then if we think we are moral individuals, we are going to have a hard time understanding the need for Jesus in the first place. This is what happened with a few people who Jesus interacted with. They appeared to think that they were moral, but this made them blind to their own need and the limits of their morality.

One such group that seemed to often demonstrate this kind of attitude were the Pharisees. An example of one of these interactions is Mark 2:13-17. Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees were wondering why Jesus was eating with them. Jesus responds to this question by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” I’m not so sure that Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are healthy or righteous, but more that Jesus has come for those who are able to acknowledge their sin and illness.

Another example, although it is slightly more complicated, is the rich young ruler seen in Mark 10:17-27. Here is a man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him to keep the commandments. The man responds by saying that he has kept all of these since he was young. Yet Jesus tells him he lacks one thing, and that he needs to give away all of his wealth and follow him.

Now as I said this is a more complicated situation, but I think we see a situation similar to the Pharisees. I would say the young man is sincere in his question to Jesus, and is also sincere in his belief that he has kept the commandments since he was young. The young ruler also seems to be wealthy and powerful, which has been taken, both then and even now, as signs of God’s favor. Yet, despite all this, Jesus is saying that he still lacks something. Jesus isn’t denying the man’s morality or sincerity, but saying that even with what he has he will not earn eternal life on his own terms.

In these cases, morality seems to be a hindrance to the life of faith. It hinders us from seeing what God is doing around us. We begin to believe that our own efforts are good enough. It can even cause us to view those who don’t share our morality as beneath us. This morality can develop into an illness, even though we think we’re perfectly healthy.

So is morality ultimately a friend or a foe? It honestly seems to me like it can be both. If we begin to think that morality is the goal of the Christian life, like I did when I first became a Christian, then I think it can turn into a quite deadly foe. It will lead us to pride and a reliance on our own efforts. It can lead to judgment and an overall lack of grace to other people.

While morality can become a great foe, I personally think it is impossible to divorce morality from our faith. Striving to be like Christ is a goal put forward to us by the Scriptures, and holds a certain morality inherent in that goal. Yet, at the same time our following of Christ involves two conflicting realities about morality.

One reality is that we should desire to follow the laws and commandments of God. The other is that we are incapable of doing this fully. We have our areas where we may succeed more than others. We also have our own particular struggles. It is here that we need more than just morality, rule following, and our own efforts. What we need is the love and grace of God that Jesus came to demonstrate in its fullest.

If we hold onto that love and grace, then morality can be a great friend to our faith. If the love and grace of God is absent from our faith, then morality can turn into a great foe. One who will burden our own lives under missed expectations, and cause us to be severe to anyone who fails to live up to the standards that we are able to keep.

Depends on What We Mean by “Churchy”

Last week a few people shared a blog posted titled “The Church Is Called to Be Churchy, So Deal With It.” by Samuel Kee. I’ve never read anything by him or even heard of him before this, but since a it was shared by more than just one person I was curious. Upon reading it though I felt somewhat conflicted.

The basic idea of the blog post is that it shouldn’t surprise people that a church is like a church. Which I essentially agree with. However, I still came out of reading the post feeling like it really missed something. That is what people actually mean when they say the word churchy.

The reality is that different people may use the word in vastly different ways. To me the use of a word like churchy is not simply an adjective for a church doing things to be expected of a church like talking about God, Jesus, sin, etc. To me it is more of a descriptor of the attitude of a church. To me using a phrase like churchy would indicate that the particular church looks like a number of negative stereotypes of church. It’s arrogant, inward focused, quick to judge and slow to show mercy, and more about keeping the church “pure” than about loving others.

I grew up without going to church at all. I wasn’t surprised by a church doing things like talking about God, spirituality or the Bible. That is after all what I assumed a church was for in the first place. Now there may be those who use the word churchy to indicate distaste of such things, but I would imagine that many aren’t using that word simply because a Bible was opened and talked about during the service.

This leads to a greater issue underlying the blog post. In the post the author defines the idea of churchy and leaves little room for any other interpretation of what churchy could mean. He then attacks that notion of the church being too churchy in that way and tries to say how silly it is. We’re just supposed to deal with it, as the title says.

The trouble lies in the fact that there may be people who are using churchy in a very different way. This may even be the vast majority of people, but because we’ve defined it in our own way with very little leeway we totally misunderstand and misrepresent the concerns of those using that word. We simply blame it on a watered down Christianity or a secular culture and begin to refute it.

The truth is people may be using it to say that the church feels ingrown, focused on itself, and has very little interest in seeing beyond its own nose. I don’t think we have to be jerks, as the author puts it, to be churchy in this sense. It could be that or it could just be that we’ve grown too comfortable and accustomed our little bubbles that we’ve created and have a great deal of trouble letting anyone else in, all while being perfectly polite.

I don’t think listening to people is just giving into cultural critique. I don’t think doing a better job at understanding what people mean when they say words like churchy can hurt us. Simply telling people to deal with definitions we’ve made and solutions we’ve provided to that definition doesn’t help anyone. Does this mean that churches shouldn’t be places to teach the Bible and worship God? No, but it does mean that we need to be a whole lot more humble about the way we do it.

I do agree with him ultimately that, “To display Jesus is to be the church.” I guess to me displaying Jesus looks a lot more like listening to people and displaying humility than it does telling people to deal with it. We may be trying to tell people to deal with something they aren’t even bringing up and that just makes us look like fools at best and ignorant jerks at worst.

A Symbol of Pride and Fear

The Tower of Babel is not a story I thought could be all too controversial. I thought it was an example of human pride over and against God’s plan. It wasn’t until I read a post earlier this year from Morgan Guyton (actually he had a few where he talked about this story, but I’ll link this one) that this thought of mine was challenged. Admittedly, what he’s doing isn’t trying to give what he thinks about the passage, but more pushing back against an interpretive framework that a number of Christians use to understand the passage.

Now this isn’t to say that I felt his critique was completely accurate, but he did give me things to think about. His thoughts impacted me enough that as I started looking at Genesis 11:1-9, I thought of his posts. As we look at the Tower of Babel story a lot of questions come into view. What is the Tower of Babel about? Is it about human pride? Is God presented as fearful in the text? Is God against human progress or is there something else at work here?

My own thoughts after reading the passage, my two commentaries (Sailhamer and Brueggemann), and Morgan Guyton is that it is still about human pride, but not limited to that. I’d say it is also about our fears and our attempts at control particularly against God’s plans and purposes. I think there are a number of connections in terms of word usage and themes that make it hard to not take it as a negative setup. With this said I think it is possible to hold this without making God fearful of or against all human progress or urban life.

So let’s take a look at some of the word connections shall we? John H. Sailhamer likes to point out the significance of east. For whatever reason, and I’m not exactly sure why it is, Genesis doesn’t seem to like eastward movement. After Adam and Eve sin they are kicked out of Eden and move east. When Cain kills Abel he is exiled to the east. So the inclusion of eastward movement here should be noticed. It can give us a hint that we’re not talking about positive activity. Alone it may not be enough, but that’s not all.

Walter Brueggemann brings attention to the word scattered. His focus is that scattering is not necessarily a bad thing and would align with God’s decree in Genesis 1:28 for humanity to “fill the earth.” If this is the case then one of the reasons for building the tower begins to be a bit suspect. In Genesis 11:4 the people say, “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Part of the reason for the building of this tower is to resist the idea of scattering or filling of the whole earth.

There is one more word that is often brought up when talking about this passage, and that is the word “name.” Before the people start talking about not wanting to be scattered, they talk about making a name for themselves. Now this may not seem too terrible, but if resisting scattering is to contrast the scattering and world filling action that God desires, than this making of a name is achieved by directly resisting what God desires.

This is especially contrasting with what we’ll see with Abraham in Genesis 12 where it is God who will make Abraham’s name great. It is not Abraham making his name great through his own plans, but by following and trusting in God and having God make his name great. So I would say that the making of ones name here is not a positive thing. I wouldn’t say that this is because God is against all human progress, but it appears that the name making that is happening at Babel is contrary to the scattering and world filling intentions God has with creation.

So I think that we are being led to view this situation as a negative one. The building of the tower to the heavens is an attempt to make a name for those who built it and dwelt there, but also in order to stop the people from scattering. While the common charge of pride may require a bit more work than a surface reading, I do think it is there. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that pride is the only reason for the building of this tower. Fear is another one.

Brueggemann puts it this way, “the fear of scattering expressed in 11:4 is resistance to God’s purpose for Creation. The peoples do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity.”I think this is a fear that many of us can understand. We often gravitate towards to those who are like us and either proceed with a hefty amount of wariness or disdain for those who are not. In some churches the idea of the homogenous unit has been used as a way to foster church growth. We are often accepted or rejected by certain groups based on our views on certain issues.

Even for those who may speak of unity, it is a hard thing to actually practice when we run into people who may be very different than us. This can be borne of pride (our views on everything are always right, we have no time for those who are wrong) or out of fear (those who are different than us may dislike, disapprove, reject, or just be different than us). We don’t want to scatter because we may run into people who are different, people who don’t fit into our comfortable homogeneity, people who maybe even dislike us. So we gather and build our towers to the heavens and huddle together even when it goes against God’s mission, purpose, and desire.

Now if this is the reasoning of the people who built the tower, then God’s disapproval doesn’t seem so strange. God isn’t worried because people are building a tower that will intrude upon Heaven. Now it is a bit curious that God is presented here as saying “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” but this is really only a problem if you have to read it completely literally, which is what Morgan Guyton was particularly critiquing, at least if I read him correctly.

We as humans are capable of great things when we work together. When that effort is unified with God and his ways then I imagine God has little issue with that kind of progress. When the focus is on doing what we want regardless of what God has to do with it, then should we be too surprised that God may disapprove? I don’t really think so.

Now this leads us to God’s supposed punishment in the first place. If God’s desire is to have the people spread over the whole earth, then his punishment loses a bit of an edge. It is more in line with the idea of getting people to spread out. If people are going to huddle together in their homogenous groups unwilling and afraid to spread out over the earth then he will confuse their language and scatter them himself. Not just as punishment, but as a way for the people to fill the land.

So all this to say I still think that the Tower of Babel story is a story where the human agents are viewed with negative intent. The Tower of Babel is a symbol of pride and fear. A pride and fear that causes us to trust in the names we make for ourselves rather than God. A pride and fear that leads us to band together in our sameness so we don’t have to be scattered around and interact with those different than us. How many churches, organizations, causes, and groups are these same symbols of pride and fear today? I’m pretty sure that there are more than we’d like to admit. We shouldn’t be too surprised if God scatters us when we’ve made our own towers like this.

Underestimating Pride

“Do you think that we underestimate pride?” This was a question that I posed to my wife, Kristen, the other day. It was a question that was more brought about by inner thoughts than it was from the conversation that we were having. Asking such questions unprovoked was not an unusual occurrence for me, and Kristen reacted in her normal way. She simply looked at me in a way that said “Where did that come from?” While her actual response eludes me it was something along the lines of “Probably.”

Probably is a good answer. However, why can pride be such a bad thing and why is this so overlooked? Honestly, I think we can all think of ways that pride can be a bad thing. We’ve probably all come across a specimen of the human race who thinks they know it all and/or that they’re the best, and that everyone who disagrees with them are ignorant morons. This can arise in pretty much any person regardless of belief or organizational loyalty. Now while this may be the extreme of how pride is a negative, the more common display of this is simply believing that we’re better than others. It may be because of wealth, looks, education, work ethic, beliefs or some combination of these things. The problem with this is that it often takes an over-inflated view of yourself or your “side” and relies on stereotypes, name calling, and inadequate descriptions of others or their “side.”

For the Christian I believe this takes on another dimension. Pride shouldn’t have much of a place in the Christian life. We are all reliant on the grace of God and are only Christian because of following Him and we are only able to follow Him because Jesus died on the cross for our wrongdoing and rebellion against God. How often though do we act as if we’re Christians due to our morality and by what we do or do not do? I’m not saying that this isn’t part of the equation, but it is not the root of Christianity.

The root of Christianity is the love of God forgiving those who were unable to make up for the wrongs they have done. Those people are you and me. When we change the focus to morality we can easily look down on anyone who doesn’t ascribe to our brand of morality, which usually has components that are purely man-made. That is pride. It is pride against God because we think that it is our morality that saves us. It is also pride against others because we act as if we did this on our own and that those around us should be able to get with the program. We think that we are better than others, and that is not the message of Jesus. His message is that we are all in the same boat and the only determining factor is God’s intervention in our lives.

To wrap up why pride is bad it is because it messes with relationships in two dimensions. In our dealings with God it can falsely reduce His actions in our lives and over-exaggerate our own ability to follow and please God. In our relationship with others pride overestimates our own situation and views and underestimates and belittles other situations and points of view. This breaks down any sort of communication and results in people who look down on each other.

Why is pride so overlooked? I don’t know entirely but I have two thoughts. First, is that our idea of pride is not always a bad thing. There is a sense in which pride is used as just being content with the work that one has done. Like being proud of an art project or of a child’s accomplishment. It isn’t always a bad thing until we start thinking that we or our child is better than other people. There is a healthy degree of satisfaction that should come from accomplishments, but there is a dark side to be aware of on these things.

The second reason I think that pride is so overlooked is the idea of truth. When we hold a particular view of truth we want to defend that truth. In that defense though we can often become proud and give ourselves the higher ground. This is done with the Christian who looks down on those who are not Christians, the atheist who looks down on any person who claims to follow religion, the tolerant person who looks down on those who disagree with their ideas on tolerance, or the person of one political party looking down on people of the other political party.

This may all be easy to say, but ultimately it can be tough to avoid pride. It is so easy to look at another person and say that you are better than them for any given reason. The reality is though that we are all different, we come from different backgrounds, situations, cultures, and upbringings. The irony is that the very thing that we’re so proud of compared to another person, may very well be the thing that the other person is proud that they don’t have. Ultimately, the bottom line is that pride divides, it divides us from one another as we look down on others lives and beliefs, and it also divides us from God because we shift the focus to what we do rather than what God has done. I know that I have to be careful of pride, and I can imagine that I’m not alone.

A Cure for Arrogance?

I find myself wondering today, what is the cure for arrogance? It seems that everywhere I turn it is easy to see arrogance, even the mirror is not a safe place. Sure we like to associate arrogance to particular groups; most recently I’ve seen evangelicals, fundamentalists, republicans, and democrats labeled as such. However, often in the same breath as connecting a group to arrogance, arrogance is displayed in their own attitude. Some would be quick to say the pat religious answer of “Jesus,” He is the answer to arrogance. While it may be true that Jesus himself did not display arrogance, although I imagine that many thought he did, I know plenty of people either personally or through their writings or videos who claim to be following Jesus yet have a certain arrogance about them on certain issues or topics. It would be arrogance on my part to question if they are really following Jesus or not.

It seems that arrogance is a hallmark of our culture, perhaps it is simply a hallmark of us as humans. Even those who want to distance themselves from arrogance by taking no stance on major issues can be arrogant in a “I can do this, why can’t you?” kind of way. So it seems that any path is littered with the snares of arrogance. We tend to look at things in a “I know a better way to do this” kind of way, whether it is how we read the Bible and think that God could have and should have acted differently here or there or in looking at politics, education, etc and saying how we could do a better job than those who are doing it now. I know because I’ve done that and I’ve heard others do it too.

So again I wonder, what is the cure for arrogance? How do I present what I believe and not be arrogant about it? How do I handle the arrogance of others without being arrogant in return? Is there no cure? Is the only cure the end of our life where we wind up against what we cannot control? Will it take an encounter with a perfect God and judge, as I believe, or the descent into nonexistence, which I do not believe, where we don’t even realize all our arrogance was all for naught? I do not know, but if anyone finds the cure please let me know.