Obedience to God is Not the Greatest Good

It is so easy to sort through the Christian faith and only find morality isn’t it? We focus on things like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other parts of the Bible and make lists and lists of rules. Some of which are directly connected to the Bible and others that are of a more supplemental nature.

I remember being a young Christian trying to sort through all of the rules. I had run into many rules that some Christians called being obedient to God, that I didn’t understand the foundation of. Where did God forbid dancing, alcohol, gambling, and Harry Potter? While I understood some of the reasons behind such ideas, it was one thing to give a reasoned account of why something could be dangerous and another to say that God absolutely forbids it and would be angry with us for doing it. In this kind of framework obedience to God is the most important thing.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that obedience to God is the greatest hallmark of our faith, and I’m not sure I believe it. This thought process started mainly because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. A lot of people praise Abraham for obeying God, even for such a difficult request. At times though this looks to others like blind obedience that isn’t nearly as appealing. In fact, some people who praise Abraham are also looking for blind obedience to the words they speak, because they claim they are also directly from God.

While I would not want to jettison obedience from the Christian faith, I wonder if the emphasis should be placed somewhere else. Did Abraham obey out of blind submission to God or was there something more going on here? I would say that ultimately Abraham’s ability to obey was more connected to his knowledge of God and a trust, faith, respect, and even love for God. It is this trust, respect, and love for God that is our ultimate calling in my opinion.

Obedience to someone doesn’t mean that we trust them, respect them, or love them. We can obey bosses that we don’t respect, because we want to keep our job. Sometimes we obeyed our parents not out of love or respect, but because we wanted them to leave us alone. For those who now have kids I’m sure that we can see times when our own kids do the same.

It is not hard to obey God out of that same motivation. We can easily come to view God as the one servant in the parable of the talents did in Matthew 25:14-30. God becomes “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,” and causes us to “become afraid” and we do little so we don’t get him angry.

Being obedient can also be used to get our way on things. This reminded me of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God where he talks about obedience as a way to have God owe us. “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior. ”

Again here we have an obedience that isn’t out of a trust, respect, or love for God. In this case it isn’t out of a fear of God, but rather trying to earn good things through our obedience. We obey out of a desire to get a reward and think that more obedience will equal more rewards.

It is this train of thought that leads me to conclude that obedience is not the end we are seeking to achieve as Christians. Obedience will be part of the Christian life, but if it becomes the end it can be done to avoid punishment or get reward. This kind of obedience can be disconnected from trust, respect, or love. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus views love of God as the great and first commandment, not obedience. Again, I do think that the love of God will lead us to concrete ways of expressing that love. This will probably even look a lot like obedience. However, obedience is not the final destination. The destination is love of God. It is being able to love, trust, and respect God. This is greater than both our obedience and our sins.

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.

King’s Cross Final Thoughts

Sometimes a book is like a journey. Some journeys you start alone and by the end of it you have gained traveling companions. Other journeys you start out with a group and are forced to finish the journey alone. My reading of Tim Keller’s King’s Cross was one such journey. It was a book that I started reading earlier this year with my small group. However, since I moved about a month ago I had to finish the last few chapters on my own. Due to this I got the chance to both read this book for a group setting of discussion, but also for personal reflection and enjoyment.

So what is King’s Cross about? Well the subtitle says that it is the story of the world in the life of Jesus, but that may be a little vague. This book is basically a walk through of the Gospel of Mark. Keller starts at the beginning and takes a look at various stories and passages in the book of Mark and then draws both theological and practical insight out of the passage.

At this point I think we need to make a few things clear. First,this book is not a verse by verse commentary on Mark. It is a book that goes through the book of Mark, but it doesn’t hit every verse and go into detail on every single verse. Instead it is more about looking at the story and drawing out themes and as such it is more focused on some of the major movements or events in the book of Mark. This isn’t a negative against the book, but it something that should be known. Personally, I think that this is a strength of the book, and allows for good opportunities to discuss with a group.

Second, is that this is decidedly a Tim Keller book. This can either be a positive or negative depending on your outlook. Keller has a very consistent approach to the Gospel and this book is very much the same. So if you’ve read a book by Keller before than you will most likely see that view presented at some point in this book. This can be a good thing if you appreciate consistency, but can also be perceived as boring or uninteresting because you’ve already read part of the book before.

The final thing, which I didn’t realize until I read the acknowledgments at the end of the book, was that this endeavor was not a straight book project. It sounds as though this was a project to take Keller’s sermons on Mark and put them into book form. I think this may be a good thing to understand, because it can sometimes seem like there isn’t as much cohesion in this book as there are in some of Keller’s other works. Don’t get me wrong it still focuses around the Gospel of Mark and the life of Jesus, it just hits many different themes where other Keller books are focused on a certain theme and keep that consistent theme throughout.

I feel those three things should help understand what you’re getting into, or not getting into. In terms of content Keller divides his book into two sections the first part focuses on the identity of Jesus and how that identity is shown through both His teachings and his actions. The second part deals with Jesus’ death on the cross. Keller focuses on both Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of his death on the cross and the actual event itself.

As I said before, Keller doesn’t just leave things with who Jesus was and what He did, but each chapter draws out practical insight as to what this means for us. Keller isn’t just presenting this for information sake. He continually brings it back to us and asks how do we respond to Jesus if this is who He is and what He did for us? Considering these things it was a good book for a group discussion, at least I thought so.

Overall, I would recommend King’s Cross. It is a good book for those who want to go through a book of the Bible, but don’t want the sometimes academic nitpicking of commentaries. To me it much more accessible for a group than a commentary would be. It is a book that asks questions about how the information presented should affect our lives, which can be good for discussion. As with all books some chapters will have more resonance than others, but overall I felt that good discussion can come out of the book. It may not be my favorite from Tim Keller, but it is still a good book that is worth your time whether done in a group or on your own.

The April Lists: Books

This month I started doing a new thing. I decided to start recording the books I’ve read, movies/shows I’ve watched, and video games I’ve played during the month. The idea was that if I could remember what I’ve been reading I could give mini-reviews or reflect on them at the end of the month. I’ll split the lists into three posts. One focusing in on books, another focusing in on movies/TV shows, and the third focusing on video games. This one will be focused on the books I read or started to read in April.

The Finished Books:

 1. For the Time Being by Annie Dillard – I’ve already reflected a little on this book on my previous blog post. This was a book that I’ve had since college. I remember trying to read it then, but having a difficult time getting into it. Trying it this time I was able to drawn into it, but have little idea of what the point she was trying to make.

As I said with my last post the main idea of the book seems to be reflecting on suffering and the existence of God. However, if you go into this book expecting a typical structure you’ll be mistaken. Basically, Dillard takes a number of topics and in each chapter talks a little about each of them. She labels these topics in each chapter with headers like Birth, Sand, China, or Now. So each chapter has these numerous little tunnels that weave throughout the book. All of which connect to the ideas of evil, pain, and suffering while trying to reflect on where God fits into it all.

I can’t say I agree with all of her thoughts that are presenting in the book, but at the same time I had trouble figuring out what her actual thoughts were. She quotes from many sources Jewish rabbis, Hindus, and Catholic priests; but gives you no real firm ground as to where she stands. This isn’t so much a negative point, but more of a warning for those who read it expecting something telling you want to think or believe. This is more of an exercise in reflection than one on dogma or argumentation. Given that it may not be a book for everyone, but I found it to be an intriguing read.

2. Experiencing God by Henry & Richard Blackaby – This is a book that our church was doing for small groups. Since I was leading one of those groups I was reading this book. It was the first time I’ve read the book, but it is considered to be a classic. My thoughts on the book are mixed.

The point of the book is to find ways to experience God. In particular to see where God is working, and to be involved in His work. Overall, I thought that the principles that Blackaby presents for doing this are pretty solid. Nothing comes to mind that made me really wary when came down to his basic principles of how to experience God.

There were two things that I did dislike about the book though. First, it suffers from appearing to be a bit prideful. I don’t know Henry Blackaby so I have no idea what he is really like, but the writing style of the book just smacks of arrogance sometimes. Even in trying to be humble at one point saying something like that God had to look high and low for someone as ordinary as me. Not to mention constantly referring to some conference where he tells how somebody’s life was changed by reading his book. Not that it isn’t good to have testimonials, but the frequency of such examples, with few examples that don’t involve the book or Blackaby himself, started to rub me the wrong way.

The second problem I had with the book, was that it gave a lopsided view of how God may speak to you. Many of Blackaby’s examples are amazing. It is about how he and his wife were called to Canada to pastor a small church and all the amazing things that were done there or how people were called to serve God in amazing circumstances and amazing outcomes. These examples naturally led me to ask is this how God speaks to everybody? What about God speaking to people in the everyday, in our communities, in things that are not “full time ministry.” I think there has to be balance here; we need to be challenged that we are not just settling for the comfort we have where we are, but I do not believe that God calls everyone the same way. We are not all meant to be Paul or Moses at least in terms of our accomplishments. So while I thought it was solid on its principles, the tone of the book and the examples it gave diminished its value in my eyes.

3. Church Planting is For Wimps by Mike McKinley – This was a book that I got for free from a conference about a year/year and a half ago. I have to say that I enjoyed this book much more than I had thought I would. The title may fool you into thinking that it is only a book for church planters, but I think it is for anyone who wants to think about leadership in the church.

What is the book about though? By the title you may be thinking it is about planting a church, and you’d be somewhat right. Actually, it is about the author’s journey into church revitalization. Which is going into a church that is severely unhealthy/dying and trying to bring it back to life. Through this journey he outlines many of the difficulties there are to doing such a process, the process that he went through on the path to bringing the church back to life, and his failures on the way.

Honestly, it is a book that anyone who has been a Christian and a part of a fellowship could appreciate. He has many thoughts throughout the book that are a challenge to many contemporary ideas about what the institutional church should look like. I think if you’re looking into leadership at any level, this could be a valuable book to read and think over. It doesn’t put things in a glamorous light, but it is honest and I think portrays a reality that is more present than the glitz and glamor of the mega-church.

The In-Progress Books:

  1. King’s Cross by Timothy Keller – It is hard to exactly say what this book is. It is a book that goes through the book of Mark, but it is neither a devotional nor a commentary. Expected either of those would probably lead to disappointment. Basically Keller takes a passage from the book of Mark and then explains the main theme or at least a theme that can be drawn from that passage. The style makes a good book to discuss with a group, which is exactly the context in which I’m reading it. The men’s group that I’m a part of is reading through this a chapter a week. This means that I’m not all that far into it so far, only chapter five, but so far it has led to interesting reading and discussion.

If you’re familiar with any of Keller’s other works than you pretty much know what to expect. He is intelligent, but able to put things in a way that is fairly easily understood. I’ll probably have more to say once I’ve finished the book, but this is my take so far.

2. Searching for Home by M. Craig Barnes – This is another book that I’m reading and discussing with a friend. No surprise the focus of the book is on home. It is basically exploring the idea of home and if home is simply a place or if it more than that. Barnes presents that home is more than simply a place and that our ultimate home is God.

I’m only about a quarter of the way through this book, but so far he has been exploring the concept of home that people have had in recent generations and how the current generation seems to lack a sense of home. He calls this generation nomads because they don’t often have a place they can call home because they move around quite often. This lack of home can often lead to a disconnectedness and lack of purpose.

I’m not entirely sure where he’ll all go from here, but so far it has been an interesting read with good thoughts about what home is and how we view it.

Well those are my books for April. I technically have another one I just started, but I’ll save it to put in the May list of books since I’m not far at all in it. One thing about writing down a list of books for the month is that I realize how all the books I read are serious in nature, I may have to change that for upcoming months, but my watching and playing habits balance out my serious reading though. Also I hope to have links to all the books, movies, TV shows, or video games if available. I’m hoping to have the links be the pictures, but if I can’t get it to work I’ll have them be the titles, so if you’re interesting in checking them out yourself you’d be able to.

Book: The Prodigal God

A fairly well known story in the Bible is the story we call the Prodigal Son. It is found in Luke 15:11-32 and tells the story of a wasteful son who rudely asks his father for his share of the inheritance, and goes off to spend in on wine, women and song. This story or parable is the focus of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God:Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Despite the subtitle’s reliance upon using the fairly cliched idea recovering of the heart of Christianity, this book will most likely challenge and change the way you read the parable of the Prodigal Son.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but the premise of the book is that Keller believes the title of the parable would be better titled, the Prodigal God, hence the name of his book. This seems to be for two reasons. The first is that God is recklessly extravagant (which is the meaning of the word prodigal) with his love and possessions. The second reason is that this parable is not just about one son, but both of them.

What follows is a look at how both sons in the parable may be disconnected from the father. Most of my experience with this parable was focusing on how lost and wayward the son who wasted all his money was and how God’s love is so great that he forgave him, but most of the time the older son was either ignored or glossed over. Keller doesn’t necessarily change this view of the younger son, but adds a focus on the older son that I had not really thought about and had never really heard articulated before this.

Without giving more away, I’ll end with saying that I highly recommend this book. It is an easy read with everyday language that any level of Christian and most non-Christians would probably be able to understand. It also is not a long book clocking in at a deceptive 133 pages (it is deceptive because the book is a smaller sized book). I also doubt that this will be the last Timothy Keller book that you’ll see recommended by me.

Liberty, Morality, and Moderation: Part 3 – Somewhere in Between

This part has been a long time coming, mainly due to the fact that I’ve recently become a parent and that’s taken a lot of time to get used to. However, since the only person I know who is a regular reader is my wife… she’s had the same problem. If there are others out there than here is the last part of this three-part look at Liberty, Morality, and Moderation.

The reason I decided to do this three-part post was because it is pretty reflective of who I am. I do not think the extremes of doing whatever I please in Christian liberty or fencing my life away in an effort to be moral to please God or protect myself from the evil world is really what we’re called by God to do. Is there both Christian liberty and a need for morality? Yes, I think there is. However does it necessarily have to result in no rules living or rigid morality? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

I think Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God sums up my feelings about both of these types of living. He says, “There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.” At the end of the day both of these paths can lead us to or dangerously close to being our own savior. Our focus becomes doing what we desire or by following all the rules of the community and protecting ourselves from the world. In these endeavors we can miss that God may be calling us to a greater focus than either of these.

I think it is easier to see the danger of breaking all the rules than it is to see the danger of keeping all the moral laws. However, if we really read the Gospels, the Pharisees thought they were keeping all the moral laws of the Bible and even ones that went above and beyond the Bible. These were the ones who are recorded in conflict with Jesus more than any other group. Can we not see how it could be dangerous for us to get to a place where we act and think like we are the moral ones who are truly pleasing God? Those subtle sins of pride and self-righteous are just as sinful as wild debauchery, if not more so because they’ve subtle.

Do I have an answer to what we should do? Not entirely. I do believe we’re called to something much deeper than a life of self-fulfillment or a life of rules. We are called into a relationship with God. A relationship the requires us to remember who we are and what He has done for us. A relationship that we did not start, and had no desire to start. When we forget that we can forget to show love and grace to those around us and foster the sins of pride and self-righteousness in our own hearts. A relationship with God also requires us to realize that we are not the only person in this relationship. It is not all about us. It is not about being able to do whatever I want. There is morality in the Bible there is no doubt about that. However, the Bible is equally as clear that none of us are or will ever be perfect in this life. Our “perfection” comes only from Jesus Christ who lived that perfect live and paid for our sins so we didn’t have to. God’s mercy is the only way we are ever able to enter into a relationship with God is because he enabled it.

So often we get into battles over what to do with aspects of our culture. Do we watch movies/TV or not? If so, what ratings/shows are acceptable to watch? Is it okay to drink alcohol? Both the sides of morality and liberty love these issues and make a huge deal out of them. At the end of the day though it comes down to why or why aren’t we doing something? Is it for us or is it for others? Are we trying to feel moral and Godly in order to receive what we want from God? Is it because we don’t care and we’re the only one who is important? Or do we do the activities we do to engage people while engaging ourselves and God in the whole process?

At the end of the day our morality and our liberty is like dust in the wind. They are only vanity. We can be looked up to and be moral and care less about God. We can also have evident sin in our lives and be seeking and struggling to follow after God. This was revolutionary when Jesus was teaching it and it still is today. It doesn’t mean that there is no liberty or morality in the Christian faith, but it does mean that they may be less important than we’re led to believe. That our life and faith is often found somewhere in between the two extremes that Christians can take. There is morality in the Bible, but we need to be careful not to add our own rules to that no matter how good the intention. There is also liberty in the Bible, but it is not to come at the expense of those around us. Where one ends and the other begins will be something that I know I’ll wrestle with probably all my life, but I’ll be struggling and seeking what God wants from it all.