Tag Archives: St. Augustine

The Spiritual Battle Behind Simple Living

joshs-phone-127For the past 13 years I have worked in an office where the majority of my coworkers regular go out to eat each and every day. Fancy to-go boxes fill the breakroom refrigerator while I carry around an old lunch box cast aside by my son with a simple sandwich or last night’s leftovers inside….

Closing time comes with talk of concerts, drinks at a local pub, or other such money intensive activities. On those rare times when I choose to join the after work pub visit, I typically drink water or perhaps just one alcoholic drink…all the while wishing I could buy multiple drinks for myself and my friends like those around me ….

Lest I forget, the mid-day talk of boats, cars, concerts, sports games, TVs, sound equipment and the like don’t really help… rather they all seek to tip my envy scale dangerously into the dark green slime of jealously….

Over the years I have fought my envious urges by consoling myself to the fact that I had very little debt and that my coworkers most likely had lots of debt. I read books about simplicity and hung onto stories about people who lived simply and gave away lots of money to help others.

It didn’t really work.

Oh, it kept me out of debt (for the most part). And it helped take the edge off the desire to experience the finer things in life… but the fight never really left my heart and mind. It was always there in the shadows ready to pounce when things got difficult, bringing with it negative thoughts and questioning my self-worth.

Early this year my wife and I joined an organization that seeks to help people get out of debt and break the cycle of poverty. One of the tools the organization uses to help folks is a becoming statement. That is, a written statement about who one wants to become over the next ten years. Once crafted, the becoming statement is supposed to help keep one on track when the green monster of envy and materialism strikes.

I, being a good student and volunteer, wrote such a statement. Only it wasn’t working as I found myself unable to articulate what it was that kept me striving for simplicity in the midst of a culture that values both material possessions and entertainment experiences.

Then I read the Desert Fathers.

Buried in their “rough-hewn words of life” I found something that I had previously missed. Forsaking material possessions and monetary entertainment wasn’t just about saving money to give away (though that is part of it). [1] Rather, the embracement of simplicity was about facing the darkness within ourselves and fighting the “battle of the heart.” [2]

Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)
Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

It is about fighting the desires of flesh and the forces of this current evil age of pain. It is about resisting the seductive nature of modern culture which is unfriendly to the spiritual life. It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have. It is about seeking redemption through the suffering of self-control. It is a type of fasting that refines the soul.

Amma Syncletica of Blessed Memory, a wealthy noblewomen in the 4th century who gave away all her money, put it this way when asked about desire to suffer through lack of material possessions:

“It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.” [3], emphasis added

St. Augustine, another wealthy individual in the 4th century, read about the simplicity of the Desert Fathers (specifically St. Anthony) and gave way his riches. He would later write that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.” [4], emphasis added.

The quietness of the soul…

a strong soul…

the happiness of the life of the saints…

These are things that I can put into my becoming statement that will help me keep true when the forces of envy, materialism and others such items pull at my soul.

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 44.

[3] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[4] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. Previous posts this series can be found here and here.

insignificant-actionsIn the intervening years between the time of the Desert Fathers (4th and 5th century C.E.) and today (21st century C.E.), many people have sought to incorporate the concepts promoted by the humble men and women of the desert. St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), a notable materialistic playboy before his conversion to Christianity, was especially taken with the simplicity and self-sacrifice of St. Anthony, one of the first Desert Fathers. In pondering Anthony’s life, Augustine, a young man in Milan (the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time), came to the conclusion that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.”[1] This conclusion prompted Augustine to reject the culture of his day and embrace the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Father, concepts he later helped promote throughout Christendom.

Father Joseph Warrilow (1909-1998 C.E.) is a more modern example of someone who embraced the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Father Joe, as he was commonly called, was a Benedictine monk who lived seventy years in a monastery on the Ryde Isle of Wight in England.[2] The Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church was started by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 C.E.) who drew upon the wisdom of the Desert Fathers in the creation of his Rule.[3] Accordingly Father Joe’s life was ordered around the self-sacrificial rhythms of the Desert Fathers which granted him the time and energy to pastor multiple people.[4]

The Order of the Sustainable Faith is another contemporary example whose members’ lives reflect the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Started by Jared Patrick Boyd (1978– Present) in 2014 as a “missional monastic expression for the Vineyard,” The Order of the Sustainable Faith draws on the contemplative example of Christian forebears and includes both cloistered (residential) and mendicant (non-residential) expressions.[5] The Order is governed by A Rule of Life that promotes simplicity and self-sacrifice akin to both the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of the Desert Fathers. Similar to the Desert Fathers, the voluntary embracement of simplicity and self-sacrifice by members of The Order of the Sustainable Faith are both for the formation of the members’ soul as well as for creating space to help others.[6]

In conclusion, while the lives and actions of the early Desert Fathers may sound strange to a modern follower of Jesus, the wisdom of the Fathers are of immense value to the Christian of the twenty-first century. In embracing the concepts of simplicity and self-sacrifice modeled by the Desert Fathers, the modern Christian enters into a place that allows them to see “how unfriendly the modern culture is to the spiritual life.”[7] As they continue to walk down the self-sacrificial path of the Fathers, their soul will find rest and they will, like the Fathers of old, be able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world around them in practical ways.[8]

Footnotes

[1] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

[2] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (New York: Radom House, 2004), 265.

[3] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 28.

[4] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe, 268.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, v-vii.

[6] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, 30.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 93.

[8] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint, 25.

“Confessions” by St. Augustine

st_augustine_of_hippo-icoinBorn on November 13, 354 CE, St. Augustine was consecrated as the assistant bishop of Hippo at age 42. A year later in 397 CE he took over as the bishop when the previous bishop died. That same year St. Augustine began writing Confessions detailing the first thirty-three years of his life from birth to shortly after his conversion to Christianity at age 32. The book is, in short, a “personal document and statement of faith” written to the people of Hippo so that they would know a little more about their new bishop.[1]

The first three books of St. Augustine’s Confessions describe Augustine’s early childhood schooling and eventual profession as a teacher of rhetoric. Book four finds him searching for answers about truth and the purpose of life. Though his mother taught him about Christianity, he dismisses the religion in favor of astrology and the beliefs of the Manichees.

The fifth book of Confessions finds Augustine questioning the beliefs of the Manichees as they do not line up with his understanding of science and logic. During this time he takes a teaching position in Milan where he meets St. Ambrose, the local bishop. Through listening to St. Ambrose, Augustine begins to hear that the Old Testament passages could be “figuratively explained” rather than literally interpreted.[2] This opened up a new realm of understanding for Augustine that eventually lead him to accepting Christianity.

The next three books (books six through eight) covers approximately two years in St. Augustine’s life and walks the reader through his spiritual journey into Christianity. In these books, he describes the various philosophical issues he had with Christianity and how he overcame them. Towards the end of the eighth book, Augustine describe the now famous scene in which he hears the words, “Take it and read, take it and read,” that compels him to pick up the Scriptures and read Romans 13:13-14.[3] This was the turning point in Augustine’s life when he, at the age of 32, gives his life to Jesus and converts to Christianity.

The ninth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions describes his preparation for baptism as well as the changes happening within his life. Influenced by the life of St. Anthony of Egypt, Augustine and several of his friends decide to embrace a monastic life. Accordingly Augustine calls off the wedding his mother had arranged for him and, instead, dives deeper into the Christian faith.

The remaining four books within Confessions are less autobiographical and more theological in nature. The tenth book deals with memories and the ability of one to master temptations through the grace of God. Books eleven through thirteen are an exposition on the first chapter of Genesis. Interestingly enough, these later chapters show the way in which St. Augustine was able to embrace the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather than viewing Genesis chapter one as a literal record of creation, he interpreted the chapter allegorically. In this way, Augustine was able to blend the science and logic he studied as a young man with his new faith in Jesus.

Though St. Augustine’s Confessions was written over sixteen hundred years ago, the story contained within its pages could have happened today in any modern city. Augustine’s love of science, logic and material entertainment are part and parcel for a lot of people alive today. His rejection of Christianity due to a literal reading of the Old Testament is also a common stumbling block today. If anything, the testimony of St. Augustine should tell us that people are people and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). It should also calm the Bible wars of the modern era as God clearly worked mightily through means that a lot of us would reject (i.e. a non-literal reading of the Scriptures).

30End-Notes
[1] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 20.
[2] Augustine. Confessions, 108.
[3] Augustine. Confessions, 178.

Faith, Science & Genesis One

mountain and lavaVery few topics within American Christianity have been so fiercely debated over the past hundred years as the way in which one views the first chapter of Genesis. When discussing the origins of the universe it is assumed that faith and science are at odds with each other. This paper will seek to harmonize faith and science by first defining those terms before looking at lessons learned throughout history. After drawing upon the ancient church fathers, a hermeneutical method based upon the incarnation of the Creator God will be proposed as a way to read the Scriptures, most notably Genesis chapter one.

Words have difference meanings depending on the usage of the word and the person using them. When people say that “faith” and “science” are in conflict, they are typically refereeing to one aspect of the words while ignoring their other definitions. The word “faith” for example could refer to a “system of religious beliefs” just as it could mean the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” [1] The same could be said of the definition of “science” with that word meaning a “state of knowing” as “as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding” or a “system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”[2] People who see a conflict between faith and science tend to focus on the latter definition of both faith and science while ignoring or dismissing the former definition of faith.

This confusion about the definition of the two words can be readily seen in how one reads Genesis chapter one. Those who hold tightly to the latter definition of science tend to be very skeptical about the manner in which the Scriptures record the origins of the universe as the record does not fit within the modern scientific model of creation. Within American Christianity, this view is promoted by liberal Protestant theology which has embraced modernity and its focus on science to describe the world rather than a reliance on the supernatural.[3] Protestant fundamentalism represents the other side of the conflict with a literalistic hermeneutic that considered six-day creationism as core to the Christian faith.[4]

st_augustine_of_hippo-icoinWhat is largely forgotten by participants of this conflict is that they are not the first ones to have debated the method of how to read the Scriptures. The church fathers of the first seven hundred years of Christianity readily “expected to find layers of meaning within a biblical text” which lead them to embrace multiple hermeneutic methods ranging from grammatical-historical to typological to allegorical.[5] This allowed St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) to embrace an allegorical understanding of Genesis chapter one while concluding that it was acceptable if other people understood the Scriptures differently.[6] It must be noted that part of the reason that St. Augustine used an allegorical hermeneutic method when reading Genesis chapter one was because of the skepticism he and others had towards the way the origins of the universe were described in Genesis.[7]  He, similar to some today, preferred to let the scientists of his time describe the origins of the universe rather than staying with a literalistic hermeneutic.

The one hermeneutic principle the church fathers all agreed upon, however, is that the Scriptures must be read “through the prism of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.”[8] The incarnation in particular is very important when learning how the Creator God speaks to his people. Rather than speaking outside of human culture, God choose to enter into history by taking on the flesh of humanity and enter into the 1st century Jewish-Roman culture. This deliberate choice to speak in and through culture and history rather than above or in lieu of culture and history creates an incarnational hermeneutic that will help bridge the divide between faith and science.

Incarnational hermeneutics recognizes that the Scriptures, as Peter Gomes once wrote, is “not a book of science and cannot, in light of modern science, be made to perform like one.”[9] Rather, the “purpose of the Bible is to teach not science but theology, to reveal God and His will to us” as the Eastern Orthodox Church states.[10] Accordingly the Scriptures should be understood as containing glimpses into the scientific understand of the culture during which it was written. This does not diminish or lessen the value of the Scriptures; rather it allows them to speak more clearly without being chained to the “current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century.”[11] Incarnational hermeneutics also allows science to test and retest new ideas about the origins of the universe without being bound to the ancient cosmology presented in the first chapter of Genesis.

Rather than being in conflict with each other, science and faith are bedfellows who tell different stories to their listeners. Science, as noted by Dr. Francis Collins, is the “only legitimate way to investigate the natural world” while faith “provides another way of finding truth” in answering the questions of the “meaning of human existence, the reality of God, and the possibility of an afterlife.”[12] Not only can a follower of Jesus fully embrace faith in the supernatural, they can also embrace science as a way of exploring the natural world. This blend of faith and science can provide new ways of understanding the Scripture and life that brings to light the amazing hand of a Creator God who deeply cares for all of humanity.

Bibliography

End Notes
[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Faith.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith [accessed April 16, 2016]
[2] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Science.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science [accessed April 16, 2016]
[3] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999),  539
[4] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology, 554-556
[5] Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 132-133.
[6] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 295-296.
[7] Collins, Francis S. The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 156-157.
[8] Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers, 192.
[9] Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book: Reading The Bible With Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996), 319.
[10] Coniaris, Anthony M. Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1982), 154.
[11] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 15.
[12] Collins, Francis S. The Language of God, 228-229.

When Sh*t Happens: Why Your View of the Sovereignty of God Matters

Theology for theology sake is worthless. The reason we ponder the mysteries of the cosmos is so that we can live life better. Nowhere is this concept more applicable that when dealing with the great Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma.

To some, this dilemma is so huge and so crazy that they will walk away from it with their fingers in their ears. However  I would say that we need to think about this issue for it affects how we act when sh*t happens in our lives. Pastors especially need to ponder this issue as they will be called upon by others in the middle of some sh*tty events and how they answer this question will color their interactions.

Over the last few weeks, I have talked about some alternatives to the typical Arminianism/Calvinism option given to folks. Namely I brief discussed Open Theism and the Eastern Orthodox’s consent and participation view of God’s rule. Today I’m going to try to think through how these views would color one’s interactions with folks who are in the middle of pain and suffering. In doing this, I fully note that I will most likely misrepresent one or more of these groups….and for that I will apologize in advance and ask for your help via the comment section below.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
Calvinism

There are five major points within Calvinism that dictate how they view the world. These five points (also known as TULIP) are listed below:

 

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

Because of Calvinism’s position of Total Depravity (i.e. original sin; everyone is born a sinner), Irresistible Grace and Unconditional Election, Calvinist have the hardest position to defend when it comes to the problem of evil. Since God is in charge of everything (either directly or allowing it), the sh*t that happens to people is all part of God’s plan.

Therefore when a two-year old child is murdered, a Calvinist has to hold on to the belief that God caused/allowed it to happen for some reason (typically to teach someone something or because of some unknown ‘good’ reason which we human can never know). As a pastor and a Jesus follower, I think this mentality is harmful and does not draw people to Jesus.  (yeah, I’m fairly biased against this viewpoint…) 😛

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)
Arminianism

Arminianism, why held by a large portion of the Protestant church, isn’t always understood or acknowledged due to the vocal criticism of influential Calvinists. Roger Olson, a leading Arminian theologian, once described Arminianism has holding onto the following items (all words are his, I just split his sentence into bullet points):

  • Total depravity (in the sense of helplessness to save himself or contribute meritoriously to his salvation such that a sinner is totally dependent on prevenient grace for even the first movement of the will toward God)
  • Conditional election and predestination based on foreknowledge
  • Universal atonement
  • Grace is always resistible
  • Affirms that God is in no way and by no means the author of sin and evil but affirms that these are only permitted by God’s consequent will.

The outworking of this view holds that that humanity can resist God’s grace and choose their own actions, which will sometimes lead to negative consequences for themselves and others. Arminianism also holds that while God has foreknowledge of the future without actually dictating and controlling the future. (Granted there are some Arminianism who hold a stronger view of God control things similar to their Calvinist cousin.)

Typically an Arminianist would say that God has two wills:  antecedent and consequent. God’s antecedent will states that he wants everyone to be saved while his consequent will acknowledges that only those who believe will be saved (i.e. “God reluctantly permits sin and enables it” – to quote Olson).

This means that the sh*t that happens isn’t the divine will of God acting upon this world. Rather it is the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world with free agents (i.e. humanity). In the case of a two-year old being murdered, an Arminianism would comfort the parents with the knowledge that the death of their child was not in God’s plan. It was something contrary to the antecedent will of God that happened because of the sin, death, and evil in the world.

IMG_0890Open Theism

This view of Sovereignty of God is similar to Arminianism (in fact, Roger Olson considers it as a variation of Arminianism) in that highlights the free moral agents of humanity. As in, humans are free to make choices that may or may not be within line with God’s plan. The major difference between Open Theism and classic Arminianism is that Open Theism pushes the free will boundaries of humanity to the limits without going into Pelagianism (i.e. humanity still need God to rescue them from evil due to original sin).

In other words, an Open Theist would say that humanity has complete control over the future with God working within creation and with humanity to guide the overall direction of history towards his overarching conclusion. Because of this, the timeline of God’s plans can, and are, subject to change according to the actions of humanity. This is not to say that God’s plans and/or promises will fail to happen, rather it is the timing of those plans/promises that can be changed. Just like the people of Israel delayed God’s plan for them to go enter into the Promise Land by 40 years, so can we delay God’s plans/promises.

Accordingly, an Open Theist would respond to a young child’s murder similar to that of an Arminianism in that they would both hold that the death of the child was not something sanctioned by God. Rather it was the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world. Jesus, rather than saying away from this pain, is there in the middle of the pain, holding the family tight and walking with them through pain. At its root, Open Theism is a warfare worldview that sees the world through a lens of a spiritual battle between God and sin/death/evil/satan. This, I might add, doesn’t mean that Calvinism and Arminianism doesn’t contain a warfare mentality. Rather this is to say that Open Theism places this warfare view at the forefront of their worldview along with the free will of humanity.

jesus iconEastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox’s view of the Sovereignty of God is one of God’s consent and participation (as mentioned last time). This means that God consent (i.e. gives up his authority to rule) to natural law (gravity, weather patterns, etc.) and human freedom. However rather than walking away and letting things go, God also participates within creation to rescue us (i.e. Jesus).

In addition, Eastern Orthodox  rejects the total depravity of humanity embraced by the other views. This may sound like a heresy to some of you as total depravity is something that has been drilled into Western Christianity to the point that it is taken for granted. However if you study church history, you will find that the concept of total depravity didn’t come into the church until St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD).

The background of the concept being St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagius on whether or not humanity could save themselves without God’s help. St. Augustine held that all of humanity was sinful with each of us being condemned for Adam’s sin. This sin was passed down throughout the ages through the human seed – a view that helped get sex labeled as sinful rather than beautiful (i.e. sin was passed generationally through the father’s semen to their children). Because of the total depravity of humanity, we need God to rescue us. Pelagius, on the other hand, held that we were born good and could rescued ourselves. While the church at large (Western and Eastern) rejected Pelagius view of sin and salvation, the Western half (i.e. Roman Catholic and then Protestantism) adopt St. Augustine’s view of original sin and total depravity while the Eastern half of the church, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches, did not.

Instead the Eastern Orthodox Churches adopted the view that humanity is, and was, created in the image of God and is by nature pure and innocent. Sin, however, has entered into the world through Adam and Eve as a sickness that effects every generation. Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it this way in his book The Orthodox Way:

“Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical ‘taint’ of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse. This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberated acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider. No man is an island. We are ‘members one of another’ (Eph. 4:24), and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members of the human race. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”

I mention all this because when it comes dealing with the sh*t of this crazy, messed up world, it really helps to know that we, humanity, are made the image of God. This means that when God grants us the freedom to reject or accept him, we aren’t automatically going to reject him. Rather there is a part of us, no matter how buried or small, that desires to be close to our Creator King. Humanity was created to be in a loving relationship with God and being outside of that relationship is an unnatural state not a natural state.

Practically this means that a pastor or Jesus follower can comfort the parents of a murdered toddler with the understanding that not only is Jesus there within the pain, but that this child who died was loved and embraced by the Creator King. Yes, sh*t happened due to the war that ranges around us. Yet the pain wasn’t from the hand of God nor was it his will that allowed/created the pain. Rather Jesus loves the child and was/is with them/us – in pain and death.

Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis puts it this way:

“We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection.  When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story…”

“God does not intervene to save Jesus, but neither does God abandon Jesus. Jesus’ life ends with an open question to God, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God answers to the crucified Jesus by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him. The resurrection signifies that God is present in the suffering of Jesus and of every human person. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, this could lead to the mistaken impression that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer. This silent presence of God to Jesus becomes manifest in the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus confirms and completes all that Jesus was about in His life. The bottom line of the Christian faith is that God will be victorious over evil and suffering, as exhibited and effected in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” (emphasis added)

Conclusion

Throughout this post, I have sought to highlight how one’s view on the Sovereignty of God affects how one interacts with pain and suffering. I know that I most likely left out bits and pieces of this view or that. Yet my goal wasn’t to detailed out everything; rather I was trying to give you all a taste of what each view looked like. At the end of the day there are great Jesus followers who hold to all these views and I would gladly worship the Living King with them!

However I must also admit that when it comes down to pastoring and dealing with people in the trenches, I would rather deal with someone who hold to an Eastern Orthodox, Open Theism or Arminianism view of the Sovereignty of God. Calvinism, as I understand it, just doesn’t lend itself very well to compassion and mercy… so yeah, sorry my 5-point friends. :/

I would also say that on a personal level, I am leaning more and more towards the Eastern Orthodox view of consent and participation (as if that was’t obvious!). There is just something there that I love. Something that fits well with the mystery of the here and not yet that I see throughout the Scripture. Good stuff worth pondering. 😀

How Would Jesus Rule If He Was King?

41-jesus-blesses-the-children-detailAs noted before (most recently here and here) I have been thinking a lot about the Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma and the different worldviews that grow out of our understanding of this mystery. Today I want to explore what Sovereignty of God would look like if seen through Jesus.

Or to rephrase the topic, what kind of king is Jesus and how would he rule?

Before we start, I must admit to a strong presumption that colors everything I see. Namely I believe that Jesus is the most clear picture we have of the Creator King. To see Jesus is to see the Creator (John 14:9). Or has St. Paul wrote, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Practically this means that when I seek to know what God the Creator is like, I will look to Jesus as revealed through the four Gospels rather than looking toward the Old Testament or the letters of the New Testament. I know that this method of theology is frown upon by some people…but at this point in my life, this is where I fall. 🙂

Returning to the topic at hand, let us chat a bit about how Jesus would rule. To do this, let us create two lists with words that we would associate with how we would think Jesus would rule and how we would think we humans would rule.

human vs jesus rule

While we could add more words to each list, I think the pattern has been established. Namely the way in which we humans try to rule is vastly different than the way in which Jesus would rule. Knowing this we can now shift our thinking to the way in which we see the Sovereignty of God as typically promoted by evangelical church in the USA. (Sovereignty, by the way, is just another way of saying Kingdom – as in, how one would rule?)

Sovereignty of God (i.e. the typical view of how God rules within the world)

  • Control – God is in control of everything; nothing happens within the universe that he doesn’t allow
  • Coercion – Coercion is the practice of persuading someone to do something by user force and/or threats. Under the typical view of the Sovereignty of God, we see a God who threatens humanity with eternal damnation if they don’t follow his rules. Furthermore, humanity and creation doesn’t really have a choice in the matter as God controls every detail of life, including whether or not someone choices to obey or not.
  • Intervention – Under this view, supernatural events (i.e. healings, miracles, etc.) are typically seen as interventions by God within the world to make sure things continue to go the way he wants it wants it to.

Sovereignty of Jesus (i.e. the rule of the Creator seen through the person of Jesus)

  • Consent – To consent to something means giving permission for something to happen. It is the opposite of having control, for rather than trying to micro-manage everything one gives away one’s power and authority to others. This attribute can be further broken down into two sub-groups:
    • Natural Law – Gravity, weather patterns, atoms, plant life, etc… The typical Sovereignty of God view states that since God has complete control over everything, then the weather patterns we are see are directed by God as is the movement of the smallest ant or bacteria. Under the Consent view, the Creator has granted power and authority to the forces of nature to act according to set parameters. For example, gravity always pulls smaller items of mass towards those of greater mass (i.e. things fall downward). Rain, as Jesus said, falls on the just and the injustice (Matthew 5:45) and towers will fall, sometimes killing people and sometimes not (Luke 13:1-5).
    • Human Freedom (Free Will) – To have love, one must be willing to face rejection. A view of God who has absolute control does not allows for true love, which is one of that view’s greatest weakness. The Sovereignty of Jesus is a rule that consents to give away the power of choices to humanity and creation. The ant can make a decision about where to go just like a human can choice to love Jesus or not. The four Gospels shows this consent beautifully when you see Jesus gave up control over his mission to 12 guys who, at times, truly screwed up. Yet rather jumping in and taking back control, Jesus work with them and taught them a better way to live.
  • Participation – This is one of the most powerful attribute of a kingdom ruled by Jesus. We know from multiple sources that Jesus was the Creator God who entered into this world as a human. This shows us a ruler who didn’t just set up the universe and then walk away. Rather, we have a Creator who enters into this crazy, screwed up world to show us the way forward. He didn’t give up on us and take back control over every detailed (a fear based action, btw). Rather he joined himself to us in an act of love.
  • Mediation – Mediation by definition is the act of stepping into a dispute in order to resolve it. Jesus is like this. There are times when he steps in mediate the actions of humanity and the laws of nature. This is what miracles are – mediations by the grace of God in which he in, through, and around the laws of nature and the consent of humanity to resolve the issue at hand.

If I’m completely honest with myself, I can see the draw of having a God who is in complete control over the good and bad things of this crazy world. I can also see the benefits of having a God who controls and coerce me into doing what I do – not to mention having a God who will step in and fix things when the details get a bit off. Under this view, I – Josh Hopping – really don’t have much to do outside of living. If something goes great, awesome! I’m glad God was there. If things go haywire, great! It’s not my fault so talk to God.

thornsI know that this may be a bit critical of the typical Sovereignty of God worldview…yet I believe it captures the essence of that view. Yes, the control and coercion bits can be dampened down a bit with Scripture verses talking about humanity’s choices and actions. This is what Arminianism tries to do in reaction to Calvinism. There is also a neo-Calvinism movement within the USA that tries to dampen things down a bit while staying true to the five-points. However, I would argue that all these sub-movements are nothing more than, to use a common phrase, lipstick on a pig. They try to make the best of a bad foundation rather than solving the underlining issue.

I fully recognize that embracing a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is scary. Living in a world in which bad things happen for no reason – where we have an enemy who is trying to destroy us (i.e. satan and the forces of evil) can be daunting. It can mess your mind and make you wonder how anything could ever happen….

This is why we have the Scriptures and why we have Jesus. The Scriptures give us a story into which we can join; a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. A story of the Creator participating in and among his creation where he does NOT leave his children alone. Rather he binds himself to humanity with promises that he will and has kept. We don’t have to be scared because we know the end of the story even though we may not know all the details.

Jesus. We can never forget or have enough focus on Jesus. He is the reason we can keep walking. He is the Creator God who enter into our world so that we would know that we serve a Creator King who understands the pain, heartache and troubles of this screwed up world. Jesus is our High Priest to whom we can go when times are hard – when our children is in pain, when our life is out of control, when evil seems to have won – and he will receive us with mercy, grace and love (Hebrew 4:14-16).

Jesus, a consenting, participating and mediating Creator who loves and understands each of us individually. Powerful stuff.

For those who are curious, a lot of the material in this post was pulled from my class notes with Dr. Brad Jersak at St Stephen’s University. His book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, also explores this topic a bit. From what I can tell, the view of a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church who did not embrace the view of St. Augustine like the Western church did. (St. Augustine laid the foundation for the controlling, coercing, and intervening view of God that has dominated Christianity within Europe.)