Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision by Paul House

Fantastic work by Eric Metaxes
Fantastic work by Eric Metaxes

Do you know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? I imagine it will be well known to most of the readers of this blog. If you know the name, what comes to mind as you read it? My first thought is usually the connection to Eric Metaxes phenomenal biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, but to limit our view of Bonhoeffer as the subtitle of Metaxes’ book does to a mere four descriptions is neglectful of who Bonhoeffer was. Yes, he was a pastor, and by all accounts an excellent one. Yes, he was a martyr and a tragic one. Yes, he was a prophet of sorts—like many other Christian thinkers (C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer come to mind). Taking Metaxes research, yes, he was a spy. But as Paul House points out in his recent book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together, to neglect Bonhoeffer’s pursuit of the raising and training of faithful and knowledgable shepherds and ministers is a critical oversight. As the subtitle suggests,

The critical edition, a new readers edition is available on Amazon.
The critical edition, a new readers edition is available on Amazon.

Bonhoeffer’s most crucial days might be those as a seminary leader thanks to the two works that they produced—Discipleship (originally published in America as The Cost of Discipleship, highlighting the theme o the book not its actual German title) and Life Together. Both of these works have been very influential on my theology and subsequently my life and I am deeply thankful for them, but we would do well to remember that “these works were presented to and written about seminary students, seminary supporters, and seminary alumni” (27). So let us heed House’s advice and consider Bonhoeffer and his vision for the seminary.

House on Bonhoeffer on Seminaries

Paul House makes three legitimate criticisms that I believe the seminary, and churches, need to hear:

Think Theologically Not Pragmatically

House believes that “Seminary educators desperately need [Bonhoeffer’s] theological under pinnings” because he reminds us, “like all Christian work theological education needs grounding in theology” (29). At Talbot School of Theology and during my biblical studies undergraduate work at Biola University, I was taught that everything is theological, that all of life needs to be looked at through the prism of theology, discipleship, and the kingdom of God. At Biola and Talbot I was taught to think theologically, which means that it was probably not surprising that I think about my education theologically—though it seemed like others rarely did. I would often find younger students asking me who to take for a certain class, only to respond to my answer with “oh I heard that guy is pretty hard.” I would try and explain that he was not unnecessarily hard, but rather that he was trying to challenge so that students would really work and grow and understand the material. Often my advice was not taken. Many of the students were just trying to get through so they could hang a parchment colored piece of paper on their wall.

then_a_miracle_occurs_cartoonI got the distinct feeling that it wasn’t just the students, but some of the administrators who neglected to think theologically about theological education as well. The primary result was a few degree programs that should not be offered as anything more than a certificate, not a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. For example as an undergraduate I encountered two degree programs that I have always found odd, Intercultural Studies and Christian Ministries. The former is widely understood to be the missionary training degree and the latter the youth pastor or pastor’s wife degree. I found this troubling wondering why students who wanted to be pastors or theologians were assigned to Biblical and Theological Studies (as I was) and aspiring youth pastors and missionaries were pointed in a different direction. Do missionaries not need to study Greek and Hebrew or understand modern theology (like say Liberation theology popular in South America) and do youth pastors not benefit from reading Augustine or Calvin?

The same thing was true at the graduate level with the Biblical Exposition and Apologetics degrees. I never got a good answer to the question “how can I trust someone’s apologetics if they have never read a primary source from the worldview they are critiquing?” I don’t mean that they don’t know how to critique postmodernism, but that they critique is meaningless to me if they have never opened Nietzsche, Marx, Freud. And what good is a degree in Biblical Exposition if you don’t (this is true) study the original languages? What I say in all of these programs was pragmatism. A lot of my friends criticize me for my criticism of pragmatism, but they misunderstand what I am saying. They mistake me for criticizing being practical, but that is not the same thing. Being practical is to choose the common sense approach or the approach that works in one instant, being pragmatic is to believe that the right choice is always the practical one.

The problem with pragmatism is that it seems to run contrary to how God does things. He picks a small, scrappy, defiant nation rather than a powerful and submissive one. The King he chooses is handsome and ruddy, not mighty and dignified. When Jesus selects his disciples he pick fishermen not scribes. The gospel itself is said to be foolishness to the worldly wise.

In many cases I see why the pragmatism has slipped into the seminary, not to mention into the church, and House is write to challenge them noting, “Seminaries must take stock from time to time. They must make certain their programs and policies have not gotten detached from stable biblical-theological moorings. That many seminaries drift is a fact” (56).

Why so serious?
Why so serious?

Consider Calling

There were two types of students that I was concerned about, I believe House is too. The first was mentioned above, they are usually youth ministers who see their M.Div as a parallel to an MBA, it was just something to put on a resume, a paper to hang in their office, or something to give them legitimacy for a higher position. The other group felt attracted to theology and thought I must be called to be a pastor since none of the believers around me feel the same tug. House writes, “Some seminary students are seeking a bit of biblical and theological information, often because in-depth teaching is not offered at their local churches. Others hope to use seminary education as a pathway into an academic career” (91). House is concerned with these people, I believe we can lump the ladder-climbing-youth-pastor in this group, because their lack of calling. To accommodate students who are not motivated by God’s call to ministry often lowers the bar of our seminary training. Bonhoeffer’s very own students tended to think his theological vision of education was too intense, “The disciplined approach to each day was on of the most controversial aspects of the seminary at the time” (48), that is until they were launched out into the chaotic world of ministry in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Reading about the rigors of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual requirements made me think about Patrick Willis and Mike Singletary. An odd connection for many, but consider that Willis retired early and has a shot, even with his shortened career, at the Hall of Fame. During his years on the 49ers he was one of the NFL’s most feared defensive players, and when he won the NFL defensive rookie of the year award he dedicated it to his linebacker coach Mike Singletary. He said, in essence, that he hated Singletary during training camp, he felt that he was always riding him and pushing him. He didn’t understand why, until game day. Bonhoeffer’s students, while having kinder feelings toward him throughout their training, would have been able to resonate with Willis.

When we don’t consider and assess whether a seminary student is actually called to a life of ministry, we do them, their fellow students, and local churches a disservice by lower expectations to cater to them.

Challenge and Give Grace

We should be reminded of our goal, House states, “Bonhoeffer’s goal in his life and writing was always to find and serve the church so he could serve Jesus” (79). I say this because, building from the last point, we will not persevere if we view seminary as mere academic training for our careers. We need to be reminded that seminary studies are ultimately about serving Christ by serving his church. If seminary professors align themselves with this understanding of what they and their students are doing, my guess is that the challenge of seminary work would rise. Why would that be a good thing? Consider the American crisis of public schools. American public schools are pretty bad (I speak from experience), there is a current political and academic debate over how to improve them—more programs, more tools, common core, etc. Yet there is something that is often talked about and quickly dismissed: a combination of harder education programs, higher wages for teachers, and encouraging our top high school students to study education rather than seek entrance into business or technology fields. Why would this help? Did you know that the average high school teacher scored below average on the SATs and held a 3.0 college GPA? Those stats according to a Freakonomics podcast I listened to last week, if your interested. This is a stark contrast to earlier generations when teaching was either the only vocational option for intelligent and independent women or when teaching was held as an honorable profession that built up the future of the nation. I wonder if seminary students aren’t the same today, a dime a dozen, many of which are below average. I don’t necessarily think higher pay for pastors is the answer, but rigorous training would help.

True dat.
True dat.

Consider that it is quite easy to obtain an M.Div from an evangelical seminary without reading Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, Barth, etc. Instead, because those guys are hard, many read books that talk about those guys, which are helpful in their proper context, but run contrary to the entire purpose of seminary. Professors can and should give grace, but first they must offer challenging work so that the grace is costly.

Well written and well argued.
Well written and well argued.

And Yet…

I am in deep agreement with House on many fronts, both the points covered above and his response to the counter-arguments that are presented in the closing chapter of his book. Online education, specifically Christian education and more specifically seminary education, are suspect and should be approached first theologically seeking to understand more than the budget and the need for a increased student body. And yet, I am an adjunct professor of an online class at one of the top Christian universities in the country. Is this hypocrisy? Not really, I have taken House’s advice and thought deeply and theologically about this. There is something he neglects in his assessment: the shape of Bonhoeffer’s student body.

Bonhoeffer’s students were, generally speaking, dedicated and adventurous unmarried young men. They chose to align themselves with a new, struggling, and relatively undefined protestant church. (43)

This is where being a bit practical comes in. Being married did not exclude you from Bonhoeffer’s seminary, but I can say confidently that the needs of my wife would have excluded me from being one of his students, not to mention now that we have a son. I tend to refer to myself as an idealist when it comes to ministry and education. I believe their is a best way to do most things and that in many cases the resources are available to do it that way (at least in America), but we often get wrapped up in pragmatism and fail to follow the best way. The flip-side of this coin, however, is that the best way often assumes perfection. We must remember that it is the ideal, it is what we should strive for, but there are aspects that are just not realistic. The Bonhoeffer vision would basically require the average student to be single and to be supported (rather than having a full or part time job). Furthermore, Bonhoeffer’s students already had working fluency in theology and ministry, they were not novices, but had academic backgrounds in theology and had been through the equivalent of an internship. Bonhoeffer’s students are probably more comparable to Th.M students than M.Div students, which changes the playing field a bit. I still think the points above apply, but the changing landscape must be accounted for.

There is more to say, my concern for the tag “adventurous” coupled with the American attraction to popularized existential theology like that of John Eldridge, but this is the point where I must leave you. All-in-all I should say that I enjoyed House’s book and I highly recommend it to those considering seminary and especially those who work at a seminary (or Christian education in general). Read it and be challenged.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

If you want to read some Bonhoeffer,  check out the new reader’s editions of Bonhoeffer’s work put out by Fortress press.

 

Book Review: How to Be a Christian without Going to Church by Kelly Bean

I could not have read two books so different in such a close time span. One that rejects the church as an optional and antiquated institution that is driving away millennials and another that challenges the contemporary understanding of pastoral training and seminary education that establishes its premise on the importance of the church (local and universal) to the heart of Christ. One book establishes its argument almost entirely on experience, while the other mingles the words of the author regularly with scripture and quotes from one of the twentieth centuries most prominent and important theologians. The first book is Kelly Bean’s How to Be a Christian without Going to Church and the second is Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision by Paul House, I will cover the former today and the latter tomorrow.

How to Be a Christian without Going to Church

66626ebI should tell you that I was skeptical of this book right off the bat. I got it on a kindle book sale, and when I got it I intended on reading and reviewing it (most likely) negatively. However, I had not intended being in the particular state of frustration that I find myself in. Historically speaking the local church has always been understood to be necessary to the Christian life. Furthermore, consider that Christians in areas and ages of persecution have not ceased to meet together for the receiving of the sacraments and the preaching of the word. Given that, which is not an argument, just an observation, I would think a book with such a title as this one would need to first make a case that to be a Christian does not require participation in the local church and then expand on that point to argue that being a flourishing Christian does not require the local church. Instead of an argument from scripture, theology, or history the book is chock full of assertions and assumptions. Here are a few examples from the first chapter alone:

I sensed that God was so much larger than the limitations, politics, and theology represented by the church I knew.

When I read books and articles by the crowd of formerly “emerging church” people (which Kelly Bean see herself as) I get the sense that they had terrible theology teachers. From John Calvin to C.S. Lewis up to today’s theologians, it is widely held that the Bible represents God’s condescension to humanity. Calvin even uses the notion of ‘baby talk’ to describe the scriptures. Let us never forget that God is incomprehensible, a comforting and encouraging doctrine. That said, let us not forget that Christian theology is an exercise in holding tensions. God is incomprehensible, he surpasses our theological systems and defies categories, but he is also knowable, and theology is unavoidable, as C.S. Lewis writes,

Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones— bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected (Mere Christianity, 155)

Theology is necessary, theology is limited, but there is a point to theology, it cannot be merely discarded because it does not fully encapsulate God. It is not intended to. Bean seems to use this idea however to discount the need to give what G.K. Chesterton calls the ‘democracy of the dead’ enough of a hearing to challenge her assumptions.

It is worth noting that God can use discontentment partnered with prayer and exploration to usher in change more than one might expect. In response to my discontentment, a wise mentor— incidentally the first woman pastor I’d ever known.

God can use holy discontentment and often does in the scriptures, but a good judgment of whether our discontent was holy is where it leads us. Considering Bean has been out of the institutional church for sometime now, it is fair to question the holiness of her discontentment. Furthermore, there is not discussion of the legitimacy of a female pastor. Whether complementarian or egalitarian, I would expect both sides would feel it necessary to make a case for their position. Bean’s position is of a mere acceptance.

I want to faithfully re-imagine what it means to be a Christian in this unique time in history.

This is one of the more aggravating assertions, especially when coupled with: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ.” Both of these provoke a concern about who the authority is in her life. Is Kelly Bean the authority over her own life or is God the authority? I ask this question because it is hard for me to believe that someone submitted to God would approach the ideas of re-imagining the Christian life so cavalierly. But we live in an age that asserts your ability to shape and define yourself, even at the cost of historical traditions. I know a few people who claim to be Buddhists without knowing anything about Buddhism beyond meditation, yoga, and zen…and I severely question if they actually know what ‘zen’ is. This kind of disposition seems to be increasingly common among young Christians as well. There is an assumption that I can define my own form of Christian faith, often at the great cost of the words of Christ.

The Not So Surprising Use of Testimony

To say that HtBaCwGtC is void of support is not entirely accurate. It is better to say that it is void of significant and authoritative support. Bean does seek to prop her claims up, she does so almost exclusively on the back of personal testimonies of individuals who have left the church and found community and flourishing faith outside of the confines of denominations and worship services. I take issue with this tactic in general as it is at best a tertiary form of support. Before turning to personal testimony, biblical and theological arguments should form a coherent base for any argument about the Christian life. I wouldn’t dare tell someone to add fasting to their lives as a spiritual discipline without pointing to key passages of scripture that tell of its uses and importance, nor would I shy away from a theological extrapolation from the conglomeration of passages at hand.

Regardless of where testimony falls in the line of potential forms of argument, another reason for hesitancy is the questionably nature of our testimonies. Michael Horton makes an excellent observation in his book Ordinary about retrospective evaluations:

Think of the things that matter most to you. How do you measure your relationships? How do you “measure” your marriage, for example? When my wife and I talk about our relationship, we often have different takes on how things are going. Looking back over the course of our married years, we have seen many ways in which the Lord has bonded us together since our first year together. We can see steady growth and identify ways in which we’ve deepened in our relationship. But when we shift our focus to the short-term, the week-to-week, it becomes harder for us to get an accurate gauge on how we are doing.

Many of her examples are millennials who have left the church, but with something as difficult to measure as faith, is a few years enough to be reflective and notice the small steps of growth we take toward Christlikeness? I tend to think it isn’t. We need a long view to assess sanctification. To her credit, at least to examples she presents have been non-goers for a decade or so. In my last post I engaged the story of one of the two, so let’s look at the other—the author herself.

UnknownKelly Bean or C.S. Lewis?

I think I have tipped my hand quite a bit, so if you disagree with me there is probably little reason for you to take anything I have said or will say to heart. My hope is that you would listen to the position I take and seek to generously and critically engage it so that we might together seek the flourishing of our faiths and greater understanding of what it means to be Christian. That said, maybe you are done listening to me, might I then offer a more authoritative voice than mine? C.S. Lewis is widely held by Christians of many stripes to be a profound thinker and authoritative theologian and philosopher, so in this section I would like to present Kelly Bean’s view of her self and juxtapose C.S. Lewis’ thoughts from Mere Christianity to her position.

Here I am on a bright Sunday morning, curled up in my cushy orange chair, sipping tea and loving Jesus. It’s been quite some time since Sunday morning meant getting the whole family spruced up for a church service, racing to get out the door on time, piling in the car, and making the familiar trek to fill our favorite row of seats in a church sanctuary. It’s also been awhile since I have chaired a church committee, taught a Sunday school class, preached from a pulpit, coordinated a church potluck, or attended a church prayer meeting.

Back in the day when I was a leader in the churches we attended, we would nod our heads knowingly about the Christians who would darken the door of a church only on Christmas and Easter (we called them “C and E” Christians). We felt confident that those non-churchgoers were not real, committed, growing Christians. And as the times shifted, we began to worry about an increasing cadre of longtime churchgoer friends who were leaving church, never to return.

Funny thing is, now I am one of them, the non-goers. But even still, as a faithful non-goer, I love the church in its various shapes and flavors and would not want to imagine a world without it. Many of my dearest friends are amazing pastors and priests whom I admire a great deal. Let me say right up front, this book is not about the flaws of the traditional church or the pain it can inflict. Those who have lived long in church realize plenty of difficult stories could be told as well as plenty of stories of love, care, compassion, commitment, and community. But this book is not about those stories either.

This book is about those times when, places where, and people for whom attending organized “church” does not work. People may not participate in church for a season or even for the long haul for numerous reasons. I know I am not alone in my experience. This continues to be confirmed over and over as I meet more and more creative and proactive non-goers…

[Edited out mandatory reference to George Barna]

Frankly, the possibilities for goodness that can be generated via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, online fund-raising platforms, and email alone are flabbergasting. Used well, the Internet and social media hold the potential for moving us far beyond communication to real connection with others. For those who are being Christian without going to church, the Internet throws the door wide open for creating new types of community of faith and practice.

As a person who led and served in church for more than two decades, I know the importance of gathering together as the visible body of Christ and encouraging each other to practice love and do good deeds. Now, as a non-goer and cultivator in an ever-evolving Christian community, I also believe there are healthy, visible, doable alternatives to the traditional church. Becoming a non-goer does not have to lead to waning faith or cynicism but instead can lead to a life-giving, world-changing, growth-inducing, community-building way of being. As you read this book, I invite you to meet friends of mine. I hope you will be encouraged by their ideas, projects, and stories. Their lives are being lived in so many active, committed, Jesus-loving, world-serving, gathering, and worshipful ways.

(From Pages 9-13)

Unknown-1A few points to make here, though there is much I would say, I will limit myself to the positions of the venerable Lewis.

  • The Role of Theology

Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?

And

Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones— bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.

The history of Christianity and the vast majority of theological writings attest to the necessity of the church for the flourishing of the Christian life. The individual needs the group and the group needs the individual. Bean ignores this, ignores theological tradition and assumes experience trumps years of theological work. This according to Lewis is both childish and misguided. Good Christian thinking concerns itself with the words of those who came before. Consider the words of G.K. Chesterton, an influence on C.S. Lewis:Chesterton-cartoon

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time…Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. Orthodoxy (Moody Classics) (pp. 49-50)

The leaders and adherents of the failed experiment of the Emerging Church sought to establish themselves as a kind of people’s movement, often rejecting tradition and the standards of orthodoxy. In reality, by Chesterton’s point, it was not so. By rejecting their past, they became elitists, limiting influence to a selective group of people who “merely happen to be walking about.”

  • The Short Comings of ExperienceUnknown

If a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God— experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion— all about feeling God in nature, and so on— is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map. In other words, Theology is practical: especially now.

I have nothing to add to this.

  • The Necessity of the ChurchMere Christianity - CS Lewis

Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science— the laboratory outfit.

How is the science of Christian theology done? With Bible open in the presence of the theological community—not necessarily scholars and clergy—the theological community is the community of faith, the church. The disciples were an amalgam of various trades and skills, but none were formally trained theologians. Seminary training is a blessing and a gift, but not the necessary standard for the work of theology, that is, rather, the miracle of regeneration.

  • The Nature of Christianity

That is why all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own as a substitute for the Christian tradition are really wasting time. Like a man who has no instrument but an old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right. He may be a clever chap— he may be cleverer than some of the real astronomers, but he is not giving himself a chance. And two years later everyone has forgotten all about him, but the real science is still going on. If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.

Unknown-1Let us not forget that our faith is not properly ours. I do not own my faith in a manner that grants me the rights of ownership, to do with the faith that I have been given as I see fit.

Conclusion

I cannot, if you have not guessed, recommend this book for study, nor its premise for practice. Its best use is as a word of confirmation. It is in essence a eulogy to the emerging church. Quoting leaders like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, George Barna, and others of that ilk, Bean establishes her place in that stream. It is no surprise then that she advocates faith without church. She left the dying mainstream, joined a anti-institutional movement only to abandon it as McLaren and Bell did when it became its own institution. Now she seeks a unique and churchless faith. In concluding, then, allow me to quote Dr. Horton’s Ordinary again

If your personal relationship with Jesus is utterly unique, then it is not properly Christian.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

Faith, Film, and Philosophy: Hector and the Search for Happiness

This month I have been meditating on the idea of happiness, a topic that I believe is of great interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. Historically, happiness has been an area of great philosophical inquiry, dating back to at least Aristotle, who believed that happiness (eudimonia) was the motivating cause for all we do. Some scholars have argued that a better translation of the greek term Aristotle used is flourishing, which shifts the conversation a bit. Yet is is still interesting to consider that happiness and flourishing were linked in one word for the great Greek philosopher, and rather bicker about the appropriate english translation, it may be better to allow our modern culture to be rebuffed that happiness and flourishing have been able to be nuanced into separate words. Ultimately, the distinction is that flourishing is a long-sighted goal, were as happiness could be lasting or momentary. This is a fair distinction in the modern world because we often choose that which gives us a momentary or transient feeling of happiness. We could think of them as happiness boosters taken regularly to inoculate ourselves against unhappiness. Rather than seeking flourishing (which it should be noted often requires the putting off of momentary happiness for the purposes of enduring happiness at a later time) we often opt for fleeting booster shoots like sex, material things, popularity, power, and excitement.

I found this truth put on display in an interesting manner in the feel good film Hector and the Search for Happiness. Hector (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz and Star Trek) is a therapist in London working in a clinic, maintaining a private practice, enjoying a loving relationship with his co-habitating girlfriend (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl). The film shows Hector’s routine day-in and day-out, until one day he snaps at a patient. This outburst causes Hector to question his abilities as a therapist and whether or not he is really helping his patients. The conclusion, which launches the movement of the film, is that he needs to search for the meaning and source of happiness. So Hector leaves London with his relationship in limbo for China, where he tastes the pleasures of the rich on the dime of Edward (Stellen Skarsgård, Thor). Edward introduces Hector to the high life of swanky hotels, happening night clubs, and (unbeknownst to Hector) a potential sexual liaison with a beautiful woman. Unsure that Hector has found the source of happiness in money and romantic infatuation, he sets off again to taste the pleasures of the disenfranchised in Africa. Here Hector spends time with a large family enjoying a celebration, donates time to a friend’s medical practice (Alan, played by Chad Willett, informs him that happiness comes from being loved for who you are, at which point he reveals that he is gay), and meets a drug cartel leader (Jean Reno) who tells him that happiness comes from taking what you want. Still unconvinced, Hector hops a plane to Los Angeles to meet up with former college flame Agnes (Toni Collette, Hostages and Box Trolls) and Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer, Beginners and The Last Station). On this final leg of the expedition Hector comes to an understanding of happiness as rooted in complex emotions (the combination of joy, fear, and sorrow). In this way Hector’s search mirrors the final realization of Joy from Pixar blockbuster Inside-out. Happiness is not simple, nor can it be obtained through mere exertion of will. Happiness (both films attest) is found only when it is not being sought.

Theologically I find this claim very interesting. As a Christian I would argue that happiness should not be our primary pursuit, but rather we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), which, in return we will have the necessities (food, clothing) added to us. Interestingly enough there is no promise that seeking God’s kingdom will result in a one-to-one correlation or that the adding to us will take place immediately or in this life (each of these I point out to refute any prosperity gospel notions that God operates on some form of cosmic bartering system). The point of this segment of the sermon on the mount is confirm that our loyalty is well placed, for seeking God’s kingdom will lead to grace upon grace being bestowed upon its full realization. We ought to think again of the first answer of Westminster Catechism, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We are not to find enjoyment—in this life or the next—in material goods, but in the imperishable inheritance that is stored up for us, which while it may very well be riches and comfort, the most splendid aspect of it will be shalom with the triune God himself.

Unfortunately, neither Inside-out nor Hector and the Search for Happiness affirm such a blatantly theological position. Rather they settle for a unity of the self. Understanding complex emotions, that is the ability for joy and sorrow (for example) to be wedded together in one experience is the key to happiness. While I can attest to the benefits of a complex view of emotion, in truth we cannot attain wholeness through merely a deeper understanding of our own psyche. For the cosmic Fall did not merely bring sin into the world in the sense that now human error and selfishness are present where they were not before. Rather the cosmic Fall of man brought about a rupture of all of creation relationships.

  • Up – The greatest problem is the fracturing of our relationship with God, we now seek to rule ourselves rather than submit to his loving authority.
  • Down – As if a rupture in the relationship with God was not enough, all of creation wars against man now. From ravenous predators to uncooperative crops, the world is rebelling against the dominion of man as man rebelled against God.
  • Out – One of the clearest examples of the fracture with God is the fracturing of our relationships with each other. We struggle to “love our neighbors as ourselves” and often (if not always) think of ourselves as more important than others. I am likely to give myself the benefit of the doubt and believe my motives to be pure while others are nefarious.
  • In – We might think we can seek solace as introverts, but alas it is not so. Second only to the break with God, it would surprise me if the disconnection from our own hearts and minds were not the most painful and frustrating. We are our own worst enemies and, if I may speak from personal experience, find that the true motives of my heart are often most difficult to discern. While the battle against Satan and the world maybe one of open combat, I find the battle against my flesh to be more of a cold war, which needs constant diligence and a commitment biblically saturated, Spirit-filled espionage. My own heart is often the enemy line that I am behind.

Understand these ruptures of relationship will avail us to the truth that shalom will not be found in this time. We cannot expect peace, except that which does by the grace of God. Harmony, unity, and love are available because of God’s common grace, yet all-in-all they pale in comparison to salvific grace which offers us God himself.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

The Church and the Pursuit of Happiness

Recently I have been reading a book titled How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. If I can tip my hand before reviewing it, I find the book intensely aggravating, which I expected, but I was taken back, specifically by the author’s primary mode of argument—personal testimony. This is a book by a Christian, on being a Christian, and it focuses on the Church (the Bride of Christ), yet this books offers no theological arguments (thus far 72/233 pages in), one poorly formed biblical argument. Rather it depends solely on the personal experience, testimony, and individual judgement of people the author knows. One such testimony stands out to me to such a degree that it is worth engaging with here:

Jim experienced deeper growth after he left church than when he was part of and even leading a congregation. “After seventeen years of not going to church, my faith is stronger than ever. For me, [being a non-goer] removed the obstacle of dissonance between what the church could be and the dysfunction inherent to the institution. [Being a non-goer] forces me to think more deeply about why I do what I do and why I don’t do what I don’t do. If you are just reactive, then you won’t grow. But if you are reflective, you will keep growing. That is my story.” 7

Jim is not alone. Hundreds and hundreds are asking good questions and then choosing to leave. I wondered what Jim thought about the other reasons people are leaving church. “Church has come to mean a church service or event,” he said. “Churches have organized around a church service as their identity. That takes away 90 percent of the rich identity and intention of the church. I can tell you, services will become boring and predictable— you can only entertain people so long.

“Also, right now the world is going through huge changes in communication and technological advances that are shifting the ways people think, connect, and learn. Cultural changes and the complexity of life are causing people to think twice about how they spend their time and what they commit to. While culture is changing rapidly, what is slow to change is leadership awareness. We are still using the same leadership model as pharaohs— oligarchy when the people have made the shift to charting their own course in a people’s sort of polygarchy. People don’t have the same amount of time they used to, and they don’t feel as inclined to give loyalty to institutions as they once did. People don’t feel guilty and obligated in the same way they used to. When middle adopters, the more conservative people (not just hippies, artists, and nonconformists), start to abandon ship, you know something is up.”

Jim continued, “Some people leave because they mature and graduate. I think there are stages of life in church. One of the problems of church is that it is parental— with leaders directing and telling people what to do. What happens when people don’t need that anymore?” Despite his non-goer status, Jim has a soft spot for leaders in the church and often refers people to churches led by his friends. “I don’t want to have to go to church, but I care about, respect, and admire people who are leading. I am glad to help them. And I am still grateful that I have a place to send people. I think most people need a structure and a ritual. I guess I don’t need to be reminded that I need to follow Jesus. I think about it every few minutes.”

I wondered how people handle the idea of a pastor who no longer goes to church. Jim explained: “At first I went to a church service about once a month. Really that is all you have to do to make people happy. That works to keep a public person in good standing. You can say you attend a particular church and people will be satisfied. But really, do you think Jesus wants us to be that way? Eventually I started doing what I wanted to do. I stopped going. I think I’ve established my credibility over the years. I think people now just give me a weird pass.”

There are many observations to be made here, but I plan to review this book when I finish and they would be better suited for that post. One observation is critical for our topic today however. I have highlighted it in the last paragraph. Jim, a former pastor, left church leadership because he felt the church staff was not being well cared for—a good reason to be upset. But what becomes clear in Jim’s story is that righteous indignation gave way to mere ‘want.’ Notice two things about Jim’s story:

  1. It lacks theological basis – for a former pastor, this strikes me as troubling and odd.
  2. A good question is posed (do you think Jesus wants us to be that way?), but no answer is sought, rather a decision is made on the basis of “what I wanted to do.”

I am sure Jim is a good guy, in the sense that phrase usually gets tossed around, but there is so much hidden in the phrase ‘what I wanted to do’ that is worth taking a moment to consider.

Want and Happiness

I imagine it would not be a difficult pill to swallow to simply assert that what we want and what we believe will make us happy are closely connected, if not synonymous. If I am right about that, then it is fair to interpret Jim’s words above to say something akin to:

But really, do you think Jesus wants us to be that way? Eventually I started doing what would make me happy. I stopped going.

This then implies that what Jesus ultimately wants is for us to be happy, or more accurately, to be happy on our terms. The Church as an institution and as a local manifestation has its problems. Maybe it is singular in generational representation, racial association, economic status, and other demographic markers. Maybe it is hypocritical in its treatment of homosexuals while the pews are full of pornography addicts and adulterers. Maybe it is impractical and a poor steward of its resources. Anyone of those could be true and I would still argue that the church’s greatest problem today is the assumption so prevalent that I as an individual have unfettered right to re-imagine, criticize, or pursue church as I see fit. So often projects of relevance are nothing more than a mere remaking of the church in ‘my’ image. It seems to be increasingly the case that church goers are taking a “my way or the highway” approach to church. I remember reading ministry books and hearing conference messages that bemoaned the trying to keep attendance up when one wrong word might send people to the church down the street, but now it seems we have gone a step further and one wrong word is license to leave the church entirely. A church stops saying what we want (or starts saying what we don’t want) and the immediate and often unquestioned response is to leave or seek drastic change. Consider another quote from the excerpt above:

While culture is changing rapidly, what is slow to change is leadership awareness. We are still using the same leadership model as pharaohs— oligarchy when the people have made the shift to charting their own course in a people’s sort of polygarchy.

Jim is upset about the leadership style and this becomes a cause for concern—maybe rightly or maybe wrongly—what is never said, however, is whether there was any meaningful investigation into the theological and biblical reasons for such a leadership structure and style. Before we re-imagine church, before we recast the pastoral role, before we drop out altogether it would be a great benefit to first question our motives and our latitude with church structure. I don’t mean that we should simply question ourselves, but these questions must be asked with the Bible open or there is no point in asking them at all.

Homosexuality and the Church

Ultimately this is the issue that lies behind the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the church. It has become a faux-pas to challenge homosexuality as a lifestyle or same-sex marriage as an new institution, but on what grounds can it be supported and accepted as viable for the Christian? Some have attempted to argue biblically that a trajectory hermeneutic allows for the acceptance of homosexuality or to argue that the form of same-sex relations was what was under reproach in biblical teaching, but that with today’s monogamous, loving relationships such biblical teachings are no longer relevant. In all honesty this is an absurd charge, which has been refuted at length by better minds than my own. What is left, when biblical arguments, theological arguments, and historical arguments all fail is a mere desire or preference for acceptance. Again we are back to want and its relationship to happiness as the world conceives it. Because some pastors, elders, board members, congregants want to be perceived a certain way (most likely because it makes them momentarily unhappy to be perceived as backward thinking) they make concessions veiled under weak theological arguments, or more often references to personal anecdotes and experience.

Having made the choice to side with the spirit of the age over and against scripture, there is little room for discussion and debate as the mutual authority on which grounds the debate could be profitable has been lost. It seems as an conversation on the church’s position on homosexuality (or for that matter women pastors, divorce, pre-marital sex, and a host of other issues) is as helpful as a conversation between two parties of completely different languages and backgrounds. While some root words may be understandable, so much is missed that no profit or advance is possible. Given the prevalence of this disconnect between individual churches and believers alike I am thankful for the work of Rosaria Butterfield, especially for her dichotomy of sola scriptura vs. sola experientia. Worldly happiness is about experience and being “in the moment.” On the other hand the Christian religion highlights the already-and-not-yet promoting the understanding that while ‘the now’ is important and should not be neglected, our ultimate hope and joy resides in the future realization of Christ’s kingdom, the road to which is narrow, arduous, and uphill.

 

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

Christianity and the Pursuit of Happiness

Due to some computer issues and the amount of time I need to dedicate to teaching two classes this month I have been delayed in writing for a while. But now I return and this is the post which I had already planned for myself. “Christianity and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I have been resistant to write this post, generally for reasons I mentioned in my previous post last week. Namely, there is a growing contingent of highly visible people claiming to be Christian, more specifically claiming to be evangelical Christians, but preaching a “gospel” that is solely concerned with your individual, present happiness. This false gospel brings in large crowds in America, after all we are imminently concerned with being happy, more specifically with being happy right now. In fact our obsession with personal happiness is well documented in sociology and psychology texts, it lies behind many of our current political debates—especially those related to what has been dubbed “the rise of erotic liberty” (abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights), it is changing the landscape of the church, and has lead to a troubling trend of narcissism.

With all of that personal happiness is still a completely reasonable pursuit, in fact one of the most influential philosophers of all time believed that happiness was the primary pursuit of everything we do. Aristotle argued that happiness is the only thing we ever pursue for its own sake, as such it must be the chief end—that which we devote our lives to.

We choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself… Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.

Nicomachean Ethics, I.7

As Christians, we take a different view of what the chief end of man is, in fact that precise language comes from The Westminster Shorter Catechism‘s first question:

Q1) What is the chief end of man?

A1) To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

John Piper notably amended this in his seminal work Desiring God. Though the amendment is subtle, it is striking. All Piper did was substitute the word ‘and’ for ‘by.’ “To glorify God by enjoying him forever.”Piper’s argument, which would spawn his tag Christian Hedonism, was that “God is most glorified, when we are most satisfied in him” and given that he is good and beautiful, infinite and majestic, true and loving, and many other things, there is plenty of reason to believe that we can find deep and abiding satisfaction in him.

Think about it from another angle, God is often cast—due to a poor reading of the Old Testament—as a stickler, some kind of heavy handed disciplinarian in the sky waiting to swat you with his cosmic ruler when you break a commandment. But is that true? This is the same God that created friendship and community, designed romance and sex, came up with the idea of vocation and calling. This God has done all he can, right down to giving us his very own son, so that we might gain salvation and spend eternity in paradise with him. God wants us to be happy, but he knows that true happiness, happiness that lasts, what we might call biblical happiness, has room for the unconventional and counterintuitive. Consider a few of these counterintuitive points:

Jacob (Genesis 25:19-35:29)

Jacob seeks happiness in all the places that we are told to today. Parental approval? Jacob is the favorite son of his mother and he tricks his father into giving him the blessing of the first born. A beautiful woman? Jacob married Rachel who is “beautiful in form and appearance.” Wealth and family? Jacob amasses a small fortune while working for his uncle and has twelve sons. After all of this he finds himself wrestling with a complete stranger demanding that the stranger bless him. Jacob is still not happy, he is still lacking something. It is only when Jacob discovers that he has been wrestling with God, and God renames Jacob Israel, that Jacob’s pursuit of happiness and (really) identity comes to an end.

Joseph (Genesis 37:1-50:26)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph doesn’t get the opportunity to seek happiness. Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, taken to a foreign land, accused of adultery, thrown into prison, forgotten about, and left with very little hope. But God is always watching after Joseph, allowing him to go through years of struggle and trial. After, Joseph is taken out of prison, earns the favor of the most power man in the land, receives a position of great power and authority, then Joseph is able to forgive his brothers and in part to them the wisdom that though they acted with evil intent against him, God watched over him and directed all events for Joseph’s good, for the good of man others, and for the glory of God.

David (Psalms)

In the Psalms, David writes magnificent poetry that calls out to God longing to be near to him, and yet the next page sings about David feeling claustrophobic in God’s presence. What is clear is that David, regardless of circumstance links his welfare to God. David lives or dies in the action or inaction of Yahweh.

Jesus (the Gospels)

Ultimately the true Son of David is a key figure to consider when thinking about the very importance of happiness. Jesus will give up his life for the sake of others. Even that is followed by thirty years of never truly being understood by his friends or family, the increasing understanding of what he will have to do, being betrayed by one of his closest friends, being abandoned by those who pledged their lives to him. Jesus was truly the man of sorrows, now Christians should consider this. I believe God delights in our delight, but if we are to truly follow Christ, should we not consider that our delight might be reserved, as it was for Christ, for the life to come? We are not promised delight in this life.

Paul (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

While all of the disciples are excellent examples of what I mean when I write that we aren’t promised ease and comfort in this life, Paul gives us the best example because he gives us an account of what he endured for God’s glory:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 ESV)

There isn’t much to add, other than that this same man wrote:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

Given all of this it is difficult to understand how anyone would understand a Christian view of happiness to be primarily located in the here and now. Your best life is yet to come. In fact, happiness is probably best subjugated to the idea of blessedness for that seems to be the desired state in Christ famous sermon on the mount:

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:2-12 ESV)

There is more to say here, the introduction of the idea of flourishing and its connection to blessedness for instance, but for now I must close here.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

 

America and the Pursuit of Happiness

Last week I wrote about new year resolutions and how they are about betterment or godliness, but that is not really the end of the story about why we make new year resolutions. I think we make new year resolutions because they will make us happy. If we achieve that betterment that we seek, we will be happier people. Is that not true? Would you not be a happier person if you maintained reasonable budget or quit smoking or hit the gym regularly, or finished that project you’ve been working on? I think it is safe to say you would be, maybe not immediately, but eventually—as you grew in health, as you gained more financial security, as you lost those love handles—you would be a bit happier. Happiness should not be all that surprising of a reason for our resolutions. After all Americans are pretty obsessed with happiness—it is even displayed prominently in our founding documents that all citizens have a right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As I’ll write about in another post, happiness is a completely legitimate thing to pursue, that is, as long as we understand it correctly.

However, in recent years our understanding of happiness has shifted away from what our founders meant and how happiness was classically understood in the classical and much of the modern era. Now happiness rest entirely on the individual. This is seen best in the movement of the sexual revolution taking place across America. Consider the states that are dealing with policies on bathroom and locker room usage by transgender people. In many cases the debate is about the rights of a person who identifies as a different gender than their biological sex over and against a larger number of individuals and who don’t. One particular example was that of a high school male who identifies as a girl being able to use the girls locker room, showers, and bathrooms. You can imagine the livid response from dads and moms of the girls at that school, which provoked media coverage.

As we consider pursuing happiness, it would be good to reflect on Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11 ESV)

I think it is fair to say that God wants us to be happy, just consider the Bible’s teachings on Heaven, that said, the biblical understanding of happiness is thicker than contemporary America. The biblical definition of happiness is compatible with suffering, enduring persecution, martyrdom, and the daily sacrifice of our desires and comforts for the good of others. It is this definition I will look at in my next post.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

Some Thoughts on a New Year

I had a pretty great 2015. Sure there were down days and some tough patches, but 2015, for me, began with walking arm-in-arm with my lovely wife through the d’Orsay museum’s collection of impressionists. Its pretty hard to top having a latte across the street from the Louvre, or a afternoon stroll under the Eiffel Tower. Half way through the year I finished grad-school (for now…no I’m done two M.A. is more than enough…unless you wanted to get an MFT or do a PhD…well, wait, no I’m done. Plus the wife would never be okay with going back for more…etc, etc, etc.) That is pretty exciting, and my diploma came with an adjunct professorship at my alma mater. Then, 2015 closed out with a new edition to the family. Hear that 2016—Paris, completing school, a new job, and an heir—you have big shoes to fill. Sure there were some rough patches and tough moments, but 2015 was a pretty good year.

In spite of that, I am looking forward to 2016, I love new years, the most notable of all fresh starts. Is that why we make new year resolutions? Because we have a fresh start to make something out of this year. We have a fresh start to achieve, complete, begin, learn, grow. We have a clear opportunity to start a process of becoming a better version of ourselves. 365 days and they begin today. There is something exciting about that, but there is also something about what I just wrote that makes me feel like it should be written on the back cover of a Joel Osteen book. The front would have his so-happy-I-clearly-don’t-live-in-reality grin on it, some bright background (goldenrod or aqua marine), and in gold or silver letters something like The Power of Fresh Starts: How to Take the New Year by the…(humm, what’s a nice southern word for balls? Oh wait, duh, Texas). The Power of Fresh Starts: How to Take the New Year by the Horns. You get the point. I don’t want to be too…whatever it is Osteen is. But I do want to pursue some new year resolutions. For example here are a few of mine:

  1. Get Published
  2. Learn French
  3. Read 40 Books
  4. Pursue Ministry Jobs/Training
  5. Disciple Five Guys

Each of these things represents an attempt at growth and betterment, but I think the key to understanding how Joel and I differ is an understanding of eternity. You see, I can accomplish all five of those goals and a number of others and there is a sense in which I will be a better person—being bi-lingual is better than uni-lingual—but there is a difference between better and good.  We should be careful not to equate them. Consider the story of the rich young ruler from the gospel of Luke.

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:18-30 ESV)

A young wealthy man approaches Jesus, we might say a man who was living his best life now, and attempts to both pay him a compliment and inquire as to the security of his eternal soul. The latter part being by far more important to the man, but Jesus derails his inquiry at the very beginning for the purpose of re-establishing (not re-defining) the definition of good. Goodness is not about wisdom and popularity, nor is it about morality and adherence to particular ethical codes. Goodness is about godliness. Godliness is related to obedience to God, but there is a more fundamental aspect to it. Godliness is about discipleship to Christ, which is why Jesus offers the rich young ruler an invitation to follow him. When we look at this passage we tend to focus on the “sell everything” part, but it is only important because the man’s wealth was his cost of discipleship, it was what he valued over relationship with God, and it thus needed to go. Godliness is impossible for us to attain, but thankfully, through discipleship to Jesus, God has opened a way for us to become godly because, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

What does this have to do with new year resolutions? There are two kinds of resolutions, betterment ones and godliness ones. We tend to shy away from godliness resolutions because there is no definable way to measure and there is no reason to expect that we could achieve it on our own calendar or by our effort. Learning a foreign language is a whole lot easier than growing in godliness. Keeping up with a weekly workout plan is easier than pursuing sanctification. As well, with betterment goals I can continually check my progress—can I bench more than I could last week? can I pass a French vocab quiz? how many books have I read this year?—but growth in godliness is slow, I bet I would have a difficult time assessing and noting my sanctification from 2014-2015. Even with hindsight being 20/20, how would I assess my progress. Did I read my Bible more days than not last year? Maybe, but is that a sure fire sign of growth?

For the month of January I will be focusing on some thoughts, reviews, and whatnot that deals with growth, betterment, and happiness. I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks for reading,

tdh