God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

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God wants you filled with jam

G. K. Chesterton had a way with words, a way with humor, and a way with Christian thinking. These qualities are what make the inspiration for the title of this post. It comes from his book, What’s Wrong with the World (a book which, according to Chesterton, is what’s wrong with literature). It opens with a partial answer: what is wrong is that we don’t know, care, or agree about what it would look like for things to be right. This leads to brief discussion about how efficiency, so prized in his day, for its own sake is meaningless. Doing things efficiently is only valuable inasmuch as what you are doing itself is valuable. Almost everything you can do will be efficient toward one goal but inefficient toward another. This brings him to the following:

Maeterlinck is as efficient in filling a man with strange spiritual tremors as Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell are in filling a man with jam. But it all depends on what you want to be filled with. Lord Rosebery, being a modern skeptic, probably prefers the spiritual tremors. I, being an orthodox Christian, prefer the jam.

If this doesn’t crack you up, my condolences. But while it’s obvious what makes the quote funny, it’s less obvious what he means. Why exactly would a Christian prefer jam to spiritual tremors? To put the question a different way, what’s so Christan about being filled with jam?

The connection between Jesus and jam may not be obvious, but it’s important. It goes all the way back to creation. It goes back to God’s choice to make our world, not just a world of ghostly spirit beings, but a world of real, tangible, images of God in fatty, bloody flesh.

When we think about creation, there are a lot of ways to talk about its point. What is the point of created life? We could say that it is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but that’s not very specific. What does glorifying God mean and look like, anyway? Does that mean the point of life is an endless church service, praying and singing and doing sacraments? I’m sure that sounds right to someone, but why did God make such a big world if that was all that mattered? Some people accuse God of being boring because of church, but they forget that it was His idea to send us there only once a week. So what are the other six days for?

Maybe the other six days are for glorifying God, too. But again, what does that look like, if not church? It can’t simply mean reading our Bibles and praying, otherwise even (or especially?) the most spiritual people will struggle not to have a life of mostly filler.

So maybe the point of life means giving God thanks and praise in everything we do. This seems more likely, but more questions arise. Does this mean we’re missing the point whenever we do, well, anything without before and after offering a special prayer of thanksgiving and praise? I realize we’re all sinners, but… Is living life how God intended actually quite that, dare I say, tedious?

Chesterton recognized that it is not. He saw the secret to created life: God made it for living. He understood the old quote from Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God is happy and glorified in all of our enjoyment of His creation, including the whole of our lives. God made this world and every part of our existence, and just like a father who builds a playground, He laughs to see His children playing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that He tolerates misbehavior or ingratitude, which unfortunately color so much of our lives. But even when we enjoy creation without gratitude, or when we live a happy life riddled with sin, the living and the enjoying are still good in themselves, just compromised and corrupted.

Right at the heart of Chesterton’s philosophy was this simple truth. God made life to be lived, lived in joy and gratitude rather than endless dour introspection or sanctimonious blessings on every last thing. We should always remember the Source of life, but the best way to honor Him to precisely to live the life He provides. So be filled with jam, do the work God has set out for you, love the people He has put in your life, and trust in Christ to sanctify the whole thing. We don’t go wrong by enjoying life too much, but by cutting our enjoyment short by poisoning pleasures with sin or ingratitude. So kill the sin, thank God, and live.

The God who retcons

If you’re a Millennial, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the term “retcon” before. If you’re not a Millennial, or if you are for any other reason unacquainted with the word, it is short for “retroactive continuity.” What’s that? I could give a definition, but examples are easier. Probably one of the craziest examples is from last year. Captain America (in the comics) was revealed to be secretly on the side of the evil organization HYDRA which he had ostensibly spent years fighting. Obviously, for the first several decades of Cap’s existence, no one thought of him like that. The character wasn’t invented to be that. But suddenly, his backstory was drastically rewritten with a single comic. The old, settled meaning of hundreds of comics was transformed by this new declaration. They changed the past. Thus “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon.”

The cool thing about God is that He invented retconning, at least if you believe the Bible. This probably sounds strange, so you may want proof. Very well; I can provide it. I think we all remember Hagar, but if not, try reading this passage from ye Old Testament:

Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt.

Genesis 16:1-4

Pretty good move on Abraham’s part, right? He’s waiting for God to give him a son, as promised, and so when his wife (for whatever reason) suggests he use her slave for that purpose, he jumps on it. As we find later, the son he has through Hagar, Ishmael, ridicules Sarai’s son, Isaac, who was the true promised child, and Hagar’s life is ruined, and in the end Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel. The story reaches into the present day as the source of modern Israeli/Arab conflict. So, this little debacle is pretty much responsible for 9/11 and modern Middle Eastern terrorism more generally. Thanks, Father Abraham!

From our perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. Abraham was given a promise and told to wait, but he ran out of patience and faith. So he created chaos for everyone. Not quite the most honorable legacy.

Except that’s not how God remembers it. Let us turn to Romans 4, where Paul recalls Abraham’s story as the background for his teaching about justification by faith. Here’s how he describes Abraham’s faith:

He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.

Romans 4:16b-22 (emphasis mine)

See, when Abraham is remembered in the New Testament, nothing is said about him letting his faith or his patience slip up with Hagar. Instead, Paul says under inspiration that Abraham did not waver but was strengthened in faith. He was fully convinced of God’s promise. That seems strange to us, but it’s how the Bible sees it.

How do we understand this? Is there some kind of contradiction? Does Romans 4 pretend that Genesis 16 never happened? To steal a phrase from Paul, by no means! See, we don’t know Abraham’s psychology. We don’t know what made him think it was actually a good idea to impregnate his wife’s slave instead of waiting for Sarai to conceive. But we do know one thing: God remembered him as righteous, not unfaithful. Whatever this little episode was, it somehow fell into a story of Abraham as a hero of faith.

The same goes for other Bible characters with massive flaws and failures. David had Bathsheba, but he was gladly upheld as the ideal king who points to the Messiah. Moses was, for sin’s sake, barred from the Promised Land, but good luck finding a negative word about him in the New Testament. He’s called instead “faithful as a servant in all God’s household” (Heb. 3:5).

This isn’t just exaggerated hagiography, as though the later Bible writers felt embarrassed and wanted to brush over the flaws of their favorite forefathers. This is the divine retcon: when God takes the mixed and cracked lives of His saints and reworks them into something beautiful, something, well, righteous. God justifies us, declares us righteous, by faith, and in declaring us righteous, He makes our whole story a story of righteousness, even the gross parts. It is just another aspect of how God works all things for good.

So for us, even in our worst moments, we can know this: if we continue in faith, our story ends with “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We may not feel good or faithful now, but God is writing the story, and He has given us a glorious sneak peek into the ending. Whatever happens in the meantime, He will fit it all into that ending. For the God who justifies the ungodly is the God who retcons.

The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

Yay for Backups!

Good news! I have found sitting somewhere on one of my computers a backup of most of my posts from Being in Christ. I don’t remember exactly why I had made it or saved it there, but I’m very happy that I did. I am restoring them to this blog now, so feel free to peruse the salvaged material.

A Blogging Saga Continues

So, a grave misfortune has fallen upon me. In the process of switching web hosts, I lost my blog. The Nicene Nerd, of course, is still up and running, but you will find that Being in Christ is gone. I had probably not even hit 20 posts yet, but it is still disappointing. Having a blog set apart specifically to be a little more personal and accessible is valuable to me and (I think?) at least some of my readers.

So, to deal with this tragedy, I start another blog. In Whom Christ Plays will be basically the same kind of thing as Being in Christ, but hopefully this one will stick around. The title, if you are wondering, comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ short but delightful poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” I will quote it here in full for your enjoyment:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Being in Christ means Christ is in me. He is the image into which I am being molded, the pattern into which God is weaving my life, the music which plays on the instrument of my flesh. Thus this blog reflects my thoughts and experiences as I try to be one in whom Christ plays, or, as Paul put it, to live so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I am now living in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

To be like Jesus, be despised but not despicable.

“Jesus said we would be despised.”

I hear Christians say this all the time. Usually it comes in the context of offering controversial opinions based on the Bible or Christian tradition. And technically they are correct. Jesus did tell the disciples that His followers would be ridiculed, persecuted, and hated for His sake.

But… This isn’t all there is to say about the matter. Too often people use this as an excuse to present biblical teachings in an inappropriate, rude, or even wicked way. (And sometimes they’re not even biblical teachings so much as cheap caricatures of them.) Doing this is unacceptable. Truth can and sometimes must be offensive, but its offense must never be wielded as a club.

Being clear: rudeness is not Christian. Name-calling and slandering are not Christian. Treating people as though they did near bear the image of Christ is not Christian. And Jesus did not tell us to do any of those things. Truth can be very offensive, but this offense can be made worse or better by how, when, why, and where we preach it.

Jesus promised that we would be despised, but He only blessed those who are despised for His sake. When we misbehave, acting arrogantly or abusively in our truth-telling, we will be despised not for Christ’s sake but for our own. In fact, adding rudeness to truth turns the truth into a kind of lie, since it gives off the signal that the God—who is Himself truth—approves of our behavior.

So in the end this really is just a rant against abusing the truth as a club with which to be jerks to other people. We can be despised for our message and for our love and still be like Jesus. But when we are despised for being obnoxious, inflammatory, cruel, or disrespectful, our own Scriptures condemn us. For we are called to be witnesses characterized by love, compassion, gentleness, a good reputation, and blamelessness before the world, in peace as much as it depends on us. To adapt from Jesus:

“What good is it if you speak the truth but harass and disrespect others? Do not even the most rabid SJWs do the same? And if you preach the offense of the cross but add to it your own offense, are you not a stumbling block to your hearers? Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

P.S. This Babylon Bee article ties in perfectly with my point here.