Friday, December 29, 2017

Taking Captive the Winter Blues

It happens every year about this time. It is below zero for a month straight. The wind howls. The sun doesn’t come up till almost 8 am and it sets around 4:30 pm. We are cooped up in the house, and it gets old quickly.

As a highly active go-getter, winters are hard. I spend a few months every year sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see trees budding and grass sprouting with the promise that warmer and longer days are on their way. 
Last night after dinner, I was just ready for winter to be over and hoping for something different, something better; wishing dinner could be followed by playing in the yard with the kids or going on a family walk. These moments usually aren’t that bad and I wouldn’t even describe them as depression, but last night was different. In the midst of feeling the winter time blues, I was also reading of a dear Christian brother who is dealing with what may well be the loss of his wife to cancer. As I was reading, I found myself heartbroken for the man and his family who would most likely be separated from someone they love so dearly. 

My own sinful mind soon took a godly empathetic sorrow down a trail of anxiety and fear. I started thinking of all the heartache that is yet in my future. I started putting myself in the shoes of many of the people I have counseled with over the past few years and realized that the real hurts and problems they have gone through may yet await me. My wife will one day die. My children may neglect their souls and allow themselves to slip into a Christ-less eternity. My children may die very young. I may never get a good night's sleep again. I may lose my mind and go bonkers. Our church could lose it vitality and shrivel up into nothing, leaving years of labor with nothing to show. Suddenly I was caught in a mental tornado of anxiety, thinking about all the terrible things that could happen down the road outside of my control.

As my mind was swirling around in that tornado of fear, doubt, and anxiety, I soon retorted, “Where is God when it is cold, windy, and dark? Where will He be tomorrow? Where was He yesterday? God does not cease to be God when it is cold and dark.” I soon realized the anxiety I was creating was leading my mind down a sinful path of unbelief and fear, and I needed to respond.

Last week I was helping a friend pack an elk out of the mountains, and once we loaded the meat onto a horse we started the three-mile walk back to the truck. I was leading the horse with meat on it, but on the steep downhill portions of snow-covered grass, I found the momentum of the burden-laden horse was much faster than I could go in the slick grass if I wanted to remain on my feet. Wanting to be out of the way if the horse fell, I tied the lead rope to the pack saddle and let the horse go ahead for a while because he knew his way back to the truck.

In a lot of ways that is how I have been viewing the winter blues. I had surrendered the lead rope of my mind and allowed it to go as fast and far as it wanted, but it wasn’t going to the truck; it was going further into the mountains of anxiety.

I needed once again to grab the lead rope of my mind, slow it down, and direct it back into the way of truth. And there were two primary truths I need to continually remind myself in battling winter-time blues and anxiety.

1                 1. Who is My God?

The first step I needed to take was to remember who my God truly is.

Isaiah 46:8-11 reminds me, “Remember this, and show yourselves men; Recall to mind, O you transgressors.  Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’ Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.”

In Isaiah 46, God is contrasting Himself with the dead idols of Isaiah’s day. Although they are held in honor and called out to for help, all the false gods do not hear (v. 7). They do not answer. They cannot do anything for their worshipers because they are man-made objects with no life in them.

But in contrast to those dumb idols, our God reveals Himself as a God who is like nothing we can compare Him to. He is absolutely sovereign, and whatever He desires to do, He does. The birds are under His sovereign control. Men are under His sovereign control, and by implication, so is everything else - the length of daylight, the temperature, my health, my children’s salvation, and anything and everything else I may fear.

That is who my God is. The same God who was there in Isaiah's day orchestrating by His sovereign decree every detail of all His created order is the God who lives today still sovereignly working all things according to His plan which has our good in mind. He is a God I can trust. In the midst of anxiety when it is windy, dark, and cold, when those closest to me are dying, when my children are rebelling, there is a God in Heaven who is working all of those things according to the counsel of His will and He is good. He is loving. He is a God who I can trust with my present circumstances as well as my future. And years ahead when I meet those things I fear most, He will still be sovereign. He will still be there and He will continue to orchestrate all things according to His plan which has my greatest good in mind.

                   2. The Gospel

Not only do I need to confront my anxiety with truth about God, I also need to confront it with the truth of the gospel and be reminded of my salvation.

In Habakkuk 3, the prophet is also dealing with anxiety. His anxiety is because God has warned He is going to bring chastening judgment against Judah and destructive judgment against the Chaldeans. Part of this judgment even affected the forces of nature like the mountains (v. 6), rivers and animals (v. 8), and the sun, moon, moon and stars, most likely symbolic of all the created order (v. 11). God was both judging the wicked and chastening His people, and as Habakkuk saw God moving in the forces of nature both to discipline and destroy, it caused him to be so anxious. 

He wrote in v. 16,

When I heard, my body trembled;
My lips quivered at the voice;
Rottenness entered my bones;
And I trembled in myself,
That I might rest in the day of trouble.
When he comes up to the people,
He will invade them with his troops.

Habakkuk knows God is about to act, but the details of God's action are as terrifying as they are uncertain and he is very anxious.

But Habakkuk confronts his anxiety by reminding himself that the same God who judges and disciplines is also the God who saves, and in the midst of uncertainty and fear, it keeps him on the trail of faith. 

In v. 17-19, Habakkuk replies to himself and says,  

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food;  though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls— yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.

In the midst of fear and uncertainty about the future, Habakkuk is strengthened and kept in the faith by the truth that God is the God of his salvation. Habakkuk looks beyond the darkness of his present situation to his salvation and the God of his salvation and the reminder that no matter what may come, he is held safe in the Hand of God and kept from judgment. His salvation causes Habakkuk to rejoice in the darkest times. 

I need the same reminder that though the trees may lose their leaves and the winds may blow drifts of snow against the back door, though there is no green grass growing because it is -30 degrees F; though there is not enough light in the day to get out of the house, I have ample reason to rejoice and put my hope in God because He is and has provided for my salvation.My greatest fears may yet come to fruition but there is a day coming when they will all yield to my salvation and I will be delivered to an eternal rest with my savior.

I still hate winter but I am fighting it with the good fight of faith. I am fighting it with the truth that God is still on His throne and His sovereignty extends as far as the curse is found. I am fighting it with the joy that however long the winter lasts and whatever it may take from me, I am eternally held safe in the hands of a God who loves me. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Building a Bridge From Our Doctrine to Our Doings

The scene from The Princess Bride is almost blazed into many of our minds. It is a true classic. Viccini and Inigo Montoya are standing atop the cliffs of insanity looking down over the edge as the dread pirate Robers struggles to the top. They have just cut his rope but Roberts manages to continue climbing the rock wall without it. Looking down, Viccini exclaims, "He didn't fall? Inconceivable!" At that point, Inigo Montoya looks over at his knife-wielding maniac of a boss and says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Words have meaning. That is a basic presupposition to communication. It is how I know that as I write this you are able to understand the thoughts I have going on in my head. Words have meaning. I know that seems like a weird way to start a blog but hear me out for a minute. My blog is called Body Life because about once a year I use it to post something that relates to life in and among the body of Christ. In that Body, there is a word that gets thrown around, and to borrow the words of Inigo Montoya, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

What is that word? It is the word "reformed". R.E.F.O.R.M.E.D. What does the word reformed mean? If you asked 100 Christians you would likely get 100 different definitions. Of course, the question is not only a question of definition, it is also a question of degree. How Reformed are you and how Reformed do you have to be in order to wear the badge? Many Presbyterians and Congregationalist brothers would say that the Baptist is not Reformed enough, while the Baptist would claim to be the one truly Reformed, touting that the Presbyterian did not reform enough from Rome.

Paedobaptism and ecclesiology aside, I would imagine that in defining what it means to be "Reformed" many people would say it is to adhere to a certain set of doctrines that emphasize the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation. Some would simply define it synonymous with being a Calvinist. A good definition might also include some reference to the 5 Solas of the Reformation and it may even include a reference to one or more of the great historic confessions of faith. More often than not, when people try to define what it means to be Reformed, the emphasis, if not the entirety, of their answer would center on doctrine, that part of our Christianity that is lived out in the realm of the mind, the essential truths that they believe.

 Our forefathers were not so much concerned with being Reformed. Rather they were concerned with ever reforming. They didn't view the work of reformation as a strict adherence to a certain doctrinal conviction; they viewed it as a continual work in which the church needs to examine and continue examining herself to ensure that both her doctrine and her practice were Biblical. Thus the cry of the Reformation as derived from Augustine was "semper reformanda," or to put it in English, "ever reforming." (Footnote 1)

I would submit in order to be Reformed that it is not enough to have sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is, of course, essential, but it is not enough. Paul instructed Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, "Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine or teaching ('didaskalia'). Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you." What did Paul mean when he told Timothy to take heed to himself as well as to his teaching? The reference "to himself" reaches back in the text to v12 where he told the young pastor, "Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity."

When Paul tells Timothy to take heed to himself, he is warning him of the danger of having a disconnect between what he believes and what he practices. Timothy was not only to teach sound doctrine, but he was also to live a life that was complementary to and consistent with that same doctrine. In short, the doctrines he believed and taught were not to remain in his head. They were supposed to be life-transforming as Timothy exemplified Christlikeness before his congregation.  

I would suggest that the flaws in our definitions of what it means to be Reformed remain in the realm of doctrine and ignore the realm of duty. They have failed to build a bridge between our beliefs and our behavior. What was Paul's concern with Timothy? It was not merely his doctrine; it was the entirety of his life. 

That is what it means to be Reformed. It means that those precious doctrines we love in our mind and heart begin to trickle down into other portions of our being so that our entire being is being sanctified to conformity to the will of God. It is not that we are Reformed. Rather, we are being and are always reforming.

Here is my concern. I am afraid there are many within the doctrinally Reformed camp who are not truly Reformed because they have never built a bridge from their doctrine to their duty. They have kept Paul's command to watch over their teaching and doctrine, but they have neglected the command to watch over their own lives and their calling, to not only to be an example in doctrine but also in love, in spirit, conduct, faith, and purity.

 In Matthew 23:23, Jesus rebukes the religious leaders of His day by saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

I wonder had Jesus spoken these words to those of us who are Reformed, would they be much different? For us, the issue may not be strict adherence to the Old Covenant law, but to doctrinal purity where Jesus could say something like, “Woe to you who call yourself Reformed. For you have your confessions and your doctrine and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: grace and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

Let me give you a few examples:

I was recently following a discussion of a "Reformed" Facebook page where a young man posted a question prefaced by saying something to the effect of, "I am just a young immature believer, please don't crucify me for asking this question." In the preface to his question, he made a passing comment about the general spirit in the group as being uncharitable, and it was that perceived lack of charity that gave him angst about posting a question. Much to my chagrin, some overly zealous person couldn't help themselves and proceeded to threaten kicking him out of the group for attacking the good nature of the spirit of the group. For this particular group, this kind of interaction is not uncommon and threats of excommunication from the group are frequently the first step of internet discipline whenever an administrator is offended or uncomfortable.

There is no shortage of so-called discernment and apologetic ministries in the Reformed world. While in theory, they may have their place in the context of a local church, most of them today are nothing but a bunch of angry dudes looking to be crucified for the sake of making a Youtube video that will go viral. Thus the tenor of their work is self-righteous, proud, and uncharitable.

One organization that exists to facilitate fellowship within the Reformed camp has made the impassability of God - a very small, though not unimportant theological distinctive - the standard and basis for fellowship and association, causing heart-breaking division as many solid brothers found they no longer met the qualifications of fellowship and association.

Abraham Maslow is noted to have said, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Could it be said of us in the Reformed faith that we only have a hammer? Could it be that in our desire for doctrinal purity, we have neglected Paul's weightier command to watch over ourselves? Could it be we have pure doctrine and no love? Could it be we have a systematic theology with no chinks in its armor but have no grace? Could it be in our attempt at ecclesiastical correctness we are holding the faith of our Lord Jesus with partiality?

While on the one hand, someone could say these are isolated incidents, I am persuaded they are also the tip of a much larger iceberg. There is an angry, uncharitable, unloving, unaccommodating, and even proud side within the Reformed camp. Frankly, brothers, it calls for deep, true, and lasting repentance.

Once a week I lead a Bible study at a correctional facility for troubled young men. On Monday we were talking about Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. After reading the passage, I explained to the young men what kind of a woman Jesus was talking to and some of the cultural trappings surrounding this woman that made her unique. Then I asked them, "How did Jesus treat this woman who is not only immoral but also has some weighty cultural baggage and some pretty poor doctrine." The response from one young man was fast and deliberate, "Respect! Jesus treated her with respect, sir!" He was absolutely right. In spite of the woman's poor theology and immoral life, Jesus treated her with respect, love, grace, and charity. He didn't shy away from the truth, but He brought the truth in love. As believers we often consider ourselves in the shoes of Jesus in that story, when in fact, we are not Jesus; we are the woman. We are those who have lived in immorality and sin and who even still have some pretty sad doctrinal baggage, but how has Jesus treated us?

The God of the universe, our creator and sustainer, the perfect theologian and the Holy of Holies, condescends to our weakness and shows us grace, treats us with dignity, does not deal with us according to our sins, but graciously takes us by the hand and calls us to His eternal side.

This has been, and will always be the way in which God affects change us. God has never changed anyone with the law. God has never changed anyone with His wrath or anger. No, it is the kindness of the Lord (Romans 2:4) that leads to repentance. It is His grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:12),  and it is the great love with which He loves us (Ephesians 2:4-5) that made us alive and saved our souls from sin, death, and hell.

Should we not think that if God changes us with His kind attributes of love, grace, charity, kindness, and mercy, as tools in His hand to do the ministry of reconciliation, so we ought to take up the same qualities and exemplify God in our relationships with one another? As recipients of such grace, should our lives not also reflect this grace?

We should not be content to simply wear the badge of possessing Reformed theology. May the banner of our life be "semper reformanda" as we build a bridge from our doctrine to our doings, imitating our God in showing love and grace to our brothers.

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(Footnote 1)  Theodor Mahlmann: "Ecclesia semper reformanda". Eine historische Aufarbeitung. Neue Bearbeitung, in: Torbj√∂rn Johansson, Robert Kolb, Johann Anselm Steiger (Hrsg.): Hermeneutica Sacra. Studien zur Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, Berlin - New York 2010, p. 382-441, here p. 384-388

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