Compassion Reframed

Discussing my previous essay at lunch yesterday, I was reminded that the Christian understanding of compassion is not obvious in modern culture. Compassion, according to my meal companion, is a bottomless pit, or “black hole” as he described it. Because the “quagmire of needs and excess of misery” is so extensive on earth, those very miseries act as a black hole sucking compassion beyond what our beings are able to give. The result is that we are stretched to the point of despair.

That description begs a question: What is compassion? Or possibly more to the point: What is false compassion?

Compassion is not a felt need to fix the world. That felt need, common in modern western democracies, where we believe the lie that we can change the world, is not compassion. It is actually a form of triumphalism, a side effect of the Enlightenment and its wondrous discoveries. Politico-economic theories such as Marxism, National Socialism, and Austrian economics (ie, Friedrich Hayek) all include the assumption that the world ought to be improved. Although they go about it in different ways, they all present theories of world improvement on a grand scale.

Of course governments (in National Socialist theory) and large businesses (in Austrian theory) can do a great deal of good, leading to an improved life (the remarkable standard of living in the Western world being the obvious evidence for such a claim). When these economic theories are combined with the modern democratic tendency, these amazing strides are applied to individuals. We begin to think that we (that is, individuals) can and should do the same thing as governments. This is the fatal flaw of much of the world improving that goes on today.

Compassion, like all the virtues, is neither corporate, governmental, nor societal (although we often misapply the word “compassion” to these institutions. As a virtue, compassion is individual, and must grow from the heart. Rather than “compassion,” we would be better served to think in terms of “justice” when we think of government or corporate policies.

Rather than “fixing” we need to think of our lives in terms of “being.” As a result, authentic compassion cannot be separated from mourning, which is the more fundamental virtue out of which compassion grows. When a whole community is destroyed by a tornado (I live in tornado country, so it is an example that readily comes to mind) such as nearby Whiting or Wayne in recent years, there is, in fact, little that individuals can do to fix the problem. Recovery teams that went into Whiting, for instance, ended up doing as much harm as good because of untrained, overzealous volunteers who were simply beyond their depth.

In situations of disaster, high murder rates, the opioid epidemic, etc., the first and most important thing we can do is mourn. Suffering is a given in this life, and when I mourn, I take other people’s suffering into my own being and thus share their burden. This, by the way, is the etymological meaning of compassion (suffering—”pathos” – with—the prefix “com”).

Once we enter into this state of mourning and are suffering with those who are suffering, we are given insight into what I ought to do (in contrast to what I theoretically can do. Maybe I ought to invite a disaster stricken family to live with me for a few weeks until they get things sorted out. Maybe encourage and participate in an intervention to get an addict the help he or she needs, maybe I make a formal and personal complaint to the police department about how they treat the Hispanics or Native Americans in the community. Maybe I give someone a hundred or ten-thousand dollars so that they can get back on their feet.

So suffering with another person leads to concrete actions. We might call that step one and step two. Step three is learning to accept the accusations and condemnations that will inevitably come because I am not doing more. “You helped, Jane, but you refuse to help Jill. You are so selfish!” Being swayed by such pressure is not compassion; it is actually a form of cowardice.

In short, authentic compassion nearly always appears to fall short of the need. And when our actions fall short of the need, we will be accused of not doing enough. If I am a compassionate person, that will feel like a moral failing. And so I do more; I do things that I am actually not equipped to do. I over-extend. And it is at this point (the point where it is not about the suffering of others, but rather what others think of me) that the despair of helping others sets in.

So the final piece of compassion that is an absolutely necessary part of of authentic, divinely given compassion, is learning to bear the shame of never doing enough. That shame is the shame of recognizing that we are not God. That shame is the shame of recognizing that our resources, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual resources, are not infinite. The shame is the recognition that we live in a broken world, and that we can’t un-break it. That is for God alone to do.

True compassion is a gray and sorrowful nether world. True compassion reveals that we are inadequate and incomplete. True compassion leads full circle to even deeper mourning.

In a world where we think of happiness, comfort, a cell phone, and a free internet connection as rights, this sounds terrible. But if we are willing to take that gigantic and frightful step into the world more properly understood, we will discover something remarkable. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” When we dwell in that state of mourning that completely undoes us, we discover that we were undone all along (while just fooling ourselves with our veneer of happiness and a good internet connection). It is in this state of nether grayness that the true joy of God can begin to spread its light through our whole being. We not only discover who we are (undone and incapable), we discover who we are in Christ.

We, who live in the modern Western world, must always keep in mind that we cannot fix the world. We must also remember that fixing things is fraught with danger. Even when governments or corporations fix things, something else seems to go horribly wrong. Suffering is here to stay. Compassion is not fixing all the suffering around us; it is entering into that suffering, and helping where we can. In our triumphalistic world, that sounds inadequate and even escapist. Why? Because at the root of triumphalism is the assumption that we can fix it better than God can, or we have to fix it because God refuses to. Authentic compassion is the mirror opposite of that sort of triumphalism.

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On Being wearied of an Excess of Misery

Reading a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Eternity, by Greg Bear. It’s a bit tiresome, and at this point even the protagonists are getting tired. One character “had finally wearied of Earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess of misery.”

I am reminded of Paul’s words in Gal. 6. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Just as their is only one sacrament (the sacrament of incarnated love) of which the other sacraments and sacramentals are expressions (at least according to Hopko), so there is only one virtue (out-reaching love), of which compassion is one of the most challenging expressions.

Compassion, as with all the virtues, is a pass-through energy. I can only be authentically compassionate when it is Christ’s compassion passing through me. I am not the source of compassion, only the conduit. When I weary “of earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess misery,” it is a sure sign that I’m trying to generate compassion from my own inner self, which being finite, quickly runs dry.

Weariness is a warning sign that I’ve disconnected from divine love. It is an indication that I think I can do this on my own. It is warning that I’m dangerously close to idolatry, replacing God’s love with my own self in its supposed sufficiency.

Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

The Daughter of a Voice

In John 12:28f, Jesus says, “‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.” A.T. Robertson (in Word Pictures) observed the Rabbis called the audible voice of God bath-qol, or “the daughter of a voice.” Now that’s a weird bit of trivia to throw into the commentary that I want to explore.

Consider the question of talking. When I talk to another person there is physical distance between us and that physical distance can be considered a metaphor for the distance between what I mean and what you think I mean. I can never fully say precisely what I mean. As a result, the person hearing my words may hear something rather different than what I mean. There is no direct connection between what I intend to say and what the other person hears. My meaning gets interpreted into words which go from me to you. Those words then get interpreted back into your meaning (or understanding). Hopefully my meaning and your understanding are pretty much the same thing.

We can describe this as a mediated process. Between my meaning and your understanding are several steps that mediate the two. My meaning can never directly touch your understanding; it must be mediated by something. Now this sounds very similar to something else. Moses wanted a direct apprehension of God, but God said, nope, won’t happen. “No one can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s presence (that is, his face) had to be mediated by something else in order for us to apprehend God. Thus the Rabbis tended to view the shining glory of God (expressed in Moses’ burning bush, the cloud of the Exodus and the glory that dwelt in the temple), not as God in and of himself but rather as a created container that veiled the true presence. These were all mediated and not direct experiences.

Evidently (if I’m reading Robertson’s quotation of the Rabbis correctly) the Rabbis considered the voice of God a mediated experience also. It wasn’t actually God’s voice, it was “the daughter of a voice.” (That sounds a lot like the distance between my meaning and your understanding that I tried to describe above.) With all of this context in mind, something quite ironic happens in John 12. We have Jesus Christ, the one John calls both “the Word of God” and “the Son of God,” physically present with the people. In the midst of this scene the disembodied “daughter of the voice” of God comes booming out of heaven (v. 28). The irony is while they were curious about Jesus and wanted to see him, they thought the voice from heaven sounded down right angelic! God was right there but what caught their attention was the thing that pointed toward the sky, where they assumed God was supposed to be.

We take for granted that we have a sense of where God is and what God is supposed to do. The longer we’re Christians and part of a congregation, the more comfortable we become with how it all works, and by extension, where God is and what God is supposed to do. As a result, the longer we’ve been doing this, the greater the danger that we will settle for the daughter of the voice of God rather than the living God.

We need to learn to seek for God without mediation. The living God … and by definition, if God is living, God will exist beyond our expectations and even beyond our desires … The living God is a bit tricky to commune with. Compare this relationship with that of a close friend or spouse. Just about the time you have the relationship figured out and start taking it for granted, the other does something unexpected and you end up responding all wrong. It is the same with God but even more so. If we are truly communing with God that relationship is growing and changing day by day. If we get too comfortable, we end up “communing” with a mediated God, the God of last year, God, but mediated by our expectations from an experience in the past. The result is we are attracted to the booming sound, the mere daughter of a voice, when we could be communing with the Son of God himself.

At the end of this passage Jesus says he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). And indeed, at the beginning of this passage we find foreigners asking to see Jesus (v. 21) no doubt because they are drawn to him. That might seem straightforward, but it turns out to be more slippery than we imagine. On our way to see the Son of God we get distracted by the daughter of a voice. It’s beautiful and awesome; the text even tells us it’s angelic (v.29). But it’s not Jesus. And that’s the trick. We have to be discerning enough to recognize the difference and we have to be picky enough not to settle for the mediated experience.

 

Lent, Knowing God, and Holiness

With Lent just around the corner I am once again pondering the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. In the circles in which I grew up and was educated, this was a distinction that was not carefully made. I think especially of the books that were particularly celebrated on this subject such as the classic The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, the newer and destined to become classic Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and the even more recent (and better imho), but lesser known The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. I read Packer in high school, Tozer in college and Bridges after I was married. (I also knew Bridges, so that relationship may have shaped my opinions about the books.)

All of these books left me with far more questions than answers. All three put a lot of emphasis on the attributes of God (or what might better be called the philosophical attributes), such as holiness, omnipotence, aseity, etc. I call them “philosophical attributes” because these are the things that make God God by definition. These descriptions say less about how God revealed himself and more about what we believe a proper god should look like. Many years ago I had this very conversation with Jerry Bridges, and his argument was that you can’t put much about knowing God in a book because that requires personal relationship (which is very true—point to Jerry, if you’re keeping score) and furthermore, knowing God requires that we first know about God. This is where, over the years, as I have begun to sort this out for myself, he and I begin to diverge…but not that far, as you will see when we circle back to the topic of holiness.

There is a gulf—we might even call it an ugly ditch in honor of Herr Lessing—between “knowledge of” and “knowing.” Knowing about Jerry Bridges, for instance, might lead one to think he’s great man. When you actually get to know him, he’s more like the guy the next door. These two things (Mr. Bridges as a great man and Jerry the guy next door) are not mutually exclusive, but they are very different. What I discovered is that much of what I thought I knew about Jerry Bridges was actually false (although the facts were accurate). It turns out that I need to know him before I could authentically know much about him. And this is the nub of my disagreement with him about knowing God. Knowledge of God does not precede knowing God, it follows it.

To complicate the matter further, the possibility of knowing God includes a moral component that is not always taken seriously enough, at least in the circles in which I grew up and was trained. Tozer puts some emphasis on the idea of fear and trembling; that is, knowledge of God will lead to fear and trembling because God is high and lifted up. As Peter says, “Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). But to frame it in the manner of Tozer is to make it a volitional requirement. In other words, I have to have a certain attitude about God, based on the knowledge of who God is, before I can hope to begin to know him.

But this volitional component is very different than the moral component required to know God. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see th Lord” (Heb. 12:14). From my vantage point Tozer, Packer, and Bridges are all weak on this point for the same reason that they are so strong on the subject in general. All three are traditionally Reformed in their theology. That sort of Reformed theology that springs primarily from the English Reformation puts a strong emphasis on God’s holiness. But it also puts a strong emphasis on human inability to pursue holiness. Given that humans are totally depraved (a foundational doctrine of English Reformed theology), holiness is a gift rather than something we pursue ourselves.

This sensibility can tend toward a passivity about holiness (what Bonhoeffer railed against as “cheap grace”), and certainly tends toward a lack of attention to the topic of human holiness and how it is achieved. It is no accident that the traditional Reformed communions have never put any emphasis on Lent and most reject it outright as a form of works righteousness.

And indeed in the popular imagination that may be what it is. “What are you giving up for Lent?” and “Oh, I’m not allowed to eat meat on Fridays,” are a statements that belie the underlying punitive sense of the contemporary Lenten experience. In contrast to the punitive sense, the heart of Lent in the classical tradition is cleansing. I recently read a blog post railing against Lent and what the author called the doctrine of purgation and punitive sensibility he mistaken thought it implied. But purgation does not mean punishment; it means cleansing. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” says the Psalmist (51:7).

The punishment model (which is not biblical, except in a narrow, proof-texting manner) is that God is mad at us and we must either take our punishment (judgment), or pass it off to Jesus (grace), before we can know God. The broader biblical model is that God is holy and that holiness can destroy the unsuspecting and unprepared (thus the appearance of punishment). One must be clean before approaching God in order to know him or the destructive burning of the impurities will also catch you up in the conflagration. The blogger (and I suspect quite a number of people) don’t understand the meaning of that word purgation and confuse it with punishment because they sort of look alike.

But back to cleansing. I need to be clean before I can know God. God saves us (or more technically, gives us new life and the Holy Spirit) and then I can begin that process of setting aside sin (even as the Holy Spirit transforms us—it’s both) and then getting to know God a bit as God is now free to reveal more of himself, which allows me to set aside more sin, which allows me to know God a bit more, and the spiral upward continues. But setting aside sin is hard. Furthermore, it is no fun in the sense that sin is a whole lot more fun than the work of setting it aside. This is first the temptation of settling for knowing about God; it’s a lot easier than the process required to actually know God. The second temptation to settle for knowing about God is that philosophy and the philosophical speculation that accompanies it are just plain fun for a lot of us. If we are not truly in love with God, the temptation toward intellectual speculation is strong.

And this brings full circle to the upcoming Lenten season and its surpassing value in the Christian life. It’s a season that reminds me that intellectual pursuit—knowing about God—is not salvific. It’s a season that pushes me in the direction of cleansing rather than knowledge and toward the humility of facing up to my own sin rather than the hubris of reveling in my intellectual prowess. As the Jesus Prayer describes it, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my a sinner.”

 

Moses Pt. 3: He Actually Is Quite Special

Moses and Joshua together prefigure Christ; because they prefigure Christ, they also prefigure the Christian life. There is genius in distinguishing the two story arcs in the Pentateuch and Joshua Because each pictures something quite different that is happening in our life. We experience it at the same time and therefore tend to merge the two into a single experience. But they are not; one is Moses and the other is Joshua.

In the first essay of this series I said, “Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. But this is not say that Moses was not a believer, that he didn’t follow God, nor is it to imply that he didn’t go to heaven. The Book of Joshua emphasizes that he did clearly and redundantly. “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f). He’s not just “Moses,” he’s “Moses the servant of the LORD.”

This is why I needed to insert an essay on eternal security between the first essay and this one. When I insist that Moses is a model of pride and anger rather than holiness, and when I make a big deal that Deuteronomy tells us clearly that Moses was not allowed to enter the rest of the Promised Land because of his sin, I am not saying that Moses isn’t going to heaven. That sort of logic is rooted in a misunderstanding of sin and the meaning of salvation. Rather, I am saying that Moses prefigures one aspect of our Christian life. Joshua (a name that means “The LORD is the Savior”), on the other hand, prefigures another aspect of our Christian life. We ought not to confuse the two. (Thus, the genius of creating two distinct story arcs with these two saints.)

Salvation is accomplished (“It is finished,” Jn. 19:30). Jesus Christ and Christ alone has overthrown death and the devil and opened the gates of Sheol. Our salvation is assured by God’s eternal promise. That is Joshua. At the same time, we struggle with our sin. We are not perfect and all attempts to be perfect fail miserably. The church—the redeemed people who gather to worship and serve God—is for the most part a hotbed of evil. This is God’s Servant Moses. As Enid Strict, SNL’s Church Lady, would say, “Well isn’t that special!”

There is, as I have said, a tendency to conflate these two distinct facets of our salvation. When we do, odd doctrines can result. On the one hand, we might think that we don’t need to worry about Moses at all and just focus on Joshua. Christ is our righteousness, there is nothing left for me to do. This tendency has troubled the church for so long and so consistently, it has a name: antinomianism, which means “opposed to rules.” But as Paul asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1f). On the other hand, there are those who believe that keeping all the rules is required in order to be saved. (This also has a name: legalism.) But these two polar opposites miss the point completely because they conflate Moses and Joshua.

How do we serve the Lord (ie, Moses)? We do it by serving others. We also do it by struggling against sin our life. This struggle typically results in us becoming more holy over time. Let me be clear that it doesn’t result in becoming holy in the absolute sense, but rather in becoming more holy. As we struggle against sin the light of Christ which shines within us is incorporated into our very being and we become more like Christ, that is, we become more holy. But this is all “Moses, the Servant of the Lord” stuff. It happens in the wilderness, on the left side of the Jordan. This is not the stuff that’s going to get us saved. It’s rather the stuff that makes us “the servant of the Lord.”

Returning to the genius of the Old Testament story, the fact is, we are not going to do this very well. When our lives are viewed from the “Moses the Servant of the Lord” perspective, we will end up being defined by our sins and our passions. And that will give those around the opportunity to view us with a cynical eye and repeat with the Church Lady, “Well isn’t that special!”

But God, unlike the Church Lady, actually did think it was special. So even though Moses, when viewed from the end of his life, was defined by his anger and unbelief, God emphatically calls him his servant. There is a danger that we think a successful Christian life is defined by success rather than service, and when that happens we will become discouraged. But success is not the point. Success is not even an option. Moses knew from the day he wandered away from Meribah that he would not be entering the Promised Land. Our life of servanthood, our life of effort to throw off sin and put on holiness, is our life of the wilderness. None of it will get us across the Jordan. It might get us to the top of Mt. Nebo where we can gaze at the Promised Land (Deut. 34)—the Fathers call this the vision of the Heavenly Light—but like Moses, all that effort and the accompanying results will ultimately die in the wilderness.

For all the futility of being a servant (it is represented by wandering around the desert in circles for forty years, after all), when viewed with humility, that would be enough. If we choose to embrace such a role and seek to struggle in putting off sin and putting on righteousness, we can be sure that we will on occasion drink from living water gushing forth from the rock, we will eat the heavenly food of manna, we will even see the glorious heavenly light from afar on Mt. Nebo. Yes, that would be enough. This, in fact, is essentially the vision of life offered by the Greek Stoics as well as a view of secular holiness presented by someone such as Jordan Peterson . For some it is a satisfying vision, but there can be far more.

Side by side with the story of God’s servant Moses, is the story of our Savior, Joshua. Beyond the wandering in the desert, there is the hope of the Promised Land. Beyond the struggle against our passions and the corruption of life, there is the promised rest experienced in the Kingdom of God. “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f).

What more can be said about this? This is our inheritance.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:11-14)

If we try to “harmonize” these stories we will end up with a bastardized religion with either legalistic or antinomian tendencies. We will be frustrated because of our lack of success. We will confuse our “Servant of the Lord Moses” efforts with the “Joshua, our Savior” gift that God has promised. But the genius of Deuteronomy and Joshua is that they keep the stories separate. The genius is the honesty of making Moses a symbol of our anger and unbelief, and by extension, all the rest of our passions. Because of that I can say with complete confidence, while seemingly trapped in my failures, passions, and corruption, that God accepts me as his servant. I am God’s servant Jim. And in spite of the cynicism of the Church Lady, that actually is quite special.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.