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.


The Word Became Flesh

On this Feast of Theophany, a description by Karl Barth of just what happened in the incarnation, and thus just what was revealed.

He did not cease to be the eternal Word of the eternal Father, Himself the one true God. But as this one true God He became flesh without reservation or diminution. He became man, true and actual man, man as he may be tempted and is tempted, man as he is subject to death and does actually die, man not only in his limitation but in the misery which is the consequence of his sin, man like us. This is how God is God–as the One who is free to do this and does it for His own sake, to put into effect His own almighty mercy, and therefore for our sake, who are in need of His mercy. The divine mercy, and in proof of it the inconceivably high and wonderful act of God, is that He becomes and is as we are. [CD IV/1, p. 418]

It is not paradoxical and absurd that God becomes man. It does not contradict the concept of God. It fulfils it. It reveals the glory of God. [p. 419]


A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.


Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.


Introduction to Prayer as Social Justice

In a previous essay I made the claim, in the context of Carl Jung’s Hero model of transforming the world, that liberal Protestantism is extroverted in sensibility while Orthodoxy is centroverted. In trying to sort out the implications of this, I keep circling back to the role of prayer in our efforts toward a just world.

The heart of Orthodox sensibility is that we are called, not to change the world, but to change ourselves. This goes against the current of contemporary thinking. One might even think this leads to naval gazing or a self-centered morality that has little or nothing to do with social justice. But as we come to understand the various components of this conundrum, a way forward will hopefully become more clear. I will explore this in several essays that together form a monograph, critiquing social justice as I practiced it when I was a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination.

  1. Judgment and Mercy, will evaluate the meaning of two Hebrew terms typically translated as “justice and righteousness”
  2. Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ. This essay will examine recent history and how that has caused us to think in a binary manner and how this binary thinking has both shaped our view of the world and blinded us to possible options.
  3. The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis is an essay that will consider Erich Neumann’s analysis of the same crisis in Europe sixty years ago. Neumann’s analysis is helpful because he uses psychological and anthropological frames of refernce. These frameworks provide clarity to some theological ideas that are at the center of both social justice and an Orthodox understanding of prayer.
  4. A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart. Neumann makes some crazy sounding claims and proposes some even crazier ideas based on those claims. In this essay we’ll discover that Neumann may not be crazy at all, and in fact sounds a lot more like a Church Father talking about prayer than he does a modern psychologist talking about cultural maturity.
  5. My Neighbor, Myself is a brief application of the theory of prayer of the heart using the last couple years of my life to illustrate the application.
  6. Prayer as Social Justice tries to answer the question, “Is this really social justice or am I just kidding myself?” In order to answer that question I revisit “justice and righteousness” or “judgment and mercy”, depending on the era (maybe I should stick with “mishpat and tzedakah”) as a way of bringing these essays full circle.


Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.

Barth on Judgment and Humiliation

One theme in the book Compassion (see this post for a review of the book) was the centrality of obedience and humility and even the necessity of humiliation. That chapter (entitled “Obedience”) was largely based on the first subsection of §59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (IV/1, pp157-210). It is in this subsection that Barth explores, among many other things, the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

In the book group where we are considering the book that word “humiliation” was a significant stumbling block for some. Humble? That’s a good word. Humility? That too is a good word. But “humiliation” was a step too far. It was thought that it implies a stripping away of the basic dignity that is owed all humans. Humility is an excellent virtue. Humiliation, on the other hand, chips away at our very humanity.

If all we have to go on is the one chapter from the book Compassion, I would have some sympathy for this objection. But ever since reading that book, I’ve been once again plugging away at §59 of the Dogmatics. I feel like I’m back in seminary!) I just got started on the second subsection, which is about judgment (entitled, “The Judge Judged in our Place”), and it becomes quite clear why Barth chose that uncomfortable word “humiliation.” The remainder of this essay will be extensive quotes from the second subsection.

We have seen that in its root and origin sin is the arrogance in which man [sic] wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge. According to Gen. 3:5 the temptation which involves man’s disobedience to God’s commandment is the evil desire to know what is good and evil. He ought to leave this knowledge to God, to see his freedom in his ability to adhere to God’s decisions in his own decisions. He becomes a sinner in trying to be as God: himself a judge. To be a man – in the world which is hostile to God and unreconciled with Him – is to be the pseudo-sovereign creature which finds its dignity and pride in regarding it as its highest good and most sacred duty to have knowledge of good and evil and to inform itself about it (in relation to itself and others). To be a man means to practice to want to be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty. [p 231] …

The event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position, not only attacks this safe stronghold of man. It is not merely a moral accusation against the pride of man. It is not merely an intellectual exposure of the error which has led him into it. It is the fact by which the position of man [as judge] is taken away, by which it is made impossible and untenable, by which the safe stronghold is breached. Jesus Christ … has penetrated to that place where every man is in his inner being supremely by and for himself. This sanctuary [now] belongs to [Christ] and not to man. [p. 232] …

It is by this action that we are now removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves.  … In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument [ie, being Judge]. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. [p. 232] …

Abasement by an abstract “god” [ie, our conceptions of God, and even our conception of the pre-incarnate God that we might get from the Old Testament] is a safe enough matter which we can turn to our own glory. But abasement by God in the flesh, in the person of this fellow-man is a dangerous matter. It is a real and concrete abasement. If this man is my divine Judge, I myself cannot be judge any longer. I have forfeited the claim to be it and the enjoyment of being it. … Where does our own judgment always lead? To the place where we pronounce ourselves innocent, and where, on account of their venial or mortal sins, and with more or less indulgence and understanding or severity and inflexibility, we pronounce others guilty. That is how we live. And that is how we can no longer live in the humiliating power of what took place in Jesus Christ. We are threatened by it because there is a complete turning of the tables. [p. 233]

The other [side of the coin] is that the fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge. It is a nuisance, and at the bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence.  It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent , we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can [234] make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. It is a terrible thing to know good and evil if only in this ostensible and ineffective way, and to have to live with this doubtful knowledge. It agrees quite simply with what is written in Gen. 2:17, that if we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. [pp 233f]

A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.