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.”



Big Salvation Words: Righteousness

Over the next few weeks I would like to revisit some of the big words that relate to our salvation. Many of them are hard and even frightening words, so we have a tendency to ignore them, or in the case of a word like “wrath,” leave them to the very conservative Christians who seem to revel in them. That’s a mistake.

After World War II – a war that was disastrous for European Protestantism because it revealed how empty that Protestantism was – Karl Barth did the hard work work of looking seriously at all these words and reincorporating the words and the ideas behind them into his theology.

One of the things Barth demonstrated was that it is not possible to merely turn to the Bible to define the big words. We bring all of our cultural assumptions to bear and thus when we read them in the Bible, what we are typically “reading” is not necessarily what the Bible actually says, but a subtle revision of what it says aligned with our cultural assumptions. Thus, you will not find a lot of biblical quotations in these essays. It’s not an exercise in what the Bible says so much as it is a proper definition of terms so that we can understand what the Bible says.

I will be focusing on a single volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics that deals specifically with the atonement. Volume IV, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation” is divided into multiple volumes. I will be using Part One. (It is typically identified as CD IV/1. When you see “CD IV/1, p 1,” or simply “p. 1,” you will know this is what I am referring to.)

The first word I want to consider is “righteousness.” I suspect we often unconsciously think of righteousness as a substance. For instance, I might pray that God would fill me with righteousness (as if it is something that can be poured into me). We might also pray that God would make me more righteous, as if there is a sliding scale, sort of like the air purity index.

In contrast to this, it’s helpful to think of righteousness as a binary (that is, only two options). The binary, in this case would be “right” or “wrong.” Then we might thing of the opposite of righteousness as “wrongeousness,” (if I may coin a word).

This approach to the word is helpful because righteousness is not a value judgment. For example, “God is righteous.” is not a parallel statement to “Michael is handsome.” Something that is far more close to being a parallel statement to “God is righteous.” is, “The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s.” No value judgment, it is what it is.

The rightness that is referred to in the word “righteousness” is not a value judgment, it is a description of reality. The “rightness” is the way things are. This “rightness” of God is akin to things like gravity, the conservation of energy, etc. Barth defines it as, “the omnipotence of God creating order, which is now revealed and effective as a turning from this present evil aeon to the new one of a world reconciled with God in Him” (p. 256).

Eventually this distinction between value judgment and reality will become quite important. If this were a value judgment, God’s response to our unrighteousness could be construed as emotional. Thus divine wrath could be conflated with anger and vengeance (a term that appears 20 times in the Old Testament) could be conflated with revenge.

But once we understand that divine righteousness is a binary concept, we can begin to grasp that assuming that God is angry or disappointed or let down when we sin makes about as much sense as saying the building that the speeding Corvette ran into was angry at the Corvette and that’s why the building wrecked it and killed its driver.

To say that God is righteous, therefore, is, first and foremost, to proclaim God’s character. Secondarily, it tells us something about creation: The Creator imbued his ultimate reality into this created reality. The same righteousness that characterizes God characterizes our proper relationship to creation as well as to God.

The righteousness of God is not something that we try to achieve, it’s not something we try to measure up to. The righteousness of God is simply the reality in which live, and if we refuse to live in this reality of righteousness we will die as certainly as that unfortunate Corvette driver. This is the context in which we will explore other key words related to our salvation.

Imagined Burning Desire vs Actual Burning Bushes

A couple of quotes from today’s readings that the Australian Anglican Board of Mission put together.

The devil sometimes puts ambitious desires into our hearts, so that, instead of setting our hand to the work which lies nearest to us, and thus serving Our Lord in ways within our power, we may rest content with having desired the impossible – Teresa of Avila in Interior Castle

Resting content with merely having desired the impossible instead of actually accomplishing anything.

Ah, if only I could earn a million dollars a year. Then I would have the resources to serve God properly.

Everyone around would probably recognize that as mere pride and ambition shrouded with false humility. I, on the other hand, might be deluded into thinking it is a holy desire … and be so satisfied with such “holy ambition” that I never actually sense God’s actual desire for me.

On the flip side is the reality that the truly great thing (in God’s eyes) that we do is merely considered mundane by everyone else.

Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Not taking the big dollar promotion so that I still have time to pray and help Mrs Berhane, the Eritrean Muslim lady with the angry 14 year old boy living a couple doors down, with her driving skills so she can let a driver’s license. That may be my burning bush if I only have eyes to see, and sense enough to take my shoes off.


Sheep and Goats

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

I saw this Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog, Glory to God for All Things


Old Tom Bombadil and the Monks

An essay taking evangelicals to task for dabbling in Lent, called Much Ado about Something?, was recommended to me this week. Author Kenneth Stewart’s historical facts were accurate enough, but he espouses a form of primitivism that I simply don’t comprehend. Primitivism is the belief that the apostolic church was a pure church and everything has been going downhill since. The goal of the modern church, therefore, should be to return to the primitive practices of the earliest church. (This sort of pure radicalism I get, although I don’t agree with it.) Stewart’s essay espouses a modified form of primitivism, common in conservative Protestantism, that claims the first century of church history and then church history from 16th century (ie, the Reformation) forward are perfectly good history, but the intervening fourteen centuries need to be, not only ignored, but protected against. The utter arbitrariness of modified primitivism is simply weird beyond my comprehension. (I had this problem back when I was in Bible College, by the way, and it’s probably why I had such problems there and never managed to fit into the evangelical environment.) Needless to say (given the fact that I am now part of the historic church that took it’s form in the intervening centuries) I don’t agree with this view of the world. But the church doesn’t need my defense; the Church is what it is, not what Kenneth Stewart or I try to redefine it as.

At the time I read the anti-Lenten essay, I was also listening to an audio version of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece.

It’s the intersection of essay and novel that this essay explores.

Both LOTR and The Hobbit contain peculiar outlying characters that do not fit into the storyline. The Hobbit introduces us to Beorn, a skin changer with deep and wonderful powers that allow him to keep evil at bay. Similarly, early in The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil provides succor and protection to the band of four Hobbits who ran into trouble in the Old Forest. The power and wisdom of both Beorn and Old Tom seem to be fundamentally magical in the best Middle Earth sense of that word. Bombadil’s singing communicates to nature in a deep way and it has power over all creatures and things that it runs into. This “magic” (because I don’t know what else to call it) is so powerful that his homestead is a sort of Garden of Eden in the midst of the terrifying Old Forest.

The two characters seem like incidental asides. I’ve heard critics say that a good editor would have removed them from the stories completely because they are inconsequential to the plot. (Although Beorn continues to play a role in The Hobbit.) I am not of this opinion. First, it’s quite notable that two “throw away” characters who are so similar show up in both stories. Second, it’s significant where they show up. In both cases the grand scheme of the world with all the great powers at war with each other, has already been laid out in broad strokes. But before the grand tale of dragons and dwarves (The Hobbit) or the great war between good and evil (LOTR) actually begins to play out, we discover these two odd characters.

I suspect Tolkien is tapping into a profound understanding of the world and how it works. There are the great powers, the military, political, and economic movers who have the ability to shake the world to their advantage. But there is always another contrapuntal secret movement which often has effects that are every bit as profound as the great powers. In the church historically (and here I’m referring to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) this mysterious other is embodied in the monastic tradition. The monks reject the world and all it stands for; they cloister themselves and do little or nothing practical. They pray. They are a net drain on society. The whole endeavor seems contrary to Jesus’ teaching to go out into the world … and yet the true power of the church is embodied in the monks.

Although Protestantism rejected monasticism, the same spirit imbues the various communions. For instance, a group of Moravians felt called by God to minister to the slaves on Hispaniola. But the only way to get to the island was to be a slave, so they sold themselves into slavery. Although they have become something different than their original form, the Hutterites rejected the world utterly and live in farming colonies, only having enough interaction with the world that they can survive in their lifestyle. To this day there is a large group of German Mennonite farmers who abandoned the world, moving to Belize (then, about as far from anywhere as one could possibly go). They continue to thrive in central Belize.

Monasticism and the monastic spirit represented by the monks and in these various Protestant groups makes little logical sense. To borrow an idea from Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, in his Narnia Chronicles, these people follow a deeper logic that seems madcap to those of us who have engaged the spiritual battle and seek to be involved with the mighty powers and grand spiritual conflicts. And this deeper logic leads to remarkable but little known or understood power. It may be localized; it may be specialized, but it witnesses to things too deep to see and too mysterious to comprehend.

The above cited article complains that Lent, when it finally got started at all, was originally some small fast during Holy Week. Over the years through accretion the practices of Lent grew both geographically and in length and complexity. This is true. In fact, the recommended Orthodox Lenten disciplines are actually designed for monastics, not for lay people. Some Orthodox argue strenuously that ordinary folk should quit trying to be so spiritually athletic. We should ease the fasting guidelines. But the fast persists, because people have tasted, in some small way, that there is a deep and great power at work here, and they too want to participate in some small way that extends far beyond tasting of the Eucharist, singing in the choir, and getting scolded in the sermon.

The great war between the great powers proceeds. Some people are extremely militant about it, marching on abortion clinics, chaining themselves to the fences around nuclear sites (although the same Christians probably don’t participate in both these activities), writing to congress, and marching on Washington. But sometimes, as the great spiritual battle of the ages unfolds, people stumble upon, or are touched by, the amazing spiritual power embodied by those who have withdrawn and dive deeply into the quiet spiritual power of ascetic prayer.

For those that love the grand story of history and the possibility of the victory of Christianity, this stuff is an aside, a rabbit track, and should be edited out of the story. Others recognize that even though it’s strange and doesn’t seem to fit into the larger story at all, it’s integral. Ultimately, there could be no victory over Smaug the Dragon, or even Mordor, if it weren’t for a variety of unsung recluses who understand the “ancient deep magic” (again, a C.S. Lewis term) and know how to participate in it to defeat evil.

To this extent Kenneth Stewart is on to something. Evangelicals ought not be dabbling in spiritual disciplines they don’t really understand. Actually I suspect Stewart sells people short. Just because he doesn’t understand the deep logic of the Lenten fast doesn’t mean people who are exploring a more physical faith don’t understand it. But to the extent that his accusation is accurate, he is right. Old Tom Bombadil gave the Hobbits specific directions about how to get out of the Old Forest and back to the road. In spite of the careful directions, the Hobbits managed to get themselves caught and nearly killed by a barrow-wight. After rescuing them, Tom accompanied them all the way out of the forest because they could not fully follow his directions.

Stewart appears to think people shouldn’t the participate in corporate fasts merely because they’re something that was discovered by someone other than the apostles and John Calvin. But while his reasoning is both arrogant and shallow, his instincts are correct. Messing with Tom Bombadil’s power in the Old Forest is a dangerous thing if you don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. Similarly, the true fast, incorporating prayer, corporate worship, alms, physical disciplines, and humility, to name a few, is dangerous for those who don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. A discipline such as the Lenten Fast strips one of pretense and outer protection. If one fasts (the taking off) without the associated spiritual exercise (the putting on) it leaves one vulnerable to serious satanic attack. It’s not something to merely fiddle with; it’s the preparation for an act of spiritual war.

Stewart is dismissive of “the current chase after Lent.” Ah, if only more Evangelicals would chase after true spiritual power and not be satisfied with their Tradition (sans 14 centuries).


The Bible

Lent starts tomorrow with Clean Monday (yeah, the two calendars are at opposite extremes this year!). Thomas Hopko often suggests a Lenten book or reading list on his podcast. He offered that up last week. I forget the book he suggested; it didn’t interest me, but before he got to his suggestion, he said that he likes to remind people of the following before every making a specific suggestion about spiritual reading:

The Book that we all must read and reread and reread again is the Holy Bible and particularly the New Testament and the Psalms that are often called “the Bible in miniature” in the form of prayers and supplications and songs before the face of God. So anyone in the Christian tradition who wants to know God … should be constantly reading the New Testament and Psalms. … We should be Bible reading people and we should do it by discipline. The Bible is still the Holy Scriptures of our church.

Of course this is obvious, even a truism. But it’s refreshing to hear a scholar, an author of many books, and one of the great living experts on the spiritual writings of the Church, remind us of the basics in such a way.

So, whether you’re over half way through Lent or just starting the journey tomorrow, have a blessed Lent.