Hearts in the Right Place?

I know it’s strange to say this: but I really don’t like how some people are nice to me in traffic. It isn’t everything nice that people do, but today when I was trying to turn left from a busy street into a bookstore parking lot in the city I live in, someone on the inside lane decided they’d be nice and stopped to let me out. The problem? He didn’t seem to notice the string of traffic coming up beside him on the other side at full speed, and had I not been looking behind his remarkable over-large truck, I wouldn’t have seen them. Had I turned just then, trusting in the goodwill of the person being nice, I’d have had a very bad day (though I guess, given the speed of some of those other cars, I might have gotten to see Jesus today).

My mom would have said that he had his heart in the right place, meaning that it was good that the man showed me compassion in my (very light) need. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s true. In fact, I’m relatively sure his heart was in precisely the wrong place. Namely, I think that his heart was doing the job his head should have been doing, and were I to rely on his kindness, it would have been to my detriment.

This seems to be a more general problem than among drivers in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I think this is the reason that so many of us Christians try to do nice things that end up doing more harm than good. Of course, we have compassion, and compassion is a good thing, but only when it translates into actions really aimed at the other person’s good, and given the human mind’s habit for self-deception (see Jeremiah 17:9), this has to be examined carefully.

For example, how often do we end up being like an example in the book “When Helping Hurts”,

514-e1yyuol
A really good book on the topic. The authors walk the reader through the ways in which we can think we’re helping when really we’re hurting both the recipient and ourselves.

and give people gifts that help immediately, but end up deriding the people we show the charity to, and create a culture of dependence in the person we do nice things for? How often do we end up giving the single mom’s kids gifts in a way that makes the kids thank us, but learn that their mom can’t provide, and they should be looking to other people for provision? Or expect the single mom to be suitably grateful instead of helping because we care for them?

 

When I help people, I need to be careful that I’m actually helping instead of just getting rid of my bad feelings. I need to
be careful that my help doesn’t end in a wreck for other people, even as I end up feeling better about myself. The simple fact is that facile help doesn’t always help, and sometimes we need to think deeply about people in order to properly help them. It may mean we need to get closer. It may mean we need to learn some uncomfortable truths about our society and the way it treats people, it may even mean that we look like terrible people for a time in order that we provide real lasting help to people.

Quite simply while we must have compassion for those around us, our compassion must be guided by wisdom and knowledge.

Our hearts must be in the right place: guided by our heads.

Evangelism as showing Christ to be Glorious

glory to christ centre header 2In my last post, I talked about how I now believe that Paul’s view of the Christian mind, as shown in Romans 12:1-3 is a fundamental alteration in the way a Christian processes their world and their place in it. It isn’t simply that we exchange a “worldly” set of opinions for a “Christian” one.From this, there’s a raft of interesting (and slightly controversial) implications for thinking this way. I’m going to deal with one of those today.When I was much younger, I had an image of Christian evangelism that could most easily be likened to the Church as a fortified camp which, from time to time, sent out raiding parties into the world to bring people into the camp to become Christians like us. Of course, this is a fairly pejorative image, and coming from how I understand the Christian walk now, it’s flatly unhelpful. It comes from the idea that the difference between Christians and the non-Christian is merely a surface set of opinions, and if we take them from the world made up of worldly surface opinions, and indoctrinate them into Christian surface opinions, they will suddenly be Christians.

When I was much younger, I had an image of Christian evangelism that could most easily be likened to the Church as a fortified camp which, from time to time, sent out raiding parties into the world to bring people into the camp to become Christians like us. Of course, this is a fairly pejorative image, and coming from how I understand the Christian walk now, it’s flatly unhelpful. It comes from the idea that the difference between Christians and the non-Christian is merely a surface set of opinions, and if we take them from the world made up of worldly surface opinions, and indoctrinate them into Christian surface opinions, they will become Christians.

Yet, if the change that comes from conversion is what I think it is, a fundamental alteration of a person’s central heart-paradigm, this method of evangelism is not only unhelpful, it may actually be damaging. It would be convincing people that they are saved from sin when all they have been saved from is a set of incorrect opinions. Indeed, it can even result in entire churches for whom their central object of worship is their own doctrinal correctness instead of the Glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We can end up defining “Christian” as “person who agrees with Christian opinions” instead of “person who desires to be like Christ”. The former can be created through indoctrination, the latter requires an act of God to change the heart.

But if this is true, there is a very sobering conclusion to be drawn. I can affirm every point of the creeds and catechisms of the Church, and even memorize large chunks of scripture, but be as utterly lost as the most egregious sinner I can imagine. The question of whether one is a Christian is not whether we agree with a creed (though as I will talk about later, creeds are great diagnostic tools), but whether we have had the kind of change in ultimate goals. Are we desiring to be transformed into the very image of Christ?

So what does this mean for evangelism? It changes our goal. This can be encouraging for some, and discouraging for others since the goal is not to convince people that they should make a profession, read their Bible, or start coming to Church (though those things will all be effects of real evangelism). No, the goal is to glorify Jesus Christ as beautiful, and then live in close community with those who see His beauty.

To change my opening image then, we are not called to make raiding parties into the world, but instead, show the all-surpassing value of Christ.

The good mental OS

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1–2. ESV

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.16.47 PM
The screencap of me working on this. Pretty meta, huh?

Being a bit of a tech geek (amateur) means that I find different things interesting and exciting. As I now await with baited breath the coming of yet another permutation of MacOS, I was struck by how this provides some good insight into Romans 12.

When Paul says that we need to not be conformed to this world, it finishes the statement that we need to instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. I’ve often only thought of this as a simple call to allow for Christian ideas to be the basis of my understanding, and not ideas that the world has. I was thinking that a Christian should simply have a list of beliefs about what is true, and then understand the world from that perspective.

In light of the above application, it seems that Paul is getting at something far more fundamental. The renewal of a mind isn’t just replacing one set of ideas for another, but is rather an alteration of the basic understanding of things around us. To use the computer analogy, it isn’t like changing programs on a computer, it’s like changing an operating system. It doesn’t necessarily change the things we think about, but it does change the way we think about the things we think about. In a good OS update, it can cause things to run more quickly and efficiently, and cause damaging programs to no longer do their damage. Some things cease to run, but many other things run and run better, and some new tasks even become possible.

Similarly, the Christian change Paul is talking about isn’t having the right opinions on specific moral and social issues, but instead working through all facets of our lives in a different way. The change is a fundamental one. Where we were once based on a worldly understanding which was fundamentally at odds with God’s truth, we begin to think from a different perspective, even when we are thinking things that kinda look like worldly ideas. Of course, this will mean that opinions that are sinful will work less and less readily on our new operating system, and new ideas, Godly ideas that we find in God’s Word, will begin to make more and more sense.

One would think that these verses, coming as they do right after Paul tells us to give our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, that we’d understand that the change in view here is a very profound one, not merely a change in surface opinions.
This also isn’t to say that the result is a mind that invariably comes to “Christian” opinions from the outset. If that were the case, Paul wouldn’t have to tell us that “by testing” we would be able to “discern” the will of God. The Christian mind doesn’t magically know what would be Godly, but instead works through the implications of an idea, an action, or a decision from a fundamentally altered mind.

There are important implications for this on a range of issues, from apologetics, to cultural contextualization, living your faith and evangelism. God willing, I’ll try to reflect on these over the next couple of days.

Where Once They Stood We Stand (or why plant churches in Newfoundland)

bible-pageWhen I wrote the post for Friday, there wasn’t a great deal of mention of Christian witness, or of the previous Christian character of Newfoundland. “What’s up with that?” you may ask, “I thought you were all about Jesus”. Indeed, and I have a great desire to see Bible-preaching churches raised up in Newfoundland, and while I did not talk about it on July 1 (intending a readership of friends who might be put off by what I’m going to say here stated plainly on such a solemn day).

July 1 (Canada Day/Memorial Day) makes a clear statement that Christians wishing to preach the Gospel here in Newfoundland need to understand. The history of Newfoundland is often quite divergent from even the history of Canada. The result is that the culture here is different, even as most Newfoundlanders will be unable to voice the reasons behind why it is different.

The history I gave in the previous post lacked something fairly central to the actions and motivations of the people in early 20th century Newfoundland. You see, my grandfather was also fairly involved in his local Church, as were most people of his generation. Indeed, when the First World War began, Newfoundland lacked a standing military. The CLB (or Church Lad’s Brigade) filled the role. Many of the first 500 to join the Newfoundland regiment were volunteers from the older ranks of the CLB. This shows how Christian faith had a massive role in Newfoundland culture. Many of the celebrated facets of the character of Newfoundlanders was shaped by our Christianity.

While in the modern Newfoundland mind, many no longer attend church or see “religion” as important (even as they continue to self-identify as part of Christian denominations), that was not true of our ancestors. This can be seen in the many monuments around St. John’s of a clearly Christian nature, the history of our province with religion closely entwined with our health care system, our education, and even our political system until quite recently. The result is that modern Newfoundlanders are often blind to large facets of the understandings our ancestors had of the world, and what gave them the strength to continue through nearly hellish, (and less difficult) times.

Sometimes, we Newfoundlanders read into history the perceived betrayals of our later religious history (events such as Mount Cashel).  This is the reason for some of the criticisms of the Christian worldview of the strategically inept high command during the battle of the Somme (a worldview that was shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders both before and after the war).

As I said in my last post, my grandfather was in his 80s when I was born, so I do not know his spiritual background. By the time I was a born-again believer, he had already gone on to his eternal reward. However, it is important that his legacy of Christian faith seems to be a strong one. Most of his children remained active in the Church, and even my continued faith in Jesus Christ is, in some measure, shaped by my father (my grandfather’s youngest son), and his imperfect but continued faithfulness as a Christian.

This is why I believe that Church planting in Newfoundland is not simply a task of planting a new Christian witness among our people, but rather a repentance and reclamation of a forgotten part of our heritage. I think that Church planters that forget this understanding do a disservice to Newfoundlanders, themselves, and most especially to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While I am now a member of a Christian denomination that was not the denomination of my fathers, I stand as a believer in Jesus Christ, not in rebellion to the faith of my fathers, but in continuity with them. Where many of the churches that were strong in the past have moved away from the faith in a Bible that is God’s very Word, and a faith in salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, I still hold to those beliefs, and I think I may be closer to my ancestors on this point than is often understood.

I desire to see Churches planted in Newfoundland, to the glory of Jesus Christ because, as the National Anthem of Newfoundland says:

As loved our fathers,  So we love
Where once they stood, we stand
Their prayer we raise to heaven above
God guard thee, Newfoundland

Embracing Awkward

I have to admit, sometimes I’m just an awkward dude.

giphyIt comes to mind when I am talking to people, and again I realize I’ve said something highly inappropriate to the context. Of course, I never think of these things in advance, only after people start looking at me in the way I’ve since learned is “quizzically”. Unfortunately, by that time, it’s already too late, and if the person doesn’t know I’m a generally awkward dude, I’ve got some explaining/apologizing to do. If they do know me, I’ve provided them some additional amusement, and hopefully they will forgive me.

…and sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve done it.

The simple fact is, I’ve always been terrible at reading social and emotional cues. It means that in large measure, other people’s emotions are a closed book to me, and I am usually saying and doing things that sometimes hurt others. It’s not my favourite part of myself, and it’s something I work on a lot, but still I often fail and say something really really inappropriate.

This is probably one of the reasons I prefer my own company, and also one of the reasons I live in my own head a lot. It also means I can make horrific first impressions on people, since I don’t often have a governor. Worse, the ignorance of cues extends to my own actions. Facial expressions mean little to me, so I don’t produce facial expressions in keeping with what I’m actually thinking (and since I live in my head, I’m thinking a few hundred different things at any given time). In essence, I don’t read people well, and they don’t read me well.

As a Christian, and worse as an aspiring full-time pastor, this can be difficult. Sometimes I wonder if God really has called me to this, and as I think He has, I sometimes wonder if He’s been cruel in the decision. After all, I do still care about hurting people, and rejection is still lonely, (I’m awkward, not unemotional). Yet God’s Word helps me in a couple of ways here:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8

Here I understand that God’s call is for me to seek Him and to follow His ways, even though they can be hard to understand. As people find it difficult to interpret me, often God has the same experience, because His ways are not like our ways. God has me going through feelings He Himself knows well. While people misunderstand Him because He is so much more profound than us, and mine is only because I lack many of the skills of social understanding, the result is the same.

Moreover, since God is sovereign over all things (and He has profound reasons for all He does), He is working glorious things in me, even through my weaknesses. In Him, I have friends and acceptance (most clearly, the friendship and acceptance of God in Jesus Christ), not because I’m a charismatic person, but because of Christ. God displays His goodness here to me, and I am able to rejoice (albeit awkwardly) in the friends I’m given, because I deeply feel how valuable they are. Even better, while I lack the ability to see what’s appropriate, I end up with less fear of rejection over telling people about Jesus. While I may apologize more than I need to (a nervous tick I have, since I really don’t know by your body language if I’m saying something that offends you), I will still say things as I see them (for ill, but also for good).

The simple fact is that God made me awkward for reasons, and His reasons are always good. I do have things I need to work on, but even weaknesses are used for God’s glory. As my favourite verses say:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30

SDG

Online Reading (May 6, 2016)

Fort McMurray: For those who haven’t heard yet, the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta has been victim to a major wildfire. Fort McMurray has huge connections to Newfoundland, and I have many friends and acquaintances who were evacuated. Many who were at logging camps north of the city are being evacuated today through the burned city. The fire is still burning out of control, and the confusion caused has claimed victims. Donations can be made to the Canadian Red Cross, and are presently being matched by our federal government.

Compassion: Related to the fire, stories like this one and this one, show compassion isn’t dead in Canada quite yet.

Fallen Leaders: Tim Challies has a great reflection on what we should do about the resources produced by leaders who have since been removed from their ministries in disgrace.

Bible Reading: TheLook at the Book series by John Piper is great training for people eager to learn how to read the Bible accurately and well.