January 19

Addendum to “On Being a Misfitting Christian”

Having put down my thoughts in the original post, I’ve been able to reflect a bit more on the matter from a slightly different perspective.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

It may be that what has set me apart from so many others is not as much commitment as it was and is the depths of desperation that had possessed me so deeply in the events immediately leading up to the moment of my conversion.  I have said many times in the past that I had sought for meaning and purpose in life throughout my teens and early twenties and, having found nothing in life truly worth living for, had given myself to “drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll” — the hedonism and nihilism mentioned in the earlier post.

The last vestige of hope remaining for me back then was the hope of love: of finding someone I could love and who would love me.  When that last rope of hope was finally hacked in two, I was set adrift.  I was free to do and be nothing in the meaningless experience I called life.

And then the hedonism and pleasures and distractions finally failed me, too, and I was truly in despair: a total absence of hope of and for anything.  It was into that despair that Christ sent me; it was out of that despair that He saved me.

But before that happened I had hit bottom. Hard.  In retrospect, I needed to.  I was emotionally and intellectually spent.  There was nothing that could prevent me from free-falling into absurdity and existential loneliness.  I was utterly helpless.

I had lost my life and had become lost in life.  The emptiness and desperation were inescapable and all-consuming.  I had no place to go and no reason to go.  Anywhere.  Life was silent and deafening, empty and overwhelming; echoes of an endless void within me.

But while there was nothing that could help there was still Someone who did help.  When Christ came along it was all-or-nothing for me because I had been and been to nothing and couldn’t survive there.  So it was all in all the time with Christ.  It wasn’t any moral or spiritual superiority that drove me to that point.  It wasn’t even extreme gratitude.  It was, once again, desperation.  Christianity had to be true.  If it wasn’t, then that was it.  Maybe insanity would have been all that could be left.  A Nietzchean solution.

And so I sold myself and gave myself and devoted myself and did every other thing I could think of to commit myself to my only hope in life.  The gratitude and the thankfulness came later.  Jesus had died for me – given His life for me – and I swore to give my life to Him as much as I possibly could.  And while that sounds real spiritual you must remember: my life was skubalon1 at that point; it was even less than crap.  My life wasn’t worth anything to me so giving it away was hardly a big sacrifice.  My life for His?  How could I not make that deal?  Give nothing for everything?  Really?

So maybe all of the above is part of the explanation, too.  I’m sure it’s not all of it.  But it’s an important part of it.

Maybe the men around me have never felt such deep emptiness and despair.  In some ways, I hope they never have.  Maybe they didn’t have to; I don’t know.  I can’t really explain someone else’s life. I’m still trying to figure out mine.

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1 The NT Greek word for crap, used by Paul in Php 3.8

January 18

Reflections: On Being a Misfitting Christian

This could quite possibly be the most misunderstood thing I’ve ever written and then posted online.  It’s not meant to be derogatory but sometimes it will take some effort not to take it that way.  It’s also not intend to sound like I consider myself as being better than others – far from it – but what I write certainly can be construed to say as much.  In essence, I’m trying to explain how I can make sense of the differences I see between myself and others.  As you will read,  I don’t take any responsibility one way or another for that difference.  It just is what it is.  Like one man being short while most others or tall.  I don’t know why God chooses some to be shepherds – I know I didn’t volunteer – but it’s probably because we’re like sheep.  And there are differences between the shepherd and the sheep.

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At some point in my past — I can’t actually remember a time but there probably was at least one — I thought I would have my life all figured out by the time I was 30.  When that mile marker came and went, I figured maybe 40 was the magic age.  Then it was 50.  And 60.

Now I’m 64 and I’m still figuring things and myself out.  I have a feeling this is not unusual — why else would Socrates’ quote1 be so popular? — but, since few people admit to as much, who knows?

Yesterday, as I was bemoaning my misfortune of being a Bible-study misfit, the swirl of words in my head seemed to revolve around one or two facts that provided clarification for me.  The first was that I’m a shepherd/pastor and am always looking for sheep to tend and feed.  I do curative or reparative work with people all week long but after-hours groups give me a chance to do some preventative work.  It’s a nice balance to the weekday work.

If the people in the Bible study don’t seem to be hungry or don’t want to be shepherded, however, I’m at a loss (at best) or angry (at worst). That people wouldn’t want to feed on the life of Christ or discover how to live more in keeping with God’s intent for us is baffling to me.

That was one thing that came to light.  Another — bigger and more awkward to explain — has to do with levels of commitment.  Before going further, it must be said that I don’t take any credit or look down on others: I didn’t orchestrate all the details and events of my life.  There are many things that happen to all of us of which we are largely unaware that become determinative and adjust the course we’re on.  I believe it is God’s superintendence of our lives and so no credit can be assigned.

I’ve long known that, having been to seminary, I was a bit different from most of the other men with whom I fellowship and associate.  These men are Christians, to be sure, but there’s something different about them.  Or about me.  Which it is doesn’t matter.

The only way I can describe it is as a difference of levels of commitment.  By way of analogy, it’s as though I’ve pushed all my chips into the pot and held nothing back: my pockets, bank accounts, assets, and everything else are on the line.  The men in the game with me have pushed their chips to the middle, too, but they’re not actually all in. They have considerable reserves awaiting them when the game is over.  They risk a considerable amount — maybe quantitatively more than I — but they’re not “all in.”  They might feel the loss but it won’t devastate them. They can feel the pain, absorb it, and get on with life.

As I thought about this, a question came to mind: if it were to somehow to be determined that Jesus Christ never did resurrect from the grave — if His bones were uncovered or a book He wrote at the age of 64 surfaced, or somebody traveled back in time and saw Him sneak out of a backdoor to the tomb — if it were proved beyond doubt, would your choices in life make sense?  Would your life make sense?  Would you not only look like a fool but in truth be a world-class idiot?

Personally, my life would be absurd.2  I made choices — and my wife has always supported me — that were based on my belief that this life was not all there was, that what we do here is important only because there is a judgment and a heaven that awaits.  If that is not the case, if there is no resurrection that awaits all of us, then I have wasted whatever years I’ve had and have yet to come.  As Paul says, I should have been eating, drinking, and being merry.  I should have continued on the two-lane highway of hedonism and nihilism.3

When I consider the lives and careers of other men, I don’t see the same level of risk or commitment.4  Again, that doesn’t make me holier than them because I didn’t actually choose this path: it was made for me and I for it by God.  But the difference is huge and explains a lot to me regarding why I so often feel like a misfit when I’m around Christians. Not all Christians, of course: others that are even more committed than I are out there and, from time to time, we stumble across one another.

I’ve often wondered why other men get so caught up in football, hunting, politics and a thousand other things that Paul says — based on his own belief in the resurrection — are destined to perish.5  Their choices have confused me.

I don’t know why there are the differences there are between believers (I’m not talking about doctrinal or any other kind of difference other than that of commitment).  I pretty sure that we don’t have a lot to do with it, though.  Or, at least for me, I don’t feel like I did: I simply couldn’t do anything else.6  If there is no resurrection, life is a short joke.  But because there is resurrection — and I’m sure there is — then life makes sense.  It has a purpose and meaning. Knowing that, how could I make any other decisions than those which I have?

All the chips are in the pot; investing in other things makes no sense.  I’m just playing the hand dealt to me until the Great Croupier tells me there are no more hands left for me to play.

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1 “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
2 This does not rule out the possibility that, the resurrection being true, I’m still an idiot.
3 I was in the passing lane with the hammer down.
4 I am aware that this is simply my perspective and not absolute truth. But I am looking only at behaviors or actions or lifestyles and basing my assessment on them. If I’m wrong – and certainly history has shown that to be possible – then I’d really like someone to explain to me where and how I’m off.
5 Col 2.22: “. . . things destined to perish”
6 It was a logical compulsion: the resurrection being true, to live otherwise simply made no sense to me.

January 15

Reflections: Freedom vs Security

In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” — Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

It is tempting, is it not, to hear the words of Gibbon more than 200 years after his death and quickly apply them to our own country.  And by “our own country” I mean the United States since it is here that I have lived, live, and will likely die.

Certainly there is ample rationale for thinking so.  It was in my lifetime (Jan 20, 1961) that John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  Certainly we have drifted far from the ideals of JFK, a drift at times propelled by the idealism, irresponsibility and recklessness of my own generation in the ’60s and ’70s.

But for those of us who call ourselves Christians and indeed live and look like Christ followers, who seek the kingdom even now, there is a parallel application of Gibbon’s observation, one which we ignore to our own harm.  Within the Christian subculture in general and too many local churches specifically, we have opted for security at the expense of our freedom and, inexorably, our responsibility.  The security of which I speak is a psychological one, a balm that soothes and pacifies an otherwise troubled conscience that prefers not to bear the weight of personal responsibility for Christians in this life.

This manifestation of our sin nature is such that theological arguments are constructed to allow us to evade our responsibility.  The theological arguments, at the real risk of being simplistic – not to mention unfair to those that espouse them — maintain that God’s sovereignty is such that no act is outside His control or will.  Certainly He is not the author of sin but neither is He surprised by it, the reasoning goes: even the most evil events are in keeping with His will for mankind.  So even our shortcomings and sins of omission are not and cannot be contrary to what He has determined.

Such a notion or belief effectively absolves us from moral responsibility, we hope, so that our relationship with Him remains secure; even more, our fellowship with God is not disturbed because of our inability to be all that He calls us to be: Christlike.  What we do and say, what we don’t do or say, is merely the outworking of a sovereign God who has not given freedom to us as individuals.

But while such an idea can be argued theologically, it is not biblical.

“Free will” is a term often used by believers in a manner which is contrary to what the Bible tells us.  If we are going to keep the term, we need to define it carefully.  Free will, as I understand it, is the ability to choose according to our nature: if not a Christian, then we choose according to our sinful nature; we can do no other.  But if we are Christians, then we have a true, morally culpable choice: will we follow the desires of our sin nature – the flesh – or will we yield to the desires of our new nature, one which is continually being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ?

Scripture reveals that God regards us as morally responsible people; to be responsible necessitates the freedom to choose.  That ability to choose is true freedom; that ability to choose makes us responsible before God for our choices.  Otherwise the bema seat — where we will be judged not for our eternal destiny but for our “deeds in the body” — is meaningless and a mockery.  If we are not responsible then being rewarded or suffering loss becomes a capricious act of God.

Christians are morally responsible people who also possess the ability to choose — and choose freely — what or whom we will serve and obey.  Like it or not, we are fully responsible for the choices we make because we are free moral agents, not mindless individuals merely carrying out His predetermined will.