Sunday, 27 July 2008
Life is full of paradoxes. For example, why are they called 'apartments' when they are so close together? Why do people complain about rain in London when the annual rainfall in Sydney is actually higher than in London? How did England lose the last Ashes series 5-0...actually I guess that is not really a paradox.
What I think we will see today is that the Bible presents the greatest paradox of all. We will get to that later. And yet the common understanding of Christianity is far from mysterious. There is no paradox – it seems simple. You see I guess the popular perception of what Christianity teaches is that it is about good – maybe even self-righteous - people doing their best to get into heaven.
And I guess that makes sense – we earn our way into heaven. However that popular conception of Christianity is is not what the Bible says. The Bible, rather, is actually a message of hope for bad people, for spiritual failures...for people who you would think could never get into heaven. Jesus came and preached to prostitutes, to sinners, to people who were despised by society – and he preached a message of hope.
And there is probably no better passage than this one in the entire Bible for explaining why he did this – why he could preach to seemingly spiritual failures with such hope.
So, if you are someone who would not call yourself a Christian – or maybe you are not sure that you are a Christian – this is an important passage for you to understand because it will open up the heart of the Christian message for you. And if you are someone who is a Christian – again this is a very important passage because we can never move away from or outgrow this message. It is to be the heartbeat of our very lives. And that is true whether you are struggling in the Christian life or – and perhaps especially so – if your Christian life seems to be going well.
Well, you have the passage and the points on the outline:
And, I have to warn you that this passage is painful before it becomes hopeful. To start with it makes uncomfortable reading, because God's view of us is that:
1. By nature, we are spiritually dead...
It is there in verse 1:
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked,
The Bible is clear that by nature this is true of every one of us. We are spiritually dead. Of course we are alive in a physical sense - we can all walk around – but we are walking in trespasses and sins. We are walking in a way that displeases God. Now, Paul does not imagine that everyone is walking around doing exceptionally evil things – murdering, stealing – no the rest of verse 2 expands on what he has in mind: 2 following the course of this world,
In other words living merely by this world's value-system – a system that has little time for God, that is not orientated towards God, that is not thankful to God. The sign of spiritual death is not necessarily a life of outrageous immorality – no it is usually simply a normal life of quietly forgetting God. Of simply living as if he did not exist. Of just following the course of this world. The measure of whether someone is spiritually alive or not is not whether they are nice, friendly, upright or decent. No, the measure of whether someone is spiritually alive or not is what place God and particularly the Lord Jesus has in their lives. Does God's Word rule their lives or are they following the course of this world...
[Based on illustration from Andrew Rees]
Jeremy Bentham was the founder of the economic theory Utilitarianism and left a large part of his fortune to the University College London. In return the college embalmed him and you can still see him sitting in a display case in the South Cloister of the University. At the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college he was brought out to the College Committee meeting. He sat at one end of the table, the Provost at the other, and the minutes record 'Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting'.
Spiritually that is a picture of us – we might be physically present but we contribute nothing because we are spiritually dead. Present but not voting.
I imagine that to many people – even perhaps to you – this is offensive. To be described as spiritually dead is not exactly what we like to hear about ourselves. And the implications are also very stark. It means that any attempt we make to develop our spirituality is futile – we cannot embark on any kind of genuine spiritual journey because, quite simply, we are spiritually dead.
But worse than that - the rest of verse 2 and verse 3 show just how completely our destiny is out of our hands. Spiritually we are not under our own control: So, verse 2 – we are effectively controlled by Satan following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-
At this point, we have to throw out all images of pointy horns, and pitch-forks. No, again the work of the devil according to the Bible is much more subtle. His work is not to create obvious moral anarchy- no simply to cause people to be spiritually stupified – to ignore God, to ignore the Bible.
And so we are in an utterly hopeless situation – spiritually dead, controlled by the devil.
This is hard reading. This is uncomfortable. It is not particularly uplifting ...but I think that very fact underlines its truthfulness. The Bible is not a book that flatters. It is not a book that tries to put a positive spin on things.
Steven Pinker has written a very interesting book – which I have to declare I have not read but I intend to. I have read the summary on Wikipedia though – which is surely good enough. The book is called The Blank Slate. In it he argues that babies are not born with a blank slate so to speak and then are purely shaped by their environment. No, he argues that we are all born with specific tendencies – tendencies which we have to work very hard to overcome. Now, Pinker is not a Christian and does not teach what the Bible teaches – that we are born with a sinful nature per se. However, even though you might say that his views are mild compared to the Bible, he has come in for some pretty strong criticism – that his views are negative and will cause people to just despair at trying to change themselves if their nature is fixed at birth. This is how he replied:
People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. [PCO: That is - they want reality]. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.
People are surely better off with the truth... The Bible presents the truth of our nature clearly and unambiguously. We are spiritually dead.
But in fact we have missed the most serious aspect of our situation. You see the result of all this is that verse 3 we are: by nature children of wrath
We are by nature God's enemies – objects of his wrath and anger. God is against us. This applies to all humanity and means that we really are in a hopeless situation. Because to be under the anger of the God of the Bible is to be without any hope of salvation. The God who created the universe, the God who made the world, the God who sustains all things is angry with us because of our rejection of him. The God of the universe is against us...we are by nature children of wrath
We have no hope – we are spiritually dead, we are controlled by Satan and we are under God's right and just anger.
But all of this makes what Paul continues to say so stunning:
2. ...but because he loves us God makes us spiritually alive with Jesus
Do you see the wonderful paradox of the Bible – we are God's enemies and yet he loves us:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses,
The gospel is a message of the mercy of God – Paul stresses that in verse 5 - even when we were spiritually dead and so objects of his wrath - God loved us and had mercy on us. That is why it is so important that we grasp just how serious our situation is. Because it helps us to grasp and comprehend the magnitude of God's grace.
Because of this love and mercy for us God does three things. Do you see them in verses 5 and 6
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
a. he makes us alive with Christ
b. he raises us up with Christ
c. he seats us with Christ in the heavenly places
Here is the great truth at the heart of the Christian life – the Christian is united with Christ. And so spiritually we experience what he experienced. What is true of Jesus is true of us. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What is true of Jesus is true of us.
Just as he was dead, rose and then was exalted to God's right hand, the same is true of us in him. And so, in God's eyes we are no longer spiritually dead, but we have been made alive and spiritually we are in heaven already – because we are united with Christ. I think what Paul teaches here is something that as Christians it is very easy to neglect. Because we are spiritually dead, we need God to make us alive.
As much as we might be able to think back to a time when we first put our trust in Christ – the only reason we did that was the fact that God made us alive. That he gave us spiritual life. Our spiritual condition depends totally on God working through Christ.
But when we become Christians we aren't left in neutral territory. God doesn't just give us spiritual life and then tell us – there you go you can just get on with it yourself. No, do you see he does more than simply make us alive. Look at verse 6 he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus Spiritually the Christian is not just alive – we are seated at God's right hand in Christ.
Can you see the tremendous encouragement this is to the Christian – however you might feel, however you might struggle in your Christian life – you have been made alive with Christ , we you been raised with him, you have been seated with him at God's right hand. That spiritual truth remains true and cannot be altered by anything that happens outside of you. And so the Christian life is not about you making it to heaven – no it is being united to Christ who has gone into heaven already
If you are a Christian what is true of Jesus' experience is true of your spiritual status. I hope you can draw great encouragement.
But I guess that raises the question – who is a Christian? How do I know if I am a Christian?
That is our third point:
3.This all happens by grace through faith not by works which come later
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
At its heart, Christianity is salvation by grace not by works.
This is how the great Irish theologian Bono explains grace:
... the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. [...]You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. [...]And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that [...]. Grace defies reason and logic.
Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.[...]I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.
Bono has hit the nail on the head.
God's grace defies reason and logic. Reason and logic says we should be condemned for our sins. That living as enemies of God we deserve his judgment. But because he is loving and gracious, God takes our sins on himself in Jesus – and so the punishment for our sins is paid forever by him.
But as we said the crucial question is who is this for – who benefits from this wonderful work of Christ.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
The answer is faith in Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
It is through trusting in Jesus and what he has done. The Christian is the one who relies on, who trusts in, who leans on Jesus and his work for salvation. That is what Bono was talking about when he said: I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.
But Paul tells us even this faith is a gift of God – so that boasting is ruled out altogether.
In other words the salvation from beginning to end is dependent on God – his love, his grace, his work in Christ. And so we receive it, we do not earn it.
Now, that 's not to say that good works have no part in the Christian life – they clearly do 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
As Christians we have been re-created in Christ – we are new people. And our purpose as new people is to live for him and that means doing good works. But they lie on this side of our new creation – they do not secure our salvation. But they are important – they are the reason we were -re-created as Christians. But works come after we have put our trust in Christ. They come after we have been raised with Christ.
What we have see this morning is that the Christian can have total confidence of their eternal life. Because our eternal life depends on what God has done in Christ – it depends on something that lies outside of us – that means we can be absolutely certain of our eternal life.
So it is not arrogant for a Christian to say I am certain that I have eternal life- that I will spend eternity with God forever. It is not arrogant because it has nothing whatsoever to do with what I have done or achieved. No, to say 'I am certain that I have eternal life' is actually to give glory to God. It is to say – my eternal life depends on God and God alone. I am certain because he has done it – he has done it all.
So, let me close this morning by asking you if you have that certainty. Let me ask you the question that often gets asked but which I think is very helpful: If you were to die to tonight do you know where you would spend eternity? The hope that this chapter holds out is that those who trust in Christ can be certain. You can know hat you will enjoy eternity with God forever – if you put your trust in Jesus. So, can I plead with you today – put your trust in Christ. Stop trying to earn your salvation and put it in his hands. Trust him.
The Bible (as originally given - there is a post in that on its own!) says exactly what God wants it to say.
What do you think?
Here are a few interesting things on the web:
-I found this quite moving...actually I was sobbing by the end but don't tell Dave!)
-This is a very challenging post on being a father
-This is a great journal.
-This is a great discussion on homosexuality and how Christians should be 'critically tolerant'. One of the most helpful pieces I have read...
-This was a great result!
No problems there, you think (although it might make the acceptance speech very boring (if you privilege human authorship - no one would turn up) or very exciting (if you privilege divine authorship - maybe a podium that burned but was not consumed?)). But it's not the fact that the Bible won that confused me (although you'd probably think it should win every year if the award is based on 'editorial excellence and sales achievement'. It was the type of Bible that won. For it wasn't any normal Bible, but an audio Bible. You can buy/see it here.
My confusion is that a book didn't win the Christian book of the year award. A CD did. Now of course I'm all for talking Bibles - I've given them away, I've listened to them myself. But I just wonder what it's saying about the state of Christian publishing, and an overall attitude to books and their place in the Christian's life, when a book doesn't win the book of the year award.
But it does open up some possibilities. Maybe Church Dogmatics on CD (for insomniacs). The difficulty would be finding a good Swiss/German accent: ''Dogmatics iz a theological discipline..."
Thursday, 24 July 2008
Owen goes so far as to say that:
...the more sublime and glorious - the more inaccessible unto sense and reason - the things are which we believe; the more are we changed into the image of God.
Owen isn't, I don't think, saying that if we believe really crazy things we'll be transformed into the image of God, but rather that things revealed, which are beyond sense and reason (a man rising from the dead, the union of God and man in one person, the substitution of the innocent for the guilty, etc.), when believed, is that which transforms us. The exercise of faith does something to the believer:
Hence we find this most glorious effect of faith, or the transformation of the mind into the likeness of God...
Even those whose 'comprehensive abilities are weak and contemptible' are able to respond to God in faith, and by doing so are transformed into the likeness of Christ. Faith in Christ is for all, regardless of academic standing or cognitive ability.
Some however, observes Owen, disagree, saying that things should only be believed if they 'be obvious and comprehensible unto our reason'. Such an approach arises from our own pride, is an 'invention to debase religion; and is designed to destroy the 'principal' mysteries of the Gospel' - the trinity and the incarnation. You can't help but get the sense that Owen is here saying that you're much better off with 'weak and contemptible' 'comprehensive abilities' if the alternative is to reject faith on the basis of 'reason'.
Yes, says Owen, things should be believed if they are reasonable - particularly in the areas of philosophy, etc. But it is a different matter for 'spiritual and heavenly mysteries'. In these areas only faith is the appropriate instrument of appropriation, and those without faith reject them - the reason people don't believe is because they don't have faith (2 Thes 3:2). By faith, says Owen, we receive these mysteries, and
...where this faith is, the greatness of the mysteries which it embraceth heightens its efficacy, in all its blessed effects, upon the soul.
Faith breeds faith. Faith strengthens faith. Faith grasps the glory of the person of Christ (2 Cor 4:6) as revealed in the gospel, and we behold his glory by faith alone.
And those whose view [of Jesus] is steadfast, who most abound in the contemplation by the exercise of faith, are thereby "changed into the same image, from glory to glory" - or are more and more renewed and transformed into the likeness of God, so represented unto them.
Ultimately, notes Owen, we will have sight (1 John 3:2) - 'faith begins what sight shall perfect hereafter'. But while faith and sight are different means, their object is the same - the glory of God in Christ - the 'will and wisdom of God'. Faith, Owen seems to be saying, is preparation (he speaks of it as an inititation) for sight - it raises and perfects the mind more than any other spiritual exercise.
Owen then appears to change tack very sharply - not a untypical things for him to do - although I think he is developing a tangent which still relates to faith. Christ, notes Owen, is the foundation and grounds of divine wisdom, and therefore is the only place 'wherein alone faith can find rest and peace.' For that is what we long for - rest and peace - Owen ties this rest and peace in with salvation in the words of the Philippian jailer. Only in Christ is there oblation and intercession for sinners, and Christ's death is the death of God himself for us. When we are reminded of our salvation, observes Owen, it is the person of Jesus that we are pointed to - 1 John 2:1-2 'If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins'. Owen points us to the fact that is the person of Jesus Christ who has died for us - our faith is faith in him, because he has provided the sacrifice we require.
Owen rounds out the chapter by showing his readers how faith actually does give rest and peace. Starting with the realisation that we are sinners, and by God's work in us, (is this, possibly, the beginning of faith breeding faith?) we realise that we require relief from this sin and its consequences. This relief, says Owen, is proposed in the gospel. But:
When any person comes practically to know how great a thing it is for an apostate sinner to obtain the remission of sins, and an inheritance among them that are sanctified, endless objections through the power of unbelief will arise unto his disquietment.
And it is at this point, says Owen, that faith comes into its own. For faith in Christ, in what he has done, in him as the wisdom and goodness of God in our salvation, is the only thing which can give rest and peace and comfort:
On this consideration of him, faith apprehends Christ to be - as he is indeed - the power of God, and the wisdom of God, unto the salvation of them that do believe; and therein does it find rest with peace.
Owen's work is always hard going, but in the space of four pages, he takes us on a wonderful journey as to the efficacy and aptness of faith in Christ. Faith transforms us into the image of Christ (although I hope Owen will go on to explore more how this is the case). Faith is the right response to revelation; it prepares us for the sight we will have when we are with God in glory, for the object of faith and sight are the same. And faith is the only thing suited to our greatest concern - how might we be saved - how might we find rest and peace before God. For faith fixes our eyes upon Jesus, the wisdom and goodness and power of God for the salvation of all who believe. I hope you saw, too, the way in which Owen moved from theology to pastoral care. His concern is not just to say that Jesus is great, or that faith is important, but to show his readers how these truths affect them in their walk with Christ. Faith in Christ is glorious because it is faith in Christ. Because Christ is glorious, because what he has done for us and for our salvation is glorious.
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
Chapter 3 is where Owen turns to focus on the person of Jesus as the foundation for all true religion (religion being, according to Owen, to glorify God as God). God himself is the primary foundation of all religion, but not in essence - rather God as revealed. Essentially, Owen is saying that God is only known as he is, by what he does. Therefore, God is known, or his power, wisdom, goodness is known, in creation, to a certain extent, but He is known most perfectly in the person of Christ. Not Christ as eternally generated (for this is an internal and eternal act of God), but rather Christ as incarnate. This is the mystery of godliness (1 Tim 3:16), and Owen has some wonderfully beautiful language to describe it. Some examples are needed:
But this assumption of our nature into hypostatical union with the Son of God, this constitution of one and the same individual person in two natures so infinitely distinct as those of God and man - whereby the Eternal was made in time, the Infinite became finite, the Immortal mortal, yet continuing eternal, infinite, immortal - is that singular expression of divine wisdom, goodness and power, wherein God will be admired and glorified unto all eternity.
Go on, read it again. Read it out loud. And if that doesn't make you smile and whisper prayers of praise and adoration to our gracious Father, you've got something wrong with you.
This mystery, continues Owen, has a veil drawn over it in Scripture. It is declared without being described - it is a mystery. Statements are made like john 1:14 - the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
But what Word was this? That which was in the beginning, which was with God, which was God, by whom all things were made, and without whom was not any thing made that was made; who was light and life. This Word was made flesh, not by any change of his own nature or essence, not by a transubstantiation of the divine nature into the human, not by ceasing to be what he was, but by becoming what he was not, in taking our nature to his own, to be his own, whereby he dwelt amongst us.
This indeed, says Owen, is wisdom. However, some, he observes, say that it isn't. That if the only way by which humanity might be reconciled is by the incarnation of the divine, then there is no wisdom in it. Owen's reply is superb. 'Vain man indeed would be wise, but is like the wild ass's colt.' Owen then turns to Hebrews 1:1-3 and Isaiah 6 to see the glory of the one who was made flesh.
This, summarises Owen, is the glory of the Christian religion. This is where God might truly be worshipped. True religion, he observes, existed in the garden. Being made in the image of God, man was able to glorify God, but because this image was not 'united to himself in a personal union', it quickly fell. It required a firmer foundation - a foundation whereby the human and divine were united - permanently, perfectly, so that true worship might be offered. No 'gracious relation could be stable and permanent' unless 'our nature was assumed into personal union and subsistence with himself'. This is wonderfully true, and a helpful corrective to our (post)modern thinking about relationships in general, and our worship of God in particular. Owen is here carrying on thinking about divine-human relationships in a way which he more fully developed in Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (published some 21 years earlier). To worship, know, and love God qua God requires being drawn into, united with, the one whom we seek to worship, know, and love. While he doesn't address it here, the work of the Holy Spirit is hugely significant here.
Owen's point, however, is the centrality of the hypostatic union to our relationship with, and true worship of, God. There was true worship post-fall, observes Owen, for the cult was revealed by God. However, it all pointed to Christ, both in promise and the outward institutions associated with it. Heb 1:1-3 again. Only in Christ, the God-man, in whom the divine has united himself with the creature, is the real foundation of true worship. In the rest of the chapter Owen will go on to describe how faith is the right response and action in light of the mystery of Godliness. But that will have to wait until tomorrow!
Thursday, 17 July 2008
For those of us in Pete's year, College would have been a very different (and, arguably, much dumber) place without him. While I wasn't at church with him, seeing him and Em with people from church, as well as hearing all that they did, as well as the fact that they asked him to stay on for the past six months, all point to the fact that they were deeply loved and will be greatly missed. There's no doubt in my mind that the next three years in Durham will be hard work for them, but also a wonderful time where Pete is better equipped for the ministry God has in store for him. Go well, brother. We'll miss you, but look forward to seeing how God will use you in academically contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.
One of the books I'm (very slowly) working through is Packer's latest, Guard Us, Guide Us. (image: buzzardblog.com) A very helpful, rounded and robust little book on guidance, it sets forth a clear picture of God's guidance and integrates it into the whole of the Christian life. One summary section about halfway through the book is brilliant:
Many Christians are still haunted by the fancy that real guidance from God for the making of each day's decisions is a direct ministry of the Holy Spirit in one's heart that entirely transcends the mental disciplines of analysing alternative, applying principles, calculating consequences, weighing priorities, balancing pros and cons, taking and weighing advice, estimating your own capacities and limitations, and engaging in whatever other forms of brainwork prudence in self-commitment is held to require. We emphatically agree that leading us to the best decision is a ministry of the Holy Spirit, first to last, but with equal emphasis we deny that under ordinary circumstances his ministry short-circuits or circumvents any of these sometimes laborious intellectual procedures. On the contrary, they are precisely the means by which the Holy Spirit of God leads us into seeing clearly what it is right and good to decide and do in each situation.Not only is the content of Packer's statement spot on, notice how he articulates it. He sets forth the counter position (that God doesn't guide through 'brainwork' etc.) in such a way that he is actually reinforcing his point. He then agrees with what he can (We emphatically agree...) but then contrasts this with his negative statement, before turning to reinforce what he wants to affirm. Your 'yes' is only as good as your 'no', and your 'no' is only as good as your 'yes'. Both of Packer's are brilliant.
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
[speaking of 2 Tim 3:16] ... we owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God, since it has its only source in Him and has nothing of human origin mixed with it. (Calvin's Commentaries on the New Testament, 1 and 2 Timothy)
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a BIG fan of Johnny C. But, I think here he oversteps the mark. It's clear what he's trying to say - that what the Bible says God says, and that it is his word, not mans. But he makes absolute what the Bible leaves slightly more open. We don't venerate the book - for all the attacks on evangelicals of bibliolotry I've never seen anyone treat the Bible like it were God. In fact, I've seen liberals treat their (physical) bibles with far more care than evangelicals (primarily because they leave it in pristine condition on the shelf, whereas evangelicals get it out and use it). I don't revere my UltraThin (ironic, eh) Reference Edition NIV Holy Bible (all the way from Nashville, Tennessee) in the same way I revere my risen Lord. I don't fall flat on my face when I see my Bible in the same way that I'm sure I'm going to fall flat on my face when I meet Jesus.
And I'm glad that, contra Calvin, my Bible does have something of its human origin mixed in. Not that I think that some words are Gods and some aren't, of course not. All Scripture is exhaled by God. But he did it through normal men. He breathed out his word through Peter who, red-necked clown that he was, got so scared he thought it would be a good idea to pitch tents for the transfigured Lord and his buddies. Who in a fit of terrified insanity denied Jesus. But whom Jesus forgave, and breathed out his Spirit on, and through whom Jesus was pleased to have his gospel boldly proclaimed. He breathed out his word through Paul who got depressed and angry and sad, who modelled a self-giving, self-denying ministry both through what he did and how he wrote.
I understand what Calvin has said, and what he wants to protect. And I'm with him. But he, it seems, goes to far. What the Bible says, God says. But the Bible is not God. Everything that the Bible says is from God, breathed out by him. But he breathed it out through my brothers, who loved him and served him, and at times failed, but always looked to their Saviour for forgiveness.
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Peter Brain, the bishop of Armidale, has a simple purpose in this work, stated in the subtitle. To articulate, enable, and equip pastors for a lifetime of ministry. Working from the position that ministry is a lifelong vocation, and that pastors seek to remain faithful and effective in that ministry for the long term, Brain’s primary emphasis is on self-care:
…intentional self-care on the part of pastors is not a matter of selfish pampering, it is essential to maintaining an effective ministry over the long term. (p10)
It is the nature of ministry itself which necessitates such a conscious and significant level of self-care. Dealing with matters of eternal significance; the voluntary nature of the church; the portrayal of ministry in society; demands for ‘success’ in terms of church growth, as well as the feelings of inadequacy which ministers can feel from comparing themselves to others, or even to their own expectations, all mean that ministry can be a difficult task which takes a toll on the well-being of the pastor. Brain is very clear up front that he is in no way advocating that ministry should be taken less seriously – indeed by the end of the book one feels the weight of ministry more keenly – but rather that in caring for ourselves well we preserve ourselves for the long haul of ministry, and (as he later develops) promote a picture of ministry which is model-able and therefore more effective in self-replication.
Having identified the importance of self-care, Brain then pragmatically turns to consider the issue of burnout. While a helpful chapter, this also highlights Brain’s pastoral approach in the book. He very frequently deals with where pastors ‘are at’ rather than stating the ideal (and therefore potentially discouraging many). This is also seen in the overall positive nature of the book – a variety of authors and sources are quoted – the vast majority (if not all of them) positively. Brain’s purpose is not to show that he is right and others wrong, but to urge faithful pastors to care for themselves that they might better serve God and care for the people entrusted to their care. This works from his presupposition about the nature of ministry – he doesn’t argue for it, but rather assumes a word-based, parish-centred, evangelical ministry. While different theological and pastoral settings would bring some changes, many of the principles would remain unaltered, although his final chapter on justification by faith might not have the same paradigmatic force.
The issue of burnout is treated as a sign that self-care isn’t working, and/or that self-care needs to be implemented. Brain presents a helpful, cyclical description of burnout, noting how it often feeds on itself. Rather than treating it as a problem (although he clearly sets forth the problems of burnout), Brain urges the reader to see it as ‘an invitation to take stock’ (p31), much like the fuel light in your car. He notes that the early signs of burnout are signs to ‘turnout’ – to slow down and take time to refresh, much like ‘drive-revive-survive’ concept here in
Burnout itself is grounded in how the pastor identifies and manages stress – the topic of the next two chapters. Brain is clear that there will be stress in the pastorate, the key issue is how it is dealt with. Helpfully, he identifies that poor (and therefore stress producing) patterns of behaviour don’t emerge overnight, but are often the result of thoughts and attitudes, which result in behaviour, and eventually change character. This progression, however, works both ways – for good and ill. He suggests three areas in which stress can be managed – articulating priorities, being assertive, and saying ‘no’. In all three, the key issue is taking control of the situation, and being in control of ministry. He doesn’t advocate a domineering or selfish approach, but rather to be in control of your ministry – in such a way that ‘we can prepare ourselves to be less stressed [which] flows out of the healthy basis of justification by faith.’ (48) Brain also addresses simply the physiological issue of stress – how God has made our bodies to be stressed, but then to have that stressed relieved. He offers simple and practical advice such as using the diary to plan less-stressful events after stressful ones; to enjoy little things every day; to watch artificial stimulants; to cultivate good friendships; to remind yourself of God’s sovereignty.
Depression is treated next, and in a generalist work such as this, it receives a generalist treatment. Brain is upfront that he is not an expert in the area, and draws on others who are. A helpful distinction made is between endogenous depression (that caused biologically) and exogenous depression (that caused by loss), and Brain focuses on the latter, suggesting that for the pastor there can be four major areas where loss occurs – natural loss (death, friends moving town, etc.); particularly Christian loss (sending missionaries overseas, planting a new church, etc.), issues of conscience (‘genuine difficulty with church or denominational teaching of practices’ (p71)); and sinful causes (loss of power, loss of prestige, the giving up of sinful behaviour, etc.). Turning for a moment to a broader purview than just the pastor’s self-care (although obviously related), Brain suggests that the pastor helps in these areas by both preparing the congregation for loss, and by pastoring them when it happens. For the pastor, six points are made: realise that ministry is full of loss (i.e., be ready for depression!); accept that it is ok; allow yourself to feel loss; healing will come through identification of loss; there is no short, quick remedy; and finally, that a series of ‘bottomings’ can happen, and only after the last one will recovery really be possible.
A series of chapters then deal with:
Anger – a helpful point made is that anger, unless identified and managed, will quickly turn either outward or inward, and that forgiveness (very often a required outcome) is first an act of the will.
Families – Brain here recognises the close ties the Bible draws between the church and the family, but also the difficulties that this can potentially bring for the biological family. Rather than a ‘first’ ‘second’ type system, the proposal is suggested that the primary commitment is to God, and then to act faithfully, lovingly, and graciously in the areas in which we are called to live. This is helpful advice, for it recognises that there will be seasons where one of the two families will take significant priority over the other, and that grace, not law, is a proper way of managing such situations.
Sexual temptation – particularly the importance of the example that the pastor sets in this area, and to be realistic that there may very well come times and people in the pastors life where he will be willing to abandon everything for someone not his wife. Brain flags that pastors who are arrogant, alone, and addicted to work are more prone to failure in this area, but also offers a variety of suggestions for how sexual temptation can be avoided and managed. Central to this is his insight from Crabb (an insight quoted quite regularly) – ‘be hypocritical to your feelings, not your purpose’ (p137)
Friendships – while developing friendships is an act of pastoring, they also support and maintain the pastor.
In the following chapters, Brain turns to think about the way forward – about what a plan of self-care might look like. While expressed explicitly in a few places, running throughout these chapters like a recurring melody is the idea of planning. Self-care is a deliberate, focused, and thought out activity which requires the pastor to plan for it. He starts with eight principles upon which any such plan should be based: a Sabbath rest; the development and use of a network of support; a realistic appreciation of opposition and unbelief in ministry; that justification is by grace through faith (not by being ‘the best’ pastor); the sovereignty of God in all things; the importance of receiving hospitality; taking time for study and reflection; prayer. These principles must then be planned for – take time to plan (i.e., plan to plan) – plan to rest; plan to study; plan to be a spouse and parent; plan to be humble (i.e., development of one’s relationship with God); plan to be accountable. Brain’s advice is essentially to make self-care an integral and deliberate part of your ministry – not for it’s own sake, but to serve and support your ministry.
Recognising that self-care doesn’t take place in a vacuum, three additional chapters are written to church members, church lay-leaders, and to denominational leaders. While helpful and useful advice is given, Brain doesn’t offer practical suggestions as to how the information contained within these pages might find its way to the target audience. Obviously them reading the book is one option, but a discussion about how to educate and help your congregation help you in self-care would have been valuable.
Two final chapters round out the book. Penultimately, Brain addresses the specific issue that ministry is never finished. Unlike most other professions, a pastor finds it extremely hard to measure the real heart of his work. Therefore, the setting of small goals can be of great help. Ultimately, however, it is an understanding of the true nature of ministry – that it is an eschatological work done in a relay-type environment under the sovereign hand of God – which frees the pastor from the successful/unsuccessful feelings.
This leads to Brain’s last chapter, which in one sense is the bringing together of the theological presuppositions woven throughout. He focuses here on justification by faith as the heart of the Christian life, and therefore the heart of Christian ministry. We are saved not by works, but by grace through faith, and therefore our salvation, and our ministry, is all from God. Justification by faith assures us of God’s goodness to me, and also acts as a model for ministry. It provides the basis for our self-esteem (grounding our identity not only in creation but also in redemption); provides and allows for our failure by setting all that we do in the contrast of what we were (rebels) and are (adopted children); provides the basis for all relationships, including receiving correction; leads to real work, for we will work for the one from whom we seek praise and reward; helps us to be grounded in what we are, rather than what we do; and frees me to serve, love, and give wholeheartedly.
Brain’s aim is laudable – to equip pastors for a lifetime of ministry. The positive tone of the book and the gentle yet direct encouragement found in it not only sets forth how to care for yourself and equip yourself for that long-term ministry, it also cares and equips you through the act of reading it. As noted, it presupposes a particular theological position, and because it is grounded on this I’m not sure how transferable some of it would be to those who hold different positions. Nevertheless, his chapters on stress, anger, family, sexual temptation, and others, and particularly the pragmatic advice on planning and managing self-care are applicable to all. It is helpful to have this advice from someone who has run the race, and stayed fit for a life-time of ministry.
Tuesday, 8 July 2008
Friday, 4 July 2008
Wilson's other observation, that measurement of progress needs to happen in the long term, frees us from legalism and guilt for not using every 15 minutes as well as we could. If you think about it, it's a very gracious principle by which to operate. Review your reading over a month, not a week. Plot your prayer life over a week, not a day. Make the most of now, but review how much you made of now over the long term. For brothers and sisters, we're in this for the long-haul, and for many of us, the race is only starting.
(HT: Justin Taylor)