What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Salvation: Personal, Communal, Cosmic

I’m writing this post for two reasons. First, and most importantly, because I think it’s important for Christians to have a full picture of Christ’s work in salvation. (And for those who are not Christians and are reading this, I want to ensure that you have a full picture of what the Bible talks about when it talks about salvation.) Second, to address a couple of imbalances we can sometimes form in our theology.

One way we can be imbalanced is by assuming that salvation is purely personal and individual, it’s about saving souls from hell, and that’s it. If this were the extent of salvation, it would still be a marvelous gift, but there’s simply more to it than that. The second imbalance has come as a reaction to the first. That imbalance is to emphasize that God’s work in salvation is communal or cosmic and then to deemphasize the personal, by saying things like “the Bible never says God wants a personal relationship with you.” This argument, by the way, has to ignore a lot of the Bible, or reinterpret words like “personal” and “relationship” to work.

I want to argue that salvation is something that is personal, communal, and cosmic and that the three are no in opposition to one another. I addressed this to some degree in my most recent sermon on Ephesians. This post will leave out a lot of Scripture references, but Ephesians is the book at the forefront of my mind for most of it.

Salvation is Personal

Paul writes: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden – and because we each ratify that sin on our own – we all bear personal guilt before God. This makes us his enemies. We need to be forgiven and reconciled in order to stand in the final judgment. Jesus’s work is to reconcile us God by dying on the cross for our sins. We receive that gift when we put our faith in Jesus. When this happens, we are personally and individually saved. We have peace with God. In my tribe of evangelicalism, this is how we most commonly express the gospel. We should keep doing that.

Salvation is Communal

When Adam and Eve sinned not only were we alienated from God, we were alienated from one another. When Jesus breaks down the wall of hostility between us and God, he also breaks down the wall of hostility between us and one another. He does this in the church. So, when we are “in Christ” we are also in “his body”, we are part of his family, we form one single temple of the Holy Spirit. Being saved means becoming part of a community. The task of the community is to be salt and light to the world, to invite those who are outside in to experience the fullness of the love of God.

Salvation is Cosmic

The Fall had universal implications. All of creation groans under the curse. History is marked by horrendous evil. Systems, powers and authorities (“religious” and secular) often stand in direct opposition to God. Beings in the spiritual realm continue to rebel against God and do harm to his creation. God is remedying this as well. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus he dealt a fatal blow to the powers of evil. While still wielding great ability to do harm, their end is assured, and will be complete when God makes all things new. When that happens all of creation will stand in its proper relation to Christ.

Each of these dimensions to salvation follows the same storyline. There was an originally created goodness. That goodness was marred by sin and rebellion. God overcame that evil through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Now He is making all things new, first gradually, but someday all in a flash. In Christ, we are a “new creation,” we form a new community, and we await a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Should Christians be ambitious?

There two possible meanings of “ambitious.” (1) “having a desire to achieve a particular goal” and (2) “having a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that Christians should be ambitious in this first sense. It is wise to set goals and then desire to achieve them, presuming the goal is worthy. My interest is in that second sense, and here particularly, in the realm of one’s career. Should Christians be ambitious in their careers? Should a Christian want to be “the boss?”

I feel two tensions here. The first tension pertains to internal motivations. Does the desire to move up the ladder come from pride? Does it come from a desire to be seen as great in the eyes of others? Do we desire external success (a promotion, a raise, greater fame) because it will validate us or give us a sense of worth? Do we want the extra power for its own sake? This sort of “naked ambition” comes from a heart that is not satisfied in God. This would be a cause to reconsider your deepest values, deepest loves.

But on the other side of this pride is a false humility wherein we bury the talents God has given us. Are we shirking added responsibilities and thereby withholding our gifts from God and from our neighbors? Are we so “content” in our present condition that we’re unwilling to step up and step out into the more dangerous and risky world that God is calling us to?

On the one side there is see the danger of pride. On the other side is the danger of neglect or laziness. In the Gospel at Work, authors Traeger and Gilbert describe these as the dangers of idolatry and idleness.

The second, and related, tension, pertains to the expected outcome; the goal. Whose kingdom are you building? Are you building your own personal kingdom or are you building the kingdom of God? That is, are you primarily serving yourself or others?

How can ambition be used to serve others? There are several ways: Perhaps you want to increase your salary so that your family no longer lives so close to the bone? Or perhaps you want to make more money so that you can be more generous with others? Or, perhaps you know that by taking or seeking that promotion you can help the business you work for better serve its customers. For most jobs, to be skilled in that job and to be in a position to utilize those skills, gives you opportunities to do appreciable, even if modest, good to your neighbor.

But perhaps your ambition has nothing to do with serving others. What would that look like? Seeking a promotion or a new position even though you know you aren’t skilled or qualified to really carry out the job well. Seeking wealth purely for its own sake or (going back to the beginning) simply out of pride, for the feeling that you “made it.”

We come back again to the same dangers we saw before. On the one side is the desire to build your own kingdom, for your own sake. On the other side is a disregard for – or perhaps fear of – using your gifts for the sake of your neighbor.

Where does this leave us? Should Christians be ambitions? My answer is that it depends on your motivation. Are you trying to serve only yourself or are you trying to serve God and others? Are you trying to glorify yourself or are you doing everything to the glory of God?

Youth Group Values Statement

At our church we have a strange fondness for “values statements.” We have Core Values, Community Values, Global Outreach Values, and Musical Outreach Values (all available here). Here’s how we see it: What we value most drives what we do and how we do it. Describing those values, as a team, keeps us all on the same page. Here’s our newly minted Youth Group Values statement. What do you think? Did we miss anything important?

God is worthy of worship. Our task is to help students love God and commit their lives to following Him as disciples of Jesus.

God’s Word is powerful. Our teaching should be biblically rich and relevant, equipping students to follow God in their daily lives and preparing them for life after High School.

God designed us to live in community. We value relationships among the students, with youth group leaders, and with the whole church.

Godly parents have the primary role of teaching their children to follow God and the youth group seeks to support those parents.

God has given us the mission of reaching people for Christ. Youth group should be a safe place for all students, regardless of their current spiritual walk. The gospel should be regularly and clearly presented.

Is there a third option between slavery to sin and slavery to God?

Romans 6 22

Last Wednesday I got to teach the Youth Group from Romans 6:11-23. Here were some of my reflections as I studied the passage. Suffice it to say, Romans teaches a pretty counter-cultural perspective on freedom. 

Is there a third option here?

It’s easy to like the idea of being set free from sin. Apart from Jesus our sinful desires control us and it’s a powerless feeling. In Jesus, we can be free from that slavery.

But I suspect it can be a little more difficult for us to accept that when we cease to be slaves to sin, we simultaneously become slaves to God. Paul doesn’t leave us a third option – being free from sin AND free from God. Is such a third option possible and would it be desirable?

No and no.

It’s not possible. First, to desire to be free from God was the root of Adam and Eve’s sin. They desired to be like God themselves and, in doing so, they rejected their place in his creation and, ultimately, they rejected God himself. Second, the “third option” is a trap. When we desire to be “free” from God we start down the path of sin. The sin that starts out little grows and gains more and more control. We think it’s our pet, but it becomes our slave master, and eventually leads to death.

It’s also not desirable. God created us and loves us so he knows what’s best for us. He sets up boundaries for our own good and within those boundaries he grants us incredible freedom. Like a fish is free in water, a person is free when he is in the environment for which he was created. God created us to live in love – love for God and love for one another. When we submit to him, he calls us to obey those greatest commandments. In doing so, though we are offering our whole selves in service to him, we become truly free.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?