Monthly Archives: May 2017

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.