Category Archives: Christianity

On the pain of misalignment

The greatest moments of physical pain I’ve ever experienced have come from dislocation and misalignment.

Last year, as I was youthfully* bounding up the stairs at my church, I tripped over the lip of the next step. The ring finger on my left hand caught my fall. I got up, looked at it, and thought, something doesn’t look right. It was pointing in an unnaturally bizarre direction. I had dislocated it. After a trip to the ER, and a fair amount of pain later, it has been reset in its joint.

Earlier that same year I tore a muscle in my shoulder painting the ceiling of my house. I didn’t realize it at the time but a few days later I was lying on my back in a conference room at work in utter agony. The muscle had become inflamed and had knocked my back way out of alignment. I had a pinched nerve in my neck. The right side of my left hand was completely numb. A coworker drove me to an urgent care center. I was prescribed pain killers and muscle relaxers. For a few months, I went to the chiropractor three times a week.

Have you ever experienced the physical pain that comes from your body being misaligned? From a joint being dislocated?

Have you ever experienced the spiritual pain that comes from spiritual misalignment and dislocation?

Spiritual Misalignment

Sin is at the root of all spiritual misalignment. God created us to live in union with him, our wills, desires, motives, and actions, all aligned with his, acting in creative freedom, in a way that coincided with his own creative freedom. When sin entered the world, the alignment was broken. Our wills were severed from his. We became dislocated. That dislocation causes spiritual pain which we can (often successfully!) find ways to numb or to dull, but which continues to gnaw at the back of our minds.

Coming to faith in Jesus causes significant healing. Our sins are forgiven and we receive power from God to live new lives. In repentance, our wills align to God’s. We say “yes” to his way, are set free from the power of sin, and begin to walk in creative freedom.

But even Christians continue to experience the pain of dislocation and misalignment.

The misalignment between desires and actions. Paul complained about this: “What I want to do I don’t want to do and what I don’t want to do, I do!” His spirit within him, guided by the Holy Spirit, desired to follow God. But his sinful nature still held sway, and sometimes won. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asked. Christians in every generation can relate.

The misalignment between motives and actions. In some ways, this is the reverse of Paul’s experience, and it’s one I’ve experienced. As a pastor, almost everything I do, or at least everything I’m judged for, is public. It is seen by others who either approve or disapprove There have been times when that approval/disapproval has become more than just the natural outcome, but the motivation for my work. In those instances, I can still preach a good sermon, but my motivations are misaligned with the very sermon I’m preaching. I have found that often my actions are a lot easier to manage than my motivations.

Other misalignments. The list is long: The misalignment between the “ideal” Christian community and the actual physical church. The misalignment between the hope we know we should experience and the sadness we feel. The misalignment between our faith in God and the doubts we nevertheless experience (what James calls being double-minded.) The misalignment that comes from following God in private, but fearing to do so in public, or from boldly following him in public but turning away from him in the “privacy” of our own minds or rooms. These misalignments are always painful. They need healing.

Healing

Is healing from misalignment possible? Yes, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. “By his stripes we are healed.” God is faithful to continue the work in us.

In many ways, spiritual formation is the process of recognizing and then healing misalignments. We don’t always feel the pain of spiritual misalignment, not because it’s not there but because our hearts are too callous to feel it. We don’t feel it, but it’s sapping the life from us. When the Spirit convicts us of sin we feel the pain, but in feeling it, we are opened to the work of the great Physician.

Sometimes misalignments come from painful circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances cause misalignments, though I suspect that usually they just reveal them. This is one of the reasons why suffering often produces spiritual growth. When we heal, we heal stronger.

But some wounds don’t heal all the way. That’s the lesson from my two injuries from last year. My ring finger still has an unnatural bulge. My pointer finger, the occasional tingle. Maybe this is true for spiritual wounds and misalignments as well. I’m pretty sure it is. This side of heaven, the healing will ever be slow and jerky. But we look forward to the day, not only to the final redemption of our bodies, but the final redemption of our souls, once again free to walk in create, aligned, freedom with God.

‘* I’m gratuitously including that word here because the rest of this post is going to make me sound old.

On the Self-Defeating Nature of Modern Social Science

I really like Social Science books. I find them fascinating and, usually, helpful. But more and more I am realizing that they can be self-defeating.

I just finished the book Future Babble. The thesis of the book is that “expert predictions” are generally terrible. The more confident the person making the prediction, the less likely they are to be right.

There’s a certain guilty satisfaction that comes from this book. You read story after story of how pompous and self-confident experts failed miserably in predicting the future. But after a little while Gardner begins to sound pompous himself and it loses its charm.

But there’s a deeper problem. Why is future prediction so often wrong? There are two pillars to Gardner’s argument. The first is that the world is too complex. The second is that our brains were not wired for this kind of thinking.

Gardner, like the vast majority of social scientists who I read, is functionally atheist in his writing (I don’t know his actual belief system but heaps as much scorn on “prophets” as he does on pundits.) He believes that our brains are merely the function of an evolutionary process. We evolved to survive and reproduce, not solve complex problems or look deep into the future. Our minds simply aren’t suited toward the work of making predictions. We are hopelessly biased.

But if our brains are not evolved to do this kind of abstract thinking, why should we trust the author of this book? Is my brain biased to find his argument compelling? Then again, maybe I’m biased against his argument? Can I trust my brain to correlate to reality? According to Gardner, probably not.

And so, as compelling as some of the points Gardner makes are, those very arguments undercut my belief that he’s even capable of making those arguments. It’s self-defeating.

There’s a similar sort of self-defeating argument in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (a must read, by the way). Haidt’s argument is both descriptive and moral. He is describing how we make moral judgments, but he also makes implicit moral judgments about our proper response to this reality. But for Haidt, moral judgments don’t correspond to moral reality. They’re not pointers to objective right and wrong. They’re merely the result of evolution. So, while seeing moral judgments in Haidt we also see through them. His argument might be interesting, but it carries no moral weight.

C.S. Lewis described this in The Abolition of Man as “seeing through” everything until there is simply nothing at all to see.

Alvin Planitinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies shows how this self-defeating argument plays itself on the naturalist worldview. If our brains have not evolved to making abstract rationale judgments – only survive and reproduce in a limited environment – why should we believe our own minds in making judgments about science and God.

Plantinga’s argument, then, is that there’s a fundamental conflict between science and naturalism (the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world.) I tend to agree, and see the same truth play out in social science.

There need not be such a conflict in a Christian worldview. In the Christian worldview, we should expect to see, and in fact do see, a correspondence between the observable world and our ability to understand it. The world is fundamentally complex, yes, and we struggle to wrap our minds around it, but we can understand it, and we can have confidence that we can understand it because the same God who made it, made us.

Has Christianity been “modernized”?

Pastor John and I received an interesting question last Sunday and I thought it was worthy of a rather extended answer. In general, most of my blog posts come either from questions I ask on my own, or questions posted to me. So, if you have a question you would like me to answer, I invite you to send it my way. 

Question (somewhat paraphrased): “There seems to be a big difference between “extremist” Islam and “modernized” Islam. I understand the majority call it a peaceful religion, and have reinterpreted many verses… although the literal interpretation seems to clearly stand as violent commands regarding what is ‘lawful’. From a Christian point of view, have we “modernized” Christianity?”

Answer: This a multi-faceted question and so I will address as follows. 1) In regards to Christianity, what could we mean by “modernized”? 2) Do we have a modernized version of Christianity? 3) Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing? 4) What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

1)     What could we mean by “modernization”?

Answer 1 – Modernization = Conformity: We could mean that Christianity, at its core, has conformed to the modern world. That is, that the Christianity we experience today is fundamentally different from that which was practiced in the first century. By fundamentally different, I don’t mean in its form but in its identity.

Answer 2 – Modernization = Contextualization: We could also mean that Christianity is fundamentally the same as it was at its founding but that it has been and continues to be contextualized (translated, adapted) to the cultures in which it manifests itself. That is, its core beliefs and values are the same, even though it is practiced in different ways in different ages and cultures.

Humans conform and contextualize all the time. Someone going to work wears “work clothes” and interacts with my co-workers in a “professional” manner, without changing who they are – contextualization. Conformity, on the other hand, would occur if that person worked in an unethical environment and therefore acted in a way contrary to their character.

2)     Do we have a modernized version of Christianity?

Yes, and in both senses… kind of. If we think of Christianity in sociological terms than what we see is that there is a great diversity among those who identify themselves as Christians. Many practice a conformed version of Christianity, changing Christian beliefs to fit the cultural values. The rest practice a contextual version of Christianity, attempting to translate Christian beliefs into the cultures language.

3)     Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends on what form of modernization you are referring to. Above I considered Christianity in sociological terms, as the actual practice of people identifying with a faith. But I would prefer to think about Christianity in terms of beliefs. In other words, a Christianity which has conformed to its culture has become something different, or if the conformity was only slight, it has simply lost its way on a belief or practice. From this perspective, modernization would be bad. Contextualization, on the other hand, is both necessary and positive, it’s a way of communicating a universal truth in an understandable way to a transient culture.

Several examples will shed important light on this.

Example 1 – Slavery: Slavery was social and economic reality during the era of the Old and New Testaments. It was quite different from the slavery practiced in the American South but it was slavery nonetheless. Both the Old and New Testaments assume this reality, but there are no explicit commands to abolish the practice. Today, all American Christians oppose slavery and find the practice abhorrent. In fact, Christians played a key role in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade and continue to play a key role in abolishing modern-day slavery. Did Christianity conform itself to the cultural norms or did it contextualize core beliefs of Christianity to a modern-day problem?

I would propose that Christians were contextualizing Christian truth to oppose slavery. What beliefs were contextualized? First, the Bible states that all people are created in the image of God. As an extension of this truth, people are not property nor are some people worth more than other people. All people deserve basic justice, including freedom. Second, we see a consistent moral argument against violence and oppression – and slavery is certainly a form of violence and oppression. Third, while Paul gives instructions on how slaves and masters ought to live together, he simultaneously undermines slavery but emphasizing that under Christ there are no slave/free distinctions. The point here is that ancient Christianity provided everything necessary to undermine slavery, Christians understood this, and applied that truth to abolish transatlantic slave trade.

Example 2 – Head coverings: In 1 Corinthians 11:2-6 Paul argues that women should cover their heads in worship. This is a difficult passage to interpret, but the key question is whether Paul was giving a command which applied to all cultures, giving a command to one culture but which carries with it some universal principle to be contextualized in some other way (example: Should Women Wear Head Coverings?), or was giving a command which only applied in one culture and has next to no application today. Some denominations believe that Paul’s command is a universal principle. In this case, modernization (not asking women to wear head coverings in worship) would be a form of cultural conformity. For others, not asking women to wear head coverings is a form of contextualization. The argument here is that the use of head coverings, or hairstyles, etc. communicates different things in different cultures. It communicated one thing in the Corinthian church, but communicates something totally different today. By removing this command, then, Christianity is modernizing, but not in a way that loses anything of its identity.

Example 3 – Gender accurate Bible interpretation: Just recently I read an Atlantic article with the headline: Southern Baptists Embrace Gender Inclusive Language in the Bible. The author Jonathan Merritt is referring to the a new Bible Translation, the CSB (Christian Standard Bible) that replaces “brothers” with “brothers and sisters” and “mankind” with “humankind”, etc. This is the same translation move made by the translators of the most recent NIV. For Merritt, this is a sign that the denomination is being moved by a more “progressive” doctrinal position and is a bellwether of things to come. The question is, is this translation decision a move towards “conformity” or “contextualization.” Some will certainly see it as cultural conformity wherein the translators are being swayed by the cultural pressure to do away with gender distinctiveness, but I think that such a view is misguided. The goal of the CSB (like the NIV) is not to translate word for word the Greek or Hebrew texts. Such a translation may be “literal” but it can also often be misleading. Instead, the goal of these translations is to express the meaning of the words. When Paul addresses “brothers” does he only have men in mind or is he referring to both men and women. It’s clear that he meant both men and women. His original audience would have easily understood this. And, up until very recently, all English speakers reading “brothers” in the New Testament would also have easily recognized this. Culture and language are always moving targets, and the translators decided that by translating the Greek word as “brothers and sisters” would clarify Paul’s meaning. In other words, there’s no loss, no cultural conformity, but instead contextualization, clarification, of the original intent.

The line between conformity and contextualization is not always clear, nor should we necessarily expect it to be. People will often disagree on where to draw the line but in general Bible believing Christians see modernization-as-conformity as a net loss and modernization-as-contextualization as a necessary means of speaking universal truth to an ever-shifting culture.

4)     What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

Here I confess that my knowledge is rather weak, but it has been recently significantly bolstered by the writings of Nabeel Qureshi. I highly recommend Seeking Allah Finding Jesus and Answering Jihad. Contextualization is built into Christianity so that Christianity can be accommodated to a wide range of cultures without losing its core. Christianity is by far the most multi-cultural religion – the most multi-cultural anything – in the world. The same is not true for Islam. Qureshi would argue (I think) that Islam can only modernize by separating itself from its sacred texts. He wants to see Islam modernize, but not in the sense that it would return to its roots, but that it would move past them into something else entirely. In other words, Christianity is capable of modernizing-as-contextualizing without losing itself. The same does not appear to be true for Islam, though I would expect this final claim to be disputed by many practicing Muslims.

13 Trust Building Behaviors – Applied to Church Life

In my secular job I am part of a “Trust Team.” Our job is to identify behaviors which increase and decrease trust within the department – and then take steps to reduce the former and encourage the latter. Part of the exercise of this group has been to read through The Speed of Trust by Stephen R. Covey. Covey identifies 13 Behaviors which, when consistently done, increase trust in an organization or any social unit. In this post, I will attempt to see how these behaviors apply to church life, particularly to church leadership. The best I can do is sketch them out. I would be interested in your own experiences and insights in the comments below, or on Facebook.

#1 Talk Straight: “Tell the truth and leave the right impression” and balance it all with tact. Like many of the behaviors on the list, there’s a direct correlation to Scripture here: Speak the truth in love. This one easily applies to every personal interaction. Don’t be a jerk, but usually there’s no reason to beat around the bush. We build trust when we consistently talk straight. We undermine it when we code our words and force people to read between the lines.

#2 Demonstrate Respect: In other words, apply the Golden Rule. Christians have an additional theological basis for this. All people are created in the image of God. And, all believers have been equipped to build up the church. We respect others because of who they are, who they are in Christ, and because they have been gifted by God.

#3 Create Transparency: In regards to our finances– our books are open. In regards to our child protection policy – never a secret. If you want to know something that is going on at church, we’ll be as open as we can be.

#4 Right Wrongs: This means acknowledging failures, apologizing for them, and then making it right. There’s a powerful story told in our church. In the past – well before I arrived – the church was marred by conflict, particularly directed at a string of pastors with very short tenures. Then there was a season of healing wherein the remaining church members sought to make things right with those pastors with whom they had had conflict. This humility laid a foundation for greater love and unity.

#5 Show Loyalty: Covey gives two examples of showing loyalty: 1) Give credit to others whenever you can. 2) Speak about others as if they were present. This reminds me of the biblical model of conflict resolution in the church. In the case of conflict, go directly to the person with whom you have conflict. To smear them behind their back undermines trust not only with that person, but also with the person you’re smearing them to.

#6 Deliver Results: The first five behaviors focused on character – the foundation of trust – but Covey also argues the capabilities are necessary for there to be trust. The best way to prove that you have the capabilities to be trusted is to deliver results, to do what you say you are going to do, to accomplish your goal. It’s possible to be too results driven, but sometimes we forget that results still matter. We have a task to do and we should aim to be effective at that task.

#7 Get Better: I would submit that there’s a certain level of “godly discontent” that comes with leadership, even church leadership. Those who serve in the church should strive to hone their skills and their character. And the church as a whole can consistently ask the question – how can we better love God and our neighbors? It’s OK to acknowledge a gap between where you are and where you want to be.

#8 Confront Reality: Sometimes realities are hard to confront, but we need to do it. As a preacher, this means acknowledging head on hard passages of Scripture. Other times it may mean acknowledging difficult budgets or systemic sin. Christianity has all the tools necessary to handle the most difficult of realities. Jesus conquered sin and death!

#9 Clarify Expectations: I see a failure to clarify expectations consistently lead to failures in my engineering job, but this one applies to church work, too. It’s especially important when working with volunteers. Let them know what is expected of them, don’t leave them guessing. The same clarity is needed when constructing a shared vision, or giving applications in a sermon.

#10 Practice Accountability: Accountability is an important part of discipleship. Some people even have “accountability partners” or “accountability groups.” In regards to building trust, Covey stresses we need to hold ourselves and others accountable to poor results. We need to take responsibility for our actions, and hold people accountable for theirs.

#11 Listen First: Stephen Covey (the author’s father) is famous for saying – “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In relationships, being understood is essential for trust, it’s also essential for giving good counsel (in church life, giving spiritual counsel). Failure to listen – either by not asking questions, or asking only to reply – will undermine trust.

#12 Keep Commitments: Covey refers to this as the “Big Kahuna” of all the trust behaviors. I agree. Failure to keep commitment undermines trust and consistently keeping them builds trust. We need to be careful about what commitments we make, and then stick to them. As an aside, this applies to more than just leaders. If you want your leadership to trust you as a member, keep your commitments in the small things and watch how you get opportunities for the bigger things. If you consistently fail to keep commitments, don’t be surprised when more opportunities don’t come your way.

#13 Extend Trust: Extending trust to others – when it is wise to do – is a good way to build trust. Trust those who are in charge of the ministries you’re not in charge of are doing their best. To some degree, this is founded on the same principles as “demonstrate respect.”

A low trust church will be ineffective for the gospel, it will be too marred by internal conflict, or too busy managing the costs of the low trust environment. A high trust church will be freed up to work on the tasks at hand. Lord, help us pursue relationships based on trust, and foster that trust for your glory!

On the connection between Predestined and Included

A member of our church called me this past week and asked me to put in writing one of the main points from last Sunday’s sermon on Ephesians 1:11-14. [That sermon is available here.] Specifically, she asked me to (1) provide a definition of ‘predestined’ (2) Provide a definition of ‘included.’ And (3) describe how the two are connected. My answer is below. If you’re interested in my personal journey on this topic, you can read this post.

Predestined:  In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (1:11) I’m not sure I can provide a definition of predestined but I can offer a description of it. First, we have been predestined/chosen to receive the blessings of salvation; to be made holy and blameless (1:4) and to be adopted to sonship (1:5). Second, we have been predestined/chosen according to God’s eternal will, “before the creation of the world” (1:4). Third, this means that God always initiates salvation. His actions are always prior both in purpose and time. To the extent that we respond in faith – and I believe that our response is a real and free response – it is because God demonstrated the initiative. There is nothing about which I could boast.

Included: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (1:13) “Included in Christ” carries with it two interlocking ideas. First, it means that we have been spiritually united with Christ through personal conversion. Second, it means that we have been included within the people of God. Notice Paul’s argument in 2:11-22. Prior to Christ, the Gentiles were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel” but now they have been “brought near by the blood of Christ.” To be brought near is to become part of one body, become citizens with God’s people, and become members of one household. We are included in Christ when we hear, and by implication believe, the gospel.

What is the connection between predestined and included? There’s an interesting parallelism going on in these verses. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined… And you also were included in Christ.” The two are not identical concepts (as I’ve hopefully shown above) but they are interrelated. How, then, are they connected?

First, we need to note that the concepts of election, predestination, and being chosen, do not come out of nowhere for Paul, but are built on Israel’s history. Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of a nation. Israel is God’s chosen people. To be “chosen” in the Old Testament would mean being part of Israel. The purpose of God choosing Israel was to bring glory to Himself and so that Israel could be a light and a blessing to the world. We see the same concept here in Ephesians. Paul’s emphasis is not just on the individual nature of salvation, but on the reality that God is forming a people of faith by including both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.

Second, this previous point is emphasized by a very important shift in pronouns. Verses 3-10 uses the pronoun “us” and describes the reality for all believers. Verses 11-12 “In him we were also chosen… we were the first to put our hope in Christ” uses the pronoun “we.” Verses 13-14 shifts the pronouns to “you.” “You also were included…” There’s some dispute here but I take the “we” to be Paul and his companions who were believers prior to the creation of the Ephesian church, and the “you” to be those in the Ephesian church (and likely surrounding churches) primarily made up of Gentiles.

Why does this distinction matter? It highlights one of the purposes of God’s election. Like Israel we see a two-fold purpose. First, it brings glory to God (see verse 12). Second, it is God’s way of creating a people who will be a light to those who are yet excluded from Christ, aliens and foreigners, without God and without hope. To be chosen, then, is to be called to proclaim the gospel so that others may believe and be included in Christ.

This doesn’t resolve a number of mysteries, but those I leave to God, like how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. I think this means that we are chosen to by virtue of our being members by faith of God’s chosen people and it means that we are members of God’s people by virtue of our being chosen before the creation of the world. Only an eternal God can make that all work. But he’s a good God, so that’s enough.

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.

The two paradigm shifts that finally helped me find peace with the doctrine of election

This post isn’t a defense of a theological position, though it contains a fair amount of theology. Instead, it’s the story of my theological journey (thus far) regarding the doctrine of election. I’m not even exactly sure how to categorize where I currently stand, or where I would fall on some Calvinist/Arminian spectrum.

When I was a teenager most of my angst, as near as I can recall, came from three places – worry about why I didn’t have a girlfriend, fear of death, and frustration that I either could not understand, or did not want to accept, certain theological positions of those around me. I found the doctrine of election, of predestination, particularly noxious. To me it was an offense to man’s free will and to God’s love and justice. I believed that God could simply not be good if God predestined certain people for salvation, and not others. And, since God was good (to think otherwise is certainly the most terrifying of all possible realities) predestination must be false and so I sought every possible escape hatch I could find. This feeling persisted into my college years, and I think that the book Why I’m Not a Calvinist still sits on one of my bookshelves. It’s been a number of years since I read it and I remember it being quite good. I would still recommend it (along with other complementary books on the subject).

Since that time I’ve had two major paradigm shifts in my thinking that have helped me “find peace” with the doctrine of election. The first one was in my conception of God. The second one was in my conception of the doctrine itself. It’s important that both came to me at about the same time. I should say that the two were in process at the same time since each was years in the making.

I’m telling this story now because in a couple of months I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians, and right from the start Paul declares that God “chose us in [Jesus] before the creation of the world… in love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The topic is inescapable. And since I want to be faithful to the whole council of God, I’m preparing now for what I plan to say on the subject.

Paradigm shift #1: From formula to Person

The first paradigm shift started when I was a freshman in High School, though it took years to come to fruition. During that time I began to realize that God was not a formula to be solved, but a Person to be known and trusted. In my theological wrestling I was trying to reduce God to a series of finite propositions. The problem with this methodology was that it rested on a misunderstanding of who God was. I wanted him to conform to my understanding of things like justice and love and fairness. But if God was really God, this was never going to work, and through God’s grace he let a light bulb come on in my head. I realized then that God was a Person who could be known – even if not fully known – and who could be trusted – even if I didn’t understand all of his actions. When that happened all I needed was to know two things about God, that he was good and that he was powerful. From there I could simply trust his person that he would never do anything which violated those two first principles. Instead of deciding whether or not God was good based on based on my judgment, I accepted that he was good, and adjusted my judgment accordingly. I didn’t need to understand everything anymore, I just needed to trust him.

The second major step logically flowed from the first but the foot didn’t fall for me until I took Systematic Theology in Seminary some 13(?) years later. My professor, Mike Wittmer, was explaining that certain elements of God’s divinity were incomprehensible to finite minds. In the created realm certain things could not be true – something could not be three and one at the same time – but in the uncreated realm this was possible. Hence, the Trinity. These attributes of God are therefore a mystery to us which will never be understood but which are no less true. Furthermore, God is glorified in this mystery, because it helps us know that we are really talking about God and not something devised by man. If we could fully understand or quantify God, then it would be likely that we were really speaking of something other than God. Such is the case with the apparent paradox between God’s election and man’s free will. It would seem, from the human perspective, that either man is free or God is sovereign. The one would destroy the other. If God chooses, then man’s “choice” is a mere illusion. If man chooses, then God is not fully sovereign (at least, not the the kind of sovereignty required by the doctrine of election). But in the uncreated realm, man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty can exist without contradiction. It’s a mystery. And, for my story anyway, that was a big paradigm shift.

At the time I had an objection: My professor argued that God’s mystery added to his glory. My argument was that it was not God’s mystery which added to his glory but his revelation. Isn’t Jesus, God’s ultimate self-disclosure, “the radiance of God’s glory?” I still think I had a point, but now I know that the flaw in my argument was that it was a false dichotomy. God is glorified in his mystery (because then we know we are reaching towards the divine) and in his revelation (because then we know the character of his divinity: his holiness, his justice, his love).

Paradigm shift #2: A shift in how I understood the doctrine of election

The second shift had to do with how I understood the doctrine of election. This shift is connected (though I don’t know the nature of the relationship) to a broader shift in my thinking – from an individualistic worldview to a community oriented worldview. For a long time everything was connected to the individual, and the individual only. This was particularly true in my theological thinking. It’s all about me and my relationship with Jesus. The broader community – the church – exists solely for the purpose of helping individuals come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, to get out of hell, and to live a reasonably holy life. I perceived election in the same paradigm – God capriciously picking out some random assortment of individuals for personal salvation. For fairly obvious reasons this seemed blatantly unfair (especially if human free will was a mere illusion and so man had no real say in the matter). Now, I don’t want to discount the importance of the individual’s relationship with God. We all will ultimately stand on our own before the judgment seat and we are each accountable for our own response to God. But sometime around my time in Seminary I added an important component to my faith: a more robust theology of community.

Specifically, I began to see the connection between a believer’s “election” and God’s election of Israel. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (individuals, to be sure) in order to create for himself a community and a nation. That nation, Israel, was God’s chosen people. They were his elect. As members of his chosen people they received certain privileges: the law, the prophets, the priestly system, victory in battle, supernatural abundance from the land, etc. They also had certain responsibilities: a requirement to follow the law or experience the weight of the curses and exile from the land. They had a mission: to be a light to the surrounding nations. God’s election of Israel, then, was both exclusive and inclusive. It was exclusive in the sense that out of all the nations God only chose Israel. It was inclusive in the sense that if other nations were to see Israel acting out its mission they could themselves glorify God and be “saved.” Consider Ninevah. The story of Jonah includes the story of their repentance and salvation, even though they were not part of God’s people. Or consider Ruth. She began as a foreigner, but through faith she became a member of the people of God. She joined the elect.

Israel never quite fulfilled its mission as the people of God. It consistently turned to idols and therefore experienced the curse of the law and was sent into exile. Even after its return from exile and renewal of the covenant, it remained a shadow of what it was.

But the mission of the elect was fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the “chosen one” par excellence. Those who are united to Jesus through faith become part of the chosen people. To borrow the metaphor from Paul: “You [Gentiles] have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (Romans 11:17). Notice the connection between predestination and our relationship to Christ in Ephesians. We were chosen “in him”. We were predestined for adoption “through Christ.” Later in Ephesians 1 Paul states the “we were also chosen in him, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:11-13a). I added the italics to highlight the progression of the “we” who are chosen and predestined as a first to put their hope in Christ to the “you” who were later included in Christ when they heard and believed the gospel. When that happened, it could be well said that they are part of the “us” who were “chosen in him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).

The implications of this paradigm shift for the doctrine of election are significant for me. Most importantly, it emphasizes the responsibilities and mission of the people of God. Israel’s mission was to be a a light to the Gentiles by faithfully holding to the covenant and bringing the prophetic warning of coming judgment. The church has a more explicit mission, to invite people to become united to Jesus through faith and, in so doing, become part of the people of God. It adds an inclusive element to what is usually seen as a radically exclusive doctrine.

But I want to hasten to add that this new paradigm does not remove the mystery of God. For me, this explains well how Paul is using “chosen” and “predestined” in Ephesians, but it doesn’t carry as easily over to Romans 9 where we see another sort of glory revealed: The glory of God’s sovereignty to show mercy on whom he will show mercy, apart from human will. When I read Romans 9 I always need to fall back onto my first paradigm shift and decide to trust God, not my ability to solve an equation. I’m not sure I will ever (on this side of glory) be fully satisfied with Paul’s answer to the question posed in Romans 9:19 (Q: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will? A: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”), but I know my Father in heaven well enough, and I see his love and goodness clearly enough, to find rest in him.