Tag Archives: Christianity

What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.

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Introduction

I posted last Saturday that I just finished the rough draft for a new book I’ve been working on. To give you more of a flavor, here’s my initial draft of the introduction (though, the more I read it, I think the first part is more like a preface, and thus will need some revision.)

I don’t have a title for this book yet and am open to suggestions. Maybe the introduction will give someone an idea. If you have a good idea for a title, please let me know.

Introduction

 

I dedicate this book to the students of Attic After School. I have the privilege of volunteering at this program for 7th – 12th graders once a week. The goal of the program is to provide a safe place for students to experience the love of Christ. Every day we hang out, play games, talk about life, and have what we call a “talk time.” During these talk times one of the leaders shares a brief message from the Bible. I am honored with being the speaker on a regular basis. Through the interaction with the students during these talk times (and I love the interaction) and through our normal conversations I’ve discovered that students who attend this program come from a wide range of religious and spiritual backgrounds. Some know a lot about Christianity, but many only a little bit. Or, their knowledge is based on misinformation or misunderstandings. I have realized that I can’t assume these students have the same background that I had. This is good for me. It helps me to focus my efforts not only on giving spiritual knowledge, but on making it clear and understandable to a very mixed audience.

This year for my “talk times”, I decided to simply walk through the basics of the Christian faith, one step at a time. This book mirrors that project. I have written this as a sort of handbook for those who are coming to the Christian faith for the first time, for those who are interested in rediscovering it, and for those who are new believers. My goal is to lay down a foundation of knowledge that can be built on later. Though I was thinking most of the Attic After School students, this is not only for them. Its application is for adults as well as young people. Christianity is relevant for all ages, and the simple truths of the Bible need to be returned to again and again, even by the most mature.

There are other books of this sort, the most famous of which is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I highly recommend it. I would also commend to you Simply Christian by N.T. Wright and Basic Christianity by John Stott. This book has a similar aim – to present the basics of the Christian faith – but differs in some important ways, not least of which is the obvious fact that those books are far superior. I wouldn’t dare to declare that this book fills some hole where others lack. There is nothing unique, certainly nothing original, in this book. But instead of just suggesting those books above I have written this one. Why? As a pastoral effort, as an attempt to provide a resource to those whom I have the responsibility to teach and care for. My prayer is that it would also prove helpful to you, dear reader, whether I had you in mind or not. You can be the judge of that.

How this book fits together

The structure for this book was first conceived in yet another pastoral context, as I was preparing to lead a class for those interested in being baptized as believers. That class is structured into three sections: salvation, baptism, and church. In my Baptist tradition was see baptism as a symbol of salvation, and we see salvation as a pre-condition for baptism (If that sentence didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it should be the end of the book). We also see baptism as deeply connected to church membership.

The first week we talk about what it means to be saved. Do we even need to be saved? What do we need to be saved from? How can we be saved? What must we do? The second week we talk about baptism as a symbol for salvation. The third week we try to show how both connect to church life.

This book has a similar structure, except that we replace a discussion of baptism with a discussion of the Christian life (baptism is now addressed briefly in Part 3). In Part 1 we talk about salvation. We talk about the Big Story of the Bible, about where we stand before God, about how we can be made right with God, and how we can be rescued.

In Part 2 we talk about the Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does the Christian life look like? Does the Christian life constrain or free us? If it frees us, in what sense does it make us free?

In Part 3 we talk about the church. What is the church? What does it mean to be a part of a church? Is the church important? Here, if anywhere in the book, I am trying to offer a brief correction to the direction Christianity has taken in our culture. Our culture is individualistic and consumerist and, sadly, so is our approach to church. We see church primarily as one method among many to reach a sense of individual spiritual fulfillment. I hope to convince you that this is not a healthy way to view church. Instead, I hope that you will see that participation in church life is a natural and necessary outcome of salvation, and a core component to Christian living.

Because this book is so short I had to leave out a lot of material, including some some core truths. This book doesn’t address all the core topics, and some of the topics it does address it does so only in a very limited way. I see this book more as a place to jump off  from than as a place to land. Still, I hope that you will see it as a cohesive whole. If there’s one dominant theme in this book it is this: God is a rescuing God. He sent His Son to rescue you. You can receive that rescue through faith. This rescue includes your eternal salvation, freedom to live a life for God, and inclusion into the people of God.


 

Announcement: Proof readers and editors wanted!

Over the past month or so I’ve been working on a handbook for new believers, or those considering the basics of the Christian faith. As I was writing I was primarily thinking of the teenagers who are involved in our After School program. Many of them have very little knowledge of Christianity. Or, what they know about it is confused or distorted. I wrote this book for them.

To that end I made it short and simple. I tried to make very few assumptions about what these kids already know. I did my best to start at the very beginning, to lay out just the basics, to avoid religious language – or to define the language I used as I went.

The book has three sections. Part one: What does it mean to be saved? Part two: What does is the Christian life? Part three: What is the church? (Aside: There are a ton of much better books that talk about part 1 and part 2, but not many that I have found that really talk about part 3 at all. I’m hoping to rectify an overly individualistic view of Christianity a little in this book.)

15 minutes ago I finished the first rough draft. Over the next week I’m going to make some edits. After that, though, I want to run it past more people. I need more eyes on this book, or on portions of this book, to see what I might have missed, or what could be improved. (The book is 26 “word” pages long). If you would be interested in proofreading or editing this book or one of its parts please let me know. I don’t know the final form it will end up taking, but if you help me out I’ll give you a copy of whatever form it takes.

If you’re interested, please send me an email or a comment.

Thanks!

Automation, The future of work, and the soul

Last Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press ran a story on pilot programs in the United States and elsewhere to provide every citizen with a “universal basic income.” This “income” isn’t tied to any actual work, just a lump sum provided to each household to provide for basic needs. What’s driving this movement? The automation revolution.

This topic is an intersection of three topics which interest me: faith, engineering, and politics: faith, because work is a component of our spiritual lives, engineering because technology drives automation, and politics, because we’ll need to decide collectively on what to do about this revolution.

The Increasing Trend Toward Automation

In my (first/second/other) career I’m an engineer. My specialty has been primarily in testing and verification, though my primary job right now is as a project manager. One of my primary goals in testing has been to increase the amount of automation that we do. Automation reduces costs, allows us to perform testing more frequently (which could increase quality), and reduces the number of human errors leading to rework. From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But the consequence of this automation is that if you have a machine to do the work, you don’t need an employee to do that work. In a perfect world, this frees those engineers up for more interesting and productive work. But, we don’t live in a perfect world.

The trend toward automation has been going for a while, primarily in manufacturing. But it’s very prevalent in engineering as well, and plenty of other fields. It’s not just manual labor that’s being automated, but mental work as well (like the kind that I work on) and service jobs as well. (I’ve even read articles on “empathetic” machines which could take over certain caring professions!) Most economists that I’ve read on this topic see workforce automation increasing at an accelerated pace. We’re truly in the middle of a revolution.

There’s a long history of technology transforming labor and economy. Each time it seems to spell widespread unemployment, but after an adjustment period, people find work in a new field. There are inevitably winners and losers, but on the whole wealth increases. It’s hard to tell what the future would bring, and I would be skeptical of anyone who says they know what will happen. Yet, it’s worth considering some possibilities.

Two Dystopias

I see two possible dystopias. In one, the extreme capitalist version, the “owners” control all the production without the need for workers. Workers, having been completely displaced, find no way to make any money. This leads to extreme wealth inequality, and thus probably to violence.

In the other one, the means of production moves to the government, which provides a “universal basic income.” Nobody has to work, but still has all of their needs provided for them. Maybe this sounds like a utopia to you, but it doesn’t to me. First, there’s the fairly obvious issue of the government having essentially complete control over people’s lives. They don’t like your behavior? They cut off your “universal” basic income and you have no recourse. I don’t trust the government to act fairly or virtuously, especially one with this much power. Do you?

Built To Work

Just as profoundly, though, is the question of what effect not having to work would do to us, as persons. We’re built to work. We’re built to produce. God gave us dominion over nature, to work the Garden, and to build culture and civilization. The curse wasn’t the start of the working man, but his corruption. Work became toil after the Fall, but there was still work before it.

What happens if we don’t have to work? What happens if we cease to be producers? What happens if we’re nothing but consumers? I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. That’s why I call this vision a dystopia.

Heaven on Earth? 

Could it be a utopia? On the New Heaven and the New Earth (literal utopia), I suspect that we’ll have work without toil. No one will need to work, and yet the process of culture and civilization will continue. Nobody will be driven by greed or fear (major drivers of our current economic system), yet we’ll all be producers. Can we bring “heaven on earth” now by automating all our labor?

The problem with this line of logic is that it ignores the sin nature. The genius of the capitalist system (with all its flaws) is that it’s able to harness our self-interest and turn it into wealth. And, in a free system, it’s able to provide opportunity for wealth building for all. Other systems have assumed better of our natures, and failed miserably.

What if we find ourselves there? 

I really have no idea if either of these possibilities is in our future. But, if it were, how should Christians respond? Here’s the main thing: Even if work isn’t necessary, Christians should still endeavor to work. Why? First, work is core to our “personness.” God has made us to be creators and producers, not just consumers. Second, work is service. Even if you’re not in the “service” industry, your work is useful to somebody (your paycheck is proof of that). Continuing to work would mean continuing to serve. It’s a tangible way we love our neighbors.

I don’t know what will happen, or when. But we can begin now embracing work as service and as calling, not just as a means to a paycheck.

Recommended for Further Reading

The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs

Related blog: How do I Choose a Job? 

Work: The Meaning of Your Life: A Christian Perspective

Siddhartha: Buddhist Solomon

The book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon’s search for meaning. That path leads Solomon down many wrong paths and at the end of each path he finds meaninglessness. His path leads him to seek wisdom, pleasure, and accomplishment, and finally leads him back to simple and faithful obedience to God: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Ecclesiastes 12:13

Siddhartha, my most recent companion on my commute, reminded me a lot of Ecclesiastes. It’s the story of Siddhartha’s search for meaning. Unlike Ecclesiastes, it is told from a Buddhist perspective and has a Buddhist conclusion.

Ritual, asceticism, learning, and pleasure

Siddhartha starts as a religious devotee. He had mastered all the religious rites and prayers and was on his way to becoming a successful Brahman. He was admired by his parents, his peers, and his friend Govinda. But Siddhartha was not satisfied with sacrifice to the gods. He wants to discover the divine oneness that lies within himself.

As he is praying one day and speaking the “ohm” he sees some traveling ascetics, Buddhist monks called Sramanas. He convinces his father to let him become an ascetic and he and Govinda follow that path. As a Sramana he tries to completely empty himself of himself, to lose himself, through fasting, meditation, and deprivation. His goal is enlightenment. However, he learns that he can always only lose himself for a time, after which he is always, once again, himself. This, he decides, is no better than a person who loses himself in strong drink or momentary pleasures.

He begins to make up his mind to leave the Sramanas and finds his opportunity when the Buddha Gautama arrives. He and Govinda go to hear the Buddha. Both admit that the Buddha’s teaching is very wise and clear and Govinda decides to become his disciple. But Siddhartha believes now that teaching does not provide the path to enlightenment. He believes that the Buddha really has become perfected, but that it only came through a private experience, not by learning. Siddhartha, disillusioned once again, decides to pursue his path elsewhere.

Through a private insight, he now plunges himself into the realm of personal experience. He meets a beautiful woman and learns love from her. He becomes a merchant. He even takes up gambling. For a while he experiences this with a sort of personal disconnectedness. It’s a game for him. It’s a set of goals which he is able to accomplish, but all the while he has a sort of mocking attitude towards it.

But the more he plunges himself into pleasure the more it begins to take hold of it. It begins to empty out his soul. He becomes obsessed by his possessions. He gambles heavily and wildly. And, finally, he reaches his breaking point. Metaphorically he ate until he was stuffed, then sick, and now it was time for him to vomit it all out.

He left all his possessions behind, along with his lover, and began once again to travel. He came upon a river and was about to commit suicide by plunging himself into its depths. But as he was about to do it he spoke the word “ohm” and was saved. He fell asleep and awoke refreshed.

He then became the companion of a humble ferryman and from the ferryman he learned to listen to the river’s wisdom. In this he found a life of contentment, at least for a time.

Eventually, the Buddha Gautama became ill and many of his followers flocked to see him before he died. One of those followers was Siddhartha’s past lover, now with Siddhartha’s son, who he did not know he had. They came across Siddhartha, but she died shortly after their meeting. Siddhartha loved his son and attempted to raise him, but his son did not love him, and eventually completely spurned his father and ran away.

And here Siddhartha bore his final pain, his final wound. For a long time, he could not get over the loss of his son. But in time, Siddhartha learned a final lesson from the river. He heard in the river all the voices of life together – cries of joy and pain and battle. He learned from the river that it is always moving and always progressing and yet it is at once always at its source and always at its destination.

From this he concluded that time was an allusion and that all was ultimately one. He was at once Siddhartha the religious, Siddhartha the ascetic, Siddhartha the indulgent, Siddhartha the suffering, and Siddhartha the perfected one. That he was on a journey to perfection was only an allusion since in the oneness of time and being he had already attained his goal. He also saw, then, that his son needed to go on his own journey, with all its different twists and turns, and that all those twists and turns were both necessary and caught up in the divine oneness of being. Here Siddhartha found peace.

The Search and the Destination

How does Siddhartha’s searching, and conclusion, line up with Solomon’s and the rest of the Bible’s vision?

The source of enlightenment: For Siddhartha, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking — a detour, an error.” Contrast this with Scripture, where we see that knowledge and fulfillment come from outside the Self, from God. God grants us knowledge of Himself within us – to all men through a sense that He exists – and in believers through the Holy Spirit. But both of these inner senses exist ultimately to point us away from ourselves to a fundamental reality apart from our selves.

The role of teaching and learning: For Siddhartha, “Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Solomon would acknowledge the limits of learning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Knowledge can lead us to wisdom, it doesn’t necessarily make us wise.

But, Siddhartha’s critique is harsher than Solomon’s. His problem with teaching is that the teacher must make distinctions, must distinguish between real and illusion, between Nirvana and suffering, between good and evil. Siddhartha believes the world cannot be divided as such, since all things are fundamentally intertwined and interconnected. Teaching necessarily obscures the truth. The Biblical worldview disagrees. It’s sees knowledge, learned through teaching, as a necessary step towards the truth. Teaching has its limits. It cannot transform the heart. But it enlightens reality, it does not obscure it.

On time and distinction: Siddhartha finally rejects time, and with it, distinction. A stone is at once a stone and soil and a person and a god. It is not potentially those things, it is not that such a transformation will happen, but that it is simultaneously those things. Siddhartha acknowledges that such a teaching sounds ridiculous, but as noted above, this is a case where teaching obscures, not clarifies, reality.

Again, Solomon would disagree. While “there is a time for all things” under the sun, those things are distinct. There is “a time to be born and a time to die” but those are fundamentally different realities, taking place in the reality of time.

On the goal of life: What is the goal of life? For Siddhartha it is simply to ascent to what is and to the fundamental oneness of reality, it is to agree with the ever flowing river of life in all its manifestations. This means agreement with the good and the evil, the joy and the suffering, the wisdom and the foolishness. And, in that agreement, to find peace. Siddhartha’s journey is complete when he finds individual perfection, understood as an inner state of tranquility.

Solomon’s story seems to end with simple resignation, “This is the duty of man.” But the breadth of Scripture leads us beyond this. The goal of life extends beyond the inner self. For Christians, it’s also about our relation to other people and, most importantly, to God.

Consider, for instance, the ethical implications of Siddhartha’s elimination of distinctions. What happens if we begin to view good and evil, justice and injustice, joy and suffering, as all necessary and natural to the divine “ohm” of reality, distinct only in their particular manifestations?

Perhaps from a personal perspective we will then be able to make peace with all of them and find inner tranquility, but we won’t be able to fight for one side of the reality over and against the other. From an ethical perspective, if we want to fight for what is good, we first need to be able to make a distinction between good and evil. Such distinctions are essential to the Christian worldview and fit naturally with the idea that our chief end is beyond the self.

Many in our time, even if they are not Buddhists, take the same path as Siddhartha. Even secular materialists also must ultimately do away with the distinctions between good and evil, justice and injustice. The world simply exists and cannot be judged by any outside standard. All is one, all is transformation, all is cycle. The Christian worldview is fundamentally different, and, therefore, so is our ultimate goal.

Book Recommendations:

Programming note: I am going to start adding book recommendations at the end of each post. The first reason for this is purely self-seeking. My blog has reached the point where it gets about 500-1000 views per month, mostly from search results, and I’ve decided to become an Amazon Affiliate to try to turn those views into a bit of extra money (nothing so far). The second reason is that I think reading good books is really important. Each of these books is a book that I’ve either read, or has been recommended to me by a friend. Each will also relate to the post. If you want to buy the book and you do it from the below link, hey, I get a little cut. But that’s of secondary importance.

The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edition

Book Review: Miracles by Eric Metaxas

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life
Story:

Here’s an interesting coincidence, especially given that I was reading this book: It took me about 5 weeks to finish the audio version of this book. I listened to it on my commute to and from work. I finished the book on September 12th. On September 11th, I thought about listening to sports radio since I’m a football fan and there’s always interesting sports talk on the radio on Mondays. I decided to listen to this book instead. And what miracle story would I hear on my commute but a story of how a woman escaped from the twin towers on September 11th! I don’t know what to make of this. Was it coincidence? Was it something more? Either way, it’s an interesting story.

Overview:

 

 

There are three major sections to this book aside from the introduction and the conclusion.

The first part deals with the miracle of creation, the fact that there’s something rather than nothing. Metaxas holds to an “old earth” view of the world but that doesn’t stop him from being amazed at creation or calling it anything short of miraculous. The chances of life existing apart from some Divine intervention is impossibly small and Metaxas’s description of this is really well done.

The second part deals with miracles found in the Bible. Here he focuses on God’s purposes in giving miracles: As a sign pointing to Himself.

The third part is a list of modern miracle stories. These stories include conversion miracles, healing miracles, visions of angels, and other stories. Metaxas limited the stories shared to ones that were clearly supernatural (not mere coincidences), were from people he personally knew or got to know, and were from people that he trusted to be telling the truth. The miracle stories were truly compelling stuff.

On credibility

But were the miracle stories true? Metaxas quotes G.K. Chesterton extensively at the start of the book from Orthodoxy. Chesterton argues that it is atheists who don’t take the evidence seriously when it comes to miracle stories. These stories, on their face value, have a ring of truth unless you by faith say that miracles can’t happen. You must either believe that the people telling the stories are either lying or crazy if you want to disbelieve their stories. Certainly, there are those who lie about or imagine such things, but I don’t think it makes sense to discount them all. Furthermore, many of these stories happened in public view and could easily be corroborated. In general, then, I’m inclined to believe them.

I still found myself to be skeptical. Why?

On my own presuppositions

First, I found myself disagreeing quite strongly with Metaxas’s political positions during the 2016 election. Some of his views made me question his judgment and/or honesty. Ultimately, I know that this reasoning is mostly illogical, though. The book should be judged on its own merits.

Second, many of the miracles happened to those of a charismatic and Pentecostal theological persuasion. Maybe I’m skeptical because I’ve seen some of their positions misused. Or maybe I’m skeptical because God’s working specifically in that community could undermine some of my own assumptions. (However, the miracle stories covered happened to charismatics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans alike.)

Third, one of the healing stories happened at a Benny Hinn crusade. This made me cringe. When I shared this with my Sunday night bible study group they helpfully reminded me that God has shown that he can work even through a donkey.

Conclusion

I believe in miracles, especially those miracles found in Scripture. I also believe that God continues to be active in the world today. The stories included in this book are incredible – and credible. The longer-term effect of this book, I believe, is to open my eyes once again to their possibility. Like many Christians, even I can get caught in a materialistic mindset and miss out on the active work of God. This was a good reminded of his continued work, as the one Outside creation, breaking into creation to point humanity back to him.

Fight: Book Review and Response

fightA right and a wrong way to Christian non-violence

I’m often less concerned with the position a Christian takes on controversial topic than I am with the way they arrive at that position. That’s the case with pacifism – or Christian non-violence. There are two paths, often taken together, that I strongly disagree with. The first of those wrong paths is to fail to take the Old Testament seriously, or to dismiss it outright. This view essentially relegates the entire Old Testament obsolete in regards to the question of violence. And, while there is discontinuity between Old and New this view fails to see that there is also an essential unity in the whole of Scripture. The second wrong path is to remove wrath, vengeance, and retributive justice from the character of God. But this fails to recognize huge chunks of Scripture, and does serious damage to the work Jesus does on the cross.[1] Whenever I speak to a proponent of Christian non-violence, I’m often on alert to how they arrive at their position.

Preston Sprinkle (Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence) gets there the right way. He takes the entirety of Scriptures seriously and doesn’t begrudge God his right to execute righteous judgment. Therefore, while I disagree with some of Sprinkle’s conclusions, I find that we agree a lot more than we disagree.

The Thrust of Sprinkle’s argument

Sprinkle argues that Christians, following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and following His own example of nonviolent suffering should fully embrace nonviolence. He argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence. His book is broken down into three sections: Review of the Old Testament, Review of the New Testament, Q&A.

The Old Testament: Eden represents the ideal. In Eden, there was no violence. When sin entered the world, it became exceedingly violent. God, in establishing Israel, made provisions for them to use violence to enact capital punishment and engage in warfare. Yet, Sprinkle argues, Israel by comparison was a lot less violent and militaristic both in its laws and its warfare policy than the surrounding nations. By the time we get to the prophets, we see a continued movement away from the use of violence in order to move toward the Edenic ideal. In other words, God provided for Israel to use violence in limited circumstances for specific purposes, but this was not the ideal for God’s people.

The New Testament: Sprinkle argues that in the New Testament nonviolence is fully embraced. Jesus taught it on the Sermon on the Mount. He gave an example as he bore up under the suffering of the cross. The epistles command Christians to revoke vengeance and to follow the example of Christ. What about the violence in Revelation? Sprinkle acknowledges the violent images of God’s judgment on the earth, but he doesn’t see individual Christians taking part. Instead they conquer through their faithfulness to Christ and ultimate martyrdom.

Q & A: After reviewing the biblical material Sprinkle takes on some specific questions: What about if an intruder enters your house? (A: Find some other way to save yourself and your family) Is it right to use violence to save someone else’s life? (A: Tentatively gives voice to the lesser-of-two-evils argument) What about Christian participation in the military or the police? (A: Only if you can serve in a way that doesn’t require you to kill another person)

Response:

There’s a lot I agree with in this book: God’s people should be peace-loving and work toward achieving the Edenic ideal of nonviolence. Christians should bear up patiently under persecution following the example of Christ. Christians should not be enamored with militarism or military might. Christians should pursue other ways to resolve conflict that more closely achieve ideals of enemy love.

There’s a few areas I found interesting, but will need to reserve judgment until further study can be accomplished: I wasn’t convinced by his interpretation of the Canaan conquest, or by his interpretation of Revelation.

Then, there was the 10% I disagreed with: Sprinkle argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence, or does he? He addresses a hypothetical question later in the book. Suppose someone is about to kill an innocent person. The only way to save the innocent person would be to kill the aggressor. Would it be permissible to kill the aggressor? Through gritted teeth Sprinkles says, “probably.” That’s because saving the innocent person is the lesser of two evils. Love for that person is a “higher” love than love for the aggressor and this allows for the action to save the innocent (and kill the aggressor). On this account I agree with Sprinkle. I just argue that doing so should not necessarily be called evil.

We live in a world marred by sin and violence. We have not yet reached the Edenic ideal. So, while we pursue it, we don’t fully live there yet. This is recognized throughout Scripture. And, throughout Scripture, God makes provisions for using violence to hold back evil. He does it through Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the authority to use violence is shifted to the civil government. And it appears that it will be part of the final judgment. Violence, then, is not always evil. (Sprinkle doesn’t say that it is, only that it’s wrong for Christians to use it).

Of course, Jesus overcame evil through the cross, through non-violent action. Christians, following after Jesus, revoke vengeance and aim to love their neighbors. In this way, the Christian community embraces the Edenic ideal now even though we live in an age of not-yet. We’re the early adopters. I agree that non-violence should be a mark of the Christian community.

But what about Christians in the police and military? God has allowed for some use of violence to restrain evil through the civil government and the use of this force (if used justly) is good. If this action is good then Christians can engage in it. What would be wrong for a Christian to do as a private citizen, isn’t wrong for them to do as an agent of the State, because God has delegated to certain agents of the State a certain moral authority not available to others. Why has God done this? In order restrain evil in a violent and sinful world. Sprinkle sees this as inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. I do not.

So, while I agree with a lot of what Sprinkle argues for in this book, I’m not ready to fully embrace non-violence as a rule with no exceptions. The pattern throughout Scripture allows for some use of violence to restrain evil. We aim for the Edenic future and we live there as much as possible, but a love for justice and a love for our neighbor sometimes makes forceful restraint a necessary though unfortunate (but not necessarily evil) response.

I’m thankful to Sprinkle for a well constructed argument and for challenging me to live a more Christ-like life.

[1] Brian Zahnd is an example of a pastor who comes to a pacifist position through these two paths (at least, based on everything of his that I have read).

Book Recommendation
Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence