Tag Archives: individualism

Walls, and how we try to overcome them

Separate, Excluded, Foreigners, Far away, Hostility

These are all words Paul uses to described a “dividing wall of hostility.” In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul is metaphorically describing the spiritual barrier which exists, first, between God and mankind, and second, between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s aim is to demonstrate that now both Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled to God through the cross – apart from the law – and are subsequently reconciled to one another as they form one new humanity, body, building, temple, and household.

wall of separation

Sermon illustration representing the “wall of hostility” in Ephesians 2.

But even beyond the interesting, though now far removed controversy within the early church, Ephesians 2 tells a much broader story about how we can be reconciled to God and to one another.

Our age – like every prior age – is marked by separation and conflict, by walls of hostility. They exist between nations, social groups, and individuals. They exist in every institution: at work, in churches, in families, in governments and the like. The wall of separation goes by other names such as loneliness, alienation, or exclusion. The wall of conflict and hostility comes in many forms: division, slander, verbal and physical abuse, and malice.

Because these problems are so pervasive and damaging, different cultures have

sought to deal with them in different ways. I see three major ways in which our culture has tried to overcome these walls, with limited success.

Tolerance: One way to overcome some of the walls of hostility is through tolerance, or overlooking differences and offenses which might otherwise be a cause of conflict. Tolerance in many circumstances is a virtue. It is necessary for most interpersonal interactions. But some differences are too major to simply be “tolerated” and must instead be “resolved” in some other way. If you believe that there are systems of police brutality, those systems need to be overcome through justice, not tolerated. If you believe that your close friend’s course of life will lead to her destruction, you might need to bravely move beyond tolerance and into love, seeking what is best for her, even though your response may sound intolerant. In other words, while tolerance is appropriate in many circumstances, it needs to be practiced only within the broader virtues of love and justice.

Diversity: Another key concept in our pluralistic society is “diversity.” Diversity seeks to overcome hostility and separation by celebrating differences and intentionally bringing unlike people together. Again, I applaud many efforts at increasing diversity. Understood with a theological lens it means recognizing the image of God in each person, along with the differences in their creation and histories, their unique and edifying gifts and perspectives. Christianity is the most diverse… anything in the world. Heaven is a picture of diversity. But diversity is not a solution which solves all problems. For instance, it only deals in cases where external differences are obvious. But, even when all external differences are gone, when we’re dealing with a completely homogenous group, we still have a remarkable capacity for violence, division, isolation, and exclusion. Second, diversity by itself assumes amoral categories such as nationality, language, or recipes. But moral categories – or more specifically moral transgressions – such as lying, theft, and hatred, lie outside the bounds of diversity alone.

Radical Individualism: A third way to cope with the divisions amongst people is through a radical individualism. Essentially, I mean the response “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, I will be true to myself.” There are two important truths in this response we shouldn’t ignore. The first is that it is certainly possible to find all of our worth in other people’s opinions of ourselves. This is a reaction against that mindset. Second, each of us must “plot our own course” as it were, to live as individuals, and part of that means a certain integrity of self (though my definition of “true to yourself” is different from its common usage). However, while this attitude might make us care less about the wall of hostility, it doesn’t do anything to remove it, simply for the fact that it ignores the reality that we are social creatures who carry social responsibility. To say, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks” is to proclaim a lie – or to be a sociopath. We’re social creatures who simple must give attention to others. To say only, “I must be true to myself” is to risk ignoring the social responsibilities we all have. Sometimes those social responsibilities require me to say “no” to myself for the sake of others.

Each of these attempts at removing walls of hostility and separation – at least on the interpersonal level – can have a role to play. Many small offenses or differences can and should be tolerated. Diversity can be a cause for celebration and can overcome some hostility between differing groups. Personal integrity and caring less about what other people think can help us feel the pain of those walls less acutely. However, none on their own, or even those three together, can ever really bring about the lasting peace or wholeness we long for.

That’s because the root of this wall is a moral failure. And at the root of moral failure is a failure of our relationship with God. What must be dealt with first, then, is the wall of hostility – conflict and separation – which exists between us and God. Once the roots have been weakened, only then will we begin to see the branches start to fall off.

That leads us back, finally, to Ephesians 2:11-22, with Paul’s description of the wall of hostility, and his proclamation that it is dealt with in Christ on the cross. And, that, is the topic of my sermon tomorrow morning.


QOTD: Do you have to go to church to be truly spiritual?

QOTD (Question of the Day) Introduction: This blog series reviews questions asked to teenagers as part of the NSYR study as documented in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. These questions relate to “seeker attitudes” among American Teenagers. I am also using these discussion questions to engage the kids in our After School program at a deeper level.

Question: Do you need to be involved in a religious congregation to be truly religious and spiritual?

“Here the majority of American teens swings back to the more individualistic position: two-things say believers do not need to be involved in congregations to be spiritual and religious; only one-third say that they do.” (Soul Searching)

My Brief Answer:

First, we need to answer the question, “What does it mean to be truly religious and spiritual?” This could mean a few things. It could mean, “right with God (saved)?” It could mean, “fully obedient?

If they mean “right with God” then the answer is No. It’s No, because only one thing is required to be right with God: faith in His Son Jesus Christ. To add anything to that list, no matter how good a thing, is legalism. I’m a big fan of being part of a church, but it doesn’t contribute to your salvation.

However, if they mean “fully obedient” then I would say Yes. I say this for a few reasons.

  • A head without a body is as bad as a body without a head: Kevin DeYoung made this point in Why We Love the Church. Jesus is the head of the Church and the Church is the body of Christ. It’s always bad news when you have the body without the head (a church without Christ). But it’s just as bad if you have a head without a body (or an invisible body). The Body of Christ was always meant to be a visible and serving witness to Christ in the world.
  • A severed limb isn’t good for anything: In this body, every part has a role to play. That means you. You are needed. You are needed to build others up. But you have to be present (or at least involved) to participate in a meaningful way.
  • Disengagement leads to disobedience: Read my Advice for College Students.

What if you are unable to participate in a religious congregation?

Certainly there are those individuals who are unable to actually attend a church on a regular basis. In our church we call them “shut-ins.” Although they don’t come to church they continue to participate in the religious community in other ways. Various members of our congregation go to visit them and give them updates on church life. They continue to participate through prayer. They are not present, but they participate. I am extremely thankful for the shut-ins in our church. They are a blessing to all of us. There are occasions where church attendance is not possible. However, for the vast majority of us, it’s not about possibility it is about priority. Sometimes we say, “I couldn’t go” when we really mean “I didn’t really want to go.” Do your best to understand the difference.

What do you think? Have I gone too far? Not far enough? What are other reasons why church participation is essential?

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines

A brief definition:

While I was researching[1] this topic I discovered that my understanding of the term “spiritual disciplines” was somewhat, and significantly, different from how others use the term. It turns out there is a fairly strong polemic from some evangelicals against the theology of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Specifically, some charge that they are calling for something extra-biblical that borders on paganism/mysticism. I read Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in Seminary and, though it has been a while, I think some of the stronger criticism is overblown. Nevertheless, I do want to distinguish my use of the terminology “spiritual disciplines” in this series from that of Willard/Foster, or at least what others perceive of them.

I recommend reading D.A. Carson’s post on the topic here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/spiritual_disciplines/. Carson observes: “What is universally presupposed by the expression ‘spiritual discipline’ is that such disciplines are intended to increase our spirituality.” I would submit that that is not universally presupposed since I did not previously presuppose it, nor have I ever heard it described that way. It is, of course, quite possible that I am seriously ignorant of the state of public debate in this area.

Instead, when I refer to “spiritual disciplines” I am referring to biblically prescribed activities that require some level of systematic effort on our part (discipline) and which contribute, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to our progressive sanctification (spiritual). It’s quite probable that D.A. Carson would call these efforts “means of grace,” which he offers at the end of his article as preferable terminology.

I elect to use “spiritual disciplines” instead of “means of grace” because the most likely readers of this blog have the same contextual understanding of spiritual disciplines as I do and because the language of “means of grace” is, by comparison, not widely used and could be misunderstood and related to some kind of works-salvation.

Ironically, whichever direction I went with my choice of semantics I was going to have to offer an explanation. I elected to offer an explanation to those “outside” (the broader community) instead of those “inside” (those in my own community who use the language in a similar way as I do/have). What makes this even more ironic is that my most likely readers won’t need this explanation and will not have thought that I was referring to any sort of mystical practice.

Oh well, at least that was a good exercise which helped me clarify my own thinking in the matter.

The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines Expanded:

As I noted above, I am using the term “spiritual disciplines” to refer to practices that, by the work of the Holy Spirit, contribute to our progressive sanctification, that is, having once-for-all been justified, these practices ought to be instrumental as we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). They contribute to our transformation[2] in several ways. First and foremost, as Carson writes, “the truly transformative element is not the discipline itself, but the worthiness of the task undertaken: the value of prayer, the value of reading God’s Word.”That is, prayer and the Bible reading are intrinsically good things to do. Regardless of my thesis below, that a regular practice of the spiritual disciplines can tear down false patterns of thought found in modernity and build up the truth of God’s Word, these practices are still intrinsically valuable. I only mean to highlight a few ways that they are even more valuable to today’s generation than are often discussed.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Spiritual formation is very much a transformation (or a renewing) of the mind. In our sin, our whole persons experience brokenness, including our patterns of thought. This is true on both the personal and the cultural level. That is not to say that every thought someone has apart from Christ is wrong. God gives a great deal of common grace. For that reason every culture is a mixed-bag of error and insight. Nevertheless, every thought needs to be brought into conformity with Truth. Some just need to be corrected more than others.

Our cultural mindset, let’s use the term modernity[3] for now, espouses several core beliefs which pose a risk to the believer in regard to his or her spiritual growth. Here is a short, non-comprehensive list:

Autonomous reason: The belief that the individual has the capacity to make completely rational decisions based only on empirical evidence.

Self-sufficiency: The belief that the individual has the ability to provide for all of his or her own needs.

Materialism: The belief that the material world is all there is.

Self-gratification: The belief that our first priority is to gratify our desires.

Self-law (autonomy): The belief that we are our own bosses and that no one has the right to tell us what to do.

Self-worship: The belief that the individual is the highest good.

Engaging in the spiritual disciplines provides a way for us to tear down, or at least whittle down, these deeply held beliefs that we all hold, to some degree or another either in practice or in creed. I will expand on the “how” of this in later posts but here’s a quick overview:

Bible Reading challenges autonomous reason. In the study of Scripture we accept revelation from outside ourselves. Bible reading also challenges self-law as it calls us not only to receive information, but also submit to the authority of Jesus.

Prayer challenges self-sufficiency. In prayer we call for help from outside ourselves. It also challenges materialism. Indeed, prayer is completely meaningless apart from the existence of a real spiritual world.

Fasting challenges self-gratification. In fasting we are telling our bodies to temporarily give up one of our most basic needs in order to seek first the kingdom of God.

Worship challenges self-worship. We are called to bow down to God as the ultimate good. In worship we see ourselves in relation to God – as created is to Creator, a necessarily humbling experience. Worship also challenges materialism as the people of God gather together in the presence the God through the Spirit of God.

Service challenges self-gratification. It forces us to look outward with the goal of fulfilling the needs of others, instead of the self.

Tithing challenges self-sufficiency. When you tithe you are saying – “God can do more with my 90% than I can do with my 100%” and “I stand in a place of gratitude for all that God has already given to me.”

I’m sure the list could continue and, since I am not writing all of these at once, I may add some later.

If you’ve made it this far, remember that feedback (positive or negative) along the way is appreciated.

[1] I am using this term lightly. In Seminary, research meant hours of scholarly research at the library of Cornerstone University. Now, research means a little light reading and a few internet searches. This is a function of my available time and energy. I clarify this here so that the reader does not put too much stock in my “research,” though I hope my logic and use of Scripture is still valid.

[2] I am attempting to be careful with my language here. Spiritual disciplines do not transform us – only God transforms us.

[3] I am using this term broadly, and probably not technically, to refer to the subset beliefs commonly held and valued in Western society in the 21st century.

More on the impact of individualism

I came across this quote from Roxburgh/Boren while reading Timothy Keller’s Center Church

On the impact of individualism…

“When we attend to the way people talk about the gospel, it does not take long to discover just how much the focus lies on meeting personal needs. During testimony sessions about ministry trips, people explain how it changed them or how it gave them an experience they will never forget. In modernity the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s personal destiny, goals, or needs… For moderns, it’s almost impossible to read the biblical narrative without assimilating it to the modern categories of the self and the fulfillment of its needs.

“In Scripture, mission calls a people into a radically different vision on a journey bigger and other than ourselves. Scripture calls us into the memory of an amazing story … not for ourselves but for the sake of the world. The strangeness of this story is its illogical and irresponsible meaning: find life by losing it; only by leaving the places of security are the purposes of God discovered. The God revealed in Scripture gives himself away for the sake of the world” – Alan J Roxburgh and M Scott Boren, Introducing The Missional Church