THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHY NOT?

When ever there is a terrible tragedy involving a lot of people being hurt or killed, there is almost always a side piece in the coverage dealing with some who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t.  If the person who avoided the tragedy is a Christian, the article is incredibly predictable.  The person will talk about how something told them not to go or do whatever and immediately praise God for delivering them.

And, while I am happy for them that they didn’t have to go through whatever it was and believe that God can do anything including deliver one person from something terrible, I always finish those side pieces with frustration and more questions than answers.

The questions begin innocently enough:  “Why was that person delivered”.  They move to less innocent, “Why that person and not some other?”.  Then they move further and further into the swamps of spiritual confusion: “Why not prevent the whole thing?”; “Why deliver Christians who are going to heaven anyway?”; “Where does human freedom enter the picture of such deliverances?”; “How do I get on the deliverance list?”; “Is there a chance that the person wasn’t actually delivered but just got lucky?”

I am sure there are some who find such questions irreverent, unspiritual and offensive.  There are some, I know, for whom the answer to these and most other such questions is to say, “The will of God”.  I know where they are coming from–I grew up in a spiritual context where it was assumed that everything that happened was the will of God and so there was no need to ask questions, unless of course, God willed you to ask the questions for some reason.

I trust God–I have committed my life to doing what God asks of me, sometimes even getting it right.  But I have decided that for me, relying too heavily on “the will of God” as an explanation for everything is a bit too simplistic and at the same time, allows we human beings to easily slip out from under any responsibility we might have.  It also prevents us from dealing with the essential reality that God is God and we aren’t.

We live in a world that is messed up–and the mess is the result of human sin.  While God had to allow us to sin, it wasn’t–and isn’t–his will that we sin.  And so a great deal of what happens in life is the result of sin, not God’s will.  We can easily see and accept this reality in some cases–people reap what they sow.  When a person who habitually drives drunk eventually gets killed in a drunk driving accident, we make the connection–generally privately because polite society generally doesn’t allow us to do it too publically.

But in many other situations, the connection is hard or even impossible to make.  I have arthritis in both knees.  I genuinely believe that arthritis was not in the original plan for creation, nor do I believe I am being punished for some sin in my life–as near as I can tell, there are some genetic issues that lead to the early development of arthritis.

The Apostle Paul makes a powerful and profound theological statement in Romans 8.20-21: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (NIV)  Essentially, Paul is suggesting “Stuff happens”.  It isn’t God’s will but a sign of the depths of disruption caused by human sin.

Not everything that happens in God’s will.  While he may sometimes deliver people, sometimes the deliverance is a result of the randomness of the universe messed up by human sin.  One might miss the tragedy and another might get caught–and both are simply caught up in the results of living in an creation groaning for deliverance.

So, does that remove God and faith from the picture?  Not for me.  While I might both suffer from and occasionally benefit from the randomness of the universe that sin introduced, I also believe that God is greater that the randomness.  He is at work, using the randomness to get to where he is going, the new heaven and new earth promised in  Revelation 21 where all will be as it is supposed to be.

Until then, we live, trusting that God is with us, working in and through the randomness to bring about his will for us and the whole of creation.

May the peace of God be with you.

WE ARE CALLED TO JUDGE

Christianity is often seen as a personal and private relationship between the believer and God, a relationship developed through faith in Jesus.  And that is true–or at least part of the truth.  But Christianity is also a faith where the private and personal relationship with God is to be expressed in community. We are called to love each other as Christ loved us (John 14.34-35) and even more, our ability to relate to each other shows the reality of our private and personal relationship with God. (1 John 4.20-21)

So Christianity is a faith in which the community pays a very important part.  When we are in relationship with God through Christ, we are also called to be in relationship with other believers through Christ as well.  And because we are all human and all at different stages of our growth in faith, our Christian communities are not always going to be harmonious places where everything is perfect.

There are going to be times when someone within the community goes against the standards of the community or of God.  There are going to be people within the community whose words or actions are not only troubling but move into the unacceptable.  Sometimes, because of the status of the individual in the community or the nature of the community, the unacceptable is ignored, overlooked or downplayed.

But there are times when it must be dealt with.  We need to make a judgement call.  In fact, Jesus calls on believers to be willing to police the community.  He even gives us a process to use for those occasions when someone within the community of believers goes outside the lines.  It is found in Matthew 18.15-17.  Briefly, Jesus gives a four step process to deal with sins committed within the community:  a private attempt at reconciliation; a small group attempt at the same thing; having the church as a whole deal with the issue and of all that fails, treating the offender as a pagan or tax collector.  This last step, by the way, probably indicates that we begin treating the person with even more love and concern than we have been showing, based on how Jesus relates to tax collectors and pagans.

The point of this is to say that we believers are called upon to pass judgement on people within our community of believers. I have sometimes tried to make this sound less pointed by saying that we are to evaluate each other; support each other; enable each other or some other nice sounding phrase but really, this passage calls us as believers to judge each other and correct each other.

And it is not an isolated concept.  We run into a similar sentiment in Galatians 6.1,”Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”  NIV.  No matter how we spin the passage, it requires believers to make judgements about the behaviour of other believers.  We are called to look at others and decide if their behaviour, words and attitudes are within the acceptable bounds of the Christian faith.  And then, we are called to correct those whom we judge to have crossed the line into the unacceptable.

Certainly, the Scriptures show us that correction–and presumably the judging–are to be done in an orderly way and “gently”.  But the evaluation or judging is to be done.  It is part of the nature of the Christian community–we help each other grow and develop in faith.  At least some of the time, that help towards growth and development will be the result of a judgement call by some other member of the community.  Neither Jesus nor Paul is dealing with self-reporting here.  They are both calling on members of the Christian community to become aware of and concerned with the lives of the rest of the community partly through making judgements as to the rightness and wrongness of the behaviour, words or attitudes of other community members.

This has the potential for disaster, which is probably why Christian communities prefer one of two approaches to applying these passages.  Some, perhaps the majority, prefer to ignore these words, citing the importance of not judging.  Others jump in with both feet and create a coercive and damaging community that generally takes itself in directions that neither Paul nor Jesus envisioned with their words.

Fortunately, there is a way to care for and even judge each other in the community in a way that respects both the Scripture and those involved–and we looked at that in the next post. Sorry about that–I mixed up the posting dates on the posts.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLACK AND WHITE

Writing the recent blogs on forgiveness reminded me of a train of thought I have been following one and off for many years.  I think I actually began seriously thinking along these lines when I left home to attend a Christian college for a year before moving on to a secular university.  Home was really no place to think such thoughts–it was where I grew up, I knew everyone, we agreed on almost everything and everything was pretty clearly defined.  I also grew up in a church context where there was tolerance and respect and acceptance.  Mind you, we were a small rural community and the diversity index was rather low so there wasn’t a great deal of difficulty in being tolerant, respectful and accepting.

But when I went to college, things were different.  It was a conservative Christian college located in a big (to me at the time) city.  As expected, most of the students thought a lot like I did–but I discovered that a lot of them were a whole lot stronger in their way of expressing themselves.  Others were pretty sure that some of the things I had learned were okay were not in fact okay and they had no hesitation letting me know how wrong I was.  While I sometimes took their comments and attacks personally, I soon began to realize that they were the same way with everyone about everything.

I found the whole thing a little scary but also really interesting.  I had a sense of right and wrong; I worked at trying to express a conservative Christian morality; I had some sense of integration of my faith and my life but tended to have a low key approach to many issues, often because being too loud and too pointed about moral issues tended to hurt people I knew and liked.

But at the Christian college, I discovered people for whom Christian morality was clear on a wide variety of issues that I had never considered to be an issue.  For example, our town theater had a Saturday matinee and was one of the few things to do for kids in town.  Since we grew up poor, I didn’t get there often–but when I could save some money from berry picking or splitting the neighbour’s wood or something like that, I would be in the theater, loving the movie and wishing I had saved enough money to buy popcorn and pop like my friends.

But I discovered at college that “real” Christians didn’t go to movies.  It didn’t matter what the movie was.  All of them were part of the evil secular world and going to any movie therefore not only supported the evil makers of pornography but also put the soul of anyone attending in danger.  Some of them were pretty sure that even the Billy Graham movies that were popular at the time should be avoided.

As the school year progressed, I discovered more and more about what was right and what was wrong.  Some people and groups at the school had a clear answer about the rightness and wrongness of everything and were convinced that their answers should be broadcast loudly and clearly no matter what the cost in terms of relationships and people’s feelings.

For every issue, there was one clear choice.  For every question, there was one clear answer.  For every life situation, there was one clear option.  Christianity made life a series of black and white choices:  good Christians chose the right thing and loudly condemned the wrong choice.  Faith was simply, clear and had great contrast–everything was either right or wrong.

 

But as the year progressed, I began to see some interesting sub-texts in the black and white scenarios.  Some disagreed on what was black and what was white.  Some pulled back on issues that others pushed hard on.  Some cautiously allowed some blackness to continue unchallenged.  A few privately and quietly followed black paths while publically and noisily calling for the white path in that area.

In short, I was beginning to learn about black and white thinking, the kind of thinking that has been a part of the religious landscape since the first human began to contemplate God.  Black and white theology has easy and clear answers for everything.  I actually tried the black and white approach–for a short time and with a serious lack of commitment because even as I tried it, it didn’t feel right.  But that is another blog–stay tuned.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ETHICS OF SIN

One of the classes I taught the last time I worked in Kenya was a course on Christian ethics, focusing specifically on the ethics of Christian leadership.  I had fun teaching the course and I am pretty sure that the students enjoyed the course as well, although the evaluations did contain the traditional student complaint about courses–too much homework.

Among the things we dealt with was the problem of sinful leadership in the church, a topic that provided a great deal of discussion since all the members of the class were church leaders in contexts where the perks of office often included some built in free passes for some sins.  I was forcing the students to deal with an issue the church as a whole has not yet successfully dealt with.

Church leadership sets the rules for sin:  what it is, how to avoid it, who deals with it, how it is dealt with and so on.  But church leadership also invariably builds in special privileges and dispensations for itself.  At the heart of most complains of hypocrisy leveled at the church is the reality that those in leadership treat their sin differently than they treat the sins of others.

Now, that is actually a Biblical principal–leadership in the faith does have different requirements.  Matthew 23, for example, shows Jesus taking religious leaders to task for their harshness towards others while allowing themselves lots of freedom.  There is also the equally scary passage in James 3.1, which cautions, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” NIV

Jesus and the Biblical writers take seriously the reality that those in leadership have a significant impact on those they lead.  When we get it right as leaders, we have a very positive and often long-lasting effect on the lives of the people we lead.  And when we get it wrong, we have an equally negative and long lasting effect on the lives of not just the people we lead but also people associated with the people we lead.

Unfortunately, when church leadership sets different standards for leadership and followers, they tend not to look at things from this perspective.  Often, those in leadership choose to see the difference in terms of privilege rather than  responsibility.  The call to leadership is too often too often seen as allowing more latitude than others have.

I remember one fairly domineering pastor who demanded that all his church members get rid of their TVs.  Since he was a dominant leader in an almost cult-like group, they did what he said.  But everyone in the church and the rest of the community knew that he kept his TV and regularly watched whatever he wanted.  What was sinful for the rest obviously wasn’t sinful for him.

Maybe part of the problem of sin is that we in leadership don’t take our own sinfulness seriously enough.  We might require rigid compliance of others but we allow ourselves latitude and freedom which effectively undercuts our ability to lead people and help them deal seriously with their sins.  If people know that I am doing what I am telling them not to do, they are neither going to listen to me nor avoid the things I am telling them to avoid.

In fact, the more I tell them not to do something, the more convinced they will become that I am doing it and that it might be interesting to give it a try themselves.  Meanwhile, those on the outside are going to ignore the whole bunch of us–they have enough issues and don’t need the ones we manufacture.

As leaders, we need to learn to take our sin seriously.  We need to be aware of and willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We need to recognize our propensity for sin and need for grace.  We need to use the power of God to challenge and change that which in sinful in us so that we don’t become the hypocrites whose presence in the church keeps so many others outside the church.

Maybe instead of focusing so much on the sin of others, we need to spend a lot more time and effort focusing on our own sin.  We might be surprised at how much grace we discover and how much more graceful we can be to others.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RULES OF SINNING

Growing up in a conservative church in a rural community, I quickly learned the basic rules about sin:  It was wrong so don’t do it.  Don’t even think about it!  Don’t let other people do it!  These basic rules were part of my spiritual growth and development and worked well, at least in that context.  There were, of course, some discussions and disputes–not about the rules but about what exactly constituted a sin.

School dances, for example, were a terrible sin for some believers but a safe and normal part of life for others.  Watching TV could be sinful or okay, depending on which family and which denomination the watcher was part of.  While we might have had some disagreement on the definitions of, the basic rules were clear and undisputed.

Or, at least I thought so.  As I grew and became more involved in the life of the church, I began to see that the basic rules weren’t as rigid and as clear as it seemed at first.  It began to dawn on me that there were some exceptions.

When the men’s choir sang, the shy guy with the great voice was allowed to show up smelling like he had had a drink of rum before he got there.  We were a seriously non-drinking church but his bay-rum “aftershave” gave him courage to add his voice to the choir, which wouldn’t have been much otherwise.

And then there was the pastor who was abusing kids, including his own who was quietly resettled somewhere else and the families and kids convinced that it wasn’t his fault–he was doing great things for God and it would be a shame to let something like that stop his ministry.

Of course, there were also the generous givers whose contributions played a significant role in the congregation’s finances and somehow allowed them a free pass on some things that others were not able to get away with.

I began to realize that the rules were not as simple and clear.  Not all sin was equal and not all sinners were equal.  In fact, the rules get murkier and more confusing the longer I look at them.  But it seems like there were some essential rules that superseded all the others.  One was, “The more important I can make myself in the church, the more I get to break the rules.”  Another was connected, “The more the church needs my money, the more I can get away with”

Others include, “The better I sing, preach, teach, etc, the more rules I can break”; “The closer I am related to someone who can break the rules, the more rules I can break”; “If you must break the rules, don’t get caught”.  In the end, it seems like the basic rule about sin is that I get to condemn your sin and justify mine.

I am not sure if what I have just written qualifies as cynicism or whether it is a “tongue-in-cheek” poke at one of the real issues in the church but the problem is real.  We really don’t have a comfortable way of dealing with the reality of human sin within the church.  The uncomfortable route we tend to follow allows some people to sin with impunity while others pay a disproportional price for the same sin.

Now to be honest, I have spent much or my ministry trying to avoid the issue of sin–I prefer to deal with important things like grace and forgiveness and reconciliation and love.  But I also recognize the pain caused by our uncomfortable and inequitable way of dealing with sin.  In fact, many of the people I know who are not a part of the church are outside the church because somewhere along the line, they encountered the hypocrisy that is such a basic part of the conservative church’s approach to sin.

I don’t have clear answers yet–just a recognition that the results of sin can be painful and serious and the results of poor handling of sin can be even more painful and serious.  But since we are all sinners, we need to find a way that recognizes the reality of the pain we cause ourselves and others while at the same time, allowing everyone sufficient access to God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT SIN?

            In many areas of Western life, the idea of sin no longer exists.  Certainly, we can find it in the more conservative corners of the church but as a real, live concept in the general population, sin is becoming increasingly rare.  Some new religious groups even suggest that there is no sin anymore, except the sin of thinking that sin exists.

I am ambivalent about this movement away from sin.  Having grown up as part of the conservative church, I heard all about sin–too much about sin.  I realized at some point that the continual emphasis on sin wasn’t doing a whole lot that was positive.

I used to ask my Kenyan students about the preaching on sin they experienced, specifically in terms of anti-alcohol preaching, which is very popular there.  I would ask how long the church has been preaching about the sin of drinking and be assured that it had been done from the very beginning of the church.  I would then ask about the results in very specific terms:  how many people stopped drinking, how many bars closed and so on.  The reluctant consensus answer from the students was that few if any stopped drinking because of the preaching and there were more bars than ever.

So, we waste a lot of time and effort on sin.  But at the same time, there are things that are wrong and unjust and painful and even evil.  No amount of emphasis on human improvement and human potential can obscure the reality that genocide is a powerful 20th Century trend; that child abuse in all its forms robs millions of the fullness of life; that greed motivates great injustice; that some don’t mind others starving and suffering if it allows them to have a good life.  I don’t know what we call these sort of things unless we call them sin.

An old definition of sin is “missing the mark”–and no matter what we human beings would like to think, we do miss the mark regularly and spectacularly.  Doing away with the word doesn’t do away with the underlying problem.  Unfortunately, as my Kenyan students reluctantly discovered, simply telling people not to sin doesn’t get rid of it either.

So maybe we need a new and revised theology of sin, one that takes it and its consequences seriously but which also gives us a better understanding of how to deal with it.  And maybe, rather than have this new, revised theology point outward, we need it to be pointed inward.  Maybe we need a theology of sin that enables each believer to confront his/her own sin; then encourages the church leadership to confront their own sin; and then causes the church as a whole to work at eliminating their sins.

Rather than point fingers outward and spend all our time and effort telling people outside the faith they are sinful, we need to begin by admitting and dealing with our own sin.  After all, we are in the best place possible to do this.  We already have the solution to the whole problem–the forgiveness that is ours in Christ Jesus.  We can safely and freely admit our sins and deal with them because they have already been forgiven through our faith in Jesus.

And there is no point in pretending that we believers aren’t sinful.  If we can’t see our sins, there is always someone around who is willing to point it out to us.  Denial, while a frequently exercised option, isn’t particularly effective in the face of the reality of our sins.  Confession, as difficult as it might be, it actually a much better way of dealing with the sins we know are there but want to pretend aren’t there.

I think the stakes are quite high here.  All humanity deals with the issue of sin–and we all generally do it poorly.  But if we can build on our forgiven status and discover a better way of dealing with sin than denial or attack, we not only help ourselves grow in faith, but we also then present those outside the faith with a better way.  Sin exists, what we have been doing is helping much, deny it doesn’t make it go away–so maybe we need to get serious about finding a better way to deal with our own sin.

May the peace of God be with you.