Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Kingdom You Wouldn’t Like

“All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more that we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no “swank” or “side”, no putting on airs… On the other hand, it is always insisting on obedience-obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands. Thirdly, it is to be a cheerful society: full of singing and rejoicing, and regarding worry or anxiety as wrong. Courtesy is one of the Christian virtues; and the New Testament hates what it calls “busybodies.”

If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and in that sense, “advanced,” but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old-fashioned-perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. That is just what you would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself. You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: Everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can say they are fighting for Christianity.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I remember reading these words as a young believer and being quite puzzled by them. How could we come into the Kingdom (to tweak Lewis’ words into a kind of premillennialism) and not thoroughly enjoy it all?

As I have grown and become responsible, to some degree, for the spiritual health of others, it has become a lot plainer to me. I have learned that loving what God loves does not come all at once at the moment of regeneration. I have learned that the process of sanctification is largely one of learning to unlove, or put off, what belongs to the old man, gain the mind of Christ (love what He loves in the degrees and ways He loves), and actively pursue what He loves.

I have also learned that even post-conversion, the things we need the most are often the things we like the least. That’s what the Bible means when it describes the human heart with adjectives like perverse, corrupt, and depraved. We naturally love what is poisonous and corrosive. We kick against what is healthy and life-giving. Our natures orient us towards evil and away from what is good.

Lewis is stating this fact: were a culture that perfectly reflects God’s loves to be imposed upon us today, there is much in us that would dislike it. That’s surprising to us, since we tend to think that we would love every part of God’s kingdom. No, that’s why unredeemed flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. We must see Him as He is, be transformed to be like Him in every way, and then we will finally love what He loves without a trace of sin.

Lewis probably didn’t intend as much, but his words give a good deal of explanation for the worship wars. Here are “people who are fighting for quite opposite things [who] say they are fighting for Christianity”. And here are people eclectically choosing the music they like, and dismissing what they don’t like. Here are people who cannot imagine that Christian worship should ever feel foreign or slightly uncomfortable, while others admit that worshiping a God infinitely beyond our imaginations ought to include some measure of awkwardness.

In fact, it was this quote that vaguely nagged at the back of my mind for years, and partly pushed me towards conservatism. When I encountered music which I did not enjoy, but which had been treasured by better Christians than I, this quote nudged me. When I read of a discipline and a piety in past Christians that seemed repressive and grievous to me, this quote tapped me on the shoulder. When I found some of my own musical idols under fire, this quote seemed to be a Nathan the prophet. When sober worship seemed gloomy, and I longed again for levity, this quote seemed a thorn.

All the time it said to me, “Why would you think that what you like and don’t like should be the final bar of judgement for what to offer God? Should not the better things of Christianity be somewhat above your reach? If something doesn’t ‘fit’ with you, is it possible that it is you who needs to change?  Shouldn’t you try to understand something before you dismiss it, merely because it is unappealing to you? If you believe in spiritual growth, should you not expect to be dwarfed by the hymns, prayers, music and writings of your betters?

“Should you, a very rudimentary Christian, have perfect appreciation for what is true, lovely, noble, just, virtuous, and praiseworthy? Isn’t some confusion of face and bewilderment to be expected when a philistine is confronted with what is beautiful and noble? Are you not arrogant for making comfort, ease, familiarity and accessibility the pillars of your walk with God? Are you not idolatrous when you do so?”

And so I began of journey of learning to love what I ought to love.

Equality and Distinctions

Those who believe in cosmic justice are actually at war with nature. If you desire to have all people have absolutely equal opportunities (as in our sprint race example) by manipulating all kinds of variables, you are actually fighting against the created order. You are fighting biology, genetics, and indeed, providence.

If you’re a Cosmic Justice devotee, you resent the idea that those biologically male should be placed in roles where they seem better suited than those biologically female. Indeed, you will wage war over those words “better suited”, enlisting examples of female soldiers, female bodyguards, female oil-rig welders and so on, showing that any distinction is purely a social construct, or even an arbitrary prejudice.

For that matter, someone like this may be at war with other variables of the created order: someone’s native intelligence, talents, interests and dispositions. All that seems determined by forces outside the liberal’s ideology must be challenged.

Tragically, some Christians begin breathing in this air, and exhaling it with a Christian twist. For example, a favourite hijacked text is Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There!, says the liberal, doesn’t that just prove that the gospel is all about removing distinctions and inequalities? Well, in a word, no. The gospel eliminates any boasting point a human might use to claim special favour with God: sex, class, ethnicity, or some other trait or qualification. In Christ, these distinctions give none an advantage or disadvantage. In Christ, none of these hinder table fellowship and spiritual equality. But that is far from saying this equality of access is the removal of distinctions. Far from it. Paul gives different roles to men and women in corporate worship (1 Tim 2:8-15), and even for informal church life (Tis 2:1-8). He acknowledges that the class system of Roman life is the order of the day, and calls for Christian masters and slaves to behave in exemplary ways (Eph 6:5-9). For that matter, in Romans 14, Paul is probably referencing how Jewish Christians may behave differently to Gentile Christians in respect of diet and observance of days, and does not call for these differences to stop, but to be tolerated and respected with deference and considerateness. From Paul’s perspective, differences in ethnicity, class or gender are part of life and the Christian is not called to erase or resist them.

But what of those inequalities brought about not by biology or genetics but by injustice: either the injustice of human society, or the apparent injustice of the universe? What of people born to an ethnic group that is enslaved, despised, or maltreated; people born in poor circumstances, with little chance to improve, people born into a system that targets them for oppression? Should we not wage war on the injustice that gave them a disadvantage?

Perhaps, rightly defined. Christians wage war by casting down systems of thought that oppose God (2 Cor 10:5-6). Christianity’s view of man ultimately fermented Rome’s cultural life to where it could no longer function as it once had. Christianity’s view of man brought about the Magna Carta, balancing the divine right of kings with the imago dei. In some cases, Christians have worked actively in politics. In most cases, Christians have been faithful Christians in their vocations, and allowed their view to salt the culture.

Christians can also work to faithfully reverse or counter the effects of the curse, whether it is dealing with disease, catastrophe, or some area of the natural order that harms or threatens life. Christians may not understand God’s providence in giving some less, or the place of deformity or disease, but they can seek to heal and assist.

Christians do not fight injustice by artificially privileging victims or descendants of injustice over others. Christians do not fight injustice by pretending that the blind man’s vision is adequate, or that the illiterate can read, or that the unlearned can lead. Christians do not fight injustice when they place their finger on the scale, trying to act on a scale that belongs to God. We cannot fight the truth of injustice with the fictions of our own benevolent intentions.

We cannot wage war on the past. We cannot re-direct the river of history. We can only help hard-working people in the present, and have mercy on those harmed or destitute by something other than their own laziness. Societies that allow hard-working people to succeed are just. Ancient Israel was more than just, it was also merciful: providing means for the poor to survive (Leviticus 19:10). But notice, the poor still had to work, and glean the corners of the vineyard.

Ancient Israel did not fight against the very concept of the poor. It accepted that such would always be the case in a fallen world, and made merciful provisions for those who would work with the strength they had. They were interested in merciful justice, not cosmic justice. They were concerned with an equal right to survive, not an equal experience of life.

A Catechism of Judgement in Worship

How are we to worship God?
We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:
– The reading of Scripture
– The preaching of Scripture
– The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
– The offering of public prayer
– The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?
We know this through exercising sound judgement.

What is sound judgement?
At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb. 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil. 4:8) – and the opposites of these. Judgement can also be thought of as discernment, discrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgement fundamental to worship?
Judgement is needed to discern three things: beauty, the nature of our response, and the meaning of the vehicle that carries our response.
First, to worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty.
Second, to rightly respond to God from the heart, we must be able to distinguish between affections, and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, or between shades of joy, fear, or sorrow, requires judgement. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement, or false in sentiment.
Third, to offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of the expression we use to carry our response. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil. 1:10) and use it for God’s glory.  To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgement. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?
No, judgement is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb. 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully, or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Proud judgementalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgements be subjective?
Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgements made by subjects can still conform to the good.

Why can’t we just be given a list of approved hymns and songs?
If everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgements of others, but a maturing conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgement.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship?
No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone on earth should be a literary critic. We should not be afraid to learn from critics, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?
God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgement?
First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgement or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.
Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning, if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgement by example and exposure.

How can we judge something that we already like or dislike?
First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.
Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.
Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard?
The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:
1) Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
2) Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgement – people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
3) Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
4) Write poems, songs, prayers and sermons that are true, good and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?
We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialise God, humanity or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good and beautiful.