God is worth His word being studied well. In fact, the words of God are immanently crucial for believers and unbelievers alike. Of course arriving at the meaning of those words is a daunting task; nonetheless, it is a task we must engage in. In contemplating this serious endeavor, the gravity should lead to what might be called a hermeneutic of humility. Several applicable considerations can help in cultivating such a posture.
Context Context Pretext
Assigning meaning in the 21st century to the sacred text written millennia ago is not to be taken lightly. There are cultural, linguistic, historical, philosophical, spiritual, and personal barriers that must be considered. In other words, understanding the text in light of its original language, culture, and historical setting and then applying that in today’s is hard work. Too often pastors and theologians give lip service to the chief hermeneutical principal of taking a passage in context only to make the context fit within their own pretext of theological or philosophical bias. Take a breath. Everybody brings presuppositional baggage as they seek to read and interpret scripture. So, acknowledge it, take an interpretive step back, and engage thoughtfully.
Theology, History, and oh yeah…the Spirit
Theology and church history are useful, but the Spirit is necessary. Before theological systems and the history that developed with the passage of time, believers had the oral heritage of scripture along with inspired circulating letters/works as well as the power of the indwelling Spirit. Often today the role of the spirit in understanding and interpreting the text is relegated to merely agreeing with those in your own circle. Being dependent on and conscious of the Spirit is not mysticism, but neither is it merely compliance to “walk the denominational line.”
Celebrity Pastors are not Interpretive Mediators
Protestants tout the priesthood of all believers only to establish interpretive intermediaries in the form of prominent pastors. This isn’t a railing against the God-ordained role or leadership of the pastor, but it is a call for all believers to hold the meaning of scripture as it is over the meaning of scripture as it is explained by mortal men. Sermons, blogs, commentaries, study Bibles, and books from honorable pastors are all helpful tools, but they are not the final authority on biblical interpretation.
The Elephant in the Process
Biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency are a part of the evangelical checklist. Add to that a call for exposition and faithfulness to the text. But we ourselves are the elephant in the process. We are more prone to herald what D.A. Carson says scripture is saying than to wrestle all night for the blessing of the honeycomb to our souls. We tend to blindly approach the text with our denominational slant without even a thought that perhaps…just perhaps…we are wrong. The result is an arrogant posture that a John Mellencamp song captures.
Handing out verses of scripture like we wrote it down ourselves
This is not a call to be timid in proclaiming the authority of scripture, but to realize that we are not that authority. Actually, a posture of humility rather than arrogance better represents a healthy respect for the word of God. Being aware of the degree that context and the role of the Spirit are neglected while the perspective of a favorite pastor and our own biases take the lead can help us develop humility. That humility actually cultivates an interpretive posture where spiritual people can understand and communicate spiritual things to others who are spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:10-13).
There is no shortage of blogs, articles, sermons, status updates, or tweets on any given spiritual topic. In fact, everyone seems to be an authority when it comes to “rightly dividing the word of truth.” The greek and hebrew scholars seem to disagree with the Old Testament and New Testament Scholars respectively. The Baptists disagree with the Presbyterians. The liberals disagree with the conservatives. Meanwhile, the word of God is treated more like an idol or a storybook than a revelation of God Himself. My point isn’t that there aren’t scriptural, doctrinal, or moral hills to die on; however, that perhaps those hills should be more carefully chosen. There are at least four such hills that need more prayerful consideration than they currently receive.
1. The Hill of Politics
Politics is an already complicated area, which is even more complicated as it relates to interaction with faith. All too easily believers can fall into one camp or another and fail to truly exercise discernment. Does the Christian life really run parallel to a party line? Brennan Manning offers words worthy of consideration.
The anything-goes passiveness of the religious and political Left is matched by the preachy moralism of the religious and political Right. The person who uncritically embraces any party line is guilty of an idolatrous surrender of her core identity as Abba’s Child. Neither liberal fairy dust nor conservative hardball addresses our ragged human dignity.
My intention is not to take a shot at both sides, but to call all believers to be more intentional as they contemplate these various issues. There are weighty matters that need salt and light, yet saltiness and light can only be put into action by the word and the Spirit.
2. The Hill of Preference
Personal preferences have a tendency to be elevated to convictions. What one personally thinks is considered right, while others’ thoughts are vilified. The result in our churches is a mass confusion over what is right, wrong, good, bad, loving, unloving, wise, and foolish. If preferential issues are made convictional issues, then the line between breaking fellowship and establishing distinctions because of practicality is horribly blurred. Such a blurred line prevents the sweetness of community on one hand and the necessity of true contrast on the other. However, if preference is relegated to its rightful place, then both fellowship and diversity can be preserved.
3. The Hill of Orthodoxy
Tradition often finds its place next to the commands of God. The disciples were rebuked by the pharisees for not washing their hands prior to eating (Matthew 15:1-3). On another occasion Jesus had an encounter with a Pharisee who was astounded that He did not perform the ritual washing before dinner (Luke 11:37-38). In each instance Jesus rebuked the Pharisees. In the first He pointed to their elevation of tradition over the commandment of God and in the second He contrasted their external cleansing with their internal wickedness. How have we insisted upon the washing of the hands at the cost of Jesus’ radical “sermon on the mount” purity (Matthew 5:21-48)? Where have we substituted orthodoxy of tradition for the orthopraxy of transformation?
4. The Hill of History
Church history is not equivalent to doctrinal orthodoxy. Certainly church history is worthy of our study, learning, comparison, and application; however, if patristics are used as equivalent to scripture, then we’ve traded sola scriptura for what Luther said, so to speak. When various other authors, or even church fathers, are quoted with the same authority as scripture itself, then we need to take a step back and evaluate our footing.
Make no mistake, there is no follower of Christ without doubt or struggle. Perhaps we should change our posture of arrogant certitude in favor of a more discerning stance. We must more faithfully exercise discernment when it comes to thinking through and interacting with others regarding politics, preferences, orthodoxy, and history. Are there hills to die on? Yes. However, we must redirect our gaze to the hill of calvary, the hill of death, that we might see the call to make lesser hills those of discernment and life.
Christ came for sinners. This truth must not be replaced by the veneer of some posh and polished version of redemption. I fear we’ve so sanitized Christianity that we no longer need grace. In so doing, the appearance of redemption has been substituted for the reality of redemption. Searching the scriptures for Christ’s purpose, taking a glimpse into American church culture, and truly understanding grace can help believers to better grasp the reality of what it means to be redeemed from our iniquities and our damnable attempts at justification by good works.
1. Why Did Christ Come?
Paul makes it clear that Christ came to save sinners.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
In fact, he goes on to connect the mercy he received to the overarching doxological purposes of God. Indeed in Mark’s gospel Christ was rebuked for reclining at table with tax collectors and sinners. In response to this rebuke Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). So, If Christ came to save sinners, why are Christians so obsessed with convincing people to modify their lives rather than having them confess who they already are before a merciful God?
What of love, lust, and loss? What of pride and pain? What of reality? As millions struggle with doubt, sorrow, injustice, and enslavement are we really content to let the bandage of morality treat the patient in need of a heart transplant? Our brokenness qualifies us more than our qualifications ever could (Psalm 51:17). Christ came for sinners!
2. Museum, Hospital, or Mausoleum?
The old adage goes that “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” There is of course a great deal of truth in that statement; however, I submit that the church is actually a mausoleum in the resurrection business. Of course, God does the resurrecting; nonetheless, the church is an instrument in His hands.
Why is it important to draw such a distinction? Because if we understand the true nature of humanity as totally depraved, then the church would not dare to try and reform those “dead in trespasses and sins” when resurrection alone will suffice. The implications of this distinction must not be underestimated. The church culture of reforming behavior instead of trusting the sovereign redeemer is a misguided and futile attempt to manage rebirth. The church must become the spotless bride presented without blemish by the washing with water and the word by Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27). This requires supernatural new birth and ongoing supernatural sanctification.
3. What of Grace?
I may not agree with Brennan Manning on every theological issue, but his understanding of grace is powerful.
This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the Orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.
In the arms of grace we are comforted and frightened, but if we dare embrace it, then we see the beauty and glory of unmerited-scandalous love. Such a grace is indeed equally offensive to the religious and irreligious because neither group can stomach the reality of true freedom, which leads to reckless abandon.
It is entirely too easy to forget Christ’s purpose, lose the proper perspective of the church, and become numb to the scandalous glory of grace. However, simply meditating on these things can help us to reclaim the offensive and beautiful truth that Christ came for sinners.
I’m not easy with confessions and apologies are a serious infringement on my pride. However, in prayerfully considering my actions and attitudes for quite some time, both would seem to be in order. To those who know me, it is no secret that I have a tendency to overcrowd my schedule and life in general. One of the consequences of living that way over an extended period of time is what I now recognize as “compartmental barricading.”
Compartmental barricading (a personal phrase) is defined as completely isolating and ignoring people or situations out of perceived necessity. It sounds like prioritization, but goes much deeper, strains relationships, actually counteracts its own intention, and is ultimately sin. Practically, it is a self-preservation mechanism that allows a person to function without drowning beneath the weight of all the pressure they are under. Relationally, it fails to connect and remain engaged. Emotionally, it is draining and isolating. Spiritually, it is dangerous.
Perhaps a case study will contribute to greater understanding. Imagine a person trying to juggle two jobs, going to school, managing a household, and also trying to maintain personal relationships with family and friends. Inevitably something or someone is going to be neglected. Studying for tests, turning in reports, catching up with loved ones, responding to emails, getting the oil changed, paying the bills, sweeping the floor, devoting time to prayer and studying the Bible, attending church, facilitating meetings, grocery shopping, catching up on office paperwork, having a date night, and writing a paper are all feasible obligations in a twelve hour period. What if most days are just that busy or even more during certain timeframes? You get the idea.
In the wake of “compartmental barricading” lie broken friendships, missed opportunities, personal depression, and lukewarm spirituality. This is not a plea for pity, it is a confession and an apology. I’m extremely vulnerable in this area. Coupled with my introversion and proclivity towards seasonal sullenness this tendency is a struggle I must keep in check.
I can only leave you with lyrics that summarize where I am better than my own words can.
Well I’m trying to fit one in the other
But 7 into 5 don’t go
I’m trying to get along with my brother
But my brother is so hard to know
I don’t want no soul to suffer
But it’s not an easy line to toe
So I’m working on it
Ah working on it
I’m working on it
Yeah…i’m working on it
G.K. Chesterton, in his usual witty manner, once remarked, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” I fear that drawing lines has become a lost art. In this age of skepticism there is little room for reasonable dialogue or honest assertions. Particularly in context of the church, there is a host of hostiles towards Christ and His bride. However, the air of skepticism might actually be the blowing wind of unbelief. Several indicators can help in discerning between the two.
1. When skepticism is only manifested as criticism
Being a little skeptical of the church is understandable because of the multitude of decisions, actions, members, committees, and leaders that have disappointed and wounded. However, when that skepticism only expresses itself as a harsh critical spirit, then there is more at work. The total absence of good will towards Christ’s bride is no mere season of doubt, but rather a symptom of a much deeper issue: unbelief.
2. When skepticism is really masked relativism
There are certainly areas that are more “gray” than others. There is also a difference between maintaining a “neutral” position until you can discern the truth and refusing to assert any truth because you are individualistic and hostile to absolutes of any kind. Eventually, hesitance to draw a line in the sand ceases to be skepticism and reveals the true heart of relativism. Again, the line must be drawn somewhere.
3. When skepticism is continuously marked by hostility
Skeptics raise direct, exposing, and helpful questions. Raising questions and mounting attacks are not the same. Skepticism can aid everyone in better engaging and thinking through the issues at hand; however, if those questions are consistently more like interrogative land mines laid carefully for the destruction of those with differing and firm perspectives, then your skepticism could be a covert unbelief.
4. When skepticism is primarily about superiority
There is something to be said for wrestling through what you believe. In fact, it is wise to ask the hard questions of belief systems that impact every facet of your life. Nonetheless, if the only reason those questions are posed is because you have to be the authority or expert, then you’re actually seeking status instead of truth. What you find in that pursuit is idolatry.
When skepticism is merely about being critical, relativistic, hostile, and superior, then it is likely that the line between it and atheism or agnosticism has been blurred. Of course, I cannot make this judgment for anyone, but the four aforementioned points can help people evaluate their true posture towards Christ, His bride, and His kingdom. If one consistently criticizes without goodwill, refuses to form convictions of any kind, launches constant attacks, and always claims intellectual victory, then the question is not whether or not you are a skeptic, but whether or not you are a Christian.
I’m amazed at the level of condascension and tension prevalent in the debate between competing worldviews. Each side has become quite skilled at drawing the caricatures of their opponents. But beyond the exaggerated features of those with whom we may disagree are the flaws, ambitions, conjectures, and biases that are all too evident, though likely unperceived, in the mirror. A thorough personal examination might help us to understand that despite all of our education, “answers,” and hot air there is still much to learn in general and about intellectual interaction in particular.
1. We all have our own biases
Admittedly, I have a bias towards evangelical Christianity; however, admitting our biases is actually the first step in the right direction of listening, conversing, debating, and learning. If our acknowledgement of bias is merely a pretense, then it is likely that the substance of our belief and the resulting interactions we have will be pretentious. There are no truly neutral or objective perspectives, only people who claim objectivity as they attempt to mask their underlying passions and presuppositions. I can agree that there is a range of lesser to greater, but not a complete absence of bias. The claim of absolute objectivity reveals a bias of believing in personal transcendence. What is your bias?
2. Vitriol can actually signify lack of confidence in your position
Red faces, clenched fists, and cutting words are often actually indicators of insecurity rather than passion. When our arguments have been bested or refuted we will likely resort to rhetoric. If the winds of the argument begin to blow against us, then we face the temptation to employ the straw man and ad hominem fallacies on our opponents. We could also throw in a few generalizations and ultimately only prove that the real point of disagreement is on whether we are the winner rather than if we are right.
3. Let’s be honest, most people aren’t experts in everything
If we were to regard people in general according to their self-acknowledged expertise, then there would be little need for experts at all. It is highly unlikely that a vast majority of people are experts in psychology, philosophy, medicine, literature, foreign policy, geography, music, art, education, theology, science, politics, mechanical issues, ethics, parenting, and numerous other aspects of humanity and society. Have you ever encountered a person who tried to give you a psychological evaluation while they were taking psychology 101? Reading a book (or an article) or taking a one-semester course doesn’t make you an expert on any given subject. I have been in the same field academically and professionally for over a decade and still have so much to learn. Certainly we are free to have and voice our opinions; however, we should humbly realize that those opinions are not synonymous with expertise.
4. Most ideas are just recycled philosophies of old
This is a humbling reality. Have you ever experienced the joy of a new idea only to be deflated by the realization that it wasn’t new after all? Being exposed to a new idea can be an exciting experience. Having a new idea is exhilarating. The unfortunate truth is that many of the new ideas (specifically philosophical in nature) are probably repackaged philosophies of old. It is certainly possible to be an original thinker; however, our vast heritage of ideas should produce humility, diligence, and true creativity instead of intellectual snobbery.
5. Religion is no more a straightjacket than skepticism
The skeptic may be quick to point out that those who have religious beliefs are bound by the philosophical dogma of antiquated superstition. However, those with religious belief could also point out that the skeptic is bound by the philosophical dogma of progressive relativism. The point is that all idea systems should be questioned and neither side has the intellectual high ground. If the only view that refuses to be questioned is the view that demands all other systems of thought be questioned, then that raises a substantial question: why? Alfie Kohn provides a thought provoking and almost haunting answer.
There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us. (The Punishment by Rewards)
Kohn’s point is specifically in regard to the notion that educational paradigms have blindly accepted incentivization. However, the overarching truth remains the same. We should evaluate all ideas, even the ideas of those who claim irrefutable certainty.
So, does intellectual integrity demand neutrality, vitriol, total expertise, arrogance and presumption, or freedom from religious belief? Of course not. These are only the symptoms of intellectuals who take themselves a bit too seriously and have confused intellect with ego. Take a deep breath, be diligent in thought, and engage others with humility. These are the actions of one who possesses confidence, intelligence, and wisdom.
Worldviews and opinions collide. This is an inescapable reality and the notion that everyone and their views can each be equally correct is illogical. However, vitriol is not the way forward in discussing issues and faithfully pursuing truth. How then shall we engage? Christians can navigate a better path forward by engaging biblically, intelligently, and graciously.
Where does the framework with which we engage scripture come from? If we are the originators of the interpretive framework, then don’t we create a cyclical system that just gives us the interpretation we want or already subconsciously had? It seems to me that doing the hard work of rightly dividing the word of truth has to begin with some presuppositions that transcend ourselves if we are going to arrive at a conclusion/interpretation that is more than the product of our opinions and biases.
Everyone approaches issues with presuppositions. Admitting our own biases and being intentional about allowing the scripture to shape our thinking is essential. This leads to perhaps the greatest and simplest element of Christians engaging with others. The Bible is our sufficient, authoritative, and reliable source of truth and must be acknowledged as such. This is not popular; however, it is necessary if we are to transcend the limits of our finite reasoning and the noetic effects of the fall.
In these days of polarized and relativized views, it is unwise for Christians to engage with others uninformed. In addition to being biblically informed (our primary responsibility), we also need to be culturally, scientifically, politically, and philosophically informed. This isn’t to say that those who lack training in philosophy, for example, should not have or voice their opinion. However, before doing so they should be certain that their opinion is more than a reiterated view of a leader or a tired Christian catchphrase.
When Christians articulate their views in a manner that is uninformed they bring needless stumbling blocks to the conversation. Naturally, some will view a Christian’s perspective as inherently uninformed, but this is the unavoidable and joyful call of followers of Christ.
It is quite amazing how simply stating words can spark stark disagreement, anger, and even hatred. It is quite disheartening when Christians articulate their worldview and its implications devoid of the grace that transformed their lives. So, how can Christians disagree, stand for their beliefs, and honor God in the process? Engage graciously.
Admittedly, differing views of scripture will lead to differing views on most issues; however, even in this believers must be gracious in their articulation of defending scripture and all issues shaped from this perspective. Tim Keller offers great advice for finding this balance.
Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) July 22, 2014
Christians don’t have to be ashamed of their confidence in God’s word or the beliefs that this forms. However, they should engage all issues in a manner that is faithful to scripture, well thought out, and gracious to those with whom they engage.
How can God allow unthinkable tragedy? This is a question that flies like a banner over the world, yet is tucked away in the dark corner of Christian triteness. Perhaps it is time to learn a language other than the shallow phrases we often throw around. Perhaps it is time to “reach out to God in the lost language of lament.” What is this mysterious language? Does it have a unique vocabulary and syntax? Juxtaposed to the praise of plastic smiles is the life-soaked reality of worship amidst tears.
However, this language is too often misunderstood and improperly defined. Lament is often regarded as complaint, grumbling, whining, or even sin. Each of these accusations against lament fails to reveal an understanding of the true nature of this language as a sincere expression of worship. Complaints don’t transpose to praise; nor are they considerate of God’s glory or presence. Laments, however, do possess such transpositions and considerations. Psalm thirteen exemplifies this form of worship. The Psalmist opens with the question, how long? After a period of brutal honesty in verses one through four, he shifts to praise in verse five. Throughout the lament, the Psalmist is chiefly concerned with the presence of God. But if lament is not complaining or grumbling, what is it? It is worship, unfettered by facade; and its rediscovery is essential. Lament, simply defined as reaching out to God through our brokenness, is an unrealized form of worship due to scriptural neglect, ecclesiological trends, psychological presuppositions, and cultural factors.
Initially, any idea or notion must be analyzed in light of God’s Word. Scripture guides the faith and lives of believers. However, scripture can be misapplied or misinterpreted, specifically in regards to lament. Imagine a weary saint huddled at the altar and at the end of his rope. As he mutters a weeping prayer, the pastor comes to offer consolation, kneels beside him, and quotes Romans 8:28. What if the troubled individual has just come to pray about a horrific crime committed against a child? While the pastor’s intention may have been consolatory and Romans 8:28 is certainly a precious truth, should this circumstance be treated in such a superficial manner? Such a treatment only scratches the surface of the precious gift that God’s Word is to us.
Unashamedly, Christians must evaluate any theological concept according to scripture. With lament embedded in the title, Lamentations is a book in which Jeremiah reaches out to God in the purview of Jerusalem’s destruction. The apex of the book is not despondent, but hopeful (Lamentations 3 ESV). Despite his brutal honesty in sorrow, Jeremiah also gives voice to his faith, “…but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).
Similarly, the hymnbook of God’s people, Psalms, reveals openness somewhat foreign and possibly forbidden in the culture of typical American evangelicalism. A simple survey through the Psalms leads to the conclusion that hurt can be expressed as praise. In fact, such a survey would reveal that approximately a third of all the Psalms are laments. If this kind of transparent communication to God is overtly found in the word of God, are Christians wise to neglect it?
Christ himself is the ultimate litmus test for lament’s validity. The Christian practice of lament is actually pursuing a person until all our questioning fades into trusting. That person is Christ, quite fluent in the language of lament Himself. Jesus wept (Luke 19:41, John 11:35), agonized (Luke 22:44), prayed for relief (Luke 22:41-42), and questioned the Father (Matthew 27:46). Any definition of worship must be large enough to include the gamut of Jesus’ emotional acts, prayers, and cries. Therefore, our worship language must include lament language.
Second, with lament foundationally established in scripture, the church must consider its own definition and practice of worship. How might our churches respond to Job amidst his suffering? Michael Card has offered a hypothetical response:
Today we would ask Job to leave all these negative emotions at the church door. They are not appropriate to nor do they fit inside the narrow confines of our definition of worship. And so, likewise, those of us who have nothing else to offer but our laments find the door effectively closed in our faces. It cost Job everything to teach us this lesson. It is time we learned it.
Imagine the typical worship experience in a local church. The song leader or praise team is undoubtedly up front and leading the congregation in musical exultation. The first notes ring with crisp enthusiasm and reality soon fades into the background of praise, or at least the appearance of it. Perhaps some eyes are closed, some hands raised, and perhaps some hearts are broken. Should those in the latter category be silenced? As Walter Brueggemann has succinctly stated, “The church has much praise entrusted to it.” This praise is not glib or giddy. Rather, it is “…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Lament provides the lyrics, language, and liberty to worship God in any conceivable circumstance.
Those potential circumstances also exist outside the four walls of the church. As Job fell down, shaved his head, and worshipped there was no stained glass and no praise chorus; there was pain. Are hospital rooms, accident scenes, or funerals precluded from worship? The church seems to have marketed and monopolized worship in such a way that pain and everyday life are marginalized. Lament is neglected and so are those who can find no acceptable way to reach out to God in their hurt. L. Gregory Jones provides an honest examination of how churches handle those who are facing death. His introductory premise is that we are better equipped to handle funerals than to care for the dying. His conclusion is that we be “people of lament and hope rather than complaint and optimism.” Therein lie the two opposite sides of the ecclesiological spectrum. Lament is often scorned as complaint or displaced by a cursory optimism in the church. However, at the center of this hypothetical spectrum is the painful, honest, liberating, and worshipful process of biblical lament. The church’s trend of chiding and relegating this means of worship is itself a lamentable act.
Furthermore, the psychological implications of lament are noteworthy. Christians need to deal with loss, depression, anxiety, stress, disappointment, and anger in a biblical way. The human condition is fallen, prone to wander, and apt to despair. The typical consensus on grief is that it comes in stages. This theory basically posits that once tragedy hits we will eventually work our way through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. While this notion of stages may be helpful and even accurate in some cases, it is not the universal norm for grieving. The trouble is that like an overfilled file cabinet, it cannot remain closed indefinitely. Is there an easier way to deal with the pain? No. Is there a better way? Yes. Lament gives us the permission to deal with our spiritual or practical neuroses in conversation with God. Such a conversation guides us through the pain, however it may manifest itself, with an infinitely loving companion.
Unfortunately, along with painful circumstances comes the temptation to either rewrite orthodox doctrine or abandon faith. The sovereignty of God or the goodness of God can seem mutually exclusive when facing trials. However, lament guides the relational dialogue between those who are hurt and God. Randall M. Christenson, M.D., testifies to the merit of lament, particularly seen in the Psalms, in dealing with depression:
The authors in their laments in Psalm 31 and Psalm 102 describe intense distress and anguish similar to the symptoms of modern clinical depression. They go on to lift up their eyes to God and in the process are able to move from “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” to “…hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:11). This offers hope and comfort for those today that are depressed and provides insights to those trying to help them.
Sorrow is a common thread in the tapestry of humanity that only honesty can weave together. In the wake of heartbreaking tragedy we must guard ourselves from being too guarded. Such deception is not the language of the Bible where prophets, kings, disciples, and even the Savior openly express the heights of their joy and the depths of their grief. This is the heart of lament, where through brokenness we reach out to God unfettered by shame, pride, or denial. This kind of transparency frees us to laugh heartily, speak openly, and weep bitterly. The beauty is that God accepts it, and honesty eventually turns tears into praise. The psychological benefits of conceding brokenness, engaging with God, and feeling the transposition to praise would be foolish to ignore.
Additionally, there are possible cultural factors, which contribute to downplaying this biblical practice. Two factors at the forefront of relegating lament are the notion that tears denote weakness and the overarching concept of retributive justice. First, consideration must be given to the prevailing callousness of our time. Do tears signify weakness or are they actually the conduit of a deeper strength? The military veteran who silently suppresses his pain is no stronger than the small child who weeps at the loss of his mother. The church member who suppresses their suffering with a plastic smile is no stronger than the poverty stricken woman who wails in longing for hope. Who in each of these examples is open enough to tap into grace, our deepest strength? Second, the concept of retributive justice still measures all of life’s experiences by the old adage “God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked.” But this adage is insufficient in light of Job’s theme and, more importantly, the gospel itself. American culture employs the jeremiad, a sermon that explains suffering as divine payback for sin, and this frames the prevailing understanding of pain. If pain is improperly understood, then it will be improperly handled. So, ironically, pseudo-strength and works-righteousness serve as grievous detours from the true path of dealing with grief.
Moreover, lament must be considered personally rather than merely as a theological, psychological, or cultural hypothesis. God’s people must consider each of these facets of dealing with grief; however, they must also realize the impact on their own lives and the lives of all those they impact. Allow me to briefly engage in such a reflection. Personally, instead of a cascade reaction, grief tends to accumulate until it bursts forth in a spurt of depression. The reality of the pain is present; but because of a hectic schedule, masculine pride, and a church culture that lends itself to burying our true hurt, I file it away with the label “do not open.” I remember the irony of portraying strength and offering comfort despite my own inner turmoil during my grandmother’s eulogy. Though my outward composure betrayed any evidence to the contrary, inside, a tsunami of grief was making landfall on my heart. At the time, I dismissed it by placing it in a sterile folder, filing it away, and locking the cabinet of my pain. Can tsunamis really be filed away?
As I lose loved ones, face insecurities, endure wrongs from others, and wrestle with my weaknesses I find ways to hide the hurt. However, despite my efforts to conceal, it accumulates like a thundercloud until it’s all unleashed. Inevitably, some catalyst (a song, a sermon, a conversation, or a memory) will strike the chord of release and the facade of my composure results in an emotional downpour. Lament would have granted me an opportunity to know the nearness of God that only tears can afford. Perhaps my own transparency will serve as a catalyst for introspection. The potential for praise, revival, spiritual healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption among the body of Christ is too high to neglect personal consideration of the biblical concept of lament.
Those who are hurting must flee to the Scriptures because powerful prayers are available. Flee to the Savior, because this man of sorrows is acquainted with grief and able to empathize in the truest sense of the word. Flee to the Father, because in Him is found loving-kindness beyond belief. But do not flee from hurt, because doing so prevents the painful and healing journey of lament. Overall, the outcome of lament is not an “answer,” but a better question. Psalm 13 hinted at it. While we begin by asking “why,” lament guides us to asking “where”? Where is God in this? He is there. He is tender. So, instead of throwing around clichés, use the language of lament and let “why” become “where.” In the final analysis, lament is scripturally undergirded, ecclesiologically mischaracterized, psychologically underestimated, and culturally relegated. Meditate on God’s word, evaluate the practices of the church, consider the mental benefits, and cast aside the cultural stigmas.
This biblical practice should be embraced personally and corporately. Easy answers, superficial advice, predetermined stages, and formulas will not be forthcoming; however, the presence and grace of God will abound. Life, culture, and even the local church might protest the brutal honesty required to reach out to God. But lament can endure such a protest and faithfully persist that His presence and grace are enough to see us through the deepest possible pain. Ultimately, the issue is settled in Christ because in Him we find the incarnation and resolution of all tears.
 Randall M. Christenson “Parallels between depression and lament.” Journal Of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61, no. 4 (December 1, 2007): 299-308. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost: 306 (accessed October 7, 2013).
Calvinism is an extremely debated theological system that emphasizes the sovereignty of God in salvation. This system explains the means and order of salvation in a biblically faithful manner; however, it is not salvation. As I think about the caricatures that are thrust upon Calvinists, I’m reminded of the wisdom of not wearing Calvinism on my sleeve. Since a caricature does have some resemblance of reality, it is important to have patience with those who are still developing their theological beliefs, to understand the concept “theological triage,” and to be gracious about grace.
Sometimes Christians can forget about important questions of theological formation. How long does it take one to arrive at their settled theological convictions? Should time be allowed for intense study of the word of God? Of course time and study don’t necessarily lead to Calvinistic soteriology; however, if we are honest, patience may be lacking as we engage with people on this topic who simply haven’t had time to study it out. Furthermore, it is unlikely that we will definitively settle a theological issue that has been debated by scholars for centuries.
What issues of theology are primary and which are peripheral? This leads to what Al Mohler describes as “theological triage.” Mohler states, “A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency that would correspond to the medical world’s framework for medical priority.” I submit that Calvinism, while directly and indirectly important, is not urgent. When it is presented as urgent, it is actually out of its theological place within the triage framework and Calvinists earn their caricatures as truly urgent theological issues are bypassed.
Unfortunately, Christians (specifically Calvinists) have at times been quite ungracious about grace. This is antithetical and unacceptable. My advice is to lose the snark, the arrogant edge, and the condescension. Let’s proclaim the sovereign grace of God graciously!
As we have opportunities to share the gospel and discuss theological issues, wisdom should incline our hearts and mouths to engage with patience, assign appropriate urgency, and model the grace we proclaim. This is why I don’t wear Calvinism on my sleeve.
Surely our faith goes deeper than bumper stickers, testa-mints, and family friendly movies. This begs an important question. Can we really get people to buy into what was freely given? The notion that we may have turned the cross of Christ into another product, the house of God into another business, and the people of God into another corporation is a haunting thought. Marketable Christianity is an unfortunate reality that demands the evaluation of our dependence upon the gospel and some tough questions.
Dependence on the Gospel
In the land of the American Dream the concept of reckless abandon for the cause of Christ seems foreign and our tendency is to gradually, but persistently, adapt the radical message of the gospel with the cultural climate in which we live. In this way we think ourselves clever by marketing the message of Christ to a greater audience. However, the danger of making the message marketable is that you also eventually make it meaningless. When we commercialize Christianity it’s just another “expensive ad for something cheap” (quoted phrase by Caedmon’s Call).
The reality of the gospel is true, powerful, cutting, and transforming whether it’s presented in American megachurches or the caves of China. As evangelicals spend billions on bigger buildings, technological advances, and entertainment driven programs, our brothers and sisters around the world must wonder if the Christ they know and the one we market are one and the same. We desperately need to consider the logical gospel ends to our methodological means. If we truly want to see the genuine conversion of a generation who will relentlessly follow Christ no matter what, then how might we think through the design of our marketed version of Christianity?
To varying degrees, we are all blinded to our own level of cultural compromise. There are tough questions to be asked and answered and we would do well to give them much thought. If the message of Christ were truly marketable, then why did thirty coins bury Him and His betrayer?
Questions for pondering:
- Could the money we spend on buildings and programs be better allocated for global gospel causes?
- Have we thought and prayed through the long-term effects of the way we do church?
- In all of our programs is Christ seen as the central purpose or is He overshadowed by our clever “programming”?
- Does the method of our message point people towards the radical cost of following Christ or does it make it appealing and easy to follow?
If we adjust the message of Christ, trade authenticity for relevance, and emphasize numbers at the expense of faithfulness, then what might the long-term results be? Is it possible that we create a shallow experience-based faith that will crumble when the false expectations of “Christ” and “Church” that have been presented don’t pan out? Of course there is room for innovation, imagination, and creativity. But the cost of marketing overshadowing the cross is losing the pearl of great price for the mere appearance of gain.