It Is A Gracious and Loving Father They Need To Know

Confessional orthodoxy coupled with a view of a heavenly Father whose love is conditioned on his Son’s suffering, and further conditioned by our repentance, leads inevitably to a restriction in the preaching of the gospel. Why? Because it leads to a restriction in the preacher that matches the restriction he sees in the heart of God! Such a heart may have undergone the process that Alexander Whyte described as “sanctification by vinegar.” If so, it tends to be unyielding and sharp edged. A ministry rooted in conditional grace has that effect; it produces orthodoxy without love for sinners and a conditional and conditioned love for the righteous.

In the nature of the case there is a kind of psychological tendency for Christians to associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear-not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys. After all, preaching is the way in which they publicly and frequently “hear the Word of God.” But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father. When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of the discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know.

 Sinclair Ferguson, “The Whole Christ” pg 72

True Colors

The truth is, the crook in the lot is the great engine of Providence for making men appear in their true colours, discovering both their ill and their good. And if the grace of God is in them, it will bring it out, and cause it to display itself. It so puts the Christian to his shifts, that however it makes him stagger for awhile, yet it will at length evidence both the reality and the strength of grace in him. “You are in heaviness through manifold temptations, that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, may be found unto praise.” 

Thomas Boston, “The Crook in the Lot”

Facebook Is Not For Kids

Many parents, like myself I imagine, are leery of their children growing up. And at this point in our world, at least in America, growing up means more than hormones, the opposite sex and the struggle of identity pursuing and finding explorations and “rebellions.” It’s the pursuit of recognition and conformation by the “popular,” a collision of a need to stand out (radical individualism) and blending in; the need to stand out in a peer group that has been identified as the “in-crowd” while simultaneously losing oneself in the membership of the crowd; all played out on a digital stage before the “literal” world of a teens existence. It is that very need to be on display while finding meaning and affirmation of that being on display as a member of the “in-crowd.” This is the modern context of teenage angst that as a parent concerns me the most. Because social media, the often overlooked liturgies of the modern rite of passage, the cellphone, bring to the fore the “on display” aspect with an immediacy and ubiquity that even sleep can’t rescue you from.

James Smith succinctly describes my own concerns for my children and intuitions regarding social media. He explains,

The universe of social media is a ubiquitous panopticon. The teenager at home does not escape the game of self-consciousness; instead she is constantly aware of being on display—and she is regularly aware of the exhibition of others. Her twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be “on,” to be “updating” and “checking in.” The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with the fanciful forms in a sketch pad. More pointedly, she loses any orientation to a project. Self-consciousness is the end of teleology.

James K. A. Smith, “Imagining the Kindom: How Worship Works pg 145-146

Just say no and help your child learn how to be in the world before they become part of the world. Because self-consciousness is the end of purpose.

Assured Though Ill

I remember sitting in a psychiatric hospital so spun I could barely stay awake, let alone be contemplative, yet never once did a denial of my heavenly Father enter my mind. I never lost sight of the object of my faith. And I was assailed by doubt…constantly in fact. And as tenuous as it might have been, I found assurance and comfort knowing that I rested in the embrace of my savior. Knowing that I was kept by his promises (John 17:12) with an infallible assurance that rested upon a covenant keeping God, not an oath-breaking man, one of whom I was all too acquainted with. Bipolar disorder and PTSD have shown me unambiguously that I can have assurance nowhere else than in union with Christ. Neither keeping the law out of fear of condemnation and damnation nor a cheap grace that leaves no room for repentance or piety, but in my grasping hold of my savior, rejoicing in the Law as manifest evidence of my Fathers care and love for me as his child. Because I can do nothing else but acknowledge my guilt, rejoice in the grace of God, and display my gratitude, my love of the law and my savior by keeping his commandments.

This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3

My question was always, “How can I gain assurance?” What can I do to settle my restless spirit? But what I found and where I found it was in a love for the law of the Lord and a burgeoning grievance with lawlessness and sin. Because lawlessness is hatred of the Law and by consequence of the Lord. And it is here that my assurance, and I would hazard a guess, the assurance of others, began to tremble. For as my sin grew, my hatred of his Law grew; pleasure and pain inexorably dampened and nearly extinguished my love of God. I was a wretched man who didn’t believe that God had any desire to set me free (Romans 7:24) That the gospel could find no purchase in my heart, which was constantly assailed by doubt. While the enemy stole my joy, in my despair I agreed with him.

But if I have learned one thing it is that true faith produces a true love of the Law of the Lord. The love of his Law bears the fruit of repentance and piety in my life. My assurance is founded on this, for none of that is possible apart from my union with Christ. Paul clarified that it is not a “what” but a “who” that cannot separate us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:33-39). Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way:

Paul is not asking: “What can be against us? What charge can be brought against us? What can condemn us? What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Rather, his questions are: “Who…? Who…? Who…? Who…?” Satan, not circumstances, is in his crosshairs. It is the face of all Satan’s attempts to mar it that Paul enjoys the assurance that Christ keeps his people secure.

Sinclair Ferguson, “The Whole Christ” page 221

I have spent years chasing the white rabbit of assurance by works down through every warren it fled to. I have spent years broken and weighed down by a frantic repentance based on the fear of God’s judgement and wrath. I was fearful that my sin and pitiful works, what I now recognize as legalism, would disqualify me from receiving the benefits that belong to those in Christ. But I was afraid because I hated his law. I lived as an antinomian but I tortured my conscience as a failed legalist. In basing my assurance upon a fearful keeping of the law, yet living my life without regard to the law I was lawless and showed God nothing but hatred, casting his love for me and the savior that died for me back into his face. But now I can say with Paul,

25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Romans 7:25-8:10, English Standard Version

Who’s Afraid of Empathy?

Are we a society of narcissists? Without a doubt. And are we a people afraid of guilt and shame? More than most. Would we rather commiserate with our own misery than take the outstretched hand of others? Plainly. It is astronomically easier to “grin and bear it” than it is to admit weakness. And on account of this, we hide behind excuses like “you wouldn’t understand” or “you’ve never walked in my shoes” or “you’re not me, so stop trying to understand.” And we count on people’s lack of empathy to be a cover for our apathy, anger, suffering, guilt and shame for any number of things or conditions. We rely on others not being capable of empathy because it allows us to reject their compassion as patronizing and condescending; allowing us to continue in our misery. And we’re often right. The absence of empathy can often lead to the misconstrual of suffering as sin, conflating illness with culpability leading to the misdiagnosis of mental illness and other psychological disorders as solely existing in simple categories of sin and spiritual rebellion.

I’ve done those things and I’ve made those excuses in defending my misery by declaring the absence of empathy, I cursed those I said I loved with the ability to empathize with me.

But does that make empathy the poison pill in the caring of others, an infection that no amount of antiseptic can cleanse? I don’t think so. Empathy is certainly not a positive skill; it isn’t something you set out to learn, isn’t something you possess apart from prior experience, empathy is a fruit of pain and is never acquired through anything other than suffering, it’s an irreducible consequence of the fall. Empathy is the practice of suffering with others through common experience, an experience that is shared not by choice but by circumstance. To empathize should not be a therapeutic goal but understood as the result of human suffering in this present evil age. Empathy is an accidental skill born of stumbling through a fallen world. But it is real. That we might share the sufferings of others, though it may and often leads to more effective treatment, is not something to celebrate but lamented because more people suffer. Though as with Joseph, what his brothers intended for ill, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20), the pain and suffering were still pain and suffering. Joseph did not suffer in order to receive comfort from the Lord, but the Lord comforted him and guarded his steps through his suffering.

Empathy is not a qualification for authentic compassion yet neither can it exist apart from the instinct of compassion. Compassion is sympathy “for” not “with”, to have sympathies “with” is to have empathy because you have or are suffering or experiencing alongside them. To say “I have suffered as you have suffered” is not a negative. It’s beneficial to the sufferer, as long as it is true. An experiential affinity for another’s pain is not a hindrance to compassion but an often essential ingredient for fellowship. It is a way for us to turn our pain to blessing in the lives of others in pain.

Compassion without empathy cannot operate healthily apart from a marriage with compassion. It is my shared experience that can gain me entrance into the heart of the afflicted, yet the goal remains that help is found outside of us. Empathy alone leaves us as destitute as we were to begin with, but coupled with a compassion that uses empathy as the first step outside of oneself, it is resoundingly effective.

And I’m not writing this in a vacuum. I speak as a person stricken with mental illness, an affliction regardless of my culpability. And in spite of realizing that I can use my suffering in the service of others, it is a suffering that I desperately wish that I could banish from my life, despite the window it gives me into the pain of others. But it isn’t a window that, given the choice, that I would leave open, not even a crack.

But this doesn’t make empathy without merit or necessarily insidious by nature. I don’t demand that those who counsel me suffer in the same way that I do. In fact, I rarely want them to. I know well how I feel, though it can get lost in translation. But there are also those times when the fellowship of those with like afflictions can be a reminder I’m not alone, that there are people out there like me that I don’t have to explain myself to be understood. That in itself, can be cathartic. Because it can become incredibly exhausting to always have to explain your pain.

Humility With A Sledgehammer

My wife recently said something to me I, in my often navel gazing regarding mental and spiritual issues, had either disregarded or never entertained. She pointed out that for her, living with my mental illness made living out her vows a struggle because of my often unpredictable behavior and their sinful consequences. It put in stark contrast how I thought my problems had affected her and how they actually had. It reminded me that though not sinful in itself, my mental instability, if not lived in the constant presence of the promises of God fulfilled in Christ, my life is a wild car chase careening into a crowd of people. And that crowd is foremost my family by blood and by confession.

Mental illness is a peculiar affliction. It’s almost impossible to inoculate against, is explosive in its effects and gives no quarter; as unpredictable as a Norse Berserker and as merciless as the worst tyrant. And it teaches humility with a sledgehammer; sowing chaos beyond those close to the afflicted, extending to everyone in the vicinity like an emotional claymore.

Whether it’s bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or any other of the multitude of varying conditions, there is always an opportunity to glorify God and enjoy the comfort of his promises (2nd Peter 1:3-4). Though we should be wary of proffering empty promises of mystical comfort; mantras of peace, peace when there is no peace. But we have liberty in Christ to know and claim the promises of God for our own comfort. And it gives meaning to our suffering. And it enables our suffering to acquire purpose without claiming it as a blessing. Instead, it gives substance to the comfort we receive that we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy (Romans 8:18-28).

And the effects it can have on the spouses and children of those with mental illness is often overlooked because of the plainly obvious struggles of those who, like me, live with the constant companion of an often unpredictable condition that can build resistances to both medication and cognitive remedies. It becomes a stumbling block in the pursuing fidelity of vows to spouse and God we have made in the midst of his holy assembly.

Mental illness isn’t just something I deal with, but something that my family deals and to a lesser immediate degree, my church deals with. It isn’t just a spiritual condition that can be remedied through prayer and contrition. Nor is it merely a medical phenomenon that can be dealt with by a regime of medication and therapy. It takes both spiritual salves and the utilization of common gifts we have received through medical science.

Who Owns the Future?

As a definition, this take on what it means to be a “progressive” takes the wind out of the sails of social liberals, challenging their claim that, in tattooing “progressivism” across their chests, they own the moral/metaphysical high ground of today and tomorrow.

9780801039348-e1528300425939Beneath the paralysis that keeps many in our culture from giving over their identity to Jesus Christ lies the question about the culture: who owns the future? We live in a context where many people and ideas claim to be “progressive.” Think about it for a moment: the essential point of claiming to be progressive is that one owns the future, that the future is progressing toward the position I hold. So, for example, Barack Obama claims to be progressive, bringing in the way of the future; but likewise, the conservative Tea Party movement could call itself progressive, claiming that the way of the future is not big government programs. Musicians, actors, and others in popular culture claim to be progressive, bringing in the new to outdo the old. In politics and popular, various positions claim to be progressive, which is another way of saying, “I own the future on this issue.”

Yet in view of changing cultures and times, one could begin to have serious doubts about whether we have any sense at all of what it means to be progressive. My generation, Generation X, was told that the future belongs to us. Younger generations are told the same thing. But of course, that’s not really true since every generation has a generation following it. Things that seemed progressive to my generation are likely to seem retrograde the next. At various points in recent history, practices like eugenics and racial segregation were championed as progressive. The fact that they no longer seem progressive to us just shows how much the future is out of our grasp.

J. Todd Billings, “Union with Christ” pg 31-32

The Free Offer

Therefore, God his creator having pity on himhas loved the world, that he has given his only son Jesus Christ, for mediator, patron, advocate, and intercessor between him and man, to reconcile them to him, even when they were his enemies. Wherefore it follows, that he has done this, not having regard to any deserving of man, who neither had nor could deserve but only eternal death, but has only regarded his own goodness and mercy. Wherefore as there is but one only God, creator, governor & conserver of all things, nor any other saviour than he, nor in whom man may trust, nor worship, nor invocate: no more is there likewise but one only mediator Jesus Christ, by whom man may have access to God, and find favour in his sight and recover that which through his own fault has lost.

Pierre Viret