Identity

4671-tree-water It's been 2 years since I stepped down as worship leader of our last church and I have to say it's been the absolute best thing God has done in our lives.  God has revealed the idols in my heart and needless to say is chipping them away.  It is indeed a slow and painful process because I put a lot of years of hard work in to building them.  John Calvin gets credit for one of the best observations ever made in post canon theology. He said, "The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from his mother's womb, expert in inventing idols."

The idols I have created are far too many to name, but I will let you in on one of them.  One of my biggest idols has been identity seeking. Before I was in ministry, I developed a pattern of moving from job to job.  I would be content for 2 or 3 years until I realized it wasn't fulfilling enough.  Instead of sticking it out and enduring the trials I was facing which usually centered around my relationships with superiors, I opted for lateral movement hoping something would click inside and I would settle down.  After being laid off from a company after 8 years of employ, I bounced around some more all the while thinking that my musical gifts had to be the ticket to escaping this volatile existence.  I thought that once I became a vocational worship leader that my heart would be filled, that my identity would be fulfilled. Many good folks along the way were enablers to maintaining the sheen of this idol.  Anytime someone complimented something I did or a song I performed, my idol was being polished. It wasn't their intent, but I was more than willing to let them.  I wish I could say my motivation behind serving in the church has always been to lead people to Christ, but mostly it has been done to lead people to myself. 

As a worship leader, I soon realized the frustration in securing my idenity through my career.  The biggest problem in finding your identity in anything other than Christ is that there is always opposition. There is no clear path to finding yourself in this world or anything in this world apart from Jesus.  You discover the opposition comes from other identity seekers like the people you work with and those you work for. The evolutionary theory almost seems plausible as the larger egos win out in a spiritual survivor of the fittest. 

I struggled mightily behind the scenes trying to reconcile my identity with the self-image I created. Thankfully the fork in the road arrived prior to the breaking point. Through wise counsel, I took the honest path which seemed to lead through the forest of uncertainty, while the disingenious path looked clear and comfortable. Now, here I am 2 years later and not where I expected to be. In fact, I would have fought this path tooth and nail 5 years ago.

Someone asked me recently if I enjoyed my job.  I told him that I don't enjoy what I do,  but I have more joy in the midst of what I'm doing if that makes any sense.  I want a life like that tree in Psalms, the one planted by the stream.  Though it's leaves wither, the tree never dies. It flourishes in all seasons. That's my desire, to not only weather the conditions of each seasonal turn, but to flourish in fruit-bearing joy. That is the identiy I long for.

We can or we Kant?

FriendsKant
There is an episode from
the hit sitcom "Friends" where Joey and Phoebe are engaged in a philosophical debate about good deeds.  Joey doesn't believe in any selfless deeds, in other words, when you do something good, then you will feel good for doing it thus making it a "selfish" act.  Phoebe disagrees and sets out to do nice things for Joey without being "happy " about it.  In the end, Phoebe is proven wrong as she donates money to a charity only to end up feeling good about it. 

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, asserted that the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive
any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is 'disinterested.' We
should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or
reward corrupts the act. 

In other words, if we get any pleasure from doing good deeds or obeying God's commands, then we are selfish and it's not truly a good deed in the highest sense.  In Kant's view, there is a higher level of morality in doing things minus enjoyment. 

This philosophy does not ring true in the scriptures however as we read "delight in the law of the Lord" and "God loves a cheerful giver".  It is amazing how philosophies of long ago can infiltrate our thinking as Christians.  Recently, someone came to the church where I work to request benevolence.  Since this is a common occurrence, I often hear stories that accompany such requests.  Some testimonies are very creative in their content, while others I've heard many times.  This particular woman told of health issues and how she needed assistance.  My initial feeling was that I didn't need to hear the story this woman would tell because I was going to help her anyway.   My job is not to determine if her story makes her worthy of assistance, my "job" is simply to help her. 

It would be easy to make Christianity our "job".  It would seem natural to make things like church attendance and tithing our Christian "duty".   Immanuel Kant would definitely view Christianity that way because to him Christianity was merely an expression of some universal morality.  In other words, any religion can serve the purpose of "doing good" in the world thus it doesn't matter what you believe about God as long as morality is achieved.  The problem with this view, however,  is that the question of being right with God goes unanswered and truth becomes relative. 

Thankfully, being a Christian runs deeper and more eternally significant than morality.  Submission and obedience to God shouldn't look different than submission and obedience in a marriage.  Marriage, for example, is God's parable to show us what Christianity is supposed to be about.  When you please your spouse there is also a sense of pleasing yourself in the process.  What kind of marriage is built on mere duty?  Valentine's Day is coming up and what kind of love is it where a husband buys flowers for his wife because it's his duty? Does he commemorate such days to avoid the misery his spouse will enact upon him in the coming days?  Oh sure, a man does these things often to avoid pain, but wouldn't it be better if he simply embraced the joy he feels when he pleases his wife?  Should he feel guilty for "feeling good" when he loves his wife?  What about sexual intimacy?  Should a spouse attempt to satisfy the other devoid of his own satisfaction? How preposterous is that?

And while 1 Corinthians 13 reveals that true love "seeks not it's own", we shouldn't interpret that to mean that we should avoid pleasure of any kind when we love others.  There is an old saying that describes love as an action not a feeling.  On the surface it seems logical, except that it's not true.  In fact, true love always involves feelings.  The better saying would be that "love is not just a feeling but rather a feeling that actively expresses itself."  As John Piper passionately puts it, "Love is not a bare choice or mere act. It involves the affections.  It does not just do the truth.  Nor does it just choose the right.  It rejoices in the way of truth."

So when Paul says "love does not seek out it's own", he's not saying "don't seek joy in loving others". Rather, he's saying don't seek selfish gain that is a "gain" that is impure.  As Piper points out, there must be two kinds of "gain" because earlier in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul provides a list of "deeds" and informs us that without love "he gains nothing" in performing these deeds.  So Paul is not against seeking "gain" for ourselves in the performing of loving acts.  He is trying to teach us that God honoring deeds are loving acts motivated by feelings of joy!

When the lady I mentioned earlier told me her story of health problems
and great financial need, I was overcome with feelings of compassion.
Yes, feelings!  I still don't know if she was telling the truth, yet in
that moment, I knew she needed compassion and I wanted to help her. 
Afterward, I felt good that I helped her (with someone else's
resources), and I felt good that I was compassionate.  But later, I
felt like Phoebe Buffay did at the end of the show. That somehow, my
deed was worthless because I felt good about myself. After much thought, I realized my deed would have been worthless in the eyes of God if I had performed it out of mere duty.  But wait! Kant would say, "it doesn't matter how you felt because the woman was helped when you gave her a food card."  In retrospect, and as a rebuttal, I would say that this particular woman didn't need a food card, she needed to experience compassion! She needed someone to "feel" compassionate for her!  We all do.

What are the practical implications?  First, we need to shed the cloak of guilt for seeking pleasure.  Next, we need to seek pleasure in the things God commands us to do and realize that feelings are not only acceptable but God-pleasing.  As Paul states "love rejoices in all things and hopes in all things".  These are feelings.  Love does not perform Christian service out of dutiful feelings.  It's not love in that case.  If I give money to the church from a sense of duty or superstition, then it really would be better that I don't at all. God will not bless dutiful giving.  (now, I'm sure your Pastor would rather you give money to the church whether you want to or not)  

Finally, we need to recognize God as the ultimate pleasure we seek!  Psalm 16:11 tells us "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

We need to let go of the Kantian philosophy that Christianity and morality are equals.  Christianity is more like "base jumping" than morality.  True Christianity is for thrill-seekers of all ages because it is a pursuit of God!  The joy is robbed when we replace the glory of God with our own righteousness because Christianity that is practiced from mere duty is not Christianity at all.

Where does your Gospel lead?

Road
I have written much about gospel lately, so much so that someone asked me the other day what I meant by gospel.  Ah yes, gospel. Yet another word from our Christian heritage that hasn't so much lost it's meaning as it's direction.  In other words, gospel is rightly defined as "good news", but there seems to be much confusion as to what IS good news especially on the evangelical landscape.   Evangelicalism as a whole is increasingly more generic everyday.  It's generic in the sense that the things that make Biblical Christianity distinct from the wisdom of our present day culture are absent or at best blurred in understanding.  The gospel has suffered as a casualty of this Christian consumerism.

When I say the gospel has lost it's direction, I believe that it is a failure on the part of mainstream evangelicalism to protect the gospel in it's zeal to disperse it.  I don't question the motives or the passion of many evangelicals in their quest to fulfill the great commission, in fact, I appreciate that the gospel "seed" is not merely cast down on the rocky ground without the passion and careful sowing that God requires of us.  I appreciate that evangelism isn't reduced to "tract planting".  But in our effort to reach the lost, have we been reckless in communicating what God says the the gospel is?  As someone who is in the ministry, and as someone who reads many philosophical viewpoints and attends ministry conferences and has candid conversations with others who have chosen the ministry as their vocation, I find myself asking the tell-tale question, "where does our Gospel lead?". I believe the answer will reveal "what" we believe the gospel to be. 

When asked, I have always defined the gospel with the stock answer that Jesus came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again so that I could be saved.  But I believe this answer is a thumbnail picture of a larger image.  It's not to say that the answer is untrue, but it is not the full view.  Indeed. I could talk about how the gospel is not only about our personal forgiveness or the securing of our eternal destiny.  I could point out that it is also about the "Kingdom at hand" as Jesus preached.  I could mention that it's about all the nations being brought under the ruler ship of Christ.  I could say that it involves world peace and the eradication of evil.  I could say all of these things are gospel, and I wouldn't be wrong.  The question is not only one of what, but where. 

Get God, or something from God?

I think it's safe to say that to many, the gospel leads them to the effects of the gospel as being their ultimate satisfaction.  As an example, the gospel I heard in my baptist church growing up was that the reason to believe in Christ was so that you could escape an eternal lake of fire equipped with gnashing of teeth and maggots crawling on your face.  Sadly, this "gospel" did not lead to Christ, it led to fear.  It led to a pursuit of safety.  Matt Chandler of the Village Church says "Heaven is not for those who want to escape hell, it's for those who love Christ."   As a result of this "gospel", there are many who experience a half dozen conversions hoping the last one will "take" and they won't wake up the next morning in a cold sweat thinking they've been "left behind".  I want to tell you, this is no gospel!  In fact, I feel a tremendous burden for those raised in this environment, because it's akin to a brainwashing that never completely goes away.

There are other examples where the gospel that people hear leads them to making the effects their ultimate satisfaction.  There's the gospel that drives people to dream about heaven.  Now that sounds good on the surface, but there are people who literally shut down in this life so they can get to the next one.  They cease "upkeep" on the little house they live in the suburbs because they're waiting for their "mansion" in the next life.  Instead of the prospect of seeing Christ, they're more excited about seeing their deceased loved ones.  Christ is like a bonus to them.  A Biblical gospel should drive us to a pursuit of Christ where He is valued above everything including our family!  Actually, a reunion with our loved ones in heaven is the bonus!  John Piper asks the tough question, "if you arrived in heaven and found out Jesus wasn't there, would that be okay with you."?

Speaking of our temporal home, often our earthly circumstances become the "where" of the gospel.  This is most prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism and I understand why.  Americans, especially, are chasing the pursuit of happiness, after all, that is one of our great American doctrines isn't it?  So there is a segment of Christianity that equates personal fulfillment/improvement with the Gospel. It doesn't seem a stretch to say that God wants to make you better. Does it?   Biblically speaking, what is a "better you" anyway?  Is it someone who is successful as our culture defines it?  I contend that "a better you" is someone like the Apostle Paul was slowly and methodically becoming every day.  His "improved self" was characterized by the choices of "sharing Christ's sufferings" or martyrdom.  Either way, His gospel, worked out, led directly to Christ.  Paul wasn't concerned with raising his self-esteem, in fact he was concerned with dying to self-esteem.  As nice as it is to have more money, a dependable car, and warm body to lie next to each night, these things don't lead to Christ. They are temporal.  They are but mere foretastes of greater joy and so I thank God for these earthly blessings, but I pray that they do not become ultimate in my life. 

There are many wonderful effects of the gospel.  However, we should never let the effects be where the gospel lead us, nor should we define our natural desires as gospel effects.  So many of us value the gifts of the Creator above the Creator Himself. As Piper puts it "if the Gospel doesn't lead to Christ, then it is no gospel at all."  So when we realize that the true Biblical gospel is one that leads to Christ, our gospel definition is supplied for us.  The Gospel is Christ.  That's why salvation isn't escape from hell and entrance into heaven, although these things are included, but rather a pursuit of Christ as the ultimate treasure of our lives!  This is the Gospel we should be pursuing, the one we should be preaching, and the one we should be living and dying for!