Struggle and the Christian Life

ID-100226684In his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” C. S. Lewis reflects that an advantage to reading old books is that they can help us question aspects of our own outlook that we might otherwise take for granted. Every age has its own assumptions that form part of the taken-for-granted background of how we think. While we can’t eliminate the biases that come from our own temporal context, we can achieve some level of objectivity through exposing ourselves to writers from the past. That is why reading old books is a way to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

This is also a reason I find it helpful to study other cultures. The more I read the work of anthropologists and cultural psychologists, the more I’m coming to see that many of the attitudes, practices, and patterns of thinking that I consider to be normal are actually symptoms of my own particular culture.

This post is about one particular assumption I’ve held for most of my life but which has recently been challenged through my studies in cross-cultural psychology.

Is Will-Power Good or Bad?


“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

Let go and let God?

Have you ever been told by a well-meaning evangelical that the way to achieve a victorious Christian life is to “Let go and let God” or “stop trying and start trusting”?

As a teenager, I remember being given this advice by people who were eager to help me achieve Christian victory over sin. “Stop struggling against your flesh”, they would say. “Whenever you’re struggling, that simply proves you’re trying to overcome sin in your own strength rather than in God’s strength. Sanctification has got to be a God-thing, not a man-thing.”

Grammar Matters


Gospel: noun or verb?
Here’s a question that ought to be simple. Is Gospel a noun or a verb? I trust you answered, “A noun.”  Gospel is a noun just like news is a noun.  The Gospel is announced just like news is announced. You don’t do Gospel, you tell Gospel; you don’t obey news, you spread news. So Mark says Jesus “went into Galilee, to proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). When we turn to Acts, we see the early church, according to Luke, proclaiming/telling/teaching/announcing/and testifying to the good news of Jesus.  OK, this part is simple.

However, the next part is not so simple. If we agree that Gospel is a noun, why do we keep trying to turn it into a verb? These days, doing (a verb) all sorts of things is Gospel. Doing justice, doing art, doing business, doing pretty much anything, is Gospel.  Last year, a Christian musician intoned, “As long as we are preaching the Gospel with our actions, I think we're fulfilling the Great Commission, which is to go out and make disciples.” Notice, news is reduced to deeds with no seeming recognition that deeds are mute without explanation. It’s important to notice Jesus didn’t simply go about Palestine healing the sick, freeing the demon-possessed, and multiplying loaves for the hungry (which he could have done and by which he could have been perpetually popular). He also went about announcing the kingdom (which made him ultimately unpopular enough to be put to death).  Notice the same pattern, for example, at the end of Acts 4. The church doesn’t simply do good through acts of charity and kindness (which would have likely assured its ongoing popularity) but announces the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (which ensures its unpopularity and consequent persecution a few chapters later). There is something about putting the noun on the table that doesn’t happen when we deal only in verbs.[i]

All this sometimes descends into the ridiculous. Just the other day, I saw a discussion on the web encouraging us to develop a theology of dessert that would provide pastry chefs with a theological framework for their daily labors. When we connect Gospel with dessert making, we’re told with breathless wonder, that we create a taste of the divine. See the pan of tiramisu on your counter that you just made? Gospel.[ii] If baking needs redeeming, perhaps it would be helpful for us to reflect on what it means for an éclair to be fallen in order that it might be redeemed through theological engagement (and Gospel baking, apparently, whatever that might mean).

Why “Gospel” must be a noun
But there is a more serious conversation to be had than simply pondering the mysteries of Gospel baked goods. James Turner’s helpful book, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America[iii] is one helpful guide into that conversation. The burden of Turner’s work is to answer a simple but important question: How did unbelief come to be an available and plausible alternative to the prevailing theism of American culture; how did the almost universal assumption of God disappear? I suspect that many evangelicals would offer various answers from modern science to political liberalism to secular education and any number of others. Turner’s startling thesis is that unbelief didn’t happen to religion but that religion caused unbelief. It is God’s defenders, Turner says, who strangled Him to death.[iv]

That’s a pretty sobering analysis to take in. But let’s follow his argument a couple more steps.  How did God’s friends commit deicide? By trying to make the Gospel relevant to the reigning assumptions of a changing cultural setting.[v] In addition to rationalizing and psychologizing belief, one of the ways they sought relevance was by moralizing belief[vi] or, put more simply, changing the Gospel (noun) into behavior (verb). However, once Christian faith has been reduced to a reasonable morality, God is no longer necessary for morality or for much of anything. Because, of course, one way the Gospel was psychologized (among others) was a functional loss of the idea of sin. Some good folks might like a God who cheers us on from the sidelines in our moral pursuits. Most of us, though, since we’re good anyway, can manage our moral lives quite nicely, thank you very much. And we can do that without the burden of having to get up on Sunday morning, tithe, worship, and serve on church committees let alone needing a distant, invisible God to enforce it all.[vii]

A problem long in the making—but much longer in the solving
It’s hard to read Turner, look at the current church scene, and not cry out, “Oh no, here we go again.” This pernicious tendency in the church to reshape the Gospel from noun to verb has no good end in view for God, for his church, or for our culture. To take one example, we feed our children a steady diet of moralistic Sunday School curricula over years, let the nice-people behaviorism of Veggie Tales be their babysitter while we’re busy,[viii] and encourage the youth pastor toward lots of talks laced with appeals to fear and bad consequences in order to get them to behave. Then we scratch our heads when Christian Smith concludes they’re committed to what he calls therapeutic, moral deism rather than historic Christian faith.[ix]

To those more historically inclined, none of this is really new. The issue of reducing the Gospel to ethics was a major issue at the heart of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century. As J. Gresham Machen warned then, this is not a choice between competing views of Christian faith. It is a choice between the historic Christian Gospel and an altogether different religion. Jesus did not come to bring guidance but redemption. He is not an example for faith[x] but the object of our faith.  He is not our guide, he is our Savior. To reduce Jesus to something akin to the first disciple[xi] is to eclipse his identity as the eternally begotten Son, the Lord of Glory, who entered history to accomplish the world’s redemption in His dying, rising, and ascending to rule from the Father’s right hand.[xii] That’s the good news we have been given to declare; the Gospel is our privilege to tell. It’s a noun, not a verb. Grammar matters.

[i] The answer to one imbalance isn’t another—speech without action—so we need to remember that words explain deeds and deeds validate words.
[ii] Given that I read this on April Fool’s Day, I wondered if it was meant to be a parody of faith and work discussions since it seemed more like something you might encounter at Lark News or The Onion. However, it isn’t and seems rather to reflect more troubling trends in faith and vocation conversations. More on this in a future article.
[iii] Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
[iv] Ibid, p. xiii.
[v] Turner outlines the kind of socioeconomic, epistemological, scientific, and moral challenges that make up the new environment with respect to which Christians sought to make the Gospel relevant.
[vi] Ibid, pp. 82-95.
[vii] Think of the way Christopher Hitchens considers the Kingdom of God as something akin to a celestial North Korea.
[viii] See R. Russell Moore, The Gospel’s Bigger Idea ( To his credit, the creator of Veggie Tales, Paul Vischer, is creating a new series of videos, What’s in the Bible, that seek to tell the story of the Bible in a manner less moralistic and more focused on the story of redemption.
[ix] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[x] Imitating Christ is an important New Testament theme that is a far cry from the moralistic and often legalistic patterns of WWJD thinking. Jason Hood’s helpful volume, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing the Biblical Pattern (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013) places imitation in its necessary theological context.
[xi] In Islam, Muhammad is the first Muslim. However, Jesus is not the first Christian. He is not a follower of the Way, He is The Way.
[xii] See Machen’s, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 69-98

Next steps

Do you know what the Gospel is—the full Gospel, not just the invitation to believe through the salvation plan? Try explaining it to a friend. Especially, in view of the article above, how does the Gospel inform our moral choices?

Further Reading: If you find you’re not able to explain the Gospel—not just the plan of salvation—listen to the first booklet on the audio book,
The Gospel Coalition Series 1. It’s called What Is the Gospel by Brian Chapell.


Defending His Art: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

The critics
In Act V, scene i of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus (Duke of Athens) offers his critique of the strange story told by the play’s four lovers after their foray into the forest – a chaotic, dream-like journey which nevertheless results in the true pairings of the young lovers (Hermia marries her Lysander, Helena her Demetrius). Theseus claims their tale is “More strange than true” and announces that he doesn’t believe in “antique fables.” He concludes, “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends./ The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” as they give to “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (ll. 2-17).

Shakespeare uses Theseus’ character (ironically built upon one of those “antique fables” he disdains) as a spokesperson for common complaints against poets and playwrights in Shakespeare’s own day: writers spin crazy tales that waste people’s time and money, corrupt their minds, and even lead them away from worshipping God.  As a playwright and theater owner, Shakespeare had a vested interest in countering such claims; and he uses Midsummer—which most critics consider his finest comedy—to mount his counterattack.

Breaking the Chain: Shakespeare’s Use of the Great Chain of Being in Macbeth

Shakespeare_Macbeth_Banquo_WitchesThe celebration of the 450th anniversary ofShakespeare’s birth is a time to not only revisit his masterful plays, poems and characters, but to see how the central themes in these works can be applied to the world of today. Peter Leithart has begun doing that in his discussion of Shakespeare’s Christianity, and I would like to continue to discussion by expanding on some of Leithart’s observations about the way the “great chain of being” informs the texture of Macbeth.

The Renaissance and the Great Chain
Shakespeare lived in the Renaissance, a time when classical thought and artworks were experiencing a rebirth. Not surprisingly, we find that many of the ideas that permeate Shakespeare’s plays grew out of the soil of ancient classical beliefs. Among the most important of these ideas was the Renaissance concept of the Great Chain of Being.

A Vision for the American Church (2)


A Vision for the American Church (2)

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17

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