Author: Josh Cushing

Redeemed by Christ. Married to Amanda. Father of James. Student. Reader. Reformed.

A Complete Goal of Self-Denial

    The Christian life seems to strike people as unappealing, even Christians. I major reason I believe this is the case, however, is because we have an incomplete vision of the Christian life. We see some of its more striking parts without viewing the more intricate whole.
     Take, for example, one of the classic works of Christian living, Imitation of Christ, by Thomas Kempis. The “true religious” are characterized by “the complete mortification of passions.” Notice the incongruity of categories: the religious life (positive) is the denial of all passions (negative). Lewis, in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, notes a similar problem in modern Christian thought: the greatest Christian virtue is thought to be selflessness (negative). On the contrary, says Lewis, the greatest Christian virtue is love (positive).
     Sure, the acquiring of love demands the negation of selfishness. And, I believe this is where Kempis intends his thought process to lead. What I take issue with is not the denial with self to acquire Divine love, but the complete denial of self.
     Let me explain. One of the most powerful biblical teachings on humility comes form Philippians 2. The Philippian believers are told to consider others as more important than themselves (v.4) by imitating Christ, who left deity to become man and die on a cross (vv.5–8). Is this emptying (v. 7) the end of the process? No, there is a “therefore.” Because of the emptying, Jesus was exalted over all (vv.9–11). What is the “therefore” for the church? It’s two-fold: 1) they enter into the joy of exalting Christ forever (vv. 10–11) and they become unified in that. In fact, the entire passage is a call to unity (vv. 1–2). So, there is the unified vision: humility leads to unity, specifically, unity in Christ. In other words, we empty ourselves in order to become a more complete self.
     Back to the issue of complete self denial. We are called to humble ourselves not to completely erase our passions, but to reorient our passions, to awaken them. We become more passionate, more desiring. And we become desirous of the right things.
     This is important for pastoral exhortation. When we call the church to follow Christ in humiliation, we are not bidding them to become nothing. We are bidding them to become more satisfied than they have ever been. Jesus does call us to take up a cross, but the cross, when mounted, is an easy yoke.

Following the ‘Deception of The Thrush’

Burnt Norton I of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets takes the reader through a sobering reflection upon time and perception of reality. It’s bookmarked by two philosophical reflections upon time’s relativity in relation to the present. After the first, the reader is taken into a walk through the rose garden, chasing illusive echoes, guided by an deceptive songbird. The echoes are false but charming, contradictions in their essence: a box circle, an empty pool filled with water our of sunlight. A passing cloud brings the reader back to reality and again reflecting upon the weight of the present moment.

Eliot’s poem has the capacity to bring the reader to our own rose gardens, passing its cloud over us, and forcing us to “bear” reality. How often can the world of our imaginations – “what might have been and what has been,” a world that doesn’t truly exist outside of our own minds, rule our thoughts, and be where we choose to live. Yet, as Eliot elaborates elsewhere in the Quartets, redemption happens in the present, and we must look it in the face.

Irenaeus’ Testimony of the Risen Dead

There is much biblical debate to be had over the continuation or cessation of the miraculous gifts in the present age. It is always interesting, however, when we find testimonies to the fact in history, especially from those of the early church. Here is an interesting testimony from Irenaeus (second century, A.D.), who apparently knew – perhaps first hand – of those practicing the miraculous in he name of Christ. Most interestingly, it seems that Irenaeus knows of some who were raised from the dead and lived among the church afterward.

Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. – Against Heresies, II.32.4

Speaking with Clarity and Courage: An Analysis of Character and Motive in Leadership

“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” – Proverbs 28:1

Everyone that I have talked to about this series of presidential debates has been irked. There is something disheartening, if not despairing, about hearing two people vying for one of the most important jobs in the world speak with so little meaning. The second debate especially was riddled with contradictions, hypocrisy, mud-slinging, avoidance, and incoherent arguments. We all get the sense of uneasiness from the kind of leadership demonstrated, but what is the source of it?

Perhaps a story from Matthew’s Gospel can bring some clarity to what also seems to be going on in our day. In Matthew 21:23–27, Jesus is being questioned by the high priests and elders about his authority. In his regular style, he asks them a return question and conditioned his willingness to answer upon their own willingness. Their utter inability exposes the slipperiness of their character. The question was simple: did John the Baptist come from heaven or from man? They felt the dilemma; if they answered “from heaven,” then would then have no reason to doubt that Jesus too came from heaven. If they said “from man,” they would face the disapproval of the crowds, who took John to be a prophet.

Their lack of courage and clarity is exposed on two levels: character and motive. The character defect comes from the desire to self-promote. This desire is at constant war in each of us. As Bonhoeffer grimly examines, each of us walks into a group of people with the instinctual motive of discovering how we are better than everyone else. This can even be done in round-about ways: “I’m the most humble” or “I’m the most authentic.” Oddly enough, our need for self-elevation is dependent upon the approval of the very people we want to be elevated over. We need them to see that we are the best in such-and-such a sense, and we will go to great sneaky lengths to maneuver that outcome.

The strong godly leader, by contrast, needs to base one’s self sufficiency before the eyes of their Father, “Who is in secret” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 17). As Dallas Willard writes,

If you don’t have this one down, you will drive yourself nuts. You will be torn between pleasing people and pleasing God. You will be torn between your own integrity and what people who don’t understand are saying about you. You won’t be able to lead like this. You will find yourself caught between two different driving forces, and your only resource is an internal sufficiency before the Lord.

The other flaw in the approach of the high priests and elders was in their motives. It was a result-based attempt. They weren’t seeking truth, they were seeking the specific motive of, on the one hand, humiliating Jesus, and, on the other hand, saving face. When these motives drive us more fundamentally than truth, truth will be compromised for their sake.

A godly leader, however, must be rigorously and persistently driven by a pursuit of truth. And this determination must then be combined with a faith in God that allows the results of that truth to play out, even if it changes the direction of their desired outcome.

Only when a leader speaks from a character grounded in a relationship with God and from a search for unadulterated truth can they speak with true clarity and courage.

Our Failed Attempt at Being gods

Through the creation account of Genesis 1, God both creates and declares. He speaks, making that which was not to be, then he declars what he made to be “good” (טוב).

When the serpent, “the craftiest of animals of the field,” spoke with Eve, he tempted her with this declarative right. His enticement was that God only prevented her eating the forbidden fruit because he didn’t want her to be כאלהים, which can be translated “like God,” or “like gods” (This name for God, when it is translated “God” in English, takes the plural form for deity in Hebrew). For Eve, the incitement of the idea of functioning like deity rather than like a human was too great. So, Eve entered into her first declarative act: she declared that the forbidden tree was “good” for food (3:6). Whereas God made what was good and declared it to be so – the thoughts and actions of God being a seamless whole, Eve saw what was forbidden and declared it to be “good.” Her inadequacy as deity speaks for itself. The bitter irony of this whole matter is that Eve was already more perfectly becoming what she desired to achieve by inadequate means; she was already made in the “image of God.”

Redemption through Christ is the reverse of this tragic deviation. It is an act of, once again, becoming and declaring. Our new self, ontologically, is crafted after the image of God (Ephesians 3:24). And our new life is a constant declaration of “Thy kingdom come,” once again declaring what is good to be “good”.

Seeking God’s Kingdom and Organic Decision Making

Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Calvin all have similar stories of becoming ministers. They all desired a contemplative and devotional life. They all sought to spend their lives seeking truth for truth’s sake. And all of them were called (dragged, more like it) against their will. Yet, all of them, in that very context, made incalculable contributions to the church, even intellectually. A couple observations can be drawn from this.

First, this is a practical application of Jesus’ insight, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” These men weren’t seeking prominent ministries; they were seeking God. Yet, God chose his men as he saw fit. As Dallas Willard has said,

People are constantly looking for methods…God is looking for men. Methods are often temporary, but what God is looking for is a life. God is far less interested in your results than the person you are becoming.

I quote this to say that, the most important thing that you can do to find God’s will for your life is seek to become the kind of person that God wants you to be. This is very similar to the kind of thing that Paul was saying in Romans “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2).

The second thing is that the greatest contribution from these men did not come from their distanced thought life, but from their thought life applied. It pastoral concerns that brought us The City of God and the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

A similar story is found in the life of Karl Barth. He was a scholar, trained in the Liberal German schools of thought. When he took up the pulpit, he found that what he learned wouldn’t preach. So, he sought to preach the Word of God while honoring the God of the Word. Thus, his famous commentary on Romans was borne.

It isn’t the pragmatists that seem to make the most timely and important impact. It’s those who seek God, and through seeking, organically find his will. And it is in the midst of his will that their most important work is done. For some, this work will change the world in obvious ways. For others, it will be inconspicuous to man. But none of it will be inconspicuous to God.

Craftsmanship and Callused Hands

     When learning any craft, one’s mind and body have to undergo changes in order to execute the skill. One of the first hurtles for a guitarist, for example, is to overcome pain until calluses form on the tips of her fingers. These calluses are necessary for the future musician to achieve any degree of dexterity. The pain hinders the artist’s freedom. This phase, however, is short lived, and the artist must soon train her fingers for faster and more precise movements. The calluses must be limited in their circumference. If the entire hand were calloused, dexterity would be stifled. The guitarist’s hands then must be slightly callused, but mostly quite sensitive.
     This same lesson can be applied metaphorically to other disciplines. A teacher must form calluses. In order for a teacher to have enough courage to be gripping, he must be in the habit of shrugging off certain bothers that come with the territory. Minor disapproval, wandering attention, thoughtless or malicious criticism, or personal nervousness must bounce off his tough skin.
     These callousness, however, cannot be the norm. They cannot be characteristic of the teacher. Ultimately, the teacher must be attuned the thoughts of his audience, open to critique, and compassionate with his words, even when they must move against the grain of received opinion. He must teach with dexterity.
     Either extreme in this regard is to be avoided. We have all had teachers who are characterized by callus; they care little about their students, cause unnecessary controversies, and are understood only with great effort. On the other hand, teachers cannot be too soft. Many teachers will bend to the opinions of their audience and, consequently, teach with impotence. They are also often difficult to understand because their evasiveness becomes inarticulateness.
     A good teacher must have the necessary calluses, yet move with dexterity.