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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.

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.

The Timing of Spring

IMG_1295The first Spring morning greets the world with glory. The birds understand it better than I. My chest longs for the rapture they embody. The air is not wet, but not dry. What was ice dissipates into cool mist, as if the winters cold could not withstand the sun’s joy. As I walk along the path, the optimistic sun flickers through the tree as he rises, a pleasant intrusion upon my vision. If only I could be guided by the joyfully inconsistent pattern, ticking my skin and lighting the my eyelids, I could walk with no direction. Today, destination and intrusion do not exist. The birds know better than I that winter serves to store up Bliss until, on its own accord, Spring decides to bound forth, not a moment too soon.