So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
There is a movie, “Its Complicated,” with Alec Balwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin. Jack (Balwin) and Jane (Streep) are divorced because Jack had an affair with a much younger woman, whom he is now married to, but is increasingly unhappy with because it was more lust then love.
Their kids have grown up and their relationship is civil, so at a graduation event, the two of them hang out. Wine was involved and the two of them get romantic.
At the same time, Jane is interested with Steve Martin’s character, Adam, who is a gentle charming divorcee, who also was cheated on, making him a perfect match for Jane. That gets put on hold as Jack and Jane proceed to see each other in secret so their kids don’t know.
They in essence have an affair as former husband and wife, which as the title of the movie suggests, is complicated. It is obvious that they are in a different stage of life and they do still love each other. However, Jack now is married. The kids are now stable from a rocky divorce. Jane has this other love interest. Jack wants to leave his current wife to get back with his ex-wife; Jane is hesitant.
The upshot of the movie is that their kids do find out. It is hard on them, so they don’t get back together. Oddly the best thing for everyone is to have them stay divorced. The end of the movie suggests Jane resumes seeing Adam.
The Bible is Complicated because Life is Complicated
The movie, “It’s Complicated,” humorously shows the complexity of relationships and situations in life. Sometimes there does not seem to be a right answer.
This could pretty much be the summary of what Christians are to think about marriage and divorce in the context of all the messiness of life: It is complicated.
When we turn to the Bible, sadly, we so often refuse to read the Bible though the fact that life is messy and complicated. We come to the Bible often trying to escape the messiness of the world to embrace something certain, simple, concrete, and black-and-white. Now, there is certainly a lot in the Bible that is clear and simple. In many cases we shouldn’t over think it and just do it.
However, the Bible is a book that was written by people in messy situations for people in messy situations. It is not a book that was written outside the complexity of life for people that want to escape the confusion of that complexity. The Bible is complex in many parts because life is complex. It can be complicated because life is complicated.
I think it is that way because we don’t learn to trust God when life is simple, easy, and clear cut. I know I have to trust the grace of God when life is stressful, confusing, when I am facing moral dilemmas, and when I just don’t know what to think. Life is complicated, so the Bible reflects that. It meets us there, and that is all the more reason to trust God, using discernment, good biblical reflection, and humble obedience.
Marriage Got Complicated for Me
We learn marriage from the examples of marriage we were raised with. My understanding of marriage got complicated.
As I have often said, my parents, who are now deceased, went through a messy divorce. They separated and my mother told me dad that they were getting back together, when she actually pursued a relationship with someone else. My dad did not come around that much because he felt hurt and depressed. Later in life I was able to get to know him better.
My mother remarried a man that was, for lack of a better word, verbally abusive. When my mother asked me, when I was in grade 9, whether I approved of him, I voiced the concern that it seemed like the guy did not have a conscience. My mom did not take my concern seriously, but turns out that was more or less true. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school, they were already arguing severely about money. They shared a business that was a constant source of stress. My step-father actually started taking money out of their personal funds and business so that my mother could not use them for medical purposes. In other words, he was banking on her dying and was making sure he would have money after she was gone.
That kind of killed their relationship. I remember coming back from college to hearing them fight. I walked into the argument, as my mother was trying to convince my step-father to agree to a divorce. I’ll never forget his words: “The Bible does not allow for divorce. I have not cheated on you. You have no right to divorce me. You’re the one breaking my heart, Susan!”
It was the words of a true narcissist, and the Bible was a way for him to do whatever he wanted. I remember being at the time very zealous and idealistic. I believed divorce might never happen as long as you had enough faith. However, seeing all the pain my mother had gone through, I took it upon myself to sit with my step-dad and try to convince him to leave. I felt like I was going back on what I believed in. He did, however, and the separation continued many more years after that. Police were involved several times. It continued till my mother finally passed away from her cancer in 2009.
Children of divorce, like myself, have deep fears about marriage, which translates into deep fears about relationships in general. It is a fear about relationships working long term. It is a fundamental skepticism about the goodness of relationships, people, and even the goodness of oneself. This is something I had to work through in my own marriage.
Are you a married person? Are you a divorced person? Are you a child of a divorced family? Are your parents together? Or perhaps you don’t know your parents that much at all. This all affects us as disciples of Jesus.
Perhaps you are single and see your friends going through tough stuff. A lot of what I am saying will help anyone with any relationship, not just marriage.
With the complicated nature of life, we come to the Bible and seek to understand its truths.
What Does Mark have to Say?
Mark 10 reads as follows,
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Notice where they are: across the Jordan, an area ruled by Herod. Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in bad-mouthing Herod. Herod stole his brother’s wife, and so, this “test” is a way of getting Jesus to potentially criticize the king, something that John the Baptist did and it costed him his life.
The question is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” There were three schools of Rabbinical thought at the time, all concerned with how a man could get rid of his wife: the school of Shammai: divorce on the basis of unchastity; the school of Hillel: divorce based on anything; and Rabbi Akiba: divorce was possible if the man falls out of love with the woman. At the time, it was possible for a woman to divorce her husband in Jewish culture, although it was very uncommon. Women’s rights is not what the Pharisees are interested in. They want to know if they can divorce women at whim.
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied .4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,”
Notice Jesus is pointing out the spirit of the law. The spirit of this law is not that divorce is a good thing, but because of human hearts can be hard. I should point out at this juncture that Christians, just because we live in the new covenant, does not mean our hearts can’t be hard too.
Originally, women were regarded as property and could be divorced on a whim. The Old Testament is a cultural advance, a “redemptive-movement” (a la William Webb), creating a legal process, which helped protect women. So, the spirit of the law was to help others and protect relationships, not to make them easier to get out of.
Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus does not talk about marriage according to the clauses on how to get out; he refocuses us to marriage’s purpose and beauty when we stay in.
You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes commentator James Edwards.
Marriage was intended for intimacy, companionship, mutuality, vulnerability – all the joy that lifelong love can bring. If the Pharisees are looking to get out of their marriages, they really don’t get that.
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
The parallel passage of this in Matthew 19:9 records Jesus saying,
“ I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
What do you notice there? Matthew includes the clause of sexual immorality as a possible grounds of divorce. Is this the only reason a marriage can fail and legitimately end in divorce? I know a lot of evangelicals offering their own little interpretation: “They did not cheat on me, but I felt almost cheated on by what they did. It was emotional adultery.” I hear that one often, and it shows that the truth and application of this passage is less than straight forward.
More interestingly, Mark does not include this clause. Mark in his Gospel never gives any reason for divorce. Mark was circulated separately from the other three Gospels for decades. So, for some early Christians, their gospel text, their instruction manual for living the Christian life, seemed to offer no possibility of divorce of any kind. Does that mean Mark’s understanding of what Jesus teaches means he thinks Jesus did not allow for any form of divorce?
We should also note that there is no grounds in the concrete teachings of the New Testament for remarriage. All we have is the warning that if a divorce person remarries they are “committing adultery.” What is going on there? Does that means God condemns people who get a divorce and years later find love again?
Everyone say, “It’s complicated.” This is where we need to put on our thinking caps as thoughtful Christians if we are going to handle the Word of God with the care it deserves.
How (Not) to Take the Bible Literally
At the University the other day, I gave a guest lecture and I opened it up for Q and A. I don’t remember the original question, but one student informed me that “See this is why I don’t take the Bible literally.”
I asked her, “What does ‘literal’ mean?” She couldn’t answer that. Most mean literal in the sense of reduced and flat and over-simplified, as if the meaning is so plain you can read it thoughtlessly. In that case that’s correct. Generally speaking, we should not take the Bible thoughtlessly. There are lots of Scriptures that are straightforward (which look great on wall calendars and mugs), mind you, but there are others, like this, that are not.
Still others take literal to mean that they don’t take the Bible seriously. The Bible is only good for vague platitudes and principles everyone knows already. That’s not good.
But literal means “by the letter.” It just means reading the Bible by what’s written on the page. I hope everyone reads a book by reading what is written on the page!
The question then becomes how do the words on the pages recommend themselves to be read? How do we read the Bible biblically? How do we read the Bible the way the passage wants us to read it?
When Jesus talks about a good Samaritan, is he talking about a real guy he knows or a fictional one? To read the parable of the Good Samaritan literally means reading as a parable not report! That seems obvious. It is literally a parable.
When Jesus is described in Revelation as having a sword for a tongue. Does Jesus really have a sword sticking out of his head or does it seem obvious that the words of Revelation should be read as symbols. Jesus’ words are powerful, but they are not made out of metal. The words suggest that. That vision in Revelation is literally symbolic.
When 1 Cor. 11 recommends that all women where head-coverings, I would hope everyone pays close enough attention to the fact that head coverings at the end of the passage are “only a costume” (some translations mis-translate the Greek). To read that text literally is to be aware that it is a contextual command that might not apply today.
Here is the funny one: 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The letter of the text actually here insists that we don’t read merely by the letter, but in the Spirit. To read the Bible literally, reading how the words want us to read and apply them, the words tell us to read in their spirit. The Bible is to be read literally in the spirit.
Everyone say the word, “hyperbole.” A hyperbole is a striking, over the top statement. Used in an argument it is meant to give you a kick in the butt.
Jesus loves hyperboles. If you read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), Jesus says that if you say to your brother, “You idiot,” you could go to hell. Go to hell?! He says if you look at a woman lustfully you should cut out your eyes. How many people here are wearing eye patches? None? …hmmmm. These are hyperboles that are meant to shock the listener into reconciling with others and doing everything possible to root out causes of lust. If you were to read them as concrete teachings (bad literalism?), you would actually be doing yourself and others a disservice, particularly if you cut out your eyes! These texts are literally to be understood as hyperbolic. That is how the text intends them.
Interestingly enough, in the same strand of hyperbolic expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also repeats that if anyone gets a divorce then gets remarried, they are commit adultery. So, how do I know this is a hyperbole in Mark? It is because it fits with Jesus’ pattern of using hyperboles elsewhere. It warns the readers that an action that they consider acceptable needs to be taken more seriously. The Pharisees wanted to divorce their wives on a whim. Jesus wants to drive home point that if you have that attitude towards another human being, namely your wife, your heart has some serious sin in it.
The Complexity of Life and Love
Does this mean that the only reason Christians can get divorced is because of adultery? Does this mean if there is infidelity the one person is free to leave the other, making a clean break? The Bible is not meant to offer simple, trite, formulaic ways of being a Christian that simply will not stand up to the complexities of life. Reading the Bible refusing to see these nuances that the text intends is bad literalism; it actually refuses to read the Bible the way it ought to be read. It is oddly not too literal. It’s not literal enough.
If we don’t read the Bible though the complexity it was written for, we can end up falling to grasp the complexities of life. Let me give you some examples:
- I know lots of good people that don’t believe in divorce that are now divorced.
There is lots of reasons why this happens. Christians, even the best of Christians, for all sorts of reasons, have broken relationships: friendships, marriages, working relationships. It does happen.
We often assume that the day we become a Christian to make a decision in faith, that from then on we are not going to mess up, but as Kierkegaard would say, “We are all in the process of becoming Christians.” We might have accepted Jesus, but that does not mean that we Christians can go through times where our hearts are hard or we are simply immature or the circumstances of life get the better of us.
Churches often demean those who have had a divorce. When we do that we stop being the family of God. Jesus came to save the sick. The church is meant to be a hospital to those that need healing. While we lift up great examples of faith in marriages – and we have marriages in our congregation that have lasted so many years, they are a wonderful testimony – we also have to lift up examples of men and women who when they were less mature or went through difficult times did get a divorce, but have worked on making sure they are on good terms with their ex-spouse and work to create stability with their kids.
Many of us have learned that being divorced from someone can actually be harder than being married to them. You often think divorce allows you to get away from the person. In reality, it’s far from.
In the past, the church has refused to have divorced people as leaders, however, there are people who in the past got a divorce, but have worked through it and have tried their best to live peacefully with their ex-spouses, and frankly, because of that experience, are more gentle, gracious, and wise people. In short, they are exactly the kinds of people we should have leading the church.
This is exactly that pattern of Jesus. Jesus chooses the supposedly unqualified and discounted to lead his church, because they understand what grace is. Levi, the extortion-thug of a tax collector, was called to be an apostle. Peter, the man who betrayed Jesus three times, Jesus installed as the head of the church. Paul, a man who rounded up Christians, imprisoning them and stoning them, Jesus gives him a vision on the road to Damascus, and made him the greatest missionary of the early church.
Perhaps you have gone through a divorce or our going through one. Know that we have a community that is ready to listen and walk with you.
- I know marriages that have dissolved and frankly rightly ended where there was no adultery.
I know that marriages that have ended because of one spouse’s addictions or others that were put under such strife from mental illness. Then again I know marriages that have worked through those.
There are ways of hurting a person, betraying their trust, causing hurt, causing a relationship to become completely dysfunctional, that has nothing to do with being sexually unfaithful. Remember the story of my mother and step-father. Again, if you read the exception in the cause of adultery as the only legal clause, you are making the Bible say something very trite, even destructive.
So, there are many cases where there was no adultery, but the marriage needed to end. I know marriages where, one instance, a family where the wife was being severely mistreated, but it seems like their pastor – I don’t know if he knew about the mistreatment or not – merely told the woman, you have to stay with him or else you are sinning. If you leave, you’re the adulterer and adulterers go to hell. He didn’t technically cheat, so you can’t divorce him. The man function does not have any love for the woman, but that did not matter. The situation meant the women was now forced to stay with a person that demeaned her in terrible ways. I would call it verbal or emotional abuse, and the church, a religious officiant that represented the church, actually added to her sense of hopelessness and shame.
- I know some people who don’t have a lot of money who live in common law, but live faithfully.
In Canada, we have common law marriages where if a couple lives together long enough they are protected as if they are legally married. I think this is appropriate legislature since, again, the spirit of the law should be to protect relationships and people.
I know a lot of non-Christians who would consider their common-law marriage to be full marriage, and they have lived those relationships faithfully. Should Christians demean those individuals? I hope not. I hope we encourage them in those relationships, encourage them to act in all ways possible to protect their relationships as lifelong and permanent, and rejoice that while they might not have had a full ceremony, they have committed to loving each other.
- I know couples that are together through very unideal circumstances.
A person I know told me that he cheated on his wife years ago. He said he was sorry to his wife, but his wife kicked him out. Dejected he got together with his lover. They got married and now have kids. They have been married for many years now. As he told me about all this, he carried this terrible sense of shame and confusion. What should he have done? Not got remarried? Too late for that. Divorce the woman now? Try again to get back with his first wife, who hates his guts and refuses to forgive him? Or just continue on and try to make the most of where he is?
Again, if you read the Bible through these comfortable categories, you end up placing people in unsolvable situations. The most I could offer was saying, “All I can say is that I know God knows you and what you feel even more clearly that you know yourself.”
- I know marriages that have suffered infidelity but they are still together.
Finally, I know couples where one person cheated, asked forgiveness, the other forgave in the full sense of the word, and they continued on. I know several examples where marriages that had infidelity in them are now marriages that are stronger than they ever were before the one spouse did their terrible act.
Now, no one should be forced to stay in a relationship with abuse or infidelity, especially if the other is blatantly unrepentant and refusing to live up to their responsibilities of the relationship.
But, if we read the divorce exception clause as a way to get out of marriage, if we look for ways of getting out of relationships, we read the Bible, Jesus’ own teachings, the same way the Pharisees read their divorce laws. We can read Jesus pharisaically, oddly enough. We have to read for the spirit of the law, in all the complexity our relationships can take us. It’s complicated, but that is where God calls us.
The Beauty of Staying In
Jesus does not give us ways of getting out of the relationship commitments we are in. He points us to their purpose. He gives us strong hyperboles to stay on track with our relationships. Keep your eyes on the prize!
Just because we don’t believe in divorce does not mean divorce won’t happen. That is the complexity of life. That is why we walk in truth and grace. The most we can say is to follow Jesus’ advice. Look at what marriage is supposed to be about. Inseparable oneness. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In my marriage, I have learned that no one means me. For yours it means you.
You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes James Edwards.
It is not our convictions about divorce that keep us married. It is our convictions about communication, forgiveness, happiness, humility, and reconciliation applied to marriage that keep us married. It is our convictions on how to keep a relationship healthy that are the most important.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to communicate. Learn to accept criticism constructively. Learn to tell the other person how much you love them without wanting something or how much you are frustrated with them without attacking them. Learn to give criticism lovingly.
Marriages fail when they become zero-sum games of what you can get out of the other. Instead, ask your self, “What else can I be giving?”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to say, “When you did this, it made me feel like this…” rather than lead into accusing the person. So much hurt happens unintentionally because the other person was unaware of how their actions made the other feel. Giving people a chance to hear how an action made them feel without an accusation of intentional wrongdoing can allow a couple to correct the action without conflict.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to forgive. Often your spouse will upset you and do something wrong. So will you. You are both imperfect people. You did not marry a soulmate that is perfect. The expectation that the person you married has to be perfect can really put a bad expectation into life. The reality is that you do not have a soulmate, but in every day learning to reconcile and forgive, giving things for each other, putting the other person’s happiness ahead of your own and them for you, in this, you can make that person your sole-mate.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to be a servant. Learn to find happiness in making the other person happy. One of the best pieces of advice on marriage is that if two people love each other and always put the other’s happiness ahead of their own, the two will always be happier and better cared for together than they ever could be alone. But that takes humility. That takes the constant choice of sucking up your pride and being a servant.
That takes us to right now.
May you know that you are in the presence a God that has called us to be an understanding family of grace in all the complicity of life.
May you know the grace of Jesus Christ in all the broken and complex relationships and moments of your life. May you walk in grace through them.
May the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ be on you to empower you to love as he loves us. May the love you have for others and the love they have for you be a reflection of the beauty of God.
For many years, I have practiced lent as a protestant Christian.
What is Lent? Lent is the time of fasting before Good Friday, traditionally for 40 days (although it has been practiced at different lengths in different traditions), for many breaking on Sundays or times of feasts like weddings.
“Why do we practice Lent?” is a far more interesting question. Understanding that has been a bit of journey for me.
In high school, I practiced lent for the first time. As a young evangelical believer, I was intrigued by it, despite having some very ignorant anti-Catholic views. I despised anything that seemed like post-biblical tradition, but, for some reason, still wanted to try it. It ended up being one of the best things I have done in my life.
What did I give up? I gave up video-games and TV. When I made that commitment, I did not know what I was getting into. I watched a lot of TV: three to six hours a day on a school night. I played a lot of video games: if I was not watching TV that day, it was because I was hooked the next game I bought from EB Games.
With giving those things up, I realized that I had A LOT of time on my hands with nothing to do. So, I began reading my Bible. Later that year, I finished reading my Bible cover-to-cover. I decided to read Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. In essence, where TV and video games were, now was time spent with God….It was like TV and video games were my god before. Lent, the practice of fasting from something important to me, helped me draw close to the grace of Christ and rid myself of something that was borderline idolatry in my life.
In reading Purpose Driven Life, I was motivated to think about God’s purpose for my life. I realized I loved God’s Word and I wanted a career in it. I was a good student, and my mom was pushing me to become a doctor, but I found love in following God. Lent helped me draw close to Christ such that it produced a new found love of following Christ.
Without practicing Lent that year, I don’t know if I would be a pastor today.
The second time I practiced Lent was at seminary for a spiritual disciplines course. I thought I would really challenge myself, and I gave up all forms of meat. I was extremely stupid for doing that. I was obsessed with doing something that showed some kind of feat of self-control. I bordered on protein deficiency and lost a lot of weight because I simply did not keep up with protein from other sources. I fell to something like 135 pounds. I was miserable and melodramatic.
I remember my dorm-mate also gave up meat, but took it as an opportunity to gorge himself on just about everything else. He invited me to all-you-can-eat pasta restaurants. While it kindled a wonderful friendship, looking back, it really took away from the notion that what we were doing is a “fast” and not just a dietary restriction.
Also my brother got married at that time, and I refused to celebrate with him in all the great food that the celebration had. I did not understand the traditional practice took breaks during times of celebration like Sunday and weddings.
Lent that time, I practiced for the wrong reasons. I made it about showing off some feat of spirituality, which is the definition of works righteousness. Lent is an act not of self-will, but an act to acknowledge our lack of will, our need for grace, our yearning for the cross, our realization in a small degree for what Christ as done perfectly and completely for us because we are not able to have perfect self-discipline!
Lent is not about whether a person is successful or not in fasting from something for 40 days. I know a lot of people that want to give up silly things like chocolate for Lent. Lent is not a semi-religious way of losing weight or becoming healthy. You should be doing that anyway, and if what you are doing is about you, what you are doing is not about Jesus. Jesus is the point of lent. He died for our sins. We are merely responding with a fast to remember him with our bodies.
In some cases, then, I hope some people do not complete their Lent. If Lent is about what you can do, perhaps you need to be reminded that it is not you that does anything, but the grace of Christ that lives in you. Our strength, our will-power will fail. Lent is a lament, knowing the cost to Jesus, not ourselves, what it took to pay for our failures of will, our sin.
This is why in Roman Catholicism Lent is marked with ashes, thus Ash Wednesday. It is a reminder we are mortal; we are finite; we cannot save ourselves; we are dust and ashes. We must confess our sin and failure as we lament the costly death of Jesus for our sins. We lament Jesus’ death (while otherwise we celebrate) because our salvation simple is not worth his death. He died willingly, yes, but we would be deceiving ourselves if he died because we are such good salvation-worthy people.
That is the only way death, spiritual death, is overcome. It is not about our spirituality or our superiority it is about our mortality and our inferiority.
I took a break from practicing Lent for a while there. That Lent was not good for me. Years later, when I was a pastoral intern, I decided to practice Lent again. I gave up coffee, figuring I depended on that way too much. Turns out I was right! Every day at about 6:30, I would get just the worst pounding headache.
This time it was more consciences about what it was. I did research on the history of Lent. I was thinking increasingly more about the methodological questions of ritual and tradition in the practices of biblical faith. As any good protestant, I was raised with an allergic reaction to anything not in the Bible. Yet, what I found made me realize the problematic nature of evangelical understandings of ritual and tradition.
While Lent is not spoken of in the Bible, for as long as there has been Christianity, there seems to have been some kind of fasting before Easter. You can look up the various histories of Lent, and you will find the history is quite messy. It happened in varying forms and duration until its normative form of 40 days.
What is the place of traditions that Christians hold that are not in the Bible? Does it mean they are all illegitimate, ipso facto? This cannot be the case because much of what protestants hold to is not found in the Bible. After all, the canon of Scripture, the list of Scriptures, is not in the Bible. The canon of Scripture is the decision of the church, held on by tradition. It did not make the Bible, but the church did recognize the Bible, where there is no criteria in the Bible itself. The church that canonized the Bible did not seem to have a problem with Lent. The creeds are not from the Bible, but are considered essential summaries about the core of biblical faith. Doctrinal language like “Trinity” or “two-natures” is not found in the Bible, but help the Christian make sense out of what is in the Bible.
Look around your church and you will see a plenitude of traditions, practices, artifacts, etc. that are not found in the Bible, but no one makes a fuss about. Why? While these may be traditions, they are useful traditions or at least banal ones. They are traditions compatible and conducive to Scripture and the church’s mandate of following Christ.
We are traditioned beings. Anything we hand on is a tradition. Christmas is a tradition. Canada Day is a tradition. Cooking is a tradition. Education is a tradition. And also, how we uniquely worship is a tradition. It is a tradition because someone handed on this materials and practices to another to carry them on. To say that tradition is bad is to incorrectly understand the nature of humans as situated historical beings.
Believe it or not Scripture is a tradition: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you [literally, “traditioned”], whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Scripture so happens to be the highest tradition, our authority over all others, but it is “traditioned” nevertheless. The church had to collect it, preserve it, canonize it, interpret it, and teaching, generation to generation. That is a tradition.
The question is not rather we should have traditions, it is a question of whether they are good or not. It is not the case of whether they are all found in the Bible either, because there are lots of traditions, as I said, that are not directly found in the Bible that people don’t see as problematic. If you look in the Bible for the exact pattern for how to order a worship service or run a church business meeting, you will be searching in vain. While Power Point and Robert’s Rule of Order are hardly inspired, they are useful tools and practices that we continue to use.
We carry on any tradition that is useful to helping us live out Christ. We should be living out the practices directly found in Scripture that apply today, obviously, but that does not mean there are other practices and traditions that will help us live the Bible out better as well. And if a practice does not help us live out Christ, we should be ready to get rid of it (that is the Reformation impulse). Lent is a practice, if done for the right intention, like many post-biblical or extra-biblical traditions, are not in the Bible but deeply compatible and conducive to the teachings of the Bible.
Lent if practiced in the right spirit is well inside biblical principles. Scripture teaches us to fast. Check. Scripture teaches us to worship Christ with devotion. Check. Scripture calls us to self-sacrifice as an act of worship. Check. Scripture observes periods of devotion and fasting over 40 days. Check. All the early church did was place said fast before Easter, which seems like an appropriate time as any.
Many dislike that Lent is a ritual. Again, ritual action is constitutive of our humanity. We brush our teeth. We mow our lawns. We eat at regular intervals. We fix our behaviour to important dates. Our lives are situated in rituals. Rituals, good rituals, carry memory and meaning. Many people have left the church because it is a bunch of “rituals” and then wonder why their lives have less meaning. God commanded regular actions so that we remember him. A ritual, whether celebrating your spouses’ birthday or singing Amazing Grace, is a way of remembering something meaningful. The question is not whether we have rituals, but whether we will do our rituals well and with the right intentions.
All we should be concerned about then is not the practice of Lent itself, but the condition of the hearts that do the practicing.
If a practice is done to bring you closer to Christ, like Lent, and is compatible with biblical principles, then by the liberty of the Spirit, do it. To be afraid to would be, ironically, the same fear that drove Paul’s opponents to cling to the Law.
If you are living out matters that are meaningless, following them begrudgingly, or worse, perhaps you are doing them to make yourself feel more spiritual, even if what you are doing is found in the Bible, you need to re-examine yourself. God commanded the Sabbath, but Isaiah reports God denouncing it for how the people practiced them (Isa. 1:14).
The last few years I have given up coffee and TV. Coffee caused crazy headaches, and it made me depend on God’s grace through the day in weird and wonderful ways. It was a moment by moment reminder to pray and thank God for his sacrifice of love for me. I also started breaking the fast on Sundays. “Let your Sundays be as joyous as your Lent is sober” goes an Anglican proverb. Try it. I started looking forward to Sunday with a new zest.
Giving up TV, what I am doing this year and last year, has allowed me to refocus my mind on Scripture and prayer. I hope your Lent does the same.
I hope Christ is present to you as you draw close to him.
I hope that you are able to participate in Lent, not be works but by grace.
May the same love that gave his everything for you, be kindled in your soul as you give up just a small thing this Lent.
May all you do, all we do, glorify the God who died on the cross for our sin.
Father in heaven,
We stand in powerless awe at the reports given to us of a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City, struck by the perhaps arrogant surprise it has happened to us, in one of our cities, but to them, in their own place of worship.
We are grieved at these acts of violence against your Muslim children, our neighbors, people made in your image, worthy of dignity and protection. We lament the particular depravity of a mass shooting happening in a place of worship.
Comfort their families; heal those in hospital; have mercy on the victims. Protect all Muslims as we work together to build a nation of empathy, co-operation, understanding, and peace.
We are shocked that a new intolerance has infected our nation. May your mercy be on the shooter to lead him to repentance. Let not our anger drive us to towards vengeance, but the true justice of restoration and reconciliation.
Lead us also to repentance for any hatred or lies about our Muslim neighbors that we in moral laxity or fear have held. Forgive us for building cultural walls of “us versus them,” which have contributed in thought and attitude to this heinous crime. We are a people of unclean lips. Our fears of the violent intolerance of terrorism so often have made our souls into ugly mirrors of what we detest.
Forgive us for we have been disloyal to our true nation, our true citizenship. As we cling to other loyalties before the lordship of Christ, we realize now that we privileged white Canadians are not a religion of peace! Build in us true religion that “acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly” with you. Tear down our false gods of nationalism, class comfort, and religious arrogance so that you may build the kingdom of heaven, which knows no borders, refuses all violence, permits no ignorance, and encompasses the full diversity of your family and the full reach of your mercy.
May all come to know the mercy of your Cross.
May all come to know the Cross by its mercy.
May we take up our crosses to be that mercy in our broken world.
Until the day when your mercy is revealed in full, we pray in Christ’s name,