Month: May 2014

Hebrews 10:24-25 in Context

Because of the large numbers of people who are struggling with the “requirement” to attend the “worship services,” be involved and actively support (if not become members) of an institutional church, Hebrews 10:25 is becoming one of the most frequently cited verses in the Bible.  You’ll hear believers discussing it at the local Starbucks.  “But we have to go to church.  Hebrews 10 says, ‘don’t forsake assembling yourselves together as is the manner of some.”  They usually add something like, “It’s not a question of if you have to attend church, it’s where.  I know that no church is perfect and I can’t find one that really seems to function like the New Testament describes, but opting out is not an option.'”  Because of this perceived “requirement,” institutional churches have a captive market – all believers are required to go somewhere.  Those that do church better will naturally gain a larger market share (more people will fulfill their “requirement” there).  Maybe we’re missing the point.

Because this verse is central to this discussion happening in coffeeshops all around the country, we would do well to look at the actual text within its context and attempt to interpret it in light of our current question.  Here’s the passage under discussion:

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. [Heb. 10:24,25 ESV]

Before we dive in to the interpretation of this particular sentence, let’s remind ourselves of the bigger picture.

The letter to the Hebrews was written by an unknown author to the Jewish believers in and around Jerusalem who were being tempted to return to Judaism under the pressure exerted from their families and the extended Jewish community.  The whole argument of the letter is centered on the main point: Jesus is better.  The main application follows: Don’t leave what you have (Jesus), to go back to the old system which is inferior (Judaism).

The writer organizes the letter around comparisons between Jesus and the Old Covenant, piling up evidence along the way to persuade the readers not to turn back.  Turning back to the Old System is discouraged through the use of various warnings.  The most famous warnings occur in chapters 6 and 10, both of which speak of the redemptive danger of turning away from Jesus, Who is the only One that makes us right with God through His perfect sacrifice and continuing priesthood.  Jesus is the central figure of the book of Hebrews.  He is the unique Prophet, Priest and King the writer points the Hebrews toward.

Chapter 10 opens with an argument about the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice as compared to the Old Testament system.  His is better in every way [Heb. 10:1-10].  Then Jesus’ superior priesthood is compared to the inferior Levitical system [Heb. 10:11-18].  Jesus offered once-for-all a perfect offering that make us acceptable to God and He continues to live as our perfect High Priest to apply the benefits of that once-for-all sacrifice to us.  He’s the point.  He’s the unique Leader (and in fact, the only Head of the church).

In light of that, the author begins to make application to the Jewish readers:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near [Heb. 10:19-25 ESV].

This is the immediate context of the often quoted verses.  The argument is basically: since we have this superior sacrifice that makes us right with God and a perfect High Priest, we can and should draw near to God rather than turning away (the main temptation of the Hebrews).  In verse 23, the writer tells them to hold fast to the faith they have confessed in light of God’s character trait of faithfulness.  Then, the writer gives them a practical means of staying connected and not drawing back: meeting together [v. 25].

Why are they meeting in the first place?  What kind of meeting together is going to help them not pull back from Jesus in light of the community pressure to do so?  What is the main thing their meeting is to focus on?  Notice the purposes of their gathering.   The writer answers these questions as follows, saying essentially:

Don’t fail to get together and do these three things: stir each other up to love, stir each other up to good works, encourage each other.

The writer added that these things become even more relevant and important as the Day draws near.  What day?  The Day of the Lord, the Day of judgment, when our lives are assessed by our continuing in relationship with Christ (knowing Him [Matt. 7], abiding in Him [Jn. 15]), not turning away from him because of adversity.  Let’s look at these three main things their meetings are to focus on:

Stir each other up to love.

How do you stir each other up to love if love is a feeling?  Love for who?  Love for God?  Love for others?  I think it’s love for both.  The two great commandments are to love God and love others.  In times of testing and adversity, like the Hebrews were going through, the real Christian community can help us avoid the common pitfalls of forgetting to love God or others (enemies?) in the midst of our own pain.

Stir each other up to good works.

Good works?  I thought we were against works and for grace.  Aren’t grace and works opposites?  Absolutely not!  In fact, we demonstrate the reality of our love for God and others by our works.  This only sounds radical or heretical to our anti-law (antinomian) American evangelical ears.  It’s hard to keep doing the “right thing,” when you’re going through persecution.  The Christian community, if it functions like it’s supposed to, can help each other do this very difficult thing.

Encourage each other.

They need mutual encouragement.  They are experiencing the rejection of family and the entire Jewish community for their profession of Jesus as Messiah.  Without this encouragement from each other, it will be far easier for them to give in to the pressure and go back.  Sadly, most confessing American Christians are woefully inadequate at giving helpful encouragement.  Instead, they, like Job’s famous “comforters” frequently dispense all kinds of unhelpful and uncompassionate platitudes, half-truths and truisms.

The Point: Mutual Ministry to One Another

All three of these things are about mutual ministry to one another.  There is no mention of someone in authority stirring them up to love and good works or of one person attempting to encourage every one at the meeting.  It is a description of the “body edifying (building up) itself in love” [Eph. 4:16].  Each part of the body does its part in the meeting.  The result is that no one is lost in the process.  No one fades away or disappears from the Christian community.  They stay together and help each other so that they get to the finish line together.  What a challenging thought to the rugged individualism of American evangelicals!

These verses are too often lifted from their context and made to mean something entirely different than their original intent.  I frankly don’t see the direct correlation between this biblical exhortation and the requirement to “go to church.”  In fact, that phrase would have made no sense to them in the first century.  What the writer is saying is that it’s unwise and likely to lead toward danger to try to go it alone.  As many have rightly said, “There are no lone ranger Christians.”  This lines up with Gen. 2:18.  It’s not good for us to be alone.  We need each other and we need the “one anothering” that helps us keep going in the midst of difficult times.

A relevant question for the modern American church would be, “How much one anothering is actually going on in the context of the Sunday morning meeting, anyway?”  I think it’s pretty common for people to come in, get a bulletin, sit in a seat, greet a neighbor for thirty seconds, pick up the kids from Sunday school, get in the car and leave.  If we go to church and do it like this, have we really taken to heart the intent of this passage?  So, if you go to church, you haven’t necessarily fulfilled this “requirement.”  Now that you know, if you go to church, that would be a good place to put this into practice (there are a lot of other discouraged Christians there) but even if you don’t do church, you should still practice this as an integral part of being a Christ-follower.

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The Benefits of Suffering

I’m reading Tim Keller’s 2013 book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.  For the most part, this is one of the better books I’ve read on suffering from a Christian perspective.  Having said that, Keller borrows from psychologist Jonathan Haidt as he claims that there are three primary benefits of suffering.  With all due respect to Haidt and Keller, I’m not sure that I agree.  The three benefits of suffering according to these two experts are:

1. Suffering creates resiliency.

This thought is quite popular thanks to Kelly Clarkson.  As she says it, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  This thought is not original with Clarkson, but goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche, an interesting philosopher to inform evangelical thought.  A recent article in Psychology Today says it better than I can.  Suffering and adversity take a toll on us as humans.  There are things that people can do to one another that leave lasting and irreparable marks.  The hope of the Christian faith is that on “that day” all things will be made right.  We will be whole and He will wipe every tear from our eyes.  Until then, I am convinced that many of us are operating from the possibility of wholeness that remains after the damage.  Each time we encounter soul-destroying suffering, our highest potential may be reduced.  For example, when a soldier nobly goes off to war and comes back with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, it is ignorant to think that they will ever fully be restored to the state in which they were prior to the trauma, at least in this life.  We are left with the goal of helping them cope with their injuries and of being the best self they can be in light of all that they have gone through.  If this is our operating definition of resiliency, I have no problem seeing resiliency as the frequent outcome of adversity.  However, the notion that trauma and loss doesn’t permanently affect us or that “good people” will inevitably bounce back from suffering and be better than ever is unfounded myth.

When trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt. [Noam Shpancer]

2. Suffering deepens relationships.

It is true that in adversity we often find out who are true friends and loved ones are.  Pain and an empathetic response to it can serve to create deep bonds that we can argue would not otherwise have been forged.  But, I have just as often and probably more often seen suffering destroy relationships.  Most parents who lose children divorce.  How often do we hear people stories of abandonment in the midst of suffering?  This is not a new phenomenon.  Job experienced it.  The Psalmists walked through it.

Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. [Ps. 31:11-13]

Suffering will actually tend to polarize our relationships.  Those who care enough to walk through suffering with us over the long haul will become closer.  Others, who are themselves scared by the potential of suffering, will likely see us as having a contagious disease and keep their safe distance.  Those who are willing to pay the high price of entering into the suffering of another are few.  Our greatest consolation is found in the fact that though all forsake us, God will not.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.3. Suffering changes our priorities and philosophies, often redirecting our lives. [Ps. 34:18]

3. Suffering changes the priorities, philosophy and direction of our lives.

On this third point, I tend to see and agree with the point.  Many people will tell you that their life purpose has arisen out of their suffering.  Their adversity has shaped them and specifically equipped them to help others in related ways.  As C. S. Lewis says, “suffering is God’s megaphone.”  It is often in the midst of pain (or more properly in the aftermath) that we rethink and redirect our lives and purpose.  Seeing the big picture and the way that our suffering is woven into the great tapestry of our lives, that the pain was used of God to direct our steps, is in no way to imply that suffering itself is good.

The Benefit of Suffering?

Can God redeem suffering?  Yes.  But this subject is rarely addressed in a compassionate manner by professing Christians.  They are prone to platitudes and other thoughtless comments offered to those who suffer.  Christians, like everyone else, want to believe in a just world, where those who suffer somehow deserve it.   This makes them feel safe, immune from similar suffering, as they do not see themselves as potential sufferers.  Protecting themselves, albeit outside of their conscious awareness, trumps having empathy for those who experience adversity.  We want to believe that if we live right, we will experience “victory” and be “blessed.”

And yet, the Captain of our salvation Himself endured suffering.  It was through His suffering and obedience that He was made perfect.  He is the model.  We follow Him.  Or do we?  We want to believe that somehow suffering will not be a part of our plan.  When other believers around us experience it, we are ill prepared to offer God’s perspective.  Suffering may not make us stronger.  We may well limp across the finish line.  The promise, however, is sure; we will be made whole.  Our relationships with others may deepen or disappear in the midst of suffering.  We will know who truly cares for us.  Only one thing is sure; God will not forsake us in our suffering.  Lastly, God will often redeem the things that He allows to occur in our lives and somehow mysteriously use them to direct our steps and give our lives renewed purpose.  Suffering may have benefits, but it still hurts.

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Killing Me Slowly: Complex PTSD

Little children recite the rhyme, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This common childhood truism is not true. The psychological literature points to the opposite position. Words do hurt, as do other forms of non-physical mistreatment by others. Though not currently recognized in the DSM-IV TR as a clinical diagnosis, evidence continues to mount for the existence of a syndrome known as Complex PTSD. It is a disorder occurring in “survivors of prolonged, repeated trauma within a framework of captivity and coercive control.”[1] Complex trauma refers to a type of trauma “that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.”[2] So, it is different than PTSD where the victim is most often exposed to one significant and overwhelming traumatic experience. This is “trauma over time.” It can occur in the family, in significant relationships, in the workplace or elsewhere. It is sometimes the result of spousal abuse (e.g. domestic violence), workplace bullying, or even abuse in the church. It is most often non-physical abuse. These abusers prefer emotional, verbal and psychological abuse. Wherever it occurs, the results are devastating. Typical symptoms of CPTSD include: emotional dysregulation, dissociation or depersonalization, changes in self-perception, changes in perception of the perpetrator, changes in relationship with others, physical and medical problems, loss of meaning and despair. The prolonged exposure to this destructive relationship alters our sense of the assumptions that undergird “normal” life. For those who have experienced prolonged trauma often, the world is no longer safe, life has lost its meaning, and the self is seen as worthless (thus the high risk of suicide). It is important to note that CPTSD is not the victim’s fault. It is a set of symptoms that occurs as a result of abuse and mistreatment by others. In the counseling world, it is often diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) as borderline personality disorder (BPD) which often has a pejorative connotation that goes with this diagnosis, adding hurt upon hurt, creating secondary wounding.

From a biblical perspective, this connection between non-physical mistreatment and real injury is not new. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue can bring death or life.” Fathers are warned (Eph. 6:4) not to “provoke their children to anger by the way they treat them.” James tells of the devastating power of the tongue (James 3:2-18). We sin against others most often with our tongue and other forms of non-physical maltreatment. The scripture places accountability on the perpetrator of the sins against others and calls them to account for their mistreatment of others. If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from Complex PTSD as a result of prolonged traumatic exposure and mistreatment, please prayerfully consider referring them for counseling. Look for a counselor who understands this concept of Complex PTSD, who has had some success in treating clients with this presenting problem. For further reading: Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman; Bully in Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace Bullying by Tim Field; Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman; http://www.bullyonline.org.

bully girls

[1] Turkus, J. A. (Fall 1998). Psychopharmacology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Centering , 3 (4).

[2] Courtois, C. A. (2004). Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment and Treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training , 41 (4), 412.

 

Unforgiveness is Unforgivable

Have you noticed? Our evangelical culture is all about forgiveness, until it comes to those who for whatever reason don’t agree with us about forgiveness. The only unforgivable offense, it seems, is unforgiveness. No one seems to notice the glaring inconsistency in our unthinking process. It is very similar to the discussion on tolerance. We are highly intolerant of intolerance. This whole thing drives me crazy.

If everything and everyone is automatically forgiven, then my inability to get it or to grant unconditional forgiveness to those who have wronged me should be automatically and unconditionally forgiven by those who see my actions or attitudes as wrong. But, this is not how it goes. Instead of giving me a pass, like they expect me to give everyone else, they don’t. How so? How can you hold me accountable in a world where accountability is the exact thing you prohibit me from practicing with others?

The whole thing is crazy-making and illogical. But, we say this is exactly what the Bible teaches and what we are to practice. No one asks if this makes sense in light of Who God has revealed Himself to be. Does God universally and unilaterally forgive everyone (universalism)? Or, does He do the unthinkable, and actually refuse to forgive people who don’t repent? If we take our logic that we apply to one another and apply it God, we end up finding Him guilty of incredible intolerance and unforgiveness (He’s even angry with the wicked all day long, Ps. 7:11).

And yet, no one questions the logic of the whole thing. We just “know” that the right answer to every problem is unconditional forgiveness. “Don’t confuse the issue with the Scripture or with reason. And by the way, if you don’t forgive everyone, we don’t forgive you.”

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Extroversion as Salvation

I attended an Easter service that could have been anywhere in the U.S. and couldn’t help but notice the emphasis. Beginning in Mark 16, the sermon contrasted the belief of some with the unbelief of others. The thesis: unbelief is a problem. So far, so good. The other texts brought into the mix (commonly cited in evangelical churches) included:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” [Jn. 10:10]

  • “Abundance” as it is commonly defined sounds a lot like extroversion.
  • The word used means literally “fullness, greater” as connected to “life.” The problem with the common misinterpretation of Jesus’ thought here is that elsewhere He clearly told us that our lives would include:

o   tribulation (Jn. 16:33)

o   being hated by others (Jn. 15:18)

o   being rejected by family (Matt. 10)

o   suffering, sickness, hardship

o   a sense of spiritual bankruptcy (Matt. 5)

  • It simply cannot mean the sense of prosperity, happiness, blessedness that is so often read into this verse.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” [Jn. 15:11] – the upper room conversation that includes the items listed above.

  • Fullness of “joy” is usually equated to being very “happy.” Did Jesus call us to a life of happiness or to a life that would be filled with “joy” or “rejoicing”?

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

  • Interpreted through the lens of positive psychology, this means “only look at the positive.”
  • If we actually think about truth, honor, justice, purity and true loveliness, will we experience an absence of negative emotions? Or, will we feel the pain of a fallen world devoid of these attributes, a world crying out for redemption? Happiness would not be the likely result of actually meditating deeply on these ideals.

The American culture is highly influenced by what has been called the extrovert ideal. This ideal suggests that extroversion is essentially the definition of mental health. We have seen this bias influence the psychological community. It is clearly evident among American evangelicals. Listening to contemporary American evangelical theology as presented in sermons across the country, one would think that being saved and sanctified is synonymous with becoming an extrovert.

Here are the most commonly cited aspects of extroversion salvation:

  • Optimism

True believers don’t fall into pessimism or even realism. They have an optimistic faith that is suprarational (above reason). If we become mature, we will not struggle with the by-products of negative thinking (hopelessness, uncertainty, doubt, etc.)

“You need to look at the end of the book; we win.”

  • Joy (the abundant life)

True believers are happy and filled with joy despite the adversity of life. They have a joy that is not connected to their circumstances. This effects all aspects of their lives (the way they grieve, the way they see their own sinfulness, etc.) They don’t allow the circumstances of life to get them down.

“If you aren’t joyful, something is wrong.”

  • Risk-taking faith

You don’t hear very many sermons on prudence or wisdom or carefulness. There aren’t very many sermons on the problem of over-impulsive foolish decision-making. The emphasis seems to be on faith understood as inherently risk-taking.

“If you don’t like risk and are hesitant to take it, you don’t have strong faith.”

  • Boldness (outgoing evangelism)

Real disciples don’t hide their light under a basket (translated, they are open and communicative with others around them in regard to their faith). True believers are openly and boldly evangelistic.

“If you struggle to talk openly and boldly to others about your love for Christ, you are probably ashamed of Him.”

  • Certainty (no doubt)

True believers don’t struggle with doubt or uncertainty. They don’t lose sleep with the sins of worry or fear. They have confidence in God and in their definite connection to Him and the resulting security they experience.

“If you struggle with doubt and lack certainty (sometimes called assurance), your faith is questionable.”

  • Fearlessness

True believers don’t fear. It is commonly (though erroneously) cited that the Bible tells us 365 times not to fear.

“If you often feel fear, your faith is weak.”

Symptoms of this culture

This extroverted culture is expressed in tangible emphases throughout the practices of the church. For example, there tends to be:

  • An overemphasis (in songs and sermons) on fear as the primary sin to be eliminated. (How does this effect those who struggle deeply and honestly with fear?)
  • An overemphasis on happiness (usually called “joy”) and other positive emotions as the key indicators of spiritual maturity. (How does this effect those who feel negative emotions deeply?)
  • An overemphasis on optimism as “faith” / pessimism as “unbelief.” (How does this effect those who see the glass as half-empty, who tend to be more realistic in their outlook on life?)
  • An overemphasis on boldness and evangelism. (How does this effect those who are not naturally outgoing and can easily engage a stranger in conversation?)

The effect of this culture on introverts

Approximately fifty percent of any congregation is introverted. Living under this spiritualized extroversion, they commonly feel shame (I don’t feel like a strong Christian) and invalidation (I wish I was more like the extroverted leaders) and continue to seek to be transformed into the image of the leaders they follow. This journey ultimately keeps them distracted from the healthy goal of being the unique person they were created to be.

What is salvation?

Salvation should be understood as deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, not an overhaul of our temperament. It is both an event and a process and includes the primary goal on God’s part of making us “holy.” Holy in this sense should be understood as nothing more or less than like Jesus, the perfect Man (and God) who perfectly reflected the image of God in His humanity. The pertinent question, “Wasn’t Jesus an extrovert?” Look at some of the evidence:

  • He boldly spoke truth to power, questioning the status quo AND spoke gently to those burdened down by the oppressive religious system.
  • He went intentionally toward Calvary, allowing Himself to be crucified there AND he often avoided the murderous crowd slipping away.
  • He spoke to large crowds for hours or even days at a time AND the crowds wore Him out.
  • He came to redeem us so that He would have joy AND He was called the Man of Sorrows who lived a life of thirty-three years filled with pain and grief.
  • He took action in the temple turning the tables AND He refused to get drawn into taking political action against Rome.
  • He describes His return as a warrior AND He came initially as a humble King seeking peace.

So, what was He? Maybe He, as the only perfect human to have ever lived and walked, uniquely embodied the entire continuum of extroversion and introversion.

Salvation, including sanctification, is about God making us more and more into the image of Jesus [Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:22-24]. If there is one key component to this transformative work, it is the emphasis on righteousness or holiness. In other words, the emphasis is placed on God making us like Himself at the level of our character and conduct. There is no emphasis on His making us extroverted (or introverted for that matter).

He takes us as image bearers and remakes us according the image of Christ, the perfect model of humanity. From either side of the continuum, we will resemble different aspects of the person of Christ, while we all are moved closer to His character and holiness. Notice that Paul did not tell Timothy (likely an introverted pastor) to become more extroverted, nor did he advise him to teach similar things to the people in Ephesus. We would do well to follow Paul’s advice to young Timothy.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead

a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. [1 Tim. 2:1-4]

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