Find Yourself? or Lose Yourself?

I was hoping to find a cheesy image to use for this post. The Internet did not disappoint.

I was hoping to find a cheesy image to use for this post. The Internet did not disappoint.

How do we find ourselves?

I did a quick check online and sure enough Oprah an online quiz to help us find ourselves.  But I don’t want to pick on Oprah too much because it was only slightly harder to find Christianized versions of such ideas. The faithful often possess the exact same outlook on life as the surrounding culture, merely shellacked with spiritual gloss.

How we find ourselves is a question not many people asked in previous times. In previous cultures (and present ones different than our own), our identity was for the most part inherited. Our social position in family and society gave us an identity and we found ourselves within it. Now we can easily imagine the shortfalls of this and are probably repulsed by a perceived lack of freedom in determining who we are.

But given our own culture – where are forced to not just find but even to construct our own identities – we may be blind to the dangers on the other side. Whatever the pitfalls of finding identity in social and familial expectations, few wrestled with issues of identity with the same angst as we do today. This is evident from looking at the literature of the day.

It can actually be exhausting on our side of things. Because if we are completely free to find ourselves, or even to self-create ourselves, than it really rests all on us. The burden is entirely individually borne. And it betrays the general fact that if want to find yourself you ought not to look to yourself.

The Gospel – the Good News of Jesus with all its implications – offers something completely different than the older inherit your identity from tribe-social position-family-religious/ethnic affiliation. When people embraced Jesus as Lord they often had to forsake reliance on ethnicity or social position to construct identity.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free the Apostle wrote to the Galatians.  Not even family ties, as vital in the Biblical view as in most other cultures, was where we are to find our identity.  Think on that and consider Jesus’ words about fathers, mother, sons, and daughters.

But the Gospel also does not urge us to look to ourselves or find ourselves. This repudiates the contemporary obsession with self-discovery, self-invention, or self-construction. Instead urging us to find ourselves, we must instead lose ourselves – even our very lives. It’s then that we truly will find what we’re looking for.

Free in Limits

limits

 

‘Tis within limits that the master shows.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

 

Goethe wrote that line to illustrate how strict forms of writing poetry, like the sonnet, helped show who were the real gifted poets. Basically being to Germans what Shakespeare is to the English speaking world, he should know. Being confined within the parameters forced them to refine, distill, and perfect their poetic intentions. It was in the limitations that they find their strength. American poet and artist Julia Cameron expresses the same, updated for the twentieth century: “in limits there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

This may grate against us at first. How can being confined be a freeing thing? Aren’t all limits restrictive? The fact that the idea grates is evidence at just how counter-cultural it is in a world where any restraint upon us is felt to be an injustice. But only within restraint can we be truly free.

But having rules on the field which restrict play free everyone enjoy the game.

A society which has no laws, customs, or social virtues may permit one to do whatever they want to anyone else. But would such freedom really feel like freedom if you were living in it?

Staying faithful in marriage limits intimacy to one partner. But it also frees us to enjoy the extended, long-term, committed love that only such an exclusive relationship can bring.

With God, it is the same. As as a well-known worship song says it’s only in Your will that I am free.  And that idea does not come from nowhere. It comes from God, who desires us to be more free than we would even choose to be on our own.

The Psalmist in Psalm 119, that massive meditation on God’s word, says: I will run in the way of your commandments, when you enlarge my heart… (v 32). The image is one of running free yet while being held within God’s desires for us expressed in His word. A heart set truly free is one within limits.

 

 

God can’t do it that way again?

Often I hear things like: “we can’t do it that way anymore”, “that would never work today”, or even “God won’t do it that way anymore”.  Times have changed, we’re told.

As someone who does not go in for innovation for innovation’s sake, this line of reasoning doesn’t quite sit with me. And not just for the sake of the theological principle that God can do whatever pleases Him.  For historical reasons as well. Consider that in 1946 the dean of Harvard Divinity School had counted the tradition of large-scale evangelistic preaching to be discredited entirely.  It was the realm of hucksters and hacks.  The very idea of evangelism was loaded with images of charlatans who used big tent revivalism for personal gain.*

And then a few short years later, a young Billy Graham rose up in the public eye. His ministry could at the very least be described as, ahem, fruitful.

The lesson?  No one gets to tell God who He’ll use or how He’ll use them.  And no one gets to say what is over and that God can’t or won’t work that way again.

Billy Graham in 1955

Billy Graham in 1955

 

 

*see page 35 of Ross Douthat’s excellent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Love seeks all things – or… be like John Wayne

Moral of the story? Believe the best and be like John Wayne

Moral of the story? Believe the best and be like John Wayne

We live in times where it is easy to vilify those we disagree with. This goes for people or leaders who we disagree with. Think of how we read our newsfeed.

It is easy to think the worst of people who we disagree with.  It’s easy to desire the worst; to want them to do poorly.  But we’re not called to do the easy thing but the harder thing.  Love for others is, in part, desiring the good for them.  Even if you think they’re off base. Even if it feels as though you (or your “side”) has lost to them.

Consider this reaction to the election of a leader:

I didn’t vote for him but he’s my President, and I hope he does a good job.
—John Wayne (b. 1907) on the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960

 

And then consider this reaction:

I hope he fails.
—Rush Limbaugh (b. 1951) on the election of Barack Obama in 2008  (Source of quotes)

 

Which reaction shows most confidence, graciousness, courtesy, and maturity?  Or to put it in more strictly theological terms…  love?  Love, after all, seeks the good of the other with no thought to pride of self.  Love seeks all things.  That kind of love is neither sentimental nor easy to accomplish in real time.

The harder thing is gracious and rises above pettiness. It seeks the common good and desires what is best – even for an idealogical opponent.  In times like these, perhaps, we need this reminder more than ever.

 

 

“Revive us again, O Lord” – history knows no straight lines

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

 

Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?

Psalm 85:6 ESV

 

I once heard someone remark that history does not move in straight lines. We imagine that there is either general progress or general decline, and that pleases or discourages us depending whether we think one or the other is happening.

For instance, we imagine that our culture is becoming steadily less Christian. This can cause trepidation or panic in believers (“look how few people go to Church!”,  “Here are some sure-fire marketing techniques to attract and retain!”, “what about our young people?”).  Or it can cause gloating arrogance in the decidedly non-believing (“look how few people go to church!”, “it’s the triumph of science!”, “down with silly, bronze-age myths!”).

The truth is that history indeed knows no straight lines.  I once heard an offhand remark about American church involvement. I have no way of confirming but it did intrigue me. Around the time of the American Revolution (1776ish), only 17% of the population were involved in church life.  That’s way lower even than today.  But by the time of the American Civil War, about 90 years later, church-goers were almost 60%.  No straight line of decline.

So what happened in between?  A revival happened.  A revival of Christian faith that changed the face of the culture.  It can happen again.  This ought to keep the gloating of the secularist in check.  It should also encourage the believer who longs to see the world come to know God.

A little knowledge of Church history helps us to not be discouraged.  Times for Christian faith have been worse off before.  Read up on the 9th Century – it was arguably the most corrupt time in Christianity (for example)  And low church attendance (a good indicator of Christianity’s health in a culture) has sometimes dipped.  Apparently, on Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 1740 only 6 people were present for communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.  (source – mention made at approx. the 17-19 minute mark).  Times have been lean before.  History knows no straight lines of decline or increase.

No one knows the future but God alone. But we do know that we must be – and, by God’s grace, can be – faithful witnesses in the times which we’re given to live in.  And we can pray for God to “revive us again…”

 

 

 

Scoffers

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 1.52.06 PMBut you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers…”  Jude 17 ESV

 

We live in a cynical age.  One of the ways I know this is because much of the news consumed these days comes via comedians.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for satire and sometimes they’re funny. But it speaks of how much we swim in an environment of mockery and scorn when our news is delivered within a steady diet of sarcastic jokes.

We ought not to be surprised when Christian faith falls under similar scoffing. It’s not like we weren’t told this would be the case (the apostles predicted it).

Scoffing (mockery, sarcastic scorn) comes through the media through explicit derision or just through the way it shows us faith or religious people. Bad examples of pastors, priests, churches, and so on are paraded and so loom large in the popular imagination.  All this serves to shame Christians.  We feel it, we may even shrink back from it.

Humour is from the angels.  Laughter is a blessed thing and everyone ought not to take themselves too seriously.  Scoffing, though, is diabolical in that in order to scoff one doesn’t need to stand for anything.  Irony is easy and cheap.  Sincerity is hard and costly.  To tear down another you don’t need to stand for or upon anything yourself.  This is true whether we’re atheist, agnostic, Christian, or something else, to sincerely stand is the harder job and makes one vulnerable to scoffing.

If we’re Christian, we ought not give in to the scoffing. We shouldn’t participate in the tearing down of others.  It’s too easy and we should do the harder thing. That is, perhaps disagree but do so from a place of understanding and respect.

And we’ll have to get used to enduring some scoffing.  Faithfulness takes the form of a hard forehead sometimes. What are the chances that a cable TV news anchor comedian will represent our beliefs fairly and charitably?  We ought not to be surprised.  We’ve been told.