The Color Purple

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?

Jesus tells a story:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)

This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.

But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.

The Good Shepherd Context

Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.

Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.⁠1

So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)

In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.

The Testing of Abraham

A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:

The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)

Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.

The Ethical Problem

An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:

not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)

Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.

In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:

Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.

anImage_2.tiff

1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).

The Color Purple

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Simple_Faith_Out

Continue Reading

Equal Pay

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Equal pay between men and women in the workplace is impossible in the current cultural environment because they face different social expectations both inside and outside the workplace. Cultural expectations of women disadvantage them especially in the area of unpaid work that directly affects current and future salary expectations.

Christian Perspective on Equality

Although a diversity of opinion exists about Christians should relate to each other within the family, little diversity of opinion exists about the need for Christians to live in and value family life. We are created male and female equally in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and we cannot fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiple” without working together (Gen 1:28). The Apostle Paul underscores this equality of the sexes when he writes about our equality in Christ (Gal 3:28)

The diversity of opinion arises from the division of labor between husband and wife stated in Biblical accounts. For example, after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses Eve saying: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16). Meanwhile, God curses the ground to bear “thorns and thistles” increasing Adam’s labor in the fields to grow food (Gen. 3:18). The implication that Eve is to be busy with the kids while Adam works the fields.

While this division of labor is often viewed as prescriptive for husbands and wives today, even in rural settings in the developing world today women also work the fields. Reading more closely in the Genesis account we also see that this division of labor is not ideal—it only comes after the fall. The Biblical ideal is better read as we are equal under God and we do what we must to be faithful servants. We must look elsewhere to explain the disparity in men and women’s wages, but be sensitive to the divine intention.

Presuppositions and Discrimination

In human capital theory, economists have two working definitions of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made both types of discrimination illegal, but it is helpful to distinguish these types in order to come up with effective policy alternatives.

The first type of discrimination is based on preference (Becker 1957). If I find a group disagreeable, then I will be willing to pay a penalty to avoid associating with them. 

The prescription for dealing with this type of discrimination is to raise the legal penalty for disobeying the law. Thus, someone alleging discrimination has a legal right to file a lawsuit and ask for penalties to be assessed to recoup losses accrued on account of the discrimination.

The second type of discrimination is statistical discrimination (Thurow 1975). Statistical discrimination occurs when observations from past experience with members of a group are applied unreflectively to new individuals. The calculus would be something like in the past people from group A were worth $10 a hour while those from group B were worth $15, so I will pay individual A+1 $10 and individual B+1 $15 without bothering to explore their actual work experience.

The prescription for statistical discrimination is assign the search costs to evaluate work experience to the individuals applying for work because this removes the incentive to discriminate on the basis of rules of thumb from the employer’s past experience. Other prescriptions have included the use of quotes in hiring.

Market Observation

If women’s work is equal to men’s work, then companies could hire only women and drive the discriminating companies out of business on account of their misogyny. The observation that we seldom see this sort of behavior suggests that discrimination against women is not based on preferences so much as statistical experiences being applied to individuals. The real question is why does past experience continue to justify these sorts of rules of thumb being applied?

The Nature of Work

Aspects of wage determination seriously disadvantage women. Returning to the ideal of human capital, when an employers pays an employee a wage, part of the wage pays for today’s work and part pays for future work that may well change in ways that cannot be anticipated. Consequently, employees in skilled occupations constantly need to learn new things to keep up. We would expect therefore that if women are disadvantaged in learning new skills on the job, then we would expect them to earn less in proportion to the amount of skill required in a particular occupation.

The key disadvantage in this context arises in the area of unpaid work. Unpaid work occurs when an employee works sixty hours a week, but is only paid for forty hours. Unpaid work is a significant portion of  the work done in most salaried positions today and it has increased with the almost ubiquitous availability of cell phones and laptop computers.

Unpaid work has two important outcomes that affect wages. Unpaid work lowers the effective wage and it increases the job-related training that employees engage in. Unpaid work is sometimes required but more normally it is at the discretion of the employee. If women as a group engage in less unpaid work than men, then wages ought to reflect that difference.

Policy Alternative

If social obligations make it impossible for women to engage in as much unpaid work as men, then wage differences reflect a reality well-known to employers. Given this reality, forcing employers to paid men and women the same wage will naturally result in fewer women being hired, which is an anticipatable yet unintended effect.

Recognizing that unpaid work is the source of the wage discrepancy suggests, however, that employers could level the playing field by severely limiting opportunities to engage in unpaid work both inside and outside the workplace. Because employers are unlikely to give up unpaid work, government regulations could change the treatment of salaried work to make it more like hourly work where overtime regulations apply. Requiring overtime to be paid irrespective of employee classification turns unpaid work into paid work and would discourage employers from encouraging excessive unpaid work.

Regulations could also be developed to require employers to pay employees for time spent reading emails and doing work-related studies. The problem with taking this policy too far is that a vibrant economy requires that companies innovate and workers learn and evolve with changing circumstances. Unpaid work is a component of economic adjustment and in that context should be encouraged. This implies that true gender equality in the workplace is but one among many policy goals.

A Christian Response to the Workplace

Facing an increasingly competitive global work environment, Christians like everyone else are constantly given choices among undesirable alternatives outside our control. Having women compete with men in the workplace invariably devalues family life by making children an expensive option. Falling fertility rates among American women show that in the absence of immigration population levels will decline, which is a measure of the stress currently being placed on families.

In our family, my wife and I had children in our thirties and my wife stayed home for ten years while our threes kids were young. The kids were born about sixteen months apart to minimize her time at home. Although my wife is trained as an engineer, she found that teaching mathematics and chemistry in the local high schools was more compatible with family life and she enjoyed teaching. Having her work was not so much an income maximizing activity as an effective hedge against uncertainty in my own employment prospects.

What is the Christian response to a difficult workplace? We are called to live in and value family life. Other considerations are secondary.

References

Becker, Gary S. 1957. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thurow, Lester C. 1975. Generating Inequality. New York: Basic Books.

Equal Pay

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Simple_Faith_Out

Continue Reading

Value of Life

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The value of human life has been neglected in many controversies in recent years. Once believed to have infinite value because we are created in the image of  God, the chipping away of this value has been dramatic during our lifetime.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to honor God’s name in keeping with the Third Commandment—do not take the Lord’s name in vain—because all the other commandments are leveraged on it (Exod 20:7). Why keep the other commandments, if we dishonor God’s name?

Intrinsic versus Market Value

The practical implications of honoring God arise because we are created in God’s image. Because we are created in the image of God, human life has intrinsic value—value in itself that does not change with life events. Because life has intrinsic value, we cannot accept discrimination, injustice, abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, weapons of mass destruction, euthanasia, abortion, designer babies, and a host of other detestable practices. Our human rights—a concept based on intrinsic value—exist because we are created in the image of a Holy God.

Our capitalist society focuses, not on intrinsic values, but on market values. Market values change with circumstances that are volatile. Your market value as a person implicitly depends on your productivity. If you are young, old, or unable to work, then you are a dependent and a burden on working people. The focus on market values inherently disrespects God’s image. When God is not honored; neither are we.

The strong influence of market values on our self-image explains, in part, is why depression rates tend to be highest among population groups—like young adults and senior citizens—who are unable to work. The rate of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, addictions, and divorce appear to be correlated, in part, with changing job prospects.

Honor and Idolatry

When God’s name is dishonored, we also become more prone to idolatry (Rom 1:21-23). Why worship the God of the Bible when my income and status in society depends more on my family legacy, education, and hard work? So I naturally run to all sorts of substitutes for God that work, like insurance, to manage the ups and downs of life. Alternatively, I can obsess about the security of my home, spouse, and family.

The implications of honoring the name of God come together in the debate over euthanasia—the right to die. If my self-image and my dignity in society are both increasingly subjected to the same market values, then I will surrender myself to assisted suicide precisely when I need support from my family. And, of course, they will agree because I have become a burden both financially and emotionally. Consequently, euthanasia is evil masquerading as compassion. We are created in the image of a holy God who declares that life is good and sacred (Gen 1:31).

Link to Ethics

The question in ethics is on what you do about your faith.

When someone is speaking, do you honor them by listening or go to that happy place in your mind? Do you know the name of the janitor in your office or only the names of your supervisors? How do you show that the people in your life, including those really annoying people, are created in the image of God? 

Ethics is about who we honor and the choices we make.

Value of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

Continue Reading

Toward a Complete Spirituality

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my personal journey to understand the depth of Christian spirituality I have frequently cited the need to consider the four questions typically posed in philosophy, which are:

1. Metaphysics—who is God?

2. Anthropology—who are we?

3. Epistemology—how do we know?

4. Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I have focused on ethics, the fourth question. While seeking a complete spirituality may seem like an arbitrary decision, serious problems arise when any one of these questions is neglected.

Neglect of Metaphysics

Postmodern culture’s almost exclusive focus on the physical world neglects the metaphysical. Metaphysics literally means above physics or, better, beyond physics. Postmodern people struggle to understand God, especially his transcendence.

Having created the known universe, God stands apart from it or, in other words, he transcends the universe. For us as mortal human beings, there is no path up the mountain, God must come down to us. As Christians, we believe that he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidence of the neglect of metaphysics shows up in the popular expression: I am spiritual, just not religious. Here spirituality is defined as limited to the human experience, especial feelings of ecstasy—great joy or happiness, even if drug induced. While this is nothing new, postmodern people seem stuck in moment of time believing that everything is new. More to the point, however, is the observation that the neglect of metaphysics is rampant in our time.

Neglect of Anthropology

For Christians, the neglect of anthropology manifests itself in the acceptance of Greek anthropology where heart and mind are separate. Emotions are more valued or thinking is more valued, depending on who you talk to, but the two are held to be distinctly different. This separation poses a problem for faith because faith requires heart and mind to be considered together.

While this subject is timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. He coined the phraseholy affections to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

More recently, Elliott (2009, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we strongly believe.

Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21). Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained because they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2009, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

Neglect of anthropology is perhaps the single, most important reason that the Christian faith has been hard to understand and accept in our time.

Neglect of Epistemology

The neglect of epistemology is closely related to the neglect of anthropology. Few people come to faith because of intellectual arguments (epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we know what we know), but many people who have come to faith for emotional reasons later fall away because their faith appears to lack substance. When heart and mind are not engaged together, the absence of one affects the durability of the other.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture appears like the great enigma of the postmodern age. The advances of technology that have led to the convenience of communication and the extension of life through new medical discoveries, yet the thought processes required to develop and sustain these technologies are known to a tiny number of people. Instead, youth culture, which focuses on hedonistic entertainments and moral laxity, appears parasitic relative to this great intellectual heritage.

Neglect of epistemology leaves people apprehensive of the faith that they have seen in others and makes it hard for them to understand the logic of faith and to accept the lifestyle changes required to join the Christian community.

Neglect of Ethics

The neglect of ethics is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

A special form of this neglect of ethics arises when people start to see the church as a holy huddle a kind of shelter from the storms of life, rather than as a team meeting of the faithful, searching together for answers in the midst of the struggles of life. This holy huddle can take the form of an entirely intellectualized faith or of a faith focused entirely on service to the neglect of the interior life. Either way, the hard tradeoffs implied in limited time, energy, and resources are overlooked and growth in discipleship remains frozen in time.

Neglect of ethics becomes obvious in the life of the church and community more widely when political views replace honest discernment and the focus on God melts away amidst senseless conflict.

Life in Tension

Considering all four of the questions taken from philosophy does not lead to a trouble-free Christian life, but it prevents the neglect of important aspects of our faith. Tension will always exist between to the life of the Christian and the culture that we find ourselves in. We need to accept this tension and learn to live with it because without tension our lives cannot be transformed into the image of Christ and we cannot be a witness to that truth.

References

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (Orig Pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Toward a Complete Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

Continue Reading

Presuppositional Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of a triune God. Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

References

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

Continue Reading

Ministerial Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pastors point people to God. Everything else they do is a means to that end.

Because God is ever-present in our lives, it takes special insight to become aware of God’s Shekinah cloud in everyday life:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (Peterson 2011, 100-101)

Without assistance, people are more likely to see Harvey, the six foot invisible rabbit,⁠1 which makes the pastor’s role unique. 

The insight required of pastors is ironically not unique to pastors is a Christian mindset where everything is evaluated relative to Christ. While the world around us thinks of this attitude as obsession, it is a Christian distinctive seldom tolerated even among pastors. Blamires (2005, 148) writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around].”

Elsewhere I have described this mindset this way: Jesus is my denominator—the measure of all things. Without this mindset, the Shekinah cloud becomes invisible like Harvey and salvation disappears and becomes illusive, out of reach. Pastors unable to bring it back to view morph into beggars, social workers, and purveyors of religious entertainment, depending on your default prejudices.

Pastoring by the Numbers

The bane of pastors is the paying of bills.

If you take the Jewish concept of a minion and combine it will the tithe, you get an interesting transition into the Old Testament answer to financing a Rabbi. In order to hold a worship service in the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi needed ten adult men—a minion. If each of these men paid the tithe (which was an obligatory ten percent of income), then the Rabbi would enjoy the same living standard as the average person in his minion.

In a typical American church, people given an average of about one person of their income. This implies that a pastor’s minion is about a hundred families, which is coincidently the size of a typical church. This source of mathematics then suggests why we have seen the growth of mega churches who host a large pastoral staff and can offer numerous programs and quality music in worship.

The problem with this arrangement is that pointing someone to God requires intimate knowledge of the person in question, acquired only through spend time with them. This was entirely likely for a Rabbi with this minion, but seems far fetched for a pastor with his minions. Intimate communication cannot be one-way communication.

Other Duties as Assigned

The Book of Order 2007/2009 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the duties of a pastor in these terms:

“The permanent pastoral officers of ministers of the Word and Sacrament are pastors and associate pastors. When a minister of the Word and Sacrament is called as a pastor or associate pastor of a particular church or churches, she or he is to be responsible for a quality of life and relationships that commend the Gospel to all persons and that communicate its joy and its justice. The pastor is responsible for studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, for administrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for praying with and for the congregation. With the elders, the pastor is to encourage the people in the worship and service of God, to equip and enable them for their tasks within the church and their mission in the world; to exercise pastoral care, devoting special attention to the poor, the sick, the troubled, and the dying; to participate in governing responsibilities, including leadership of the congregation in implementing the principles of participation and inclusiveness in the decision making of the church, and its task of reaching out in concern and service to the life of the human community as a whole. With the deacons the pastor is to share in the ministries of sympathy, witness, and service. In addition to these pastoral duties, he or she is responsible for sharing in the ministry of the church in the governing bodies above the session and in ecumenical relationships.” (PCUSA 2007, G-6.0202b)

The responsibilities unique to pastors are in practice the administration of the sacraments. Other responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, leadership, and pastoral care, are shared with others in the church.⁠2 

Note the bureaucratic nature of the above pastoral definition. First, terms are defined. The office of pastor (and associate pastor) is defined as permanent. Assistant pastors are neither called nor permanent. Second, the call is focused on modeling a quality of life and relationships of the Gospel (not God). Third, responsibility include studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and praying for the congregation. God himself is not mentioned until the fourth sentence where God appears in the phrase: “the worship and service of God.”

The point of discussing other duties as assigned is that the ethics of pastoring requires a clear focus on God in all that we do that can sometimes be hard to maintain within the institution of the church.

Case Studies in Ministry

While ministry is often treated as something of a mystery, it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. One way to improve on ministry practice is to work as team and to encourage the team to reflect on and discuss events that do not go as planned using a case study approach. 

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA; 1993, 12-19) see the goal of case studies is to equip a presenter of the case study to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection.

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

MTA (1993, 116-117) recommend a case composed of five parts:

1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.

2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.

3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”

4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.

5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event?

A case is about two pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

While the ideal setting for discussion of case studies is with a ministry team, a modified case study can also be useful in writing about ministry. Clearly, the choice of events to study is critical in revealing strengths and weaknesses in ministry. In writing about actual people, however, the case study may need to be recast as a study of a biblical or fictional character in such a way that identity of the persons involved is maintained. In preaching, this often ends up being an “I know a person who” story that frequently is a circumlocution for the pastor giving the talk (Savage 1996, 89-92).

1 This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

2 Note that because the Book of Order is frequently amended, the title includes a date and the terminology often changes, even for the title of pastor. I cite this polity document as an example primarily because I am familiar with it and not because it is a model for other denominations.

References

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen (MTA). 1993. Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Peterson, Eugene H.  2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 2007. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part II: Book of Order, 2007/2009. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Ministerial Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

Continue Reading

Relational Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is one of the Christ’s defining characteristics, which we know from the first three Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In these Beatitudes, Jesus focuses on tension within ourselves and honors disciples who live humbly, mourn their fallen state, and embody a spirit of meekness. Such disciples will receive heaven and  earth,  a merism⁠1 meaning everything (Matt 5:3-5). While we normally talk about humility in individualistic terms, the biblical context for humility comes in relationships with our families, churches, and communities.

The Christian Family

In Christ, we honor each individual regardless of status or age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ meeting the challenges of each stage in life without fear.

Family Function

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

Here we see humility being worked out in a family context. A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. 

The Family as an Emotional Unit

Family systems theory focuses on “the family as an emotional unit” rather than on particular individuals (Gilbert 2006, 3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice. Family systems theory is often applied to other emotional units, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.

The emotional unit is sometimes compared to the plumbing system in your house. If the water pressure rises to the breaking point, the leak will show up in the weakest link in the system. For families, the weakest link is usually a child so when parents quarrel continuously, it is often a child that starts acting out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc). If the child is sent to a therapist alone, the problem is not resolved, but when the parents stop quarreling, the child often stops acting out (Friedman 1985, 21).

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Humility as Emotional Maturity

Humility is not shyness and is not a natural trait—it is a learned trait that often comes with emotional maturity. It can also often healing within emotional units because anxiety is infectious ( Gilbert 2006, 7).

Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak ( Gilbert 2006, 21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (Gilbert 2006, 33). Gilbert’s grandfather, who farms, attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle; otherwise when spooked, cattle will stampede (Gilbert 2006, 22).

Friedman (1985, 27-31) describes differentiation as the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration. The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence. Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (a tendency to resist change).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges in dysfunctional organizations.

1 Another famous merism is:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

References

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.0

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999. Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. New York: Howard Books.

Relational Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Welcome_NY_2019

Continue Reading

Problem of Boundaries

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Undefended boundaries are an invitation to abuse and thievery. Whenever pain shows itself, we need to establish a new rule and defend it.

If our primary identity is in Christ, then we emulate Christ in all that we do, our duties in life are defined by Christ, and we act in all things expecting Christ’s return. Our boundaries reflect this life process both in our emotions and thinking.

The Good Samaritan

Cloud and Townsend (1992, 25) explain boundaries in these terms: 

“Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Cloud and Townsend apply their concept of boundaries in interpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this story in Luke’s Gospel:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back (Luke 10:30-35).

Why is this story about the Good Samaritan rather than about the Great Samaritan? The Samaritan did not walk on the other side of the road like the priest or the Levite, but he also did not drop everything and nurse the man back to health. Instead, the Samaritan focused on what he was able to do. Then, he delegated further assistance to the innkeeper and continued his trip (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39). In other words, the Good Samaritan saved the man’s life and, still, displayed healthy boundaries.

A Personal Audit

Cloud (2008, 69) suggests that a good place to start working on boundaries is with an audit. The purpose of this audit is to measure where you spend your time, disconnects between time spent and personal values, and what personal issues contribute to the problem.  This method of analysis is reminiscent of what Miller and Rollnick (2002, 38) referred to as gap analysis—highlighting the discrepancy between present behavior and broader goals and values.

Christian Boundaries

The concept of boundaries sounds a lot like law which raises a deep theological controversy about the relationship between law and Gospel, particularly when Gospel is defined in highly licentious terms. In parsing this controversy it is helpful to recognize that in the Gospels the Pharisees are pictured presenting a narrow interpretation of law to make it doable while Jesus normally widens the interpretation making compliance impossible without God’s divine intervention. More generally, Jesus speaks about principles while the Pharisees speak about rules.

When law in the commandments are expressed in principle, sin is also a violation of the principle of love in relationships with God and with neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).  Matthew outlines Jesus providing five cases where Mosaic Law is enlarged by considering underlying attitudes rather than technical compliance:  murder, adultery, the taking of oaths, application of lex talionis, and love of neighbor.⁠1  Each is introduced with an expression:  “you have heard it said.”  The case of murder is illustrative:  

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:21-22).  

In other words, the act of murder starts with an attitude of anger.  It is, therefore, sinful to become angry for the wrong reasons because it leads to murder and, implicitly, violates the attitude of love.

In this context, it is clear that Jesus is not relinquishing the law or diminishing it in any way, as Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) In this context, fulfilling the law implies a more stringent condition than the law, not a more lenient one, where three states of nature are possible: noncompliance with law (transgression), technical compliance (Pharisee position), and fulfilling the law (Gospel). Contrasting law and Gospel would be to compare the latter two states.

By widening the law, Jesus makes it obvious that we must make room in our lives for God and live within his healthy boundaries. The Ten Commandments cannot therefore be abandoned; mere compliance is an indication that we have not centered our lives on Christ. The point is not to try to become the “Great Samaritan,” but rather to lean on the Holy Spirit to guide on what to do and what not to do.

References

Cloud, Henry.  2008. The One-Life Solution:  Reclaiming Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success. New York:  HarperCollins.

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

1 Matt 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38, and 5:43.

Problem of Boundaries

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Welcome_NY_2019

Continue Reading

Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bibles teaches ethics through commandments, lists, proverbs, parables, prophecies, colorful stories, and admonitions, which renders any summary incomplete. Some of the more important  lessons can, however, be subtle. 

Be a Good Example

Consider the admonition Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount, right after presenting the Beatitudes:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

This admonition alludes to: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) We are to model God’s own behavior for the benefit of those around us. This makes perfect sense because we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), but for whose benefit are we doing this? As an inducement to live a holy life, keeping one eye on God and the other eye on how we appear to other people is a great motivator—if nothing more was said about behaving ethically, this is a great starting point.

Balance is a Virtue

The Ten Commandments are frequently a starting point for discussing community ethics, as they should be. But after giving Moses a second set of stone tables, after he broke the first set, we read:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  (Exod 34:6-7)

Here God instructs Moses on how to interpret the Ten Commandments in view of God’s own character—God is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful. So if two commandments come in conflict, remember who God is and how he would deal with this conflict—one list (the commandments) is balanced by admonitions of a second list (the character traits). Another way to look at these two lists is that the commandments speak to the mind, while the character traits talk about the heart.

Start with the Heart

Jesus’ teaching also balances the heart and the mind. Consider this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that  everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28)

Actually, Jesus places priority on the desires of the heart as the source of sin. In other words, do not consider yourself righteous simply because you have not yet had the opportunity to sin—manage your desires.

Dealing with Temptation

After his baptism but before he began his ministry, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert  where the Devil tempted him as recorded in the synoptic gospels.⁠1 Much like Adam and Eve are tempted with food, the devil starts by goading a hungry Jesus into turning a stone into bread. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Jesus cites scripture in response to each temptation. In the final temptation, the Devil’s temptation starts by misquoting scripture, but Jesus corrects the deception and resists the temptation.

Each temptation Jesus faces is a challenge facing all Christians, particularly leaders. Nouwen (2002, 7–8) summarizes these leadership challenges as the temptation to be relevant (provide food), to be spectacular (show your divinity), and to be powerful (take charge).

Family Tradeoffs

One of the defining characteristics of the Christian faith is honoring each individual regardless of age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other.  Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ.

The ethical example of family life in Christ is especially important because the family is the model for ethical behavior in the church. We are all brothers and sisters under one father, Jesus Christ.

1 Mark 1:12-13 gives a brief overview while Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer. The Luke version has the most detail. The second and third questions posed by Satan appear in different order in Matthew and Luke.

References

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. 

Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Welcome_NY_2019

Continue Reading

Identity, Duty, and Planning

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

What motivates us to act? 

We can act out of identity, duty, or planning (telos), but many times we fail to act. This is particularly true when our motivations are unclear or we are unprepared to make a decision.

Rational versus Behavioral Decisions

Consider the case of shopping for toothpaste. If you routinely buy a particular brand or always buy the cheapest, you are purchasing out of habit and no independent decision is made on particular purchases. However, your habit may have begun with a thorough review of alternative brands or research that suggested the brands were equally effective in preventing cavities. The investment of time and effort on that first purchase may then have convinced you to use your current rule of thumb—buy the brand or buy the cheapest. Thirty years later, you may have forgotten the motivation and only remember your rule of thumb. 

Illustration Described

In this illustration, the original decision involved a rational decision process, while using the resulting rule is more of a behavioral decision process (a path of least resistance). Ethics focuses primarily on rational decision processes where we weigh the pros and cons of a decision before deciding and we need to think through our motivations. Behavioral decisions, where we simply respond to positive and negative stimuli, are not unethical, but they may pose occasions when we are not fully aware of our motivations. 

Incentive to Procrastinate

It may be difficult to make a decision when our habits are disrupted and we need to make a rational decision on how to proceed. Rational decisions require more information, skill, and effort than we may be comfortable with, which may motivate procrastination. Typically, we are invested in our previous decisions which suggests that decisions to change those precedents, even in the case of really bad habits like addictions, require an equal or greater investment in the new decision.

If you took up smoking in high school, for example, your habit may be closely associated with a person or experience back then with great personal meaning, even if that meaning has since been forgotten—each puff is like a walk down memory lane and something especially hard to give up if life has not treated you well since then.  Miller and Rollnick (2002, 10) ask whether we are “ready, willing, and able,” which suggests that we frequently are not ready, willing, or able.

Identity and Character

We are created in the image of God, the core of our identity:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

The context here is important. We are in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible so every implied by these three verses about what it means to be created in the image of God has to appear in the prior verses. How does the text describe God?⁠1

Divine Attributes

Consider these four attributes:

  1. Verse one tells us that God is a creator who, being eternal, sovereignly stands outside time and space. 
  2. Verse two shows us that God can through his spirit enter into his creation. 
  3. Having created heaven and earth, verse three describes God speaking to shape the form of creation beginning with light Note the exact correspondence between what God says (“Let there be light”) and what he does (“and there was light”)—God is truthful, authentic. 
  4. Verse four tells us that God judged to be good and he separated it from darkness—God discriminates good (light) from the not so good (darkness). 

God is sovereign, authentic, and ethically minded. If God has these attributes, then as image bearers we should aspire to them too.

Consider the question of God’s sovereignty. Do you think that God is reluctant or afraid of making tough decisions? For us, sovereignty could mean having the courage to commit the time and energy to make good decisions.

Identity

Identity motivates us particularly in our careers. You can always identify the fire fighters—those are the folks running into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. It part of their identity and training as firefighters that they act out every day. 

Similarly, as Christians we act out of our identity as image-bearers of a Holy God.

Duty within Community

The Apostle Paul makes image theology explicit when he writes: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Eph 5:1) Paul draws this theme out in more detail in Galatians 5:16-24, where he contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the spirit echoing God’s self-revelation:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6)

The Apostle Paul alludes to this verse when he writes about putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24).

Context of the Ten Commandments

Still, the context for Exodus 34:6 is that God has just given Moses the Ten Commandments for the second time (Exod 20). God disclosed his character aa an aid to interpret the Commandments, should anything be unclear. The Commandments themselves served as a thumbnail sketch of each person’s duty to God and to the Nation of Israel⁠2 under the Mosaic covenant. 

Duty or Identity?

While many people see the Ten Commandments as their duty under the covenant, another way to look at the Commandments is as describing the characteristics of people who make up the covenantal community. Similarly, Christians can be described simply as the people who follow Jesus and obey his commandments (Matt 4:19-20). 

Do we act out our duty as members of the Christian community or simply out of a deeper sense of identity?

Planning and Leadership

If there was ever a man on a mission, it was Abraham, as we read:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Gen 12:1-3)

Abraham became a leader among men possessing his own private army that conquered all the known powers of his day in retrieving his kidnapped nephew, Lot (Gen 14:11-17). But most of his actions were defined by the mission that God gave him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)

Great Commission

God has also given us a mission in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19) What is interesting is that when we act out of our mission, we also gain an identity.

It is also important to recognize the importance of having a vision. Knowing that Jesus rose from the dead and will return for us (John 14:3) means that we know the future. It is like having tomorrow’s newspaper today—we can buy the best stocks without any risk of loss. 

Future in Christ

Knowing the future is in Christ frees us from worry allowing to act boldly and take risks to advance God’s kingdom today that would otherwise seem foolish.

Like Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

Footnotes

1 Hoekema (1986, 1) turns the discussion of image around. Instead of asking who is God? He asks: who are we?

2 In his survey of the areas of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments with respect to the Mosaic law, Thielman (1999, 2) observes: “Everywhere that Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or John Calvin attempted to explain the entire Bible within a insole, coherent theological system, it became essential to ask what role the Mosaic law played in the system.” Thielman asks whether the Christian duties outlined in the New Testament were not themselves based on the same Jewish sources, as many (myself included) assumed was the case.

References

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Thielman, Frank. 1999. The Law and the New Testament. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Identity, Duty, and Planning

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Advent_Mas_2018

Continue Reading