Spiritual Portraits and the Purification of Means


Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
 
There are two kinds of spiritual writers: mechanics and artists.
 
Mechanics focus on how spirituality works, on tightening the nuts and bolts of prayer, meditation, fasting, and the like. By showing us how these means of grace work, they help us draw closer to God and godliness. Richard J. Foster is a mechanic of the spiritual life. His Celebration of Discipline is a masterful user manual of spiritual practices.
 
Artists, by contrast, show us what spirituality looks like. They don’t write user manuals; they paint portraits. Not landscapes, mind you – portraits. For spiritual artists, spirituality is personal, biographical, narrative. They show God in human form, and godliness in human form – warts and all. Eugene H. Peterson is a spiritual artist, and The Jesus Way is an exhibit of masterfully drawn portraits.
 
It is also a frustrating book for our mechanically inclined, North American souls. Unlike The Celebration of Discipline, The Jesus Way includes no three- or four-step guidelines for prayer and fasting. If you’re looking for that kind of guidance, don’t bother reading this book. It will not give you The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians or The Secret of Becoming Like Jesus. It is not about How to Win Souls and Disciple People. It is, instead, “a conversation on the spirituality of the ways we go about following Jesus.” It is a gallery of portraits in which the artist’s perspective paints his subject in a new light.
 
The portraits in Peterson’s gallery are biblical and historical figures: Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Herod the Great, the Pharisees, Caiaphas, the Essenes, Josephus, the Zealots. And, the centerpiece of the exhibit, Jesus. But Peterson’s perspective on these subjects, his unique angle of vision, forces us to see through them the various ways in which North American Christians should but do not follow the God-Man who is the Way (John 14:6).
 
Indeed, what Peterson’s portraits show is that North American Christians have adapted a variety of spiritual ways and means that have nothing to do with Jesus, indeed, that contradict and subvert the way of Jesus. We are a consumer-oriented, mass produced culture; and our spiritual ways reflect our cultural predilections. We are felt-need driven, without considering that a consumer’s felt needs might be artificially manipulated or authentically mistaken. We are mass produced, without considering that Jesus’ ministry is concrete, not abstract; personal, not impersonal; individual, not cookie cutter.
 
Peterson’s portraits of Jesus’ Old Testament predecessors show a spirituality that revolves around “faith and word, imperfection and marginality, the holy and the beautiful.” His portraits of Jesus’ New Testament contemporaries are diptychs, Herod and the Pharisees, Caiaphas and the Essenes, Josephus and the Zealots. Or rather, perhaps we should say that they are contradictory diptychs: Herod versus the Pharisees, and so on. Jesus aligns with neither side of the diptych; rather, his way subverts both. He neither builds a kingdom of political power (Herod) or legal precision (Pharisees). He neither uses institutional religion for selfish ends (Caiaphas) nor rejects it entirely (Essenes). He neither lacks principle (Josephus) nor embraces principled violence (Zealots). His way is different.
 
It is irreducibly personal. God is a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternal, indivisible union. Their way with one another is personal. And consequently, their way with us is personal as well. God relates to us a Person to persons. His way is personal. His way is Jesus.
 
Contemporary North American spirituality, by contrast, is impersonal. It focuses on abstract, mass produced principles that do not know what to make of humanity’s warts and all condition. They don’t know what to make of King David, for example, whose imperfections Scripture draws in such meticulous details (violence, adultery, murder, polygamy). Call this the Way of Imperfection. David’s seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) contain no three-step program for personal holiness. They simple call upon God for forgiveness. “In dealing with God we don’t do it on our own,” Peterson writes; “we deal with God as he deals with sin.”
 
The Way of Jesus, you see, is the personal way of dealing with God, of relating to him not as consumers seeking personal benefit but as servants seeking divine direction. The consumer mentality warps North American spirituality; if we are to follow the Jesus Way, we must submit to a necessary “purification of means.” If the end of spirituality is personal – communion with the Triune God – then the means to that end must be personal as well. Peterson’s portraits show us what that personal way looks like.
 
I mentioned that The Jesus Way is a frustrating book. I should say that it is a frustrating book for me personally. I have a mechanical soul. I favor the user manual approach to spirituality. And anyone who has read anything by Richard J. Foster knows how spiritually fruitful that form of writing can be. The mechanics of the spiritual life are as necessary as the artists, but in a different way and for a different reason. The mechanics think for us. The artists force us to think for ourselves. The mechanics show us how to do things differently. The artists show us how to see things differently.
 
At any number of points in The Jesus Way, I disagreed with something Peterson wrote. Is Christian spirituality always a spirituality of people on the margins, as the chapter on Elijah suggests? Peterson seems to agree with historical criticism’s reconstructions of the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch and Isaiah. Is he right? Perfectionism is without a doubt a spiritually deforming doctrine, but does David’s example mean that no spiritual and moral progress is possible?
 
The Jesus Way raised many questions in my mind for which it did not provide definitive answers. But the questions forced me to look differently at my own ways, to look at my life and spirituality, and the spirituality of my church. That is what spiritual artists are supposed to do, to help us see differently. And Eugene H. Peterson is nothing if not a master artist.
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Pride and Humility


 
The Book of Proverbs makes four interrelated claims regarding pride and humility.
 
First, pride and humility are fundamentally spiritual in nature. They are outward manifestations of the inward state of your heart toward God. If you are proud, your heart is far from God. If you are humble, your heart is drawing closer to God. As an example of the former, consider what this proverb says about the mocker, i.e., a militantly anti-religious person:
 
The proud and arrogant man — “Mocker” is his name;
he behaves with overweening pride (21:24).
 
Haughty eyes and a proud heart,
the lamp of the wicked, are sin! (21:4)
 
By contrast, “fear of the Lord,” which is parallel to “humility,” results in blessing:
 
The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom,
and humility comes before honor (15:33).
 
Second, God himself strives against the proud but blesses the humble. Consider the following two proverbs:
 
The Lord tears down the proud man’s house
but he keeps the widow’s boundaries intact (15:25).
 
The Lord detests all the proud of heart.
Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished (16:5).
 
Third, because of God’s contrasting attitudes toward pride and humility, God brings about contrasting consequences on the proud and the humble. Pride leads to disgrace; humility leads to honor.
 
When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom (11:2).
 
Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall (16:18).
 
Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud,
but humility comes before honor (18:12).
 
A man’s pride brings him low,
but a man of lowly spirit gains honor (29:23).
 
Another contrasting consequence is that pride leads to folly, but humility to wisdom:
 
Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him (26:12).
 
A final contrasting consequence concerns poverty and wealth:
 
Humility and the fear of the Lord
bring wealth and honor and life (22:4).
 
And yet, the Book of Proverbs recognizes that in a sinful world, virtue does not always result in wealth. We know there are arrogant billionaires and humble hundredaires, after all. In such cases, Proverbs clearly prioritizes virtue:
 
Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed
than to share plunder with the proud  (16:19).
 
Consequently, the virtue of humility is highly desirable and should be cultivated in practical ways. This proverb gives canny advice about how to act when you’re among the rich and powerful:
 
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman (25:6-7).
 
And this proverb compares pride to gluttony, to the detriment of both:
 
It is not good to eat too much honey,
nor is it honorable to seek one’s own honor (25:27).
 
If you want honor, and wisdom, and wealth that lasts, the path to take is not that of pride but of humility. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Ethics and Organized Religion


I once had a friend who was very interested in spirituality but not in organized religion. His wife attended church, but not he. Instead, he would invite me over to his house from time to time, cook a wonderful dinner, then pepper me with questions for the rest of the evening. I did my best to answer them before he brought out dessert.
 
There are probably a passel of people like my friend. They like Jesus, but not the church. They are interested in what he says about ethics and whatnot, but they are uninterested in what the church does on any given Sunday.
 
Interestingly, they have the Bible on their side, at least to a certain extent. Consider what we read in Proverbs 21:3:
 
To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
 
Indeed, unless you do what is right and just, God does not accept your sacrifice.
 
The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked,
but the prayer of the upright pleases him (15:8).
 
The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable —
how much more so when brought with evil intent! (21:27)
 
How you behave also affects whether your prayers are answered.
 
The Lord is far from the wicked
but he hears the prayer of the righteous (15:29).
 
If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law,
even his prayers are detestable (28:9).
 
In each of these five verses, ethics is more important than religious practices. If your heart is right, and if you speak and act in an ethical manner, then your religious practices are pleasing to God. If not, then not.
 
But at the end of the day, I don’t think the Bible is forcing us to choose between ethics and organized religion. If God were so antipathetic to organized religion, why did he reveal so many laws regarding animal sacrifice and tithes and priests and prayers? The point of these verses is not that we get to make the choice between ethics and organized religion, only that the former is more important than the latter.
 
Or rather, perhaps what we should say is that the organized religion is supposed to be a means to ethical living. Why did God give us the law? To show us how he wants us to live. Why did he give us priests and sacrifices in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the New Testament? To show us that we don’t live the way he wants us to, the sin must be punished, but that forgiveness is also offered to the repentant. Why do we attend worship services on a regular basis and support the local church? Because the natural tendency of humanity is to forget God, his law, and the gospel unless we are constantly reminded of their reality. That’s what church – organized religion at its most obvious – is all about.
 
Who God wants us to be is more important than how we become it, just as the end is always more important than the means. But that doesn’t mean that the means are unimportant.
 
So, don’t forget to go to church this weekend!

Leaving It Better


 
The Boy Scouts have an unofficial motto when it comes to campsites: Leave it better than you found it. In my opinion, this would make an excellent mission statement for Christians and their churches. As a result of our efforts (individually and collectively), the world should be a better place (spiritually and morally).
 
Several proverbs speak about the positive influence of the righteous, and the negative influence of the wicked.[1]
 
Influence is expressed through what we say and how we say it.
 
Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed (11:11).
 
Mockers stir up a city,
but wise men turn away anger (29:8).
 
Are we known as people who bless others through our words, or do our mouths mock and stir up anger? Do people walk away from a conversation with you or from a sermon informed by the truth and inspired to put it to work, or do they walk away more ignorant and depressed?
 
Influence is also expressed by what actions we inspire people to take.
 
A violent man entices his neighbor
and leads him down a path that is not good (16:29).
 
He who leads the upright along an evil path
will fall into his own trap,
but the blameless will receive a good inheritance (28:10).
 
When the wicked thrive, so does sin,
but the righteous will see their downfall (29:16).
 
The true test of influence is not what we say, or even how people feel as a result of what we say. No! The true test of influence is what people do as the result of spending time with us. Do people love God, neighbor, and self as a result of our influence, or do they hate God, neighbor, and self because of us?
 
Influenced is expressed by words and deeds. It is felt first of all in the home.
 
The righteous man leads a blameless life;
blessed are his children after him (20:7).
 
But real influence spreads beyond your home’s four walls and into the community at large.
 
Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a disgrace to any people (14:34).
 
When the righteous triumph, there is great elation;
but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding (28:12).
 
When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding;
but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive (28:28).
 
When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice;
when the wicked rule, the people groan (29:2).
 
“A rising tide,” in the words of an old aphorism, “lifts all boats.” I think that is correct. When parents influence their children positively, their children in turn influence their community positively. And a positive community is a great place in which to raise good children. Private influence and public influence are symbiotic; they feed off and mutually support one another.
 
At the end of each day, we should ask ourselves a simple question: Did we leave it better than we found it? The only right answer is yes.


[1] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 565.

To Spank or Not to Spank?


 
When I was a kid, my parents spanked me if sweet reason didn’t stop me from misbehaving. The parents of most of my friends acted the same way. Today, however, spanking is controversial. Does the Bible say anything about the topic? Yes, actually; quite a lot.
 
First, the Bible offers a theological argument for disciplining children.
 
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in (3:11-12).
 
Discipline, here, is a broad term. It includes every action parents take to rear their children into holy, healthy, and happy kids – whether positive reinforcements or negative. We should discipline our children just as God disciplines us.
 
Second, the Bible shows us that love is the proper motive for disciplining children. God “loves” and “delights in” those he disciplines. That also should be our motivation when it comes to our children.
 
He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is careful to discipline him (13:24).
 
Third, the Bible reminds us that discipline is necessary because children must be reared.
 
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him (22:15).
 
Left to their own devices, without proper training by their parents, kids will not become the holy, healthy, and happy adults God wants them to be. Adults are made, not born; and discipline plays an important role in shaping them. Moreover, a well-reared child is a delight to those around him.
 
Discipline your son, and he will give you peace;
he will bring delight to your soul (29:17).
 
The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a child left to himself disgraces his mother (29:15).
 
To this point, I’ve talked generally about discipline. But Proverbs 13:24, 22:15 and 29:15 speak of “the rod” (or spanking) as a specific form of discipline. Should!parents spank? Maybe, but not necessarily@ Words are the first form of discipline and are often effective.
 
A rebuke impresses a man of discernment
more than a hundred lashes a fool (17:10).
 
Flog a mocker, and the simple will learn prudence;
rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge (19:25).
 
If words are not effective, then what? At some point, might spanking become permissible? Two proverbs argue that spanking a child steers him away from future crime and even greater penalties.
 
Discipline your son, for in that there is hope;
do not be a willing party to his death (19:18).
 
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
Punish him with the rod
and save his soul from death (23:13-14).
 
To spank, then, or not to spank?
 
My personal opinion, based on biblical teaching and personal experience, is that spanking can be an acceptable form of discipline. But it must be motivated by love; it must be preceded by words; it must be moderate, not abusive; and it must be a last resort.

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