Friday, September 02, 2011

Fantasy Sovereignty

Our Sovereign Fantasy
Like children, we all buy into a fundamental and very tempting delusion. Our weakness in this area is what gave an opening to the serpent in the Garden, and by it that same enemy still seeks to prey upon us today. There are two helpful ways of expressing and thinking about this delusion, although in practice these two forms are so closely related as to produce what is essentially a single fantasy.

The first and primary form of this delusion is autonomy. To be truly autonomous is to be independent, self-determining, and self-ruling. To possess autonomy is to have the right to do with your time and resources whatever you will. It means you can set your own rules and chart your own course, that you’re in charge of your own life and nobody has the authority to tell you what to do.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see how irrational and even absurd this notion is. Imagine if all the drivers in Philadelphia, where I live, began to drive as if they actually thought they were autonomous. Imagine the chaos and carnage that would ensue as the desires of one driver collided head-on with the desires of another driver, throughout the city!

Autonomy is a delusion that seduces all of us. Every time I treat my wife, children, or friends in a way I shouldn’t treat them, in order to advance my own purpose, I’m operating out of the delusion of autonomy. Every time I take for myself glory that belongs to God, I’m claiming autonomy. Every time I willingly step over one of God’s boundaries with a word, a thought, a choice, or an action, I’m acting as if my life belongs to me. Autonomy is a dangerous fantasy that at various times and in various ways deceives us all.

Another way to think about this same basic delusion is in terms of self-sufficiency. To be self-sufficient is to have everything you need within yourself to be what you were designed to be, and to do what you were designed to do.

To assume we're self-sufficient is no more rational than to assume we're autonomous. Obviously, a newborn child is the opposite of self-sufficient; while young children and teens clearly have their own limitations. But what about a mature, accomplished adult? What about you? Can you be self-sufficient?

Here’s a test. Consider all the things you’ve done in the last twenty-four hours that required the assistance or contributions of others. Did you sleep indoors? Travel in a vehicle? Use electricity? Wear clothing you didn’t make? Read? Eat food you didn’t kill or grow? Get water from a faucet? Would any of that have been possible without the involvement of countless other people?

We were designed to live in worshipful dependence upon God and in humble, interdependent community with other people. Self-sufficiency may be a nonsensical delusion, but it’s a powerfully seductive and dangerous one. Yet every day we act as if we’re far more independent than we actually are. Every time you’re too proud to ask for help, you buy into the fantasy of your self-sufficiency. Every time you reject someone who’s trying to confront you with a wrong, you’re believing the lie of your self-sufficiency. Every time you act as if you know more than you actually know, you accept the delusion of your self-sufficiency.

The Confrontation of Nature

God designed this world in such a way that it serves as a constant reminder of his presence, his character, and his glory. Even as creation reminds us of these divine attributes, it does something else. It confronts our delusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
The doctrine of creation reveals the delusion of autonomy for the foolishness it is. Think about the logic here. If there is a Creator and you are his creature, the work of his hands, then there’s no such thing as autonomy.

I am a painter by avocation. When, after months of work, I finally complete a painting, who does that painting belong to? The answer is easy and obvious. It belongs to me because I created it. Does the beauty or sophistication of the thing created change who owns it? No. If somehow my next painting were judged by every art critic in the world to be the single best painting in history, it would still be mine, and I could still do with it whatever I pleased. In the same way, we belong to God, however amazingly well-constructed we are or imagine ourselves to be.
You cannot embrace both the doctrine of creation and the illusion of personal autonomy. The first cancels out the second. The Bible begins by declaring that the entire physical world (including humans) is the product of God’s creative artistry. It follows from this that we’re owned by him. Therefore, he alone has the right to tell us how we should participate in the existence that is his creation.

The doctrine of creation also exposes the lie of self-sufficiency. You can plant the healthiest seeds available, but if God doesn’t send the rain your plants will die. You're dependent on God for your very life and breath. If he would withdraw his hand, this orderly world would explode into chaos. Look how a drought or a flood can bring a region to its knees. Look at all the examples of how the goods of one part of the world are desperately needed by another part of the world. The more you consider the interdependent operation of the various elements of creation, the clearer it is that no aspect of God’s creation is truly self-sufficient, including you.
Especially you.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rest is Hard Work

I did it again and again when our children resisted our instruction and correction. I did it again and again when they debated a command or questioned our plans. I did it again and again when they opposed our authority and quested for self-rule. I did it again and again for two good reasons.

To begin with, my wife and I had brought children into this world who thought they didn’t need us! Each of them at some point fell into believing they were far more knowledgeable and capable than they really were. They all assumed that their intentions were noble and their plans were sound. They all thought they were capable of determining what was best, even when they lacked important information and experience. They simply felt they were in possession of a better way.

But there was a second reason I did it again and again. Our children were too young to grasp the abstract, strategic, and often theological purposes underlying my instruction. Even if I explained everything in as age-appropriate a way as I could, they would still have no actual understanding. They just didn’t yet have the categories or the capacity to grasp the parental logic behind the plan or command.

So I did the same thing again and again. I would kneel down in front of them at eye level and say, “Please look at Daddy’s face. Do you know how much I love you? Do you know that your Daddy isn’t a mean, bad man? Do you know that I would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you or make you sick? I’m sorry that you can’t understand why Daddy is asking you to do this. I wish I could explain it to you, but you are too young to understand. So I’m going to ask you to do something—trust Daddy. When you walk down the hallway to do what Daddy has asked you to do, say to yourself, ‘My Daddy loves me. My Daddy would never ask me to do something bad. I’m going to trust my Daddy and stop trying to be the Daddy of my Daddy.’”

God does the same thing with you, over and over again. He meets you in one of the difficult hallways of your life, kneels down before you in condescending love, and asks you to trust his loving and wise rule, even though you don’t have a clue what he’s doing. He knows there are many times when your life doesn’t look as if there’s anyone ruling it, let alone someone wise and good. He knows there will be times when you’ll wish you could write your own story. He knows that at times you'll be overwhelmed by what’s on your plate. He knows that his plan will confuse and confound you. And he knows that real rest can’t be found in understanding. Real rest is found in trust. He knows that real rest is hard work. So he’s willing to have the conversation with you again and again, and he’s made sure that his Word assures you of his rule again and again. (For just a few examples, see 1 Chronicles 29:11–12, Psalm 103:19, Psalm 115:3, Proverbs 21:1, Isaiah 46:9–10, Daniel 4:35, and Ephesians 1:11).

Monday, August 29, 2011

You're Always in School

I remember when I graduated from seminary my dad said, "You know, you're still in school, it's just a different kind of school than you've been in the last three years. Pay attention and learn your lessons well." Dad was right; we're all being schooled every day. So it's appropriate to ask in the never ending learning center that’s human life, who is schooling you? There’s never a day that passes without you being taken to school in some way. Life is really all about teaching and learning. And there’s a way in which neither stops from the first day until the last day of your life. So perhaps one of the most important diagnostic questions that each of us should be asking is this: “Do I approach life as a student?”

If you’re committed to know and understand; if you’re committed to journey from ignorance to knowledge and from foolishness to wisdom; if you’re interested in more than your own plan and perspective, then it only makes sense to learn at the feet of the world’s best Teacher. Who could know more or be wiser than the One who put the universe into motion; who presently holds it together, and who controls its destiny? Who could know more about the true meaning and purpose of life? Who could know more about your identity? Who could know more about the environment in which you live? Who could know more about the foundational questions of life?

The Proverbs say it very well: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” I like John Calvin’s paraphrase of that: “There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” There can be no better place to go to school than to the University of the Lord and there could be no better course of study than the way of the Lord.

His way is wisdom, and wisdom requires understanding his way. So where are you going for wisdom? Whose school have you been attending? Who shapes your definition of the meaning and purpose of life? Who tells you who you are and what you should be doing? Who crafts the way you look at the surrounding world? Who defines your problems? Who instructs you as to how they will be solved? Who helps you to determine your life’s direction? Who tells you what’s functionally important and what isn’t? Who shapes your relationships? Who clarifies your thinking in moments of difficulty? Are you really a faithful student in the school of the Lord, or do you just audit now and then when it’s convenient? Let me suggest the characteristics of a student in the school of the Lord.

A healthy cynicism toward your own wisdom. Sin reduces all of us to fools; but it does something else that’s even more insidious; it makes us believe that we are wise. Independent wisdom was both the seductive temptation and the delusional desire behind the fall. One of the primary reasons Adam and Eve were attracted to the fruit was that it was “to be desired to make one wise.” But eating the fruit didn’t result in wisdom; no, it opened the floodgates of foolishness, and we’ve been drowning in its waters ever since.

You and I were never created with the autonomous capacity to be wise. Wisdom doesn’t come through research, experience, and study. Wisdom comes by revelation and relationship. You only get wisdom from the One who is its ultimate source, the Lord.

A humble sense of need. We all get lulled to sleep by feelings of arrival, by feeling satisfied with our character, our knowledge, and our behavior. We have little desire for further growth. You know what it’s like. We all have the capacity to be too easily satisfied. Because we know more today than we did yesterday, we quit working to know more tomorrow. Rather than gratitude for what God has taught us, motivating us to learn more, we get smug and lazy, quite content to consider ourselves God’s graduates.

A willing and open heart. Willingness and openness are the essential characteristics of any good student. Why, you may ask? Because learning not only shows me what I didn’t know, but it points out the places where what I thought I knew was, in fact, wrong. I can’t tell you how many defensive students I’ve met in my many years of teaching. “Defensive student” is actually an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or low-fat butter. You can’t be defensive and be a student. You have to open up your heart. You have to be willing to be told that you’re wrong. You have to submit yourself to someone who knows better and knows more. Defending what you know won’t lead to either further or corrected understanding. Willingness to listen, consider, and change are in the heart of every good student.

Discernment, focus, and determination. Discernment means that you have to make sure you’re submitting yourself to qualified teachers. Paul says in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Once you’re sitting at the feet of those who represent the Teacher of teachers, then continued learning takes focus.

You live in a world of many, many voices. All of them are interpreting your world and all of them are vying for the allegiance of your heart. And you have to remember that learning is a process, not an event. One truth opens the doorway to another truth. One truth functions as an interpreter of a truth previously introduced but now understood more fully. Learning is a lifelong process, and because it is, it requires perseverance.

Commitment to act on what you are learning. Any seasoned teacher will tell you that real learning takes place after the students leave the classroom and practice what they’ve been taught. The God who’s your teacher will orchestrate events, situations, and relationships for the purpose of causing you to live what you’ve been learning. Life is his classroom, and in every new location on each new day, provides a rich and God-given environment to understand more deeply and to live more wisely. So good students always carry with them the commitment to look for ways to apply what they’ve been learning, and they know that as they do, their learning will continue.

By God’s grace we haven’t been left to our own wisdom. We’ve been brought into personal communion with the One who is the source of everything that’s wise and true. So these questions remain: Are you a committed student? Whose school are you attending?

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer should be a daily plea for all of us:

"Teach me your way, O LORD,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies."
Psalm 27:11