Sin’s Disruption and Disordered Love: Insights from St. Augustine

image 1 - Adam and EveWhen Adam and Eve turn from God and His will by choosing for themselves and their own will, they were in essence choosing to love themselves over God. Sin can be both the decision for and experience of disordered love.

Saint Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria, described this reality when he wrote: “virtue is nothing other than perfect love of God” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, XV.25) Augustine is telling us that the good life – the virtuous life – is formed around well-ordered love of God. 

In light of that well-ordered love of God we learn to love everything else, whether people or things. He writes:

though [something] is good, it can be loved in the right way or in the wrong way – in the right way, that is, when the proper order is kept, in the wrong way when that order is upset. (City of God, XV.22)

This helps us to understand what happens to our love through the Fall.

It is dislocated from its proper center in love for God, and then, being out of order, it leads us to love people and things in wrong ways. And so, impacted by sin, we try to love things in ways that do not give us life:

  • A father tries to feel love and acceptance in life through others’ acclamations of his child’s athletic accomplishments 
  • A daughter tries to receive love from her mother by always doing the right thing or pursuing goals her mother likes but the daughter does not
  • A man tries to feel loved through serial sexual experiences with others but finds intimacy and love elusive
  • A woman escapes an unhappy marriage through an emotional affair but still fees empty

The catalog of ways we experience disordered love could go on and on. It is because love is disordered that the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 are so powerful and praised: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast.” The very fact that this passage is so revered tells us just how special – and perhaps rare – ordered and right love truly is.

But it is not only that we love things wrongly in our Fallen state. We also, apart from God, evaluate love wrongly in ways that reveal our utter disorder:

  • someone’s love for sports overruns their priorities and ruins their marriage
  • someone’s love for their work becomes obsessive, ruining the family they are trying to support with that work
  • someone’s love for interacting with others on social media loses all bounds, ruining their actual face-to-face friendships 

As Augustine writes elsewhere, real love knows how “to love things…in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28).

This attention to disordered love is foundational to our discussion about the ways in which we experience disorder in our sexuality and our bodies because, as Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). That is, our outer life of action flows from the inner life of the heart and its related desires. Or, as Jamie Smith says, “you are what you love.”

We were made by God for loving relationship with God and others, but the Fall sunders that relationship and creates disorder in love.

God made us with the creational good of love to sustain and hold together every aspect of our identity, including our sexuality and bodies. But sin dislocates us, leaving us confused and muddled in the way we love things. All of this has tremendous impact for our bodies and our sexuality.

[This blog post is excerpted from my message, “Fall and Embodied Sexuality.”]

N. T. Wright on the Importance of Binaries in Genesis

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In my message this past weekend, “Creation and Embodied Sexuality,” I referenced an extended quotation from New Testament scholar N. T. Wright on the importance of the binaries in Genesis. As I mentioned, there is a structural symmetry throughout Genesis 1 that links pairs of differents one to another.  This symmetrical crescendo of creation reaches its high point in God’s creation of humanity and the pairing of sexual difference characterized by male and female. This biological sex difference is a creational goodness of God intended to reflect God’s greater good story in all of creation. Here is the quotation from N. T. Wright, found in a 2014 article in First Things, which is drawn from an interview with Wright:

The binaries in Genesis are so important—…heaven and earth…sea and dry land…male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity … [as] a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

The differences within creation, including the sexual differences of human beings, all point to God’s Good Story, and the ultimate coming together of all things in the Restoration. Human sexuality is not only good, but is theologically significant.

Four Questions to Discover Your Idols

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Here’s one more follow-up post from my message on idolatry last Thursday night with Kaleo, the young adults group here at Eastbrook. In his book book Counterfeit Gods (pages 167-170), Tim Keller shares four questions you can ask yourself to discover your idols.

  1. What are we dreaming about or imagining? As William Temple said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.”
  2. How are we spending our money? As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also” (Matthew 6:21).
  3. What are we truly living for – what is our functional master? Tim Keller writes: “When you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god.”
  4. What are our most uncontrollable emotions? Again, Keller says, “Look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong.”

If you are willing to do so, I’d encourage each of us to spend some time prayerfully asking these questions through our week. We may learn some important things about our idols. We may need to clean house.

Tim Keller: Categories of Idolatry

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Last Friday night, I gave a message to our young adults at Eastbrook as part of their series on idolatry. Drawing upon Exodus 20 and 32, as well as Psalm 115, and 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10, I attempted to paint a picture of what idolatry is, what it does to us, and how God set us free from idolatry in Christ.

Tim Keller offers a very helpful overview of categories of idolatry in his masterful work Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. This overview is tucked away in the footnotes of the book, found on pages 203-204. On a side note, if you read Tim Keller’s books but don’t read the footnotes, you are robbing yourself of some of the best material in his writing. Do yourself a favor and read his footnotes, and then read the books that Keller is reading to understand where some of his best thinking is coming from. Okay back, to the categories of idols:

  • Theological idols: Doctrinal errors that produce such distorted views of God that we end up worshipping a false god
  • Sexual idols: Addictions such as pornography and fetishisms that promise but don’t deliver a sense of intimacy and acceptance; ideals of physical beauty in yourself and/or your partner; romantic idealism
  • Magic/ritual idols: Witchcraft and the occult. All idolatry is in the end a form of magic that seeks to rebel against the order of a transcendent reality rather than submitting to it in love and wisdom
  • Political/economic idols: Ideologies of the left, right, and libertarian that absolutize some aspect of political order and make it the solution. Deifying or demonizing free markets, for example
  • Racial/national idols: Racism, militarism, nationalism, or ethnic pride that turns bitter or oppressive.
  • Relational idols: Dysfunctional family systems of codependency; “fatal attractions”; living your life through your children.
  • Religious idols: Moralism or legalism; idolatry of success and gifts; religion as a pretext for abuse of power.
  • Philosophical idols: Systems of thought that make some created thing the problem with life (instead of sin) and some human product or enterprise the solutions to our problems (instead of God’s grace).
  • Cultural idols: Radical individualism, as in the West, that makes an idol out of individual happiness at the expense of community; shame cultures that make an idol out of family and clan at the expense of individual rights.
  • Deep idols: Motivational drives and temperaments made into absolutes: a. Power idolatry…b. Approval idolatry…c. Comfort idolatry…d. Control idolatry.

The Holy Spirit is Like…: Three Images of the Holy Spirit in Scripture

In Scripture there are three basic descriptions of the Holy Spirit. These symbols of the Holy Spirit’s presence help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Wind
The first of these images or symbols is wind. We read about this on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)

When the believers are gathered together in obedience to Jesus’ command to wait for the Spirit to come, they first of all encounter the wind or breath of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word that ruach is translated as breath, wind, or spirit. It is this word used in Genesis 1:2, where we read of God’s creative work in creation: “and the Spirit [ruach] of God was hovering over the waters.” This is the word used in Genesis 2:7 where we read: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life and the man became a living being.” The Holy Spirit is the basic breath of life – the spirit – that animates all creation and human beings.

Beyond bringing natural life, the Holy Spirit also brings spiritual life in the midst of humanity’s spiritual death through sin and ruptured relationship with God. In Ezekiel 376, when the prophet preaches to the valley of dry bones, they represent the spiritually dead people of God spiritually dead. It is the breath and wind that blows this mass of death into a living army of God. This is likely the idea behind Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is like wind that breathes life into us, spiritually restoring us with God through Christ.  So, when the violent wind rushes into the house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 we see that the Holy Spirit is coming in fulfillment of prophesy to breathe God’s divine life back into humanity.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Fire
Secondly, the Holy Spirit is described as fire. Here are the next two verses in Acts 2:

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:3-4)

Throughout Scripture, fire is a symbol of the presence of God. When Moses knelt at the burning bush (Exodus 3) or Elijah battled the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), fire symbolized the presence of God in holiness and power. Fire is a symbol of God’s leading presence, such as when God led His people out from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Fire also conveys God’s purifying presence, as when Isaiah had a vision of God and a coal was taken from the heavenly altar of God to purify Isaiah’s lips (Isaiah 6).  Lastly, fire is a symbol of God’s passionate presence, seeking after people. When he received a message from God, the prophet Jeremiah heard these words, “I will make my words in your mouth a fire” (Jeremiah 5:14). Later on, Jeremiah exclaimed, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (20:9)

And so, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the early disciples of Jesus in Acts 2 in the form of tongues of fire, He is kindling His presence within His people. That presence is for guidance, holiness, and passion for people into the early disciples.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Water
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is described as wind. Earlier in the book of Acts, just before His ascension, Jesus says to His disciples:

For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:5)

βαπτίζω (baptizo) means literally to immerse, and so Jesus is telling His followers that they will be washed or submerged in the Holy Spirit as we with water.  The Apostle Peter echoes this later, after the Pentecost arrival of the Holy Spirit, when preaches with  reference to the words of the prophet Joel, saying, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).

The Holy Spirit is like water poured into our lives from God. This reminds us of the Genesis account of Creation where the Spirit of God was hovering over the primordial waters of the cosmos that was still formless and void. The primordial deep was met with God’s Spirit to bring life.

It also calls to mind two episodes from Jesus’ life and ministry. The first is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman by the well in John 4. Moving from the earthly waters of Jacob’s well, Jesus says:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)

The second episode occurs when Jesus is at a great Jewish festival, the feast of tabernacles, in John 7. Speaking in the midst of a great crowd, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  John offers this explanatory statement immediately following: “By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believe in him were later to receive” (John 7:37b-39). The Holy Spirit is a gift like water that brings life to our souls and cleanses our dry and thirsty world.

These three images – wind, fire, water – help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. If the church wants to live and thrive, we must seek to live by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into us, who sets us ablaze with God’s power, and revives us with waters of life.

[This is an excerpt from my message, “Activated by the Holy Spirit,” preached at Eastbrook Church on September 6/7.]

Why I’m Not Giving Up on the Church

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Six years ago, I wrote this article for Relevant, and in light of my recent message from Ephesians 4 and my posts earlier this week, I think it is still as relevant as ever. It begins this way, but you can read the entire article here.

In 2011 the largest denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced the results of a survey showing a significant decline in baptisms and church membership. Ed Stetzer, a missioligist and researcher with Lifeway Research, commented at the time: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”

In the very same year, across the Atlantic, a report on the Church of England highlighted the challenges it was facing: aging congregations, faltering clergy recruitment and waning attendance. While church leaders used words like “crisis” and “time bomb,” the report predicted the church would likely be extinct within 20 years.

More recently, the Pew Research Center released a study on the state of religion in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study brings into focus the increasing growth rate of those who do not identify with any religion at all. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. adult population—and one-third of those under the age of 30—identify in this way; an increase from 15 percent just 5 years earlier.

For many people, these are signs that the church is, if not already dead, steadily moving toward the grave. And many have been calling for followers of Jesus to return to the original vision for our faith.

I have lived within the inner workings of the church for the past 15 years, and I will be one the first to agree with many who point out that the Church is full of brokenness.

When you stand on the inside of the church, you see the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been disheartened by the hypocrisy within the leadership of churches. I have experienced disillusionment when it seems like the church is more about ‘nickels and noses’ then it is about real life transformation. To be even more honest, I have seen my own failings and weaknesses as a supposed leader and wondered if this thing called church is truly real or worth it. There are times when I have wanted to give up on the church and ministry altogether.

But I’m not ready to sound the death toll for the Church. Here’s a story to tell you why.

[Read the entire article here.]

Challenges to the Hunger to Know

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This past weekend at Eastbrook, I explored the hunger that each of us have to know and be known as part of our Hungry for God sermon series. One aspect of this that I did not really get to explore as much as I had hoped was some of the challenges that we encounter with our hunger to know.

The Challenge of Limitations
One of the challenges about our hunger to know is that we often encounter our limitations with knowledge. Sometimes this appears in relation to scientific realities, such as the reality that there is more unknown ‘dark matter’ in the universe than what we can know, or the unintended consequences of genetic manipulation about mosquitos that scientists are currently wrestling with in their goal of eliminating malaria.  Sometimes our limitations are more basic, such as not being able to know what’s on someone else’s mind – whether a friend, lover, or boss – or our inability to know the future, one of the great anxieties of our lives

The Challenge of the Intrinsic Relationship between Knowledge and Power
Another challenge is the relationship between knowledge and power. There’s an old saying: “knowledge is power.” Knowledge serves not only to enlighten people, but to give certain people power. On the positive side, this is why so much effort has been given to help people learn to read. Literacy helps in the acquisition of knowledge, which is such an empowering breakthrough in life. At the same time, some people hold back knowledge from others as a means of brokering power in a way that keeps some down and props others up. Knowledge is power, but that power can be used dangerously or beneficially.

The Challenge of Neighbors to Knowledge
Another challenge about our hunger to know is the fine distinctions that exist between information, knowledge, belief, and wisdom. I
nformation tells us about things, but knowledge tells us why that information is useful. Belief is different from knowledge but equally important. Belief shapes our approach to the good (or moral) life. Belief is often devalued in comparison with knowledge. Some will say, “If you have to rely on belief, then you are unthinking.” But that is really an unthinking statement, since it derives from a position of belief. Knowledge and belief actually function in different, but overlapping, capacities in our lives. Appropriate knowledge is the basis of right belief. For example, if we know the stakes of winning in gambling are so low, we would do well to believe it and live accordingly. Knowledge and belief work together. Wisdom helps us know how to live well in light of appropriate knowledge and right belief. We ideally gain wisdom over the course of our lives, but not if we reject either knowledge and belief. That’s why we say there are some very smart people who do very stupid things in life. They lack wisdom.

The Challenge of the Eradication of God from Public Knowledge
Another challenge for us in our contemporary world is the tendency to eradicate knowledge of God and His ways from the realm of meaningful, public knowledge. 
Some will say that if you believe in God, then you should automatically not be taken seriously; which is probably one of the most biased, unthinking things one could say. All honest thinkers will at least admit that as much as people may say we cannot prove that God exists – and I think there are some pretty convincing proofs of God’s existence – as much as people may say we cannot prove that God does exist, we also cannot prove that God does not exist. After all, Jesus, even if all His claims about God were set aside, is widely commended for His contributions to humanity, for things such as the golden rule, love for the neighbor, and more. If Jesus and His followers viewed the basis for these contributions as rooted in the knowledge of God, then we certainly must not brush aside knowledge of and belief in God as significant for discussions in our hunger to know. We must allow that knowledge and belief in God be admitted as potentially important within the realm of meaningful, public knowledge, not just private, personal practice.

In the midst of all these challenges with our hunger to know, there is a word from God that we need to hear again today. It is found in Hosea 4:6:

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.

The challenges to the hunger to know are significant. Still, knowledge is vitally important. The hunger to know must be filled and satisfied with what can truly fill and satisfy that hunger.