Friday, August 26, 2016

THE DECLINE OF RELIGION, By C.S. Lewis (and me)

 

Apologist and scholar, C.S. Lewis, had foreseen the dire fate of the Church even in 1946:

·       The ‘decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. (God in the Dock, “The Decline of Religion” (218)

However, Lewis observed that this change should have been anticipated from the writings of the 19th century where “only secular and natural values are taken seriously,” even though they might bear a strong similarity to Christian values:

·       But if we judge the nineteenth century from the books it wrote, the outlook of our grandfathers (with very few exceptions) was quite as secular as our own.

Consequently, Lewis noted:

·       The religion which has [now] declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’ was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. (219-20)

Lewis believed that this secular shake-up would be good for the purification of Christianity:

·       The decline of 'religion', thus understood, seems to me in some ways was a blessing. At the very worst it makes the issue clear…The fog of ‘religion’ has lifted; the positions and numbers of both armies can be observed; and the real shooting [accurate Christian argumentation] is now possible. (220)

Nevertheless, Lewis thought that the rejection of Christianity, even in its secularized form, would prove costly for the UK:

·       The decline of religion [secularized Christianity] is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World’. By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country, are, I supposed endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of mutual respect between political opponents. (220)

Lewis predicted that the marginalization of the Christian faith, albeit secularized, would prove costly. However, he doubted that this would negatively impact the true Church:

·       But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice [between the World and Christ] more unescapable. (220)
The light of Christ shines brighter in the darkness than in the light. However, Lewis was insistent that the Church must also provide intellectual light:

·       If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side, then his conflict will be fought out under favorable conditions. Those who help to produce and spread such a climate are therefore doing a useful work. (221)

This principle of providing an intellectual climate conducive to salvation is seen throughout Scripture:

·       And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:2-4; ESV)

Lewis believed that cycles of interest in Christianity, followed by acceptance, rejection, and persecution are as inevitable as forest fires, which renew the forest:

·       At first it is welcome to all who have no special reason for opposing it: at this stage he who is not against it is for it. What men notice is its difference from those aspects of the World which they already dislike. But later on, as the real meaning of the Christian claim becomes apparent, its demand for total surrender, the sheer chasm between Nature and the Supernatural, men are increasingly ‘offended’. Dislike, terror, and finally hatred succeed. (222-23)

What does this suggest for us? We must not be overly concerned about these inevitable cycles. We must not follow them, cater and pander to them, and give ourselves over to our fickle culture. We cannot forget our first vocation to love the Lord our God with all our being.

Envisioning the coming apostasy, Paul’s counsel to Timothy was very clear:

·       Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

We too must do the same, no matter how discouraging the times, knowing that even hell shall not prevail against the Church of Christ.

IS LOVE AND KINDNESS ALWAYS ENOUGH?





In an essay entitled “Fear Not,” Presbyterian minister, Dan McNerney, argues that we should not even fear Islamic oppression, terrorism, and immigration. Why not? Because God is in charge and can bring good out of the worst situations:

·       Yet, they survive through their incredible faith, often becoming witnesses in jail for their Lord.

·       In recent years, the underground church in Iran has become the fastest growing church in the world, now numbering three million believers.

Of course, I rejoice at such testimonies. These not only reveal the glory of our God but also His care for His Church—us! However, from such examples, McNerney also seems to argue that if God is in control we shouldn’t be. Instead, we should adopt a politically “hands-off” stance when it comes to confronting Islam:

·       Too often, we prefer holding onto and controlling the reins of our lives, reluctant to trust anyone, not even God. We would rather be racked with anxiety than give up control of our lives. It makes no sense, but we do it all the time.

Certainly, we must trust in the Lord and not be “racked with anxiety,” but doesn’t the Church have a responsibility here, at least to advocate for the protection of society and the innocent? And aren’t we showing a lack of love for our neighbor when we remain silent in the face of hundreds of thousands of potential jihadists entering our neighborhoods?

McNerney’s only response to evil seems to be to “give up control of our lives” and to live without care before the proven dangers. However, we also have a role to play:

·       Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17; ESV)

·       Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

When we can make a difference and yet fail to protect against the oppressor, we are at fault:

·       So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

Instead, the Church must be prophetic and expose evil:

·       Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Ephesians 5:11)

When we fail to stand against evil and even welcome evil into our midst, we betray our calling. The Church had failed to stand against segregation and Hitler. This opened the door to great suffering and brought disrepute upon the Church.

However, it seems that McNerney would just have us pray, turn our back, and walk on.

Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan who took care of a man who had been mugged and left “half dead.” Seeing him, a priest and a Levite crossed over to the opposite side, but why not? Perhaps, like McNerney, they were determined not to be “racked with anxiety” over what to do about this man. Indeed, God is sovereign. It’s His business, right?

However, to be fair to McNerney, he does advocate in favor of love:

·       The only thing that will bring a radical Muslim to his knees is the power, love and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We cannot allow fear to enter our souls and extinguish our faith or hope in our own country. Fear has no place in the Gospel.

Truly, the Church must lead with love. However, love alone did not stop the Jim Crow laws or Hitler. Force also was necessary.

If Mordechai had thought according to McNerney’s thinking, he might have planted Haman a garden or polished his shoes, once he heard of the edict, inspired by Haman, for the utter destruction of the Jewish people. However, Mordechai knew that stronger measures were needed to rescue his people. Therefore, he prevailed upon Esther to approach the king, even at the risk of her own life.

While we are called to love as Jesus did, sometimes other measures are necessary to protect the innocent. That’s why God had ordained a justice system to wield His vengeful sword (Romans 13:1-4).

It is now common to hear people say that, “If Hitler had just been loved enough, he would have been tamed.” However, this is not the message of Scripture, which acknowledges that sometimes kindness and peace are not enough:

·       If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

Sometimes it is not possible, since it doesn’t depend entirely on us. Jesus is our exemplar of love, and yet He was put to death. And He warned that the world would also hate us:

·       “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18-20)

This happens, not because of our lack of love but because of evil. Therefore, there are times when love must cloth itself with coercion—even excommunication. In the case of brethren who had proved that they weren’t amenable to reason and gentleness, Jesus instructed:

·       “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

Notice that Jesus didn’t follow McNerney’s admonition: “The only thing that will bring a radical Muslim to his knees is the power, love and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” If our own brethren won’t always be brought to their knees by love, we should not expect that this one tactic will bring the radical Muslim to his knees.

Nor did Jesus castigate the Church at Pergamum for not loving enough. Instead, He criticized this church for not taking decisive measures against false teaching:

·       “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:14)

Likewise, the Church at Thyatira had not been criticized because they did not love Jezebel enough to bring about her repentance:

·       “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:20-21)

Love will not overcome all evil. In the case of Jezebel, she refused to repent. Meanwhile, the Church at Ephesus was commended because they resorted to more coercive means:

·       “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” (Revelation 2:2)

Likewise, when Jesus returns, He will return with more than tenderness. The Prophet Malachi gives a description of what His return will be like even for some of His elect:

·       But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Malachi 3:2-3)

Jesus will not just come with tenderness. Nevertheless, McNerney is right that we shouldn’t be shaking in fear over the Islamic threat. Our God reigns. However, we must be as wise as serpents and take a meaningful stance against this threat, if not for ourselves, then for the innocent who are now being decimated by this sword.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

LEARNING TO LOVE YOURSELF?





There are numerous verses that seem to suggest that we should love ourselves:

·       “This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39; ESV; also Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31, 33;  Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18)

Some see in these verses a mandate for us to love ourselves. But instead, the mandate of these verses is to love others, without any command to love ourselves. Well then, how can we love others if we don’t love ourselves?

Well first we have to understand what self-love entails and what it doesn’t. Loving ourselves certainly doesn’t mean to think more highly of ourselves than we have reason to think. Instead, there is nothing in Scripture that would have us to inflate our self-image contrary to the truth. Instead, we are told to think accurately about ourselves:

·       For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)

James tell us that we are as substantial as a mere vapor:

·       Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:14)

Living in the light requires that we think about ourselves according to that light. This means that we need to see ourselves in a biblical way:

·       For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:3)

Without Christ, we told that we must regard ourselves as “nothing.” Even if we have lived a life of perfect obedience to the Lord, we must regard ourselves as “undeserving” of anything good from the Lord:

·       “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)

We cannot earn anything good from the Lord (Romans 11:350. The only thing we deserve is death (Romans 6:23). Everything else is a matter of grace. Jesus even taught that without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

How then can we love others if these are the ways we must think about ourselves? Instead of trying to establish our own worthiness or self-righteousness, we have to think in ways that have been prescribed for God’s children. Paul had prayed that we would:

·       Have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)

He assured us that:

·       If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

·       For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

·       But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8-10))

It is a rejection of these assurances to build up our self-esteem, worthiness, and self-righteousness before God. It would be equivalent to telling God, “What you are offering me in Christ is not sufficient for me.”

Clearly, when we are instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are not being told to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Ironically, if we love our neighbors in the same sense, we should be building their self-esteem. However, this cannot be the biblical intent! Well then, of what does loving ourselves consist?

Loving ourselves is something that we do naturally. Even though I had struggled for decades with self-loathing and depression, I still loved myself. How? I took care of myself. When I was hungry I ate. When I was tired, I slept. When I was lonely, I called a friend. In order to feel better about myself, I would take a walk or ride my bike. I would also build my self-esteem to compensate for my self-loathing. I would read self-help books and go to see a psychologist in hope of feeling better about myself. In short, I loved myself.

Loving ourselves is not something that we are commanded to do. It is something that we do naturally. Even the masochist loves himself and causes harm to himself as a form of self-atonement to feel better about himself.

How then are we to love others? By addressing their needs as we do our own! If anything, we are to regard their needs before our own:


·       Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant. (Philippians 2:3-7)

We are called to model our lives after our Savior, the ultimate servant who died for our sins. Rather than loving ourselves by inflating our self-esteem, we need to clothe ourselves with Christ and abide in His word and assurances. This can be a very tiring and frustrating calling. Therefore, we are encouraged:

·       Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:9-10)

What does love look like?

·       Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Easy? No! It requires our daily divine bread.

HIGH SELF-ESTEEM vs. LOW SELF-ESTEEM



 


I met an experimental psychologist on the train to Princeton. We eventually touched on the question of what humans need to thrive.

Of course, everyone has a different take on the subject. Some propose that we need high self-esteem, while others propose the opposite – a low self-esteem. I know that this sounds strange, so let me try to explain the rationale of the latter group.

The proponents of a low self-esteem do not call it “low self-esteem,” but that’s what it is. It involves the denial of freewill and moral accountability. They believe that we are just a sophisticated biochemical machine. As such, all of our thinking and deciding is pre-determined by the laws of chemistry and biology. Consequently, everything that we think has already been determined by physical forces. Therefore, there exists absolutely no basis for free choice or even thinking.

How can such a view of humanity be desirable? Isn’t it demeaning to think that we are nothing more than a wet machine, a mere result of chemical-electrical reactions? Psychologist James Hillman warns against adopting a deterministic view of ourselves:

·       “We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (“The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,” Random House, 6)

Why then would some psychologists promote such a demeaning self-image? In the short run, it does relieve shame and guilt. How? Well, if the client is convinced that he couldn’t have acted in a way contrary to his biological programming, then there is no real basis for shame and guilt. These feelings are reduced to inappropriate reactions and can be ignored.

An atheist friend had confided that he adopted this self-identity at an early age, and this enabled him to reject these very bothersome feelings. Also, if we believe that we couldn’t have acted otherwise, this view enables us to dismiss feelings of regret and other burdensome feelings. It reduces life to this attitude, “I am just along for the ride. What will be, will be.”

Well, what’s the matter with this comfortable ride? Much! First of all, it contradicts our experience and perceptions that we do have freewill and could have behaved otherwise. To doubt something as basic as our experience of making free choices, is also to doubt all of our perceptions about self. It is also to fail to make sense of this world, where we see that freewill is a relative thing. Some have less freewill than others – the heroin addict and the comatose. However, from the perspective of the above materialistic denial of all freewill, there is no way that we can say that some are more free than others.

For another thing, if we cannot act otherwise, then punishment is no longer justified. Why not? There is no longer any basis for guilt and culpability.

Lastly, if we cannot make changes, why try? Why attempt to learn, improve our job performance, or confront relational problems? Why not take the easy way out – denial and avoidance of anything uncomfortable? In short, this self-concept represents a tragic denial of reality.

High Self-Esteem (HSE): Well, if this form of low self-esteem is a dead end, does this mean that we should aim towards inflating our self-esteem, believing, “I can do it.”

This is the “normal” and more common strategy. HSE gives us a confidence and enables us to get out of bed in the morning and to proactively face life. This strategy had enabled me to face threats. I told myself that nothing could stop me and that I could endure anything that life would throw at me, and it worked, at least until I faced some threats that were bigger than me.

Western society had made HSE into a cult, claiming that it could heal all of our hurts and failures. However, this faith hasn’t been able to withstand scrutiny.  Psychologist Roy Baumeister has extensively researched the relationship between high self-esteem and performance:

  • For three decades, I and many other psychologists viewed self-esteem as our profession’s Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals’ and society’s woes. We thought that high self-esteem would impart not only success, health, happiness, and prosperity to the people who possessed it, but also stronger marriages, higher employment, and greater educational attainment in the communities that supported it.
  • Recently, though, several close analyses of the accumulated research have shaken many psychologists’ faith in self-esteem. My colleagues and I were commissioned to conduct one of these studies by the American Psychological Society, an organization devoted to psychological research. These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart. Social sector organizations should therefore reconsider whether they want to dedicate their scarce resources to cultivating self-esteem. In my view, there are other traits, like self-control, that hold much more promise.
  • There are now ample data on our population showing that, if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves. In plain terms, the average American thinks he’s above average. Even the categories of people about whom our society is most concerned do not show any broad deficiency in self esteem. African Americans, for example, routinely score higher on self-esteem measures than do European-Americans.
HSE also represents a flight from reality into what feels good for the time being. However, how can it be a source of problems? In order to manage our lives effectively, we must first understand our lives and their long-term needs. However, HSE represents a rejection of understanding and reality in favor of short-term comfortable feelings.

For one thing, building HSE is always comparative. It is not enough to improve our performance. Instead, HSE requires that we see ourselves as superior. I had taken a test that I feared I had bombed. However, I delighted to find out that I had been given an “A,” until I found that most of the class had received an “A+.” Consequently, this need for HSE brings us into harmful competition with others.

HSE is also a refusal to engage the truth about ourselves. It refuses to look at our painful aspects. As a result, HSE increasingly cannot take criticism and needful self-examination.

HSE spells death to relationships where humility and forgiveness are key. Those afflicted with HSE are increasingly unable to apologize, because they see no need to apologize. Why not? They are assured that it is the other person’s fault.

HSE is seldom grateful for their partner. Why not? They are convinced that they deserve better. As I have learned to confront some ugly truths about myself, the more grateful I became for my wife who would love and tolerate me. However, before I couldn’t and wouldn’t see this. It was just too demeaning.

Both of these options are reality denying. They serve as a comforting addiction, but we find that we need increasingly high doses of this HSE drug. The richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller had been asked, “How much more money do you need to be happy?” His answer – “Always a little bit more.”

Is there a third reality-affirming alternative? As Jesus had taught, our normal response is denial:

·       And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

We avoid discomfort and run from the painful truths about ourselves. Is there anything that can break this cycle to enable us to live in the truth and yet not be crushed by it?
We need confidence and hope. However, I have found that Christ has provided for my needs. How? He has loved, assured, and forgiven me to the extent that I can now face my failings confidently and healingIy. Consequently, I no longer need to lie to myself and rely on HSE. I now have Him to rely upon.

And this self-image is ennobling. There is no greater privilege than to know that I am serving the source of all life, truth, and love.

My psychologist acquaintance was listening. I pray that this will become a seed that will germinate.

Taking this case a step further – If psychologists and other professionals are really concerned about human thriving, they have a responsibility to consider Christ, the ultimate among change-Agents.