When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

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It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

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A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

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Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”

A Letter of Thanks to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

You’ve been the recipient of a great deal of public criticism these past months. I’m sure it’s been extremely challenging for you! And yet, for my part, I can’t help but feel that your candidacy for president has generated some significant good for Christians, and for Christianity in America. I thought I would utilize this letter as an opportunity to thank you for some of these crucial contributions.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping to expose our tacit lust for power and influence. Christians throughout recorded history have struggled to navigate between the Kingdom of God and the earthly political world. Christ’s Kingdom is, of course, not of this world, and operating in the press between worldly political structures and an otherworldly kingdom has been a source of perpetual tension. In the great American experiment, political power has been placed, in a heretofore unprecedented way, into the hands of its citizens. American Christians rightly feel their duty to be both good Christians and good citizens, and yet it would seem that we have never come to comfortably understand what it means to utilize our religious power in the political sphere. Are we a voting bloc? Is it our best political goal to elect a devoutly Christian president? Do we vote for the person who will lead best, or for the person who most resembles our Christian convictions? None of these questions have simple answers. And yet, what is becoming clear, thanks in part to your candidacy, is that in the process we have apparently come to love both our influence and our power. That we love our influence is exhibited by how much we kvetch about losing it—how America is no longer Christian, how our rights are being restricted, and so forth. That we love power is evidenced in how quickly we will sideline many of our public convictions for the sake of certain political ends. This kind of love reflects an idolatry—idolatry for the best seats at banquets, to be seen and acknowledged as authorities in the public square, for all the kingdoms of the world if only we will bow down.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for illustrating our love for utility. One of America’s great contributions to the world is her drive to make things happen, to get things done. Giving a free rein to capitalism has unleashed creativity powerfully, and that creativity has generated much of America’s wealth and influence in the world. However, at times this freedom—our most treasured asset!—has also manifest itself in utility. We prize what works, more than what is good; we value results, more than process; we are impatient with the slow or the inconvenient, and gobble the quick. In this, we have learned to be utilitarian. Our first question about a thing is not, “Is this good? Is this right?” but rather, “Will it work?” This is, of course, simply an alternate expression of that old phrase, “The ends justify the means.” If I get what I want, then the means by which I arrive there are largely irrelevant. If, for example, we get a Supreme Court which can overthrow Roe v. Wade (which I trust any likeminded Christian would consider an unqualified good), then whatever means we must engage in to achieve that are permissible. In this, your candidacy, which has found support in the Christian world substantially through its appeal to ends (better than Hillary, the Supreme Court) over means (you), has exposed us to the rank and repulsive vulgarity of means.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping us to see just how little of America is truly Christian. It wasn’t long ago now that statistical research declared that Christianity in America was shrinking. In fact, what it showed was that many people who were only tacitly Christian now formally identify as not, which provides a helpful winnowing of perception. Further, it has invited ministers like me to consider with greater intensity just what makes someone a mature Christian—it is certainly not their one-time prayer to receive Christ, nor is it their American political identity, nor is it their voting habits or political affiliation, nor is it their opposition to Islam, nor is it their public outrage at various anti-Christian sentiments in the world. No, what makes individuals followers of Christ is their life of, quite simply, following after Jesus. Such a life is marked by a sustained study of the Scriptures, fellowship with other Christ-followers, and an ever forming and reforming personal character into the image and likeness of Jesus. Amazingly, your candidacy has given us an opportunity to see just how much work at converting our fellow Americans remains to us. It is abundantly clear that, somehow, over the past years, we who are the Church have lost much of America to a weakened, unreflective, un-lived, and sometimes outright false or pseudo-Christianity. You have shown us, Mr. Trump, just how much re-evangelization we must perform.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for giving us this unprecedented opportunity to re-think our political and social strategy. One of the most powerful Christian political movements, of course, happened in the last forty years or so, and was publicly called the “religious right,” or the “moral majority.” Its agenda was to address in the political sphere many of the social and moral problems facing the American nation. When it began, in the early 80s, America’s moral center still largely overlapped with Christian convictions. But in an unprecedented shift, over the past 35 years that center has spun far afield from the comfortable consonance we once enjoyed. Conscientious Christians in America today find themselves, for what may be the first time in America’s history, quite simply at odds with the moral center of their nation. There was a time when policies and politicians formed by sincere Christian convictions would resonate with a majority body of average Americans. Your candidacy has helped us to see that such a time has passed. We are pressed, then, to reconsider our public strategy. If our convictions no longer represent a majority of Americans, then the place to alter those convictions—the place to regain our Christian influence—is surely not at the highest political levels. A president who reflects our convictions will be completely impotent to change the convictions of everyday Americans who disagree with him completely. In this, Mr. Trump, you have helped us to see that our greatest need is not political power, but revival—a revival of Christianity in America through discipleship, through trained Christian character, through the development of the Christian mind, and through a nationwide revival of the spirit. In the light of your candidacy we are enabled to see that the temporary benefit of the presidency, or of Supreme Court offices, is of little value when our public witness is at stake with the very people we so desperately need to reach. What good is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul? What good is it to gain a “Christian” nation, but lose its people in the process?

Mr. Trump, your influence these past months has had, and will continue to have, an unparalleled effect on the reshaping of Christian mission in America. It is my prayer that, if we repent and seek revival, you yourself may become one of the beneficiaries of the renewed Christian mind, and a public image of the formed and forming Christian character in action. In the meantime, thank you for helping us to perceive our real needs!

In Christ,

Rev. Jeremy Rios

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Schadenfreude and the Psalms

Every Christian who reads the Psalms devotionally is confronted with a dilemma. The Psalms are a book of prayers, of the recorded prayers of the people of God as they recount the various and diverse experiences of their humanity in relationship with God. Thus, recording this intimate conversation between God and His people, the Psalms are heartfelt, and rich, and occasionally quite raw. The raw quality is most evident in what are called the imprecatory Psalms, those prayers that cry out for vengeance. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the language, such as in Psalm 58:6 where David cries out, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God!” Or consider his ironic request from Psalm 109:17, “He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him.” Or maybe you’ve read the stunning, astonishing prayer of Psalm 137:9, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” If the Psalms are a book of prayer for God’s people—a book that shapes and forms our emotions for God—then how are we supposed to pray such prayers?

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When I was young and didn’t really have enemies, this was merely an academic question. But as I’ve gotten older and gathered opponents, this question has become more pressing. Just the other day an enemy of mine was brought low. This is not a person you know, and, as a matter of fact, it is not someone that I know, either. As is often the case in our world today, this is a person I’ve observed online, and this person had been belligerent, unkind, unwilling to listen to reason, and in the process had actively and publicly deceived the people of God by means of what that person believed to be ministry. When I learned that this person had been brought low, I could not contain a kind of pleasure; it was an emotion the Germans describe as schadenfreude. You’ve probably felt it too at some point, because it describes the pleasure we take at another person’s misfortune.

I take it as axiomatic that a significant part of growth into Christian holiness and maturity is growth into Godly emotions, what Jonathan Edwards termed our affections. I am increasing in holiness not so much when my conduct appears holy (although this is important), but when my inner man loves the things God loves, and hates the things God hates. In this, the Scriptures are to be seen as a book which shape our affections, molding our inner persons to love rightly those things that are most worthy of love. It seems clear to me that the Psalms, perhaps more than any other book, expose us to these primal, ordered, loves and hates after which we must pattern our own affections. With this in mind we might consider Psalm 139—that marvelous poem about God’s loving and creative hand. In God’s hands we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and in the record of God’s plan are written “the days that were ordained for me.” Rising in praise, David cries out, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!” Indeed, how precious—and many people, I suspect, would prefer it if the Psalm ended there, but the following verses mark a startling turn, because right after this David cries, “O that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and then, “I hate them with the utmost hatred.” Such a reversal of mood might cause a modern reader to wonder if perhaps David were not bipolar. However, when we consider that the Psalms are training our affections, then possibly we can see that the journey from understanding the intensity of God’s loving provision for us, to understanding the intensity of hatred for those things which draw us from that provision of God, is not so distant after all. The more I come to love the things of God, the more I ought, quite naturally, to come to hate the things that He hates as well. This is an essential component of what it means to train our hearts for holiness.

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Edwards is unquestionably America’s greatest theologian.

Let’s return now to schadenfreude—the pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. If this is indeed an emotion I experience, then it is one of the emotions which requires shaping by the Scriptures. Do I find warrant for the experience of schadenfreude in the Scriptures? The answer is, in some ways, yes. When Moses composes his song after the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in Exodus 15, the lyrics open with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea,” and a few lines later Moses cries out, “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is His name.” This is a song of clear exultation at the demise of Pharaoh and his army. The Israelites are singing a song of pleasure at the demise of their enemies. It is an anthem of schadenfreude. This is not the only example. Malachi 4:2-3, exulting in the coming day of the Lord’s judgment, says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” A nice enough image, is it not? But the following verse turns it somewhat grim, “‘You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the Lord of hosts.” The calf is leaping for joy because it is leaping upon the ashes of its enemies!

Does this mean, then, that schadenfreude is one of the emotions I can cultivate on my journey towards Christian holiness? Consider for a moment the curious warning offered in Proverbs 24:17-18, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Or the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him.” This appears to be a straightforward warning but gets odder the more you consider it. We are commanded not to rejoice when our enemies fall, and not to let our hearts be glad when he stumbles, and this appears at first like a clear warning against schadenfreude. And yet, look closely at the second clause: the reason the Proverb urges us to restrain from rejoicing is because if we rejoice, God might lay off His punishment of the wicked person. In other words, if my rejoicing will shorten your suffering, then I better keep a straight face so that your suffering will continue longer!

Does this imply that pleasure at another’s misfortune an unqualified good in the Christian life? Not quite. One of the things that is not immediately clear in the Psalms is the way that the experience of exultation—that unique joy at the vindication and revelation of God’s perfect justice—is placed squarely on God’s justice more than on the persons of the wicked. The Psalmist who praises God’s justice has in view God’s justice, not the wicked. The pleasure he experiences is the pleasure of vindication, the pleasure of things being made right. And while there is a piece of that pleasure which, yes, is found in the fittingness of a wicked person receiving his or her comeuppance, I don’t think that this is the primary pleasure we ought to exult in. This is an important distinction. The more I seek the pleasure of witnessing the wicked be brought low, the less I am looking at God’s perfection—in fact, my sight becomes distorted by my undue focus on the wicked themselves (and you should look to Psalm 73 for when this happens). It is David’s focus on God’s goodness that makes him despise the wicked in Psalm 139, not David’s hatred of the wicked that makes him love God more. And it is here, I suspect, that schadenfreude requires Scriptural shaping, shifting its focus from the pleasure at the individual’s misfortune, to pure pleasure at God’s vindication and His revealed, eternal justice.

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“He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.” Psalm 37:6

I don’t know that any of this gets us closer to understanding quite how we are supposed to navigate the complex feelings we have when our enemies receive comeuppance. I can only offer an autobiographical answer. When, the other day, my enemy received a comeuppance, I did experience a moment of vindication, and furthermore, intermingled with that vindication was a feeling of distinct pleasure. I think that, rightly understood, this is merely the reflection of my heart’s inward desire for justice being fulfilled. There is a kind of universal fittingness whenever bad things happen to bad people—it’s the way we are imprinted to believe that the universe works, because we are creatures made with a longing for justice. However, my pleasure was rapidly tempered by a few thoughts. First, I wondered to myself who might feel such pleasure at my downfall? And furthermore, am I certain that I am in the right? And in turn these thoughts gave way to prayer, because I did not wish for the destruction of this person more than I wished for repentance and change on their part. I hoped that the experience would bring about an adjustment in thinking, in attitude, and in public discourse. Critical to recognize for the Christian who wishes to grow in holiness is that it will be difficult to experience full-blown schadenfreude when you are praying for your enemies and blessing those who persecute you. Heartfelt prayer means that my intentions toward all the individuals in my life, those with whom I agree as well as those with whom I disagree, means that I am eager for all of their difficult experiences to bear fruit in greater repentance, more Christlikeness, and real, lasting change.

In the end, it seems to me that the right ordering of the experience of schadenfreude is to ensure that my exultation and rejoicing are situated more upon the inevitability of God’s justice than it is on the suffering of the person. Should I look to rejoice in the visible displays of God’s justice? Most certainly, and rightly, and it is good and meet so to do. And yet we must be ever cautious to ensure that our pleasure gives way to compassion, concern, personal reflection, and deeper prayer.

An Uncharacteristic, Personal Update

Dear Reader,

As you may or may not have noticed, this is not a blog where I talk about me very often, if at all. Today, however, I wanted to break that convention in order to let you in on some significant life changes in the near future. Long story short, in January I’m beginning PhD studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’d like to take today’s post to tell you about how I’ve been led to this decision.

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Years ago, when my faith was first truly coming into its own, it did so under the influence of two men who taught me to love Jesus. Those two men were Lyle Dorsett and Jerry Root—both were C.S. Lewis scholars, both were committed to the Church and the Academy, and both exhibited a pastoral faith that had been deeply enriched by their respective PhD studies. It was a model that appealed to me.

When I graduated from Wheaton with a degree in Ancient Languages (Greek and Latin), and my wife with hers in Art, we were well situated to be highly educated but unemployable. I knew that further education would be necessary for me to advance in a career. One option I considered was Classics (further Greek studies), potentially at Oxford. Another option was a program in Patristic Studies (early Church history) at Notre Dame. Neither seemed quite right.

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In the meantime, worshipping one Sunday at Church, our minister put out a call for volunteers to preach at a local retirement home. I felt like I ought to give it a go, prayed it through with my wife, and before I knew it I was preaching to a group of 80 year old women. To my astonishment, I found that I loved it. Once a month I wrote a fifteen minute sermon and delivered it, and I was energized after each visit. I was so energized that, while walking with my wife and discussing further education, we came to the conclusion that seminary was the best option for us. Our provisional plan was that I would pursue a seminary degree, then move on to complete a PhD immediately following. We began to look at schools.

The events that brought us to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, are outside the scope of this post—but suffice it to say that we went in a very brief time from being unable to identify Vancouver on a map to deciding to emigrate there. Regent especially appealed to us because of the sense we had that Regent offered a kind of “liberal arts” version of the seminary experience (they even advertized themselves as the “un-seminary” at that time). Because of this, it felt like an ideal place to pursue an MDiv on the way to a PhD.

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The next four years involved an enormous amount of discernment as to the nature of my call, and in the process I experienced a curious vacillation. One month I would be encouraged in pursuing pastoral ministry, but it would be accompanied by some measure of discouragement about pursuing a PhD. Another month I would be actively encouraged in PhD studies but discouraged in pastoral ministry. As part of my MDiv requirements I was placed in a small group where we mutually discerned our calls and attempted to speak truth to one another. At the close of that group, after more than a year together, that group firmly and clearly affirmed my call to both pastoral ministry and the academy.

However, at graduation my PhD prospects were not clear at all. I had received a fairly devastating criticism in one of my last classes, and that criticism cast real doubt on the topic for study that I was then considering. In the meantime, I had been preaching on a monthly basis at a local Vietnamese church and greatly enjoying their fellowship and company. Once again, the cycle of discouragement and encouragement was in full swing, and when they asked me that summer to serve as their pastor, with no clear PhD prospects on the horizon, I said yes. I made it clear, however, that I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay with them. I ended up serving as their pastor for five years.

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We at Pho at a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay nearly every Sunday for all five years. It was amazing.

At the end of my service with them, I transitioned to a Chinese church, and I’ve been ministering to them for the past three years. Over the past eight years I have continue to nurse, in prayer, the call to a PhD. I’ve had a lingering sense that it was something I am still supposed to do, but I could imagine no way to accomplish it—whether logistically or financially. And so when I prayed about it I would always offer it to the Lord as a thing He could give me or take; the refrain of my prayers at this time was simply this, “Lord, give me no desires you don’t intend to fulfill Yourself.” I didn’t want to desire the PhD if God didn’t want me to have it. Occasionally I would discuss this sense of call with my Church members, and one time a smirking member told me that maybe the PhD God wanted me to get was my, “Preach Here, Dummy.” I laughed heartily at the joke, but also took it to heart. Maybe that door was closed.

In fact, I was very near to giving up on the dream altogether when, in December, I learned of a new program at St. Andrews. It would focus on Analytical and Exegetical Theology—that is, on philosophy and Bible—and everything about the program felt right up my alley. The subject was right, the instructors managing the program are some of the best in the world, and I had wanted a UK degree in part because they are shorter (three years) and focus chiefly on writing. For the first time in a long time I became excited about the possibility of further studies. I consulted with my wife and some key friends, and each counseled me to apply.

Over a two-week holiday in January I completed the application. Several professors with whom I had kept in touch encouraged me unreservedly (and wrote recommendations). My mentors in faith, Jerry and Lyle, were equally encouraging. And so with confidence I clicked submit and began to wait. I would wait a lot longer than I expected.

January passed, then February without news. This was not terribly surprising, but in March I was notified that I had been wait-listed. I still felt that this was manageable, but some uncertainty began to settle in. In many ways I felt that if this program didn’t work out, the PhD was not going to be a thing for me, and I was even then resigning myself to this possibility. In April I attended the Wheaton Theology Conference and, unsolicited, a large number of people (more than ten over a four day period) affirmed not only my writing but specifically encouraged me to pursue a PhD. When I shared that I had applied for a program, they expressed their excitement. I came back to Vancouver encouraged, but still waiting with bated breath. In May I spent a monthly retreat day at a Benedictine Monastery. While praying on a park bench for some encouragement from the Lord a couple walked up to the lookout. They began speaking in English accents, and I, wonderingly, asked the Lord, “Would you speak to me, Lord, through an accent?” Feeling uncertain, I continued my prayer, “You’ll have to give me more than that.” Moments later, another group walked up to the lookout, unrelated to the first—and would you know it, they also had English accents? Now my eyes and ears were open, but I’m not sure I was convinced. Ten or so minutes later one of the monks came to the bench and sat next to me. He was smoking a pipe and listening to music. On top of his pipe’s bowl was a curious metal contraption, and I interrupted him to ask what it was. Being hard of hearing, and misunderstanding me, he said, quite loudly, describing the pipe itself, “IT’S ENGLISH.” In my heart I said to God, “I will only be able to tell this story, Lord, if you send me to Scotland.”

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It was late June when I finally heard from the school—I was admitted to the program but without any offer of funding. One of the key prayers throughout the intervening months had been that if God wanted me to pursue this program, He would need to provide the funding. No funding, and I wouldn’t go. Acceptance from the school was then not enough to confirm my sense of call. My wife and I began to pray. She secured the word “miracle” on the wall of our home as a reminder of our prayers. And in two weeks’ time two things happened—first, the school offered me a 50% tuition scholarship, and second, I contacted a friend who offered significant support toward the program. In two weeks we had gone from no resources to more than 60% of the total cost of the program—living expenses and tuition. We felt that God had clearly showed us His intention to provide the rest, and so in faith we have agreed to go, and in prayer we are continuing to await the remainder of His provision. I have formally resigned from my church work, and in January we will sell many of our things and my family of five will change countries and spend the next three years at St. Andrews in Scotland. While we are there I will be writing about the Trinity, and Family Systems Theory, and the Incarnation, and Suffering. It promises to be an exciting set of years.

One friend asked me, “Did you choose Scotland, or did Scotland choose you?” The answer is “Yes.” But the overarching sense is that, indeed, Scotland has chosen us, and I can say that because the process of being led to this course of study has been of a piece with all of the previous ones. By God’s guidance I have applied to only one University (Wheaton), and only one Seminary (Regent), and now only one PhD Program (St. Andrews). He has been the one arranging my education, not me, and I am more than content to continue to submit to His guidance in these matters.

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Illinois forest preserves are pretty nice places.

When my wife and I were walking that Illinois forest preserve all those years ago and discussing seminary and doctoral studies, we certainly did not anticipate eight years of intervening pastoral ministry. And yet these years have been good. We have been enriched by our time in Vancouver, and we have made lifelong friends in the two churches in which I’ve served. I’ve been able to develop as a writer, and my pastoral call is a confirmed and entrenched reality. I remain called to serve the Church, and moreover I love the Church! I have wanted to stress to my members the fact that transitioning to PhD studies is in no way a departure from the Church. Rather, this is the completion and augmentation of my call. What career I pursue at the close of the next three years is yet to be seen, but we can await it with anticipation and not fear, because the One who is ordering our steps has ordered those events as well. We have only to keep our eyes open, and to obey when the time is right.

Thanks for Reading!

P. Jeremy Rios

A Developing Call—Some Thoughts On Why I Write

When I began this blog, six years ago next week, it was in response to a call from the Lord. He had instructed me to write, and so in obedience I began to write. I began blogging here at Mustard Seed Faith, then working on a book, then another book, then another blog, and so forth and so on. Any discipline pursued over time will change you, and over these past years writing has become such an integral part of my life that I have trouble now imagining life without it.

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My call to write has remained unchanged these past years, but my focus has begun to shift. The lodestone that has guided this shift has been my pastoral call, and, more specifically, my people. It is impossible to ignore today the increased prominence given to the life we live online. I first joined Facebook as a ministry tool, in order to keep abreast of what was going on in my people’s lives. Their likes, dislikes, and comments gave me a snapshot of what was going on socially, politically, ideologically, and theologically. And in the midst of observing their information, a new burden began to grow in me. The burden was about bad information.

Let’s face it—there’s a whole lot of bad information out there, and it’s not just bad, but often deceptive and dangerous. A byproduct of our media obsessions is that very often it is the loudest voice that wins, or the funniest, or the most vulgar. These factors highlight the shocking lack of serious thought, critical inquiry, and Christian witness in the public sphere. I quickly began to realize that, if no good information were being injected into the feeds of my people, the bad information would certainly win the day. Psalm 12:8 observes that “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men,” and Psalm 11:3 asks the question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” There is so much bad information strutting about, unopposed and unchecked, eroding the foundations of what is often a regrettably naïve Christian faith. Where are the righteous voices? Where are the people championing the complexities of Christian orthodoxy? Where are the men and women of faith who are standing up to speak the truth in a measured, ordinary way? I am challenged by that old dictum—that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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Image from Imgur (http://imgur.com/YO1RIOZ.jpg)

Recently I’ve been reading a biography of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who although a retired U-boat captain and fiercely patriotic, and although he initially supported Hitler and the National Socialists, and although tacitly participating in Germany’s pervasive anti-Semitism, nevertheless came to change his mind. As a pastor he began to recognize the dissonance between the vision of Christianity presented by Nazi Germany and the one represented in the historic Christian faith. Taking stock of the two, Niemöller began to question what was going on in Germany. Bristling at State interference in matters of doctrine and practice in the Church, he helped to organize with other pastors a resistance to National Socialism, and an attempt to call the conscience of Christian Germany to rethink its racism and nationalism. In this way Niemöller was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church, and for his efforts was confined to prison for eight years, many of those at Dachau. At the end of that time Niemöller was uniquely poised to address not only the wrongs done in Germany, but to seek a new way forward. He played a key role in the composition of a document called the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. The following words are from that document:

Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.

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Niemöller is also famous for that poem that begins, “First they came for the Trade Unionists, and I said nothing…”

We fought, Niemöller confessed—but not hard enough, not loudly enough, not joyfully enough, not courageously enough. I am convicted by Niemöller’s example. He is a pastor, like me, called, like me, to voice genuine Christianity in the midst of chaos, distraction, and falsehood. He speaks the truth in a prophetic way and pays a great cost for it. He is a spiritual hero for an age of deception and informational chaos. I am coming to pray, as I write, that I will have spoken faithfully, loudly, and boldly, and will not have to apologize later for not having spoken enough.

This, then, is the altered shape of my call to write—at least as I write here and offer comment online. I feel a burden to be a voice for orthodox, rational, traditional Christianity in the public sphere. To do this I keep a public profile, so that almost every post, comment, and interaction is visible for all to see. My motives are not combative (I enjoy a good debate, but not controversy), and nor are they particularly apologetic—in fact, in almost every case I am writing not to non-believers, but to the Church. Throughout, my underlying attitude is deeply pastoral. I read popular content online and consider how it might affect my people. I write about and address issues of public concern because I am motivated chiefly by compassion for my people who may have access only to inferior interpretations of events. I grieve the situation of modern information, and feel compelled to attempt to do my small part to stand for the truth in the midst of chaos. I pray that, when I look back at my life later, I will be able to stand with a measure of the integrity of my fellow pastor Martin Niemöller. May God grant that it so be.

Six Friendly Tips for Christians in Online Discourse

Greetings, Christian Friend! I’m writing today to offer some advice. I hope you won’t mind.

It’s not hard to conclude that the comment sections on the interwebs are almost certain proof of human depravity. For some reason they consistently bring out the absolute worst in people (possibly for some of the reasons listed here). Be that as it may, the really alarming thing is that the average Christian doesn’t appear to be doing all that much better, and very often the whole “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” thing appears to have become inverted, and in the process we present ourselves as both dumb and harmful.

Kip at Computer_Napoleon Dynamite

This must not be! We each in Christ have a responsibility—not only to image him in holiness in all our conduct (whether online or offline), but to faithfully voice the Christian perspective in the public sphere. We must commit to being media savvy and media wise, and to do this we’re going to have to keep two Bible verses taped to the top of our computer monitors/phones/tablets or whatever—Psalm 34:13 says, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” and Ephesians 4:15 says that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”

“Keep your tongue from evil”—or, maybe, keep your keyboard from evil and your comments from deceit. As Christians we live under the mandate to ensure that all our words are edifying, and that we do not permit ourselves to drift into deceit. The keyboard, however, has become a kind of filter through which much of our Christianity can be easily edited out—such as our restraint, our courtesy, our kindness, our care for others, our sense of propriety, and our sense of profanity. Somehow, we give permission to the typed that we would never give to our relationships with real, live people. We must remember in all our discourse to keep our keyboards from evil.

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“Speaking the truth in love”—it is indeed imperative that we speak the truth, but when we Christians come out swinging to win, eager to blast our opponents with a salvo of well-prepared Scripture references and carefully copy-and-pasted arguments, we’ve got to pause and ask if we aren’t just winning the battle but losing the war. If our truth fails to be wedded to love, then it will likely be a cold and unappreciated truth. Speaking the truth also presumes that we know the truth sufficiently well to present it. There’s really no excuse for uneducated, domineering, belligerent diatribes.

What else can we do? Well, with these two scriptures in mind, I’ve got two big suggestions and four practical ones for managing our online discourse.

Big Suggestion #1—Pray Before, During, and After Commenting. When was the last time you asked God Almighty for permission to post before hitting enter or clicking send on a comment? On those occasions when you did pray, did you wait for His response, or seek His clarity or peace before proceeding? James teaches us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (1:19)—prayer is the surest and most certain means of slowing down our anger and hastening our listening. Then, while you type your comment, pray. Pray for what you are writing. Pray for wisdom and clarity. Pray for the person you are responding to. Pray for understanding of the situation. Then, having been given divine permission to comment, pray after the comment is posted for how it is received, how it might contribute to the discussion, and so forth.

Woman in mirror

Big Suggestion #2—Be Authentic. This sounds simple enough, but once again, if the keyboard gives a kind of filtered permission to leave courtesy at the door—and if this affects not just Christians but everyone—then it is all the more pressing to have authentic Christian voices speaking and commenting online. The simplest way to do this is to ensure that your online life is indistinguishable from your offline life. What you say, comment, or participate in online, ought to be things you would say, comment, or participate in in real life. If a friend had a conversation with you over coffee, and later read your internet history, the two “voices” ought to be in perfect concord. Most people are pretty good at smelling fakes. We do no service to the Christian cause online when we fail to be ourselves.

Those are the two big suggestions—here are my four practical suggestions, which deal more with specific attitudes and practices during online discussions.

Practical Suggestion #1—Deal With One Point at a Time. This can be really hard, but often a given commentator online will kitchen sink his or her way through an argument, bringing in every possible angle in a single comment. The wise commentor will attempt to deal with a single point at a time, and will refuse to move on until you’ve achieved some clarity about that one point. From there, you can always go on to the next point.

Kitchen Sink Ice Cream

Sometimes we throw everything at someone, including the kitchen sink.

Practical Suggestion #2—Always Separate the Point from the Person. This is another area of enormous struggle. People in discourse have a bad habit of overidentifying themselves with their position—criticize the position, and the person takes it personally. You need to make sure that you are clearly addressing the position and not the person. When we do attack the person, this is called an ad hominem—it means that rather than dealing with the person’s point I’ve attacked the individual’s character or credentials. We must never do this, and we must speak out in defense of others when it is done to them.

Practical Suggestion #3—Choose Wisely Where You Comment. Jesus tells us not to throw our pearls before swine—the pigs won’t appreciate them, after all. In the same way, some threads simply aren’t worth your time and ought to be avoided. If you’re praying before you comment, you ought to have a sense of which places you have a responsibility to wade in, and which ought to be avoided. Naturally, there are places where you feel a Christian voice is necessary, and speaking up will invite hostility. Pray well before you step into such a situation!

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Practical Suggestion #4—Admit When You’re Wrong. This ought to be obvious but isn’t. When you are indeed wrong, admit it. When the person you’re engaged with makes a valid point, admit it. We Christians are not out to “win,” and we’re not really engaged in a battle against the “others.” Instead, we’ve got to see ourselves as attempting in all our thought to get on God’s side. After all, He’s the only entity in the universe with a legitimate corner on the Truth. When our online opponents make a point that is true, that’s no threat to us—they’re helping to draw us closer to our own knowledge and apprehension of God’s truth. So admit it. Give in. Admit when you’ve made a mistake, or gone too far, or said something hurtful. Apologize and seek to move on. It will help your authenticity remarkably.

This was a very brief set of suggestions, and I’m sure there’s lots more to be said about faithful online discourse. But it is, at least, a start. And if you do only one of these things, would you please pray before you comment or post? It could would change the whole landscape of our Christian presence online.

Becoming Virtuous Never Feels Virtuous

Wise Woman CoverGeorge MacDonald’s classic fairy tale The Wise Woman is the penetrating story of two young girls—one the daughter of a king, the other of a shepherd, both thoroughly wicked and selfish. Each girl’s wickedness requires treatment at the hands of the Wise Woman in order to grow out of her bestial selfishness and into a nascent semblance of virtue. One of the tactics utilized by the Wise Woman is simple, ordinary work—such as chores, tasks, and other assignments. At one point in the story MacDonald says this about one of the girls, who had begun to respond to the treatment and was becoming better, but was on the cusp of a relapse into her old selfishness:

She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of not being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures. [George MacDonald, The Wise Woman, 53]

MacDonald is nearly unmatched in his insight into human nature, the human heart, and the process by which we are drawn from our own self-absorption into a more selfless, virtuous humanity. And the feature of the human heart that he so succinctly captures in the paragraph above is our propensity for fair-weather virtue. We are generous when it is convenient, not when it is difficult; kind when it feels good, not when it doesn’t; forgiving when it costs us nothing, miserly when it does. In almost all our pursuits of virtue, our good deeds are as reliable as the weather, ever shifting, ever changing based on our circumstances and momentary preferences. We do not grow in virtue because we have failed to recognize that becoming virtuous never feels like virtue.

Pieper CoverTake, as an example, Josef Pieper’s definition of Courage from his book A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He observes that “Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous” [Pieper, 24-25]. In other words, no risk, no Courage. An invulnerable individual is not courageous because he or she risks nothing in his or her pursuits, and where there is no fear there is no Courage. The brave person, then, is someone “who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point of forsaking the final and authentic good things” and who furthermore, despite his fear, “advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good” [Pieper, 26, 27]. Convinced of the highest good, such a person pursues it through any pain which might stand between him and that good. Courage, then, is the dogged and unrelenting pursuit of the true good in the face of fear.

If courage requires vulnerability, risk, and pursuit of an objective in the face of fear, then Courage is unlikely to feel like Courage. In fact, Courage will feel like fear, and growing in the virtue of Courage will mean not growing less fearful, but growing more steadfast in the midst of our fears. If we feel courageous feelings and conclude that we are brave, then we are as conceited and ill-informed as the child who feels pride that he successfully ate his dinner. And so long as we await courageous feelings to be courageous, we will live at the mercy of animal nature and momentary circumstance. Instead, true growth in virtue will require us to pay a difficult, unexpected, and often ironic emotional cost. Becoming virtuous, to state it again, never feels virtuous.

If courage feels like fear, then what ironic feelings ought we to expect for the other three cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice? Not long ago I counseled a young woman who was in need of Wisdom to navigate a difficult interpersonal situation. As we discussed the particulars of her situation, it became clear that she was mired in a morass of conflicting perspectives. Decisions had become difficult, and what was required most was the ability to slow down and attempt to perceive the situation with clarity. In that moment it was eminently clear to me, however, that Wisdom doesn’t feel like Wisdom; Wisdom feels like mud. The person who feels wise is simply taking pleasure in her momentary cleverness, while the person who is growing in Wisdom is becoming accustomed to the murkiness of discerning the truth. Mature Wisdom is not found in the momentary insight, but comes through slogging your way into clarity. Temperance is not the good feelings we get when we show some measure of restraint—not purchasing that item of clothing, or not eating that extra cookie. Temperance feels much more like death—it is not the momentary pleasure of a pleasure avoided, but the putting to death of desire to make it serve other goods. Temperance is the death of sexual freedom, of appetites, of acquisitiveness—it is the subjugation of the unwilling will to a higher purpose and good. Lastly, Justice is not found in the feelings of justice—which are too often simply expressions of smug self-righteousness. We are most likely to feel Just when we have done some thing that makes us feel good. But a true commitment to growth in Justice demands grave discomfort, anger, and longing. “How long, O Lord?” is the cry of the Psalmist—a longing which I expect ought to be similarly echoed in the heart of the individual who would grow in the virtue of Justice.

Lady Justice

The irony exhibited through the feelings attached to the four cardinal virtues is abundant—he who would grow in Courage, Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice must willingly choose to experience fear, murkiness, death, and longing. And yet, so long as we await the feelings of virtue to be virtuous, we will remain ethical and moral infants, blown by every wind of emotional fancy. Instead, the man or woman who would grow into virtue, who would commit to becoming more fully human, must resign himself or herself to the difficult work of not feeling virtuous. In this, I am reminded of Baron von Hügel’s austere words to his niece Gwendolyn Greene—words which I keep written on the wall beside my desk:

You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all the attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. [Friedrich von Hügel, Letters to a Niece, 72]

Virtue is hard work—which is probably why so few people attempt it. And yet there is no other means through which we can actively labor to become mature. But if you’re eager for a little help along the way, may I make a recommendation? His name is George MacDonald—and the book is called The Wise Woman. I give it my highest possible recommendation.