Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Concerning Christians Wounded by the Church

Just last week I wrote about Christians who reject the church, and while I wrote I purposefully chose to make no mention of those circumstances when Christians have been so wounded by the Church that they feel they have to leave. My intentional omission was, and remains, grounded in the conviction that the prideful rejection of the Church—the refusal to submit—is an attitude which warrants a ruthless manner of redress. I did not wish to mitigate my argument against the prideful even by mention of the wounded because there is no room for such an attitude among people who claim to follow Christ.

And yet the prideful are not necessarily the only ones who walk away from the gathered community, because there are also many who explain their own withdrawal from regular Christian fellowship on the grounds of wounds received within the Church. I was vividly reminded of this while I sat with an old friend this past week. Several years had elapsed since we’d seen one another, and while we caught up he shared with me that due to a series of extreme and difficult circumstances, married to a consequent wounding by the Church, he had ceased to attend fellowship for a time. So, what should be said to Christians who have been wounded by the Church?

Tantrum

Courtesy of Flikr. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

But let’s imagine now that you have self-examined and pride is not at the root of your experience of wounding. What now? There are a few things to consider. First, have I been wounded because the Church is composed of imperfect people, or because this particular congregation is systematically broken? This distinction is terribly important. All people are broken, and while the Church is an agent of healing for brokenness, it remains composed of people on the way towards new life. If the Church is doing its job of evangelism, then it is continually bringing in new broken people who augment its overall brokenness with their own individual eccentricities. Have I been wounded, then, because the people around me are still undergoing a transformation under grace? Am I wounded because the people around me are not equipped to deal with my particular brokenness, and I am simply impatient with their rate of growth in care? However painful the wounding might be, it is the wounding of humanity and of family. To escape this kind of wounding will require retreat from all human contact. What is more, if you were to find a Church which could guarantee no wounding in this capacity, your own personal brokenness would disqualify you from membership. We must remember that grace in community is not a one-way street, for in the same manner that you wish for a kind of grace from the people of God (to meet your wounds), you must yourself extend grace to the gathered people of God (who are broken as well).

But the above condition assumes that the gathered community is striving to live faithfully the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. What about those communities where there is a system of brokenness? For example, when leadership ensconces itself in protective policies, ensuring that power is preserved at all costs, or when churches cover brokenness to save face, wounding the people of God to save the “institution” (and forgetting that the institution has no life apart from the people that constitute it), or when gross ineptitude on the part of leadership is never addressed by the laity, or when gross ineptitude on the part of laity is never addressed by the leadership. I submit to you that in these circumstances of systemic brokenness such Churches are in the process of violating their very purpose. All Churches will wound, of course—sometimes intentionally in accord with the mission, sometimes unintentionally because of our broken humanity. But these Churches wound in order to self-preserve; they fleece and eat their own sheep in violation of the Lord’s command to feed and care for the sheep. They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worship at the altar of their own image, rather than the image of the Lord who gave his life for the Church. This is a Church that is in the process of becoming not-a-Church, a branch which is severing itself from the lifegiving vine. Its doom, if there is no repentance and change, is certain.

cowcatcher1

Sometimes people use tools to ensure the locomotive keeps running.

But there remains a further difficulty. What of those situations where wolves masquerade as sheep within the people of God, whether as leadership or laity? What do we make of the wounds brought about by faithless, manipulative, deceptive people walking among faithful and earnest Christians? Sadly, this is a reality that is promised in Scripture—in other words, we knew this could happen. So our response as members wounded by wolves hangs on the Church’s response to the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. If the false leadership/membership is not addressed, then it points to a systematic issue—the Church is now protecting its own image by refusing to deal properly with the deception, and is in the process of violating its mission. (This, I should note, is often reflected in the bitter and ongoing situation with sexual abuse in the Church.) However, if the Church does seek to address the problem, however falteringly, then it is part and parcel of the way the kingdom operates in this broken world.

What does all this mean for the wounded Christian? In the first place, it means that if your wounds fall under the first category—those wounds which are an unfortunate but unchanging part of the brokenness of the world—then you have little ground for leaving the Church. You might need a break, depending on the nature of your wound (I think here of grief in particular). But you should remember that your wound is as much a vital part of the life of the Church as anything else—it is the vivid reminder of our need to love and care for the body in community. But in the second place, if you discern that you are part of a deeply broken Church, a Church on its way to becoming not-a-Church, then you still have further discernment to make, and two options from which to choose. 1) Am I called to stay in this broken fellowship, although wounded, and strive through faithfulness to effect Christlike change? This is a difficult, self-denying decision, and it must be particularly shielded against the influence of pride. Pride would claim, “I am the one to change this church, and I’ll do it if it kills me.” Humility is a necessary component for all such engagement, and if you are called to this, you are called to suffer for the sake of change. The second option is this: 2) Has Jesus given me permission to remove myself from this fellowship and to engage with a new one? Again, the decision to leave must be discerned through prayer. The question, put another way, might be this, “Lord, are my wounds calling me to fellowship with a different group of your followers?” Once again, pride lurks in the background—the pride of imagining yourself better or more enlightened than the people you have left behind. So, whether you stay or leave, you are called to stay or leave in humility of heart.

Hospital Bed Child

Photo by Cecil Beaton.

A few concluding thoughts. First, the astute reader will note that throughout this I have made no room for a solitary Christian. It is assumed that, having faith in Christ, you will commit to finding a place to live out your life in fellowship. Second, you will also note the repeated and emphasized role of discernment in this process. Life in the Church requires a great deal of self-examination, searching out pride and the motives of our hearts. Third and finally, we should mark the persistent role of humility throughout this process—humility of leaders and laity alike, of wounded and broken people, of all within the Church. After the presence of Christ, humility is the most important characteristic of any functioning Church, and the certain ground of any solution to wounds within the Church.

Concerning Christians Who Reject the Church

 

Church_White“I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to Church.” It’s a fairly common expression to encounter, whether or not you’re a minister like me. It’s a favorite catch-phrase of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, ascribing a certain nobility to those people whose faith has personally transcended the need for outmoded and backwards institutions. The Church, after all, is for hypocrites, and I’m not one of those, and the Church is scuttled by politics, and I’m above that, and the Church is anti-homosexual, and I’m more enlightened than that. And by aligning myself with Jesus as an individual, yet throwing the gathered community of Christians under the bus, I grant myself an elevated spirituality that is unhindered by the difficulties of average (and presumably unthinking) sheeple—er, that is, people. The attitude is similar to the statement, “I love Jesus but not religion,” which has always struck me as deeply and unintentionally ironic. To say I love Jesus but not religion is like saying, “I love food but not eating.” Sure, I can make too much of eating, and I can even rob food of its implicit joys by over-ceremonializing the procedure of eating. I can, indeed, make an idol of “eating.” But as long as eating is the procedure that brings me access to the food I love and need, then it serves its purpose. Religion isn’t bad—it can’t be bad—it’s the things I get to do because I love Jesus. To claim otherwise is to sorely misinterpret the whole of the religious life.

To cultivate a desire to associate with Jesus while spurning his bride, his chosen vehicle to change the world, is to stand on dangerous ground. “You I like, Jeremy. You’re a great guy, I love being with you. But that wife of yours? Liesel? Ugh. What an embarrassment! I’d prefer to just ditch her and hang out with you.” If you said that to me I would begin to gather serious doubts about whether you actually like me, since you feel so free to spit on someone I have committed my life to loving. And when you say essentially the same thing to Jesus I imagine that his response might be similar, and I imagine also that he might begin to think your attitude reflects some further and even graver misunderstandings about what precisely this “Church” thing is all about. And behind all of this I perceive that these attitudes of rejection toward the Church point to a refusal to submit, and this is a refusal that reveals a deep-seated arrogance and pride. There are five ways this shows up in particular.

1) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the God-ordained process by which we become Godly persons. It is to say, “I don’t need you.” But you do need the Church. In the Scriptures we are commanded to love, to forgive, to be generous, to serve, and to sacrifice. Where do you first learn these exalted practices if not in the community of God’s people? Where do you practice them? What lie to you ascribe to the power of God if you claim to follow Jesus in his love, forgiveness, generosity, and sacrifice, but refuse to love, forgive, be generous toward, and serve Jesus’ own chosen people? The Church is the gymnasium where we, called out of the world, practice God’s love both as a sign of God’s Kingdom presence and in preparation for our mission as God’s people.

2) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the necessary conflict that sharpens and hones us into useful servants for God’s mission. It is to claim, “I will not be hurt by you.” And yet pain, discomfort, and failure, are precisely the mechanisms by which we discover our faults and grow through them. It is easy to be loving when you’re alone—it is far harder when you have to love an actual person sitting across from you. It is easy to be generous when you imagine generosity alone with God in the woods, it is far harder when the brother or sister sitting across from you has tangible needs for which you have practical means. Will you allow yourself to be sharpened, then? Iron Axe HeadProverbs 27:17 seems to me to be a central verse describing the work of the Church, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This is not a comfortable and polite process but the rough contact of two intractable pieces of hardness, being brought further and further into sharpness by their persistent grating, one against the other. The purpose of the difficulty is honing, creating and edge which has a purpose and function. Conflict and difficulty in the Church is often precisely the process by which we are brought low from our pride and made useful for God’s Kingdom.

3) To refuse to submit to the Church is to elevate the individual over the community. It is to say, “I am better than you. My judgment of the Church is superior to yours, to even Jesus’ judgment of the Church. I inhabit a privileged position from which I can perceive all of your failures, and I will now distance myself from those failures. Not only am I spiritually superior to you, I will now exhibit that superiority by expressing condemnation of your Church community by means of my withdrawal from it.” This is the arch-hypocrisy. The Church is full of hypocrites, but I’m not one of them. The Church is judgmental, but I am free to judge the Church. The Church is full of hateful people, but I am free to hate the Church. Each of these in turn reflects the elevation of the individual “I,” above the gathered people of God. This is the heart of arrogance, to promote the superiority of self at the expense of others, and it is the essence of pride, to place confidence improperly on my own judgments and thoughts. You are an eye, denying your need for hands or feet, not realizing that it is impossible to live on your own; a coal, thinking it can retain its heat apart from the fire that gives it life.

Shift from the Last Battle

4) To refuse to submit to the Church is to overlook your own broken participation in God’s people. This is to claim that, “Those people are broken, but I’m not like them.” The Church is indeed broken, because it is made of people, and people are broken. And whenever broken people gather in community their brokenness is present in those communities. The Church has never been a community of perfection, and were it so there would be no place for you or me. Instead, the Church is a community of people who are in the process of finding healing for their brokenness in the Fatherhood of God, at the cross of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, and that healing is being mediated to them through the gathered community of God’s people serving one another with the gifts of God. Is there a danger of pretence? Of course, because the brokenness extends to every aspect of a community’s identity—and yet, Jesus has not yet given up on loving his Church. What right have you to do so? The only reason would be because your personal perfection has graduated you to a class of post-Church Jesus followers; having discovered perfect personal holiness, you no longer need nor fit in with the gathered community. Funny, isn’t it, how only one person actually qualifies in that way, and how his choice from that perspective of holiness was to give up his life for the Church? Blessed are the poor in spirit! But that’s not you, is it? Because you’re wealthy. Glutted and satiated on your own individualistic spirituality.

5) Lastly, to refuse to submit to the Church is to gravely (and sometimes willfully) misunderstand what the Church is. To say that “I’m a Christian but I don’t go to Church” is to speak an absurdity. There is, in reality, no such thing as “going to Church”—when you believe in Jesus you are Church, you become Church, you are irrevocably Church. To believe in Christ situates you in God’s new people, expressed eternally on earth and in heaven as his Church. Neither you nor I have ever actually gone to Church, but there have been regular times when we have congregated as the Church, coming together in faith to confess our Lord, practice our faith, be encouraged in our identity, and be reminded of the true reality of Heaven which we then take back with us into our workaday lives. Our gathered meetings, Scripture readings, songs, sermons, and ceremonies each serve this edifying purpose—to centre the people of God on the Kingdom of God and the mission of Christ in a fresh and enlivening way. lighthouse_westcott_bigFurthermore, our participation in the gathered community testifies to our unbroken belief that this broken group of people on the way is the great sign and program for God’s Kingdom advance in the world. The Church is no accident, it is God’s sovereign plan for the world. Christ is reigning, even now, through us. That means that this broken house is the only hope for transformation in the world, the only hope for relief from evil, pain, grief, sorrow, and death, and that we members of Christ are sent out weekly as an advance army into enemy territory to seek and save the lost, to bring others into the light of Christ and fellowship with Him, to draw them into the restorative community of people learning to walk with Christ side-by-side.

I believe in the Church because I confess the Church. I believe in the Church because Jesus believes in His Church. And I am weary of the attitude of individuals whose impoverished ecclesiology poisons Christian fellowship with pride. If you believe in Jesus, and yet reject the Church, the word that describes your attitude is disobedience. You are a bad person and you should feel bad.

So, to give the final word to the Scriptures, and in obedience to the command of Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Amen and Amen.