Chasing the Willies

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.
~ Ecclesiastes 7:10

Where did that thrill go?

Those who know me now see me as a smooth, confident man of affairs and it will be jarring to learn I have not always been so. It might be impossible for you to believe, but it is true. Around third or fourth grade I was a chubby kid in an ill-fitting polo shirt, squirming in a wood and metal desk while listening to a very near-sighted teacher go over multiplication tables. I had hardly been anywhere in life to that point, but I began to hear rumors of a field trip.

Class field trips were usually the sort of event where kids and adults, called chaperones, were shuttled to places like the public library, Cultural Center, or state capitol building. These fine establishments were ready for the influx of pupils and would give out plastic bags with colorful information you would never read and a pencil you would probably lose before you got back home that evening. Chaperones sounded interesting until you saw them and they were just normal people. Of course, after the trips were over, the next item was writing up the dreaded report on the trip. Those reports often went the same way.

“The capitol building is big.”

“The library has a lot of books.”

“The Cultural Center has many old and interesting things inside.”

If there were page or word count requirements, the capitol would become “very big,” the library would have “a whole lot of different books,” and the cultural items would be “very old and very interesting.” One would think teachers would quit requiring such reports, if only to show themselves the mercy of not reading them.

Field trips have been going on in that vein for generations, but the rumors of this field trip were different. It was rumored we were going to a place called Camden Park. If you grew up in the ’80s in south-central West Virginia, you are familiar with Camden Park. You’ve had your hand stamped, rode The Big Dipper, and maybe even listened to Freddy Fender rendering his international hit, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Camden Park is an amusement park in Huntington, WV. It has a long history going back into the early twentieth century when it began as a picnic spot by the railroad and grew by adding rides. Its signature ride was a wooden roller coaster named, The Big Dipper.

The rumors were true and we loaded up one day to drive the hour or so it took to get to the state’s only amusement park. That was an exhilarating day. The park seemed enormous to a kid’s eyes and the rides provided a whole day of thrills. I didn’t muster the courage on that first trip to ride the big roller coaster, but I would ride it later. I would visit that park many times over the next few years and it was always a great day.

I drove by the place a few years ago and was underwhelmed. The park looked old and tired and not very big. I appreciate the childhood experiences I had there but know it wouldn’t be the same for me to go there now. No amusement park today could recreate that feeling I had as a kid at such a place. I have taken my own kids to those kind of places and I have a great day with them, but it is a different experience from what they are having and I had when young. No matter what I do, I can’t have that experience again.

Grasping Wind

If next I told you I was going on a quest to recapture the old thrills of my childhood experiences, you might think I’ve cracked up, or you at least know I would be pursuing futility. I can’t become a kid again. If I looked up all my old classmates and headed to Camden Park, it wouldn’t be the same. I can have new experiences but I cannot re-have the old ones. Besides, have you ever noticed the best experiences are had when we are not tying to have an experience?

The thrill comes when we are not trying to have the thrill as an end in itself. Whenever we try to contrive or manufacture a particular experience, it never works. A husband and wife will sometimes try to recapture their honeymoon experience years later on some milestone anniversary. They may end up having a nice time, but it will not be the same. They might even have a better time for some reason, but no matter how much effort they expend to make everything just like it was back then, everything is not like it was back then and neither are they. It really is like trying to grab the wind and hold it in your hand.

What would you say to someone spending a lot of time in life trying to recapture experiences they had previously in life? It’s a vain pursuit. It’s a waste of time. It’s also limiting. We grow and age and leave things behind we can never regain, but there are also things ahead we will never gain if we don’t put our faces into the wind. If we are primarily seeking the thrills, we seem to be missing the point of life as well. Thrills will come and go and as we mature we realize thrills are not ultimately satisfying. This is what C. S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote, “But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life.” 1

As a kid, I thought I wanted to go to Camden Park everyday. I could ride non-stop and inhale the sugar air known as cotton candy until dark. As an adult, I know the folly of those childish thoughts. The thrills would wear off and I would get tired of the park. The steady diet of high sugar in various forms would make me sick to my stomach. On a different level, I know I would be supremely wasting time. I wouldn’t be accomplishing anything worthwhile. I would be losing opportunity to grow, learn, work, do, and become.

Long ago, Solomon pursued pleasure with everything he had, and he had a lot. He found it empty and unsatisfying (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3). To constantly pursue experience and thrills is childish and foolish, even when done in the name of religion or spirituality. When cloaked in a spiritual guise, this folly is not easily recognized. Rather than being decried, the vain pursuit is applauded and promoted as being on fire for God, or experiencing the presence and power of God, walking in the Spirit, etc.

The Holy Ghost Theme Park

Is the Holy Spirit the proprietor of an amusement park? Is he the broker of chills and thrills? Is he the ultimate adrenaline and pleasure button we can push so that a simple church service becomes the setting for exhilaration like that of riding the world’s fastest roller coaster? Is the primary work of the Spirit in a believer’s life to give them the willies every so often? Does the Spirit inspire chaos and confusion?

Paul corrected the Corinthian church for their abuse of spiritual gifts and misunderstanding of the work of the Spirit in their midst in 1 Corinthians, chapters 12 to 14. There was confusion and conflict in the assembly at Corinth and Paul concluded warning them that was not of God, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Paul’s argument was that if they were experiencing the power of the Spirit, then the results would be consistent with the nature and character of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

The result of the Spirit’s work is not confusion, strife, and disorder because the nature of the Spirit is not that. We know what the fullness of the Spirit means by the prophecy of the coming Messiah, who would be filled with the Spirit.

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
– Isaiah 11:1-5

The fullness of the Spirit does not mean ecstatic excitement, but wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of Yahweh, righteousness, and faithfulness. The Spirit’s empowering and enabling is not for some mystical experience, running around, jumping, and hollering. His empowering is for service, just as we see with those who built the tabernacle.

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2 See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah:
3 And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,
4 To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,
5 And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.
6 And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee;
7 The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle,
8 And the table and his furniture, and the pure candlestick with all his furniture, and the altar of incense,
9 And the altar of burnt offering with all his furniture, and the laver and his foot,
10 And the cloths of service, and the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister in the priest’s office,
11 And the anointing oil, and sweet incense for the holy place: according to all that I have commanded thee shall they do.
– Exodus 31:1-11

The fullness of the Spirit here is seen in terms of wisdom, but also in terms of hard work. What the Spirit inspires is subject to the Father’s will and in step with the Father’s purpose. This was Paul’s prayer for the Spirit’s work in the Colossian church members, and the members of the church in Ephesus as well (Colossians 1:9-12; Ephesians 1:16-17). Paul reminded Timothy of the work of the Spirit resulting in a sound mind, which means self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). Jesus taught the Spirit rebukes and judges sin (John 16:7-11), guides believers into truth by understanding his written word (John 16:13-14; 17:17), and leads believers into obedience to God’s word (John 14:15-26).

Wherever the power of the Spirit is, there will be conviction and repentance of sin, a prevailing of wisdom and soberness, and serious service for the work of God’s kingdom. Will we continue to be as children seeking thrills and trying to prolong them? Or, will we be mature and seek the Spirit that we may grow in understanding of revealed truth, that we might walk in righteousness before God, and zealously serve him for the glory of his name? We don’t need the Holy Spirit to feel all tingly. A two-story drop or a high-speed loop can give us that. However, no roller coaster, bungee jump, or sky dive can ever increase our wisdom and understanding of God’s truth.

Notes:

  1. Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 111). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

A Shoe in the Hand is Worth Two on the Feet

Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things.
~ 2 Timothy 2:7

A parable about marriage…maybe.

A certain young man sat down by the way to look at the sky and to think. A neighbor of his happened to walk by. “Good morning.” The young man still stared at the clouds. The neighbor sat down his parcel and leaned closer to the young man’s face. “Hello. Good morning. You seem lost in your thoughts.” The young man blinked, looked at the neighbor, and smiled. “Oh, hello, good morning. I didn’t see you. I was thinking.”

The neighbor straightened to full height. “Well, thinking is always good, though it has gone a little out of fashion. What were you thinking about?” The young man tilted his head and moved his mouth, but no sound came out at first. “I was thinking about a wife.” The neighbor tapped his chin twice. “And whose wife were you thinking about?” The young man’s head leaned back. “What? No. I was thinking about my own wife.” The neighbor put his hands in his pockets. “Oh, I see, but I thought you were unmarried.” The young man gathered his hair from his forehead and smoothed it back. “That’s just the problem. I don’t have a wife; I want a wife.” The young man rubbed the back of his neck and dropped his hand back to his lap. His hair sprang back to drape his forehead.

The neighbor adjusted the waist of his pants and rested his hands on his hips and relaxed his elbows. “Well, sooner or later, a young man will want a wife. What have you done to get a wife?” The young man’s eyes scanned back and forth. “So far I have sat down here and thought about it.” The neighbor stretched his back and then scratched his head about the crown. “What are you going to do after that?” The young man sat still. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to get a wife. How do you get a wife?” The neighbor spread his hands out with palms upward. “What? Have you never read how Boaz got Ruth to wife? He went to the gates of the city and plucked off his shoe. If you’re going to do this the right way, the Bible way, that’s the only way to do it.” The young man’s eyes widened. “Thanks.” He got up and ran off. The neighbor paused a moment, picked up his parcel, and continued on his way.

***

After some time, this same young man once again sat down by the way. As expected, his neighbor came along after a while. The young man this time was alert. “Hello, sir.” The neighbor stopped and rested both hands atop his walking stick. “Good morning, young man. How is the search for a wife getting on?” The young man pushed his lips out like he was going to whistle. “Not very well.” The neighbor wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and replaced his hat. “Oh. What has happened? Did you not take my advice?” The young man placed his hands on the ground. “Yes, I took your advice. I took it all over town. I took it to everyone I met. I even took it to the Bible.” The neighbor’s eyebrows followed the ups and downs of the young man’s words. “Well? What did you find?”

The young man leaned back against the old oak. “I walked many miles, consulted every aged person I met, and went at last to the maps and the city archives. I found that our city does not have gates and never has, as far as the records show. If I could not find the gates, I did not know how I would go there, how I would pluck off my shoe, and how I would get a wife.” The neighbor cleared his throat, but the young man continued before he could speak. “I figured I must be missing something, so I tried to find you but couldn’t find you anywhere.” The neighbor coughed. “Ah, I have been out of town. I’m sorry I missed you.”

The young man sat back up. “Well, I couldn’t find you so I got out the Bible. I read to see what it said about getting a wife. I could not find any other mention of the gates of the city or plucking off shoes to get a wife. Now I wonder if that really is the way.” The neighbor straightened and interrupted. “You’re getting confused by the silence. The Bible doesn’t mention it in those other passages, but it doesn’t say it didn’t happen in those instances.” The young man tilted his face up to his neighbor. “Wait. That’s confusing.” The neighbor relaxed slightly. “Let me explain. In the case of Boaz, the Bible says it did happen. So, when the Bible is silent about it in those other passages, we have to assume that it happened the same way. You see?” The young man scratched his head. “Hmmm…let me ask you a question. Are you married?” The neighbor tilted his head to the side. “No. I have never been married.” The young man looked at the clouds. “Well, maybe that’s the problem.”

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Sovereignty Can Be Taxing

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
~ Romans 13:7

. . . At least to the brain anyway.

By sovereignty, I mean God’s supremacy in power and purpose over all his creation. We can produce various well-known passages that attest to the fact (Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10-11; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). The bare assertion of God’s sovereignty doesn’t evoke many complaints among a lot of professing Christians. However, when we begin to press implications of it, people start moaning. When we bring human responsibility alongside it, there is generally weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The “problem” of reconciling God’s sovereignty with human responsibility is not a new one. The oldest book in the Bible is the book of Job and it wrestles with these questions throughout. Every preacher, theologian, professor, and pew-sitter has wrestled with this question. History has produced a lot of words on the subject. We tend to think the question ought to be settled by now or else it cannot be this side of eternity. I don’t think it really is the problem it’s made out to be. I’m not being flippant, so let me explain.

It is not a problem

Let’s get the problem before us. Since God is sovereign and works all things according to his own will, then he has willed all things concerning me. He has willed my birth, death, and all the happy or unhappy business in between. How then can I be responsible and accountable to him? Since God has sovereignly chosen from before the foundation of the world all those who will be saved (Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12; Romans 8:28-30; 9:11-16; Acts 13:48), how can he hold accountable those who are lost? And why should we then preach the Gospel to every creature? There are other questions along this line, but the problem is thus far sufficiently represented.

This problem though is not a problem theologically or exegetically. By theology, I mean the summarizing and systematizing of the Bible’s teaching on a given subject. We do this when we speak of the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of regeneration, etc. We can summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty. Doing so produces no internal inconsistencies within the category. The Bible teaches in whole that God is absolutely sovereign, does as he wills, cannot be thwarted, and is under no obligations to his creation. We can also summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on the responsibility and accountability of man toward God. The Bible teaches in whole that man is responsible to acknowledge God as God, worship God as God, and to obey God as God. The Bible also teaches in whole that man is accountable to God for his failure, neglect, or refusal to acknowledge, worship, and obey God. This summary of Bible teaching produces no internal inconsistencies in the category. This is why I say there is no problem with God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility theologically.

There is also no problem exegetically. By exegesis, I mean the proper interpretation of a passage of Scripture according to context, grammar, setting, etc. Any individual passage we properly interpret will teach God is sovereign. Likewise, any individual passage we properly interpret will teach man is responsible and accountable to God. There is no passage properly interpreted that says God is not sovereign or man is not responsible. We cannot find any two passages that contradict each other on this subject when they are properly interpreted. This is why I say there is no exegetical problem.

It is a problem

If it is not a problem in the Bible, then why all the fuss and bother? I grant there is a lot of fuss and bother. There are a couple of ways the problem is a problem. It is a problem philosophically. When we think on the two teachings and try to bring them together in our minds, we have a problem. Every Christian wrestles with this problem at some point if they think about it at all. However, if anyone comes to an existential crisis over it, I assure you, it’s all in your head.

I realize that could be a fantastically rude thing to say to somebody in anguish over this problem, so let me illustrate my point to show you it isn’t really a problem. All Americans know April 15th is “Tax Day.” This is the deadline for filing state and federal income taxes. I assume my readers are law-abiding citizens who filed their taxes by the deadline. Bear with me a little in my folly here, but what is involved in filing taxes? You know the routine. You have to scrounge around under the floor mats of the car, between the cushions on the couch, and behind the desk to find all your receipts. You have to access your records. You have to assemble them in some order, fill in the forms, and file them electronically or by mail. You may also hire someone to do the last part, but you still have to do the first part.

So, why did you do it? Some will say, “It’s the law. I have to do it.” Yes, yes, but why did you yourself do all the work that is involved in filing taxes? Why didn’t you just leave off all that work and worry because if God willed for your taxes to be done they would be done and you wouldn’t have to worry about it or do anything? Is there anyone who struggled with their taxes and came to a crisis because you wanted to do your taxes but weren’t sure if God willed for your taxes to be done and you didn’t want to violate his will?

You probably dislike doing taxes and may have grumbled in many ways, but you didn’t have a problem doing your taxes because of the sovereignty of God. This is why I say the problem of sovereignty and responsibility is all in your head and isn’t a real problem. Does anyone wake up the morning and remain motionless in bed because if God willed for you to go to work, that will happen whether you did anything to that end or not? No, you don’t do that and I don’t do that. Neither one of us then has a real problem with sovereignty and responsibility.

I have also found it often to be a problem of convenience. When men want to rationalize their disobedience, say to the commission to evangelize for example, they attribute their lack of doing it to a great respect for God’s sovereignty and their desire to not go against his will. I call foul. The Bible unambiguously and consistently teaches men are responsible to obey every word of God and will be held accountable for not doing it. This includes the command to preach the Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).

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