November 17, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Rerun

Do I Know You? Photo by Tom Waterhouse at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Rerun (from 2009)

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

• Luke 18:9-12

He expects us to make mistakes. He gives us millions (indeed billions and trillions) of chances. If anything, God likes our weaknesses because it enables him to exercise his infinite mercy. When Paul prayed earnestly to be delivered from a particularly annoying weakness, God said to him, “My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) According to this text, we do God a great favor by accepting our weakness. So there is no reason to be saddened by the fact that we do not measure up to our idealized image of ourselves and of how we should perform in the spiritual journey. That obviously is an ego trip.

• Manifesting God by Thomas Keating, p. 104

• • •

“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

Of course, we are like other human beings. The Pharisee’s prayer was an exercise in self-deception. Informing God that we aren’t like other people is a particularly pointless endeavor, though it made enormous sense to the Pharisee, whose entire religion was based on separation from others.

“I’m right and you’re wrong.” How far should we go down that road? It does take us somewhere, but where does it ultimately take us? If you get out the map, it eventually takes all of us to the place where we’re all wrong, in one way or another.

“I don’t do the bad things that some men do.” But if you keep traveling, sooner or later the scenery starts to look familiar. We all arrive at the town where WE do bad things.

“I’m more religious than other people.” That’s a short road, because religion is a short road to nowhere. No one is religious enough, and the more religious we are, the less we have of what God is really looking for.

In a post from another time, I called it “the Ecclesiastes attitude.” Eventually, the same things catch up with the whole human race and we all turn into the same kind of monster. Life is one big rerun, with a few different whistles and bells.

Do we have a sense that Ecclesiastes is telling us the truth when it says that all our efforts to outdistance ourselves from the unwashed masses and the common sinners, while impressive today, are page 9, section F tomorrow?

Do we get it that the awards we give ourselves for avoiding the errors and failures of other people tarnish very, very quickly?

Do we realize that in the gaze of God, all our thrashing around, outrage at unrighteousness and extended speeches correcting the errors of our neighbors end up being the very evidence that convicts us of being unrighteous, unloving and condemned by God’s holiness?

The problem with being a religious leader, or a husband, or a dad, or a preacher/writer, is that eventually EVERY SINGLE WORD you’ve spoken to your wife, your kids and your various congregations will revisit you and condemn you.

All of it. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak or teach or correct, but which does mean there’s no separating ourselves so far away from or above others that we become spectators on their condemnation and repentance.

When we have a bad man in our sights, we are at particular risk. His flaws loom large and fill the screen. Our condemnations and criticisms fill ears, eyes and pages.

It never seems to occur to us that while the circumstances may be different, the human failure is the same. Eventually, we all will be sitting by that bad man in the same bus station, going to the same destination.

So Jesus’ story reminds me that the difference between the tax collector begging for mercy and the Pharisee reading all the reasons he was right amounted to a matter of self-perception, not God-perception.

And from God’s point of view, what mattered was sola fide. And that was all. Dressed in the righteousness of Christ alone, I have no place to stand and point at how poorly dressed someone else happens to be.

Comments

  1. “Do we realize that in the gaze of God, all our thrashing around, outrage at unrighteousness and extended speeches correcting the errors of our neighbors end up being the very evidence that convicts us of being unrighteous, unloving and condemned by God’s holiness?”

    This

    • Yep. We will be judged as we judge others. If I’m harsh, I can expect harshness.

      Luke 19:20-22a: “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant!”

      • I mentioned that Luke 19 scripture to basically say/add, “If we view God has hard/harsh, guess how He might view us?”

      • Given the master’s generosity to the prior servants, giving them back much greater proportionally to what they returned to the master, the “lazy” servant’s words are not only “harsh”, but slanderous as well.

        • –> “the “lazy” servant’s words are not only “harsh”, but slanderous as well.”

          Exactly. Then it kinda becomes God/Jesus saying, “Wait a second…how are you portraying me to others!?!?”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And “our thrashing around, outrage at unrighteousness and extended speeches correcting the errors of our neighbors” is NOT limited to Christians. Or even religions per se. Just look at the utterly-secular Thin Grey Ponytail SJW Activists like those in power in my state.

      “More Woke Than Thou” is no different than “Holier Than Thou”.
      Virtue-Signalling is blowing long trumpets to advertise My Righteousness.
      (All bend the knee and Genuflect to My Obvious Virtue!)
      Just substitute Secular Cause du Jour for God.

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    It is kind of saddening to me how low the participation drops abruptly when the conversation veers into common-sense and common-grace territory. Listening to the crickets and nightflies makes me yearn for a old-fashioned punch-up about race, gender or pelvic issues.

    And yet, reading this little gem for Michael, coupled with some of the articles in the sidebar, esp. about Tchividjian, Merton and his neurotics, and Liberty University, makes me realize how much easier our Christian walks would be if we were just decent people, and acted the way we were raised to act.

    And about children and cookies; there were two old women living together in my neighborhood growing up in Western Michigan, “Aunt” Johanna and “Aunt” Maud. Aunt Johanna was a crazy Baptist old maid who used her cookies and milk as lures to any number of fiery sermonettes on sin and judgement. It was easy, and fun, to push her buttons. Aunt Maud was calmer. She just passed out the cookies and milk and smiled at us as we ate them. We asked her why she didn’t preach to us like Aunt Johanna. She smiled and said she was Lutheran, and Lutherans didn’t meddle much in other people’s spiritual lives. She said she was sure we knew the difference between right and wrong and would do the right thing when we needed to,

    I think my deep respect for Lutheran Christians had its genesis in those encounters with Aunt Maud, but I wish her confidence had been better served.

    • –> “It is kind of saddening to me how low the participation drops abruptly when the conversation veers into common-sense and common-grace territory.”

      Yep. The stuff that should be inspiring to this group gets barely a whisper.

      –> “Listening to the crickets and nightflies makes me yearn for a old-fashioned punch-up about race, gender or pelvic issues.”

      Oh please, God…no. 😉

      –> “…how much easier our Christian walks would be if we were just decent people, and acted the way we were raised to act.”

      Yep. But then there’s all that “self-focus” crap that raises its ugly head in everyone else, ruining it for those of us who are ever-humble and ever-loving of others. (I say jokingly, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I am the worst of the self-focusers…)

      –> ” “Aunt” Johanna and “Aunt” Maud.”

      Your “two aunt” story reminds me of two of my wife’s aunts. Very similarly, one was a drama queen, always gossiping, always in everyone’s business, judgmental to the max; the other (despite having had life circumstances that could’ve led her on that same path) was the most humble, thoughtful, considerate, kind person I’ve ever met.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Yep. But then there’s all that “self-focus” crap that raises its ugly head in everyone else, ruining it for those of us who are ever-humble and ever-loving of others. (I say jokingly, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I am the worst of the self-focusers…)

        Unfortunately, NOBODY likes Introverts these days.
        Especially in the Evangelical & Mega Bubbles.
        Only the back-slapping, glad-handling Used Car Salesman Extroverts.

    • + 1

      Burro, speaking about Merton, he may have had his issues but I am always moved when I read this:

      ““In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

      This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
      (Thomas Merton)

      you know, Burro, maybe we all needed an Aunt Maud when we little. . . . . to affirm that we ‘knew’ right from wrong and to affirm that ‘we would do the right thing when we needed to’

      I do believe that the fundamentalist-Christian far right went to deeply into the negative way of the judgmental Pharisee and that they are having trouble finding their way back out of that darkness. Hence the strange alliance with extreme punitive politics and the seeking of political power to shore up their sad ‘truth in love’ preaching, which is to all appearances nothing more than ‘hate speech’ to the rest of the world. They don’t realize this. That is what is so sad. What has to happen to heal them of all that negativity?

      • –> “you know, Burro, maybe we all needed an Aunt Maud when we little. . . . . to affirm that we ‘knew’ right from wrong and to affirm that ‘we would do the right thing when we needed to’ ”

        One of the speakers at the Christian conference I attended this summer said this:

        “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally positive about them.”

        Boy, not only was that statement a keeper, it was very convicting. We should all strive to be irrationally positive with our kids, grandkids, etc. Maybe even each other!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I do believe that the fundamentalist-Christian far right went to deeply into the negative way of the judgmental Pharisee and that they are having trouble finding their way back out of that darkness. Hence the strange alliance with extreme punitive politics and the seeking of political power to shore up their sad ‘truth in love’ preaching, which is to all appearances nothing more than ‘hate speech’ to the rest of the world. They don’t realize this

        By “The Rest of the World”, you mean those HEATHEN?
        Every thought of theirs Dictated and Controlled by SATAN?
        Like all who swallow the red pill of My Righteousness, the rules of Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory are now in effect:
        The Dwarfs are for The Dwarfs, and Won’t Be Taken In.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Aunt Johanna was a crazy Baptist old maid who used her cookies and milk as lures to any number of fiery sermonettes on sin and judgement.

      Sure she wasn’t teaching classes on Witnessing and Evangelism?
      The cookies-and-milk bait-and-switch Witnessing tactic is so familiar; I remember running across it in Campus Crusade all the time.

    • David Greene says

      Aunt Johanna prolly thinks Aunt Maud just needs to get saved…

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Both of those dear ladies have long since gone to their reward, and I remember them both with great affection. They were two single ladies thrown together by circumstance but bound by an unusual affection. Johanna was a never-married and Maud a long-term widow whose husband had died “in the war”, but the photos on the mantle were too old and grainy to be from the second war.

        Even though Johanna would be roundly excoriated here on IM for her fire-and-brimstone-y manner, and her spiritual grand-daughters are probably all itching to pull the levers for the Unmentionable One in 2020, there wasn’t a judgemental bone in her body. She was an old-school Gospeller, the kind who told you about Hell with tears in her eyes, knowing how easily she could have ended up there herself.

        Of course, Maud was a total sweetheart, but I never once heard her take issue with Johanna’s tirades or correct her on matters of religion. I think they agreed to disagree in a manner we seem to have lost.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Even though Johanna would be roundly excoriated here on IM for her fire-and-brimstone-y manner, and her spiritual grand-daughters are probably all itching to pull the levers for the Unmentionable One in 2020…

          Because :”the Unmentionable One” fits their definition of Godly; his actions fit their idea of what God is like.

          Same for the likes of Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, and Mega-Celeb du Jour. For whatever and various reasons, Christianese Culture has redefined God into their images. And now when they encounter someone Unmentionable whose words and actions are even more like that definition…

          • Jerry Falwell Jr. !!!!!

            when he fell, he fell and not well

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              Yeah. Eagle tipped me off to the Politico article in private correspondence, and Professor Fea’s been covering the developments on his blog. It’s Crazy Town.

              The latest Inerrant SCRIPTURE out of Liberty is that It’s all a Vast Conspiracy (headed by SATAN?)attempting a Coup against the ManaGAWD. (And Two Plus Two Equals Five.)

              Tuition case used for real estate speculation deals to enrich the Great House of Falwell… Wonder if JFJ is counting on a Presidential Pardon from the Iron Throne if things get too sticky?

  3. There’s so much “good” in this post, so many nuggets of wisdom, caution, etc. This particularly caught my eye:

    “The problem with being a religious leader, or a husband, or a dad, or a preacher/writer, is that eventually EVERY SINGLE WORD you’ve spoken to your wife, your kids and your various congregations will revisit you and condemn you.”

    Has anyone NOT found this to be true…LOL…???

    What a good reminder to keep the fruit of the spirit ever at the forefront of my mind: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

    And you know what often gets missed in that scripture? The line right after it: “Against such things there is no law.”
    Do these things and live this way—and YOU WON’T BE JUDGED!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What a good reminder to keep the fruit of the spirit ever at the forefront of my mind: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

      And so many of The Righteous (TM – type example “the fundamentalist-Christian far right” you referred to above) seem hell-bent on being on “the wrong side of history” when it comes to these fruits.

  4. There is much that is excellent in this post and its comments–so much that I hate to be a dissenting voice, but I don’t like Thomas Keating’s god, and I hope his description is wrong. “If anything, God likes our weaknesses because it enables him to exercise his infinite mercy.” I profoundly hope that God, if there is a god, isn’t smug in his mercy. I don’t want a god who likes weakness, because it enables him to forgive. I don’t want a god who likes the failings I struggle against, just because he can indulge himself.

    That said, I don’t like smug, self-righteous human beings, certain in their salvation–not that I think they need it, if God is all-merciful–because time and error will, as Michael said, catch up with them. When I see that it does, I will try to be kind. In fact, I think that “Do unto others. . .” if followed, would solve a lot of our problems with religion. I agree (for once!) with Mule: everybody needs an Aunt Maud. Aunt Johannas are a lot harder to take; they bring out the worst in us. I strive, not always successfully, to be Aunt Maud.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      But Aunt Johanna (just from her name I can see her working a cattle prod in The Handmaid’s Tale) seems to be the Ideal for A Lot of Christians, both now and through history.

    • –> “I profoundly hope that God, if there is a god, isn’t smug in his mercy. I don’t want a god who likes weakness, because it enables him to forgive. I don’t want a god who likes the failings I struggle against, just because he can indulge himself.”

      Oh, indeed…I’m with you there about “that kind” of God. I didn’t read those things into Keating’s post, but it’s certainly good of you to mention as a “counterpoint.” And personally, this concept is something that makes me wary about the Calvinistic view of God, that one reason He sends people to eternal damnation is to show He has that kind of power and authority.

      Umm… really? That’s how you want to view God, as a Father so uptight about His power and authority that He’ll just willy-nilly decide to cast some of His children into the Fire and let others live eternally with Him in Heaven…?!?!?

      I’d much prefer to see God as much more self-assured than that, and much less self-indulgent.

    • “I profoundly hope that God, if there is a god, isn’t smug in his mercy. I don’t want a god who likes weakness, because it enables him to forgive. I don’t want a god who likes the failings I struggle against, just because he can indulge himself.”

      Fortunately, the descriptions of Jesus dealing with weak and struggling people do not give this impression.

    • See, this is where focusing on sin as our problem, rather than death and the danger of non-existence, leads: to a very angry God the Father, whose anger people try to soften with such ideas as God liking our weakness so he can show mercy. This is crazy-making – at least it drove me crazy when I was an Evangelical.

      On the Eastern side of things, the picture of the kind of god God the Father is is exactly Christ on the Cross. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Those aren’t just idle words – they MEAN something, to wit: voluntarily entering into our weaknesses, death and hell itself, right alongside us. The Father doesn’t need “self-assurance”. He, like the Son, is meek and humble of heart, always working to draw us to himself, because he is Good and the only Lover of Mankind. He’s not sitting on a cloud passing judgment on us all day long, and he’s not in whatever excellence we have. It is in our weakness that he heals us by being there with us.

      Michael had a good conclusion (except for the imputed righteousness thing): faith as trusting loyalty to God.

      Dana

      • See, this is where focusing on sin as our problem, rather than death and the danger of non-existence….

        Is non-existence a danger? Could it come to pass that we would cease to be, forever? Do we have the power to forever unmake what God has made? Or would God at some point forever unmake what he had made?

        • It’s about the direction of our lives when we try to maintain our own existence from our own finite resources, not some kind of metaphysical philosophical question like “can God create a stone too big for him to lift” or “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin”. Only God is the ultimate source of life, and only in union with him can we live. But God has been constantly working to make ways for that union to happen, even in the face of humanity’s rejection of his life, and the foremost of these ways is the Incarnation, in which he united his Divinity to our Humanity. Everyone who has ever lived is now inescapably bound to God, whether they believe it or not 😉 And equally important, of course, is the defeat of the power of death in Christ’s Pascha.

          “Could it come to pass that we would cease to be, forever?”
          This is one issue over which I part company with Wright (and C.S. Lewis, though I think Lewis was uneasy with this). Though not an annihilationist, Wright basically claims that God will let people slide into such a state that “they cease to be human”, though not non-existant – I guess some kind of Smeagol-like creature. I think this is an effort to blunt the horror of God supposedly creating a place of eternal conscious torture to which he will send people, and an effort to preserve humans’ free will. But D.B. Hart’s new book is an argument about why God will be patient until everyone is reconciled to him.

          My priest has said, “You exist; therefore, God loves you.” God will not unmake his creation; that would be contrary to his love. And humans are contingent beings without that kind of power. I’m with Hart.

          Dana

    • “I don’t like smug, self-righteous human beings, certain in their salvation–not that I think they need it”

      they need it as a perch from which to cast their stones down on the rest of us

  5. thatotherjean says

    True, I don’t know how Thomas Keating came up with that idea, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know–it’s so alien to the way I think about religion.

  6. I’ve never met a person I actually got to know who wasn’t prone to the Pharisee’s attitude, or who didn’t manifest it in some way at some time, whether they identified as religious or not, believed in God or the afterlife, etc., or not. I’m of course not excluding myself. It’s a perennial temptation of the human spirit, and one that many people probably don’t even consider a temptation, but just a healthy expression of human pride (where pride is understood as a psychologically positive characteristic of the human person).

    • pride, considered the mother of all sin, makes it so people cannot smell their own stench, hence the finger-pointing to ‘that other sinner’ while lauding one’s own ‘greatness’ and ‘righteousness’