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A Rationale for Their Misery

Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church so as to find a rationale for their misery; they did not expect to be happy — this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.

– Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 38

I heard this quote paraphrased by Carl Trueman in an interview recently. It resonated. Why? Because of my own testimony of how Christ called me to himself. It’s good to remind yourself of the mighty works of God in your life. So indulge me.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. My parents were divorced in my early teens. My dad and I were basically two bachelors trying to figure it out. I wasn’t ready for college life at 18. I failed big-time. And it was my own fault.

After a year of partying, skipping class, and getting put on academic probation, I came home with my tail tucked between the limbs I walk on. But, in God’s providence, I came home to find that my grandmother was ill. I came home in May. She died the following October. She asked me to come to her house and visit as often as I could that summer. She knew she wasn’t going to be around much longer.

I never heard my grandmother talk about Jesus. But I knew she went to church. I knew she read the Bible. She told me at some point that summer that she read the Bible through each year. She had a Bible reading plan. She was weak. Would I please read to her? So I did. Several times. It got my attention.

I didn’t know anything about the Bible. But now I wanted to read it for myself. So I started reading it on my own. What else could I do but begin at the beginning?

Again, I knew nothing about the Bible. But I remembered that when I was a child, my family took a trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. While we were there, we went to their ‘creation’ show. They still do this. You can find it on YouTube. It involved a man and a woman playing the parts of Adam and Eve, with someone reading Genesis 1-3 over the public address system.

I remembered that, hearing those early chapters of Genesis, I asked my dad, “Why didn’t they know they were naked?” He didn’t know how to answer the question. He just shrugged and it was never spoken of again. [Note for parents: no how to explain sin to your child].

Fast-forward to something like twelve years later. I’m reading Genesis 3: “their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

It was like sticking a paper clip into an outlet. Electricity. I understood it instantly. The Bible was talking about shame. For the first time, Adam and Eve experienced shame. And reading that, it was the first time I truly experienced shame. It gave a name to all that I had been feeling but couldn’t put into words or apply to my heart. It changed me on the spot. I was in church the next Sunday.

I had a lot of baggage from my parents’ divorce that I didn’t know how to deal with. I had a lot of pain from some things that happened in high school. And I was partying my way through those things. I was numbing myself. I was acting like an idiot. Only I didn’t know this. Reading that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and hid themselves from God made me realize that I was naked and hiding myself too. I was looking for a covering for my shame.

Genesis 3 gave me a rationale for my misery. It cut open my chest and exposed the guilt and shame of my heart. Did joy come from this? Yes. Because it led me to Christ, who is my joy. But I needed my miserable condition explained to me. I needed to understand why I did the terrible things I did (and do). I needed to understand how sin, guilt, and shame were abiding in my soul and how to confront them. I needed to know that I was naked before Christ could clothe me with his righteousness.

People who downplay the necessity of talking about sin see it as something negative; something that will get people down and depress people. On that day in the summer of 2000, I saw it as the explanation for all that was going on in my miserable soul. It made sense of everything – my feelings, my actions, my confusion, my mistakes. It was a supreme act of God’s blessing that he showed me my guilt. It was a positive thing that God showed me my sin, guilt, and shame. It wasn’t a downer. It wasn’t depressing. It was the thing that made sense of my whole life.

I am a pastor now, but I still go to church each week seeking a rationale for my misery. I need God to remind me week by week that I am deeply sinful. And then I need him to show me what Christ has done as the ultimate remedy. Then I need him to show me how I am still continually rebelling against the lordship of the one who saved me. And I need to be reminded that indwelling sin is the cause of that rebellion. Then I need to be reminded of Christ’s cross once again.

And it’s only through this – the rationale of my misery – that I am driven back again and again to the rationale for my joy – the love of Jesus Christ. Skip the rationale for misery and you have no rationale for joy.


John Flavel Keeping the Heart Recognizing Christ

I’m reading John Flavel’s book, Keeping the Heart. The book is a collection of sermons on Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (NIV).

Flavel pictures the heart as a fort under attack from without and within. It is therefore in need of constant attention and defense:

Lavater on the text will have the word taken from a besieged garrison, beset by many enemies without, and in danger of being betrayed and destroyed by treacherous citizens within, in which danger the soldiers, upon pain of death, are commanded to watch… (p. 2).

We don’t think about our hearts and souls as often as we think about our physical body. But Proverbs 4:23 calls us to constant attention. Guard your heart both from external and internal attacks. Or, as M’Cheyne put it, don’t neglect the “culture of the inner man.”

As Solomon Used the Cedars of Lebanon

Cedars of Lebanon Common Grace

Let’s talk common grace.

The earth is the Lord and its fullness. When talking about the doctrine of common grace, Van Til makes the point that this fullness includes the cultural works of man. As Solomon uses the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple, Christians are called to subject the stuff of the world to the gospel and use it for God’s fuller purpose in the service of Christ:

It is in this program of God, it is in connection with this work of Christ by which the world that was cursed of God should be reconciled unto him for the greater glory of God, that common grace must have a part. All things in history must serve this glorious consummation…

For those who reject the Christ and those who have never heard of Christ, but who have sinned in Adam, are still laborers, even though unwillingly, in the cultural task of man…All the skills of those who are artificers in iron and brass, all the artistry of painters and sculptors and poets, are at the service of those who, under Christ, are anew undertaking the cultural task that God in the beginning gave to man…

It is the meek who shall inherit the earth. The earth and its fullness thereof belong to the Lord and to those to whom in his sovereign grace he gives it.

To them therefore belong all the common gifts of God to mankind. Yet that it may be the earth and the fullness thereof that is developed, the covenant keepers will make use of the works of the covenant breakers which these have been able and compelled to perform in spite of themselves. As Solomon used the ceders of Lebanon (1 Kings 5:8-10), the products of the rain and the sunshine that had come to the covenant breakers, and as he used the skill of these very covenant breakers for the building of the temple of God, so also those who through the Spirit of God have believed in Christ may and must use all the gifts of all men everywhere in order by means of them to perform the cultural task of mankind

-Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, pp. 136, 137, 138

Christ Plays on Every Station: Common Grace and the Law Written on Man’s Heart

If God does not confront man everywhere, he cannot confront him anywhere. That’s a paraphrase. That’s also inherent in the concept of common grace and the law written on the heart of man.

In an essay in his book Common Grace and the Gospel, Cornelius Van Til uses this analogy to describe Paul’s teaching in Romans 1-2:

The main point is that if man could look anywhere and not be confronted with the revelation of God then he could not sin in the biblical sense of the term. Sin is the breaking of the law of God. God confronts man everywhere. He cannot in the nature of the case confront man anywhere if he does not confront him everywhere. God is one; the law is one. If man could press one button on the radio of his experience and not hear the voice of God then he would always press that button and not the others. But man cannot even press the button of his own self-consciousness without hearing the requirement of God (p. 203).

This is our attempt to suppress the truth, Romans 1-style.

Christians often do the opposite. Doug Wilson made this point in a blog post years ago. He said something to the effect that Christians think they’ve found the right station. So they keep the dial tuned in to that station and that station alone. Which sounds great. Until your wife (or you) gets tired of K-Love.

A major point of our book is going to be that Romans 1 applies to Christians too. For instance, Romans 1:23 describes truth-suppressing, idol-worshiping man like this:

“[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon that pointed out the fact that this is an obvious allusion to Psalm 106:20:

“They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.”

To whom is Psalm 106 referring? It’s talking about Israel. It’s talking about religious people.

Van Til makes the point that if God is to confront man anywhere, he must confront him everywhere. Christians and non-Christians alike are bent toward suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. One way we do this, as Christians, is by not looking for God’s glory everywhere. We convince ourselves that he’s not speaking on every radio station. But he is. He’s there, confronting us with his law and his gospel. Yes, even in secular culture. Not just in sunsets and the ocean.

Charles Spurgeon (see HERE) sometimes quoted the hymn Say Not, My Soul. I’ve never heard the hymn in church. You probably haven’t either. But here’s the first stanza:

Say not, my soul, ‘From whence
Can God relieve my care’
Remember that Omnipotence
Hath servants everywhere.

Omnipotence has servants everywhere. This is why (in the quote linked above) Spurgeon said God’s truth is “viral.” Gerard Manly Hopkins put it this way: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Here, it’s more like ‘Christ plays on every channel.’ He plays everywhere, always. But we have to have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The Giant Permanent

Last week, I posted about Marina Keegan’s idea of having an anti-nihilism device. This one is about her concept of eternal life. In two different essays, she notes her fear that the sun will burn out. The universe will freeze over. All is lost. This is how she describes it in her essay Song for the Special:

“If you didn’t already know this, the sun is going to die.When I think about the future, I don’t think about inescapable ends. But even if we solve global warming and destroy nuclear bombs and control population, ultimately, the human race will annihilate itself if we stay here. Eventually, inevitably, we will no longer be able to live on Earth: We have a giant fireball clock ticking down twilight by twilight. But maybe there’s hope.”

Later in the essay:

“The thing is, someday the sun is going to die and everything on Earth will freeze. This will happen. Even if we end global warming and clean up our radiation. The complete works of William Shakespeare, Monet’s lilies, all of Hemingway, all of Milton, all of Keats, our music libraries, our library libraries, our galleries, our poetry, our letters, our names etched in desks. I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems so silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents. I want gigantic permanents!”

What’s the solution?:

“I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outwards, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.”

Her answer for eternal life is finding a microphone strong enough to make her voice go on forever. Christians believe we don’t need a big microphone. We need a big Savior. Christ took the cold. His father turned cold against him so that he could make his face shine on us. And this is eternal life. It’s the only giant permanent.

Quotes from Marina Keegan, The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories. Read the essay online HERE.

Anti-Nihilism Device

I’ve been reading The Opposite of Loneliness by the late Marina Keegan. She was a Yale grad who died in a car accident shortly after her graduation. The book is a collection of her short stories and essays.

One thing that stands out about her essays is the sense of isolation she felt. But I won’t go there in this post. Instead, I want to share a line that struck me in her little essay, Putting the ‘Fun’ back in Eschatology. You can read the whole thing online HERE.

She is wrestling with things she’s learning in her science classes – mainly with the ‘fact’ that the sun is eventually going to burn out and die. She comforts herself with thoughts that NASA will eventually perfect space travel and come up with solutions for living in a sunless galaxy. Here’s the quote:

It’s natural selection on a Universal scale. “The Origin of the Aliens,” one could say; a survival of the fittest planets. Planets capable of evolving life intelligent enough to leave before the lights go out. I suppose that without a God, NASA is my anti-nihilism.

In his novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland coins the term “anti-victim device.” An anti-victim device, according to Coupland, is “a small fashion accessory worn on an otherwise conservative outfit which announces to the world that one still has a spark of individuality burning inside.” Think of a conservative Southern girl with a lower-back tattoo or a nose ring. She may be straight laced in a lot of ways, but watch out. She’s got a wild side too. She’s taking jiu-jitsu lessons too.

Keegan saw NASA as her anti-nihilism device. That’s different from an anti-victim device, but kind of similar too. An anti-nihilism device says, ‘Yeah, I know the sun is going to burn out and everything’s going to freeze, but I’ve got hope.’ And notice she qualifies this with the key phrase – “without God.”

Without God, everyone has to have anti-nihilism devices. Christians tends to call these things idols. An anti-nihilism device is the thing you go to for ultimate hope when you realize there’s really nothing to live for. No reason not to be an anarchist, a nihilist, to just fall into total despair and do whatever you want.

Chuck Palahniuk has started calling himself an ‘optimistic nihilist.’ That’s a nihilist with blinders on. King Solomon was right folks. Without God, life under the sun doesn’t make sense. And the sun eventually burns out anyway. Some folks need to turn NASA into God. Others turn their their careers, their families, their favorite sports team, whatever into gods. They have to have something to brighten their day when the sun is burning out.