I recently saw a well-meaning Christian pastor, and other well-meaning White Evangelicals, post this quote from Morgan Freeman:
I know that the folks that posted that quote did so because they abhor racism. However, while on the surface it seems to be a helpful way to think about race, I believe that it is unhelpful for various reasons, that I ask you to prayerfully consider:
1. We certainly don’t want to judge or form opinions/perceptions of others based upon skin color. We just want to see people as people, made in God’s image. That’s a good sense of “colorblindness.” However, Scripture doesn’t tell us to deny the obvious, such as the color of a person’s skin. That sense of colorblindness is mistaken because it’s impossible, and it would cause us to willfully ignore the beautiful diversity that God created, which Scripture calls our attention to. Revelation 5:9 calls attention to ethnic distinctions (and by implication every conceivable shade of skin tone) when it says that Christ died for people “from every tribe and language and people and nation…” This comports with John 3:16: God so loved the world (i.e., people from every tribe, nation, etc., and thus every conceivable shade of skin) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.
Other texts could be cited, including texts that implicitly or explicitly refer to skin color. Implicitly there’s Num 12:1, where Moses’ wife is identified as a Cushite—an African woman. Explicitly there is Song of Songs 1:5 and 5:10; Jeremiah 13:23. The point is that we shouldn’t pretend that such physical traits don’t exist, but should see them as a testimony to the awe-inspiring creativity of our Creator, and the beautiful diversity that is found among the image bearers of God whom He has fearfully and wonderfully made. God has given humanity a stunning variety of beautiful hues, and our eyes should be wide opened to them and celebrate them.
One might appeal to Gal 3:28. However, that text doesn’t eliminate ethnic distinctions, any more than it is does male and female, etc. In Christ those ethnic, gender, and social distinctions can’t be used to wrongly elevate ourselves over others (or worse). We can’t assign inherent superiority or favoritism based on those things.
In Christ, those who sinfully divided on the basis of those God ordained distinctions are now joyously united in Christ, without eliminating the distinctions–God doesn’t change the color of our skin, ethnicity, gender, or even necessarily social class. Rather, our identity is not rooted in those things, but in Christ. We have been given a new ethnic identity—“the people of God” (1 Pet 2:9-11). This new ethnic identity doesn’t eliminate my personal ethnicity or cultural background “according to the flesh”, but redeems it. The apostle Paul was first and foremost a Christian—that was his identity. But, he didn’t stop being an ethnic Jew who cared deeply about his people according to the flesh (Rom 9:3). The same applies to all of us whatever our particular ethnic background.
All of this means that in Christ we have unity in our diversity because we are all united to Christ and to each other as one body and one family of God that is composed of Black, White, Brown, and every other conceivable color and ethnicity. How rich am I that I have brothers and sisters of every color and ethnicity from all over the world, and in Christ we are one!
2. Mr. Freeman counsels us to stop talking about racism. Now, race and racism shouldn’t be all we ever talk about. However, that doesn’t mean we never talk about it. Scripture doesn’t tell us to stop talking about issues of sin, injustice, and those things that belittle and harm our neighbor; rather, we are to expose them (Eph 5:11, etc).
So, what if we applied Mr. Freeman’s logic to other social evils or injustices? Well, here’s some examples: How do we stop child trafficking? Stop talking about it! How do we stop the abuse of women? Stop talking about it! How do we stop pedophilia? Stop talking about it! How do we stop the horrible slaughter and genocide of innocent babies (otherwise known as “abortion” on demand?) Stop talking about!
Would anyone argue that not talking about those things would eliminate them? Of course not. We must talk about them, especially as Christians who are commanded to love our neighbor, and to work for justice and speak for the weak and vulnerable (Prov 31:8-9; Psalm 82:3-4).
Dear friends, here’s the reality: racism may not be what it once WAS, but make no mistake, it still IS. Because racism still is, and it is still found among some within the church and in the culture, we must talk about it.
In terms of the church, the fact that we haven’t talked about is a reason why some African Americans at times don’t feel welcome and are quietly leaving predominately White Evangelical churches. Mika Edmondson sums it up well: “Refusal to address racialized sin has undermined our capacity to fulfill our Romans 12:15 calling to “mourn with those who mourn.” The unique calling of the church…is not simply to tolerate one another, or even simply to understand one another, but to mourn with one another and bear one another’s burdens.”
While not intended, quotes like Mr. Freeman’s have the effect of rationalizing and justifying silence in our churches. Those who may struggle with racist attitudes are never encouraged to examine their hearts and repent. They are happy for us to stop talking about it, just as those who struggle with any other sin issue would be happy that we not talk about whatever their besetting is. If we refuse to talk about racism, we shouldn’t be surprised that such attitudes persist, and that our Black brothers and sisters stand stunned and grieved at the deafening and sinful silence—a silence that must end.
Again, I understand why some posted the quote. Praise the Lord, you want to see racial unity. But it’s going to take hard work, which of necessity means talking about it, and talking about it will be uncomfortable for everyone: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.
May the Lord grant us grace so that we move out of our comfort zones and walk in love toward our brothers and sisters of every race, resting in Christ who died for the sins of people from every conceivable background and rose from the dead to reconcile us to Himself, and to each other. May we by His Spirit strive to realize and maintain the unity in the bond of peace in our midst (Eph 4:23), and to see that unity spill out into the world as we proclaim not ourselves or human wisdom, but the gospel which alone has the power to save, and to bring true unity in the world. Amen.
“I can’t breathe” “Momma, Momma, I’m through.” “Don’t kill me.” A Black man named Mr. George Floyd uttered these words while he was being choked out by a White thug named Derek Chauvin dressed in a police officer’s uniform. I won’t dignify him, nor his accomplices, with the honorable title “police officer.” They tarnish the badge and disgrace the vast majority of police men and women from every walk of life who actually do protect and serve, and who are disgusted by what happened to Mr. Floyd and want justice served.
As we all know, Chauvin lodged his knee into the neck of Mr. Floyd, who was unarmed, handcuffed, and laying belly down on the ground with his face buried in the concrete—a position that put Mr. Floyd at tremendous risk (see here). That knee remained firmly lodged in Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and 2 minutes and 53 seconds of which Mr. Floyd was unresponsive! All of that while 2 other thugs dressed as police officers knelt upon Mr. Floyd’s legs and back (see video) and another thug dressed as a police officer stood at the front, seemingly trying to block people from seeing what was going on. All of this while Mr. Floyd cried out in fear and desperation as he gasped for breath (if you’ve ever had the breath knocked out of you or were unable to breathe, you know how utterly terrifying that is), and bystanders pleaded with them to stop because they were killing him.
What was the great crime that Mr. Floyd committed that would warrant such murderous hostility? Allegedly, Mr. Floyd tried to purchase a pack of cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. I’m not justifying passing counterfeit bills, and Mr. Floyd may not have even known it was fake to begin with, but, oh the horror! Let’s make sure we arrest this menace to society, and if he resists in any fashion (which it is not clear that he did!), let’s kill him for just being suspected of doing such a morally depraved deed! (By the way, even if Mr. Floyd had resisted arrest, it does not excuse police brutality, or justify what happened to him).
Since it all happened, I like most have struggled with so many emotions. I can’t describe the deep sadness, anger, and paralyzing helplessness that I felt as I watched the video. Over a week later, and in light of all what has transpired, I’m still gripped by these feelings. I have not known what to say. I still struggle to find the words. Nevertheless, here I go:
To the family of Mr. Floyd, and all of my African American friends, family members, and entire community, I mourn and lament with you. I am frustrated and outraged with you. I confess that I feel as helpless to effect change as you do, nevertheless I stand with you.
The emotions that have gripped my heart have far too often been the common experience for many African Americans—our brothers and sisters in the beautifully diverse family called America who have endured tremendous injustices in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Thankfully, this great country of ours has corrected many of those injustices as it struggles to live up to the virtuous ideals it was founded upon. I’m thankful that we live this side of the Civil Rights movement, and in a country where black children who might aspire to become President one day know that such a thing is not a laughable (or offensive!) pipe dream anymore, and that we live in a country where one of the worst things that you could be called is a racist.
Nevertheless, the image of a Black man being mercilessly choked out (tortured as some have aptly put it) by a White man in a position of authority—all while he begs for him to stop, and still calling him “sir” and “officer”—crystallizes what our Black brothers and sisters in our American family have been saying to the point of exhaustion and at times through tears of bewilderment: we still have a long way to go for us to live up to the ideals that our country is founded upon, and to achieve the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK) went to his death without ever realizing.
The atrocity perpetrated against Mr. Floyd raises the question of whether the thugs that killed him were motivated in some way by racism against Black people. That could be difficult to prove, because, some might say, they weren’t spouting racial pejoratives as Chauvin held his knee down upon Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes. But does anyone really expect any of them to confess, “Oh, yes judge, Mr. Floyd’s skin tone played a part in my abusive and deadly behavior toward him!” Uh…no.
To add to the difficulty, this article from a Black man named Samuel Sey, points to the example of Tony Timpa, a White man who suffered and died in much the same way as George Floyd at the hands of abusive police officers (full story here).
Mr. Sey writes: “Predictably, our careless reactions to George Floyd’s murder have contributed to the divisions, tensions, anxieties, and indeed—riots we see in America today…In America, White men in blue uniforms have a long history of murdering men in black skin…But just as people shouldn’t perceive every Black man as a thug, we shouldn’t perceive every white police officer—including murderous police officers—as racist either. Maybe, the white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck because he’s a racist. Or maybe he isn’t a racist—maybe he pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck because just like the police officers who killed Tony Timpa, he’s just a horrible, deadly police officer…America’s history of racist police brutality isn’t evidence of racism in this incident…Opportunists have capitalized on his death—using his murder for material and political gain. And if we all focused on his humanity—instead of his skin colour—after his murder, there wouldn’t be riots across America today, and people would unite to remember him as a person—not a poster boy for a political agenda.”
I appreciate Mr. Sey’s desire to be cautious on issues related to race, and he makes some valid points. Far too often race baiters and race hustlers, politicians, and some in the media, use the issue not because they really want resolution, but to advance their own self-serving agenda and to make money. For the media, it’s ratings gold, and an opportunity for pundits, so consumed by their inflated sense of condescending self-importance and self-righteousness, to pontificate and lecture and scold Americans, most of whom are already appalled at racial injustice and want to see MLK’s dream realized.
These race baiters and hustlers, aided and abetted by some politicians and some in the media, often stoke the flames of unrest when things happen and sometimes even create false narratives, and when riots break out, they continue to fan the flames of unrest.
Once the fires in those neighborhoods finally burn out, the race baiters and hustlers and media pack up their cameras, microphones, and money bags and leave, while the people in those communities are left to pick up the pieces of what’s left of their community, and sometimes to mourn the death of those who were killed during the rioting. Soon after the issue that resulted in their businesses being looted and burned down (exacerbating the economic hardship in those communities) the event that sparked the riot is long forgotten.
The ones who suffer most are African Americans, while politicians who pandered to them go back to business as usual, enjoying the perks, privileges, and power of office, without ever effecting any change. That’s what’s so sad: some people want racial division because they profit from it. They really don’t want solutions or “an end to systemic racism” because if there were, then that power and money well would dry up.
So, these are complex issues that must be handled with great care and wisdom. (see, for example, this very thought provoking clip from John McWhorter)
Thankfully, the charge of racism today carries a great deal of weight precisely because America is not the racist country it once was. Racists betray the true family name “American” that the brave Black activists and others of every background during the Civil Rights movement so powerfully brought to light. They held up the principles that the country was founded upon—such things as all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights—and showed us how Americans weren’t living up to what it meant to be American. As MLK put it, America had defaulted on its promissory note. Yet, while America may not be a racist country today, we downplay or even forget its racist past to our peril, and we cannot ignore the fact that America (like every nation) has racists in it who oftentimes are not held accountable for their racist acts.
All of that said, while I appreciate Mr. Sey’s concerns, I do not believe that race should be discounted in this case. Here are some reasons why I say that:
1. Mr. Sey mentions the long history of police injustice against Black people, men in particular (make no mistake, our Black sisters in our American family have also suffered, most recently, Breonna Taylor, who no one is talking about, by the way). True, that doesn’t necessarily prove racist intent in this case. However, history can’t be ignored, and in fact, part of the problem is that such injustice has often been downplayed or ignored.
2. In Mr. Floyd’s case, we see the image of a White man in a position of authority choking out a Black man, all while he begged for his life. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That picture is worth maybe a million, and is brought into sharper focus by the following factors:
– The relatively trivial circumstances that led to Mr. Floyd’s arrest.
– The excessive and the prolonged period of time of the force that was used.
– The fact that 2 of the men responsible for the death of Mr. Floyd, Chauvin and Thao, have a history of complaints against them for abusive behavior.
– The fact that this particular police department has had complaints of a pattern of racist behavior in the past, not to mention the patterns of racism that have plagued Minneapolis. See this article.
3. White people have not been the victims of systemic racism and mistreated by police simply because of the color of their skin. Black people have been and continue to be. True, the Civil Rights movement happened (praise the Lord!), and laws that govern the system have been reformed on the outside so that oppression against Black people and minorities should be illegal. However, racists within the system find ways to circumvent or ignore those policies so that they can continue to victimize people, especially Black people.
You can have all of the laws on the books you want that are supposed to ensure civil rights and equal opportunity. But, that won’t guarantee anything 1) as long as racists continue to be in positions of authority and power and allowed to circumvent those laws (and/or engage in unjust uses of law in the judicial system to carry out injustice against Black people) without any accountability or consequences; 2) because law in itself is powerless to change the human heart, and
Related to this point, I’ve heard people callously say, “What do those protesters even want!” One word: justice, meaning that those who killed Mr. Floyd are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I think everyone understands, or at least should, that the system will always have some who are bad actors. But when those bad actors are identified, there needs to be accountability and consequences. There needs to be justice. That’s not so much to ask, is it?
A second word that comes to mind is reform, where policy’s are changed that have created an environment where bad cops are given space to harass or abuse without consequence (see this article), and where Black people continue to experience harassment or w0rse simply because they are Black (see Senator Tim Scott’s testimony that I reference later). By the way, such reforms will benefit everyone, since people of all backgrounds have had bad cops do bad things to them, as Mr. Sey reminds us in his article.
4. If we’re looking for 100% certainty that racial bias against Mr. Floyd played a role in his death, we’re imposing a standard that will make it impossible to prove anything. Even in our legal system, 100% certainty is not the standard. The standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Given all of this, while I’m sensitive to Mr. Sey’s point, I nevertheless find it hard to believe that race had nothing to do with it. Regardless of what we think about racial intent in this case, and regardless of what other facts emerge about the case, Mr. Floyd’s senseless death should at least encourage us as an American family to finally look at this issue honestly, reflectively, and prayerfully.
So, where do we even begin to address the issue? Maybe a good place to start is to acknowledge, understand, and have compassion for the historical struggle of African Americans and their experience in this country. Understand the horrific ways that our Black fellow Americans have been marginalized, disenfranchised, and looked down upon with such contempt simply because of the color of their skin.
As mentioned earlier, we have come a long way, but, we have a long way to go. Racism is not what it once was, but it still very much is. There’s not only overt racism, but, much more often in our culture today, covert racism and subtle biases against Black people in particular.
For some, there’s a “minority” pecking order, and Black people are at the bottom. As if history itself doesn’t bear that out, my wife (who is African American), and I have plenty of examples that we have witnessed with our own eyes down through the years. You hear it in some of the offhand remarks people make that belittle Black people. You hear it in backhanded compliments. You hear it in comments that insinuate that Blackness is not beautiful or preferable. Ancestry research has been enlightening on this point, as some Whites and Hispanics are more than willing to embrace any Native American ancestry they may have, but become despondent if the DNA test comes back with even a small percentage of African DNA.
And it’s not just comments, but facial expressions that people make that indicate their aversion, repulsion, or disgust at darker skin color or Blackness (and they don’t even realize they are making the expressions).
Finally on this point, some White people pat themselves on the back and think that just because they don’t say the “n” word that they don’t have bigoted attitudes toward Black people. For sure, there are many who don’t. But, we need to know that racial bias goes much deeper than just being smart and polite enough to not say an ugly and offensive word–and some only refrain from using the word when Black folks are nearby. All bets are off though behind closed doors when Black people aren’t present. True, racial and ethnic biases and bigotry aren’t things that just manifest themselves in some White people. They are found among some people in every group: Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc. However, that can’t be used to deflect, cover over, or rationalize the overt and covert racism and subtle and not so subtle biases that continue toward Black people.
So, what are we to make of the Mr. Floyd’s case? Where do we go from here? As fallout from this has unfolded over the past week or so, there are a few observations I’d like to make:
1. Video: the video is deeply disturbing, but what is equally as disturbing is that it seems to take a video like this to prove what African Americans have been saying for decades: Black people, especially Black men are often the victims of police harassment (and sometimes brutality) because they are Black.
This leads to the discussion of whether Black people are disproportionately the victims of police brutality and killing. People often cite statistics that indicate that such is not the case. However, like so many other things, the devil is in the details. See here, here, and here. Maybe I’m wrong, but, it seems to me that that there are many variables that are not factored into statistics, and there are some things that statistics can’t measure.
Even if we take those statistics at face value though, other statistics show why there is a trust gap that many Black people have with regards to law enforcement. That trust gap didn’t just materialize by accident. Let me put it to you like this: if you’re pulled over by a cop, will you be more comfortable in that situation if you’re White, or Black? I hope you realize that is a rhetorical question-or at least should be.
If you’re not convinced by that, consider this article that puts the systemic nature of the problem in perspective: “Countless studies have also shown that black people are much more likely to be pulled over and searched for drugs, even though nearly every study on the subject also found that searches of white people are more likely to turn up contraband. (Even when force isn’t used, one study of traffic stop transcripts found that police, regardless of the officer’s race, use harsher language and are less respectful of blacks than of whites.). Black people are also much more likely to be arrested for both possession and distribution of illegal drugs, even though there’s ample data suggesting whites and blacks both use and sell drugs at about the same rate… A 2017 NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll found that half of blacks said they had been unfairly stopped by a police officer. About 6 in 10 said they or a family member had. That means that if you know two black people, one of them feels they’ve been treated unfairly by police. Philando Castile, a legal gun owner who was shot and killed during a traffic stop despite by-the-book obedience, had previously been pulled over more than 50 times for petty traffic violations. Status offers little protection, whether you’re a professional tennis player, a fellow police officer, a district attorney or a Republican U.S. senator. According to a 2015 YouGov/Huffington Post poll, 74 percent of black parents had cautioned their children to be cautious around police, versus 32 percent of white parents. A 2016 Pew poll found that 7 in 10 white people thought police usually use the right amount of force, versus just 1 in 3 black people.”
That gives a much clearer picture of the issue. Focusing on questions of disproportional rates in terms of police brutality/killing of Black people may actually detract from the main issue, namely, how Black people in general are treated by police because they are Black. The data and the testimonials to that treatment are numerous and come from Black people from almost every walk of life.
Yes, there are many good police officers. I really believe we could say the overwhelming majority fit that category. But there are some that aren’t. And then there is bad policing policy in place that needs to be addressed, that still continues to be a concern. In terms of policy, this article states, “Focusing on racial bias also risks obscuring the fundamental problem: the Supreme Court has effectively given police a license to shoot, pummel, or falsely arrest ill-fated citizens across the nation.” The article is right to focus on the policy, but wrong to say that we shouldn’t focus on racial bias. We need to do both! This article provides one possible and very practical solution to the problem, as it addresses how police unions need to be reformed.
The sad reality is that it’s not enough for a Black person to say that they were harassed or treated cruelly—there has to be video documentation (and even when there is, it’s sometimes still not enough to ensure justice). Well, we have it now for those whose heads have been willfully buried in the sand. It can’t be ignored now, and yet, there are some who may still look for false rationalizations, “Well, what was that unarmed Black man doing that made these helpless armed men with badges do what they did?” This ties into the next observation:
2. Full investigation: This must happen, but, many suspect that the only reason it will happen is because there’s video of the incident. Without that, it would have been just another Black man getting what he evidently deserved for allegedly “resisting arrest.”
In terms of the basic facts, we don’t need to wait until there’s a full investigation to know that an unarmed Black man was handcuffed, put on the ground on his belly, face in the concrete, with a White thug dressed as a police officer burying his knee into the man’s neck, causing him to die. It doesn’t matter what Mr. Floyd was doing prior to that. What matters is what happened for 9 minutes when Mr. Floyd was on the ground. What caused so much frustration was that despite the video, some were saying that the reason arrests had not been made was because a full investigation (which could take months!) was needed. Thankfully, arrests have been made. Now a full investigation is needed to determine what level of murder charge will be leveled.
3. Protesting versus Rioting and Looting: Protesting is an American right. It is necessary in this case to give voice to our pain, mourning, frustration, and righteous anger. Many of the protests have gone well. Voices are being heard! Everyone except for the most hardened racist is in agreement over how tragic and outrageous this was, and how it can never happen again.
Rioting and looting on the other hand is wrong, dangerous, and adversely affects the community where those things take place, and should be strongly condemned, regardless of who is responsible for it. Sadly, some have capitalized on the situation, and have looted, and torched businesses, homes, and other places in some of these neighborhoods, usually ones that are predominately African American, destroying their economic well-being.
Some of this has been clearly organized beforehand. The source for some of these organized riots is traced to Antifa, and some say possibly White Supremacist groups. Whatever the case, we need to find out who is doing this, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Protests should continue for as long as people want to continue them. Rioting and looting must stop now. We need leadership.
4. Related to this, some folks keep quoting MLK where he said that “a riot is the language of the unheard” in an effort to justify the riots, looting, and violence (where some have even been killed!) that has happened. With all due respect, please stop. MLK was not advocating rioting, looting and mob violence. His point was that we shouldn’t be surprised when people act that way when legitimate grievances are ignored with no justice. The righteous anger that manifests itself in peaceful protests could turn into unrighteous displays of rage and anarchy. To make matters worse in the current case, we know that there have been instigators who care nothing about George Floyd or racial justice, and are using this for their own wicked ends.
The point is that MLK, in that same speech, strongly condemned rioting and spoke of how counterproductive it is to the cause and only creates more problems as it brings unspeakable suffering in those neighborhoods. History shows us that it takes decades for areas where riots take place, and businesses and neighborhoods are torched, to recover, and some never do. So, please stop justifying the riots by quoting a man who condemned them! If we want to be true to his legacy, then we ought to condemn them just as he did because of they are lawless and destructive to innocent and vulnerable people.
On the flip side, I see White folks posting this meme that says “Looted nothing, burned nothing, attacked no one, changed the world” with a picture of MLK (and sometimes the pic is of him marching with his fellow protestors in suits and ties).
First, with all due respect, I realize it’s probably not your intent, but, this just comes off to me as a lecture: “Listen, you Black people, you need to know your place. Stop being so damned angry, dress right, and just calmly do what MLK did.” Of course, they fail to mention how White racists engaged in mob violence and attacked MLK and his fellow protestors even though they didn’t loot, burn anything, and attacked no one.
It also conveys a lack of empathy for the real and justifiable anger that protestors have, and fails to distinguish between the protestors and the rioters. If you can’t understand the righteous anger…then I would ask simply…why not?
As for changing the world, yes, there has been positive change. But, to say the world has been changed as if the problem of racism in our system has been eradicated is naïve at best, and willfully ignorant at worst, and it is why in fact that 53 years after MLK’s assassination (you do remember that part, right?), we are still dealing with many of the same issues.
If folks feel the need to quote MLK, it would be good if they actually took the time to read what he actually wrote, and not misrepresent him. If we’re concerned about the issues, we’d seek to understand why people are justifiably angry, why people are protesting (which is their constitutional right!), and why rioting ought to be condemned, not condoned.
5. Acknowledge what our African American brothers and sisters in the family of America feel and the reality of what they experience. Black people feel more threatened by police than White people do, and they have reason to feel that way. Here are three stories of Black men that give insight into how so many Black people feel and how they are so often looked at with suspicion just for being Black:
– The first account is from a Black man named Shola Richards who never walks in his own neighborhood unless he is accompanied by his daughter and their dog so that it is clear to everyone that he is not some kind of criminal.
Shola says, “When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling. But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong…It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”
-The next story is from a Black police officer named Justin Gay who speaks of how his experience in and out of uniform. Justin writes, “I make some people nervous when I’m off-duty in street clothes. I make some folks uneasy when I’m in uniform. I’ve been stereotyped by other races undeservingly. I’ve been accused of having a “fake badge” one time when I was in a heated confrontation & had to display it while off-duty, because apparently a black guy that looks like me can’t possibly be a cop.”
Next, I strongly encourage you to watch to this 16 minute speech from Senator Tim Scott. He spoke a couple of years ago of various encounters that he and others have had, to include how he had been pulled over 7 times in the course of 1 year by police. His testimony is extremely powerful.
Finally, there’s the testimony of Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne. Shai is a friend of mine who is a dear brother Christ. What he has to say is so heartbreaking, and I think powerfully sheds light on this issue: see here.
6. Realize that most police officers are honorable people who serve well and care deeply about the people in the communities they serve. They are just as disturbed at the incidents of police harassment and brutality as the rest of us are, and they too want justice.
We must pray for police officers everywhere who are performing a high stress job that involves personal risk, all at relatively low pay. Here is a video of the Middletown NY Police Department, where my wife is originally from, retaking their oath of office in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death.
And then there’s these touching pictures:
7. Black people that I have known down through the years, and my Black family members, and I think it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of African Americans, don’t want special treatment, just equal treatment. They recognize that there are many police officers that do live up to their call to protect and serve. They agree that Black people who break the law should suffer the appropriate consequences of the law…just not inappropriate and excessive consequences. They don’t want the police department defunded, as some are irrationally calling for, as that will greatly and adversely affect not just them, but all society. Rather, they want reform, accountability, and justice. They aren’t looking for White guilt, as if White people need to apologize for the color of their skin or confess sins they didn’t commit, which frankly rings a bit hollow, and doesn’t really change anything. What they want is for White folks to actually empathize and understand, and to not minimize or deny the real challenges that Black people face, and if they haven’t already, to embrace them fully as brothers and sisters in the American family.
Well, so much to say. I said earlier that I feel helpless, and I suppose that’s a good thing, because it reminds me that we really are powerless in ourselves to change anything. Laws are important, but, they don’t change hearts and minds. We’ve seen that. Nice sounding but empty platitudes won’t change hearts and minds. What I wrote in this post won’t change hearts and minds. Politics won’t change won’t change hearts and minds—as a matter of fact, politics often poisons things.
Our hope rests in the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who alone transforms hearts and minds. He has the power to change murderous haters like a Jewish man named Saul of Tarsus into the apostle Paul, who brought the message of God’s love and hope in Christ to non-Jewish people—ones that he previously would never have even met with.
I pray, then, that God would bring comfort to the family of George Floyd. I pray that God would move powerfully so that justice would be served, and as we pray for justice, that our hearts would not be consumed with hatred toward those who killed Mr. Floyd, but that we would pray that God would bring them to repentance and faith in Christ. I pray that God would move powerfully to heal the deep wounds that so many of our Black brothers and sisters have due to racial bias.
I pray that God would bring healing and reconciliation to our land, and that He would move powerfully to bring about the biblical vision that MLK had, where people would no longer be judged on the basis of the color of their skin, but the content of their character.
I pray that people will come to see that we are all—whatever color or ethnicity—fearfully and wonderfully made and created in God’s image. I pray that God would remind us that while racism is a grievous sin, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory in so many ways, and every one of us is capable of any sin. But by God’s amazing grace alone, Christ suffered, bled and died on the cross for people from every nation, tribe and tongue, so that all who turn from their sin and trust in Christ alone can know the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life, and experience the transforming work of the Spirit in their lives.
I pray that Christians not remain silent, but that we raise our voices for the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and those who experience injustice. I pray that we address any racism and soft bigotry and racially insensitive attitudes in our midst—judgment begins in our own house, and before we reach for the speck in the world’s eye, we must remove the planks from ours. I pray that God grant us wisdom, enable us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that we speak the truth of the gospel in a spirit of love, gentleness and respect, not only with those who look like us, but those who don’t. Heal us, O Lord, we ask and pray, in Christ’s name and through your Holy Spirit. Amen.
I leave you with this piece of music that for me captures the emotion and essence of everything I’ve written here:
Much has changed in the world. One day we were going about our business, and the next day we suddenly had a crash course in biology and the need to wash our hands, “flatten the curve,” “social distance,” and quarantine. Individuals, churches, and even countries are experiencing a collective distress as we deal with this pandemic of COVID-19. We are bombarded with the bad news of not only the health challenges and the death tolls, but also how this has unleashed a pandemic of economic devastation as upwards of 30 million Americans are unemployed, and many small businesses have closed.
How do we respond in the midst of such challenging, fearful, and distressing times? Many of us are crying out to God in prayer, and rightly so. We pray for an end to the pandemic. We pray for the sick. We pray for those on the frontlines who put themselves in harm’s way every day. We pray that we would not be overcome with fear and anxiety.
There is one more thing we need to pray that the Lord would give us: compassion not only for those who are suffering from the disease and the families of those who have died, but also for those who are and who will be suffering from the economic devastation that this virus has brought about.
I’m thankful that most Americans have complied with the mitigation protocols in an effort to protect the most vulnerable from contracting this vicious disease, and to keep our healthcare system from collapsing. Our hearts collectively break for those who are suffering physically and clinging to life, and for those families who have lost loved ones to this microscopic monster. For the most part, there’s been no lack of compassion for them.
In the case of the unemployed, however, I have detected a different mindset. They are the forgotten ones who at times are even berated if they dare raise a voice of alarm to their plight. While this time of self-quarantining is an unwelcome inconvenience for some, for others it is disaster. For them, the shutdown doesn’t mean that we just work from home, and where our most pressing concern is deciding which mind-numbingly stupid show to binge-watch after Tiger King. For millions of workers and their families, this means total devastation. They can’t just work from home. Rather, the shutdown means that the small business that they either started and managed for years, or worked for, is closed permanently, and they are looking at the reality of losing their home in the near future. The stimulus check for them doesn’t bail them out; it’s just a band-aide being applied to a hemorrhaging artery. The Titanic of their lives has been torpedoed and is sinking, and we’re giving them deck chairs that they can rearrange.
For these multiplied millions and their children, their concern isn’t where to stock all of the toilet paper and food that we in all of our prosperity—for which we are ungrateful for and seem to assume is owed us—have horded to get us by the next few months until things “get back to normal.” Their concern is how will I be able to provide even the barest of basic necessities for my family: what’s to come of me, my wife, and our 2-year old baby girl and 5-year old son? Where will we be when the money runs out, and everyone else is “getting back to normal?”
As for getting back to normal, for many that means getting back on the same hamster wheel of chasing the fleeting and lying wind of the “American dream” while living in willful suppression of the truth of the eternal realities that are ever before us. Let’s get this over with so that I can get back to serving the gods of materialism and consumerism and the almighty self, living as if I’ll never die and stand before a holy God and give an account. But, I digress…
I appreciate and value the arts, but maybe nothing else symbolizes more the tone deafness to the plight of the unemployed than the $25 million that self-absorbed and self-serving politicians—Democrat and Republican—decided to give to the Kennedy Center while people are staring abject poverty in the face. At least the fiddlers will be able to fiddle while ballerinas gleefully and gracefully leap across the stage so that elitists can give their pinched-lipped applause at the show, while those who could use those funds sink to the bottom of the ocean floor of destitution. Surely those wealthy socialites, celebrities, and politicians who are concerned about the Kennedy Center can scratch out a check to donate to the Kennedy Center if it needs financial assistance. But, no, let’s take it from the American taxpayers in their time of desperate need.
The tone deafness isn’t just to be found among celebrities, politicians, and political pundits who keep lecturing (!) us on why we need to just “stay home and save lives” while the lives of millions are destroyed. It is even found among Christians. I have seen some Christians speak not of their fear that millions might be engulfed in incalculable suffering unless the government intervenes, but, that our constitutional rights are being infringed upon and we are embracing Socialism.
I am deeply concerned about this as well. I love our constitutional rights—I served 21 years in the military in defense of them. And some governors and mayors are indeed threatening, and even violating our constitutional rights, all the while hypocritically doing the very things they scold us not to do. We must be vigilant to ensure that temporary measures aimed at protecting the population do not become permanent measures, and we should shudder when we hear governors such as New Jersey’s Phil Murphy say that they have no concern for the Bill of Rights.
As for Socialism, it has shown itself to be an oppressive governing and economic system, as the sad trail of poverty stricken people and dead bodies over the past 100 years demonstrates. For those who think Socialism is so great, hopefully the empty shelves in our grocery stores, soon to be food shortages, and the draconian authoritarian policies that some have enacted will be etched upon our minds, because that dear friends, among other things, will be the new normal.
My concern here, then, is not that we are concerned about the infringement of our rights and a drift toward authoritarian and economic Socialism, and the sky-rocketing national debt. These things are alarming! My concern is that this seems to be the only concern for some of us. There’s no balance. Where’s the compassion for the sick and the suffering? Where’s the compassion for those who desperately need the financial assistance of we the people (i.e., the government)? By all means, raise the alarm about our constitutional rights—I’m doing it right now—but, we must not let that be the only thing, or even the primary thing that the world hears coming out of our mouths.
On the other side, I’ve seen some Christians pontificate and bristle at those who have the audacity to suggest that we need to reopen the economy soon, or the cure most certainly will be worse than the disease. They self-righteously lecture us from their economically stable and safe (for now!) perches that we just need to, and I quote, “suck it up.” Since you’re so selfish worrying about something as silly as your livelihood, don’t come crying to the healthcare professionals if you get sick! After all, in this war all you need to do is lay on your couch and watch T.V.—as if those who are now unemployed will have a couch to lay on, a T.V. to watch, and a house to live in within the coming months. Instead of railing at their supposed insensitivity, stupidity, and selfishness, maybe we should try looking into the eyes of a single mom who has lost her job and has no savings and tell her to stop being so insensitive, and “suck it up!”
I have seen Christian scholars that I respect write about how the culture is morally unprepared for this pandemic because it is a selfish, narcissistic “you do you” culture that will likely not comply with mitigation protocols to protect the most vulnerable among us. I agree we live in such a “you do you” culture, but surely such cultural analysis is pastorally misguided for “such a time as this.” Thankfully, and maybe even surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Americans have complied with recommended protocols, and all at the cost of their livelihoods. But even if we wish to shine the light on the comparatively few that have not complied, what are we to make of so many of us Christians who seem to have the same “you do you” mindset, and are deaf and blind to the suffering of our neighbors, i.e., the millions who have and will suffer due to the economic tidal wave that has drowned them?
As I examine my own heart, I confess that I can relate to each of the responses that I have mentioned above from one degree to another. These are complex times that stretch our thinking and defy simplistic solutions, and as always it’s in the crucible where our hearts are revealed. My plea in all of this is that the Lord would fill me (us) with His compassion for the suffering—not merely for those who are sick and their loved ones, but also for the forgotten millions who have lost their jobs and are gripped by anxiety, fear, and hopelessness as they have no idea what will become of them and their children.
So, what is the Lord’s compassion for the suffering? The word compassion is a compound word that literally means “to suffer with.” This doesn’t mean that God suffers, for He cannot suffer. What it does mean is that God is not aloof and detached from our plight. Rather, because He is sovereign over and in our circumstances and “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), He knows, cares about, and actually enters into and is with us in the midst of our plight, most profoundly so in the person of Jesus Christ. Out of His great love and compassion for us, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became fully human without ceasing to be fully God, and as one who was fully human He entered into our experience, yet without sin. So, our Lord sympathizes with us (Heb 4:15). He knows our human limitations, our temptations, and our suffering, pain, and tears.
Thus, I think we could define biblical compassion as the Triune God’s mercy and love, demonstrated most significantly in the person of Jesus Christ, working in and through us by the Holy Spirit so that we sympathize with the plight of others and are moved to action for their good and God’s glory. Or, more concisely, it is the outworking of God’s mercy and love through us displayed in acts of love for the good of others and the glory of God.
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s compassion, and we see His compassion on display throughout Scripture. Just one example is in Matthew 9:36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed (distressed, worried) and helpless…” In a sermon on this text, Charles Spurgeon says, “…his internal agitation was very great, his emotions were very deep…his big heart was ready to burst with pity for the sorrow upon which his eyes were gazing. He was moved with compassion. His whole nature was agitated with commiseration for the sufferers before him.” This is the example our Savior has set for us. Thus, we must, as the apostle Paul tells us, put on, among other things, “compassionate hearts.” (Col 3:12)
So, how do we demonstrate this compassion? Like everything else, we recognize that we cannot do this apart from Christ. Thus, as the author of this article says, “The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.” The first place we must turn then is to prayer. We must ask God to give us sympathetic and compassionate hearts. We pray for the suffering, that God would help them. We pray for wisdom to know how to be conduits of His love and compassion to others for their good and His glory: what acts of mercy and love can I do for those in distress?
This applies to the church as well. How will congregations respond to those in need? How can we help those that are unemployed? There are no easy answers, but we must have the mind of Christ and look for ways to show compassion to those who are distressed. In his sermon Spurgeon exhorted his congregation: “…persons come in and out [of our church] in want of someone to speak with them, to condole, to console, or to commune with them in their loneliness, and they find no helper…I have met with several cases in which persons would have given anything for half an hour’s conversation with any Christian…They came…and no one spoke to them…If you have any bowels of mercy, you should be looking out for opportunities to do good. Oh! Never let a poor wounded soul faint for want of the balm. You know the balm. It has healed yourselves. Use it wherever the arrows of God have smitten a soul.”
The balm that Spurgeon speaks of is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is here where we see that the compassion that moves us to help others is not merely focused on relieving some temporary distress. Rather, we must minister to the whole person. Our tangible acts of love toward others open the door for us to express the most important aspect of our compassion for others as we put their need of a Savior before them, and lead them to the arms of our loving and compassionate Savior who outstretched His arms on a Roman cross for us.
Jesus’ compassion didn’t drive Him to merely alleviate our temporal distress, but our eternal distress. In His compassion for hell deserving, hell bound sinners like us, He came into the world to save us as He suffered, bled, and died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead so that those who trust in Him alone could be delivered from the eternal distress of hell and be brought into union with the Triune God. This is the healing balm that humanity needs, and that we are commanded to dispense to a hurting, sin-sick and broken world. All of our acts of love and compassion toward others are grounded in, flow out of, and point to the infinite love of God that He demonstrated in the cross of Christ.
So, let us have compassion for those who are sick and suffering, and for the grieving families who have lost loved ones. Let us also remember the poor. Let us have hearts that break with sympathy and compassion for the millions of those whose livelihoods have been shipwrecked by the tsunami of this pandemic. And as we seek to show tangible acts of love to those in distress, let us remember to apply the healing balm of the gospel to lost souls. Much more to say, but I will close with the prayer from Pastor Scotty Smith:
“Lord Jesus, there are so many reasons to love you. Today we’re particularly stunned by your compassion—greatly convicted by it, longing to feel more of it. When you looked at crowds of “harassed and helpless” people, you didn’t ignore them; they didn’t irritate you; you made time for them. Sympathy beat within your breast; kindness overflowed; caring was concrete. Help us know this is what you feel for us today—indeed, for me…Come and shepherd our hearts today, Jesus. We praise, bless, and adore you for suffering for us on the cross, once and for all. We stake our living, and our dying, on this glorious gospel. But it’s also comforting to know that you share in our sufferings right now, as well. No one understands us like you—no one is closer and kinder, more patient and more grace-full. We are thankful. So very Amen we pray, in your holy and loving name.”
Is it true that “all that we are asked to bear we can bear?” (Another way that folks put this is to say that “God won’t put more on us than we can bear?)
The person who sent me this quote about bearing all we can bear summed up its meaning when she said that all you need to do is “put on your big girl pants and suck it up, you can do it.”
The quote might sound like a profound spiritual principle, but it is really based more on worldly wisdom than divine truth, and as noted in my prior post, can result in pride on the one hand, and guilt and anxiety on the other.
In terms of pride, it focuses our attention away from God, and upon me and my self-sufficiency. If I’m resourceful enough and don’t fear, and put my big boy pants on, I can conquer any challenge. When I endure whatever difficulty, I can give thanks not to God, but to me for bearing what I was asked to bear. I was able to pull myself up by the bootstraps, not give into fear, and when I look back at the so-called “footprints in the sand,” the footprints are mine alone.
Lest you think people would never think that way, think again. Just the fact that we don’t think we’re susceptible to pride is an indication that we are already infected with it. One clear indicator of the pride that is in our hearts is the words “I would never…” That is just a form of self-exaltation that glories in our mistaken notion of our own inherent goodness and power.
I’m reminded of a humorous example from the sports world of this mindset of pride and self-sufficiency. In 2005, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game, where wide receiver Freddy Mitchell had a team high 5 catches. After the game, Mitchell surprised everyone when he said, “I just want to thank…my hands for being so great!” Instead of thanking the One who gave him the hands to make the catch, he thanks the hands themselves. In our case, instead of thanking the One who enables us to bear whatever comes into our lives, we thank ourselves for having the moxie and intestinal fortitude to “bear what we are asked to bear.”
Another of version of bearing what I’m asked to bear is the popular saying “God helps those who help themselves.” This at least brings God into the equation, but, it only gives the appearance of doing so. It’s really just another empty spiritual law based on worldly wisdom that is focused on man and his resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. While it invokes God, the emphasis is again upon me: help yourself!
And notice, if I do help myself, what help is then needed from God? None. God is rendered totally irrelevant, and I again can boast in the almighty power of me and the deep wells of wisdom and resourcefulness that evidently flow from within me. I did so good I might actually write my own “self-help” book to share my nuggets of wisdom on how you too can help yourself—who needs God when we are evidently all-powerful and all-wise in our own right?
So, what happens when you can’t bear what you are asked to bear? That’s where guilt and anxiety come in. We feel like we don’t measure up, and since the only resource that I have to bear what I’m asked to bear is me, all I’m left with is anxiety and no way to deal with the anxiety. This can spiral us into a pit of anger, bitterness, despair, depression, and hopelessness. We just give up and resign ourselves to misery.
So, what does Scripture say? Is it true that we must bear what we are asked to bear, or, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, or that God helps those who help themselves?
2 Corinthians 1:8-9 provides a clear answer. The apostle Paul says, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
Contrary to God not putting more on us than we can bear, we discover that God certainly will do just that as Paul speaks of how they were burdened beyond their strength. They could not bear all that they had to bear, and it wasn’t because of fear, but because they had been stretched beyond the breaking point by the affliction that they were subjected to.
And contrary to the idea that God helps those who help themselves, the things they endured were designed by the Lord to teach them (us) to rely on God and not ourselves. So, the reality is that God helps those who realize that they can’t help themselves. Or, to put it negatively, God doesn’t help those who walk in their own pride.
We notice another important truth: all that they endured came to them by the providential hand of a holy, loving, and sovereign God who “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” (Eph 1:11). Many people wonder why God allows such things as suffering in our lives. Why are there such things as Coronaviruses? Many answers can be offered, but the bottom line is that God does have a good purpose for everything that He in His sovereignty ordains to come into our lives, and at the heart of that good purpose is our conformity to Jesus. (Rom 8:28-29)
It is in the cauldron of suffering, adversity, and affliction that we learn to live our lives by faith. It is through the fires of adversity that the Lord forges our faith. What comes forth is the gold of deeper communion with God as we renounce our idol of self-sufficiency, and rely on the Lord who, Paul says, raises the dead. God demonstrated His power and His love in the cross of Christ and raised Him from the grave, and those who by God’s grace alone trust in Christ alone for their salvation must cease clinging to their self-reliance and resourcefulness, and cling tightly to Christ alone. It is then that we can endure any trial, because it is the resurrected and living Christ who is now at work to enable us by His Spirit to endure to the end.
So, how do we rely on God and not ourselves? We looked in the previous post at the means of grace that God has given us: His Word, prayer, and the church. When we turn to God’s Word, we discover that God is God, and we are not, and this Word is at work to lay bare and heal us of the sinful pride of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12-13; Romans 12:1-2). In prayer, we confess and repent of our sin of self-reliance, and then cast our burdens upon the Lord and ask Him to help us. And with the church, we discover the rich reservoir of a loving community of brothers and sisters in the Lord who are commanded to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6:2)
Related to that point, so many people struggle and suffer in silence, refusing to tell anyone about what’s going on in their lives. This could be due to shame, embarrassment, or not wanting to impose on others. The root of it though is pride. We simply refuse to humble ourselves and say, “I can’t do this…I need help!” We need Christ, and He is found in His Word, prayer, and His Church. And He gives us trials in part as a means for His Spirit to reorient our thinking from self-reliance to Christ-reliance.
So, as we bring this to a close, the so-called spiritual law that says you can bear all that you are asked to bear (and the only hindrance to that is fear), is false. Our hope is not found in ourselves, but in the One who raised Christ to deliver us from the penalty and power of sin, and who one day will return and deliver us from this body of death. And God is at work in us now, as a loving Father, to wean us off of ourselves, to teach us to cast our burdens upon Him, and to rely upon Him alone to bring us through the fiery trials that He works together for the good of our conformity to Christ.
Someone forwarded me a quote from the novelist Elizabeth Goudge, where she said “All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is a law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.”
While the quote sounds profound, it really conveys a faulty view of what the spiritual life is, and could actually produce within us a great deal of negative things such as pride on the one hand, and guilt and anxiety on the other.
To unpack all of that, I want to look at three questions: First, is there a law of spiritual life, and what is it? Second, is it true that we can bear all we are asked to? Third, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we’re asked to?
This post will deal with the first question: Is there a law of spiritual life? (The next post will deal with the second and third questions listed above, which can be found here).
From a Christian perspective, we believe that God is the objective source that moves us beyond mere opinion and tells us what the spiritual life is and what governs it. There are three ways that God has revealed Himself that have a bearing on discovering and knowing what the spiritual life is:
1. God has revealed Himself in creation. Romans 1:20 says that God’s eternal power and nature are clearly seen by what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Whether we look at the stars, planets, sun and moon; or the oceans, rivers, mountains, and fertile fields; or the rich diversity of life forms on earth, from microscopic organisms, to birds, lions, and gazelles, to whales, fish and tadpoles, and to human beings; and then consider the fine tuning of the universe that ensures that life on this little blue speck of dust called earth could thrive, it all with one resounding symphonic voice declares that God is. No one will be able to say, “I didn’t have enough evidence.” It is literally all around us, and even within us since we are created in His image.
2. God has revealed Himself within our conscience because we are created in God’s image (Rom 2:14-15). This means, among other things, that we have an innate sense of God, we know right from wrong, and we have a longing to discover ultimate reality, and meaning and purpose in our lives. The image of God sets human beings apart as unique among all the creatures on earth.
These two things alone show that it is impossible for God not to exist. Because God exists, everything exists. If God didn’t exist, nothing would exist. This applies to the physical realities that we see, and things such as love, reason, thought, wisdom, laws of logic and nature, etc. The absolute proof that God exists is that anything at all exists—we can’t account for one thing apart from the existence of the Triune God.
God’s existence is self-evident, and every person knows it. The problem, according to Romans 1:18, is that we suppress—we willfully hold down and ignore—the self-evident truth that is revealed in creation and our own conscience about who God is because we want to think and live the way we want to. We want to be in control; to be our own god.
We do this in many ways, from making up false gods and religions, to rejecting all forms of religion and just living a secular life. The reality, though, is that we are all worshiping something. We are all committed to something that is the supreme affection of our hearts and that we are building our lives around. Whatever occupies the most cherished place in my heart is the object(s) of my worship—it is my functional god(s).
How does this relate to the spiritual life? Because we are created in God’s image, we are created body and soul (spirit) to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Thus, the essence of the spiritual life is to be united to the Triune God in a relationship of love. It isn’t a question of if we will worship, rather, it’s a question of what we will worship: what will we glorify and enjoy and delight in more than anything else and order our lives around? Worship is such of the essence of who we are as human beings that we might revise Descartes “I think, therefore I am” to say, “I am, therefore I worship.”
For those who claim to not believe in God, the truth is that they know that God exists, and they too worship something: the functional god(s) could be one’s intellect, material possessions, power, family, etc.
Many others affirm that there is a spiritual component to man that we must tap into. But, they stop there and create their own ideas and rules about the spiritual life. This takes many forms, from false religions where we make a god(s) that makes sense to us, to new age spiritualism where man is in some sense divine and all paths lead to God (or some impersonal spirit), to people just saying they are spiritual but not religious, i.e., they do their own thing.
Though they are all very different, the common theme for all of them is human pride: “I’ll think and live the way I want to, and make up my own rules, my own religion, and my own definition of the spiritual life.”
3. This takes us to the third way that God has revealed Himself, namely, His Word. To discover the truth about spiritual life, we must discover and submit our thinking to God’s Word, which Christians believe is found only in the collection of 66 books known as the bible, which is the very word of God that He breathed out through human authors (2 Tim 3:16).
While the revelation of God that we find in nature and our conscience enables us to form general observations about Him, Scripture is God’s special and unique revelation that gives the essential details about who God is, who we are, and what He requires of us to be in a relationship with Him. At the heart of that revelation is Jesus, who is the fullest manifestation of who God is. So, to understand what spiritual life is, we must accept and submit to God’s Word, for it alone is the ultimate authority in our lives.
With regard to the spiritual life, God’s Word tells us that because of sin, we are spiritually dead. This means that we are cut off from relationship with Him with no way in and of ourselves to restore that relationship. Jesus, who is God in the flesh, came to live the perfect life we never could, and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and rose bodily from the dead. The true spiritual life begins the moment that we, by God’s grace alone, trust in Jesus alone for our right standing before God.
When that happens, we are adopted as His sons and daughters and we receive the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who works within us to make us lifelong disciples (learners and followers) of Jesus. The true spiritual life, then, is centered on discovering more of who Jesus is, falling more in love with Him, and living our lives for Him and through Him by His Spirit, who works in us to will and to do God’s good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)
In sum, the spiritual life is about being conformed to the image of Jesus by doing what pleases God in our thoughts, words, and actions. It is endeavoring by God’s Spirit and grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to love God with our whole being, and to love others as we love ourselves.
The primary tool that the Holy Spirit uses to enable us to live the spiritual life is what is referred to as the means of grace (spiritual empowerment): God’s Word, prayer, and the church:
* God’s Word: God uses His Word to renew our minds so that our way of thinking (and living) becomes conformed to what pleases God.
* Prayer: In prayer we enter into a personal communion with God where we praise Him for who He is and what He has done for us, confess our sins, give thanks, and ask Him for things on behalf of others and ourselves.
* Church: Here we are connected in intimate community with other believers, where together we pray, sing praises to God, hear God’s Word preached and taught, partake in the sacraments, engage in fellowship as we encourage and edify each other in the faith, and serve one another in love.
All of this prepares and propels us outward to sacrificially love other people in our words and deeds. At the heart of this love is a desire to see others be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Hence, Christians are called ambassadors of Christ, and ministers of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18-21)
So, the essence of the spiritual life is being united to the Triune God in an intimate relationship of love. This union, and thus spiritual life, is brought about, sustained, and will brought to completion in our lives by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in and by Christ alone, all to God’s glory alone.
The law that governs the spiritual life is found in Scripture alone, which is the sole infallible rule and guide for all of life. Any view of the spiritual life that is not centered upon and contradicts this final form of God’s revelation to us is false.
Our task, then, is to submit our thinking and live in conformity to Scripture, resting and relying upon Christ for the ability to do so. This has direct bearing to the next questions we will answer in our next post: is it true that all that we are asked to bear we can bear? And, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we are asked to be?