Prayers For The Darkness (A New Book)

Prayer

Prayers For The Darkness: on Amazon

In all my bitter wrestling with Evangelicalism, I wrote a book on Instagram. If you follow me there, there is nothing new in it. I don’t consider these prayers at all controversial. Yet I have received hostile, threatening rebukes for them. So here is my rationale behind the prayers, and behind the book — here is my appeal to you.

God doesn’t have a category for “taboo.” We have been trained to think of God as the best of all possible systematic theologians. There has never been a time in human history when God spoke, and the church didn’t try to use that speech as a means to control other humans — as a way to say: 

  • “You can’t say that.”
  • “You can’t do that.”
  • “You have to do what I say.”
  • “You have to feel the emotions that I understand.”

No. This deeply betrays the heart of God in his moving toward us — in his speaking to us. God desires to encounter, not our best selves, but our true selves. God doesn’t know us by means of our resume packet, with photoshopped pictures and a highlight reel of our best moments. God sees it all. And he wants us entirely, nothing lacking, nothing overseen, nothing forgotten.

Our prayer life should reflect this. In spurning presumption, the fog of pretense is cleared between God and us, and we are able to approach him as seems fitting to us — to engage him in battle, to critique his character, to curl up into a ball and cry, to hurl profanities at him. We have been so conditioned to believe that we are responsible for how those in authority over us feel (though we aren’t), often our prayers are formulated to protect God’s feelings.

But they shouldn’t be. He can handle all the “blasphemies” and “heresies” stirring around in our hearts. Many times, there is truth in them that our Evangelical world would rather suppress than express — it fits “the narrative” better. And we wouldn’t want to disrupt the narrative.

But here’s one piece of truth we’ve forgotten: God doesn’t care about the Evangelical narrative. At least, not more than people. Not more than the individuals in front of us and beside us. God doesn’t care about Evangelicalism more than he cares about you. No. He cares about you more. Because Evangelicalism is an idea, an institution, a bank account — you are made by him, in his image.

Prayer that is fully honest — sacred and profane, articulate and fumbling for words, distrusting of God and engaging with him with all our misgivings on display — this is the prayer God is after. And this is the prayer that our hearts long to pray, if we would, for a moment, allow our hearts to “go there.” Go there with me. And, go further than me. Go for yourself into the disrespectful honesty that God desires from us more than anything.

I wrote this book when I hated God. I became very angry, very bitter. I began deconstructing the world in which I found new life. I began tearing down the pristine walls I saw as my own betrayal — words of life coopted by agents of death. I didn’t like being so deconstructive.

So, I committed to doing one constructive thing per day — to saying one true thing to God per day, publicly. This book was the result.

If the prayers make you angry, the book wasn’t written for you — or … maybe it was. It was certainly written out of my own anger and insecurity. Find out here: Available on Amazon.

Is Reformed Evangelicalism a Place For The Traumatized?

Theology

The movie Logan deserves re-watching. It displays the effects of aging on even the most evergreen and shiny realities. I recommend it. But this isn’t a movie review. As I watched Logan in the theater, Logan (i.e., Wolverine) delivered one line in the film that felt as if he had turned directly to me to say it.

Logan is a man who can heal from anything. The government put inside him an adamantium (metal) skeleton. He discovers the government has also created a clone daughter named Laura out of his DNA, and she has his same ability to heal, his killer instinct, and her own metal skeleton. Logan and Laura are both brutal, skillful killers. He is well over 150 years old, and she is not older than 12.

In one scene, Logan turns to Laura and says:

“Don’t be who they made you.”

Warrior Children

It was a sobering moment of clarity for me — time slowed down for me. In that moment, my entire seminary experience flashed before my eyes. At Westminster Theological Seminary, they called themselves “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and they wore it like a badge of pride. Faculty behind closed doors would refer to times when they colluded to get other faculty fired as “My tour in ‘Nam.” Students would get together at pubs and talk about how all the other seminaries were much worse, too soft, not insightful enough, not consistent enough, not vigilant enough.

I was new to the whole Presbyterian world. But only a few months after I moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster, it felt like home for one reason. My hypervigilant pursuit of truth was rewarded. My “black and white” conception of the world was applauded. Everyone was put in categories of “in” and “out.” If you fell in line, and paid allegiance to the right people, you were treated as family. If not, you were exiled, and treated as untrustworthy. I don’t know if all Presbyterian communities are like this, or if all Reformed communities are like this. But this was my experience of Presbyterianism in Philadelphia. It was political to the core. And the political players at Westminster were looking for soldiers to fight in their war. Against whom? Everyone else.

It was at Westminster that I realized I had experienced trauma in my own childhood. But it wasn’t until I left that I realized how that had changed my time there. Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma theorist, explains:

“Some traumatized people remain preoccupied with the trauma at the expense of other life experiences and continue to re-create it in some form for themselves or for others. War veterans may enlist as mercenaries, victims of incest may become prostitutes, and victims of childhood physical abuse seemingly provoke subsequent abuse in foster families or become self-mutilators. Still others identify with the aggressor and do to others what was done to them.”[1]

One researcher asks why victims don’t simply break the traumatic cycle by leaving. He comments: “they are addicted to each other and to abuse. The system, the interaction, the relation takes hold; the individuals are as powerless as junkies.”[2] I have no doubt become addicted to Reformed evangelicalism. This blog isn’t an indictment of “them.” It’s a moment of honesty for me. The more honest I have been about what I really think, the more pushback I have received from people who could take away what little platform I have here. The time has come for me to place that fear aside, and simply say what needs to be said.

My Personhood and Evangelicalism

In the same way that emotionally abused women are attracted to abusive men when they become older (re-creating the circumstances of their own abuse), so also abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse. I think that Reformed and evangelical communities can serve as prime outposts signaling for the abused to come, singing a siren song of traumatic repetition.

As a man seeking full-time, professional employment within evangelicalism, I am judged as arrogant and warmongering for my strengths and as emotionally impotent for my weaknesses. I feel like Laura in many ways — with all the anger and violence of a grown man, with an immature innocence inside that needs protecting. And that swirl of so-called warmongering and emotional impotence is characterized by the trauma of my childhood. But it was exacerbated, codified, and formalized by my experience at Westminster — and quite honestly, by my experience in evangelicalism thereafter.

In Logan, Wolverine’s healing powers have slowed to a halt because his metal skeleton became so toxic to him. The very thing that made him most dangerous and most threatening — the center of his “brand” and “platform” — was toxic to him. There is something about this community that is toxic to me. Reformed evangelicalism has done a lot for me, but much of it has been for the worse.

The longer I remain in this community, the longer I feel like I’m losing touch with the Paul who existed before he was militarized — before he was conscripted into Machen’s Army. I haven’t had any formal association with Westminster for several years now. And yet, I still have that killer instinct. I was still trained for 4 years to think of everyone else as stupid. Everyone else’s view on counseling was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on God’s will was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on evil and salvation was illogical, but we had the most consistent view.

My Inferiorities and Evangelicalism

If only I had known how I was using (and being used) by that system, I would have left — had I the courage along with the insight. If only I had known that I was compensating for so much childhood hurt that was only being magnified and worsened, I would have left. If only I had known that the system at Westminster chews people up and spits them out every three years, I would have left. I know of no other seminary with such a trail of bodies, with most of its alumni emotionally damaged from their experience there, still acting out their warrior impulses which they learned — still fighting, still poisoned by their weaponized theological skeletons.

Is There A Place for The Traumatized?

And I’m not sure how to shed this feeling. I’m not sure how to deescalate this trauma. But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for “survivors” and “healing” by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism. For all our rhetoric of “redemption” and “reconciliation,” this is the very last place in the world I would ever tell a traumatized person to go. That’s not to say someone can’t be helped here by accident. But we haven’t figured out how to stop hurting people here. And if you’re already here, as a member, and you find your home here, I can only invite you to begin your journey with me:

“Don’t be what they made you.”

The “you” beneath your in-group/out-group instincts is better. We don’t need to conceive of ourselves in terms of “tribes.” And we don’t need to conceive of our world in terms of the lines drawn by 10 major figures who sell all the books. We can figure out a way to heal with God (and grow) on our own terms. And we are probably better off doing that in a world that won’t require us to re-enact our trauma for the sake of its “wartime mindset.” We need peacetime healers for our trauma, not soldiers who took a spiritual CPR course.

In my experience, the Reformed evangelical world wants our trauma when it has battles to fight (which is all the time), and wants us to put the monster back in the closet on Sunday morning. I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.

God, light the way to you that is beyond and outside of a world that would only reward us for our symptoms of victimhood. Have mercy on us to do what we must for the sake of our own faith, tribes be damned.

[1] Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12, no. 2 (1989): 398 [389-411].

[2] G. M. Erschak “The Escalation and Maintenance of Spouse Abuse: A Cybernetic Model,” Victimology 9 (1984): 247-253.

The Christian Disenfranchisement of Grief

Theology

Short version: New article on a theology of grief, here.

There is so much of our theology that is precious because it is true. But too often, the power that God has entrusted to us in his word is presumed upon; wielded irresponsibly. Our peculiar religious sub-culture now thinks in blogs and tweets. The internet has magnified our bravery beyond our embodied personality, shrinking our discretion and humility. Short-form content is a funhouse of distorting mirrors that many of us have not left for several years.

And then: The death of a loved one. A parent. A sibling. No chance to say goodbye. The funhouse of fabricated intimacy cannot help us in grief. Even the “deepest” tweets are platitudes, Chinese manufactured toys under the steamroller of heavy felt-loss. None of it matters at all, but it has come to compose 90% of life — somehow.

Within evangelicalism, the genuine expression of despair often feels at odds with a confession of faith. Lament has no room. Not really. There is a short window of time, until we are required to sing “Up From The Grave He Rose” once again in a couple weeks. Patience is really the ticking clock on the time bomb of God’s moral evaluation — in evangelicalism, tears have a half-life, an expiration date, until they overstay their welcome, and survivors of greater loss are held over our heads. Real, terrible, unrectifiable tragedy is airdropped into theological air quotes — “Even the darkness is not dark to him.” And this is used to prolepticly homogenize all forms of heartbreak onto a single railroad, with a single destination: explicitly God-derived joy.

So long as our community requires its members to follow their rules of grief, we will blind the believing bereaved to the space God himself has made for us to critique him.

This is why I wrote this article on grief and lament. Christians are married to the “stage model” of grief, because it so perfectly mirrors the uniform dogmatism of our own epistemic ticks. I don’t think this article “fits” here in our world. The only consolation readers may have is that I think J. I. Packer might agree with me.

I have heard Reformed pastors say that, in the face of grief, the sovereignty of God is not the most pastorally sensitive doctrine to bring up. One might rather focus on the love of God, or God’s promise in the gospel. Yet, while some may find this aversion to the power of God in the presence of pain soothing, the problem of the goodness of God in the face of moral evil that he has ordained becomes (understandably) an object of fixation. For many, God’s sovereign decree over their pain is the most relevant thing in the world. And it is upsetting to our faith.

This is why Calvin writes, “God had given me a son. God hath taken my little boy.”[1] Calvin believed that God took his son from him because he loved him too much. This is the theological strain that living in our world places on grief — for good or ill, suffering is made to mean something; we confuse our eulogizing task with a philosophical competency to pronounce upon the meaning of death. We consequently find ourselves mumbling contentless theodicies that pit real-world, present-day despair against postmortem resolution, a category error that goes somehow heinously undetected.

There is no space for real lament over my dad in this world. I certainly don’t see it. There is no room for his story to be folded into the story of my community of faith. I have not yet found a way. He was the best dad he could have been — scratch that: he was the best dad ever. And I had a hand in his demise; in his death. How couldn’t I have? I was his son. We are blinded by our consistency-bias to allow the ambiguous complexity that death brings to emerge into — even to change — how we see the world.

Christians have recently legitimized lament, opening dialogues about “loss” that are really magical conjurations of cruel optimism (to steal a term from Voltaire). This movement is — if you will allow me a moment of paranoia — a farce, rooted in a genuine need for cathartic expression, curtailed by a culture that has informal rules that aren’t officially codified, but which we all know. We need space to “process” where our tears are not measured in terms of “progress.”

Such a space does not currently exist. One cancer survivor’s satisfaction in a Calvinist theodicy is a torturous emotional crucible for the next sufferer. Those most helpful to me in my process of grief have been those who have nothing to do with Christianity at all. They have nothing at stake in me resolving my grief a certain way. It makes them the best grief counselors. There are spaces in our culture that make some feel at home, but the diverse spectrum of grief is not really welcome at the evangelical table — least of all doubt. God forbid. We certainly don’t have tolerance for those who don’t grieve as we grieve.

Read here, if you’re interested. Be offended, if you have a habit of subjecting yourself to moral injury. Or, say what you have for too long felt you were not allowed to say.

**I am thankful to John Perrine for supplying the exegetical section on pp. 187–192, and to Andrew Schmutzer, the editor of this special issue of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, for accepting it for publication.

[1] Responsio ad Balduini Convitia. Geneva, 1561.

My $100,000 Lesson in God’s Calling

Theology

 

I originally titled this post “My $100,000 Mistake.” But that would have been a mistake.

I came to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) a year ago on the Waybright scholarship — $35,000 per year for 4 years — that’s a $140,000 scholarship. Tuition comes out of that, so you’re looking at about $15,000 per year on which to live. The contingency of the scholarship is that you can’t work another job while you’re on the scholarship. (This is all public information). As his prospective student, my (now) advisor Kevin Vanhoozer vouched for me to get the scholarship. The systematic theology department at TEDS unanimously voted for me. Yet, due to personal reasons, throughout the next year, I grew to strongly dislike the discipline of theology.

I Became a Fire Chief

In a book called Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury elaborates on the psychology of the characters in his historic novel Fahrenheit 451, which I have never read.

One man asks another, “How did it start? Why did you make the decision to become Fire Chief, a burner of books?” The Fire Chief answers — he used to love books. And then, something dreadful happened. Not a public tragedy, but internal. He opened the books one day, and, “Montag guessed. ‘The pages were empty?” The Fire Chief’s reply gave my heart words:

“Oh, the words were there, allright, but they ran over my eyes like hot oil, signifying nothing. Offering no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.”[1]

Why? What happened? Fire Chief: “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour … the deaths that cam swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father …”

I’ve never read words that overlap so perfectly with my story. Bradbury, paired with Yoda — “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” So, God led me by the nose to Babylon. I took a job offer that doubled my paycheck. I had every rationalization for that decision.

  • “I’m still serving the church.”
  • “I’m doing better work than theologians climbing a futile ladder of academic self-interest.”
  • “Theology is impractical anyway.”
  • “It’s responsible. I need to start a 401k.”
  • “I’m probably not going to get a professor job anywhere.”
  • “There’s no such thing as a full time writer.”
  • “I can start a new, different, satisfying career.”
  • “After nine years straight of academic theology (since I was 18), I need a break.”

That last one was true. The others were rationalizations. So, I forfeited a guaranteed $105,000 over the next three years (140–35), and my calling, for a projected $200,000 over the next three years.

Where God Gives Us Meaningful Work, He Makes it Beautiful

As soon as I started my job, I looked back on academic theology — and writing — and realized I was trapped. There was a bulletproof glass wall separating me from my calling. I scrambled to write as much as I could every week, outside of the 40 hours that I was at a desk. But my writing started to worsen. My work was good, but not as good as it could have been. I started gaining weight. I was away for work — and for writing — so much that I have rarely been in Chicago these past six months.

Like Esau, I regretted forfeiting my birthright. Yet now, I embrace my lost birthright, my forfeited scholarship — that took my birthright happily, and granted me a sense of calling.

My boss told me during me time as acquisitions editor, “Wherever God gives us meaningful work, he makes that place beautiful.” That’s the truest statement my soul has heard in the past six months. That job was a very meaningful and beautiful place in its own right. But God had not given me meaningful work there. He had already tasked me with that work elsewhere.

So, I decided to resign.

I’m Rich With Opportunity

I turn back to TEDS, with no savings to get me through the next semester, and no scholarship. All I have in-hand is a vigor, a calling from God, and 10 half-completed writing projects that I will finally be able to finish.

This semester, I’m going to complete my coursework at TEDS. I have a sense of focus and clarity that I haven’t had since before my dad died in 2013. I write like the devil. Barring unexpected delays, I will finish my coursework, research languages, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, and full dissertation, by January 2017. I am currently unable to sufficiently express my sense of perspective and calling to the writing projects that God has placed on my plate this forthcoming year.

  • A book, partnering with a ministry that is dear to my heart.
  • Final Ph.D. coursework.
  • Five 80% complete academic articles, ranging from divine impassibility, to theological exegesis, to a theology of trauma.
  • Desiring God standalone articles
  • My dissertation — Dr. Vanhoozer and I have set and are psyched about the topic, which we have now honed. He is excited to have me back, and I couldn’t be more excited to get back in the workshop with him.
  • Teaching philosophy at Moody Bible Institute (it is so invigorating to teach Christian worldview to 18–20 year-olds).

So there I was, a year after I came to TEDS, embittered and struggling in my sense of God’s calling on my life. And here I am — $105,000 poorer — with the richest sense of calling and focus I have ever had. God taught me this lesson at the small cost of $105,000:

“You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16).

I wring my hands constantly — over money, over love, over peoples’ opinions. But it is with unclenched hands that I make this decision. It is perhaps the most risky and obedient move I have ever made in my life. And my Father owns a thousand sheep on a thousand hills. He would give them all to me if his calling required it. That’s why I don’t grieve my lost scholarship. That’s why that lost $105,000 left on my scholarship, which I forfeited to take my job, is the highest return on investment I will get for any penny I ever spend for the rest of my life. This new perspective was necessary for me to do good work at TEDS. There was no other way for me to be where I am now — with an expanded sense of productivity, a razor-sharp focus in my calling, and a sense of rest and joy that obedience gives you.

This post feels far too sanitized. Yet, better to post a sanitized and timely post, than a distanced and seasoned reflection. At least for now. None of this is easy. None of it feels holy. I have no idea what I’m doing. But it is right, and I think it is what God has for me right now.

Pray for me as I transition to a semester with a full plate, with empty pockets, and with a hope for a pure heart, for the first time in a long time.

[1] Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1990), 80.

Male Body Hatred Q&A

Blog

A year ago, Desiring God published my article, “The Epidemic of Male Body Hatred” — I received an insane amount of feedback, stories, testimonies of shame and grace, and revelation. A few months ago, Greg Piken — a pastor at Journey of Faith Church in Manhattan Beach, CA (a beach city run on image-consciousness)— reached out and asked me to do a Q&A with his young adult ministry on the topic. We finally got to it this past Sunday. So, I wrote down my answers to the questions, and I hope you find them helpful.

  • I love how you call Christians out on your blog when you say that we all want to be sexy but we never talk about wanting to be sexy. Do you think Christians are ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good?

I have a feeling a lot of my answers will be “Yes and No” — I hope that provides nuance, because the crowd is split in their approach to this quest: those who are truly well outside the culture’s standards for bodily beauty, and those who are well within it.

Are Christians ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good? Yes. The guy in the weight room, the girl in yoga pants, Christians will find a reason to judge them — and they are supplied with church-based resources to hate themselves. We will throw adjectives at them: vain, proud, obsessed with themselves, worldly, inappropriate, probably addicted to pornography. Are Christians ashamed for wanting to be sexy? Yes. Christianity is full of very sticky labels that we are very careless with. I think that our judgment of those who are image-conscious likely comes from our own insecurities about our bodies. Humans are a race of one-uppers, and so if we see a fellow believer who is in much better shape than us, or who is going on a diet, or who is a better dresser than us, or who is trying to physically improve themselves, we just call it a sin issue, and we feel justified and godly for our own insufficiencies for (just) a second.

Are Christians ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good? No. We can play our over-spiritualizing card in both directions. We aren’t ashamed of looking good at all, because we want to be “good stewards” of our bodies. And “Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” I saw a Christian bodybuilder once explain why he lifted weights four hours a day and had 7% bodyfat — and he cited 1 Corinthians 6:19: “You bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” And I thought, “Really? That’s what the Spirit wants? A muscly, vascular, tanned Miami-beach temple?” So, you asked a psychological question — are we Christians ashamed for wanting to look good? We will find a Christian reason to be both proud and ashamed of our desire to be attractive, depending on which direction our insecurities push the question.

  • You mention how some men can develop a subconscious God complex — we want to intimidate our peers, measure up to our fathers, and even portray ourselves as superhuman. How do we know if we have developed that God-complex and what do we do about it?

I like how you say “some guys” — because I think this is a good point to mention that not all guys are driven by an unhealthy self-obsession. I certainly am. I wrote that article for Desiring God, and I was pretty sure they would send it back to me and say “Paul, we love you, but this is too honest and weird and niche.” Not at all. I got a ton of emails from this article, of people telling me their stories, their insecurities.

What does the God-complex look like for men? So many things. When we find ourselves resenting other men who have sexier bodies — I have a friend who is such an attractive man, and there are moments when I absolutely hate him. I don’t want to hang out, because I will only wish I was as jacked and handsome as him. When we find ourselves exercising an inordinate amount. I was once dating a girl, years ago, and she told me she didn’t like my body. I found myself running 3 miles at a time, working out in the gym for hours at a time, 3 or 4 times a day. I was getting knee injuries, shoulder pain, I wasn’t performing at my job, because I was driven to have a body worthy of love. During that season, I was bulimic. I have been surprised to learn over the past year how many twenty-something single guys force themselves to throw up, either during a workout, or late at night, or after a meal. I thought I was super weird, but it’s very common.

What does a God-complex look like? It looks like a collection of subtle self-assuring behaviors. It looks like microscopic mental maneuvers where we position ourselves as better than others. Look for very small, rationalized forms of extreme behavior rooted in insecurity.

What do we do about it? Wow. How do I get over my desire to look like Chris Hemsworth? How do you get over a God-complex? It’s by first coming to terms with what’s beneath your desire for a sexy body — a desire for intimacy. We tell ourselves sometimes, “Oh, I just want to be healthy, that’s why I’m dieting and working out so hard” — that’s BS. There is a big gap between healthy and six pack.

One example that illustrates this mindset is, nowadays it’s popular to say — and I had a friend say to me the other day — “I need to build my platform.” He wants to grow to 100K Twitter followers. Why? He told me, “I need to be self-employed.” Well, why do you want to do that? “So that I can have awesome experiences and build a nice home for my family.” Boom. There you go. There are easier ways of having great experiences, or of building a home, than by getting 100K Twitter followers. There are more direct routes to achieving that, but there is this myth that platform automatically translates into success. So what my friend really wanted was to be safe, secure, and successful.

Our thinking about nice bodies is the same. We just assume that once we get a six pack, people will love us, women will want to be with us, and we will be happier. There is certainly an element of that — and to deny that would be foolish. But the idea that an attractive body will bring us that settled sense of satisfaction that family and friends and God give us is false. If you want to get in shape, great. Do it. That’s awesome. But if you assume that you need to look like Thor to be loved, this is a great opportunity to examine and trash that way of thinking. And I think we’ll get a bit into how exactly to shed that belief when we start talking about other men, women, and God.

  • To see another guy and think, “He’s bigger, stronger, cooler, funnier, and more attractive than I am” is a common experience for guys, but not something that we talk about very openly because that’s not seen as a masculine thing to do. As Christian guys, how do we encourage one another in a way that doesn’t feel weird or forced?

In two ways. First, look at the older mentors you respect. I’m telling you, of the two men I respect more than anyone in the world — one is 300 pounds, and one is 5’5”. And never have I ever judged them or thought less of them. But that’s not because I’m charitable. It’s because when these older guys invested in my life, I just had an immediate respect for them — actually, their lack of physical pretension was a bit disarming. They were smart, kind, giving, inviting, non-competitive. I never once snickered about their weight or height. I met another guy recently who is a big hero of mine — a pastor — and he’s like 50 pounds heavier than I thought he would be. But it didn’t even register for me, because I look up to this guy so much. But we apply a much more rigorous set of criteria to ourselves. If we start balding, we think we’re ugly and no one will ever love us. We don’t think, “Tim Keller’s bald, and we all love Keller.” We just think, “I look like a troll. That’s it. My shot at marriage is over.”

Think about Keller for a second. Or John Piper, even. There had to be a time when Tim Keller was going bald and just thought, “Ugh, oh no. I’m going bald. Everyone is going to think I’m weird and make fun of me because I’m bald. No man will respect me. No woman will think I’m attractive.” But if any of us were to meet him today, what would we think? We respect the guy because of who he is. First of all, he’s Tim Keller. And second of all, because of his position in Christ, he doesn’t have to do the mental gymnastics of self-assurance. Both his position in Christ, and the natural psychology of human relationships, testify against the voices that accuse for what our culture perceives as physical imperfection. And we have to remember that that’s how other people view us as well. You don’t have to be Tim Keller to assume that other people appreciate what’s really beautiful about you as a person.

Second, we as men need to practice speaking out loud to one another these values. You asked, “How do we do this in a way that isn’t weird or forced?” I don’t think I can answer that question. I have had several guys come up to me this month and out of nowhere, tell me that they appreciate me, and that they love me. I guarantee you that that was a nervous and weird moment for them. But it made my whole day. It just squashed my self-hate, even for a few hours, in a way that no podcast or self-help or positive thinking book could ever do. So, be weird, and be forced, do things that make you nervous and by all means do things that make you seem unmasculine, if those things are speaking out loud to your brothers those values which makes them great — and if you really think about it, their body isn’t going to make the list most of the time.

Be a safe, non-competitive place for other men. And try, as hard as it is, try to receive those positive affirmations when other men express their appreciation to you. Put their appreciations in the bank.

  • I think a lot of women are surprised to hear that men also struggle with body image issues because their struggles often get more press. What should the women in here be aware of when it comes to how they interact with us and how that contributes to a man’s self-worth?

About half of the emails I received after this article were from women saying “I didn’t even know this about my brother/boyfriend/husband, but they tell me it’s true.”

I need a lot of grace for this answer. A lot.I don’t really have the credibility or the depth of thought to answer this question sufficiently. So, I’ll make one point that I think may sound rather harsh — but, please give me grace.

On thing girls can do is stop making fun of men.

Girls get away with the whole “He’s so hot, look at his abs, he’s so ripped.” They get away with it, and they get away with doing it in front of other guys.

And they also shut down their guy-friends by saying “I wouldn’t go out with him. I don’t find him attractive.” Whereas, a guy wouldn’t necessarily get away with saying something like that. It’s easy for girls to bash on guys’ self-images, because they think that guys don’t have self-image issues. Think about it the other way around. If you were interested in a guy and you found out he said to his friends, “Yeah, if she lost 20 pounds, maybe.” You’d be crushed, and you’d totally hate the guy (and you’d be justified in a degree of anger and frustration). So, first of all, remember that body-hatred (and self-hatred in general) is not a female issue, but a human issue.

And, while our culture definitely puts heavier standards of beauty on women, that pressure is rapidly increasing for guys — look at the whole metrosexual, spornosexual, lumbersexual fads — men are expected increasingly to have certain popular methods of grooming, body-sculpting, and even the ability to grow facial hair. I know women who have rejected men — or who have mocked male prospects — for not being able to grow a full beard. Like, get over yourself. You don’t deserve a guy who can grow a full beard and more than a guy deserves a girl with a size 2 waist.

Girls also make fun of guys a lot for doing guy stuff — like working out at the gym together, or trying a diet thing like Paleo. But girls have girl stuff, too. They go out to brunch and wear fun dresses. Girls have their own routine and are so much more individual, I think because they have a more evolved and adapted self-conscious insecurity. So, whenever you’re tempted to throw a guy under the bus under the umbrella of “He’s such a bro,” … don’t.

Assume that each man is defined more by his belovedness by God than by his personality features which you find unlovely.

  • At the end of the day, I know that no one ever puts me down as I much as I put myself down. How do you replace your own view of yourself with God’s view of yourself?

This is probably the hardest, and the most simple answer. If you’re doing everything above — you know yourself, you know your insecurities, you’re accepting the positive things others say about you, just fearleslly accept the voices that make you feel closest to God. If reading a certain author, or listening to a certain preacher, makes you feel dry and empty and overwhelmed by self-hatred in a way that does not produce the godly fruit of repentance, look somewhere else. Don’t let anyone tell you what you need to think, or that you need to hate yourself more, or that you could use a good dose of body-hatred. It’s totally false. It’s 100% false.

Look at others in your life — your parents, your mentors, your peers, that homeless guy on the street — and ask yourself, “What does Jesus Christ think of these people?” Of course, he loves them. Of course, we know he has an overwhelming desire for them to enjoy his intimate acceptance and joy. Allow yourself to be counted among the flock of God. Include yourself in that group of people. He loves you. Never give up on trying to believe that, no matter how hard that is. It might seem impossible some days, some weeks. It’s exhausting to believe God’s unconditional love and acceptance sometimes. God created all body types. God created all walks of life. And you are not less lovely or less on track than Tim Tebow. Strive to believe that, and there is joy waiting for all of us somewhere in that wrestling.

Theology for Theology’s Sake

Blog, Theology

A friend of mine recently told me that he makes over $100,000 a year. Looking at his lifestyle, I believe him. I went to high school with this guy. It’s mind-blowing. I was beyond jealous. Of course, he works for it. He got exactly what he bargained for — he went to college for a certain degree, in order to get a certain job, in order to make a certain amount of money. There were no surprises along that journey. He had a goal, people offered a way to attain it, and he attained it.

How Theology Can Be Deceptive

Theological programs can deceive people. Most of the people I know who go to seminary or bible college, they go for a very religious reason: they want to grow in their relationship with God, and help the church do the same.

  • They enroll in credits of exegesis, theology, and philosophy
  • they pay tens of thousands of dollars
  • they spend years of their life in a program
  • they tell their wives it’s their calling
  • they put their kids in different schools
  • they spend tens of hours per week looking at books
  • they move thousands of miles across the country
  • they leave their community

… all originally for the purpose of spiritual growth. They definitely appeal to theology to justify their move. I have done this, for sure.

For a while, seminary will tolerate the “spiritual growth” attitude. “Yes, prayer and personal Bible study is important.” And then, those categories become formalized and sectioned off from theology by department—that’s practical theology, and now we’re going to study Greek, and Hebrew, and then systematic theology, and biblical theology. That’s wonderful. Actually, I think that all of these studies can radically enrich one’s spiritual life. Of course, seminary-form education can challenge one’s faith with its formality, but seminary is not the enemy.

The enemy peeps its head out of a dark corner of seminary when, eventually, your spiritual motivation for coming to seminary is given a label: “Pietism.” Oh, dang. You’ve been historically situated. Boom. You’ve been explained. You’ve been theologically diagnosed. It’s not a judgment. But you have now been classified.

The Deception’s Common Form

More than that—and more dangerously, now that the enemy more than peeps; he rears—all the theology you’ve learned so far, it’s basically ignorant unless you know the broader contexts which frame and inform them.

  • Oh, you like the Trinity?
    • Do you believe the East/West distinction is legitimate?
    • What analytic investigations of Thomistic rejection of the three as true “persons” have you found valid or invalid?
    • Do you take McCormick’s or Hunsinger’s approach to Barth?
  • Theology has been helpful for your preaching?
    • Are you more sympathetic to a continental or analytic approach?
    • Have you read anything on ressourcement?
    • Do you agree or disagree with Milbank’s proposal?
  • You’d like to do counseling?
    • Have you read the 5 views book?
    • Do you think the metaphysics of a Spiritual psychology model are legitimate?

Name dropping. Gate keeping. Theology joke making. It’s tiring. I recently read a theologian make the claim that Thomas’s doctrine of subsisting relations was practical. If it weren’t in a published book, I would have thought it was a joke.

Behind The Theologian’s Curtain

Academic theology can be practical. Theology worthy of its name — speech of God that appeals to Scripture — can always be made practical (nothing is necessarily practical, until it has been made perceptibly relevant to a certain audience). But here are things that I find repulsively impractical:

  • Theology for theology’s sake
  • Talking about talking about theology
  • Experimental theology (often analytic theology)

These enterprises are touted by academics (also seminary professors…) with growing platforms as relevant and practical, and the burden is put on the church for being insufficiently academic. Lay readers are becoming confused: “Should I be able to know this stuff?” Seminary students are becoming confused: “Should I be able to know this stuff?” Well? … My answer is no. My answer is also refutable. But it seems obvious to me. Third-, fourth-, fifth-tier theology is increasingly making me sick to my stomach. It’s lazy, because it’s self-referential. It may be rigorous, and academic, and impressive, and sophisticated, and nuanced, and well-researched, but it’s lazy.

When I was in my M.Div., a professor of mind said, “Whenever you sense something is ambiguously off, there is one way to find clarity: follow the money.” Look at theology. How are these upper-tier enterprises funded? Their salary is paid for with the tuition money of students who just want to be pastors, or counselors, or grow in their knowledge of the Bible. And they are given 70% “academic conversation” information. They are given a class on Scripture, or the atonement, or the Trinity, and they do not walk away any more able to explain or preach or help a congregation practically understand these doctrines, or their relevance for life.

It’s a lie. It’s not my friend’s story—who went to school, got a degree, got a job, and was given exactly what he wanted: money. That’s not wrong. He’s a believer. He just didn’t go to seminary. But if he did go to seminary, and he went out of a desire to be prepared for ministry, and was eventually told that he must learn theology for theology’s sake in order to be prepared for the pulpit, or the counseling chair, he would have been lied to. Theology for theology’s sake is equivalent to a Question card in Trivial Pursuit—it is purely and merely trivia.

The Truth About Theology

Don’t hear me ranting as someone sick of my own discipline. I’m studying systematic theology. I love it. I love my program, and I love all the programs I’ve been in. I love the topic and the content of my discipline. But I fight against the discipline’s tendency to be self-referential, and it is hard to do so, especially when so many others within this very discipline find so much satisfaction mimicking the academic form, and even crossing the boundary between, seminary theology and philosophical/religious studies. One of the seminaries at which I have taken classes had a faculty meeting, where they voted on whether they were properly a “seminary” or a “graduate school”— that is, preparing their students for the church or the academy — … and the faculty was split. But marketing wasn’t split. Marketing was clear: “We’re training pastors.”

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me” (John 5:39). This passage is often used as a proof text against academic theology. In my reading, it is just the opposite—it justifies theology. Jesus is not saying that the law doesn’t have life. He’s pointing out an inconsistency in the Pharisees’ thinking. They search the Scriptures, because they think that in them they have eternal life. And it does carry eternal life, because it testifies about Christ. That’s what makes their refusal of Christ such a tragic confusion.

Any theology that is not an exercise of this — searching the Scriptures because we think that in them we will find life, insofar as we can find Christ, and accurately testify about him — is worth no more than Monopoly money; it’s fun to play with, but when you close the book and put the cards back in the box, it’s tissue paper. And yet, how much seminary curricula exceeds the scope of this enterprise? For those who love trivial theology, great.

Greek and Hebrew? Study them hard. Systematic and biblical theology? Read the books. They very well can prepare you. And even those who love trivial theology, good for you. But give the qualification that theological fun facts are qualitatively different than theology that helps pastors. In-house, self-propelling, insulated theological dialogue that seeks to trickle down to the church on the momentum of its own pretension? Kill it. It’s a lie, that this stuff is anything more than Trivial Pursuit. Theology for theology’s sake is impractical, and theology worth its name must be shown to be relevant by the theologian—it is part and parcel of the task to revere the words of life by testifying to Christ.

Twitter, Angels, and Imposters

Blog

“I wish I had a list of all the most perverted and private sins of the most venerated saints of church history,” my friend mused. I agreed, “Yeah, I would flip immediately to the 21st century.” To judge? No. To belay my deep seated sense of what is increasingly being called “imposter syndrome”—“ Having to live with a nagging fear of being ‘found out’ as not being as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank).”

To all “imposters”—the very least we can do before we judge our community, is to be honest with it. We would be remiss in our responsibility to God and ourselves if we did not at least shed some light on what we think makes us unwelcome. If there is any such trend in evangelicalism to hide sin and polish the images of Christian leaders, then the only definitive way to change that trend (if it exists) is to start practicing what we feel is lacking—whether authenticity, confession, or the space to be in process and say that which would often incur being pushed a few rungs down on the social or institutional ladder. That may be paranoia—it may be imposter syndrome, illegitimate, ungrounded, false. Let me practice honesty in the face of my own imposter syndrome by publicly naming a particularly acute sin of mine, as of late.

I’m a Jerk

I have been a jerk on social media lately. People may own up to that one perfunctory way or another—“Yeah, I was kind of a jerk.” No. I’ve been stubborn, recalcitrant, biting—with a profoundly unguarded tongue and an astonishingly guarded ego. And I’m sure some have noticed. Why? I could supply a ton of reasons—in my life, in other people, in the importance of ideas, in the fact that being kind to others on social media is not part of any job description I have. … oh right, except it is part of the human duty of the Christian life: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). I’m not a jerk because of things outside of me, or because of any sort of pathology. I’m just a sinful guy. But I’m more than “just a sinful guy.” That’s a cop out, too.

In the TV show Friday Night Lights, a middle-aged protagonist, Buddy Garrity—a pillar of a Texas town community—continually repeats this refrain to his kids to explain his string of adulteries: “Your dad’s a sinner. I’m a weak man.” It’s a manipulative way to trade points of reputational capital in order to gain permission to continue with an act. “Ah yes, I’m sinful now. We know this. And I may continue on with this sin.” It’s a common trope among addicts.

The gospel avoids (1) confessing sin in order to give oneself over to sinfulness, and (2) hiding sin in the hope that we will truly become the false image that we portray to others through the portrayal. The gospel brings hope in the form of both confession and change—“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) and “You were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; was as children of Light” (Eph. 5:8).

I’m More than a Jerk

I want to name that in me which has nudged uncomfortably against my patient, and perhaps bruised friends who bear with me. I want to name my:

  • pretense—of thinking much more highly of myself than I ought.
  • being quick to speak
  • failing to love others as myself
  • failing to pray for others as myself
  • assuming people won’t practice grace
  • finding my identity in being right
  • intimidating the meek
  • presuming my right to speak on behalf of God to all men on all matters
  • thinking much too highly of my own abilities for their own sake
  • getting lost in the whirlwind of my own self-importance
    • I have every reason to look at my tasks and think “I’m important. Get out of my way.” What a pathetic theology of tasks—and of divine anointing.
  • sparring with others for my own vanity

Public Self-Images and the Angels

Tony Reinke recently posted this insightful quote about our culture’s working model for self-conception and self-image:

When we watch TV sitcoms, we learn the witty put-down and hear incessant cues to laugh or cheer. Commercials pair images with reputations: people at bars and beaches in beer ads are fun and laughing and beautiful, neat-and-organized mothers have spic-and-span kitchens and perfectly pressed clothing, rough-and-tough males drive rugged pickup trucks, business executives get reports and dictate orders while walking briskly to their next meeting, working women look harried but attractive in heels and tight-fitting suits. Whether we like it or not, they also teach us, by contrast, that when we fail to mimic these images, our painfully awkward self-display will earn us shame and cut us off from others’ esteem and approval (like Seinfeld’s George, who will never, ever get a decent date). These images shape our self-image and the image we want to project to others.[1]

This is in stark contrast to the angels of the Old Testament, who carried a message “not their own but YHWH’s . . . [to] be taken with appropriate seriousness.” Walter Brueggemmann comments, “Because the message is from YHWH, the accent is characteristically upon what is said and heard, much more than on the messenger’s appearance or significance.”[2] How many twitter followers would an angel have? … Seriously. When one is defined by the message, how does one live in the public—alongside and with others? What value judgments do we make? Certainly not the kind that allow us to fail in being holy, as God is holy—or, more than that, to communicate the holiness of God through our conduct. My twitter activity has not passed this test. My twitter activity needs the gospel.

We can always justify sin with a million justifications. But that’s not the point—in fact, it was never the point. The point is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Lord, have mercy on us, sinners—on me, a sinner. Be patient with me and work in me as I learn what it means to live life alongside your angels—messengers, pointing to you, faithfully communicating who you are in word, deed, and character. Grant me the grace to do the same, in spite of what is most basically a sinful and vainglorious nudging-against my neighbor. Thank you for such patient and loving neighbors. Make me like Christ—like them.

[1] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 117.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 5.

Our Bodies, Prophets

Blog, Theology

As a man, I have prophets of machismo telling me that purebred masculinity is premeditation and rationality—manhood is a stoic stare. It is disembodiment. In Aristotle’s philosophy, there was something called an act/potency distinction—Aristotle made the distinction to explain (1) our ability to change the world (act), and (2) our our capacity for being changed by the world (potency; pathē). “Act” connotes control; “potencty”/”passivity” connotes being-moved.

In the ancient world, the act/potency distinction was manifested by humans in terms of masculinity and femininity. Women were more body-creatures, whose pathē (potency) determined their existence, while men were called to exemplify energia: “Act,” “Effect,” “Productivity,” “Work,” “Supra-passion.” Women are emotional and men are rational, so the story goes. I have that voice in my ear every day.

That’s why we have such a hard time with a God who feels—perhaps because he then seems too feminine. Wendell Berry helped me today to remember the goodness of embodiment—nay,

that the necessity of remembering that my emotions which come from the deepest depths (Greek: the splagchnon) must not be forgotten.

The feelings of the body should be received and welcomed and understood—they often bring a message; and if we have the right skills to hear our emotions well, they can be a better prophet than the world. Berry melts us like butter:

“The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. On its good work, it leaves the marks of skill, care, and love persisting through hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. And to those of us who love and honor the life of the body in the world, these marks are precious things, necessities of life.”[1]

Love, Berry? Ah, yes. We are not merely mind—the mental is the sidecar of the spiritual-physical. We are not machines. We refuse ascend the hill of the stoic—we will not make the Hajj to sacrifice the body and its prophecies for a measly allowance of tolerance-love. We would let them go before we let ourselves go:

“I know that there are some people, perhaps many, to whom you cannot appeal on behalf of the body. To them, disembodiment is a goal, and they long for the realm of pure mind—or pure machine; the difference is negligible. Their departure from their bodies, obviously, is much to be desired, but the rest of us had better be warned: they are going to cause a lot of dangerous commotion on their way out.”[2]

To be a man (and to be a human) is to be a body—and it is neither inferior nor feminine to be affected. It is human, and it is divine—we characterize the world because we were bestowed with the sacred power of the divine image. We are affected and produce effects because we are made in the image of the one who is affected and produces effects. Our bodies tell us truth because God tells us truth. Whatever the case, our bodies—their feelings and messages and intuitions and loves—are indispensable to our humanity. We love kind of crazy because, well, so does he (See: the Old Testament; cf. also the Cross). God made his greatest mark on the world by taking on a body. Let’s not escape our bodies, or even think we need to try.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Art of Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley:Counterpoint, 2002), 78.

[2] Ibid.


-The body characterizes everything it

Singleness, Sex Drive, Etc.

Theology

So today, the entire Evangelical world got a peek into my thoughts on singleness. Two new articles—one on Desiring God, and one on RELEVANT (both full of extremely generous people). What do I provide in these articles? Clarity? Direction? Conviction? Answers? A solution to all your problems? … Yes. And more. Read them here:

(1) “The Single Person’s Good Desire for Sex” (Desiring God)

I look at 1 Corinthians 7:9 for help in explaining one forgotten fact: it’s not bad for single Christians to have a sex drive. … Even if they can’t use it.

(2) “Things It’s OK to Feel When You’re Single” (RELEVANT)

Ever receive terribly flat and cliche advice about dating and singleness from married people who are perfect and beautiful? I’m not a fan of cynicism. But I let it fly here. Just a little bit.

Today is a day of acknowledging freedom where freedom is given—to flee from shame and rejoice in Christ in so many earthly ways.

Relax, brothers and sisters. All you have to do is enjoy.