Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Why Christianity?

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In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

God Is

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Charting my theological beliefs must begin with my most basic presupposition: God is.

I could also say “God exists,” but I find “God is” to be a nice reflection of Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself to Moses as “I AM.” French philosopher Descartes could only get as far as “I think, therefore I am.” God simply declares “I AM” without any qualifiers or adverbs!

As of 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook (!), only an estimated 9.66% of the world’s population were non-religious and only 2.01% were identified atheists. The vast majority of humans believe in some form of higher power or powers and so do I. My unbelieving friends believe that I believe. However, I would claim that I don’t just believe, but that I know that God exists. And this basic fact underlies all of reality.

Logically or semantically, you cannot know something that isn’t true. Although I initially believed in God because of the testimony of reliable people in my life, I came to know this experientially as God revealed himself to me. I have encountered God and am growing to know God more over time as our relationship continues. As Jesus is quoted in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice…”

I have known my oldest childhood friend since preschool. Nobody could convince me that he doesn’t exist. There is not an argument on earth that could erase from my mind the unmistakable relationship we have experienced. However, it would conceivably be possible for someone to show me a birth certificate or other information that revealed that the person I thought I knew so well was really somebody else entirely – that he had been misrepresented or had been misrepresenting himself this entire time. Likewise, I believe that individuals can experience supernatural encounters / phenomena but not necessarily arrive at accurate conclusions.

English theologian John Hick (1977, 7) talks about “simple verifiability” versus “complex verifiability.” If I want to verify that there are three apples in a basket, all I have to do is go over, look, and count them. Other things are not so easy, such as large-scale scientific hypotheses. I cannot walk over to the universe and check if Superstring Theory is true. “In such cases there may be increasing confirmation until the point of cognitive conclusiveness is reached. This is the point at which rational doubt as to the truth of p has been entirely excluded and at which the concepts of confirmation and verification coincide.”

Does a single observation suffice? Is progressive experience required? Is there a tipping point where uncertainty becomes belief, and belief becomes knowledge? I can state that I am subjectively certain that “God is.” I believe that one day this will be an objective, empirical certainty… that “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7).

But to quote C.S. Lewis, “I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology.”