Some Encouragement/Final Reflections
Like you, I have plenty to do, so will make this my final (at least for the time being) post on the racial crisis. My correspondence was heavy these past days. I am grateful for all those conversations but must pivot to other matters including the final edits of a book my publisher is waiting on.
Here you go…
I reject Critical Race Theory (CRT). Full stop. For those who know me, that will come as no surprise.
When I use “white privilege” I don’t have in mind the various tenets of CRT. I am a Christian who is seeking to think biblically and theologically about this issue. And historically. No claims to perfection about my reflections, but I am trying to make sense by writing (Augustine said writing clarified his thinking and writing showed him what he thought).
I’ve had many good conversations in the last couple days. Some have helped me to think in clearer ways about this issue. Some have shown me that there are differences of emphasis, and some have reminded me that complex issues are not resolved overnight.
One difficulty with any complex issue is that groups are hardly monolithic. Saying all people in a certain group believe x is not reflective of what exists in any group: a myriad of perspectives.
My use of “white privilege” as I mentioned in a quick blog post on June 6 was “not a punt to liberal, political ideology, but rather the manifest witness of God’s Word.” Manifest may be the wrong word because we can disagree how clear that emerges from the pages of Scripture.
Here is where I should say more about “white privilege.” As one friend said, since the term is used in a certain way by those who hold to CRT, perhaps another term is needed. I think that is good counsel. I am looking for a way to communicate that some/many (certainly not all) of us white people can be oblivious at times to the struggles those from other backgrounds face.
Making sweeping assertions is a constant temptation but should be resisted. If you are familiar with the conditions of many whites in Appalachia, you will know that they have less “privilege” than affluent African Americans in the suburbs. Class is not being talked about enough these days, but it is also worthy of our attention. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a good reminder of this reality.
One last word for all of us: Let’s not get weary in well-doing. That is clearly biblical! See Gal. 6:9. We must fight the tendency to hunker down in our own world and so leave the messy problems for others to address.
In modern life there are more controversies than any one person can address. You may be called to other things. All of us need great wisdom to discern where and how our time should be spent.
We Christians have a huge advantage because we have God’s Spirit to empower and direct us. We don’t go it alone. We also can shout the glorious truth that our God is triune. The beauty of true unity, but never at the diminishment of diversity, really does exist and is worthy of emulation.
I’m planning to design a t-shirt that says, “MAKE THE TRINITY GREAT AGAIN!”
In lieu of a typical book review, as is my habit from time to time, allow me to mention half a dozen things I greatly appreciated about this book. It will definitely make the list for my “Favorite Books of the Year.”
This is the seventh book I’ve read by Smith. All of them made me think in fresh and provocative ways. How (Not) to be Secular was my favorite. It now comes in a close second to Smith’s latest. On the Road with Saint Augustine is now my favorite.
So here are a half dozen things I appreciated about this book:
*There is elegant writing combined with keen insights. It is no surprise that On the Road with Saint Augustine received a coveted starred review by Publishers Weekly.
*It makes a compelling case for why Augustine is the ideal travel partner as we make our way through life. For me, both Augustine and Bunyan (there are others) have been indispenable to have as my vagabond friends.
*There is a thick realism in this book (take note Joel Osteen), but Smith always keeps this tethered to a compelling hope.
*Smith has a good nose for the telling quote or captivating illustration. HIs wide-reading across various disciplines showcases the brilliance of Augustine.
*In my own teaching, and especially in my ministry of discipleship with men, this is the kind of book that I can use as a gateway of sorts to the riches of Christian history.
*I’ve always found that great books help me clarify important issues. My marginalia reflects this reality in On the Road with Saint Augustine. For example, in the chapter on friendship, Smith’s interaction with Heidegger resulted in my marginal comment of “Molds are everywhere, so it is impossible to break out of every single mold.” In other words, autonomous individuals don’t exist because they can’t exist.
Whenever the time comes that sales begin to dwindle for this book, I would recommend Brazos making booklets out of some chapters. For example, the chapter on freedom is one I would love to give to any thoughtful person, irrespective of whether they are a Christian.
Many things could and should be said about Josh Harris’s announcement that he has left both his wife and Christian faith. I offer here a few things that strike me as underappreciated by many Christians. More seriously, I also think the case can be made that these areas completely pass under the spiritual radar for far too many of us.
Be Sad, but not Surprised
The Bible makes it clear that you can cast out demons and not be a Christian (Mt. 7:21-23). Since that is true, it means that you can be a pastor, missionary, memorize lots of Scripture, lead people to faith in Jesus, and a whole bunch more, yet not be a Christian.
We American Christians are impressed with behavior. Our models for Christian growth tend to focus on what people do, not who they are. Don’t misunderstand. I am a big believer in sharing my faith, memorizing Scripture, and reading the Bible. However, Scripture warns me that these important practices for Christian growth can also be done for less than honorable reasons. Though terribly misguided, it is impressive to see someone who pours gas on his own body and then lights himself ablaze as a human torch. We’ve seen this occur from time to time in various protest movements. Such a stunning sacrifice, yet the Bible makes clear that this incredible act can be done completely devoid of love (I Cor. 13:3, NASB).
I’ve done open-air preaching on the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. I’ve also done open-air preaching on the streets of Boulder, Colorado and Dallas, Texas. Impressive, eh? I can tell you, however, that these were much easier to do than gladly serving my family when I am tired physically. People may be wowed by the public preaching, but I can attest that it was much easier to do than serving my family in obscurity.
Biblical Illiteracy is Causing Much Damage
I’m sixty-one years old. I’ve been in various ministries for over forty years. In many places where Christians congregate, I’ve seen a precipitous drop in biblical literacy. A few months ago, I asked a group of ten college students, all from evangelical backgrounds, whether they had heard at least one sermon on the book of Lamentations. Not one of them had. Here you have a book of the Bible that has much to say in our current cultural moment and yet many are unaware of its riches. I should add that the book of Lamentations is not difficult to understand. The message of Lamentations is certainly difficult to accept which maybe offers some reason why so many preachers steer clear from preaching through it. Sadly, many miss this life-giving book of the Bible that offers unvarnished language for grieving when the unthinkable happens in our life.
Taking Every Thought Captive
In II Corinthians 10, we read that we are to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” The battle always begins with our thoughts. All of us marinate on things that are ungodly. More than a few of these would be embarrassing to admit to anyone, but a loyal friend. Even then, it is risky. But what happens when you don’t know anyone who will provide a godly and safe environment to give voice to your darker thoughts? Answer: you are left to your own devices, and Scripture makes clear that going it alone is deadly.
I’ve seen this scenario play out before. A person has certain gifts that many are unwisely enamored with. The gifts cause the person to be elevated far past their maturity in Christ. In too many cases, the “indispensable” person is promoted to a position of Christian leadership when their own faith in Christ is uncertain. This, in most cases, only becomes evident later on when the damage is done.
During my various interviews for pastoral positions at four evangelical churches I was never asked about my own walk with the Lord. Everyone seemed quite happy that my two seminary degrees came from the right schools. One evangelical pastor, also with the right pedigree, only asked me about my ministry strategies for motivating church-attending men who are apathetic. In all the interviews, only one asked me about my relationship with my wife, but rather predictably, he is a professional counselor!
Where to Go from Here?
Instead of offering a grocery list of suggestions, and there are several things to consider, allow me to give one. When you think of your own life and the lives of the Christians in your orbit, focus on one thing: Who/what is loved most and why? If our communities are getting healthier, we should be free to say, “I love ministry more than God. I get more excited about shopping or golf more than anything else. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Please help me with this.” May this be the kind of Christian communities that we build to His glory and our good!
HT: The Way of Improvement Leads Home
Professor John Swinton of Aberdeen University wrote the beautiful and insightful book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. I will soon be interviewing John. In his book, John says how much he was taken by this video:
From my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing?
How Should We Live in this World?
As mentioned earlier, a proper understanding of trusting God through suffering does not preclude enjoying the good things of God. We can and we should. Since God does not need us, our celebrations, our hobbies like golf or woodwork, and our love of travel, can be tangible demonstrations of trusting in God’s grace. Unfortunately, these good things can also become unhealthy diversions that keep us thinking about the most important issues of life. Even gifts from our gracious God can lead us astray. We must guard against “perishing inch by inch in play at little games.”
We live in a world with easy access (thanks to media) to the never ending news of injustice, suffering, and evil. How do we process this avalanche of sadness without going mad? Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that only God is able to handle all the suffering and evil in the world. We were not designed for the constant bombardment of bad news, so it would be wise to consider how much we ingest on a daily basis.
Perhaps we should take the popular option of doing what Voltaire prescribed many years ago: simply hunker down and only “tend our own gardens.” Tending to our own affairs does seem to be a good way to maintain some semblance of sanity.
Recently, I preached in various churches from the book of Lamentations. Towards the end of my sermon preparation I spent some time reflecting on the common responses people have to suffering. I’m sure there are others, but I came up with three “D words”: detachment, diversion, and depression. My wife later added desensitized which could easily fit as a characteristic of those who detach.
The idea of “detachment” from pain is gaining popularity in everything from business books to popular books on spirituality. Diversion is also something we’ve already addressed. Again, diversions in and of themselves can be welcome respites from the constant onslaught of grief, but it is unhealthy to never face your struggles. The response of depression is something many of us can identify with. We look at our broken world in all its chaotic mess and we despair. Another “D” came to my mind later with diminish, where we downplay how bad things are. I think those as well could be plugged under the detachment option.
Jesus provides us the perfect example of how to handle the devastation that comes from acute suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s “soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38) Jesus was deeply troubled, yet willing to submit to the Father’s will. If it is okay for the Son of God to be so troubled, we too are given much space to cry out to our God. Being baffled by what God is up to and yet still trusting Him can coexist. In fact, these are signs of spiritual health. Lament underscores that we are not at peace with the brokenness of our world, but we can still experience “the peace that transcends human understanding.” (Phil. 4:7; J.B. Phillips New Testament) What good is peace anyways if we only experience it when circumstances are to our liking?
The glorious news is that the ultimate lament of all time was given by Jesus on the cross. I like to say that because Jesus gave the only upper case L, lament, we now can “lament with hope.” Our laments can come from deep within. These visceral cries are not just allowed by our great and gracious God. They were modeled by Him!
It may feel like our world is crumbling before us, but the worst possible lament was already offered by Jesus. His lament on our behalf gives us confidence that our weeping will not last forever. The older I get I find myself offering two laments on a regular basis: “God, you know how difficult it is to live in this world, right?” and “Please come back soon and make things right!” I’m comforted by the fact that I have the full freedom to offer these prayers of lament to God.
Tragically, the cynic’s posture is one many take. It is important to realize that all cynics share a common, but terribly misguided belief: they think they are omniscient. This may sound very strange to you. How in the world does a cynic think he is all knowing? Let me explain. A cynic has determined that he knows everything, and concluded that all indeed is bleak. Nothing or no one seems to be able to change his gloomy assessment. Here is where theology gets practical. Only God is all-knowing. He is the only one who is fully aware of all the pain and suffering that goes on in our world. As we saw, God’s Son gave the ultimate lament for sin. Sin is the reason for all the grief in our world. The irony is that things are actually worse in one sense than the cynic can appreciate for cynics rarely consider their own sin. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. The cynic has missed a massive truth: God is the author of hope. Biblical hope does not mean our life will be smooth sailing. This is clear from our study of Habakkuk. We can find rest, however, in the hope-filled promise that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) Lest you are tempted into a cynic’s mode by saying these words are unrealistic, keep in mind who penned them. The apostle Paul experienced great suffering. He was no mere theoretician when it comes to pain.
Christians can stare honestly at the brokenness of the world, their world (!), yet be steadied by a God who offers real comfort in Jesus. My prayer is that this study brings greater wisdom, joy, and confidence in the only One who is worthy of our trust. May we be like Habakkuk who learned that nothing or no one can take away “the God of his salvation.”
 See for example, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Mediations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York, NY: Random House, 2016) and various writings of the popular writer on spirituality, Anthony de Mello. A profound book demonstrating the impossibility of mixing Stoicism and Christianity is C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).
 For the suffering of Jesus, I am grateful for a conversation I had with our son, David.
HT: David Black’s blog