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Entries in Sanctification (98)


The temptation of the academic exercise

Many years ago, a friend and I spent some time at a summer camp teaching the Bible to women. The camp was held in early August, and we began preparing in the spring. We met often to pray about what we would be doing. One thing my friend prayed often was that our study would not become mere academic exercise. That is a prayer that I have to repeat to myself often since beginning seminary.

Last year, I took systematic theology over two semesters and each time we began a new topic, I took note of resources for further study so that I could go back and re-visit the topics. It is not hard to see how theologians ultimately focus on a specific area of study. Recently, I began my foray into the world of Logos software, and as I began browsing and compiling a wishlist, I saw how easy it is to investigate every fine of point of theology we want. It is tempting, however, to poke and prod at theological issues without ever addressing my own heart. 

No matter what kind of theologian we are -- the ordinary kind or the professional kind -- there is a responsibility before God to be holy because he is holy (I Pet 1:13-16). It is easy to think we are holy because we are engaged in deep study of theology, but pursuing holiness means we have to actually look away from the study and examine ourselves. I love the study. I love following the bunny trails. But if the end result is nothing but a head full of facts without any heart impact, I may as well study something other than theology.

Last semester, as we studied sanctification, it became apparent to me that there were holes in my understanding. When school was over and I had time, I started reading Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God and then J.I. Packer's Re-Discovering Holiness. I'm glad I read those books. I'm glad I took the time to look at my own heart; to get to that place where the rubber meets the road. 

It's easy to become immersed in doctrine while checking my heart at the door. What good does a reading list of ten or twenty books on a subject if I'm not pursuing holiness? Does all of the doctrinal study I do lead me ultimately to praise God? To love his word more? It's actually quite easy to know a lot of theology, to read a lot of books on the subject, and maybe even write eloquently about it, but never actually spend a lot of time in the Bible itself. There are so many experts out there who have done the work for us that it's easy to just take their word for it and never engage scripture with any depth.

My mother used to say two contrasting, but complementary things: "A little knowledge is a light load to carry," and "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Knowledge can be a benefit, but used incorrectly, it can become a source of pride. Study is good, but if we're not paying attention to our own sanctification in the process, then all of that knowledge is a hollow accomplishment.

I want my studies to make a difference in the every day. I want them to make me more thankful, more prone to praising God, more yielded to God's will, more gracious, and more at peace. It is still my prayer that study will not be mere academic exercise.


Now, this is how books ought to be written

Since school finished, I've wanted to read from my "to read" pile. I started one, got about halfway through, and put it down, disappointed. I don't often do that, but I found it a chore to read every day. Sometimes, in school, I have to read things I find tedious, but reading for pleasure ought to be just that: pleasurable.

After putting down the other book, I took up Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God. I started it while on holidays, but in the wake of my decision to stop reading the other, I've given it more attention. I can understand why so many people gave such resounding approval to this book. There is theological explication combined with eloquence that demonstrates that this man, a minister of the gospel and a teacher for many years, has thought deeply about matters of doctrine for many years.

In the third chapter, Ferguson talks about the "prepositions of grace." When writers bring up the grammar of a biblical passage, I eagerly listen. Specifically, what he does is show the prepositional phrases found in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ
and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me;
and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself up for me.

Ferguson addresses them in theological order rather than as they appear in the text: Christ gave himself for us; we live by faith in him; we have been crucified with him; Christ lives in us. His purpose in this is to show us that unity in Christ is a key foundational principle in our sanctification. He points out, especially, that Paul uses the phrase "into Christ" rather than just "in Christ." He says: "Faith brings us into a person-to-person union and communion with Jesus Christ so that what is ours becomes his and what is his becomes ours." This is intimacy that is staggering; that Christ would be this intimate with us is something amazing!

I particularly liked Ferguson's explanation of what being crucified to Christ means:

The heart of union with Christ, Paul emphasizes, is this: when we trusted into him who was crucified with us there is a sense in which we also came to share in his crucifixion. Paul does not mean that we died physically but rather that united to Christ all the implications of his being crucified for us became our possession.

There is much to think about in the rich descriptions Ferguson provides. He points the reader to think about matters that are deep and enduring. And when a writer uses grammar-speak, it's an added bonus.


The god of my feelings

It is hard to escape the influence of the world around us. We don't realize how it affects us until we sit back and look at ourselves with a critical eye. I grew up thinking that my feelings were as important as truth. In all honesty, I don't think I gave much thought to objective truth until I was much older. I felt justified in being easily offended because my feelings were important. We live in a world where feelings are exalted. I feel offended so people must tip-toe around me. We have to keep lists in our minds about what offends this person or that person so we know how best to relate to them. It can be exhausting.

When I was struggling with anxiety two yeas ago, feelings were my worst enemy. Even though I poured over the Psalms daily, filling my head with truth, my feeling of foreboding ruled me. I feared just about everything because I felt like something bad was going to happen. I had no tangible reason to explain that feeling. Its origin was in my own heart. Now, some people would say I just didn't have enough faith to conquer that. Some may question whether or not I was really saved. Believe me, that was one fear that plagued me the most: that I wasn't really God's. I read a lot of William Cowper's poetry at that time, too, and I know he felt the same way during his life.

The temptation with trusting my feelings is that I am in control. If my feelings are the arbiter of truth, then I control the shots. I feel offended by something my husband said or did, so I control the situation by being cool toward him. When I get over my offended feeling, I can control things again by warming back up to him. Perhaps I am the only wife who ever does this; if I am, do I get a prize?

There are times when I feel like my kids have forgotten me. Young adult children have their own lives and they are in the process of moving out in the world. When I don't hear from them from time to time, I feel like they don't give me a second thought, that I am no longer important to them. My husband will remind me that I am trusting my feelings, not truth. That is one of the dangers of sitting with our thoughts for too long; we are so good at allowing them to blow out of proportion. Especially when we experience a lull in activity is when feelings can be our enemy, not our friend. This is why we need to fill our minds with good things and keep our hands busy with service. We take the attention away from ourselves.

Ultimately, giving too much weight to my feelings is an indication of my pride, my self-centredness. And it's something I need to work on daily. I love the section of Romans 7 where Paul talks about his struggle between what he wants to do and what he struggles to do. It is my struggle, too, and I think often to myself "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver set me free from the body of this death?" (v.24). 

Emotions and feelings are part of who we are, but apart from regular exposure to truth, they can run away with us. Some of us have more trouble than others. For those of us who struggle with putting aside our feelings, we need reminders of what is true, and we also need patience. After all, my struggle may not be yours, and you may not understand it, but chances are you struggle with something I don't, and I ought to practice patience with you as well.


Just tellin' it like it is

The day I was married, my father's best friend gave the toast to the bride. The gentleman made a comment that generated everyone's laughter: "Now, we all know that Kim is very direct."

At the time, I didn't know why that was funny. Direct? I was just telling it like it is. I was, at 22 years old, not self-aware. On top of that, I was a young Christian with a lot to learn. Unfortunatelly, it would be a few more years before I would learn that being direct isn't always a good idea.

One of my favourite fictional characters as a teenager was Scarlett O'Hara. She was tough. She was unafraid. She was also narcissistic and vain. Yes, she did everything she could for her family, but she was also self-involved, and uncontrolled in her speech. I suppose I liked her courage. I'm afraid I imitated Scarlett more often than not. It didn't always work well.

We ought not to feel afraid about speaking truth, but there are definitely moments when telling it like it is requires a better command of the English language than we may have at 22 years of age. There is also a time and a place for telling it like it is, but often, less is more. 

I still admire those who speak truth without fear. But as I get older, when I look at who I am and how I relate to people, I would rather be more understated. I love the understated. I want to be the one who is gentle, kind, longsuffering, and merciful. I know women in real life who are like this. I would rather be like them than the one who doesn't know when to be quiet. When I think of the times in my life when I have had struggles and trials, it was those women who ministered to me in the best possible way. When I was struggling with anxiety, there were indeed women who took the opportunity to tell it like it is, and it did not help. What did help was knowing that the people who loved me were willing to struggle along with me with patience. Perhaps they wished they could say more, but they knew the right time to do so.

I'm still working at being more self-aware, and it is my tendency to want to just tell it like it is. But for all my love of telling the truth, I want a softer side to emerge. I know that these days, a woman desiring a softer side is not popular; by uttering that sentiment, I'm undoing all the progress that feminism has achieved over the years. Chalk it up to age, but more and more, I'm drawn to the understated, the subtle, as opposed to the brash, come-at-them-blazing-with-both-guns approach. It takes a lot more work for me to be understated and soft. But sometimes, it's a lot more rewarding doing that which is difficult than that which is easy.

On my wedding day, my father's friend was himself being subtle and understated. He could have said that everyone who knew me knew I had the penchant to talk too much and be too critical, but being an older, more mature man, he was kind. And I appreciate that now.


Women, know your limits!

That is the title of a very funny video. You should watch it. That's not exactly what this post is about, though.

One of the doctrines we discussed in my theology class last semester was the doctrine of humanity. We are not God. We are not immanent nor are we transcendent. We are neither all-powerful nor self-sustaining. That is who we are by design.

In the context of the doctrine of humanity, our textbook talked about the reality of our limitations. Erickson says:

Limitation is not inherently bad. There is a tendency to bemaon the fact of human finiteness. Some, indeed, maintain that this is the cause of human sin. If we were not limited, we would always know what is right and would do it. Were humans not encumbered by finiteness, they could do better. But the Bible indicates that having made the human with the limitations that go with creaturehood, God looked at the creation and pronounced it "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Finiteness may well lead to sin if we fail to accept our limitation and live accordingly.

Later, Erickson adds: "Proper adjustment in life can be achieved only on the basis of acceptance of one's own finiteness." 

I found that principle very thought-provoking. The implications of this are significant. Accepting our own finiteness means we need not feel the pressure to be perfect. We don't need to feel the pressure to always be right. We women talk a lot about not needing to be perfect. Will we ever understand that fully without a complete understanding of our finiteness?

Tis the season for resolution making. Goals are good things, but as we make them, we do need to recognize our limitations. One of my closest and oldest friends lost her son in November. This woman is one of the most godly women I know; truly a woman saturated in Scripture; truly a woman who consciously participates in her own sanctification, always desiring to grow in the Lord. She did not plan to grow in the ways which lie ahead, and which are a direct result of this loss. I may want to become better organized in 2017, but God may have other plans for me. I may want to read X number of books in 2017, but God, being unlimited in his knowledge, may know that something else is far better for me. Our plans are not always God's plans.

I wonder if some of the frustration we often feel at our circumstances is because we resist the limitations which are part of our own nature. It is not part of our current culture to suggest that one is limited. We can "do anything." Humans can do many things, but they are not God. Scripture reminds us: 

Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Ps. 147:5).
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable (Ps. 145:3).

God is infinite and unsearchable, but we are not. And that is okay.

I am not really a resolution-maker. The goals I have are fairly general. What I do want to focus on, though, is the implications of my finiteness. It seems to me that being able to rest in God is intimately connected to accepting that reality. It doesn't mean I must be passive, but it does mean I need to know my limits.