Monday, March 30, 2009

Humility - Or how I got over myself and learned to love the youth group

Some days, I wonder why people in my church encouraged me to become a youth leader. I didn’t want to do it at first. After praying about it, though, I felt that God wanted me to take this responsibility. For my first few months on the team, I felt horrendously uncomfortable. I thought, “don’t these people realize I might corrupt their children?” One of the kids came to church wearing a Slipknot hoodie and I made him a mix of Darkest Hour songs because they’re a better band. It didn’t occur to me until later that his mom might not be cool with me giving him that sort of music. Then again, she might think nothing of it. The point is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to behave around people ages 12-18.

Two weeks ago, I led my first discussion at a youth meeting. The topic of the day was humility. “Am I really qualified to lead this discussion?” I thought. “Because I think I’m pretty awesome and that seems to disqualify me outright.” As I prepared my questions for the night, I asked God for help. “I don’t know what to say to them about humility. It’s something we’re told to do but nobody defines how to be humble. Like, is it really only the absence of pride?”

Thankfully, God answered.

Humility first begins with understanding our proper place in creation. God is the ultimate, perfect, and self-sufficient being. We are His creation, given dignity because we are made in His image. Even though He gave man authority in nature (Gen. 1:28-30), man’s authority still came from and was accountable to God. We can see this in how He set boundaries of right and wrong for man. In every covenant that God made with man, God set the terms without negotiation. I’ve told people that the true sin of Adam and Eve came from the lie that they might be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). They wanted to define good and evil for themselves, to have a say in what God determined. The world has suffered the consequences ever since.

As a child, I often thought about the paradox that pride was sin and yet parents could still be proud of their children. Pride was wrong, but I could still take pride in doing well in school. In order to stop thinking about it, I started to compartmentalize good pride from bad pride, mixing the black and white together in a comfortable grey. Without knowing it, my elementary mind had begun to accept Hegelian synthesis as a reasonable answer. It may have given me an excuse to stop defining my terms, but it also left me with undefined words. Pride and humility had no true meaning except what I declared based on my perception. The only reason I didn’t see my attitude as relativistic was because other people often agreed with my standards.

But that Sunday night before the youth meeting, God pointed me to a teaching by Terry Virgo. In the final section of a four part series, Virgo talked about false humility. Exodus 2:11-14 tells the first story of Moses as an adult. “Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day, and behold, two Hebrews were fighting with each other; and he said to the offender, ‘Why are you striking your companion?’ But he said, ‘Who made you a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and said, ‘Surely the matter has become known.’”

Think about this. Moses was a prince of Egypt, a powerful nation who considered its pharaoh as a god. It’s possible that Moses went down among the Hebrews because he wanted to identify with his own people. But to do that, he may have gone undercover. Why else would the one Hebrew say, “Who made you a prince or a judge over us?” If Moses came in his royal clothes, obviously a prince of Egypt, this question would make no sense coming from a slave. When he killed the Egyptian, it seems Moses wanted to act as a protector or deliverer for his people. But again, the question of “Who made you…” implies a kind of contempt. As if to say, “Some hero you are. You’re just a killer.”

Pharaoh learns of the murder and seeks to kill Moses, but Moses runs away to the land of Midian and becomes a shepherd. Children were shepherds. That’s like a man opening a lemonade stand for forty years. Then one day, Moses sees a bush in flames. That’s not so strange, considering the desert sun sometimes causes dry plants to burn. But these flames didn’t consume the bush. After forty years of drudgery, you’d pay attention to little things like that. Of course, as the story goes, God speaks to Moses and tells him in Exodus 3:10, “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Hey Moses! You wanted to be a hero to your people. Now’s your chance. But Moses says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” This response echoes what the slave told Moses before he fled Egypt. “Who do you think you are?” It seems that Moses has answered with, “Nobody.” Moses spends so much time telling God that he’s the wrong man for the job he forgets that God is offering the fulfillment of the dream. He also misses the part in Exodus 3:8 where God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians”. God’s doing the work, Moses only has to go and send the message. Instead, Moses protests and God gets pissed.

At first glance, it may seem that Moses displayed humility in his question, “Who am I?” But Virgo points out that this humility was a cover for disobedience. In many ways, it sounds like the lie Adam and Eve bought in Eden. What Moses really meant was, “I know better, God. I can determine between right and wrong just like you and I say you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t want to do this.” Moses didn’t properly recognize God’s supremacy and his own place in creation. False humility is really a passive aggressive pride. It’s sin.

Now let’s look at Jesus. You may see some parallels with the story of Moses. God the son came down to earth and became human to act as our deliverer. Like the quarrelsome slave, most people didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah and treated him with contempt. But when God told Jesus to go to the cross and offer salvation to those enslaved in sin, He went in obedience. Of course it was agonizing. Of course it was humiliating. But then Jesus got up. As one writer put it, “He arose victorious”. God won and got the glory.

This leads me to believe that true humility comes out of obedience, where we recognize God’s authority and submit to it. That doesn’t mean we reject God’s pleasure in us, or like Moses try to diminish our calling. We can be proud when it comes to doing what God wants. Sometimes dad lets us hold the flashlight while he works on the car. Even though he’s doing all the work, don’t you feel awesome having taken part in the job?

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about my “qualifications” as a youth leader. Maybe I should be happy that I’m doing what God wants and trust that He picked the right man. It sure makes Sunday night more fun when I’m not so self-focused.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Xerox Copies – Considering the Ultimate vs. the Derived.

In the past year, I’ve heard a few pastors and teachers use the phrase “every analogy breaks down”. As a writer and storyteller, I love analogies. It excites me to create a story that holds meaning. Analogies have helped me understand truths about science and mathematics and even theology. But those pastors and teachers were right to say that an analogy only represents the truth so far. In the end, it can only represent a facet.

Many of my essays use analogy to explain the point I hope to make. Some of my friends (Abe, Joe, you know) are really good at taking other points of the analogy and pointing out where any further discussion of the connection between example and truth could result in confusion or incorrect teaching. Thankfully, they can also find other ways in which the analogy truthfully applies. But my point is it would be silly to say that analogies stand on their own as equal to truth.

God is ultimate. He is self-sufficient and depends on nothing outside of Himself. There is nothing in Creation that He did not create. There is nothing outside of His control. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” Even though He has delegated authority within creation to people (for example Genesis 2:15, Luke 9:1, and the frustrating Romans 13:1), He has in no way given over any control of His creation. In a song ridiculing idols, created things that would try to compete with God for our affections, Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens, He does whatever He pleases.” He has all control to do what He wants. And in the first verse, the psalmist recognizes God’s ultimacy. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth. (Emphasis mine)”

God, in His creativity, thought of everything. This statement shouldn’t be groundbreaking theology. But think about it, if God is the source of all creation, then He is also the source of everything present in creation. I don’t just mean physical matter put together like the best kind of Lego-land. I mean things like creativity itself, or knowledge, or love. His creativity is perfect creativity, His knowledge perfect, His love perfect. Even though we are made in God’s image, our creativity, knowledge, and love are not equal to His. They’re analogous. They’re only pictures.

And so, I’ll use a picture as an analogy. Imagine a breathtaking landscape. Now imagine a vivid photograph of that landscape. Not just a 4x6 point-and-click digital camera kind of photo printed at Walgreen’s. I mean something so well captured and developed that people could easily believe they were looking through a window instead of a framed photo on the wall. Although it is a masterpiece of an analogy, the landscape is real and the photo analogous.

Now if a person were to try understanding the fullness of the landscape, would it be best to go to that location or to look at the greatest photo ever taken of it? Can the photo translate itself back into the landscape? No, because it’s derivative. It truly describes the landscape, but cannot fully define it. If the person looking for understanding were to start with the picture and put the basis of his knowledge on that, it would be only partial knowledge. If he were to try explaining his partial understanding to others, I imagine that would be like him making Xerox copies of the picture to hand out as evidence. But then it’s black and white, dulled by the copy paper. Should people continue trying to make copies to understand the reality of the landscape, taking their Xerox copies and making still more copies, the image would break down. It would deteriorate in quality until only a bleak ghost remained of that glorious picture.

Instead, the man should explore the landscape and encourage others to do so using the picture as a point of reference.

I’ve been thinking about this concept specifically in terms of God’s knowledge and my knowledge because of the post The Importance of Being Right. Recently, I’ve been reading Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith. In the beginning of the book, he talks about God as ultimate and creation as derived. When it comes to the knowledge of men, I began to understand that it is only an analogy of God’s perfect and ultimate knowledge. He says, “We are therefore like God so that our knowledge is true and we are unlike God and therefore our knowledge cannot be comprehensive.” And later, “It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need not and cannot be in us; it must be in God.”

Only in this context could I understand one of Van Til’s greatest arguments. Man can know true facts about himself and nature, but he cannot truly understand the meaning of those facts unless they have an absolute standard of truth by which to apply them. Because man’s knowledge is only an analogy, and since all analogies break down, it can’t stand alone. It only has meaning when applied to the original. So when two people, one a Christian and the other a non-believer, recognize beauty in nature, they both have recognized something true. Because the Christian has an absolute standard of truth in the Bible where God reveals himself as the ultimate source of beauty and creativity, he is capable of explaining why the flower is beautiful. At best, the non-believer can only say, “Well, it’s beautiful just because.” Or maybe, “Because I think it’s beautiful,” which places the standard of truth inside of himself without explanation or relatable context.

I believe it is important for Christians to realize God’s sovereignty so that we have proper understanding of anything in creation including ourselves. When we look at any facet of creation or any event that occurs within it, we should go back to this foundational understanding: God is ultimately in control.

I also believe it’s important for Christians to recognize that the Bible, while not exhaustive (John 21:25), is completely true. By what would we otherwise give context to our existence? How could we ever know anything truly unless a perfectly true God gave us a perfectly true revelation of Himself? Until Jesus returns, what other standard could we hold fast to? If I didn’t believe that the Bible was God’s perfect word given to us, why would I base my life on it? If it were not so, I may as well say it’s a nice, moral story and continue to base my understanding on myself.

In many ways, understanding God’s ultimacy brings me great joy. Nothing on this earth surprises or frustrates Him. When I don’t understand something that happens in the world, I can know that He is still in control. I can’t be angry or frustrated with him as if I knew better. I can be content to know that God is in heaven, doing what He pleases. He’s full of delight. He is glorious. He is wise. He is loving. And I am a picture of all these things.

Still, to be honest, there are days where I find myself staring at the bleak Xerox wondering if God is good. I’m really only looking at circumstances in a broken world, though. I forget that He is perfect in every way, that He made me in His image (Genesis 1:27) and continues to make me more like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18). That’s like Sistine Chapel restoration or the Replacements records finally getting remastered. God daily shows me more of His awesomeness and beauty and how it translates into every part of creation.

The world looks a lot better from that view.