Friday, February 3, 2012

Thought's Captive, Part Four

(You may read Part 3 in this series here.)


The Priority of Scripture

In my previous post in this series I introduced Scripture's critical role in transforming our minds and creating emotional stability and a sense of inner peace. Today I would like to expand on that thought by addressing how important our attitude toward Scripture is in this transformation.  

Five years into my life with Christ, a series of events, deaths mainly, but other painful experiences as well, heaped one on top of another culminated in a crisis that violently shook my spiritual house and nearly crushed my faith. The crash was frightening, but when the shaking ceased, the foundation and a few  supports still stood.  Christ was that foundation. The pillars were my deep belief that the Scriptures are God's words to man.  So, with Christ as my hope and Scripture and solid teaching as my guide I began to rebuild, sifting through the rubble to salvage what I could.  I carefully examined the materials I had used and evaluated my methods of construction. This process was confusing and difficult, especially at first, and the temptation to toss everything impetuously away was overwhelming. But deep in my heart I knew that I had used some very fine materials for which there was no substitute and that it would be wrong to toss out what I knew to be good and true merely because I'd used it in some very wrong ways. What soon became obvious was that I had built my entire structure using only the materials and methods I liked best while neglecting many essential ones that didn't appeal to me. My technique was half-hazard and slip-shod as well.  My use of plumb-line and levels was sporadic rather than systematic. The combined result of these many factors was that my structure was unable to withstand the earthquake when it came.

My first and biggest mistake was in allowing the voice of God in Scripture to lose its priority in my life. It was a slow and subtle shift. During the two years or so leading up to this crisis, my attention was being gradually diverted from Scripture to books, articles, discussions and debates about Scripture. Even though what I was reading was by and large biblical and sound and contained plenty of Scripture references and scriptural concepts, I was relying mainly on hearsay, so to speak. I had allowed my focus and emphasis to be determined by high-profile preachers (very good ones mainly) and whatever doctrinal talking points were making the rounds within my rather isolated circle, and around the internet. I had pet doctrines, favorite attributes of God, and a favorite group of Bible teachers. As my focus narrowed I began to lose track of the big picture: the true emphases of Scripture and the true uses for which its doctrines were intended. I laid weight where the Bible doesn't and gave light consideration to some very weighty things.

While claiming to have the highest regard for Scripture and the God who reveals Himself in it, I was picking and choosing what I liked to focus on, and behaving as if the rest were not there, exaggerating some features and minimizing others, adjusting the picture to suit my preferences and my perceived needs. My near-disaster taught me what a dangerous game this subtle form of idolatry can be. Not only is it blasphemous to treat our Creator in this way, as though we had the right to dictate to Him what kind of God He should be, it is downright destructive to us. Just as every attribute of God is essential to who He is, as beings made in His image, each is also essential to who we are. We Christians are those fallen beings in whom God's image is being restored, and this re-creation takes place as "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:18)  

Seeing Him clearly, precisely as He really is, is the source our spiritual transformation, and it is the source of our emotional and spiritual wholeness. Since God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through His written word, nothing can be more important to knowing Him than listening to everything He tells us about Himself and using every fiber of our being to rightly understand Him, to love Him as He really is, and to obey His every precept. If we don't accept and love Him as He says He is, we are not really accepting Him at all.  If we don't believe all of His word, then we have determined that His word is not believable. If we don't believe His word, we can never trust Him - we will never be changed and we will never experience peace.  In truth, if we do not trust Him, we can never be saved at all.

And so it is essential to both our spiritual life and emotional stability that we come to love and accept God as He really is. This means we try not to take His words out of context and we resist the urge to read into it what we want it to say. (Think how we hate to have our own words twisted, and yet how often do we do this to God's words?) It means we embrace the whole of Scripture, not just our favorite verses, topics, or doctrines. I cannot emphasize enough just how important this careful balance is to inner peace and stability, but I will try to explain.  As I've said before, God's word does not change us by "magic" - as though reading it does the trick. It reaches our hearts through our minds as the Holy Spirit gives us understanding. Change begins when we believe what we've heard and act upon it (Romans 10:17). Our attitudes, feelings, and actions, then, are the products of what we truly believe. This is why what we understand and believe about God is so important.

For example, some of you may believe that the love of God is over-emphasized in the church and you may even mock those who love to preach this "wimpy" God. A time will come, however when, overwhelmed by guilt, you realize just how desperately you need His love, His gentle voice, and His tender mercy, but the echos of your mocking voice will taunt you. In your time of weakness will you find grace or comfort in your Dirty Harry version of God?

Or maybe you are one who detests the notion of God's wrath. Your idea of a loving God would never be anything but gentle and kind. But when the horrors of cruel injustice - of murder, of rape, of torture, of genocide - someday stare you in the face and you find no earthly justice or recompense, where will you find rest for your soul unless you believe with all your heart that God sees, that He is even more angry than you, and that He will repay?

Conversely, it might be that you are a person who secretly (or openly) delights in the doctrine of God's wrath, lording it over people, threatening them with it in the guise of "witnessing", smiling inside as they squirm. But what will you find to smile about when someone you deeply loves dies without Christ and your ungracious thoughts and words come back to torment you? Or when you yourself are overcome by sin or doubt, and the wrath you've delighted in swings like a pendulum over your own head?

Perhaps, instead, you are one who rejects the notion of authority. You don't believe God can or should demand anything of His creatures. But what then do you do when you need Him to act on your behalf? If He has no right to command you, or any other human, by what authority can he bring anything to pass? What good then are your prayers?

Or what happens if your idea of God's sovereignty has overwhelmed any sense you have of personal responsibility, or potency to effect change in your life, or motivation to prayer; when it has left you fatalistic or foolhardy in the face of the future? Or what if the teaching that God does whatever He does only for His own glory leaves you feeling like a cog in His glory-wheel? What happens to your heart when your understanding of the doctrine of "election" (the belief that God chooses and saves whoever he chooses to save) which once gave you a deep sense of hope and security eventually turns on you, leaving you in an agony of uncertainty, fearing every sin may be the evidence that you aren't one of God's elect?

Believe it or not, all these potentially disastrous outcomes, and many more, can result from the mishandling of perfectly good Scripture and doctrine. Some of these were causes of my own spiritual crash. What we think about God matters, right down to our souls. Taking our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ, can only be accomplished through a full and rich understanding of God's word - all of it. This kind of growth may feel slow. My own structure is growing much more slowly this time around - but I can already feel how much sturdier it is when the wind blows against it. I have learned that building a stable life with Christ, using the Scripture as it is meant to be used, does not prevent storms or dark nights of the soul, but it does provide shelter and light in the midst of them. It provides emotional stability - which is even better.

In future posts I will be discussing more specifically the practices that contribute to a sturdy spiritual life.


Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, 
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season, 
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1


(You may read Part 5 in this series here.)