Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Come Be My Light"

Ever since the announcement of the newest book chronicling the missionary-time of Mother Teresa's life, based upon newly published correspondences between herself and her confessors and friends, controversy has flared up.

Skeptics and those eager to knockdown anything claiming to have religious integrity have pounced upon this publication, believing it affirms the idea that someone regarded as the holiest of holy on earth was, at the least, plagued by doubts, and at the worst, a faithless hypocrite. So-called moderate voices attempt to applaud her honest doubting, yet they still cannot resist highlighting her statements about darkness, emptiness, the absence of God, her lack of faith, etc.

Catholics, naturally, have rallied to her defense. They claim that, at the least, this affirms that even the best of believers have times of doubting and, at best, it indicates a high level of spirituality, since only the holiest of holy saints have experienced this "dark night of the soul."

I knew at once that I had to read the book for myself. Though I'm Protestant, I know that Mother Teresa stands as an icon of spirituality and is referenced as the representative of Christian integrity, regardless of one's denomination or particular Christian affliliation. In short, what knocks her down, knocks down all of us who call ourselves "Christian." Also, as a New Testament Professor, I know that I might be asked about Mother Teresa and perhaps about this book in particular.

So I began to read it with an open mind and with my discernment radar up and running. I would be willing to fully accept a genuinely pious and righteous Mother Teresa, or a hypocrite compensating for a lack of relationship with God by doing "good works" as Roman Catholic theology teaches. I was less looking for "Catholicisms" as indications for the presence or lack of a genuine faith in and love for Jesus Christ. I was aware that I might encounter heresies and would evaluate them accordingly.

By page 30 or so, I immediately knew what my view of Mother Teresa would be: one of the most amazing, spiritual, godly Christians who'd ever lived, period.

Here's the skinny of her story: Mother Teresa received audible (to her) revelations from Jesus Christ who urged/ commanded her to start her Missionaries of Charity ministry in India. These conversations were recorded in large part in this book. She took great comfort in receiving this "Voice" of God to her; the Voice was strong, persistent, and very much from God. But when she finally embarked on the Charity work, the Voice stopped and never returned. This threw Mother Teresa for a loop.

Even worse: God not only withdrew his active Voice but cut off Mother Teresa from enjoying the normal spiritual experiences of being a Christian, ones she enjoyed for decades prior to her Charity work. For over 35 years, then, she experienced little actual experience with God: no sense of God's presence, no sense of answered prayer, no sense of joy, peace, love, warmth, satisfaction, etc. that most believers take for granted. Yet during this period, she had unwavering faith, obedience, and love for God. There is zero evidence that this withdrawal of blessings/ experiences was the result of sin, disobedience, hypocrisy, demonic influence, or any other thing.

So what happened? Mother Teresa herself concluded that God wanted to bring her so low--as low as any human being could possibly be brought low--because (1) She was already the lowest of the low, and God was just showing her who she really was, (2) God was granting her the blessing of experiencing what Christ experienced on the cross when he was separated from God in bearing the sins of the world, (3) God was making her experience the depths of inner suffering, pain, emptiness, and loss, as this was the daily experience of all of the poorest poor to whom she was ministering, and (4) God was testing her faith, to see if she would follow even if granted no tangible spiritual benefit.

I have no doubts she was right on all counts. I see her life as the spiritual equivalent of Job's testing. God tested Job by outwardly or circumstantially afflicting him: taking away his family, his wealth, his comfort, and his health. All to see if he would have faith without outward, material benefit, and even more than the lack of benefit, the presence of suffering. Job passed the test, though in the expression of his want for God's relief, he said less-than-perfect things to God.

God tested Mother Teresa by inwardly or spiritually afflicting her: taking away all spiritual benefits experienced daily by all true Christians: the daily presence of God, assurance of salvation, answered prayer, peace in the heart, etc. At the end of her life, she passed the test, though in the expression of her want for God's presence, she said less-than-perfect things to God.

If you're a believer, imagine if God took away the experience of every spiritual benefit in this lifetime. Imagine that you FELT like a non-believer though God expected you to obey and trust him regardless. That was Mother Teresa's cross to bear. I had a moment once in my life where I was so distressed and so depressed, for a moment I felt like was a non-believer (since I remember what that felt like). I was empty, hollow, and felt like my life was meaningless. It was frightening. Mine was caused by circumstances and lasted barely a few hours. Mother Teresa endured over 35 years of that and all because God made her experience it not because of anything she did.


Mother Teresa often compared her darkness-experience with that of Jesus on the cross especially when he shouted, "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?" Interestingly, this is a quote from Psalm 22 (something, I don't recall Mother Teresa ever made connection with), where David is crying out to God in distress over the circumstances of his trials. Yet even as David seemed to be losing faith, the Psalm ends with a strong affirmation of faith in a great God. Mother Teresa's writings reflect the same. At one point, she may say, "God is far from me--I have no faith." Then later in the same letter, she will affirm, "I will continue to trust in Him."

These are not the honest confessions of a hypocrite, a sham-saint pretending to be holy. This is the painful experience of a believer stripped of all spiritual comfort and experience in this life, and then asked to something that few if no other ever has: walk COMPLETELY by faith. Every time she condemns her own faith, it's because her faith is so strong. Only the strong in faith are so critical of their own faith and see it as small if not non-existent faith. Only the righteous see their best acts as "rubbish" in the eyes of God (while the most unholy boast loudly of their tainted "good works").

Colossians 3:3 says of believers, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." There's an impenetrable glass ceiling that any non-believer--even the most experienced unbelieving Bible scholar--bumps up against when exploring the Christian faith. Our lives are "hidden" with Christ in both the sense of being "secured" away from any wishing to tamper with it and at the same time "invisible" to eyes trying to see it.

Without a doubt, many non-believers will completely miss the point when reading "Come Be My Light." And this is no surprise. We ought to expect no less. Each waylaid criticism only affirms the reality of their separation from the true life of God in Christ. Rather than making us defensive, however, it should spur us to want them to know of that life in Christ.

And undoubtedly, many believers will miss the point, too. For the kingdom of God is well-populated with shallow believers and infantile Christians (many who are convinced they are among the most mature and righteous). Their lack of understanding will show their true colors as well. Rather than shaking our heads at them, however, it should spur us to want them to know the depths of the true Christian faith.

Books like this one may cause someone to ask, "Do you think you will see Mother Teresa in heaven?"

To this my answer is plain: "No. Not because she's not in heaven (nor that I wouldn't be, for that matter), but because she will be so close to the Throne of God, so beloved and intimate in the glory of God, and I will be so far from such a privilege, happy just to be on the fringes of the heavenly kingdom, that, no, I probably won't see her."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Heart, Soul, Strength (and Mind)- A Rhetorical Device

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with your soul
and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

Teachers and scholars alike have consistently looked upon this text and concluded that some kind of division-of-personhood either can be or ought to be drawn out of this text. Contextually, the text is saying that we're to love God with our entire being. And if that's true, here's a catalog of the parts of our being: heart, soul, and strength.

On an intuitive level, this seems to make good sense. "Strength" points to the physical, material aspect of our being. "Soul" is the spiritual part. And "heart" is that bridge between the two, the interface of the spiritual in and through the material. Now from this, arguments flare up as to whether a human being is 2-fold (material & immaterial) or 3-fold (material, immaterial, and paramaterial [I made up that term just now.]). Is this text meant to be a hard-line division among the aspects? Does "heart" come first because it is not a separate aspect but a mediator between soul and strength?

Personally, I question whether this text means to do any such thing at all. This is the temptation and danger of systematic theology: to go to texts that do not intend to say something and attempt to draw out truths from it. What do I think the text is doing?

I'll argue that the 3-fold list is actually a refrain, a rhetorical device used for emphasis. Such a device is commonly found in the Old and New Testaments. For example, Psalm 99:9 says, "for the Lord our God is holy." This, in itself, is sufficient to draw us to see the absolute holiness of God. There is nothing inadequate or missing in this statement. Yet when we come to Isaiah 6:3 and see the seraphim crying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty," we feel the force of the 3-fold refrain. This is a rhetorical device, a literary tool used to make emphasis. (Note that any attempts to draw out the doctrine of the Trinity from this 3-fold refrain is a secondary consideration, if legitimate at all.) It's also been observed that prayers end with "Amen." So for Jesus to say, "Amen, Amen" or "Truly, truly" before many of His teachings is a rhetorical device. The 2-fold repetition is for emphasis, an attention-getting device.

Examples like these are throughout the Bible. So what does this mean for Deut. 6:5?

Let's start with an interesting pattern in Deuteronomy: the command to love God "with all your heart and with all your soul". This 2-fold refrain is used in Deuteronomy 4 times:

"And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deut 10:12)

"So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul..." (Deut 11:13)

"The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deut 13:3)

"The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live..." (Deut 30:6)

Now when Joshua wishes to remind Israel of that covenant in Deuteronomy he picks up on that repeated, 2-fold refrain and says to Israel:

"But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul." (Joshua 22:5)

Now does this mean that God is making a theological statement as to a 2-fold division of humanity? One might be tempted to conclude this. But let's hold off on that and first conclude that this 2-fold refrain was the understood-pattern meaning: love God with ALL of your being.

With this in mind, let's go back to Deut 6:5 and revisit the 3-fold refrain:

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with your soul and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

If the purpose of such statements were to make a comment on that nature of humanity, we're stuck with an odd choice between the 2-fold division repeated 4 times or the 3-fold division said once but with prominence. (This text was one put in the phylacteries of devout Jews, a text written on a small scroll and put in small boxes strapped to one's head or arm.)

Rather than wending down that twisty road, it's far more intuitive and biblically sound to see that both the 2-fold refrain and 3-fold refrain are for emphasis and not for a commentary on the nature of humanity. It would be quite sufficient if the Lord were to say, "Love the Lord with all your heart." That statement is not lacking anything. It's good enough to convey the idea of "love God with ALL your being." Adding on other "parts" of a person are for rhetorical emphasis. It's like saying, "God is amazing!" versus "God is amazing, fantastic, stupendous!"

The 2-fold refrain of love God with all your "heart" and all your "soul" is very emphatic. Just like the double "Amen, amen" refrain used by Jesus. This makes the 3-fold, triple refrain of Deut 6:5 SUPER emphatic. It's no wonder the Israelites latched onto this as being the most important of all the commandments. And they were right about that. They got the force of the rhetorical emphasis dead-on.

To make it even clearer that a "division of humanity" is not in view, when you get to the New Testament, and Jesus is referencing Deut 6:5, He says in Matthew 22:37,

"Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'" (Matthew 22:37)

So instead of "strength," He says "mind." Is this a misquote? Is Jesus getting the division of humanity wrong? No, because Jesus understands what the original Deut 6:5 text was trying to do: use the 3-fold refrain for emphasis not for a precise division of a human being. You can substitute whatever terms you wish to make the same point.

But what's the MOST amazing part of this whole discussion is the parallel quotes of Jesus in Mark and Luke:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30)

"He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'." (Luke 10:27)

Jesus makes it into a 4-fold refrain! To my knowledge, the only such thing in the entire Bible. It affirms that Matthew's version is not a misquote of Deut 6:5 but rather an abridged version of the quote to keep consistency with the 3-fold refrain. But Mark and Luke capture the entire quote of Jesus who adds a fourth aspect! Again, does this mean that there's a 4-fold division of humanity? Again, that's missing the point. This is a rhetorical device.

If the 2-fold refrain was emphatic, the 3-fold super emphatic, the 4-fold refrain is mega-, hyper-, super duper emphatic! The Sadducees ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment of all. Jesus knows that the 3-fold refrain is God's signal in the Old Testament that THAT is the most important of all. And not only does Jesus recognize and affirm this, He steps it up another notch by re-emphasizing just how important this is esp. in the New Covenant of grace.

Loving God with all our being is THE most important command of all. As a rhetorical device, the 2-, 3-, and ultimately Jesus-affirmed 4-fold refrain is extremely effective. The Israelites of the Old Testament got it. In principle, we pretty much got it, too. But in our theological haste, we overlooked WHY we got it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Personal Sanctification or Missionary Support?

"being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you
will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6, NIV)

Like many, I was given a handful of "key memory verses" to help me deal with the challenges facing Christian growth and sanctification. One such verse was Philippians 1:6. In this text, we're told that the "good work" refers to holiness that God started in us from the moment of salvation, which He will be faithful to continue to grow in us for the remainder of our lives until the Day of Christ's Second Coming when all such need to do so will end.

Conceptually and theologically, this is true. God did bring the work of sanctification in us from the moment of salvation and indeed He will be faithful to grow us in Christ until our death or the Second Coming. But just because it's a truth, does that mean this is what Philippians 1:6 is saying?

Briefly, I will argue otherwise. I believe Philippians 1:6 (indeed, all of Philippians) is in the context of Paul writing essentially a missionary support letter to the sole church who has supported him throughout his ministry.

"... as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel,
when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter
of giving and receiving, except you only" (Philippians 4:15)

Of course, as the pastor he also has much to say to the church in terms of exhortation, encouragement, and teaching. But beginning and end, Philippians is about Paul's personal relationship with this faithful church. Like a good missionary prayer letter, he thanks them for their support (1:4-8) and describes for them the ways God has been using him (and where their support is going towards) (1:12-14). Paul makes personal comments regarding his ministry (2:12-18), as well as remarks regarding faithful servants like Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30). He delves into his personal conversion (3:1-11) and ongoing growth (3:12-16). Even Paul's exhortations are all couched in personal reflections.

Going back to 4:15, notice that the Philippians were the only church who "shared" with Paul "in the matter of giving and receiving." What's Paul talking about? Financial support. Sure, they did more than just donate money; prayers, gifts, ministry volunteers/ co-workers, and personal corerspondences were undoubtedly all a part of how they supported Paul. But financial support is the main concept in view.

Like any good missionary, Paul never comes out and says, "Hey, guys, thanks for the money!" Why? It just sounds too crass, especially for something as elevatingly spiritual as missions work. Today's missionaries will use similar euphemisms like: "support," "gift," "encouragement," "blessing," etc. all to speak of money without having to speak of money. Paul does that, too.

Verse 15 has two such euphemisms: "sharing" and "the matter of giving and receiving". Verse 16 describes money as "aid". Verse 17 calls it "a gift." Verse 18 uses two worship terms: "fragrant offering" and "acceptable sacrifice".

To validate that money is in view, note the numerous other "financial" terms used in the text: "credited to your account" (v. 17); "full payment" (v. 18); "glorious riches" (v. 19).

In short shrift, what Paul is telling the Philippians is that due to their generous financial giving, God will reward them generously in heaven (perhaps in a way on earth as well). This discussion of giving in ch. 4 is a continuation of a discussion that began in ch. 1:

"In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy,
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now" (Philppians 1:4-5)

Paul begins his "missionary prayer letter" by recalling how they were in "partnership" with Paul in his Gospel ministry. How were they partners? Did they accompany him in his mission trips? Perhaps. But as ch. 4 tells us, it is their support of him "in the matter of giving and receiving" that was their part, as is true for churches today. Paul sees his financial supporters as his partners in ministry; they reap part of what Paul reaps in his ministry. Even "partnership"here might be a kind of euphemism for "money" or "financial support" as in ch. 4.

Verse 6, naturally, contains yet another euphemism:

"he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus"

The "good work" is their finanicial support. Paul is saying, "I'm confident that the Lord who stirred up the conviction to support me amongst you will continue to stir up that conviction!" Now since Paul, like his contemporaries, fully believed that Jesus could and would return in their lifetime, he didn't see his death as the end of his ministry but the Parousia, the Second Coming, "the day of Christ Jesus."

So far from being a promise of sanctification, the "you" of Philippians 1:6 is properly the Philippians themselves and the "good work" that God began amongst the church members was the financial support of his Gospel ministry, that which made them--in Paul's eyes--partners in his misssionary ministry.

A proper application from the Philippians 1:6 text is for a church to use it as an evaluation of its own commitment to supporting the work of missions. Is your church like the Philippians who faithfully support the work of the Gospel? Or like the other churches of Paul's day who abandoned him in the face of external pressures? If the church is faithful to support missions, the exhortation of 1:6 is apt to encourage the church to continue the partnership, better yet, expand them to include more giving, more missionaries to support.

No doubt God will continue to work sanctification in all of us. But let us let go of this text as the affirmation or promise of such a thing. This text is reserved for missions and the support of missions work.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 27

"The 27" refers to the 27 canonical books of the New Testament (NT). Not that the 39 Old Testament (OT) books are of no consequence--hardly the case. But since the NT is my area of specialty, I will only claim to be able to speak with semi-adequacy on NT-related issues and even less so on the OT.

I will bring up issues as the rattle out of my brain and highlights of discussions with others, even from student interactions at BIOLA.

The blog represents a shift from my prior blog at