Saturday, August 27, 2011

Priestly Rants; Driving with Fear

Priestly Rants writes that at one point he considered the biggest bad to be idolatry but he has since changed his mind. Idolatry isn't the top of the heap for evil in his estimation, fear is.

Having spent the last week dealing with plenty of fear and uncertaintly related to a few medical issues I would piggyback on PR's comments, fear is frequently the catalyst for idolatry because we will not trust in the Lord's kindness or presence. The people who swear up and down that they will not falter, will not waver, and are sold out to Jesuse are the ones who deny Him the second even the slightest risk of a real-world problem comes up. Just ask Peter.

There is a point at which it is useless to say that this or that thing is an idol. It's not because we don't have idols or that none of us are tempted to idols. We all are. The trouble is that we Christians bask in the luxury of being able to say to someone else "I think you've made such and such an idol in your life." In neo-Reformed land this is sort of common as "Happy birthday" or "lol" on a Facebook page. brb


As I wrote earlier in this blog, the appeal of the idol is the instant delivery. God asks us to wait for the resurrection to come. Christ said that if anyone would be His disciple to take up your cross and follow Him. You don't necessarily know what your cross may be at any given moment but we're all clear that the way of the Cross is the way of suffering and death. I venture to say that American Christians, even good evangelical Protestant conservative Christian Christians, don't really believe that in Christ we are actually called to suffer. We want Christ to sanction a triumph. Even those Christians who will rip on the prosperity gospel of another will not-so-secretly embrace a prosperity gospel tailored to their own ideals and pragmatism. It's the kind of prosperity teaching that can say "Mine is bigger so I beat you."

As Matt Chandler told various seminarians in a sermon, most people get into seminary because they hope they will have a ministry that changes lives for the better. Nobody goes to seminary really gunning for Moses' ministry trajectory--the man spent his last years wandering around with recalcitrant people who did not put their faith in God and he died out in the wilderness unable to enter the land of promise because of his own disobedience. To borrow some Lutheran terminology, there's a whole lot of theology of glory in how most seminarians enter into seminary and think through what they want from their life script of ministry. Failure is seen as a sign that God hasn't called you, not that God has called you to die.

I suppose it might be lazy to say that what you fear can be a good indicator of how you may be tempted. Israel got tired of waiting for Moses to return and wondered when, if ever, he was going to come back. In their impatience waiting for something to happen they got together with Aaron and produced a golden calf. They feared that after leading them out of Egypt across the Red Sea; after leading them into the wilderness and disappearing into the mountains (the Hebrew expression can indicate an at time indefinite period of time signifying a long time); Israel and Aaron began to get the idea that since neither God nor Moses were working on the time schedule they wanted they were afraid that both God and Moses had bailed on them. Ergo, time to set up a stand-in. In a way the golden calf can be seen as Israel creating a symbolic mediator or indicator of God's presence with His people.

The perniciousness of this idol is precisely in its being a stand-in for Yahweh Himself. Fear does not only become a temptation for us to turn to other refuges and comforters besides the Lord, it also inspires and spurs us (so to speak) to cast a molten image of the Jesus we want to solve the most pressing problems of our time and place. We can re-engineer Jesus out of our deepest fears into someone who will save us on what are ultimately our terms and we can do this with the most pious imagination possible. Or we can say that Christ is Lord of every aspect of my life except a certain part I'd really like to keep to myself. The trouble is that it's very easy to say this about other people. In fact there is a veritable cottage industry to this in Christian circles. Furthermore there are ministries set up by self-appointed discerners to this effect.

One of the reasons I reposted my old sonnet "On Election" is because there are plenty of Christians who pay lip service to the idea that 'God is in control" only so long as God does what they want Him to do. When He doesn't come through with the results we expect of him we are faced with a few options. We can decide there is no god. We may decide that God is in control and there is some "lesson" we have to learn and implement in our lives so that "next time" God will give us the result we expect we should have gotten. We may decide that we are being disciplined for some sin or another. I've encountered serious suggestions that person X's computer burned out because of person Y's sins. Now if that person Y were, say, Hewlett Packard, I'd totally agree but that wasn't the person Y who was proposed! We may decide that God's providence does not submit itself to our understanding or intrinsic favor. As Qoholeth put it in Ecclesiastes, when times are good be glad and when times are bad consider that the Lord has made one as well as the other so a man may not know what is to come after him.

I guess I could try to boil fear down to pride and get everything back to human sin and God's providence. The trouble with this simplified hamartiology is fairly obvious, you can't keep selling this as the Job's comforter explanation to all practicing Christians. It is also common enough that those who would employ these axioms don't appreciate them so much when they are on the receiving end of their own sorts of theodicies. The whole enterprise of blogging Christianity is that I get to tell you your sins more than you get to tell me mine. I'm not much interested in your sins, though, whereas my sins bug me. I also know that the vast majority of these sins do spring from fear.

People who think all sin tends to stem from pride tend to be the sorts of men (and women) who operate in pride. They apparently literally cannot understand the fearfulness of the fearful. They assume everything MUST come down to pride because fear has to just be some kind of way pride gets worked out in cowards. Well, to throw them a bone, I suppose it could be said that the person who turns to an idol out of fear may be turning to the very same idol some other man turns to out of pride. Naturally, a "natural man" who has pride will look at the coward as probably having to have the same problem he has ... if he has a problem, which he may not even grant that he has.

When a strong man is shown that his strength is a weakness or that his strength is just not strong enough to save him then the flip side of his confidence in his competence is a fear that if he can't get it done, whatever it is, that it can't be done. So, yes, the proud man and the coward can turn to the same idol and that would appear to indicate a shared motive. Yet so far as idolatry goes the fearful man knows he does not trust in the Lord's provision while a proud man may take the Lord's provision for granted and not succumb to fear until things don't go his way for a change. The proud man is not without his own fears and insecurities but he may well think that if he admits to what his fears and insecurities are that even cowards will laugh at him.

I knew a pastor once who could admit that he often doubted in the Lord's capacity to provide in ways that his wife's faithfulness put to shame. She would pray and say that trusting in the Lord will work out. To date the wife has been proven correct so far, but as the young men in Daniel put it, obedience to God means obedience even to the point where the Lord does not deliver you. This is what I think we all may dread at some point as Christians. The reward we are promised in and through Christ is one we cannot see clearly now. We would like security and stability in this life, maybe even a bit of triumph. We understandably fear our end and this is why Christ's conquest of death is the basis of our hope.

That doesn't mean that we don't end up having fears, really big fears that consume us and often manifest themselves in this or that sin. If as the axiom has it the thing you can't imagine living life without or fear losing is your idol maybe it would be better to flip it around. After all, if we're all Christians we claim to worship the Lord as Father, Son, and Spirit. So if we, as Christians, still have this idolatry problem how can we even meaningfully speak of ourselves as being renewed by the Spirit's work in us? Well, maybe we can put it this way, as Christians we will be tempted to this or that idol to the extent that whatever we fear God won't provide for us in this life is the thing for which we redesign the Lord or take up a supplemental god on the side.

So all that ramble is to say that one of the reasons it's too glib and simple to say the big problem with Christians is idolatry motivated by pride is that in the real world, in our lived lives, we often know that it is fear that prompts us in our acknowledged or unacknowledged panic to turn to a refuge besides the Lord. But then what happens when we turn to God's people and God's people themselves become the problem? That would necessitate another entry for another time.

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