How to Do Good Works

Faith simply does good works naturally and spontaneously. It is not naive to insist on that — if  one has any inkling at all of what the explosion of justification is!

Faith doesn’t ask about good works, but does them without all the theological fuss and bother. Good works are works done in faith, the faith which has simply gotten over looking at itself and its “progress” and begun to look at the neighbor. Good works should be quite as natural and spontaneous as a parent running to pick up and comfort a child who has fallen and gotten hurt. One doesn’t stop to think about it. (“Let me see now, should I do this or shouldn’t I? Is it necessary?”) One doesn’t even worry whether it is a good work or not–one just does it. And after it is over, one forgets about it completely. That is what good works are like. They are probably those works we have forgotten all about.

-Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith: a Matter of Death and Lifebike fall

Five Reasons I’m Scared of Grace

1. I’m scared of grace because it’s not abstract.
I can handle abstract ideas. Up there in the ether of my imagination, I’m not afraid of theological ideas. Grace, unlike abstract theology, changes things. It disorients my daily experience with myself and God and others. It blows up more than just my theological categories.

mind blown

2. I’m scared of grace because it’s not what I thought it was.
I thought it was another word for, you know, Jesus. I thought grace was one of many verses in a Hillsong album. A good verse, but just a verse. Grace is unpredictable, though. It’s more than any of us ever imagined the first time we heard the word.

hillsong

3. I’m scared of grace because it’s too damn practical.
It works too well. Loving people before they have proven their worthiness actually makes relationships better. Grace in practice is the only method of wrestling control out of our hands and setting us free. It’s profoundly practical. Just write the word on your hand for a day and think about it when you talk to people. It’s hard to believe how much lighter life feels when grace is on the tip of our tongues.

practical

4. I’m scared of grace because it’s too explanatory.
The explanatory power of grace is overwhelming. It’s scary accurate. Sometimes I want to be baffled and confused about why things aren’t going well relationally. Now all that I see is where grace was abandoned in my broken relationships and the subsequent gap that was filled with scrutinizing and self-justification. I don’t really want to be privy to that information.

earmuffs

5. I’m scared of grace because it’s free.
I am a capable individual. I don’t want to get a gift that I can never, ever, ever, pay back. It offends me. The magnitude of total forgiveness for a lifetime of regrets and bad decisions (and a future that could be as bad or worse) is too much to accept willingly. Free is offensive. I prefer expensive, I’ll settle for cheap, but free offends me.

scrooge money

Grace is what stands on the other side of the cross. Grace is the definition of our relationship with God. It’s how Christ himself relates to us: in/with/through grace. In the midst of all the transactional law that rings in our ears (do this and this to become lovely), listen closely for God’s promise in Christ that is for you: You are loved more than you can ever imagine.

SimulBlog is Not Dead

I’m sorry that I haven’t seen you guys in a while.

Many of you know of our new project Theology After Dark, right now primarily a podcast, but we have also produced short videos (see below).

We are excited to see where this project will take us, and we hope that you can interact with us via social media.

Please expect the blog posts to be back on track in the next few weeks. Consider this video our apology:

Feel free to follow us on Twitter (@TheologyAD).

Will You Exist in 2075?

People often say they are afraid of death – about, as they sometimes put it, having to be nothing after all these lovely years of being something. When they tell me that, I try to focus the problem more tightly. “Let me see if I understand you,” I say. “You’re bothered by the thought that you will be non-existent in, say, the year 2075. But tell me something. Has it ever occurred to you to worry about the fact that you were likewise non-existent in 1875? Of course it hasn’t, for the simple reason that, by the forces of nature alone, you got bravely over that first attack of nothingness and were born. Well, all the Gospel is telling you is that your death – your second bout of nothingness – is going to be even less of a problem than your first. By the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you will get bravely over that too, and be reborn. In fact, you already have been; so go find something more dangerous to worry about.”

~Rober Farrar Capon

What Happens if We Don’t Get Better?

schmuck

Everyone has high expectations for self-improvement. There is a pressure that haunts us. A voice in our heads says, “Shouldn’t you be getting better? Come on, you are slacking off, look at yourself!”

All by itself, most Christians say, that isn’t a bad thing. It even sounds like something an upstanding person of faith would say, but it can get bad. Really bad. We can lose Jesus in the search for self-improvement. Consider that the curse from Eden onward is that we abandon faith in pursuit of our own glory. This happens when that compulsive voice isn’t subjected to the Word of God that promises: In Christ, you already have redemption.

 Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 11.03.23 AM

We get stuck clawing for self-affirmation in our improvement. We strive to improve because we need to feel affirmed. We can’t feel affirmed until we improve. We can’t accept love until we buck up and make ourselves deserving of that love. We are working out of a massive deficit, as opposed to living as if everything we need we already have in Christ. Some are still thinking, “Well is that so bad?”

If we don’t expressly believe that we are undeserving yet loved, we will subconsciously believe that we should be deserving and won’t be loved until we change.

keep the changeThe thing is, you can trust Jesus to help you change. I find that the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me how to swim, and I am standing in the shallow end of the pool thrashing around in the water. “Look how good I’m doing, God? Pretty good, right? Impressive, right? Did you see that one, God?”

swim fail

I’m splashing so much, everyone around me is evacuating the pool, annoyed. God waits patiently for me to calm down. His hope is that eventually I learn how not to drown in the deep end. And maybe one day, should things go terribly south, I could learn to depend on him when I’m totally shipwrecked.

sparrowDo you want to know what happens when you don’t get better? Here is what happens: God doesn’t flinch.

And, strangely, knowing that God won’t be shocked – in fact that God’s grace is sufficient in the midst of your failure – that is what makes you better.

My Bright Future and You Can Too

A German friend of mine and I were talking about careers and bright futures via email. Obviously, this hit a few theological nerves. Below are the thoughts I shared with him about those common questions: Where is life going?; Am I going to be a failure?; Will my future be bright? etc.

bright future

I didn’t reformat the email much at all, so I hope it is readable. Also, I exaggerated the amount of job offers that I have received. Because, you know, artistic license or something. Besides, he’s in Germany, he won’t be able to check my sources.

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Regarding jobs and a bright future, I feel like the process of growing up for me is progressive disillusionment with my lack of progress. I hope my future is bright, but I like to keep the grotesque image of myself getting hit by a bus in my head, just to insure I’m not living as if I’m immortal ;)

I heard something really great a few years ago, the lawyer/novelist John Grisham said that nobody will really respect you as a professional until you are 30 years old anyway, so just study as long as you can and relax through your 20s. Living with this in mind has caused people to interact with me in really interesting ways. I have had more job offers since I have been approaching professionals as if they don’t have any inherent respect for me. Interacting as if I know they aren’t going to give me much respect, but whatever, let’s have a good chat and I’ll share with them what I know without any expectation that they will be blown away by my accomplishments. I find it rather humorous to do this, just because they seem so accustomed to young people trying to impress them. They don’t really know how to take it. I’m always shocked when they say, “Hey man, we would love for you to come on with us eventually.” Then I laugh and say, “I don’t know, I’m kind of in law school at the moment — you would have to make an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Still waiting for the irrefutable offer, but having fun in the meantime ;)
Life is tough though man. There is this growing awareness of the pointlessness of things. I was thinking this morning why child stars – like movie/music pop stars – grow up so disillusioned. I think it is because the primary carrot of the human psyche – which is “attain success/acclaim/money” – that bubble gets burst too early. They have nothing to live for, to strive for. But to preemptively burst the bubble, I think by taking the message of the book of Ecclesiastes to heart (I forgot what the Germans call Ecclesiastes?), that is a really strange way to live, but I find it liberating. It’s liberating to know that I can enjoy the simple things of life, but also be assured that my ultimate yearning will never be met by attaining success, or actually anything under the sun. It’s why I need to hear the message of the gospel over and over and over – I keep forgetting that everything I need I already have in Christ’s love for me. I’m just preaching now, but it’s true! It just hits the ground so hard in the middle of graduate school, or at any point in the 20s, when all of life is about establishing oneself. So good to be free from the pressure – but also depressing. I’m okay with that though, I would rather have a true perspective that is tinged with the tragedy of honest futility than be obsessed with chasing every crystal starship that is forging ahead to conquer the heavens (I just thought of that metaphor! I like it;)
Your brain probably hurts from trying to figure out the meaning of all my English words. I love you buddy, appreciate you always being a philosophical compadre to me, willing to confront the substantive stuff of life.
Jake
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Also, David Zahl at Mockingbird just posted a great article about procrastination that captures the thrust of what I am trying to say here. Check it out if you have a minute.

The Theology of a Van Collision

Yesterday, my lovely girlfriend and I were in the backyard driveway at my house washing my Volvo Station Wagon. It was a cute boyfriend/girlfriend thing to do. I described methods for getting all the bugs off, and I talked knowingly about repairs and updates that needed to be done on the car, as if I knew about car maintenance. She was digging it.

Suddenly, we both heard a loud crunch, coming from the road. No screeching tires, just a collision.

She turned to me, “Was that a car crash?”

“Yes. Oh man. I’ll go see if they are alright.”

As I walked around the house to the busy road in front, I expected to see a simple rear-end collision. Instead, I saw two mini-vans in the front yard across the street. One of them had T-boned the other. But why in the world were they in the front yard, not obstructing traffic at all?

One of the mini-vans looked like someone was still in the driver seat, pinned in by the other van outside his door. I had to wait for a car to stop so I could cross the street.

I walked up to the passenger side of the T-bone’s victim. There was an old man whose adrenaline must have been the highest that it’s been in a solid decade.

“Sir, are you hurt?” I opened the passenger door, and immediately smelled the box of fried chicken on the passenger seat.

“I’m okay.” I could see his mouth was bleeding. “I just picked up dinner and was turning into my driveway.”

“Maybe turn your car off,” I said. “And let me help you get out of there.”

I began helping him climb over the passenger seat out of the car, because the driver side door was destroyed, and the other van was still pinning it shut. His glasses were on the floor, and I reached down to grab them so he wouldn’t step on them.

“Guess my van is about shot. Guess it’s about done. Guess it’s totaled.” His voice was shaking.

As he explained the accident, it became obvious that the woman who hit him was completely at fault. A car had come to a stop in front of her, and in front of that car, the old man was turning left into his driveway. She sped around that ghost car assuming it was stopping for no reason and slammed into the old man as he turned.

That explained why we hadn’t heard screeching tires.

Her van hit the old man so hard that both of their cars ended up in his front yard.

I handed the old man his glasses and walked with him around the front of his car. We heard the old woman on the phone.

This is where things get theological.

Her van was not too badly damaged. In fact, considering how far she had pushed the old man’s van, she must have come to a stop quite gradually. She was on the phone with, presumably, her husband, “Some idiot stopped in the middle of the road for no reason and then I didn’t know that someone in front of him was turning.”

At first, I wanted to stay to make sure that the old man didn’t lose his temper at this woman who was obviously delusional about who the idiot in this situation was. Then I realized she was talking about the ghost car. But really? In this situation, where a poor old man stood with a bloody lip, a totaled car, probably some back pain, and certainly a ruined dinner, she was the indisputable idiot. Couldn’t she see that?

But then why was she self-justifying?

In this situation, where there was certainly no legal dispute about whose fault this was, why is she looking to put the blame elsewhere? Even if an “idiot” had stopped for no reason, people on the road are allowed to brake. It’s your job to slow down and resist speeding madly around them.

I have crashed cars before. I remember feeling like a complete moron afterward. It’s such an incredibly shameful moment, especially if it’s during rush hour and traffic is obstructed. And people are driving by, slowing down to eye up the damage, all the while thinking to themselves, “I wonder which idiot caused this.”

But, still, why do we need to self-justify? Why can’t it just be our fault?

Because we have no room for failure in all of our respective theologies. In all our world-views, failure is anti-progress, and anti-progress is deserving of condemnation. Anti-progress, we think, is anti-everything. Progress is everything. Failing is nothing.

If we aren’t moving forward, says the world (and our hearts), then we are nothing. Failing renders you, and me, nothing.

We can deny failure, and claim it was some other idiot‘s fault, or we can accept failure and be deemed nothing.

Unless we have faith that there is a God who can create ex nihilo – out of nothing, then the second option is simply off the table. Who in their right mind willingly confronts failure? We will scavenge for any scrap of glory left in a situation. Sometimes, the only remaining glory is found by calling someone else an idiot, and standing morally superior to that person.

Without the promise of a resurrected savior who demands nothing on our part, we are bound to obsessively assert that we are something.

Without the promise of a resurrected savior, we are not free to fail, but rather in bondage to delusional glory-seeking.

And we are stuck blaming ghost cars instead of helping the battered old man that we just slammed into.