Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Are We Called to Authenticity?

This morning we welcome Deb Welch, who blogs at All Things New, to the Out of the Ordinary team.

The quest for authenticity has seemingly grown more prevalent than ever in modern times. Justin Beiber was seeking it when he visited a church in New York City. Ann Voskamp tweeted about it. Mommy bloggers are blogging about it. And churches are forming companies and committees to cultivate more of it in their midst.

With all this popular interest, one would think that the contemporary quest for authenticity is something new. Alas, we know that there is truly nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9b, New American Standard Bible).

The Ethics of Authenticity, written by Charles Taylor in the 90s, decried the negative trajectory of an inward and self-exalting focus developed by many authenticity advocates, on the one hand, and appreciated the honest and sincere intentions of adherents, on the other hand.

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, authenticity was also a bedrock among existentialist philosophers, vis a vis Heidegger and Sartre.  Sartre’s theory of “bad faith” was an aspect of authenticity that described the self-deception that comes from living as something or someone different from who you really are. As early as 1770, Rousseau, in his Confessions, argued that one's orientation toward life should come from a source within. The focus on inwardness, self-reflection, and introspection led to a space of interiority as one's guiding authority.

Who can forget Shakespeare’s notorious character in Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes' father? Polonius (the political poser, who ironically changed his spots whenever position and power were in sight), offered his son the infamous advice that would be repeated in high schools and Hollywood films centuries later, “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Never mind that this advice led Laertes to cast off values and moral conscience to madly pursue his inner desire to fulfill a personal vow of revenge. Not surprisingly, all of this resulted was his own tragic death  (Romans 6:23, NASB). As it turned out, the call to live an authentic life above all else was immanently bad fatherly advice.

As we look even further back, Aquinas argued for a “presumption of authenticity”, represented as the harmony between one’s inner judgements (including the will), outward acts, and future hope. According to Oxford seminary professor John Finnis, Aquinas’s presumption of authenticity was the underlying reason why Aquinas saw love of neighbor as the master rule of life. And if Aquinas dabbled in the philosophy of authenticity, certainly Augustine must have had something to say about it before him. Yet, whether or not Augustine specifically delved into the concept of authenticity, I’m convinced that his Confessions is potentially the best example of what true Christian authenticity, rightly conceived can be. More on that later.

All of this to say, authenticity is not a new idea, and as such, the concept comes loaded with all sorts of theological and philosophical baggage of which we would do well to be beware. For the most part, and at the risk of oversimplification, the quest by Christians to live authentically in our day follows two potential paths of thought.

On the one hand, the authenticity virtues of honesty, openness, and vulnerability are compelling.  In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes about how Christians often don a mask around other Christians to avoid judgment and humiliation, but it often results in hypocrisy and destructive perfectionism. Perhaps this is best argument for the side of authenticity. It has textual support that is quite convicting in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus speaks about the Pharisees being whitewashed tombs, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness” (NASB Mat 23:27). Not only did the Pharisees put on a facade out of fear of man, but it seems they were covering up their rottenness in order to hold onto their prosperous positions.

In our contemporary Christian churches, where many younger people have grown up in Christian subcultures rife with moralistic therapeutic deism, as Dr. Michael Horton calls it, no wonder the quest for authenticity has become a such a strong driving force.

But do these accepted virtues risk hiding a worse vice? For instance, an inward focus can take a selfish turn, when we say things like, “I just need to focus on me right now.” Too much authenticity can turn us into spiritual slackers.  We become comfortable with one another, soaking in our own muck, rather than being lifted out. Then we forget who we really are. 

In our huddles, are we saying sorry and being sorry, but perhaps never truly repenting? Are we confessing sins one to another, but perhaps never taking our petitions to the Lord and trusting in Him? Worst of all, if we pursue authenticity for authenticity’s sake, that can lead to a self-styled religion, where “I am that I am” is all about our very own comfortable, horizontally-oriented posture, rather than a vertically-oriented fear and awe of a holy God, who truly is the great “I am.”

We should beware of an inward search for truth and self, directed by finite, creaturely beings. It will ultimately lead to despair and isolation, even when we practice it together. Because our very identity and ontology comes from an external, transcendent creator, our ultimate reality -- our true selves and very nature -- are not inwardly determined. God tells us how we were created, what we were created for, and how we will find our greatest fulfillment both in this life and the life to come. Without Him and His Word speaking into our lives and our hearts, our endeavors to "be real" with one another will always fall short. Word-filled fellowship that lifts us up by the Spirit before the face of Christ will transform us into His likeness.

C.S. Lewis continues in Mere Christianity to discuss the metaphor of the mask in a positive way. While putting on a fake mask should be avoided, we can and should put on the mask of Christ. Even though we are not fully Christ-like right now, we are becoming more and more like Him. Lewis gives the illustration of a fairy tale in which a man is so unattractive that he can’t get any friends and is socially shunned. In order to change his appearance, he puts on a mask and wears it for a very long time. One day, he is forced to remove the mask and his face has actually been transformed into the image of the mask. Lewis’ point is that sometimes we have to start off by pretending to be what we are becoming. In future hope, we begin by putting off self and putting on Christ.

The second and better way Christians can conceive of authenticity is to consider the more technical -- and less philosophical -- definition of authenticity. If we view authenticity as "being of undisputed origin or authorship", "being faithful to the original", or "a reliable, accurate representation", we are in a much better position to see ourselves rightly. We were created in the image of God and we are being transformed into the image of Christ in our sanctification. This should embolden us to be honest and sincere with one another and free to approach the throne of grace. Let’s hold on to this reality and end the restless quest for our "true selves". Our author is the Lord Jesus Christ, and in Him we live and move and have our being.

In closing, I’m reminded of Augustine’s great example of what authentic Christianity actually might look like when we have the focus right. In his Confessions, he wrote this familiar quote, “Our heart is restless until it rests You.” So, let us rest in Christ, together.

“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (NASB, Heb. 12:1b-3)


Augustine. Confessions. Transl. Foley. Hackett Publishing, Second Edition. 2006.
Finnis, John. (as quoted in) Aquinas on Friendship, by Schwartz, Daniel. pg. 96.
Horton, Michael. On Moralist Therapeutic Deism.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper Classics. 2001.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet in The Penguin Shakespeare. Random House. 2016.
Taylor, Charles. Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. 1992.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women in Scripture

A few years ago, our own recently retired Diane hosted a series on her personal blog about women in Scripture. Some of us here participated in that series. Now that she will no longer be blogging, we wanted to re-post those articles and have a place to make them available. Over the next number of weeks, every other Monday, we will feature one of those posts. The first one is by Candy Webb.

The Valley of Trouble
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.
I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope;
She shall sing there,
As in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
Gomer is considered one of the dishonorable women in the Bible. Gomer was an unfaithful wife to a faithful husband. God used her as an example of unfaithful Israel, spurning His love and chasing after other lovers (idols). The decision to look to other means for sustenance, unmet needs, or affirmation, led Gomer to the edges of the wilderness, and finally plunged her into it. Skirting the waiting silence, desolate expanse of land, and bitter isolation, Gomer imagined bread and water, wool and linen, oil and drink (Hosea 2:5 ) at the hands of her lovers, forgetting that God was the provider of everything she needed. In her mind, other lovers would fill her emptiness, dispel her restlessness, or satisfy the lust she allowed to take control of her life. The Bible states that God hedged her way with thorns, and walled her in so that she could not clearly see the path she had foolishly chosen. He actually made it hard for her to find the lovers she actively sought.

The Bible speaks of wildernesses many times as places of testing, exile, or sojourn. Time in the wilderness was never void of valuable lessons of dependence on God. It is interesting that the Bible used the word “allure” to describe Gomer drawn by God into the wilderness. He had exposed her wretchedness, stripped her of everything, caused her laughter to cease, and taken away his gifts to her. It was in her bereft state that God offered comfort. He spoke kindly to her heart and wooed her back to Himself. He used the Valley of Achor (Valley of Trouble) as a “door of hope” in her life. The Valley of Achor was where Achan was stoned to death after he saw, coveted, and took spoils from Jericho, “accursed things” which God had strictly forbidden. Joshua told Achan to give glory to God by confessing his sin. Hosea 2:5 (Joshua 7:19-26) The Valley of Trouble was a place of death, but also a place of renewal. In the difficult times that God providentially provided for Gomer, she learned to love Him again. She loved Him so much that she forgot the names of her former lovers.

It is not difficult to understand Gomer. We have struggled with unfaithfulness, and found ourselves drawn to idols, believing them to be more substantial than the Lord. Many of us have been to the wilderness too. We come to understand our wretchedness and recall the hymn “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” To be in the wilderness is an opportunity to draw closer to the One we love because He Himself will work that love in us. We shall even sing in the most isolated and barren places in our lives. The promise and transformation in Gomer’s life was a declaration from God

"I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion, And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.Then you will know the Lord.” Hosea 2:19-20 

About the Author: Candy Webb lives in Northern Nevada close to the Sierra mountain range, her favorite wilderness. She raised three children, and she and her husband Bruce have seven grandchildren. Candy teaches fifth and sixth grade at Grace Christian Academy in Minden NV, and paints, hikes, and reads good books in her spare time.  

Note: This post originally appeared on October 2, 2013.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Even As Our Father Is Merciful

This year my church began sponsoring a family of refugees from Syria. The Canadian government will provide half the income they need for their first year here in our city, but we are responsible for the other half. This family was, of course, eager to leave the refugee camp behind for the safety of life in Canada, but they don’t know English, have no experience with winter — especially our extreme northern winters — and left all of their extended family and friends behind. Can you imagine how difficult their new life is? How lonely they can feel? It’s the job of a group of volunteers from the church to ease their transition to life here, and they need help with all these things and more. A few weeks after they settled into the home prepared for them, the mother spoke for the whole family and thanked the church. “We are not of your religion,” she said through a translator, “but you have shown us mercy.”

She was using the word mercy in the same way the Bible does. When the authors of scripture use this word, the focus is on the helplessness of those receiving mercy. In his mercy God is good to those who are in trouble and cannot help themselves. From his mercy he helps the helpless and gives hope to the hopeless.

Mercy includes God’s pity for those who are in trouble, but it’s much more than mere pity, because his mercy has all of his power behind it. A leper once came to Jesus, and asked to be healed. “Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘. . . be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him” (Mark 1:41-42). Jesus saw this man’s predicament, sympathised with him, and used his infinite healing power to cure him. This is how it works with God’s mercy. From his mercy, he helps those no one else can help. His mercy accomplishes what is impossible for anyone but God.

In his mercy, God heals the sick, provides for the needy, and rescues those who are exploited and mistreated. From his mercy, he delivers people from affliction, oppression, and poverty. He is “[f]ather of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5; see also Psalm 10:14; Hosea 14:3) because he is merciful. Since everything God created is dependent on him, everything he does to sustain his creatures is an act of mercy. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and everything else that keeps us alive, are gifts from the mercy of God. Can you see why David’s psalm says “his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9)?

God’s ultimate act of mercy was sending his Son to die to deliver people from sin. If you are a believer, you were once helpless and hopeless, but in his mercy God sent his Son to be your Saviour (Luke 1:76-79). Could you have saved yourself? Freed yourself from slavery to sin? Could you have opened your own spiritually blind eyes? Raised yourself from spiritual death? No, you were completely dependent on God to rescue you. In mercy Christ died for you, in mercy God cleansed you from sin, and in mercy the Spirit empowers you to obey (Titus 3:3-5). You had no hope until your merciful God “caused [you] to be born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). You have been saved because God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4-5), and you belong to him because you have received his mercy (1 Peter 2:10).

There is no limit to the mercy of God. “His mercies never come to an end,” but are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Every day is a fresh opportunity to experience new mercies from his never-ending, never-run-dry supply. From God’s infinite mercy, there is always more help for you.

And every day is a fresh opportunity for God’s children to “be merciful, even as [our] Father is merciful (Luke 6:36).” Indeed, one of the reasons God chose to be merciful to us is so we will be merciful to others. He “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). In his mercy, God saw our need and rescued us, and now he invites us to imitate him by helping those who need our help.

When you care for your sick children — rocking them to sleep, giving them medicine, wiping their noses, or mopping up after they throw up — you are reflecting the mercy of God. If you help your elderly neighbor with yardwork he’s too frail to finish on his own, you are showing him mercy. When people from my church donated clothing, furniture, or money to support the Syrian family, they were instruments of God’s mercy. And when we share the gospel, the story of God's mercy to sinners, we are giving hope to the hopeless like our merciful God gives hope to the hopeless. Any poverty, weakness, illness, pain, or hopelessness we see is an opportunity for us to show mercy because God has shown us mercy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is this book healthy?

I wouldn't call myself a health fanatic, but I try to eat a reasonable diet. There was a brief period where my go-to snack was a granola bar because I assumed that granola was healthy. Can't go wrong with whole-grain oats, right? I thought so until I bothered to read the nutrition information and discovered these "all natural" granola bars were high in sugar (corn syrup too!) and low in protein. Since then, I've learned to put less stock in what manufacturers advertise and read the labels.

If I care about the nutritional value of the food I put into my body, then what about my spiritual diet? An author's claims about his/her book may look promising on the cover, but is it really going to nourish my soul or just give me the emotional equivalent of a sugar rush? It would be nice if there was a labeling system for Christian books just like the nutritional guidelines for food. Each label would give me information such as the author's hermeneutics (method of interpreting the Bible) and the ratio of exegesis to eisegesis (drawing meaning out versus imposing meaning into the text.) But alas there is no such thing. Also  there aren't convenient "genre labels like "fluff" and "I may look like I have my life together more than you but I'm about to wreck your theology.""1 But that doesn't mean we can't do a little research on our own.

I've been reading No Little Women, the latest book by Aimee Byrd (review forthcoming Lord willing,) but I skipped ahead to Chapter 9 "Honing and Testing Our Discernment Skills." She gives four essential questions to evaluate what we read.2

1. What does the author say about God's Word?

Is the Word authoritative or optional? Can we trust the Bible, or does the author instill doubts? Are verses taken within context and interpreted properly or misused?

2. What does the author say about who man is?  

And related, what does the author say about sin? Do we need a Savior to save us from sin and the wrath of God or a life coach to help us reach our full potential? Is there a ladder we need to climb or a formula we need to follow to achieve the desired end apart from the gospel?

3. What does the author say about God?

It's sad that this question even needs to be asked, but just because someone uses the word "God" or "Jesus" does not necessarily mean they are accurately teaching the Triune God of the Bible.

4. What does the author say about what God has done and is doing?

What is the author's worldview and his/her stance on creation, fall, redemption, and restoration? Is he/she offering our best life now or our best life then?

It would be nice if we didn't need to ask questions such as these and be able to trust what is marketed as "Christian." But reputable publishers have been known to print less than sound fare. An author may be the sweetest person imaginable who we'd love to chat with over a cup of tea, but orthodoxy consists of more than having an engaging personality. The bar is set high for those who would be teachers and rightfully so. The Apostle Paul commended the Bereans for verifying what he taught against Scripture, and he wrote a good chunk of the New Testament! If any writer objects to his/her books being scrutinized against the Word, then maybe we shouldn't be reading them in the first place.

The saying goes, "You are what you eat." Well, we may be what we read or, at the very least, strongly influenced by it. All the more reason to be wise and evaluate the spiritual nutrition of what goes in our heads. Ultimately, Aimee's questions reflect not a disrespect for an author but a right reverence for God because the last thing we would want is to have Him or His word misrepresented.

1. No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, Aimee Byrd, P&R Publishing, 2016, pg. 49.
2. Ibid., 223-230.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Digital Downsizing

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions but this year I have resolved to reduce  my online involvement  as much as possible. I began digitally downsizing last summer by deleting my Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Connecting with friends  was great but  it  had become  too  addictive for my liking. I had failed several attempts to scale back,  so  I decided it best  to avoid the temptation completely.   
Right away I discovered that unplugging was surprisingly liberating. The freedom  to  quietly enjoy  life's simple moments without  having the urge to grab my phone and broadcast it  has been refreshing. I have also noticed that my concentration has improved and that  I'm not as stressed out.  So far,  I  have  no desire to return to it and  hope that it stays that way.
My biggest concern was losing touch with friends, but alas!   In our modern world there are  other ways to communicate with people. Fancy that! Email,  texting , and phone calls  may  take a little more effort,   but they can also be more meaningful. And who knows?  Maybe I’ll even make good on  this challenge. 
Most of us are keenly aware of  the good and  evil of  social media so I won’t bother going there except to say that I really appreciated David Murray’s thoughts on the subject last week:   2017: A Year of Digital Detox . He is following this theme throughout the year and has posted some helps for those who want to cut back.   
I have also decided to retire my personal blog and discontinue posting here.   This was a hard decision that I debated for a long time but I have finally accepted  that I have entered   a new season of life.  As much as I enjoy writing and the blogging community,  it's  time to slow down  and devote my full attention to my home,  family,  and local church.   
Blogging has  been an extremely rewarding  venture.  It has given me the opportunity to  expand my knowledge  in new ways and has provided a means to share my faith in Christ,  for which I am  very grateful.  I have also made some wonderful friends from around the world—yes, Internet friendships can turn into real friendships.   
I want to thank my friends here at Out of the Ordinary for inviting me to be a part of this terrific team. These women are such an inspiration to me and  I pray that God will continue to use this blog to His glory.    
And many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my blogposts here and at Theology for Girls. The kindness  of those who have encouraged me over the years has been very much appreciated!   
 If I have accomplished  one thing in my  blogging efforts, I would hope that  God has used it to point others to our wonderful Savior Jesus Christ and encourage women to dig deeper into His marvelous Word.  

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.”     
Psalm 19:7-10

Soli Deo Gloria!