Lies about happiness

God says, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity.” (Isaiah 57:14, NLT)

When I look around me, I don’t see a world that looks very much like the one that God desires. I see people scared and harried, angry and untrusting. I see broken promises treated as just a part of living life, and I see people whose self-worth is based on how many people they can step on to get where they want to go.

The weak are ignored or neglected or abused. The poor are squeezed by the greedy. Young and old are driven mad by their animal instincts, but declare themselves free. We are a world of slaves trying to fool ourselves into believing we are the masters.

The bit in the Sermon on the Mount that I never, never, never could read with peace was in the sixth chapter when Jesus talked about not being anxious. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I never bought what Jesus was selling.

But — and I may not have to talk you into this one — I’ve come to believe the man knew what he was talking about.

I’ve come to realize that happiness, joy, peace, and contentment are not found in anything the world offers us. For the world offers only things that perish and fade away.

Being a pastor and spending time with people as they cross from life to death helps you see this. In the end, nothing we clutch so tightly to here on Earth will cling to us. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.

This is the road to happiness.

This is what the Bible often calls holiness.

And the problem is that, like me, 99% of the world does not believe that this really is happiness. They have swallowed the lies that the ruler of this world tells them. Be rich. Be famous. Be popular. Be young, forever young. Be smart. Be athletic. Be sexy. Be this and do that, and then you will finally be happy. Buy this or indulge those nerve endings, and you will finally know joy. You will finally be able to lay down your head in peace and sleep.

Lies. They are all lies. Lies told by the king of liars. Look down and see your chains.

There was a time when Methodist preachers were in the business rattling such chains, of holding them up where people could see them and offering the key to unlock them.

But — by and large — we are too cowardly for that any more.

Don’t blame the blade

I would remind those who cite Scripture as the rationale for their resistance to same-sex marriage to acknowledge the following. Scripture was cited to support prohibitions against the ordination of women, the validation of the enslavement of blacks, support for racial segregation, and resistance to interracial marriage.

– Gil Caldwell, UMR Commentary

Jack the Ripper used a scalpel to murder women in London. Should we not let surgeons use scalpels then?

If the Bible is a means of grace meant to lead us into holiness, then the question is not whether some people have used it to support bad arguments in the past. The only question is “How is the Holy Spirit using scripture right now to lead us into holiness?”

When grammar changes theology

John Wesley loved 1 John. He wrote that it contained the essence of biblical faith, and many of his particular doctrinal emphases can be found in that book.

It is one of those books where translation versions make important differences in what you read. For instance, here is 1 John 3:6 in the NIV:

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

And here it is in the NRSV:

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

I’ve heard a preacher using the NIV text to argue that the point being made by the apostle is that if we persist in sinning we do not live in Christ. Of course, the preacher said, we all sin. The important issue is whether we make a habit of it or whether we keep on sinning.

This is not John Wesley’s take on this text, which reads in the King James much more like the NRSV than the NIV. For Wesley, here and elsewhere the point of the apostle is that being in Christ is incompatible with any sin. As it says in 1 John 1:5, God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

For Wesley, abiding in Christ is a moment by moment thing sustained by the active co-operation of the Spirit entering the believer and believer breathing out love and prayer in the Spirit. While we abide in Christ we cannot sin.

I don’t know whether the grammar of the Greek supports the Wesleyan reading or the NIV translation. The verb tense here, though, carries a lot of meaning. Or it seems to.

What one choice lies at the core of Methodism?

In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley traces his own thinking about holiness and spiritual life over the course of his ministry.

He writes that in 1725 he became convinced that our lives are lived in the light of a single choice. From moment to moment we either live as a sacrifice to God or we live as a sacrifice to the devil. There is no third option or middle ground or gray zone.

As I recall, Wesley elsewhere does acknowledge the existence of matters of indifference. God does not care, for instance, if you prefer grape or strawberry jelly on your toast.

But, in the end, Wesley insists, our lives are either turned toward God or away from God. He does not recognize the vast space we carve out under the name “my time.” For Wesley, time dedicated to our own inclinations is time given over to the devil.

Yes, there is a strongly pessimistic view of human nature at the very core of Wesleyan theology. John Wesley was no romantic.

When I ponder this, I sense in my self a resistance. I have lived my whole life in a culture that tells me to trust myself and lifts up as the authentic life not one lived as a sacrifice to God but one lived in harmony with my own inner impulses. The very first step, the first conviction, of Wesley’s theology is at odds with the animating spirit of the culture in which I have lived my whole life.

And so, I find myself forced to decide whether I share Wesley’s conviction. Is my life at this very moment being lived either in darkness or in light, with no room for any option between these two? Is doing my own thing the devil’s invitation?

The biblical place my mind goes to here is Revelation and the great judgment. I notice that there is only one choice: lake of fire or life.

I also recall one of my favorite verses, 1 John 5: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

It feels like an impossible standard. I despair over being able to reach it and understand why Wesley’s contemporaries accused him of making the standard of true Christianity to high for people to attain.

The great purity of intention and action held out as necessary seems unreachable because it is. Wesley would teach over and over that we can only have the kind of holiness he sought by the grace of God, which we must seek and expect.

And so I find myself with my Bible in my hand wanting the chance to talk with Rev. Wesley of 1725. Show me how this conviction came to take hold of your heart do firmly. I want to see whether my heart beats in a similar manner.

A guaranteed way to fail your theology final

I’ve been rereading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. It was an important book in the formation of John Wesley’s faith, and therefore important to the development of our Methodist way.

This goes out to all my friends in seminary writing doctrine and theology finals.

What avail is it to man to reason about the high, secret mysteries of the Trinity if he lack humility and so displeases the Trinity? Truly, it avails nothing. Deeply inquisitive reasoning does not make a man holy or righteous, but a good life makes him beloved by God. I would rather feel compunction in my heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction. If you know all the books of the Bible merely by rote and all the sayings of the philosophers by heart, what will it profit you without grace and charity? All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. This is the most noble and the most excellent wisdom that can be in any creature: by despising the world to draw daily nearer and nearer to the kingdom of heaven.

Our peculiar doctrine

From John Wesley’s journal of February 1789:

Friday, 6, being the Quarterly Day for meeting the Local Preachers, between twenty and thirty of them met at West-Street, and opened their hearts to each other. Taking the opportunity of having them all together, at the watch-night, I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust;” particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.

That doctrine, expounded upon in detail in Wesley’s great sermon “Christian Perfection,” teaches that while humans prior to the Second Coming will never be free from ignorance, mistakes, weakness of the flesh, or temptation, the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts does give Christians power to resist all sin — in thought and deed. By an act of grace God will sanctify in this life those whom he has justified.

Wesley preached this for nearly his entire post-Aldersgate ministry. And he was resisted all along the way by those within and outside Methodism who objected on scriptural or experiential grounds. After his death, this doctrine would give rise to splits as groups that held firm to Christian Perfection — or as Wesley also called it in his sermon, holiness — broke off from the moderating masses of Methodists.

We United Methodists still hold to this doctrine formally. It is still committed to our trust. But it is a relic that we keep in the attic.

I wonder what it would be like if in the upcoming Annual Conference season every bishop in United Methodism followed Wesley’s example in 1789 and pressed on the gathered preachers to affirm, embrace, and proclaim again this peculiar doctrine and all it entails.