Monday, May 5, 2014

Kirk or Spock?

I grew up watching Star Trek, and I love the most recent series of Star Trek movies, especially Star Trek Into Darkness. The interaction between Captain Kirk and his Vulcan executive officer Mr. Spock is what makes the show so good. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the conflict between logic and emotion, reason and feeling. Spock is all logic and reason, and if not for his human mother, would make all decisions apart from feelings. It’s not that Spock doesn’t have feelings. On the contrary, Vulcan’s feel more deeply than humans ever could. But like a good Vulcan, he suppresses feelings while approaching everything, including relationships, analytically. He knows the rules and regulations and abides by them at all costs (at least until his human side perks up). Kirk, on the other hand, is driven by instinct. He relies on his heart and trusts his gut feeling, even when it defies logic. Star Trek Into Darkness superbly highlights this dichotomy between logic and emotion. The conflict between reason and emotion is not merely the stuff of science fiction, however. It is a constant battle among Christians as well. In fact, it is a battle we all fight within our own selves.

Over the years I have sat in on numerous Bible studies in which the subject of emotions arises (and sometimes the emotions themselves arise). Invariably the discussion tends to downplay, if not denigrate, feelings as unreliable, untrustworthy, short-lived, and shallow, while reason, logic, and knowledge are lifted up as an objective and trustworthy means of knowing. Reason and emotions are always played against each other. But is this dichotomy Biblical? Is it even reasonable?

First, I think it will help to define our terms. What exactly are feelings, anyway? I suggest that the words “feelings” and “emotions” are too broad to be of much use. Perhaps getting specific will change our perspective. When we say we cannot trust feelings, or that feelings are shallow and short-lived, what feelings do we mean? Joy? Anger? Gratitude? Compassion? What about passion, contentment, peace, wonder, assurance, confidence, intrigue, curiosity, hatred, anxiety, distress, frustration, fear,  grief, agony, sympathy, tenderness, affection, or fondness? These are all feelings.

Are you beginning to see the problem? To simply negate feelings as irrelevant to faith is far too simplistic. For example, isn’t the feeling of gratitude at least a partial basis for our faith response (Lk 17.11-19; 1 Jn 4.19)? While gratitude will not give me faith to begin with, certainly it ought to be a driving force behind my faith, as that which moves me to obey for example—which brings me to the word emotion, and to the real issue.

The root word for emotion is “motion,” or “move.” Emotions are what move us. What moves a person to fight for justice, for example? Is it a purely intellectual belief (reason) that sees injustice as harmful? Or is it a feeling that something is unfair? What caused Jesus to turn the tables over in the temple and chase out the money changers? Was it not the anger he felt over the injustices that were being perpetrated on the poor? Was it logic or compassion that caused Jesus to go to the cross?

We make a false dichotomy when we set emotion against reason. Reason is vital to our faith, and that’s why Paul “reasoned from the scriptures” to persuade Jews that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 17.2; 18.19). Not everyone convinced by reason, however, is moved to act. There were those, for example, who had come to intellectually believe that Jesus was the Christ, but who were not moved to obey (Jn 8.30-31; 12.42). Perhaps reason without feeling is like faith without works, being dead (Jas 2.14-26).

Certainly feelings apart from truth and reason can leave us misguided. But that does not negate feelings as essential to our faith. After all, isn’t “the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111.10) and doesn’t it “endure forever” (Ps 19.9)? Aren’t we to grieve over our sin (Mt 5.3), even to hate it like Jesus did (Heb 1.9)?

Jesus, in fact, was often moved by feelings. When he felt compassion for the crowds he was moved to heal them (Mt 14.13). He wept at Lazarus’ tomb (Jn 11.36).  He felt great distress over the pending cross (Lk 12.50) and agonized in the garden to the point of sweating blood (Lk 22.44). Were these feelings shallow and untrustworthy?

On the other hand, is reason more “trustworthy” than emotion? Human reason is intermixed with our human fallenness with all of its pride, selfishness, and mixed motives (cf. Lk 20.5,14). That’s why Paul said “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Cor 8.1).We are not robots. Not even Spock. The truth is that it is impossible for us to separate our reason from our feelings. None of us is perfectly unbiased and objective. And even when we do reason correctly, reason alone will not move us unless it is accompanied with feelings like compassion, gratitude, love, and joy. It was “for the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross” (Heb 12.2). So while reason is vitally important, let’s be careful we don’t make an idol out of reason.

Jesus said you must “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Lk 10.27). Love demands that our hearts and minds be equally engaged. Reason and emotion may have different functions, but neither is more important than the other. On the contrary, like Kirk and Spock, they complement and complete each other.

So where does emotional expression come in, especially during worship? I’ll save that for my next blog.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Learning the Secret

For the past four or five weeks a friend and I have been reading together through Paul's letter to the Philippians. We finished it this morning, and we were both equally struck by how much practical value in packed into this short little book and how it speaks into our lives, especially in regard to our mindset. When it comes to positive thinking, Zig Ziglar has nothing on Paul, who writes this letter from a prison cell in Rome and yet the constant theme throughout the letter is rejoice, be content, think on good things. This letter gives new meaning to the trite phrase we often use, "It's all good." For Paul, it truly was "all good."

Whether it was enemies preaching the gospel with ulterior motives (1:12-20), the uncertainty of his immediate future destiny (to live or die, remain in prison or be released, 1.21-26; 2.17), his own past failings or regrets (3.12-14), or experiencing either poverty or abundance (4.10-14), to Paul it was truly "all good." "For," he said, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am...the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need" (4.11-12).

Throughout the letter Paul admonishes his readers to rejoice. He speaks of joy or rejoicing no less than ten times in this short letter. He tells his readers to "do all things without grumbling or disputing" (2.18). He urges us to unselfishly consider others as more important than ourselves, just as Christ did (2.1-8), to be anxious about nothing, but be filled with thanksgiving (4.6), and to dwell on the things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and praise-worthy (4.8). If that is not positive thinking, I don't what is.

Yet how often do we find ourselves discontent, grumbling, grouchy, and negative? We complain about the government, we complain about the evil in the world, we complain about how slow the church is to change (I'm looking in the mirror on that one), we complain about upper-level management at work, we complain that the weather is too hot or too cold or too rainy or too dry. The list goes on and on. Not that we should stick our heads in the sand and pretend nothing needs fixing. But the old saying goes, we are either part of the solution or part of the problem.

It really comes down to perspective. The glass is either half empty or half full. To Paul, the glass was not only half full, but actually all the way full and overflowing, even when it appeared nearly empty (4.10-14). How could he be so positive and joyful no matter the circumstance? It was a secret, he said, and he had learned what that secret was (4.12). But he doesn't keep it a secret. The secret is Christ: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (4.13). For Paul, to live was Christ (1.21), and that was the secret. Jesus changes everything. He is the secret to having a joyful, happy life. He is the secret to being positive. He is the secret to seeing the beauty and blessings of life even in the most difficult of circumstances. Jesus makes it "all good" so that in him we can rejoice always.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Do I Live a Christ-Centered Life?

If you were to divide your Christian growth into the following four stages, where do you think you might fall along this spiritual continuum: Exploring Christ -- Growing in Christ -- Close to Christ -- Christ-Centered?

Of course, it might be difficult to answer this question without knowing something about each of those stages--which is where the book Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth, by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson (2011, Willow Creek Assn) comes in. This landmark book is a synopsis of the findings of the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey first conducted by Willow Creek Community Church on themselves in 2004, then over the next six years on 250,000+ people in more than 1000 churches. The findings and analysis of this in-depth survey offer tremendous insight into how a church can help its people become devoted followers of Christ--surely a main goal of every church, right? Every church leader or ministry leader who wants to help people move along that continuum will find many helpful tools in Move.

Here, however, I simply want to talk about the the final stage of growth the authors identified as "Christ-Centered." Based on the survey, this is the most mature stage of a follower of Jesus. This is the goal, the pinnacle, of the Christian life. One who is Christ-Centered can say with the apostle Paul: "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Galatians 2.20). A Christ-Centered person can say, "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). At this stage we have truly "become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom 8.29). Paul seemed to have a lot to say about being Christ-Centered. Better yet, he has a lot to say about Christ, period, no doubt as a reflection of his Christ-Centeredness.

In fact, I believe Paul talked more about becoming like Christ and centered on Christ than he did about going to heaven to be with Christ. Certainly the latter is part of the hope of a Christian (Phil 3.20; 2 Cor 5.8). But both Jesus and his apostles had far more to say about this life than the next. Being a Christian is about becoming Christ-Centered and Christ-Like. There was a time--perhaps in those earlier stages of growth--when I would say things like "It's not about the here and now, but the there and then," meaning that the Christian life is really about life in heaven as opposed to life on earth. Now I might tend to reverse that saying. In a sense, it's all about the here and now. Don't get me wrong. I know that this life is a mere breath compared to eternity (2 Cor 4.16-18). But being a Christian is not simply about waiting around for the hereafter while believing our ticket is punched for heaven. On the contrary, it's about what we are doing and becoming right now. If I don't wish to completely center my life on Christ now, why would I want to be with him in eternity? The reason Paul could say " die is gain" is because he could say "to live is Christ."