Some Thoughts on Florence Shinn and The Game of Life and How to Play It

487619_114A number of months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Complete Works of Florence Shinn, a monograph containing four of her works: The Game of Life and How to Play It, Your Word is Your Wand, The Secret Door to Success, and The Power of the Spoken Word, all four written from 1925-1945. My comments in this post are a reflection on the first work, and, apparently, Shinn’s most famous work, The Game of Life and How to Play It.

I would like to begin by noting what I think is positive about Shinn’s work. I do not disagree with the general principle that what we say and what we think is powerful. I do not disagree that binding yourself to certain ideas or sentiments oftentimes seems to create self-fulfilled prophecies. For instance, the person who is obsessed with illness oftentimes seems to get sick. The person with the positive attitude, who has a strong sense of faith and optimism, oftentimes seems to overcome obstacles.

Furthermore, I do not disagree with the general idea that attitude is important, that verbalization seems in some sense to trend toward actualization, and that the inward disposition tends to manifest itself outwardly. I do not even disagree with the general idea that one’s disposition and attitude, which is usually reflected in one’s words and actions, has a kind of attractional pull. That is, like tends to attract like.

In noting these realities, Shinn has a point. What is alarming to me, however, is that Shinn goes far, far beyond these ideas as general principles and has created instead a metaphysical system that, tragically, is buttressed by a talismanic and almost magical view of language (heck, the second work is literally entitled Your Word is Your Wand!), the calcification of fairly common sense principles into mechanistic “laws,” the collapse of theological terms and constructs into anthropology, a staggeringly eisegetical approach to scripture in which the wider context of verses is ignored and snippets are reduced to maxims shaped to support Shinn’s tenuous assumptions, the reduction of theological reflections to man’s comfort (usually in monetary terms), and a non-orthodox Christology that appears time and again to reduce Jesus and HIs work to a mere schema of self-actualization and possibly even to man’s own innate power to bring about desirable outcomes.

In short, there is much to be very, very uncomfortable about with Shinn’s work. Let me explain.

Near the end of The Game fo Life and How to Play It, Shinn offers what I would suggest is her thesis statement for the entire work:

All the good that is to be made manifest in man’s life is already an accomplished fact in divine mind, and is released through man’s recognition, or spoken word, so he must be careful to decree that only the Divine Idea be made manifest, for often, he decrees, through his “idle words,” failure or misfortune (p.69).

In that statement you can see the hallmarks of Shinn’s book: the curious use of terminology (i.e., “in divine mind”), the granting of great power to man’s “recognition” or “words,” and the talismanic approach to language (i.e., say the right thing and good things happen, say the wrong thing and bad things happen).

As I finished this work I thought, “This is a Pentecostalized Platonism.” Only in reviewing the first pages of the book again as I began this review did I remember that Shinn indeed gives Plato credit for the basic framework of her ideas: “There are three departments of the mind, the subconscious, the conscious and superconscious…The superconscious mind is the God Mind within each man, and is the realm of perfect ideas. In it, is the ‘perfect pattern’ spoken of by Plato, the Divine Design, for there is a Divine Design for each person” (p.4-5).

Within this framework, Shinn develops the idea that man needs to tap into the affirming, person-exalting intention of the superconscious mind, the God Mind. Why? Because “Infinite Intelligence, God, is ever ready to carry out man’s smallest or greatest demands” (p.7). Shinn loves the idea that God wants to give man whatever man wants and she loves the language of “demand.” We should “demand” this or that, for we are indeed entitled to such. This leads Shinn to say truly shocking things at times:

A student once made this wonderful statement: “When I ask the Father for anything, I put my foot down, and I say: Father, I’ll take nothing less than I’ve asked for, but more!” So man should never compromise” (p.72)

Wonderful? The Christian mind cringes at the thought of “putting our foot down” with God. We’re a long way from the writer of Hebrews’ idea of coming “boldly” before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). What Shinn is proposing strikes me as outright presumption and entitlement. Lest you think I am being too hard, please note that Shinn says man should “demand that the enormous sums of money, which are his by divine right, reach him under grace” (p.70).

Here is where we can see how Shinn’s work laid a metaphysical foundation for the prosperity gospel so prevalent on religious television and in many churches today. “Infinite Intelligence” wants you to have your best life now, and if you say the right things and think in the right ways you can tap into that upper level reality and let the blessings flow into your life!

There are other problems. Frequently, Shinn’s handling of scripture is extremely muddled. Take, for instance, Shinn’s handling of Isaiah, 55:11—”so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” In this text, God proclaims His sovereignty and His ability to save His people. In Shinn’s handling, this was said by Isaiah and demonstrates “that words and thoughts are a tremendous vibratory force, ever moulding man’s body and affairs” (p.10). How tragic. She takes words from God’s mouth and reduces them to an example of an alleged innate self-actualizing power of words in our mouths. This is what I mean when I say that Shinn collapses theology into anthropology. It really is all about man in her mind. This mishandling of scripture occurs time and again in Shinn’s work. For her, “He restoreth my soul” (Ps. 23) “means that the subconscious mind or soul, must be restored with the right ideas, and the ‘mystical marriage’ is the marriage of the soul and the spirit, or the subconscious and the superconscious mind” (p.19). Wait…what?! Shinn even anthropologizes Satan, defining “the tempter” as “the adverse thought or reasoning mind” (p.12).

Shinn’s Christology is woefully lacking. For her, Christ is a purveyor of maxims intended to be used for self-actualization. This leads her into truly dangerous exegetical waters: “When the subconscious is flooded with the perfect ideas of the superconscious, God and man are one. ‘I and the Father are one.’ That is, he is one with the realm of perfect ideas…etc.” (p.19).  I consider Shinn’s handling of scripture to be the single most pernicious and disastrous aspect of her work. That is an absolutely unacceptable way to handle Jesus’ words about His union with the Father. Here’s another instance of her misuse of the words of Jesus: “Jesus Christ said, ‘And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ So, we see freedom (from all unhappy conditions) comes through knowledge…” (p.31). But is that what Jesus meant by “freedom” there, that you would be free from all unhappy conditions? I kept wondering while reading Shinn what she would say about Job, a man who did NOT invite disaster with careless words, or what she would say to the martyrs who died and suffered and experienced all manner of “unhappy conditions” precisely because they said the right words!

On and on I could go. Some of her statements are just stop-you-in-your-tracks stupefying (“Money is God in manifestation, as freedom from want and limitation, but it must be always kept in circulation and put to right uses” ((p.47-48)).) Some of her statements potentially heap piles of shame upon people who would actually believe them (“All disease, all unhappiness, come from the violation of the law of love” ((p.49)).) Over and over again she reduces everything to man’s own material success (“Many of the richest men in this country have been tithers, and I have never known it to fail as an investment” ((p.52)).) Tithing is “an investment”! Her view of language and its effects sometimes sounds occultic (“It takes a very strong mind to neutralize a prophecy of evil” ((p.56)).) At times her words sound like a caricature of themselves (“…so she determined to deny the loss, and collect the two thousand dollars from the Bank of the Universal” ((p.58)).) She uses this idea of a heavenly “bank” more than once by the way.

While Shinn does refer to God and Christ as external realities and persons, on numerous occasions she refers to God and Christ in ways that make it unclear whether or not these are even entities separate and distinct from human potential (“‘Every man is a golden link in the chain of my good,’ for all men are God in manifestation, awaiting the opportunity given by man, himself, to serve the divine plan of his life” ((p.24)). And again, “A woman in urgent need of money, ‘made light’ upon the Christ within, the superconscious, with the statement, ‘I cast this burden of lack on the Christ (within) and I go free to have plenty’ ((p.38)). And again, “A prenatal treatment should be: ‘Let the God in this child have perfect expression; let the Divine Design of his mind, body and affairs be made manifest throughout his life, throughout eternity” ((p.62)).)

Tellingly, Shinn seems to give us a glimpse of her cards at one point. In redefining “sin” Shinn writes, “The student learns that in metaphysics sin has a much broader meaning than in the old teaching” (p.64). Metaphysics vs. “the old teaching.” That gives us a clue as to what is happening here.

Shinn saw herself as an enlightened soul who could take the traditional language and categories of Christianity and reappropriate them in the service of her man-centered philosophy of betterment. This is evident perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Shinn’s assertion that “Christ was both person and principle; and the Christ within each man is his Redeemer and Salvation. The Christ within is his own fourth dimensional self, the man made in God’s image and likeness” (p.75). Shinn cannot build her system around Christ the “person” for such is tied to objectivity and historicity, to the particulars of the gospel story. Christ as He is is not open to the malleable reshaping of Him into mere self-improvement techniques. But Christ as a principle can be reshaped and used in whatever way we want to reshape and use Him. That is what Shinn has done here: she has not spoken the gospel. She has taken the language of the gospel and baptized it into a philosophy of human self-esteem, self-improvement, and self-betterment. Even the book cover communicates pretty clearly what the upshot of Shinn’s philosophy is:

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I think it was Barth who once said that you don’t get God by shouting “Man!” loudly. I thought about that statement a lot while reading Shinn.

I will try to end this very negative review with a positive: as a precursor of the modern health-wealth-prosperity zaniness of extreme forms of Pentecostalism, Shinn’s work does have historical value. Other than that, I would steer clear.

Habakkuk 3:1-15

Habakkuk 3

1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth. O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. SelahHis splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. SelahYou split the earth with rivers. 10 The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. 11 The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. 12 You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger. 13 You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah14 You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. 15 You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.

One of the more haunting and unsettling films I have ever seen is Werner Herzog’s 1972 “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” starring the eccentric and explosive actor Klaus Kinski. These selections from the Wikipedia article on the film give a good sense of what is happening and of Kinski’s character’s (Aguirre’s) descent into madness:

In 1560, several score of Spanish conquistadors, and a hundred Indian slaves, march down from the newly conquered Inca Empire in the Andes mountains into the jungles to the east, in search of the fabled country of El Dorado…

…[After leading a successful mutiny] Aguirre proves to be an oppressive leader, so terrifying that few protest his leadership…

…On the raft again, the group of slowly starving, feverish men begin disbelieving everything they see, even when shot with arrows. The group stares in disbelief at a wooden ship perched in the highest branches of a tall tree, which Aguirre orders be brought down and refurbished, but Brother Carvajal refuses. In a series of final attacks by unseen assailants, the remaining survivors including Aguirre’s daughter are killed by arrows. Aguirre alone remains alive on the slowly drifting raft. The raft becomes overrun by monkeys. The crazed Aguirre tells them: “I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter, and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God… who else is with me?” The final shot is of him waiting for the monkeys to respond.[1]

Throughout the film, Aguirre becomes increasingly mad, referring to himself as the wrath of God and, in general, evidencing a complete lack of attachment to reality. Earlier in the film Herzog has Kinski stare directly into the camera and say, “I am the wrath of God. The earth I walk upon sees and quakes.”

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There are things that only God can say. There are things that can only be said ofGod. These same things are evidence of insanity when put in the mouth of man. The words that for Aguirre were a sign of madness are for a God a true description and, in fact, reason for worship. In Habakkuk’s prayer from Habakkuk 3, he says something worshipfully of God that Aguirre’s says madly of himself: that God has great wrath and that the earth sees and quakes before Him.

Once again we see the two themes of the wrath of God and the mercy of God: wrath toward the wicked and mercy toward His people. This time these themes are voiced in a powerful prayer of faith and of acceptance on the part of Habakkuk. There is, for the first time in the book, no note of protest here. Habakkuk simply accepts what God says He is going to do. In so doing, Habakkuk extols God’s righteous anger against evil but calls too for God’s mercy.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 14)

Covenant1In an article published in Touchstone magazine entitled “Doorkeeper & Ascension Day!” James Kushiner describes a fascinating Easter tradition in the Antiochian rite Orthodox Church.

Psalm 84:10 reads: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

There is, in fact, a liturgically designated doorkeeper for the Paschal service of the Orthodox Church in the Antiochian rite. He remains behind in the church, while outside the congregation, having processed around the church singing of the Resurrection, awaits entry into the newly lighted church. The church had been in darkness earlier when the congregation left it, bearing only their newly lit paschal candles.

Now outside the church, the priest pounds on the doors three times, saying: “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” (Ps. 24:7)

The doorkeeper shouts from inside: “Who is this King of glory?” (24:8)

Reply: “The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle.”

The priest again pounds on the door, twice more with the same words and dialogue with the doorkeeper, after which the doorkeeper opens the doors to the congregation, which enters the church for the joyous Paschal matins.[1]

That is a beautiful and powerful image: the doors of the church are opened for the King of glory to come in! As we approach our third canon, “for the glory of God,” and its covenant components, I cannot help but ask myself this question: have the doors of our church been opened to the God of glory or have we diminished our understanding of Him to the point where we do not even understand what His glory means? Can we see the glory? Can we feel the glory? Truly, wherever the God of glory is present, the hearts of His people should know it and celebrate it. Toward this end we move now to the third section of our covenant:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God

As we begin to unpack the glory of God and how we as His children bring glory to Him, let us first ask for some basic definitions so that we can understand that about which we speak.

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Habakkuk 2:6-20

Habakkuk 2

6 Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” 7 Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. 8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them. 9 “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! 10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond. 12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! 13 Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 15 “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! 16 You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! 17 The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them. 18 “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! 19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. 20 But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

I am struck by a stunning painting painted in 1851-3 by the British artist John Martin entitled “The Great Day of His Wrath.”

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The Tate website description of the piece is most helpful and interesting.

This is the third picture in Martin’s great triptych, known as the Judgement Series. Along with the other two vast panels, The Last Judgement and The Plains of Heaven…it was inspired by St John the Divine’s fantastic account of the Last Judgement given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Martin’s aim in producing this series was highly Romantic: to express the sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God’s will. Of all Martin’s biblical scenes, this presents his most cataclysmic vision of destruction, featuring an entire city being torn up and thrown into the abyss.

The Book of Judgement is sealed with seven seals. As each seal is broken, mysterious and terrifying events occur, culminating in the breaking of the sixth seal:

and, lo, there was a great earthquake’ and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; | And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. | And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. (Revelation 6:12-14)

Martin follows the biblical description closely, but adds his own sensational effects. A blood-red glow casts an eerie light over the scene. The mountains are transformed into rolling waves of solid rock, crushing any buildings that lie in their wake. Lightning splits the giant boulders which crash towards the dark abyss, and groups of helpless figures tumble inexorably towards oblivion.

The three pictures in the triptych became famous in the years after Martin’s death and were toured throughout England and America. They were described as “The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world valued at 8000 guineas”…Many mezzotints of the pictures were sold, but the vastness and theatricality of Martin’s visions now appeared outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and the paintings themselves failed to find a buyer. By the twentieth century, Martin’s work had fallen into obscurity and he became known as ‘Mad Martin’. In 1935 the triptych was sold for seven pounds and the separate panels dispersed. It was reunited by the Tate in 1974.[1]

The painting itself is beautiful and powerful and captures something of the immensity and devastation of the day of judgement. I am intrigued by the painting, but I am also intrigued by the painting’s story. This astonishing depiction of God’s wrath and judgment went from being celebrated, valuable, and of interest to large audiences to being somewhat ignored, considered outdated, and of much less value.

What strikes me about the journey of this amazing painting of judgment is that, in some ways, it reflects the journey of the amazing doctrineof judgment. There was a time when preaching on judgment and the wrath of God was commonplace, was valued, and was appreciated by many, many people. This is much less so now. In many ways, it seems that the doctrine of God’s judgment and God’s wrath is much less valuable to many, even in the church. This is tragic because the jettisoning of divine wrath from one’s conception of God will inevitably lead to a warped and skewed theology.

In Habakkuk 2:6-20 the Lord declares five woes upon Babylon. Yes, God would use Babylon to chasten His own sinful people, but God’s pronouncement of woes on Babylon means that His justice is consistent, and that the wicked people He would allow to bring discipline would themselves be the objects of discipline in time.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 13)

Covenant1In 1974 over two-thousand Christians from around the world gathered at Lausanne, Switzerland, for a meeting to discuss the mission of the church. Out of that meeting came a movement, the goals of which are expressed in The Lausanne Covenant. Article 6 of that covenant, “The Church and Evangelism,” says something very interesting: “World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.”[1]

That is a powerful phrase indeed: “the whole Church [taking] the whole gospel to the whole world.” British Old Testament scholar Christopher J.H. Wright has commented on the phrase thus:

The phrase suggests there may be some versions of the gospel that are less than whole—that are partial, deficient, less than fully biblical…As gospel people we must believe, live and communicate all that makes the gospel the staggeringly comprehensive good news that it is.[2]

Wright is right! There are deficient gospels and the church must shun them for the true gospel, the whole gospel. This emphasis on the whole gospel, the whole counsel of God, is extremely important. A partial gospel will not do! A halfway gospel will not do! No, the Lausanne Covenant is correct: we must embrace the whole counsel of God, the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, the concluding statement of the second section of our church covenant expresses that very belief.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

Why have we included this? Why does it matter that we embrace the whole gospel, the whole counsel of God?

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 12)

One of the most stinging indictments of Christian hypocrisy ever penned is Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. Elmer Gantry is a charlatan preacher, a hypocrite who likes money and women and fame. At the end of the book Elmer’s controversies have caught up with him and he realizes he must now face his congregation in shame. The book ends with a truly cringeworthy description of that event.

It had come. He could not put it off. He had to face them.

Feebly the Reverend Dr. Gantry wavered through the door to the auditorium and exposed himself to twenty-five hundred question marks.

They rose and cheered—cheered—cheered. Theirs were the shining faces of friends.

Without planning it, Elmer knelt on the platform, holding his hands out to them, sobbing, and with him they all knelt and sobbed and prayed, while outside the locked glass door of the church, seeing the mob kneel within, hundreds knelt on the steps of the church, on the sidewalk, all down the block.

“Oh, my friends!” cried Elmer, “do you believe in my innocence, in the fiendishness of my accusers? Reassure me with a hallelujah!”

The church thundered with the triumphant hallelujah, and in a sacred silence Elmer prayed:

“O Lord, thou hast stooped from thy mighty throne and rescued thy servant from the assault of the mercenaries of Satan! Mostly we thank thee because thus we can go on doing thy work, and thine alone! Not less but more zealously shall we seek utter purity and the prayer-life, and rejoice in freedom from all temptations!”

He turned to include the choir, and for the first time he saw that there was a new singer, a girl with charming ankles and lively eyes, with whom he would certainly have to become well acquainted. But the thought was so swift that it did not interrupt the pæan of his prayer:

“Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigorous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”[1]

Sinclair Lewis’ point is clear enough: behind all the talk of God and morality and holiness, Elmer Gantry is the same old dog he’s always been. But if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, we who embrace it should not be the same old dogs we always were! No, we should be different. The gospel should work itself out visibly through our lives. Toward this end we have added the next statement in our covenant:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives

What does it mean to “live out the gospel in our lives”? What does the gospel have to do with our hands, our feet, and our tongues? How does the gospel move from “creed” to “character”?

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Habakkuk 1:12-2:5

habakkukHabakkuk 1

12 Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. 13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? 14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15 He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. 17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?

Habakkuk 2

1I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. “Moreover, wineis a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.”

The phrase “Be careful what you ask for!” has a great deal of merit. Sometimes it feels like life has a way of responding to our wishes in ways not only that we could not have foreseen but in ways that sometimes seem downright worse than the way things were before! It is possible that Habakkuk the prophet felt that way after hearing God’s initial response to his voiced complaint in the beginning of the book. Habakkuk had complained about rampant injustice and wickedness in his own land. James Montgomery Boice notes that Habakkuk had seen a period of great national revival only to see it collapse into national godlessness. So Habakkuk complained to God about what he perceived to be God’s inactivity. “Why are you silent? Why will you not do something to right these wrongs?” Habakkuk had asked.

And God had responded.

God told Habakkuk in chapter 1 that He in fact knew what He was doing. He revealed that He was going to use another people to discipline His own rebellious people. The only problem was that the people God was going to use to accomplish His desires was the Babylonians! This was shocking for a couple of reasons, the second worse than the first. First of all, it was shocking because the Assyrians, not the Babylonians, were at that time the dominant power. It was unlikely by any human reckoning that the Babylonians would become a dominant world power. Secondly, it was shocking because the Babylonians were worse than the Jews whom God was seeking to discipline!

Habakkuk, to put it mildly, was flabbergasted. Thus, he complains again…and God answers again. We see this exchange unfolding in Habakkuk 1:12 and following.

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Habakkuk 1:1-11

habakkukHabakkuk 1

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

A couple of years ago a church member told me that I had been both complimented and criticized on Facebook. I guess that makes me no different than anybody else, come to think of it! I am not on Facebook, so I asked him what was said. The person told me that my name had come up and that somebody had said that I was decent enough as a preacher but that I was “an SJW.” I did get a good laugh out of that! If you do not know, “SJW” is a derogatory term that stands for “social justice warrior” and is usually applied to far left, screaming liberals who are constantly offended about this or that, whose entire life is dominated by politics, who have adopted a far-left political agenda, and whose lives are enmeshed in gender, race, and identity politics. Since I am usually criticized for not talking enough about politics from the pulpit, you will perhaps understand why I laughed! As far as what “SJW” means today as an insult against unstable people who are always protesting this or that or are hyper-sensitive to perceived slights, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, I am a pro-life conservative in my politics and, if pressed to speak to the issue, I will quickly say that I find the extreme fringes of both the political left and the right to be pretty shrill and ineffective. So, as far as the comment went, I found it pretty amusing.

If, however, I could be allowed to detach “social justice warrior” from its present-day connotation of a deranged, radical wingnut and use it simply and literally as “somebody who desires a just society,” then I very much hope that all of us would own the term. After all, the Bible is filled with condemnations of injustice. Perhaps we find the most poignant and powerful of these in the prophets. Habakkuk is certainly no exception.

In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet who goes by that name cries out to God for justice in the midst of Judah. The people of God had corrupt rulers and their corruption had seemingly poisoned the whole of society. For this reason, he cries out to God for help. Furthermore, he cries out to God because he feels that God is being silent in the midst of these injustices. Habakkuk cries out, and God answers.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 11)

Covenant1Does it matter what we think about God? Does it matter what kind of theological convictions we hold, what doctrines we adhere to? Some would say no, it does not matter. For instance, consider the following article about an interview the actor Jim Carrey gave 60 minutes some years ago.

JIM CARREY TELLS ’60 MINUTES’: MORE GOD, LESS PROZAC

Thu Nov 18 2004

Jim Carrey says the anti-depressant Prozac that he took may have helped him at one time, but he’s better off without it now. In fact, says the actor, a no-drugs-or-alcohol policy and a spiritual life are the things that make him feel good. Carrey speaks frankly in a rare one-on-one interview with Steve Kroft to be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Nov. 21 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network…

During the interview at his home, he invited 60 MINUTES cameras to one of his most beautiful and private spots, his “center of the universe,” where he goes to escape the world and where he tells Kroft his feelings about God. “This is where I hang out with Buddha, Krishna…all those guys,” says Carrey about a lean-to adorned with candles and a bed built high on his hillside property in Brentwood, Calif.

“I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian. I’m whatever you want me to be…it all comes down to the same thing,” he tells Kroft. Carrey says he believes they are all the same God and it is this conviction and spirituality that make him happy.[1]

That is a very modern-American thing to say—“it all comes down to the same thing”—but most people know, if they think about it, that the statement is nonsense. After all, the creeds Carrey mentions—Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—say very different things about God and about who Jesus Christ is. They cannot all be true.

So I ask again: does it matter what we think about God? Does it matter what doctrines, what beliefs, we adhere to? As a church, we have taken the position that it does matter, that there is such a thing as “sound doctrine” and “unsound doctrine,” and that the follower of Jesus must hold to sound doctrine. To that end, we have placed a statement about adhering to sound doctrine in our church covenant.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine

The question, then, is what is sound doctrine? What are its fruits and evidences? Why is it so important and why are we bound to adhere to it and it only?

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 10)

Covenant1I would like for you to hear a letter from Cynthia Sumner Mell to her son, Patrick Hues Mell, before his conversion and tremendous ministry among Southern Baptists in the 19thcentury:

My Dear Boy:

            It is high time that you and I should communicate frequently and intimately and confidentially. If this is not to be expected by the time you have arrived at fifteen when is it to be looked for? On one account I have more anxiety, even dread on your behalf than for any of my children. Earnestly as I wish a son of mine to be a minister yet I tremble at the idea of educating and devoting a son to the sacred profession without previously satisfactory evidence that his own soul was right with God…My heart burns to see youin every sense of the word a true Christian…You should exercise a jealousy over yourself lest the trifles of this world should deaden your feelings about the grand questions: what are the chances of my salvation—what have I done—what must I do to be saved?…remember they that are Christ’s have crucified their affections and lusts – crucify yours.[1]

Now thatis what a Christian parent sounds like andthatis what a family that has planted the cross deep in its midst sounds like! The next statement in our church covenant has to do with the family’s commitment to worshiping God.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship

What does this mean, “learning the gospel together in family worship”? What it most certainly does not mean is an awkward ten minute devotional in which everybody is peeking at their iPhones and hoping this awkward ritual will soon end! No, I am most certainly not talking about that! In fact, I am not even talking about “family devotionals” per se, though they are a part of what I want to talk about. No, I am talking about something bigger and all encompassing: building a culture of worship in your family, a culture in which the name of Jesus does not hang in the air as an unwelcome and unpleasant guest. I am talking about a family that freely discusses the Lord, freely and naturally prays together, and studies the scriptures together.

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