This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Body and Mind

When many Christians discuss on “spiritual growth,” they generally mean Bible study, prayer, and other “religious” activities. But while that’s an important part of spiritual growth, it’s only one part of the picture.

Since God created all things good, it is safe to say He values them, and so we should as well. This means we need to be concerned about growth in all areas of our lives, not just “religious” or “spiritual” activities. Limiting Christian growth to things like prayer and Bible study is actually more Gnostic than Christian—it suggests that there’s a radical split between the physical and the spiritual, an idea that has no foundation in the Bible.

Our souls are the critical point for personal development, since we need to use our will to choose to take actions that will lead to growth. But developing the soul directly is difficult. Rather, the soul is generally developed indirectly, through building habits of body and mind that will feed and shape it. So let’s look at these two areas.

Ideas about spiritual growth usually ignore the body, but that is a serious mistake. Our physical strength (frequently described in Scripture in terms of endurance rather than raw power) is a critical component to anything we want to accomplish in life. Put simply, if we are tired or lack energy, it is extremely difficult to focus on anything, and we are more susceptible to temptation and more likely to fall into easier (and generally bad) habits.

Without physical energy, it is impossible to cultivate the mind and the soul, a fact recognized by the classical idea of “a sound mind in a sound body.” (It is also the legendary origin of kung fu, which is said to have grown out of exercises that were taught to monks at the Shaolin temple to keep them from falling asleep during meditation.) So it is important to commit ourselves to a process of physical development. This includes taking care of our health (since our bodies are temples of God) and cultivating our energy through diet, exercise, and rest.

With increased energy, we are in a better position to cultivate the mind. Christians tend to assume that this means knowledge of Scripture, and that is certainly part of it. But this is only part of building the mind. If God is the source of all things and Jesus is Lord of all, then God is interested in all of life and we can study any and every subject as a legitimate part of our personal development and as a spiritual activity.

This includes advancing in our professional life. Whatever you do for a living, unless it is criminal or intrinsically immoral, it is a sacred and holy calling by God for your life at this time. Professional development is therefore also a spiritual activity.

If you’ve been a student you already know how to learn, and all those skills can be applied here. But learning for transformation rather than information is a slightly different process. You need to learn new information, but you also need to let that new information sink deep into you to change how you think. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). So how do we do this? That will be the subject of the next post.

Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength

Continuing our discussion of God’s priorities, we see that proper love comes from the inside out, heart to soul to mind to strength (physical actions). To understand this, it will be helpful to define the terms Jesus uses:

  • Our strength refers to our physical body.
  • Our mind is our thought life and our ability to reason and think.
  • Our soul is our settled convictions, core values, conscience, memory, and will, which together comprise the essence of who we are. The Greek word is psyche, the root word for psychology, and is often translated as an individual’s “life” (e.g. Mark 8:35). As C. S. Lewis put it, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” To be more precise, we are embodied souls.
  • The heart is the even deeper levels of our being, the innermost core of who we are that is generally invisible to us. Scripture tells us that only God knows our heart, which means we don't even know it completely.
We live from the inside out: our hearts move our souls, which then choose what we think about and what we do.

This raises a problem, however: I don’t have direct control over my heart. I (that is, my soul) can control my body and mind, but I can’t will my heart to change because the heart is a deeper part of me than my will.

So how do I move my heart to love God completely?

We may live from the inside out, but we grow primarily from the outside in. In other words, what we choose to do and to think about consistently will mold our souls, which then shapes our hearts. If we are going to change and grow, we need to develop new patterns of action and thought, because this will change our internal lives.

I would take this further to argue that since God expects our best, it is important for us to work to grow ourselves on all levels, heart, soul, mind, and strength. Growing in love for God will inevitably put us on a journey of personal growth as well.

In practical terms, the same applies to loving our neighbors: we need to grow ourselves so that we have more to give to them. For example, the best thing we can do for the poor is not to be one of them ourselves. As John Wesley said, we should make as much as we can, save as much as we can, and give as much as we can. Growing ourselves enhances our ability to help others.

So how do we grow ourselves in such a way that we can love God completely, love ourselves correctly, and love our neighbor compassionately? This is the subject of the next post.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Priorities for the New Year

As we are looking to the New Year, how should we set our priorities?

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is, “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-31)

What does this tell us about priorities? First, the most important thing in our lives from God’s perspective is our relationships with Him and with each other. Everything He expects from us is built on the quality of our relationships.

Second, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about here isn’t primarily emotional. It isn’t even a feeling, it’s an action. Jesus tells us that if we love him, we will obey him (John 14:15, 21): love is demonstrated in the concrete actions we do to please and serve the one we love. Similarly, John tells us that if we do not take practical steps to help others in need we don’t love them (1 Jn. 3:17), and if we don’t love them, we don’t love God (1 Jn. 4:20). Even self-love is defined by Paul in terms of taking care of our own needs (Eph. 5:28-29).

As a starting point, I suggest some self-assessment: how well are we doing in loving God with our whole being as measured by our obedience to Him? How are we doing in loving our neighbors as measured by our service to them, starting with our families and working outward from there?

As I noted in the "New Year's Resolutions" post, if you try to change everything at once, you will fail. What is one specific thing you can do to improve in each of these areas? Maybe there’s a specific sin in your life that you need to overcome. Maybe you need to be more consistent in your Bible reading or prayer life. Maybe you can do something each day to help your spouse around the house. Pick something that you can make a daily habit, write it down, and work on it consistently for one month. At the end of the month reassess yourself and see if you are ready to make another change. Repeat this process each month. If you do this consistently all year, you will find that you’ve grown considerably in obeying these two commandments.

In addition to these areas, however, personal development is also important. If we are going to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we should also seek to grow in all these areas. We’ll look at some ideas about how to do this in the next post.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

Everyone talks about New Year’s resolutions, but few people take them very seriously. They’re things we want to do to improve ourselves or to address our dissatisfaction with our lives, but within a few weeks we normally have fallen off the wagon, and having failed once, we forget about them.

If you look over the past year, how have you done? Have you advanced in your relationships with God, with your family, and with your friends? How about professionally and personally? Did you move forward in the things that are important to you? If you continue on the trajectory you’ve set in the last 12 months, will you be happy about where will you be next year? In five years? In ten years? Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like the answer, you need to be willing to put in the work and to establish new habits that will change the direction you are going.

Personally, I know my life needs work.

The question is, how do we begin?

One place to start is looking at why resolutions fail. A lot of reasons come to mind, but I think three are particularly important. First, our resolutions are too extreme: we try to change too much, too fast. Second, we don’t bring others into our resolutions, so that we lack social support and accountability partners, or even worse, we have people around us who are actively undermining our efforts. Third, we lack staying power; that it is simply easier to fall back into old habits than to expend the energy over time that it takes to develop new habits to replace the old.

So how do we fix these?

Suppose you have a big goal for the year, for example, losing 50 pounds. That sounds like a lot, but it really only amounts to about a pound a week. It doesn’t take dramatic action to reach that target, only consistent, small decisions about what you eat and drink and about your physical activities. In the same way, most other big goals can be reached through small decisions that we make daily.

It takes about three weeks to develop a new habit. I would suggest adjusting one habit in any area of your life that you want to improve and spending a full month on it. Evaluate where you are at the end of the month: if you haven’t been consistent, keep working to develop that habit; if you are solid in the habit and are making satisfactory progress toward your goal, keep at it, or if you think you’re ready to add more, maintain the first habit and add something new.

Dramatic change is the result of the accumulation of small changes over time.

Second, enlist the aid of the people you live with, and find someone who you trust who will hold you accountable. Again, using the example of weight loss, most people who fail in weight loss programs do so because of a lack of social support. If the people closest to you won’t support your goals, find out why. You may need to rethink what you're doing. But if their reasons don’t hold water—for example, they don’t believe you can succeed or don’t want you to because it threatens them—then find someone who will support you and move on.

Third, keep your long term goals in front of you, and keep reminding yourself of the importance of taking small steps toward them. You should write your goals out, ideally in long hand (it activates a different part of the brain than typing), and if possible do this daily. It will remind you of what you’re doing and why.

You will also need to increase your energy level, since it takes energy to build new habits. Diet, exercise, and rest are all part of this, but this post is already too long, so we will explore these in a later post.

(For those of you who want to pursue these ideas further, I highly recommend the book, The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson. It’s the best book on personal growth I have ever read. And no, I don’t get a commission on the sales.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Paradoxes of the Incarnation

The Source of all things acquires something He did not have before—a human nature.
The Author of Life is born into the world.
The One who fills all of space and time is confined in a manger.
The all-powerful God becomes a helpless baby.
The Commander of the Armies of Heaven flees as a refugee from a petty tyrant.
The Word made flesh learns to speak.
The eternal, unchanging God changes and grows.
The Wisdom of God grows in wisdom.
The immortal One takes on mortality so that mortals can put on immortality.

May you be filled with wonder as we celebrate the coming of the Lord.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas, Saturnalia, and other Nonsense

When talking about the date of Christmas, people routinely will tell you that we don’t know when Jesus was born, but we celebrate Christmas in December because it’s the church’s response to the popular pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The “Jesus Myth” theory, which says that Jesus never actually lived but that his story was stolen from paganism, takes this one step further and argues that along with Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and a host of other dying and rising solar deities were all celebrated on or near December 25; the church ripped off these stories as it invented the life of Jesus.

This is all nonsense if you actually look at the historical evidence.

The early church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth, and until the third century there was no real interest in the date. (This by itself should put the lie to the idea that Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed sun deity—if he was, you’d expect the date to be established very early.) In the third century, some church leaders began trying to figure out the date of his birth, with May 20 being a popular choice. In the mid-fourth century, either December 25 in the West or January 6 in the East emerged as the consensus dates for celebrating Jesus’ birth.

So how did they come up with those dates?

Although a few early Christian writers noted a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth, none make any connection to pagan myths, which is rather surprising if that was the point of the date. In fact, the idea that our date for Christmas was influenced by pagan festivals only appears in the twelfth century, 800 years or so after the event. No contemporary evidence suggests that Saturnalia or the birth of sun gods had anything to do with Jesus’ birth.

In actuality, the date of Christmas is connected to the date of Good Friday. Jesus died on 14 Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar; this got translated to March 25 in the Roman solar calendar. An anonymous fourth century treatise argues that Jesus entered the world (i.e. was conceived) on the same day that he died; the feast of the Annunciation was thus set to March 25, which made the date for his birth December 25.

In the East, the Crucifixion was dated to April 6—which is nine months from January 6, their date for Christmas.

The idea that there is a connection between Jesus’ conception and death probably came from Jewish thought. Jewish rabbis believed that the world was created in the month of Nisan, the patriarchs were born in Nisan, Passover occurred in Nisan, and the redemption of the Jews at the end of the era would also occur in Nisan. This thinking seems to have informed early Christian theologians as they pondered the relationship between Jesus’ birth and death.

Correlation does not mean causation: just because Jesus’ birth was celebrated at the same date as pagan festivals does not mean that there is a connection between the two, especially since there is no evidence of such a connection in the sources. The Jewish background to Christianity and the connection with the Crucifixion is a much better explanation for both of the dates when Christmas was celebrated than any supposed connection to paganism.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Christmas Mystery"

My daughter Elizabeth is a poet and hymn writer. This is the fourth of her Advent and Christmas hymns, with an explanation of how she got the ideas. You should also check out her three previous blog entries with her other hymns for the season.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Death at Christmas

Eddie died sixteen years ago next week.

He was my father-in-law, a good and faithful man, whom I loved and respected tremendously. I still miss him. He had cancer, and although the prognosis was reasonably good, he didn’t respond to treatment. We got the word that he was near death, and so we had to hustle to leave for Michigan from our home in Connecticut a day earlier than we had planned. We left in the middle of the afternoon during a heavy snowstorm, drove until 1 or 2 in the morning, spent the night in a motel, and drove the rest of the way. When we arrived, Eddie was in a coma, and he died peacefully a few hours later. I remember when we told my 6 year old daughter that Papa Eddie had died, and I remember her tears. I think she was wondering why God didn’t answer her prayers.

She wasn’t the only one.

I wondered why he had to die, and why of all times it had to be just before Christmas.

I found an answer in my favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Two of the verses read:

O come thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.
 O come thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery.

I realized that I had the situation backwards. The real story wasn’t so much that Eddie had died in Advent, but that Christmas is God’s response to death with all its pain, sorrow, and misery. Rather than being upset at the timing of Eddie’s passing, I could take comfort in the message of Advent even as we held his funeral. I was still angry, but not at God. Instead, I was angry at the reality of death, the wrongness of it, even as I could find peace amid my own tears because Jesus does open wide our heavenly home and give us victory o’er the grave.

I have since lost both of my parents. Every time I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I think of them, and of Eddie, and I am reminded why Christmas happened. There are still tears, but I know they are temporary, and that sooner than I expect it, right around the corner, we will be reunited, never to be separated. And then there will be no more tears, ever.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poverty Series

These are the links for the series on poverty I did earlier this year.

The Image of God

I published a series of articles on the image of God at the Colson Center for Biblical Worldview some time ago, but there is no convenient way to find the whole series. The links are included here.