Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

Simplicity and Calling (Part 2)

 

In the previous article we offered a definition of minimalism which took the focus off of stuff and placed it upon purpose.  It isn’t about getting rid of things per se, but about getting rid of the things which do not contribute to our purpose in life.  This is the reason that minimalism looks different for every person.  Every one has a different purpose.  This is also the reason that no one can give you a list entitled “The Things You Must Get Rid Of.”

Also in the previous article we suggested that simple living is beneficial because it provides the time and space you need to pursue what you love.  But this assumes that you know what you love or what your purpose is.  That knowledge seems to me a necessary beginning.  If you don’t know what you want to focus on you cannot proceed because you cannot know what is necessary and what is superfluous.  You will always be plagued by the question whether or not you might need this or that thing, whether or not you will regret getting rid of it.  So, this article intends to explore the relationship between calling (or passion or purpose, whichever term suites you best) and simplicity.

Passion, Purpose, or Calling?
Passion.  It is common amongst self-help books about happiness, business, and success to read about following your passion.  I prefer, however, not to talk about passion (though I may use the word occasionally).  This is because passion is too often equated with excitement.  To follow every “passion”, thus defined, would be a license for mere self-indulgence.  While I believe that a person will indeed be passionate about his place in life, self-indulgence is a world away from calling.  Also, excitement is often fleeting whereas true passion is a steady sense of desire and direction.  Though I think Cal Newport oversteps when he says, “there is no special passion waiting for you to discover,” I think that he is on the right track with a number of his observations.  His chief contribution, in my opinion, is that he mitigates the glib use of “passion” in our contemporary society.1

Purpose.  Another word used to describe one’s place in the world is “purpose.”  The benefit of this word is that it moves beyond the syrupy-sweetness of excitement-mistaken-for-passion.  It extends beyond the emotion of a moment and considers the farther reaching vision of an all important goal.  Another advantage to “purpose” is that it carries the idea of an individual place.  It suggests that there is something that you are uniquely suited for in the world (contra Newport).  The disadvantage of the word, however, is that purpose is sensible without any reference to God.  Much of the literature in the self-help genre discusses purpose with no talk of God whatsoever.  Further, because it does not require reference to God one’s purpose can only serve two things: self and society.  The best of the literature points out that fulfillment is only found when talents are used to serve others (society).  The worst of it makes discovering one’s purpose sound as if its only goal is to make money (self).

Calling.  I prefer to speak of “calling” or “vocation.”2 I prefer “calling”, first of all, because of its obvious religious connotations. I am a Christian and I believe in calling because I believe there is a Caller. Second, I prefer “calling” because it has the virtues of “purpose” with none of its vices.3 Insofar as we are called we receive it as a gift, not an achievement (this need not, however, preclude effort/development of our call–Newport is good here). Though it remains possible to brag about one’s calling, acknowledging the Caller helps to suppress the prideful impulse. In the Corinthian church it appears as though there were some who thought highly of themselves because of their gifts, indicating that it is still possible to brag. But that one should not brag seems obvious in Paul’s retort, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Os Guinness describes this necessary humility when he writes, “God normally calls us along the line of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness.”4

General and Specific Calling
Both our general and specific callings are correlates of our being human.  First, as human beings we all share a common purpose, i.e. to image God into the world (cf. Gen. 1:26-28).  We are to imitate him by shining his love and creativity into the world.  This is our general purpose.  It is incumbent upon all men and women every where.  Regardless of whether a person is an author, a health coach, a bank teller, a garbage man, a surgeon, a musician, a dancer, or an elementary school teacher, he must always perform his duty with love and to the glory of God.

Second, as human beings we are also finite.  This is the condition which requires our specific callings.  No one person can do all that needs to be done.  The skills necessary to create a peaceful and productive society do not all reside in one person.  This requires that each person have a specific place.  A politician may have little interest in mechanics but when the politician needs her car repaired she will be thankful for the mechanics in the world.  Likewise, the mechanic may have little interest in economics but when those issues are debated he will be thankful for those who are well versed in such things.  We need one another.  We ought to be thankful for those in the world who have different interests and talents than we do.  We need them all to preserve and improve the world in which we live.

Discerning Your Calling
In some sense discerning one’s calling is equivalent to seeking the answer to the question, “Who am I?”  Four answers5 are commonly suggested: A. I am who I am constrained to be.  This is the idea that I am the result of my circumstances.  I was born into this family in this country in this neighborhood to these parents at this time.  That is who I am and I cannot be otherwise.  B. I am who I am constituted to be.  This is the idea that one’s DNA determines one’s life.  C. I am who I have the courage to be.  This is the idea that you are the master of your fate.  Your identity is not fixed by anything but your own will.  D. I am who I am called to be.  This is the Christian belief.  While acknowledging that circumstances and DNA play their part, and that courage is necessary in answering God’s call, it does not make any one of these things the whole.  Our identity is found in God alone, our creator.  Therefore, we may only properly discern our call with reference to him.  I offer here three suggestions for doing so:

  1.  What do you enjoy?  God is involved in forming who we are from the very beginning (cf. Ps. 139:13-18; Jer. 1:4-10).  God also loves us and expects us to enjoy the life he has offered us (Php. 4:4; 1 Tim. 6:17).  It stands to reason then that we will likely enjoy doing whatever God has set for us to do.  As John Piper is fond of saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  If you don’t know what you love to do, take the time to find out.  Try new things.  Dream dreams.  Imagine a life that you would love to live.
  2. What are your talents?  God grants us inclinations and abilities which reflect his varied grace into the world (cf. Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Pet. 4:10, 11).  This means considering both your natural abilities and those that you have worked to develop.  And while those may be the same thing they need not be.  It is important here to listen to the people around you.  The primary way God speaks to us is through his word; Second to that is through the community.  It is entirely possible that others notice in you a skill that you have never noticed in yourself.  During this time of discernment speak to others about your journey and listen to what they have to say.  All the while be sure to pray.  When Judas’ apostleship was being replaced the community nominated two to take his place.  The final decision, however, was left to God (Acts 1:15-26).  The decision was made by both community and prayer.  These will help set you in the right direction.
  3. What needs to be done?  This is immensely important.  Without this question calling is tempted to selfishness.  But there is no room for selfishness in vocation.  Our gifts are “ours for others.”6  God is on a mission.  There are things that need to be done in the world, and we are his body on earth.  We are the hands and feet through which God works to accomplish that mission.  The ultimate example of calling is Jesus Christ and his self-sacrifice.  He “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  Whenever Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discusses discerning one’s calling he suggests our purpose is found “where what you want to do meets what needs to be done.”7

Purposeful Play
These suggestions ought not to be treated as a mathematical formula as if one could put the data into a computer and get the answer.  There is a mystery about life.  God is not in the habit of shouting from heaven.  Our sense of calling rarely comes with such clarity.  Oswald Chambers is supposed to have written: “If you can tell where you got the call of God and all about it, I question whether you have ever had a call.”8 This ambiguity, however, must not stop us from living. We cannot sit back and wait until “we’re sure.” There is work to be done and we must do it. Rather, this ambiguity invites us into purposeful play. If you are unsure of your place in the world then you are duty bound to pursue it, and that gives a purposeful direction t0 your life. But so long as we offer our efforts to God we need not fear his displeasure. This makes it play. We may not discovered a settled certainty until later in life but that is the nature of calling. Wisdom is always a process.  Discernment is a journey.  Life is lived forward and understood backward.

Simplicity and Calling
Simplicity relates both to our general and our specific call.  All people have been called to glorify God in their lives.  Part of that involves maintaining godly relationships and maintaining good health.  Whatever impedes the fulfillment of such a call needs to go.  If that means getting rid of bad relationships, working less, getting rid of stuff and/or buying fewer things then that’s what needs to happen.

In regard to our specific callings: if you have confidence in the particular direction God is calling you then you have a responsibility to answer that call.  To ignore it is to be in dereliction of duty.  That means that whatever impedes that purpose needs to go.  This is the relationship between simplicity and calling.  If living a simple life means getting rid of unnecessary things in order to focus upon what is most important that requires that you first know what is most important.  Hopefully this has helped to give you some perspective into what is most important and how to find it.  The only question is, will you fulfill that purpose?  Being human means sharing a purpose with all humanity (because we are all human) and have a specific purpose (because we are all finite).  So get rid of the junk.  And be simply human.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. “‘Follow Your Passion’ is Crappy Advice.” Joshua Fields Millburn. Available at http://www.theminimalists.com/cal/ ; Internet; Accessed 2 January 2017.
2. They both mean the same thing. “Calling” comes from an Anglo-Saxon root while “vocation” is from Latin. Given a choice between these two I prefer “calling.” Although they are technical equivalents “vocation” has often been flattened to indicate mere occupation/job.
3. It is not my intention to argue over semantics. The most important thing is not what word we use but what we mean by that word. I have made a distinction here as a heuristic device to describe different conceptions of “goals” although I often use these terms interchangeably. While I use vary my terms for stylistic purposes one should always understand my description of “calling” as being the background of all such usage.
4. Os Guiness, The Call, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 45.
5. Ibid, 20-26.&#*617;
6. Ibid, 47.
7. “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Finding Purpose.” An interview for JINSIDER. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDZV6v7BLrs ; Internet; Accessed 6 January 2017.
8. As quoted in The Call, Os Guiness, 51.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 3)

 

In our discussion of habits we have learned that habits are formed through the “frequent and constant pairing of internal responses with external events.”1 We described this in terms of Charles Duhigg’s “habit-loop.”2 We also described how habits can actually create love/craving.3 This, however, presents us with a problem which is the subject of this article. Because habits are formed by “frequent and constant pairing” it is possible to learn bad habits without knowing it.

Some habits we choose to develop through practice. We choose to undergo the routine of piano practice or dance practice or learning to drive. These habits have their own habit-loops. And we choose to create them. But it is also possible that habit-loops are formed without our knowing. Someone may be commandeering our humanity for their own purposes. (The Power of Habit is about just that–about how companies, through knowledge of the habit-loop, create habits in us without us knowing). Consider a few examples of how we might learn something without knowing it.

Most of us are familiar with The Karate Kid even if we haven’t seen it.  At least we are familiar with the famous Wax-On-Wax-Off scene.  A younger generation may better know the newest incarnation of the film with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.  For them Wax-On-Wax-Off has become Jacket-On-Jacket-Off.  In the film Dre Parker comes to Mr. Han and asks him to teach him Kung-Fu.  The first lesson is a lesson in respect.  Dre has a bad habit of throwing his jacket on the floor instead of hanging it up.  Mr. Han insists he put his jacket on, take it off, throw it on the ground, and then hang it up.  Dre thinks this is all about respect.  He comes to learn that while his mind may have been learning respect his body was learning Kung-Fu.  The movements involved in his jacket exercises are the same ones used to defend and to strike in Kung-Fu.  Dre is astonished at all that he learned without even knowing.  Mr. Han explains this phenomenon by saying, “Kung-Fu lives in everything we do, Xiao Dre.  It lives in how we put on the jacket, how we take off the jacket.  It lives in how we treat people.  Everything is Kung-Fu.”  Just like he learned Kung-Fu without realizing it we can also learn to love a particular vision of The Good Life without realizing it.  We could paraphrase Mr. Han and say, “Love lives in everything we do … Everything is love.”  We can do so because “no habit or practice is neutral … All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person.  So one of the most important questions we need to ask is: Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed?”4

I doubt many of us will be learning Kung-Fu from Jackie Chan, but that does not mean that we do not learn things in a similar manner. We often learn things without intending. First, consider the fact that many people know the Wax-On-Wax-Off reference even if they’ve never seen the movie. The reference is simply “in the air” and, like much of our knowledge (including habits), it is “caught not taught.” Second, there is a whole set of words called collocations which we know “by heart” without ever having been taught.  These are word pairs which always appear in the same order.  There is no rational reason as to why they must appear in that order but native speakers know in which order they are supposed to occur, and they recognize how odd those pairs sound in the wrong order.  Phrases like “back and forth” sound odd when arranged as “forth and back.”  “Down and out” also sounds off if reversed to become “out and down.”  Native speakers would likely understand the meaning if the collocations were used incorrectly but they would also know that it is incorrect.  Further, if a student was to ask why they must be in that order we would have no answer except, “They just are.”  Collocations are “caught not taught.”  We learned them simply by being regularly exposed to their “frequent and constant pairing.”   Chances are most native speakers reading this never knew collocations existed.  They were certainly never sat down with a list of word pairs and taught that these words must always appear in that order.  That’s not how it works.  We learned these things without knowing we were learning them.

These examples are different but the mechanism is the same.  And the difference between these things is an important one.  Certain habits touch nearer to the center of who we are than others.  Learning collocations does not change us nearly so much as learning Kung-Fu.  And learning to be compassionate touches us even nearer to our core.  James K.A. Smith names these greater and lesser habits “thick” and “thin” practices.

 

“There seems to be an important difference between the goal of learning to type automatically and the goal of being the sort of person who forgives ‘automatically.’  There’s a difference between automatic habits that enable one to drive a car and automatic habits that make one dispositionally nonviolent.  Brushing one’s teeth may be an automated activity, but it seems significantly different from being compassionate automatically.”5

 

Remember, habits have the capacity to create love. Whether it’s a craving for tingling gums, a head of shampoo suds6, or a craving for justice, habits can create these desires. But when these habits are “thick” and touch our ultimate desires/loves then these habits can be effectively described as liturgies. “Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately … Our ultimate love is what defines us, what makes us the kind of people we are. In short, it is what we worship.”7 In other words, these practices are quite literally teaching us what to worship. And because this sort of automation happens through “frequent and constant pairing”, often without our knowledge, we could very well be learning to worship things other than the God of heaven without even knowing it.

Take the mall for example.8   It has its own liturgies with its own recognition of “sin” and promise of redemption. This liturgy creates a love of “stuff” which promises me freedom from my own mediocre life and redemption from social ineptitude. The following is an exegesis of the Story within the liturgy of the Mall.

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.9 The mall has its own version of sin and brokenness. In the Message of the Mall my brokenness is not ethical but material, physical, and social. I am faced with all of the “stuff” that makes families in the ads so happy and at the same time tells me that I don’t have that same stuff. Each mannequin and photoshopped portrait I pass convicts me of my failure to measure up to media standards. And the happy smiles surrounding the man/woman with the new shoes remind me that I am not surrounded by those same smiles. And each one of these while condemning also offers redemption. If only I bought the stuff I could be happy. If only I were as skinny I could be pretty. If only I had the shoes I could be popular. “As such, the liturgies of the market and mall convey a stealthy intuition about my own brokenness (and hence a veritable need for redemption), but in a way that plays off the power of shame and embarrassment.”10

2. I shop with others.11 We could just as well say “I shop against others.” The social relationship fostered by the liturgies of the Mall is not one of mutual respect and communion but one of subjective comparison and competition. Just as the Mall trains us to compare ourselves to the standards of mannequins and paintshopped models, it also trains us to see other people that way. We learn to assess others in a blink to recognize whether they measure up to the ideals of the Mall. We also learn to “keep score” in our competition with others. When we measure our opponents against the Perfect Example (incarnated in mannequins and photoshopped ads) we also measure ourselves against them. We either thrill at the victory of having won this battle (“I have the newest shoes and hers are so last year”) or we feel embarrassed once again at failing to be all that we feel we should be (“That guy is so ripped. I really should put more time in at the gym.”).

3. I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am.12 The Gospel according to the Mall is one of redemption. The feeling of brokenness and insufficiency in us is paired with the promise of redemption held out by the hands of perfect plastic models. And we buy it. But the startling realization settles in all too quickly–we still do not look like they do. We still do not have the life they promised. We return from the mall to our same old routine. The hips we had going to the Mall are the same hips we have when we come home from the Mall and no new pair of jeans is going to change that (though we still believe they should). We still have to wash our hair, deal with acne, do our homework, and wash the dishes. The thrill of the purchase begins to fade and that new outfit we were sure would make us the belle of the ball is now dated and needs to be replaced. And there’s the rub. Replacement. Disposability. This is the Story latent in the liturgy of the Mall. “What the mall valorizes as sacred today will be profaned as ‘so five minutes ago’ tomorrow. Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness. What makes such serial acquisition consumptive is just this treatment of things as disposable.”13 The liturgies of the Mall train us to discard. Things are replaceable. We get rid of the old when it no longer pleases us and we trade it in for the new and updated. We learn to crave the novel. Our love is being pointed in the wrong direction. We no longer treasure things as sacred but dispose of them as profane.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.14 The liturgy of the Mall also trains us to ignore the dirty under belly of the consumer world. We rarely stop to ask ourselves, “Where did this stuff come from? And why is it so cheap?” We would much rather picture The Good Life as it is presented to us in the advertisements than to picture the oppression that our American Dream creates. We do not want to see those who work long hours just to make ends meet, and all that just so we can bring home a new (and cheap) t-shirt that we will discard in a matter of months.

 

“What the liturgy of the mall trains us to desire as the good life and ‘the American Way’ requires such massive consumption of natural resources and cheap (exploitive) labor that there is no possible way for this way of life to be universalized … The liturgy of consumption births in us a desire for a way of life that is destructive to creation itself; moreover, it births in us a desire for a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. In short, the only way for this vision of this kingdom to be a reality is if we keep it to ourselves … Don’t ask; don’t tell; just consume.”15

 

This brief exegesis by James K.A. Smith of the liturgy of the Mall is just one example of the different visions of The Good Life which are latent in all sorts of activities in which we engage. We are thrown into these secular liturgies throughout our lives. The “frequent and constant pairing” of these “internal responses with external events” both create love and direct love whether we are aware of it or not. And when these liturgies touch us so near to our hearts they are training us to worship. But, because they are not aiming our hearts at the God in whose image we are made, they are actually de-humanizing us. For that reason we must beware. Not only that, we need something which will counter the de-formation of our hearts. (This is the place of Christian worship and will be the topic of the next two articles).  We need a liturgy which will present to us the True Story of the World. We need a liturgy which will aim our hearts at the Kingdom of God. We need worship which will remind us of what it means to be human. We need worship which will help to make us human. That’s what we need. We need to be human, because we were born to be.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54, (1999), 462-79, as quoted in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 80.
2. Charlges Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014), 3-30.
3. Ibid, 31-59.
4. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 83.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 56-59.
7. Smith,Desiring the Kingdom,87.
8. Chapter 3 of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is dedicated to “Cultural Exegesis of ‘Secular’ Liturgies.” Included in his analysis are liturgies of the mall, the stadium, and the university, 89-129.
9. Ibid, 96-97.
10. Ibid, 97.
11. Ibid, 97-99.
12. Ibid, 99-100.
13. Ibid, 100.
14. Ibid, 101-103.
15. Ibid, 101.

Why Am I Here? (Part 2)

 

In the last article we focused upon our end.  We looked at the vision of John that we are to live into.  Another way of getting to the same place is to look at the beginning. “Eschatology [the study of last things] is like protology [the study of first things].”1  A thing’s end is “built in”, so to speak, from the beginning.  A broom is made (its beginning) to sweep up debris (its end).  A camera is made (its beginning) to take pictures (its end).  One can ask “What is a thing made to do?” in order to get a vision of its end.2 When we ask, “What is Man made to do?” We answer “be the image of God.”

The image of God should be understood as more of a vocation than some quality that we possess.  It is related more to what we do than who we are.  (That’s why it is addressed under “Why am I here?” instead of “Who am I?”).  Consider that the days of creation are more concerned with assigning role/function than they are with material existence.3 Whereas Genesis 1:1 is an introduction to the account, 1:2 describes the “stuff” of creation as without form and without function. Day one is about the ordering of periods of light and dark, not the existence of light per se. Notice, v.5 says, “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Why not just call the light, “light”, and the darkness, “darkness”? Because he is not concerned with the material existence of light and dark (if dark can even be said to “exist”) but about what function they perform. The meaning of the verse is that God called the period of light “Day” and the period of darkness “Night.” This further helps make sense of the previous verse. “God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). If we are speaking materially then it is nonsensical to speak of the separation of light and dark. There is nothing to separate because they cannot dwell together in any rational sense. They are mutually exclusive by nature. However, if it means that God established a particular and ordered period of light and an ordered period of darkness, then it makes sense. To be consistent we should understand “a period of light” throughout whenever the text says “light”.  Therefore, 1:3 is not about the creation of light materially but about assigning a role/function within an ordered system. The meaning would then be, “Then God said, ‘Let there be a period of light’; and there was a period of light.” This sort of role assignment continues throughout Genesis 1. In 1:6 the dome is created with the emphasis falling on its function.  “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.'” (1:6).  When he created the “lights” of the sky he specifically mentions what function they are to perform. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (1:14, 15).  If that is the pattern of Genesis 1 then we should consider the “creation” of Man also to emphasize his role rather than his existence.4  That is exactly what we find.

When we arrive at our text the writer places the weight upon the function of Man (1:26).  The “image of God” is defined in terms of what Man is supposed to do, not in terms of what he is.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  Man’s vocation, his role/function, is further explained by v. 28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  Hence, in response to the question, “Why am I here?”  we can answer, “To have dominion over the earth, to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth.”  The rest of this article will be dedicated to unpacking these dense phrases to see what they mean for us.

We Reign Under God
Because of our twisted ideas of power it is dangerous to say simply, “I am here to have dominion.”  It must be acknowledged up front that Man’s dominion is derivative.  Authority is not inherent in us; it has been delegated to us.  God has granted us authority.  “[Y]ou have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:5, 6).  We are “crowned” but there is one higher than us who does the crowing.  God is the one that has given us authority and he must be acknowledged as having more authority than we do. “But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor. 15:27).  This means that we are not to rule however we want.  We rule under the authority of God and always in deference to him.

We Reign in Imitation of God
Our duty is described as “the image of God” because we are to represent God to the world (this is another reason why we must defer to his authority).  If we are to represent God then there must be some analog between what we do and what God does.  This is, in fact, exactly how the narrative describes it.  We could describe God’s works in Genesis 1 as twofold: separating and filling.

First, separating.  God separated the light from the darkness (1:4), the waters above from the waters below (1:6, 7), and water from dry land (1:9).  Paired with the act of separating is the act of naming.  They are intimately connected.  To name something is a way of separating it from other things.  To give a name to something is to say that it is this and not that.  Our English word “denominate” literally means “to name” but it is also used to designated the number by which a whole is divided, hence the word “denominator.”  As God separates he also names.  He names the light “Day” and the darkness “Night” (1:5), the dome which separates the waters is named “Sky” (1:8), and the dry land is called “Earth” while the water is called “Sea” (1:10).
In imitation of God, the very first thing we find Adam doing is separating the animals by giving them names.  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (1:19).

Second, filling.  Genesis 1 is a symmetrically arranged account of creation.  Those things which are separated on day 1 are filled in day 4, those separated on day 2 are filled in day 5, and those separated on day 3 are filled in day 6.5 The periods of light and dark are filled with their luminaries (1:14-19), the water and sky is filled with fish and birds (1:20-23), and the land is filled with land animals and human beings (1:24-26).
In imitation of God, Man is commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28).

In creation there is a sense in which God held back.  He carried creation only so far and then placed Man upon the earth to carry that creation forward.  God could have named all the animals on his own but he didn’t.  He left that duty to Man.  God expects us to carry on his work of separating/ordering and filling.  “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:16).

We Create Cultures
More and more scholars agree that a great part of Man’s duty upon the earth is to create cultures which glorify God.6 The biblical image of this is that of a gardener.  Indeed, agriculture is the most basic form of culture-making.7  Gardening is an act in which Man takes the raw “stuff” of creation and, by wise nurturing, helps it to grow up and realize its full potential.  This is the picture of what Man is to do with all of the “stuff” of creation.
Creating cultures is, I believe, part of Man’s responsibility inherent in the command to “fill the earth.”

“The command to ‘fill’ the earth here is not merely a divine request that Adam and Eve have a lot of babies.  The earth was also to be ‘filled’ by the broader patterns of their interactions with nature and with each other.  They were to bring order to the Garden.  They would introduce schemes for managing affairs.  To ‘subdue’ the Garden would be to transform untamed nature into a social environment.  In these ways human beings would be ‘adding’ to that which God created.  This is the kind of ‘filling’ that some Christians have had in mind when they have labeled this command in Genesis 1–helpfully, I think–‘the cultural mandate.’  God placed human beings in his creation in order to introduce a cultural ‘filling’ in ways that conform to his divine will.”8

 

This also is in imitation of God.  So much of what is pictured in Genesis 1 is not God making more “stuff” but ordering that stuff in meaningful ways so as to make a habitable (and beautiful) environment for Man to inhabit.  God makes the world liveable (by assigning function) but also loveable (by giving excellence of form).  That is the very definition of culture-making.

 

Conclusion
We began our investigation into “Why am I here?” by looking at our end.  In our discussion of John’s vision of the New Heaven and New Earth we saw the sort of kingdom we are working towards.  In this article we answered that same question by looking at our beginning.  Hopefully we can now see how those two are intimately connected, how the end is “built in” to the beginning.  If Adam and Even would have faithfully fulfilled their commission the picture of Revelation 21, 22 would have become a reality.  Their Garden would have become Revelation’s Garden-City.  They failed, however, and God through Israel and eventually Jesus Christ worked to put it right again.  Christians, through the Spirit of Christ, carry on this project.  It is what we were created to do.  Day by day the image of God is being renewed in us through God’s Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18) as we work towards bringing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  This is who we are.  This is what it means to be human.  So join me in fulfilling our ancient calling.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. J.D. Levenson, Journal of Religion 64 (1984), 298; quoted in T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 14.
2. David Foster Wallace illustrates this in his novel The Broom of the System, The Penguin Ink Series (New York: Penguins Books 2010), 149, 150. “What she did with me–I must have been eight, or twelve, who remembers–was to sit me down in the kitchen and take a straw broom and start furiously sweeping the floor, and she asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I supposed the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding onto the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ‘Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom, and she illustrated with the kitchen window, and a crowd of domestics gathered; but that if we wanted the broom to sweep with, see for examples the broken glass, sweep sweep, the bristles were the thing’s essence … Meaning as fundamentalness. Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as use. Meaning as use.”
3. On this point I am indebted to John Walton’s work, especially The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
4. J. Richard Middleton agrees with Walton here. “These two examples of creatures in 1:6 and 1:14-18 whose existence is explicitly defined by their function or purpose thus sets up the expectation, or leads to the presumption, that the royal function or purpose of humanity in 1:26 is not a mere add-on to their creation in God’s image, separable some way from their essence or nature.” The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei of Genesis 1, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 54).
5. This is widely recognized by scholars, Walton and Middleton included. See their respective works listed above (The Lost World of Genesis, 62; The Liberating Image, 75).
6. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2014), 41-55; The Liberating Image, 31, 88, 89; Randy Alcorn, Heaven, (Carol Stream, IL; Tyndale, 2004), 375 and passim; James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 163-164, 205-214; Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), passim esp. 33-37.
7. “As anthropologists know, the basis for all culture is agriculture. We could not develop the sort of complex cultures that we have today–with cities, governments, technology, art, science, and academic institutions–if we did not first find a way to produce enough food for people to eat. Hunter-gatherers can develop only a rudimentary culture. In order to develop any form of complex social order, people must be able to settle down somewhere and have a dependable supply of food. This makes sense of the garden of Eden as the original human environment of Genesis 2. God’s encouragement to the first humans to eat freely from the trees of the garden (Gen. 2:16) clearly indicates that the garden is meant to provide food for human needs.” Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 41.
8. Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, 35.

To Thine Own Self Be True

 

There is a lot of concern today with identity.  People go on long trips to “find themselves.”  Teenage years are filled with angst over “figuring out who I am.”  And this is applauded.  Authenticity, i.e. “being true to one’s self”, has become one of the highest virtues with the authority of the likes of Shakespeare behind it.  “This above all: to thine own self be true”1 Problems arise, however, when “who I am” turns out not to be so good. The drunk says to his battered wife when she asks him to quit drinking, “Get off my back! This is just who I am.” The promiscuous son retorts to his disapproving parents, “I thought you were supposed to accept me for who I am?”  And the liar confesses when asked why he can’t “just tell the truth”,  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just who I am.”

Another similar thing happens whenever a person makes a mistake and responds, “Well, what do you expect?  I’m only human.”  Addiction, sexual promiscuity, and lying are now identities and making mistakes has some how become synonymous with what it means to be human.  But the Bible tells quite a different story.

Man was not created for addiction and injustice, but for freedom, service, goodness, and creativity.  That is what it means to reflect the image of God into the world.   That is “who we are” and that is what it means to be “human.”  Whenever we fail to do and be these things we are being something other than what we were created to be.  Imaging God into the world by extending his dominion over creation is part of Man’s “glory” (cf. Ps. 8:5-8) and falling short of this sacred charge is the very definition of sin.  “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This means that I am “myself” when I live out God’s goodness in the world, not when I am giving into to my base impulses and fulfilling my carnal passions.  I am most “human,” not when I err from God’s glory, but when I fulfill it.

This is why Jesus, the True Human Being, is in fact sinless.  Or rather, because he is sinless he is the True Human Being, he is “the image of God” (Col. 1:15).  Therefore, if we would know what it means to be truly ourselves, indeed truly human, we must deny “ourselves” and follow Christ.  He will show us the way. By his own admission he is the Way (cf. John 14:6).

C.S. Lewis describes this marvelously:

“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him … Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it”2

With qualification, then, we agree with Shakespeare:  “To thine ownself be true.”  But we must know that being true to ourselves does not mean giving into our weaknesses, quite the opposite.  And “finding ourselves” or “figuring out who we are” is not as much an inward journey as it is an outward one.  We do not find ourselves by following our inward impulses but by looking beyond ourselves to the roads of Nazareth and Jerusalem where walked the True Human Being, to the cross where he was crucified, and to the tomb from which he arose.  He will show us who we are, if only we are willing to follow him.  So, join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene III 78-82.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 225, 226.

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 2)

 

In Part 1 of this article we focused on the what.  We got the big picture of what God is doing in and for his good (but now fallen) world.  He is redeeming creation “far as the curse is found.”  This article will focus on the how God goes about doing that. Here the idea of the image of God becomes most important.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image (Heb. tselem), according to our likeness'” (Genesis 1:26).

The word here translated “image” is used elsewhere to refer to images/statues of false gods (tselem: 2 Ki. 11:18; Eze. 7:20; Amos 5:26).  It would not, then, be entirely inappropriate to say that we are God’s “idols.”  Therefore, we are representations of God to the world. This means that being human is quintessentially divine imitation.  What God is we are supposed to be to the world.  Interestingly enough, that is exactly what we find.

There is much to be said about Genesis 1 and 2 but we will only notice two things for our present purpose: 1. When creation began it was disordered.  It was “a formless void” (1:2).  Much of what takes place in Genesis 1 is not just creation but the ordering of creation and a great part of ordering is naming/labeling.  We want to know what stuff is, and God tells us.  “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night … God called the dome Sky … God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas” (1:5, 8, 10).  2.  Not only was creation “formless” (i.e. without order) it was also “void” (i.e. empty).  God orders/names as well as fills creation.  To the assumed empty Sky God says, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night” (1:14).  To the empty waters God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures … God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas'” (1:20-22).  To the empty land he says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (1:24).  Naming and filling, these are main features of God’s work in Genesis 1.

Up until now, God has been running the show.  He is the one who has dominion of the fish, birds, cattle, animals, and all the earth.  But, in some sense, God hands over creation to Man.  “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:116).  Man now represents God to the world.  That is what it means to be made “in his image.”  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26, 27).

If we are God’s images, and if God’s work in Genesis 1 involved naming and filling creation, then we ought to expect that to be a part of Man’s work.  That is the very thing we find.  Immediately after Man’s creation in God’s image he is given the charge to fill the earth.  “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28).  As we moved to chapter 2 we find the animals without names.  God is in the naming business and certainly could have done it himself, but he chose to do it another way.  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field” (2:19, 20).  Just as God did the work of naming so Man follows in his footsteps.  Man is doing God’s works after him.  That is what it means to reflect the image of God into the world.

Man’s dominion (under God) is one of benevolence.  Just like God brought about the flourishing of his good world (see part 1) so Man is to have dominion over the world in a way that brings about its flourishing, much like a shepherd rules his sheep for their good.  Or better yet, like a gardener exercises dominion over his garden for the good of the garden.  Adam was placed in the garden “to till (Heb. abad) it and keep (Heb. shamar) it” (2:15).  A more literal translation would read “to serve it and to guard it”, or, as Jonathan Sacks put it, “to serve and conserve it.”1  Though we are masters of creation we are also servants of it (already pointing forward to Jesus’ words which seem so upside down to us–Mark 10:42-45).

All of this is a way of saying that God now shares his responsibility.  What God wants to do in the world we noticed in part 1, now we see how he wants to do it: through Man.

As we follow the Story Man brings about the flourishing of creation over and over again.  He takes the raw materials of creation, like a gardener, trains it up to help it become the best that it can be.  In the first chapters of Genesis we have cities being built (4:17), instruments invented and music made (4:21), new tools/technology created (4:22), and poems being written (4:23).  Man is continues the work that God began, he brings about the flourishing of creation.  But there is a dark side to this all.

Just like we can use the awesome power that God has given us to bring about the flourishing of creation, we can also use that power to oppress creation, to curse it, and twist it in ugly ways.  Cain kills his brother (4:8-16).  The first poem ever written glorified violence (4:23).  New technologies are used to build cities in defiance of heaven (11:3, 4).

 

CONCLUSION
The point to take away is this: being human means reflecting God’s image into the world.  And that is just a way of saying that we do God’s works after him.  He wants his creation to flourish and he has chosen us to help get it there.  But what happens when God’s means for blessing creation (humankind), instead bring a curse?  What happens when they are infected by the curse as well?  When that happens, then Man himself needs saving.  That leads us to part 3.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. “Environmental Responsibility”, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.