Why I Am Not (Eastern) Orthodox.

My Two Cents

Apologies for My Apology

I’m hardly the first at it (#understatement), but such an important topic can take my answer too. If you’re investigating Orthodoxy, I wouldn’t be surprised if our stories are similar – and I’d encourage you to consider my concerns.

By way of background, my interest in (Eastern) Orthodoxy began first year of Uni, when a friend started down the road to catechesis. By final year, I’d read (and met) the right Orthodox authors, made lasting Orthodox friends, and racked up many hours just thinking about Orthodoxy. For a time, I believed conversion inevitable. Orthodoxy had both pretty things and depth, involved the whole body, and promised something more authentic than the big box Evangelical churches, especially for the lover of history. Plus, Orthodoxy claimed a commitment to Christian truth, and wasn’t Catholicism (sorry, Catholics).

Things began to change after Uni. Despite a lingering interest strong enough to tempt some of my very close friends into Orthodoxy (which I greatly regret), Orthodoxy gradually stopped adding up. The final nail came during my misadventures w/ Grad School. While I respect Orthodox folks and still have Orthodox friends, I am now convinced Orthodoxy is not the Way, capital W, but at best a deeply flawed, very human iteration of Christianity, which needs substantial reform in order to rightly worship God.

At Issue

If I had to narrow it down, I have three interrelated issues with Orthodoxy. We can rank them big, bigger, and biggest.

Big Issue — Icons + Originalism

If you think I’m going to talk about ‘worshiping icons’, I’m not. Well, not directly anyway.

Here’s the issue. The Orthodox make a strong claim to retaining the practices of the Early Church.  Not all Christian groups do this. Catholics, for example, invoke a concept called ‘development of doctrine’, perfected by Cardinal Newman, which suggest God’s revelation in history is still progressing. But the Orthodox style themselves originalists, and I like that in the Orthodox.

However, on a number of key points the Orthodox have been very progressive indeed. One such is the icon. The Early Church had a near universal anti-icon position. If you survey the Fathers in the first 500 years of the church, you will find exactly such. Try it if you don’t believe me. Look up what Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius, the Council of Elvira, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Epiphaneus of Salamis, and others of this period said about icons. You’ll find that icons were a definite no-no (for many of the same reasons Reformed folk dislike them today = idol worship).

Not until the sixth to eighth century (perhaps in response to Islam) did the tide turn, and it hardly turned completely. Hence the very intrigue-heavy passage of the seventh ecumenical council over the top of a pre-existing ecumenical council forbidding icons. If you’re at all interested in Orthodoxy, this is extremely familiar territory, because this passage of a second 7th ecumenical council is the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’. It’s the Orthodox church’s birthday, the defeat of the iconoclasts by the iconodules. And icons have been central to Orthodox worship ever since.

No, not central, essential. You cannot have Orthodoxy without icons. To paraphrase something I once read (from I forget whom), a Protestant Church without images is a Protestant Church. A Catholic Church without images is a bit strange. But an Orthodox Church without images isn’t an Orthodox Church. Images/icons are essential to Orthodox worship.

But hang on a second, the decision to involve icons in worship was not a retention of Early Church practices, it was developed doctrine. A developed doctrine expressly against the teachings of the Early Church. A developed doctrine which if you study it’s development in history looks an awful lot like our very human, sinful tendency to accrete things to the Gospel.

And thus the Orthodox are closet progressives. They claim retention of the Early Church teaching, but here at the very heart of their worship they stand in clear opposition to it. They have turned a developed doctrine into a central tenant of Christianity. And this is something you cannot have both ways. You cannot have both originalism and icons. So which is it to be?

For my part, I side with the Early Church.

Bigger Issue — Saints + Scripture

The Orthodox certainly seem to have a healthier picture than the Catholics (sorry, Catholics) of our relationship with Mary and the Saints. In Catholic doctrine the worship of Mary in various guises and local appearances often comes off to my eyes as an extension of the Roman cult of Venus.

But even in Orthodox worship, the place Mary + the Saints are given doesn’t do credit to the way Scripture and Christ ask us to treat them (e.g. Matthew 12:46-50). Why, for example, would evening Vespers be focused on Mary? Doubtless, she is the theotokos – God-bearer – and she has been blessed in a unique way by bearing the Lord, but she is a created, fallen individual, like us. Scripture presents only one object of our worship — God.

At this point you may wish to put on a Wiggles CD and claim that Protestants have too high a view of Scripture. Or, that we misunderstand it. But even with a loose doctrine of Scripture, as long as we’re all Christians, we agree Scripture does mean something, it isn’t meaningless. And, we can all agree it’s closer to the source, closer to the Incarnation of Jesus, our Lord.

Now compare someone in 2076, or even 1876, and one of the US Founding Fathers in 1776: whom should I trust to better understand America’s founding vision? Would we not expect the same of the authors of Scripture re Christ? If we claim to want to know Christ, than who better to study than Christ himself and his immediate disciples? Scripture has rightful pride of place in our theology. Standing closer to the source, it merits more weight than later tradition.

This is not to discount tradition, but too often in Orthodoxy the reverse happens: Scripture is submerged to tradition. I went to an Orthodox friend’s wedding once. At the wedding, it was pronounced that the couple were married for all eternity. Immediately, cult bells started ringing in my head. I approached the priest after to ask about the passage in Matthew 22:29-32, in which our Lord Himself says that in Heaven we are neither married nor given in marriage. The priest said he had no answer as to how those things are reconciled. He said, in effect: «The Orthodox church simply teaches that you are married for eternity. Marriage is a strong bond, why would God destroy it after death». Well, sure, that sounds nice, but how does that comport with what the Lord Himself said? I’d love an answer on that one.

In a choice between Scripture and later tradition, Scripture stands on firmer ground. The Holy Spirit certainly has not inspired the former less than the latter. Thus, presented with only one object of worship in Scripture, why accrete Mary and the Saints to my worship?

Biggest Issue — Incarnation

This is the killer for me. It’s also the hardest to express clearly. Let’s give it a go.

At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the Incarnation: God became man. In the first 500 hundred years of the church, this was reflected in the way the Church did missions. The Church went into a community and nativised, as it were.

This is most clearly reflected in the translation of scripture. You had translations of the New Testament writings into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Sogdian, and Nubian all before the fall of Rome. Look at the Church in those communities, and each looks different, native.

As we move onward in history though, the church started pulling inward. Before the East-West split, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘three holy languages’ – that only Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (sanctified by being on the plaque above Christ at the crucifixion) cut it as church languages. St. Cyril and St. Methodius had to apply to Rome for special permission for their translation to the Slavs (which they were granted at the Synod of Frankfurt, 794, where progress was made toward undercutting the suspect doctrine).

Still, the Western Church didn’t start pulling out of this anti-incarnational approach till the Reformation, which brought the explosion of translation and nativisation we continue to see spreading to the ends of the earth today (thanks, Wycliffe!). At least, that’s what happened among Protestants. It wasn’t until Vatican II that Catholics really reawoke to the centrality of the vernacular (sorry, Catholics).

The Eastern Church, though, has never awoken. A form of worship that set in stone in one geographic region/context, between the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the 800’s  (when monks gained the ascendancy in the East, as they were needed to fill the ecclesial vacancies from the ousted iconoclasts), and the 1300’s, is the form of worship that all Christians everywhere are meant to follow. Anything else doesn’t cut it. If you doubt me, ask a priest. (For me the final nail in Orthodoxy occurred when I asked a priest about the Western Rite, seeing in it hope for necessary incarnationalism: he told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lesser sister – true worship is the stultified form).

This is incredibly suspect. And far too similar to the Muslim response. Islam is inherently anti-incarnational. Everywhere Islam goes, 7th century Arabia goes. Because a good Muslim knows the prophet Mohammed made it to heaven, but no one knows how, the best chance we have for salvation is to imitate Mohammed in every particular: dress, manner, names, etc. And, because the Quran has existed before all time in 7th century Arabic, ixnay on the incarnation. Everywhere Islam goes, the more seriously Islamic an area becomes, the more gray-same 7th century Arabia you get. Cut Northern and Southern Africa across like a knife. North of the line, Islam and cultural gray. South of the line – vibrant Christian incarnationalism. Don’t believe me? Read Lamin Sanneh – a Muslim-born converted Christian from the Gambia who teaches at Yale. He expresses it much better than I.

The Christian Gospel must be incarnational. It must be like Christ, and redeem both people and tribes/tongues/cultures, taking the good for the Imago Dei in it, and rejecting the bad. I do not see Orthodoxy doing this at all. Instead I see Orthodoxy settling for something far inferior, for the Muslim model, with the stultified accretions of a single culture pushed universally. This is not the incarnation, and it worries me tremendously.

Final Thought

One final thought. All of the above hangs on theology. There is another thing that gets me, a point of praxis: the relative spiritual lethargy within Orthodox nations through history. It’s not so much a problem among converts to Orthodoxy in the West, who are usually zealous, but I wish I saw life among old world Orthodox. Ad hominem? Perhaps. But is not the hominem where we should test and see the evidence of faith?


My Hero Philip

[This post is adapted from a talk originally given October 2011.]

I count it a privilege to work as an evangelist now while working to be an evangelist later. Which prompts the question, “what is an evangelist?” 

The simple answer is that an evangelist is someone who shares God’s Good News with others to win disciples for Jesus. But what exactly does this entail? A few years ago a conversation with a friend lead me to Scripture for an answer, and gave me a hero.

The Story of Philip

Happy Ending — Acts 21

Let’s start with a story. Actually, the end of a story. We’re in Acts 21, during Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem.

8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. 9 This man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. — Acts 21:8-9

Here we have a man named Philip. He’s got four unmarried daughters who prophesy. He’s hosting Paul and company in his home. He’s one of the seven. And, he’s an evangelist. But what does any of this mean?

Background — Acts 6

Flip back 15 years to Acts 6, which clues us in:

1 In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. 2 Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. 3 Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” 5 The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. — Acts 6:1-6

This is our first peek at Philip in the New Testament. The apostles are busy preaching and praying, so they appoint Philip and six others to handle the work of caring for widows — the work of “waiting on tables.” Our Philip is one of the Seven; he’s a deacon.

Middleground — Acts 8

Now, skip forward to Acts 8. It’s worth reading most of the chapter:

Philip in Samaria
4 So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

The Response of Simon
9 A man named Simon had previously practiced sorcery in that city and astounded the Samaritan people, while claiming to be somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least of them to the greatest, and they said, “This man is called the Great Power of God!” 11 They were attentive to him because he had astounded them with his sorceries for a long time. 12 But when they believed Philip, as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. 13 Then even Simon himself believed. And after he was baptized, he went around constantly with Philip and was astounded as he observed the signs and great miracles that were being performed.


The Conversion of the Ethiopian Official
26 An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem 28 and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud.

29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.”

30 When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the Scripture passage he was reading was this:

He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb is silent before its shearer,
so He does not open His mouth.
33 In His humiliation justice was denied Him.
Who will describe His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.
34 The eunuch replied to Philip, “I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or another person?” 35 So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture.

36 As they were traveling down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized?” [37 And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer. But he went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip appeared in Azotus, and he was traveling and evangelizing all the towns until he came to Caesarea. — Acts 8:4-13, 26-40

Here’s our Philip again, the deacon, a man appointed by the apostles to tend widows. Because the apostles are busy. The persecution starts, and where do we see Philip?

We see him evangelising Samaria – proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (8:12). We see him evangelising the Ethiopian Eunuch, telling him the good news about Jesus (8:35). We see him evangelising his way from Azotus till he finally settles down in Caesarea (8:40). In Acts 8 we see Philip doing the awesome work of evangelism, playing his part in the great commission as foretold in Acts 1:8.

Ending Again — Acts 21

That brings us back to Acts 21:

8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. 9 This man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. — Acts 21:8-9

What do we have?

We have a man named Philip, known as the evangelist. Indeed, this is one of only three times the word Evangelist is used in the New Testament. And, it’s the only time the word is used of a specific person.

He’s an evangelist. He’s also one of the Seven, a deacon. There’s some uncertainty about whether his role as deacon is still active by Acts 21. But Acts 21 flags him by that role, which makes it worthy of our notice.

Philip, the evangelist, known as a deacon. And he’s hosting a whole troop of out-of-towners: Paul, Luke, and the gang. And the hospitality gets a mention in the New Testament. The guy is good at hospitality.

Philip, the evangelist, known as a deacon, hospitable guy.

But there’s more: he’s managed to raise four daughters. To adulthood. Four virgin daughters. And raise them well, in the faith. His daughter’s are actively known for their prophesying. From some early records, it is said that Philip’s daughters lived to a very old age and were key informants to later generations about the earliest years of the Church. They were raised well.

Here’s a man, appointed as a deacon in Jerusalem because the Apostles are busy, and God uses him to evangelise large sections of the surrounding map. And he manages to entertain guests constantly. And raise a family extremely well. Is anyone impressed?

I am. As a father raising five daughters, seeking to share the gospel through hospitality, this guy is my hero. I want to be like him. I want to succeed in evangelism, in raising daughters, in showing hospitality. How awesome it would be to have the same things said of my girls and my work when I’m old. A very happy ending to an excellent story.

An Answer

Which brings us back to our initial question — what is an evangelist? What does it actually entail? Philip’s story holds the key. Through it God shows us that a) the role of evangelist and b) the work of evangelism do not fit into the boxes that are often constructed for them.

The Role of Evangelist

On the role of evangelist, I imagine God getting a big kick out of Philip’s story. The apostles are too busy — too busy to wait on tables because of their ministry, and what does God do? He uses Philip to wait on tables and evangelise the neighbourhood, and offer hospitality to visitors, and raise a family, successfully. Philip the Evangelist is doing a heck of a lot of different kinds of work.

Maybe you feel the need to carve out a watertight position called Evangelist, which involves people dedicated to evangelism and nothing else. Looking at Ephesians 4:11, where the term appears for the second time, in a neat and tidy list, it would be an easy temptation to fall into. But if Philip’s story wasn’t enough,  from the third and final use of Evangelist in the New Testament, we learn the watertight model doesn’t fit in practice.

Chapter 4 of Paul’s second letter to Timothy gives us a picture of Timothy’s calling. In that picture we see preaching, teaching and evangelism intermingled in Timothy’s work. Rather than being a single watertight role, Timothy is doing many different things. When we take Timothy’s story alongside Philip’s, it’s clear that a legitimate Christian calling to be an Evangelist need in no way be watertight, but legitimately involves a mix of tasks.

The Work of Evangelism

Moving on, as Acts 8 shows us, not only the role but also the work of evangelism can’t be strictly divided into neat units:

5 Philip went down to the city[a] of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. — Acts 8:5-7

Philip’s evangelism involved elements of directly proclaiming and of promoting the Gospel in ways that are inseparably connected. Both his words and his deeds were central to his work. The Samaritans believed because they heard and saw. Which means, for us, that the work of evangelism isn’t just about the words. Though the words are certainly centrally important, the work of evangelism is more comprehensive. Like the ministry of Jesus, which involved preaching, teaching, and healing, evangelism is a show + tell, not a tell alone.

So, what is an Evangelist? 

I’ve seen the church today tempted to divide the work of the Gospel into little, tidy units. This is the province of the missionary, there is the work for the deacon. This thing over here is called promoting the Gospel, but that over there, that is proclaiming the Gospel. Not that such categories can’t be helpful, but the story of Philip challenges us against boxing God.

What is an Evangelist? Well, Philip is. He’s the only one directly labeled that way in the New Testament, remember. When we look at Philip’s example of Gospel evangelism we see that it doesn’t fit into today’s tidy categories. Philip’s story encourages us to see the call of evangelism in a more integrated and whole way. A way of both showing and telling, involving the multiple tasks and talents God gives each evangelist. Indeed, a way which lets God do the story telling as He sees fit.

Should You Go to University?

11 Wisdom is as good as an inheritance
and an advantage to those who see the sun,
12 because wisdom is protection as money is protection,
and the advantage of knowledge
is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner.

— Ecclesiastes 7:11-12

A Better Paradigm

A Very Good Place to Start

Along with trying to understand how to store up treasures in heaven (or maybe because of it), I’m a repeat visitor to thinking about education: how it should be done, to what end, by whom, for whom, when, with what content, etc. It’s a natural go-to topic for a homeschooling father who is also finishing an MA by distance.

A few years ago, I had a paradigm shift in how I view education. I’ve always been very pro homeschooling for its manifold benefits, both scholastic and otherwise. I’ve always known it was a gift I wanted to give my kids. But I had little reason higher than personal taste to prefer homeschooling to standard schooling. Then I met my wife.

A Wife of Noble Intellect

My wife was homeschooled the whole way. Yes, by that I mean that she was homeschooled through primary and secondary school. But I also mean something more. Not only was my wife homeschooled right through year twelve, but she also did her entire tertiary degree without ever stepping foot on campus. Or rather, not until she received her diploma.

Contrast that with me. I was never homeschooled: I went to a private day care; I went to a private preschool; I attended Christian and secular primary and secondary schools; I attended Christian and secular institutions for my BA; and for my MA work I did exactly the same. A number of these institutions are brand names – Wheaton, Oxford, Middlebury, University of Chicago, Regent – institutions known for their academic and intellectual rigour.

But I can tell you, between my wife and I, who had the better education. Hint: it wasn’t me. No question: my education was good, but hands down, my wife wins the contest (for which I abundantly thank my in-laws). Sure, her maths are basic, she did almost no science, and she doesn’t know how to format a research paper according to any manual of style. However, she is exceedingly well and widely read, both intellectually confident and humble, perpetually self-motivated to explore topics of interest and fill gaps in her knowledge, discriminating in her tastes, and wise. What more could you want from a good education!

Sadly, I have found all of these uncommon for those coming out of the standard educational system. To pick one example: rather than encouraging people to be well and widely read, by and large the standard educational system markets textbooks – glossy, prepackaged content, flavoured with the idealogical memes of the moment. Yes, textbooks have legitimate use in certain contexts (e.g. beginning anatomy), but the number of times, even in my tertiary education, that I read about great thinkers in a textbook rather than from the great thinkers themselves would be shocking, were it not the norm. What a waste of time! (Our present educational institutions similarly do not encourage the other features of my wife’s education, but those discussions I’ll leave for another day.)

The New Paradigm in Question

Once I met my wife, I had a paradigm shift. A simple one, but with big consequences: the institutions, the diplomas, the educational rights-of-passage, these mean nothing if education, actual education, is not happening. Less than nothing, really — they mean a tremendous waste of God-given time and resources, for everyone involved.

We, each of us, have one life to live. One only. Which is all the reason any of us need to be wise in our educational choices. All the reason any of us need not to kill time fitting into the educational  status quo.

Something to Help You Think

About half a year ago, a young friend was trying to decide whether to go to a certain institution for a graduate diploma in missions before she headed off to the mission field. I encouraged her to consider skipping grad school and to head to the field directly. That serious conversation prompted me to create the playful decision tree below. This is not a serious tool, but maybe, just maybe, it will get someone thinking more seriously about enrolment in tertiary education: undergrad, grad, or postgrad. Any form of tertiary education is a big commitment of time and money. Please understand, I am not saying “don’t go”, but I am saying “don’t make ‘yes’ the default”. There are plenty of reasons why staying home or doing something else would give you a far better education for life. And you may be surprised to know that there are hosts of people who have taken the road (slightly) less travelled and lived to thank themselves. Were they all alive, you could ask each of them personally.

Or, you could ask my wife. She may just inspire you to shift your paradigm too.

Tertiary Education Decision Tree

Download the Tertiary Education Decision Tree as a pdf. 

Where My Possessions Lie

Here’s the Story

These last two fortnights, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about storing up treasures in heaven. I just can’t shake it.

19 “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. — Matthew 6:19-21

Here’s the story: even in the best of times, I’m so invested in this world that death worries me. It worries me that I’ll miss out on everything happening down here. And I don’t just mean silly desires, like the next iThis or eThat, but also legitimate goods, like advancing our little patch of ministry or watching my kids grow up. I yearn for these, more than heaven.

What folly! How poor an investor I am to invest my heart in this world rather than the world to come. We all die. We all DIE! Why not set my heart on treasures that last?

I keep thinking of this image of a first-time gardener. His attention is riveted by his new garden. At work, he’s thinking about his garden. At home, he’s tending to his garden. He’s so stoked to see the first little plants come up. He’s invested.

I want that level of investment in my little heavenly garden. If I could focus all my work, my time, my energy on earth on that garden in heaven, how awesomely stoked would I be to get there — to get to heaven and actually see it! My heart would be there.

And the same with my relationship with Christ. I visited a church once where the person almost directly in front of me was playing a Nintendo DS. Through the entire service. So was the person behind me. And, to my right, someone was playing an iPhone app. Through the worship songs, the preaching, the entire service, they kept right on playing. And I kept thinking, does the grandeur of God not excite you at all? Is God really so boring to you that a DS captivates you more?

But my heart is like that too. I do the same thing, all too often, and I don’t even need a DS. I’m more motivated to write in my journal or flip through my inbox many mornings than to read Scripture or spend time in prayer.

Tell me this — who is the only person who’s going to be with me when I die? Not even my loving wife: Christ alone. He is the only one! I want to invest in Him. I want to know Him more. It’s the garden again, but this time the garden is a Person — my Saviour and my God!

More than the Good Life

In case I lost you back at the point about investing in legitimate things down here, I know that we are called to care for our kids, to disciple them, to leave a godly legacy. We are so very obviously called to do this. We’re also called to spread the Gospel, to spread God’s Kingdom, to do works of Gospel ministry while here on this earth.

But all of this can miss the point entirely if it gets in the way of our citizenship in heaven – if the manner in which we do these things causes our hearts to be invested more in this earth.

How do I explain? I like Christendom. I like it. I like our forms of thought, I like our practices, I like our brilliant thinkers, I like our history. And I like my patch of Christendom: I like the fittingness of 6-day creation, of complementarian marriages, of Sabbath rest. And I like my little corner of my patch of Christendom: I like wine at communion, the church calendar, immersion baptism extended to infants. And, on top of all this, I like the fruit that Christendom has born: I like great art and literature and film and poetry and science and technology, I like country dances, I like the Protestant Work Ethic and the Free Market, I like homeschooling. I like Christendom. To me, it is the Good Life.

And that’s the danger. I’m so invested in this Good Life, this culture full of good things, of laughter and dancing, of legacy and truth, that my heart gets so easily wrapped up in this world. It’s all so enjoyably real and good and fitting to me that I’m afraid I’d live this way even if it weren’t true (a senseless statement, I know, because if it weren’t true, it wouldn’t be fitting).

That’s where the treasure comes in. I don’t want my heart to be merely in love with a culture, even a very good culture, here on earth. I want my heart to be in heaven. I want my heart to be sold out for heaven and for my Saviour. I want to be able to say with Paul that to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Tell Me, How?

And at this point, we come to the obvious question — ‘what does it mean to store up treasures in heaven?’

Two days in to catching this unshakable bug, a friend loaned me Randy Alcorn’s The Treasure Principal. This tiny book comes from the Prayer of Jabez era, with a similar cover, typesetting, and graphic feel. I wanted to judge it. Instead I read and really enjoyed it. Written in a very populist style, the book still solidly exegetes Scripture, defining with passion and compassion the call for Christians to be radically generous in financial giving. The book was a boon to me and I recommend it, with one small reservation: advice late in the book sidesteps Matthew 6:1 to favour verbally publicising generosity.

But Randy’s book did not answer my question, mostly because mammon is not much my vice. I wanted a bigger picture on how to store up treasures in heaven. Randy devotes only one 1-sentance paragraph on page 39 to the non-financial:

We are given these eternal rewards for doing good works (Ephesians 6:8, Romans 2:6, 10), persevering under persecution (Luke 6:22-23), showing compassion to the needy (Luke 14:13-14), and treating our enemies kindly (Luke 6:35).

It’s a good start, but I’d love something much more in depth. So I’ve been on a quest to find a fuller answer. I’ve listened to some very good sermons, read some thoughtful exegesis, and done some topical Bible study. I don’t feel satisfied.

Most of what I come across, like Randy’s book, focuses on the money. Yes, I know, the money is important. But I’m already sold on the money — I’m happy to give and share what God has given us. That only just begins to satisfy my yen to tie my heart to heaven.

I’d love to read a thoughtful book, firmly grounded in Scripture, and in the Reformed tradition, that makes sense of heavenly system of rewards (rewards not as salvation by works, but post-salvation, viz. 1 Cor 3:12-15). Reformed Christians put such an immense emphasis on redeeming the things of this world and living well in it. We’ve read the end of the Book and we know about our new bodies and God’s New Earth. But Christ enjoins us to store up treasures in heaven: the World to Come matters, and this one will burn. I want to get my head into heaven, ‘where my possessions lie’, or would, if I invested them there.