We are All Theologians

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Dear Friend,

I was excited and intrigued the other day when you sent me a text message that stated you were feeling God’s call to be a theologian. I think this is exciting and wonderful and a glorious thing and would love to talk to you more about it in detail. But first I have some preliminary things I want to say.

First, please be aware that we are all theologians. From the most strident atheist to the most devout moralist to the most humble evangelist, all of us humans participate in the study and analysis of God, His attributes, and His relationship with the universe.

The atheist does this through denial. He examines the evidence to the best of his ability, analyzes God, the premises established regarding God’s character, and how God is to relate to the universe (particularly on an individual level), and he denies the existence of a supreme being. For him, something else is more valuable in this universe than any proposed god, particularly a Christian one. For some that is the universe itself. For some it is science. For others it is hedonism. But whatever it is that they decide to attribute supreme value to, then that thing becomes the object of their study and analysis and the defining framework for their lives. In other words, it becomes their god.

The moralist is only slightly different. Like the atheist, moralists have examined the evidence and done some analysis as well but they have concluded that there is a supreme being; however, they may or may not agree that this god is the Christian god. The moralist’s approach this supreme being, though, through the lens of works, not denial. They believe that it is the accumulation of good deeds that gains the favor of the supreme being, so they spend the majority of their lives performing good works in an attempt to outweigh all the bad that they have also done. Moralists, it must be pointed out, can be avid students (or followers) of other religions or they can be non-religious altogether. It doesn’t really matter, because their god is not the supreme being that they acknowledge. It is themselves and the good works that they can accomplish. And they spend their lives organizing their lives around this central ideal.

The last category of theologian, I would argue, is the Christian. This is the most difficult position to maintain, not because there is no evidence to support their position but because they are called to do everything in their lives in such a way as to make Christ appear more valuable than anything else.  Christians are called to live their lives defiantly. To organize their lives around the central principle of “whether through my life or through my death, I will endeavor to display Christ as not only supremely valuable to me but to also make His value and His perfections publicly seen and experienced so clearly through ALL that I do, that He is recognized as supremely valuable over all.” (Php. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 10:31) Such a calling is both convicting and conforming at the same time. For as we seek through our lives to make others see and experience the supreme value, worth, and desirability of God, we find ourselves constantly being challenged to release the selfish ambitions of moralism and the intellectual conceit of atheism so that we may, in humility, put on the mind of Christ and conform more and more to His image (Php. 2:3-8).

We Christians are theologians of a different stripe. We are not called to love ourselves. We are called to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Because we are self-centered people we do love ourselves, as is pointed out in “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this is not a command to love yourself. It is a command to love your neighbor. It works off of the assumption that you do and you will love yourself and that this selfish, self-centered action can teach you how you ought to act towards others. Indeed, Jesus paraphrased this command in the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matt. 7:12)

“Christians,” He seems to be saying, “as you study and analyze the attributes and character of God, as you make Him the center of your life (and not yourself) love God so passionately that your love for Him overflows into your love for others…Remember, you are God’s representative on this earth and He makes His appeal to the lost through you.” (2 Cor. 5:20)

Therefore, my dear friend, I would ask you to please consider what you mean when you say, “God is calling me to be a theologian.” If you imagine a theologian to be a deep thinker about God or a seminarian or even a pastor/priest of some kind, that’s all well and good, but please do not fall into the trap of being so intellectually or morally invested in Christianity that you fail to actually apply or live out the truth of the Gospel among the lost. Good theologians are not only good students or good citizens. They are people of defiant faith. The ones who stand up against the tide of a post-truth culture and create a fixed reference point for all those seeking land in a fluid-truth society.

Good theologians are not ashamed. They are full of courage so that Christ is always honored in their body, whether by life or by death (Php. 1:20). They hear the edict, know the consequences of honoring God, and say, “I am trusting in God, and regardless of whether I die or not, I will only worship and serve Him.” (Daniel 3:17-18) Such faith can be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments as well as in modern examples, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced down the Nazi regime and its horrible atrocities with a steely will and the Word of God.

Make no mistake, my friend, if God is calling you to be a theologian, He is calling you to action. He is calling you to take the Word and show the world how it is not only an efficacious and viable option for life but how it is the supreme framework for living. The absolute truth among many choices. Be aware that such living comes prepackaged with danger and suffering as well as with rewards and the eternal echo of “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

God may be calling you to learn more. He may be calling to live better. But please, be the theologian who also “plays the man,” (2 Sa. 10:12) facing down the evil within this world, and making the value and the glory of God shine brightly within the encroaching darkness, whether it be by your life or your death.

Go with God,

Mark

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Quick Thoughts: The Discipline of God

​The discipline of both God and parents must include more than instruction. Teaching provides knowledge but knowledge by itself is nothing without application. As in school, it is insufficient for the chemistry teacher to only lecture. He must also include a lab so that the objective truth of what he taught can be subjectively observed and verified. It is the lab that tests and proves the student’s understanding of and ability to apply the truth he has learned. Without such personal interaction with the truth, the teacher’s words fail to transform the seed of knowledge into a thriving, fruit-bearing tree. 

Most students view knowledge as malleable, subject to change, and constantly evolving; therefore, the knowledge they hear is often dismissed as either irrelevant, incomplete, or inapplicable and effects little to no change in their life. But the student who has wrestled with the teacher’s words, tested them in the lab of life, and has seen them proven true knows that these lessons are not mere words. They are more than that. For now they have been internalized. No longer are they part of an ever-changing body of knowledge. Now, they resonate within the student as transforming, eternal truths.

Therefore, “Count it all joy, my brethren, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2-3) Mere words cannot produce such a response. Nor can “a good talking to.” The only discipline that produces the proper response is the one that provides a test. 

Beyond Suffering or Sin?

Everybody has something that they do not like about their job. I am no different. Don’t get me wrong. I like being a therapist and seeing people move from a position of hopelessness to healing, and I believe that a lot of good has come out of the advancements in psychology over the last several decades. I even think that, to some degree, the introduction of psychological principles and ideas to the mainstream media has benefited a multitude of people in both their individual and relational lives. There is a lot of good that has come of this field of study.

However, when I look at psychology as a field, what really bothers me is the humanistic and atheistic foundation of my profession. I know I cannot change that. I don’t intend to. Freud and many of the pioneers of psychology were atheists. It’s only to be expected that they would create a field of study that resonates with their worldview. But as a devout Christian, I sometimes find it difficult to integrate the psychological principles that define how to practice my profession with the theological principles that define how to live my life. I imagine I am not alone in this struggle. Of the five major world religions, only Hinduism (which can most easily absorb other worldviews into its system) and Buddhism (which most closely parallels the foundational thinking of psychology) will potentially not struggle with this psychology/theology integration issue.

For instance, Christians and Jews both learn in Jeremiah 17:9-10 the following truth: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

On one hand this passage seems to validate psychology and the efforts it is trying to accomplish. After all, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is 991 pages long. But on the other hand, this passage seems to torpedo the entire notion of self-help, because if every heart is (at its core) deceitful and desperately sick, then reliance on any person, including your self, for deliverance is a foolish idea. Additionally, if only the LORD can accurately search the heart and test the mind, then what hope is there for the American Psychiatric Association or your local counselor?

The word “psychology” comes from two Greek roots, psyche and logos, that literally mean “the study of the spirit.” As a profession we have historically leaned towards the “study” side and away from the “spirit” side. Again, this does not surprise me because of the foundational leaders within the field. But if we are being honest, it is not only atheists who are “stuck” on the study side. Christians and other people of faith reside here as well. As a species with “deceitful” and “desperately sick” hearts we can codify behaviors that present specific patterns and label the grouping as a “disorder” and the patterned behaviors as “symptoms.” We can evaluate and diagnose based on those groupings and symptoms. We can even study different methodologies to see which one most effectively alleviates these symptoms. But all of our efficacy ends here. In other words, we can quantify how the physical, intellectual, and emotional experiences coalesce to shape a person, but we do so at expense of ignoring the spiritual component of people. This may not present a problem to those who do not acknowledge or believe in God. But to a person of faith, such as myself, this appears to be an egregious error. It is as if we have placed three tires on the car but ignored the need for a fourth.

Some try to rectify this issue by recognizing that a client’s spirituality is “true for them” and by giving the client opportunity to discuss how their issues intersect their faith. While this is often done in an attitude of respectful tolerance, it doesn’t always come across that way. Often it appears as if the counselor is either placating the spiritual person in order to move the process of counseling forward, or minimizing the confluence of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual rivers of their life. To the Christian this is especially true, because the attitude that spirituality is “true for you” relegates our faith to an arena of postmodern relativism that we are unwilling to accept. Not because we are intolerant, bigoted pigs, but because to us Truth is a Person, specifically the person of Jesus Christ. To tell us that our spirituality is “true for us” seems to equate our faith in Jesus Christ to Jimmy Stewart’s faith in Harvey the Rabbit, that is to say that it is based on an individual’s perception of reality, rather than on an overarching Absolute that both describes reality and prescribes how to live within it. When this occurs, it feels neither respectful nor tolerant.

That is not to say that non-spiritual people are unhelpful with their spiritual clients. Several psychological modalities teach us professionals how to help our clients alleviate suffering and do it effectively. But it does highlight a major gap between those who approach life with a psychological point of view and those who approach life with a theological point of view. In the most simplistic terms, psychology seeks to alleviate suffering through natural means, or things that can be done within one’s self, such as self-denial, personal insight, or behavior modification (to name a few). Christianity, on the other hand, seeks to change the quality and function of a person’s soul by eradicating sin. This is done through supernatural means, most specifically through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins (what Christians call justification). This justification for our sins gives us God’s Holy Spirit within us in place of our old sinful one and begins a lifelong process of the Holy Spirit guiding and purifying us so that we becoming more and more like Christ (what Christians call sanctification).

Sanctification can look a lot like psychology as it may implement strategies of self-denial, personal insight, or behavior modification. However, it differs significantly in one main way: Psychology begins with the desired result, tries to teach how to do and maintain the result, but respects the individualism of the person so much that their core remains relatively unchanged. Christianity begins with the core, changes that, and then works from the inside outward so that those changes produce and maintain a “how” of doing life, which produces the desired result.

Additionally, Christians understand that suffering plays a unique role in their relationship with self, the sinful world, and Christ. Those who have adopted a biblical worldview remember that early church fathers often strengthened and encouraged new disciples of Christ by reminding them, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) This does not mean that Christians enjoy suffering or want to invite additional suffering into their lives, but they understand that suffering is a result of a fallen, sinful world, not just a conglomeration of choices that have been defined as “unhealthy”.

Suffering, for the Christian, is not to be avoided, as most modern thinking emphasizes. It is to be embraced. This is for two reasons. First, suffering is often the catalyst for the sanctification process, because it reorients us to a God-centered mentality and resizes our own view of our selves so that we confess as Paul did in Philippians 1:21 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Suffering can teach, purify, and increase our understanding of God; and just like healthy conflict can improve a marriage or a friendship, so suffering can improve our relationship with God. For this reason we often find encouragement through the examples of biblical saints who have preceded us, for they provide an example of how to remain God-centric in the midst of suffering. Also, scriptures like James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 1:14-16, and 1 Peter 2:11-23 do not encourage alleviation of suffering but a specific type of living in the midst of it.

This type of Christ-like living is encouraged for the second reason of embracing suffering: to promote Christ and invite others into a relationship with Him. If Christians endure suffering like their non-Christian friends/relatives, then there is no distinction between how we live and how they live. But when a Christian embraces suffering and demonstrates that the power of God is working through them to produce a joy or a righteousness that is independent of their circumstances, then other people take notice of this strange response. It becomes intriguing to them and can, in some cases, make them acknowledge that only God could be working through you to accomplish what they are witnessing. Embracing suffering is not easy but it does promote Christ as it removes the element of trusting one’s self and instead trusts in God to do a work that has never before been witnessed. To be clear, though, this may or may not include the removal of suffering in your life, or even the alleviation of it. It may, instead, accomplish only the exaltation of Christ.

Again, this does not mean that psychology is useless. It only means that as a Christian (or a Christian counselor for that matter) one must decide how to approach and handle suffering. Will it be with a psychologized theology, focused more on alleviating emotional pain, or will it be a theologized psychology where biblical principles and worldviews take precedence over those of man? This is the choice I have to daily fight. It is not one I enjoy, but I have hope that as I embrace this struggle, it will both purify my soul as well as my counseling. Perhaps this makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you think it is just the ramblings of local blogger. Either way, it is my hope that in the small struggle of work I can learn wisdom that will be helpful to both myself and my clients that extends beyond the sufferings of this life only. As the apostle Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15:19:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.