Thursday, July 26, 2012
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
From Justin Taylors Blog . . .
I once asked Matt Chandler about the unhelpful things people said to him in his fight against cancer. He refused to give examples but explained, “I think people can get a little weirded out by pain, suffering, and death. They don’t know what to do so they end up saying things that are hurtful to people who have experienced loss.”
For those of us self-aware of the propensity for foot-in-mouth disease, we sometimes choose simply to ignore those who are hurting so that we don’t make things worse.
Jill Sullivan, who lost a 16-year-old daughter to a highly aggressive form of brain cancer,explains why it can be so hard to return to church after the death of a loved one. She writes:
Our churches are full of people who are hurting, many of whom have lost children or other loved ones. For me personally, returning to church was one of the most difficult things to do after my loss, and I’ve talked to many other bereaved parents who have expressed the same thing.
She offers some reasons why this might be the case:
- Families tend to sit together at church, and when your family is missing someone, their absence is particularly acute in the pew. Looking around and seeing other intact families worshiping beside you can also be very painful.
- The songs we sing in church can bring up very strong emotions. Songs about heaven can conjure up an almost unbearable longing in our hearts, and songs of praise can be difficult to sing when your heart is broken.
- There is an unspoken expectation at church that everyone is filled with the “joy of the Lord.” You know what I mean . . . we put on our best clothes and our Sunday School smiles and give the appearance that all is right in our world. A grieving parent may simply not have the emotional stamina to play that role.
She then asks, “So how do we as the body of Christ reach out to bereaved parents and give comfort without adding to their pain?”
Here are her suggestions for both those who are grieved and for those who can comfort:
- Be patient with them. Grief is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s important to respect the fact that people need time to heal. The grieving parent may not be ready to resume regular church activities right away, whether that’s teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, working in the nursery, or greeting at the door.
- Grief comes in waves. Don’t assume that a person is “over it” if you see them smiling or laughing, and don’t assume that a person is “not doing well” if you see them grieving outwardly.
- They may not be interested in small talk. Someone who has lost a child is grappling with deep spiritual issues and may not be interested in shallow conversation. Listen to them if they want to talk, and don’t feel that you need to answer all their questions. Remember how well it went over once Job’s friends started talking!
- Grieving people are vulnerable and often hyper-sensitive, and they may have been hurt by things that well-meaning people have said to them. Some of those things might include:
“I know what you’re going through. My grandmother died last year.”
Something along the lines of “God always picks His best flowers first” or “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”
“She’s in a better place.” (There’s nothing really wrong with that because it’s true…it’s just that the grieving person really wants their loved one here with them!)
“It’s a good thing you have another child.”
- They also may have been hurt by those who have intentionally avoided them or who have said nothing to them at all. So what should we say to a grieving mom or dad?
“I love you, and I’m praying for you.”
She writes, “That’s it? Could it be that simple? Yes, it really is. This statement, maybe accompanied by a warm hug, is all that’s needed to assure a bereaved parent of your care and concern.”
You can read her whole post here.
For those who are grieving, this workshop from Nancy Guthrie (at the TGC Women’s Conference) may prove instructive and edifying.
See also this interview with her about making the church safe for grieving people.
Nancy tells her own story of profound suffering—the death of two of her children in infancy from Zellweger syndrome—in the book Holding On to Hope: A Pathway through Suffering to the Heart of God. Since that time she has gone on to write additional books exploring God’s comfort in suffering—for example, When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow. She has also edited two relevant collections of classic and contemporary essays: Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering and O Love That Will Not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence in God.
5 MYTHS ABOUT REFORMED THEOLOGY
There are a lot of misconceptions about Reformed theology. I tackle these at length in For Calvinism. Here I’ve been asked to address a few of these in a nutshell.
1. “REFORMED THEOLOGY IS ARROGANT AND PRIDEFUL”
There are several impressions bound up with this critique.
First, the very name suggests that we hold up John Calvin more than Jesus Christ. Truth is, “Calvinism” was coined by critics who wanted to marginalize Reformed teaching, when actually Calvin didn’t teach anything unique that you can’t find, for example, in Augustine or Luther. Furthermore, as important as he was, Calvin was one of many shapers of the Reformed tradition. Our confessions and catechisms (none of them written by Calvin) set forth what we believe. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Calvinism is just a nickname” for what we should call “the doctrines of grace.”
Second, sinful attitudes and behaviors come from our own hearts, not from the word of God. Reformed theology exalts God and his grace, while laying ourselves low as helpless sinners and rebels who are on the receiving end of his generosity. Puffed-up pride is about the most contradictory response one can imagine to the deepest convictions Reformed churches confess.
Third, new converts to anything often possess a zeal that easily morphs into a spirit that many perceive as impatient, know-it-all, and harsh. Yet again this doesn’t fit the conviction that only the Spirit can persuade people of his truth, just as he teaches us.
2. “REFORMED THEOLOGY MAKES US ROBOTS IN GOD’S PLAN”
First, this impression rests on a basic misunderstanding of Reformed teaching. Regardless of what individuals teach, our confessions teach that human beings are never forced to believe or do anything against their will. Unpacking that requires more space, so I can only refer folks to For Calvinism, where I treat this question at length.
Second, “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV). God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around. Nor do we “make Jesus our personal Lord and Savior.” He is the Lord and Savior of the world; otherwise we would have no hope of salvation.
Third, the whole emphasis on God’s sovereign grace is on the work of the Triune God in freeing us—our mind, will, emotions, and bodies—from slavery to sin and death. Apart from this grace, we are indeed “robots” in a sense, slaves to our sinful rebellion, as Jesus said (John 8:34). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 35). Regenerated by God’s grace through the gospel, we find ourselves loving the God who was our enemy, attracted to the law that once condemned us, drawn outside of ourselves to look up to Christ in faith and out to our neighbors in love and service.
3. “REFORMED THEOLOGY HAS NO GRACE AND LOVE”
First, Reformed theology emphasizes that our entire salvation is due to God’s faithfulness, not ours. Yet precisely because this is true, we want to be faithful.
Second, Reformed theology underscores that in our union with Christ we receive both justification and sanctification. In the words of the Belgic Confession, “Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned” (Art. 24).
4. “REFORMED THEOLOGY KILLS GENUINE, HEART-FELT PIETY”
First, this impression is contradicted by the logic of Reformed faith and practice. How can a theology that reorients us to a God-centered view of reality kill genuine, heart-felt piety? Whenever the Apostle Paul teaches the doctrines of God’s sovereign, electing, redeeming grace, he typically erupts in praise (see for example, Romans 8:31–39, 11:33–36).
Second, precisely because “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9), we are free to trust and obey without the selfish motive of trying to save ourselves or score points. As Luther put it, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.”
Third, Reformed piety is sometimes a little different from what many Christians have come to associate with “genuine, heart-felt piety.” The whole point of the gospel is to turn us outside of ourselves, while much of contemporary piety drives us deeper into ourselves. Many of us were raised in backgrounds where missing a private quiet time was viewed with more suspicion than missing church. Reformed piety includes the personal aspect, including private prayer and meditation on Scripture. Yet it emphasizes the importance of growing together: as covenant families in daily worship and instruction (catechism) and in the communion of saints gathering each Lord’s Day for the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper aren’t our means of commitment, but God’s means of grace, as he sweeps us into his unfolding drama together with his saints. Because God is at work here, we are at work there, in the lives of the others around us. Growth in grace is a team sport, not a private hobby. Reformed piety emphasizes the importance of setting aside the whole Lord’s Day for being refreshed in the communion of saints by the penetrating powers of the age to come in Christ and by the power of his Spirit through his word and sacraments.
Fourth, this emphasis on piety as a life lived in relation to others extends to our callings in the world. We don’t offer our good works to God, but to our neighbors who need the gifts—temporal and spiritual—that God has given us to share with them. Reformed piety embraces the world. We aren’t trying to score points or to transform culture, but to relate to particular neighbors right in front of us in very particular ways each day (see 1 Thess. 4:9–12). So the horizon of Reformed piety is not merely the individual heart or a personal relationship. Of course, it is that—but much more. Christ’s saving work includes the whole created order—not only souls, but bodies, and not only human beings but the natural world (Rom. 8:18–25). We are not looking for “the late, great planet earth,” but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Fifth, the criticism that Reformed theology kills genuine piety is contradicted by history. The leading theologians of the Reformation were often pastors who also wrote devotional guides, hymns, prayers, and catechisms. They were also often scientists, artists, poets, and linguists, who also founded orphanages and poor houses on the side. When Calvinists founded the early Ivy League colleges in America, they did not imagine that they might have to make a choice between the Bible and classical pagan literature or between theology and science or between piety and the arts. In their view, it was all of one piece. As Wilhelm Niesel reminds us, “The much discussed activism of Calvin is rooted in the fact that we belong to Christ and thus can go our way free from care and confess our membership in Christ; but it does not arise from any zealous desire to prove one’s Christian faith by good works.”
5. “REFORMED THEOLOGY KILLS COMMUNITY AND MISSION”
I devote a whole chapter in For Calvinism to this one. So I’ll just scratch the surface here. As with misunderstanding #4, this criticism doesn’t fit either the logic or history of Reformed churches.
First, Reformed theology teaches clearly that God works through means in fulfilling his saving purposes. After expounding the truth of election in Romans 8 and 9, Paul went on to explain how God saves his elect through the preaching of the gospel in chapter 10. If election were not true, we would all be left in our sins and there would be no point to evangelism.
Second, Reformed Christians were in the vanguard of the modern missionary movement and that evangelistic impulse has remained powerful in our churches to the present day. The first Protestant missionaries to the New World were sent by Calvin to Brazil, and Geneva (as well as other Reformed centers) was a base for the first Protestant missionary schools. Calvinists pioneered missions to China, Korea, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
Third, given the communal emphasis highlighted above, it is difficult to imagine how Reformed faith and practice could be charged with killing community. Rather, it builds community around Christ as he is clothed in the gospel and given by the Spirit to sinners through the public ministry of preaching and sacrament, under the care of elders and deacons. This is why we confess the faith together, corporately confess our sins and receive Christ’s absolution, teach the same faith and practice across generations, and encourage Christian education and outreach.
BE REFORMED BY GOD’S WORD
As I began, so I will end with the admission that we don’t live up to the wonderful truth of Scripture that we confess. There are tragic inconsistencies in our lives, as individuals and as churches. Where there are contradictions, we need to be reformed by God’s Word and Spirit. Nevertheless, it’s far better to have convictions that we fall short of living out than to live out convictions that are less faithful to God’s Word.
- Horton, Michael. Modern Reformation, “Grace: How Strange the Sound.”
- Horton, Michael. Modern Reformation, “Who Saves Whom?”
- Packer, J.I. Modern Reformation, “Is God Unfair?”
- Rosenthal, Shane. Modern Reformation, “Am I Predestined? Luther and Calvin on the Dangers of Speculating about Election apart from Christ.”
- Sproul, R.C. Modern Reformation, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.”
- The White Horse Inn Blog, “For or Against Calvinism?”Part 1 and Part 2. January 2012.