Tag Archives: Gospel

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Benefits of Leaving (Part 2)

Previously, I outlined some of my the problems with fundamentalism and offered a plea to my progressive fundamentalist brothers, but I didn’t want to just end there. With any journey out of something, you are also moving toward something else. As I’ve moved away from fundamentalism, it isn’t because I’m angry or merely disillusioned with the movement. Yeah, I’ve been kicked in the chops a time or ten by fundamentalist leaders. But I’m not leaving because of that. In fact, I was dead set on staying and getting busted on for the rest of my life until God showed me that not only did the fundamentalists not want me, but that I needed what my evangelical brothers and sisters had to offer.

So this post was only supposed to list 5 benefits, but after some of the comments on my previous post, I’ve thrown in an extra one for good measure. Here we go:

You will grow spiritually as a result of your substantial interaction with your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Fundamentalism tends to skew either toward an intellectual dryness or an emotional vapidity. In spending time with my evangelical brothers, I’ve found that truth and love tend to work more in equal parts. Having been more familiar with the cold intellectualism of fundamentalism, I’ve rediscovered an “affective” dimension of my faith even while interacting with academics in an evangelical seminary. In my experience, evangelicals do a far better job expressing love, engaging in humble service, and enjoying the work of the Holy Spirit in their worship and growth in sanctification than I’ve seen in fundamentalist circles. There are exceptions in both cases, but this has been the norm from my experience. All but a couple of my fundamentalist seminary professors seemed to have to flip a switch to transition from teaching theology or Greek to talking about pastoral implications of the doctrine or text. In my evangelical seminary experience, doctrine and life were more closely intertwined. I’ll never forget the very emotional moments in class when my professors would tear up as they shared how the text had impacted their lives.

From evangelicals I’m learning that love means more than just being nice to those who are nice to you. It means investing in the lives of others. From evangelicals I’m learning that joy means more than a smile when they pass you in church. It means delighting in Jesus and his people even when that doesn’t seem logical.  From evangelicals I’m learning that peace means more than avoiding open hostility. It means leaving your gift at the altar until the relationship is made right. You’ll grow in these basic Christian characteristics (Rom. 14.17; 15.13; Gal. 5.22) by seeking out your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Another area of growth will be clearer recognition of your own pride and legalism. As long as you remain comfortably within the fishbowl of fundamentalism, you won’t have to look far in order to find someone more legalistic than yourself. But once you start connecting wholeheartedly with your evangelical brothers and sisters, you’ll suddenly discover the legalistic bent of your own heart and the desperate need of your congregation in this area. I once tried to explain to a leader in a progressive fundamentalist church that legalism still existed in his church. I’ll never forget his blank look as he replied, “what legalism?” He insisted on pointing out how far the church had come and how different they were from other fundamentalists, but I urged that he consider that legalism is a bent of the heart (my own included) and could never be eradicated. So when I followed with the question, “so you would say that no one in your church struggles with legalism?”, his reply was simply: “no.” Remain in fundamentalism and you’ll be like a fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet.

So it’s simple: you and your church have much to gain by interacting more deeply with these brothers and sisters.

“Christians have no right to reject from their fellowship those whom God himself has accepted.” – Doug Moo

You will discover helpful viewpoints on issues that you may not have considered.

Fundamentalism suffers a great loss because of its sectarian disconnectedness from the rest of Christianity. I recently read an excellent DMin thesis from a fundamentalist seminarian who went to great lengths to convince his fundamentalist brothers that they were actually missing out on an excellent method for discipleship by not adopting small group ministry models. He saw one of his substantial hurdles in this thesis as the unwillingness of fundamentalists to adopt a practice that didn’t seem to originate in-house, as it were (81-83, 90-92).

But I think ministry models are only the beginning. While fundamentalists are often conversant with published knowledge in the evangelical community, their awareness of challenges and approaches on major issues (e.g., biblical approaches to same sex attraction, mandatory reporting, etc.) often woefully lags far behind. Growing up in fundamentalist circles, we were simpy told that homosexuality was a sin (it was often implied that it was a worse sin than others) and laws against same-sex marriage were championed as a means to keep homosexual sin at bay. So needless to say, I was woefully unequipped to speak with a friend who came to me and said: “I’m attracted to other guys; am I a Christian?” Evangelicals have a far better track record of approaching issues with same sex attraction and homosexuality both in personal discussions and political confrontations.

For another example, most fundamentalist churches (with only a few exceptions) simply don’t disciple well. Many from a fundamentalist background can identify with this statement:

“I personally received no follow up or discipleship after making my profession of faith.” – Mitch Nichols

Now we could argue that maybe evangelicals have an equal problem with discipleship, but I’ve personally seen consistent and concerted efforts toward discipleship in evangelical ministries, the likes of which I’ve never seen in fundamentalism. And if making disciples is what Jesus called us to do, then we need the benefit of learning from those who are fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28.19). Frankly in areas such as discipleship, you and your church have much to lose by failing to interact with your brothers and sisters.

You will experience the freedom to engage your culture with truth in fresh ways.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, your fundamentalist baggage keeps you from freely engaging with your culture in lots of non-syncretistic ways. Just take a moment to look at your church’s Great Commission efforts. It’s either not happening or largely happening in culturally insensitive ways (e.g., knocking on doors). Evangelicals have, for years, been evangelizing postmoderns and those from post-Christian cultures. You have much to gain by learning from them.

In fundamentalist settings (although not exclusively reserved to fundamentalists), contextualization is rarely taught and both the results and practice of contextualization are often feared. And I think I know why. I remember sitting in a class under Dr. David Beale at Bob Jones Seminary when he drew parallels between various movements during the Reformation and H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories of Christ and Culture. I remember vividly the feeling of surprise that hit me: “you mean there are systematically thought-out methods of engaging with culture besides just creating our own subculture and hiding in it?!?” I was blown away. Over the following months I began pouring myself into studying contextualization, transitioned to another seminary, and gained fresh opportunities to engage with those who were contextualizing in a biblical way. I’d been looking for thoughtful, thoroughgoing, biblical ways to interact with my culture similar to those used by Christ and the Apostles. Fundamentalism doesn’t provide that, can’t provide that. The evangelical community engages with the culture in multiple ways (see Keller, Center Church) and not just the “against culture” approach modeled by fundamentalism.

You’ll be able to know that you did your best to point the next generation to Jesus and not to your subculture.

Countless thousands of kids growing up in fundamentalism have wanted nothing to do with Christianity after interacting with the pride and lack of love that pulses through the movement. All it takes is an awakening to the fact that the regulations we’re given don’t match up with reality and Scripture, and the whole system comes crumbling down. And for some, the frame of Christianity or orthodoxy comes down along with the facade of the fundamentalist movement. I’m not saying that your kids won’t leave the church if you leave fundamentalism. That’s been happening for decades. But it’s one thing to see your kids leave the church because they’ve been confronted by the Gospel and they don’t want it. It’s another thing to see them leave because of the stuff you’ve added to the Gospel.

I’ve watched all 3 of my siblings struggle with their faith in the subculture of fundamentalism. I’ve wrestled with my own faith and found myself defeated and questioning whether or not it was worth going on living. Yeah. The oppression and isolation of fundamentalism immobilizes and sucks the life out of your kids. The Gospel does the exact opposite. Ditch fundamentalism and give your kids the Gospel. Clear the clutter that will keep your kids from seeing Jesus.

When I got well-nigh excommunicated (to me, placing a cap on the degree to which a lay servant in the church is allowed to use his gifts is equivalent to excommunication if I am right that gifting = responsibility to serve) from my progressive fundamentalist church for “subjective” and non-doctrinal and non-ethical reasons (read: I was found lacking in fundamentalist sensibilities), I was faced with a decision. Do I try to find another progressive fundamentalist church, spend years gaining another congregation’s trust, continue to live my life in a way that keeps the legalists happy, and still risk making these progressive fundamentalists unhappy too, or do I go ahead and pull out of the movement entirely? The one thing that made me go with the latter option was my daughter. I saw her bouncing around on the living room floor, loving life and bursting with energy. The last thing I wanted her to do is to grow up with the dark struggles that I endured under fundamentalism. I want her to grow up watching her mommy and daddy praising Jesus and worshipping with people who are looking for the best in her. I want her faith to be a joy and not a burden. So I left fundamentalism. And you should too.

You and your congregation will be able to enjoy the freedoms that they have in Christ instead of enduring the bonds of legalism.

If you’ve begun to grasp the implications of the Gospel, you’re probably acutely aware of a bevy of personal life choices that you’re not free to discuss in private or on social media. You make dozens of decisions a day based on what will avoid raising the ire of the legalists. You encourage others in the church to do the same for the sake of unity. You’re constantly trying not to step on landmines of the fundamentalists–landmines that are largely preoccupied with things of earth (Phil. 3.19). Yes, ironically, fundamentalists seem preoccupied with separation from the world, but instead can’t stop talking about the things of earth: don’t wear, don’t drink, don’t listen. But this isn’t what Jesus saved you and your church to…not do(?). The motions that the legalists want you to go through aren’t necessary to keep them from slipping into sin; they’re yokes of slavery (Gal. 5.1). Their regulations won’t even overcome the power of the flesh, as the guardrail premise suggests (Col. 2.23). The legalist who seeks to enforce their rules on the people in your congregation deserves to hear a resounding “NO!” Breaking from the demands of fundamentalism allows you to stand with confidence and resist the fundamentalists’ extra-biblical militancy with the authority of Scripture (Col. 2.20).

“For me to draw dividing lines that He has not drawn grieves Him, hurts the body of Christ, and hinders the work of the Great Commission.” – Matt Olson

You will be able to speak truth without fear.

Pastors all have their concerns when they step into the pulpit regarding what they should say or not to say. But progressive fundamentalist pastors maintain an additional set of concerns when they step into the pulpit. You know that if you’re preaching through Colossians 2, for example, you’re going to remain a little coy about exactly what Paul was condemning when he spoke about those who tried to enforce rules on “eating and drinking” (v. 16). Right now you’re inhibited from speaking with all the force of the Apostle when he passionately lashed out against the legalists in defense of the Galatian believers (5.12). Gain the freedom to speak loudly where the Bible does.

To understand this issue at an individual level:

“Only in recent years has the movement begrudgingly acknowledged that it needs people like me, and seeks my support, my money and my time.  But it still only wants me on its own terms and that includes my silent acquiescence, and that is a price that the Gospel does not demand.”  – Mitch Nichols

Are you willing to continue to pay the price of silence? I’m not. I remember a time about 4 years ago when I heard the following statement from a fundamentalist leader:

“There’s a basic fallacy that is quite prevalent today in the matter of the worship of fundamental Bible believing people. The fallacy is this: it’s all about the gospel. That’s a fallacy. All kinds of compromise can come into the church under that false…premise.” – Bob Jones III

I posted that quote on my Facebook with no comment for or against. Within a few hours, my progressive fundamentalist pastor called me asking that I pull the quote down. He told me that citing that statement was tantamount to calling out this leader and that calling out a local Christian leader would absolutely jeopardize my future ministry. So I immediately deleted my post. I gave them my silence. Now it’s not that my pastor thought Bob Jones III was right; in fact, he agreed that the man was dead wrong. But progressive fundamentalists have to play the politics game with fundamentalism and aren’t allowed to directly call out the broken theology and practice of the movement.

When you break from fundamentalism, you’ll be able to speak out and protect the sheep in the way the Bible calls us to.  And that’s why you’re reading this post today.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the breaking points (although I’m now non-committal on exactly how many points there will be) from fundamentalism as people and churches make the move toward post-fundamentalism.

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: Intro (Part 1)

Defining Fundamentalism

Christians who label themselves “fundamentalist” come in all shapes and sizes. When some hear this term, they pejoratively associate it with all Christians with more “conservative” positions than they themselves hold. But the way I’m using the term here is different. I’m using it of a particular segment of people who are part of a particular sociological movement within conservative Christianity. This movement claims a heritage that stems from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early portion of the 20th century, but has, in reality, abandoned its historical roots in pursuing theological conservatism (Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 5 – “Historic fundamentalism has changed.”). Today fundamentalism pursues cultural conservatism (conserving elements of seemingly holier bygone eras) and has added a singular approach to doctrinal error (distanced separatism).  But in reality, the conservative evangelicals from whom they have separated are the true fundamentalists, waging battle royal for the faith against liberalism and the far left of evangelicalism. They are the front line of infantrymen. Fundamentalists are the artillery troops who conveniently find themselves huddled miles from the fight. And instead of dropping shells on the enemy, they safely lob shells at their own front line troops. I say “safely,” because they rarely/never receive a return volley, but, rather, kind accolades. I think this is for two reasons: (1) they have no substantive relationship with evangelicals, and (2) evangelicals have legitimate issues that they’re battling against rather than the groundless critiques of the fundamentalists.

The Problem of Fundamentalism

The problem of fundamentalism is visible at a foundational level. The movement’s pursuit of separatism in an attempt to reach the highest ground of Christianity has been the path that has placed fundamentalism on the cliff. This spirit has been helpfully and powerfully critiqued by Phil Johnson (see “Dead Right” Part 1 and Part 2). Another excellent critique on sound biblical grounds comes from my friend and colleague Stan McCune. I’ll add a little to the already solid argument against fundamentalism as I set up my plea to progressive fundamentalists.

Why Distanced Separation is a Problem

I really have no simpler argument on why the fundamentalist preoccupation with separation is a problem than to point to the Pharisees. Most of you who’ve been raised in fundamentalism, like me, are already rolling your eyes. You don’t get the connection. Here it is: the word “Pharisee” is Aramiaic for “Separate Ones.” And for whom did Jesus reserve his strongest, loudest, and longest critiques during his ministry? Was it the liberal Sadducees?  Was it the corrupt politicians? Was it the sinful prostitutes and murderers? Nope, nope, and nope. It was the Pharisees. Separate ones: Jesus is pointing at you.

An Example of the Problem: Broken Scholarship

One recently noted result of the fundamentalist separatism is that fundamentalist scholarship, at its best, is intentionally not currently contributing to the scholarly community and is even fearful of publishing with reputable evangelical publishing houses. And I firmly believe that they’ll continue in this insular vein of academics because it’s rooted in the very core of what fundamentalism is all about–separatism. As the dean of a fundamentalist seminary once wrote me:

“Our purpose in our PhD programs is to train men for academic leadership [in] fundamentalist, separatist ministries, not in broader evangelicalism, so we are not much concerned about their responses to us and whether their doors are opened or closed.”

Another Example of the Problem: Fear of Evangelical Scholarship

This broken form of separatism is exemplified by my interaction with one of the upper echelon leaders at Bob Jones University (probably referred to as a “mainstream” fundamentalist organization). I asked him about connecting with churches in the movement and he didn’t even bother asking about my theology; he immediately told me:

“With all due respect, you’ve sought out seminary training outside of fundamentalism, and so you frankly have no place in fundamentalism. I couldn’t recommend you to fundamentalist churches with your kind of background.”

Rather than valuing those who’ve existed outside of their fishbowl, fundamentalists immediately slander, mark, and avoid those who aren’t fully inbred within the movement. This has been blatantly apparent to me since my first visit to my regional ETS meeting.

The Obvious Problem: Hyper-Fundamentalism

I’d like to briefly dive into the fishbowl of fundamentalism in order to broaden our perspective of what’s wrong with fundamentalism. The much maligned hyper-fundamentalist is the go-to bogey man of fundamentalism. A self-identified fundamentalist once described this person as maintaining some or all of the following eight characteristics (adapted from Kevin Bauder in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, 43-44):

  1. His loyalty to an organization, movement or leader is unquestioning.
  2. His stance on extra-biblical or anti-biblical issues is militant.
  3. He views any form of association with another believer as full endorsement of even their errors.
  4. He is unable to receive criticism.
  5. He views academia and Christian intellectuals in a negative light.
  6. He holds nonessentials as tests of fellowship.
  7. He sees militant political action as essential.
  8. He practices double standards in his personal ethics.

Bauder sees these behaviors as indicative of the most extreme wing of the movement (FVSE, 44), but those who’ve had thoroughgoing interaction with the movement would likely see elements of this behavior more widespread–behavior which breeds easily in a culture which prizes distanced separatism from the rest of Christianity.

“You may be thinking that I am pointing to a discomfort with hyper-fundamentalism, and in some cases that is true.  However, the subculture as a whole seems to blur the Gospel and even at times consciously or unconsciously attempts to add to it.”  – Mitch Nichols

Why the Hyper-Fundamentalist Problem isn’t Going Away

Part of the fundamentalist’s inability to see the scope of their problem is rooted in their sectarian mindset. By remaining largely within the confines of their own movement, they don’t see their own pride or legalism because they’re constantly comparing themselves to the behaviors of the more radicalized fundamentalist. The insular and sectarian tendencies of the movement ensure that hyper-fundamentalist tendencies are allowed to grow and thrive because no fundamentalist has to look far to find someone more “hyper” than themselves.

In spite of the fact that the characteristics of hyper-fundamentalism which Bauder defines permeate more of the movement than I think Bauder can admit, I do agree that there is a more moderate segment of the movement (for a more extensive interaction with the work, see my review here). And I also agree with him that this segment of fundamentalism is rapidly diminishing (FVSE, 46) in favor of either the radicalized extreme of the movement or a more progressive brand of fundamentalism that appreciates more of what their conservative evangelical brothers are doing (FVSE, 45). It’s this progressive wing of fundamentalism that I’ve been involved with for the past 6 years in particular, and my article is aimed at addressing some of the issues in this portion of the movement.

The Predicament of the Progressive Fundamentalist

Yes, by comparison, the progressive fundamentalist seems like a less abrasive kind of fundamentalism, but there are some major challenges with this segment of fundamentalism. From my perspective, in a taxonomy of fundamentalism from hyper to mainstream to progressive (some prefer “old-time”, “traditional”, and “historic” as labels that slightly overlap what I’m aiming for here), progressive fundamentalism can be bifurcated into divergent fundamentalists and emerging fundamentalists. Divergent fundamentalists accept some theological or practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalists (e.g., use of “sanctified” CCM or willingness to study at evangelical institutions), but still stand resolutely committed to remaining embedded in the fundamentalist movement. On the other hand, emerging fundamentalists accept both the theological and practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalism, but (in contrast to divergent fundamentalists) are decisively and inevitably headed out of the fundamentalist movement and desire renewed fellowship with conservative evangelicals. A church or pastor would be considered post-fundamentalist after they have finished parting ways (often a result rather than an intention) with the movement of fundamentalism and its unbiblical practices and have begun substantial new mutual relationships with the broader conservative evangelical community.

I think that most progressive fundamentalists would agree with me that fundamentalism is a deeply flawed movement. Most progressive fundamentalists have begun to deeply value the Gospel’s role in their sanctification and now recognize the legalistic prohibitions that fundamentalism places on the leadership and congregants in their churches. Most progressive fundamentalists (and even hyper and moderate fundamentalists) see problems, but do they see the solution? They’ve seen the issues for at least a decade now. But who’s willing to do what needs to be done for the sake of their own souls and for the souls in their care? Or will progressive fundamentalists continue to sit on the fence while they acclimatize to their “safe” forms of legalism and pride on the fringe of a toxic movement? There are a few in the movement who recognize the problems and are fighting to retain the next generation of leaders, but they presume (1) that reform is actually possible and (2) that the value of remaining in the movement is somehow greater than leaving it. They tell us that the their movement is not on sinking sand, but that the issues we’re seeing are the mere foibles of a few–problems with the edifice and not the foundation of the movement (McLachlan, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism, 3-4). But I would strongly contend (1) that reform is not broadly welcomed (even hotly resisted) even in the “moderate” wing of the movement and (2) that the dangers of remaining in the movement are far worse than leaving it (I’ll get to that soon). And I think that my generation sees these two points acutely. In our experience, fundamentalism has only doubled down and pushed us out. The divergence and emergence of fundamentalists has driven the rhetoric of hyper and mainstream fundamentalists into a furious frenzy. They don’t want you and your efforts to reclaim or reform the movement.

A Plea to Progressive Fundamentalism

My plea to my conflicted progressive fundamentalist brothers is to immediately and decisively pursue full fellowship with your evangelical brothers at the expense of relationships within the broken fundamentalist movement. The movement is radicalizing toward hyper-fundamentalism and diminishing in the middle, and you’re in the danger of maintaining sole or primary fellowship with believers who have a radically inferior view of the Gospel, which could tempt you to become dormant in your pursuit of the Gospel and proud of your standing. I plead with divergent fundamentalists to begin emerging from the movement. I plead with emerging fundamentalists to stay the course and become post-fundamentalist. You need the benefit of Gospel-centered fellowship and the removal of fundamentalist restraints on your church and people. You need to leave the unbiblical movement behind you for the sake of your own spiritual health.

The “moderate” fundamentalists scorn your position as a reckless experiment, from which you will return groveling in hopes of acceptance back into the fundamentalist network.

“Ridicule from the New Fundamentalists is not at all surprising, but most of our friends are keeping their head down hoping all this will pass over. In five years you will hear a large collective ‘Oops’ after we have lost an entire generation of our preacher boys.” – Fundamentalist Pastor quoted approvingly by Rick Arrowood

Surprisingly, I’m going to tell you that these fundamentalists are partly right. If you see progressive fundamentalism as an end in and of itself, if you think that you can carve out a safe existence on the fringe of fundamentalism (i.e., becoming a clan of “divergent” fundamentalists), you’re grossly mistaken. Your church and organization will dwindle out of existence by attrition; those who are still enamored with separatism will leave, and those who you’ve shepherded toward the Gospel will continue moving while your church slams on the brakes to avoid leaving the movement. Your personal growth in the Gospel will be hindered as you continue to exemplify the legalistic constraints of fundamentalism.

But here’s where I hope the fundamentalists are dead wrong: I believe that “emerging” fundamentalists truly don’t intend to stay in the fringes. They rightly want to pursue full fellowship with conservative evangelicalism even if it results in the loss of fundamentalist connections. And I hope to urge these believers to take the next step in this awesome journey. In the next two articles, I will offer 5 [edit: now 6] benefits in letting go of fundamentalism and 5 [edit: now 6] breaking points you need to push through as you and your church leave fundamentalism.

5 Questions We Ask about Trials (And How Jeremiah Answers them)

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” Have you ever felt like you’re just running on fumes? Do the trials you’re going through this week make you feel like you’re in the middle of a desert and you just drank the last drop of water from your water bottle? If you’re in the middle of a trial, you can probably resonate with these mournful words from Lamentations 3.18.

Maybe you’re on the sad long road toward divorce. You’ve done everything you can think of to resolve the problem, but it just seems inevitable.

Maybe you watch as your mother fights a protracted battle with cancer. Has God just walked out on you and your family?

Maybe you’ve struggled for years with depression and suicidal thoughts. No therapy or drugs or prayer seems to be helping.

Maybe you’ve been slandered by friends at school or at work or at church and they’ve dragged your name through the mud. You feel like trash right now and you just want to disappear.

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” You get it. And you’re asking the tough questions that come with this place in life. Jeremiah seems to have been asking those questions too. In Lamentations 3, we get a peek behind the curtain on the answers to those questions. Jeremiah the prophet is writing here after his whole country has been destroyed and his friends and family have been taken captive. Yes, it was because many in the nation kept sinning against God, but this didn’t take away the hurt. What a devastating time for this prophet — everywhere he looks there’s pain and trial. So he laments; he cries out to God. Everything has been taken away from him. It’s a nightmare that he can’t wake up from. He keeps pinching himself and saying, “just let me wake up and this all be over. Please, oh please!”

In Jeremiah’s pain we begin to see answers to these common questions we ask when we’re in trials:

How do I re-engage with God when I’ve totally lost hope?

This is where I’ve found myself time and again over the past month or so. When so many people you’ve ministered to and alongside suddenly turn against you and you feel hurt and discouraged, you know that you need God. But where do you start? God feels distant, mean, or uncaring. You feel like you can’t just pick up where you’ve left off with him. Things were different then. Now you’ve got this insurmountable and unavoidable pain in your life. And you’ve got to figure out how to make sense out of what’s happened and re-engage with God. Jeremiah re-engages with God in two ways.

First, we must overlay our grief with God. We’re not called to ignore our grief. Jeremiah thinks of his grief like a deer which has been shot in the guts (Lam. 3.13). It reminds him of the nastiest thing he’s ever tasted (19). He even goes back to discussing his grief (c. 4). We’re supposed to be brutally honest about it. We need to talk about it. But we must place God over top of it. Think of those science books for children that had plastic overlays of the digestive or circulatory systems which could be placed over a picture of a person. I think that a lot of times, we look at God as a separate paper page. Either we turn to God and forget our grief, or turn to grief and forget God. But God and grief are meant to work together. In the moments of our greatest grief, God is there. The Gospel shows us this at the cross. God and grief play well together because he knows what grief is all about. One could even say that he is acquainted with it (Isa. 53.3).

Second, we must rediscover God. Often it’s in the times of darkest trials that when we begin to see the person of our God with greater clarity. His love is steadfast, his mercies are endless, his faithfulness (or, reliability) is great (22-23). As you find who God really is you will find hope. Our trials show us that God isn’t just the ignorant grandfather in the sky; we want him to care about sin and injustice and to right the wrongs. Our trials show us that God isn’t the angry policeman in the sky; only when everything else is stripped away can we see the care and love of our Heavenly Father. The Gospel shows us God is a God of justice who won’t let sin slide, but that he’s a God of compassion and mercy who took the penalty of sin on himself.

Will I be able to make it another day?

If you’ve been there, you’ll never forget the feeling. If you’ve ever run out of energy to take another step or if you’ve ever felt like suicide could be a viable option, you’ve been there. But there’s hope. Jeremiah shares your pain and reminds us of a powerful truth.

Remember that each day will have its own challenges (Matt. 6.34 – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”), but Jeremiah tells us that each day will have its own grace (Lam. 3.23a). Now the prophet doesn’t mean that God becomes different. What he’s saying is that our trials allow us to see fresh expressions of God’s mercy. You’ll see dimensions of his love tomorrow that you’ve never seen before in your life. You’ll screw up and need fresh opportunities for God’s grace.

But God gives us this grace day by day. This means that we can’t just ask for grace and coast for a month. We need to rely on him every day. It also means that there will come times when you feel like you’ve hit the wall and can’t make it any further. You’ll feel like your resources are exhausted. And then, like manna for the people of Israel, a new day comes along with fresh mercies. As you hear the alarm ring on Monday morning, your alarm isn’t the siren for the beginning of the Monday morning blues, but a signal for a fresh day of God’s mercies!

Where should I turn after I’ve lost so much?

Jeremiah tells us that there’s a treasure that we’ve overlooked (24). It reminds me of a time early in my married life when I was working for just over minimum wage and I could barely keep up with the bills each week. After a particularly stressful week when we’d paid for groceries on the credit card, I checked the mailbox that Sunday and found a letter that had likely been in the box for most of the week. It was my tax refund check. I’d been full of anxiety and worry all week long, but there’d been a check in the mailbox the whole time. I think we treat Jesus like this a lot too. Jesus is there to address your anxieties and worries, but yet we never bother to look for him until we’re in a bind. So God uses trials to show us that he’s all we ever need.

Let your newfound treasure renew your hope. With Jesus, you have everything; without Jesus, you have nothing. You may have lost your home or job, but no one can take Jesus away from you. Your husband may leave you, but Jesus will never leave you. Jesus is your everlasting portion when everything else is in limbo.

How am I supposed to respond?

Responses in the middle of a trial aren’t easy. I’ve heard it said that trials bring out what’s really inside of people. I’m not entirely certain of this, but I do know that trials force us to wrestle with unique situations that call for unusual responses. Often when everything falls to pieces, it’s hard to know whether your responses are right or wrong. A mix of emotion and spiritual struggle often result in actions that seem best at the time. Nothing’s simple. People that are on the outside of your trial looking in will be Monday morning quarterbacks about how you should’ve reacted to the suffering. But I like to think that God isn’t like that. Instead of standing with his arms crossed in the distance, he’s running full steam toward us, giving us every grace for every sin, every wrong response. But Jeremiah does give us some ideas on how to respond.

Responding to God

Jeremiah tells us that our response to God should be one of trust. Trust his goodness (25). He isn’t just able to bring you out of this trial whole. He wants to bring you out. Trust in his coming deliverance (26). He doesn’t work on our timetable, but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t working to deliver you. Trust in his sovereignty (27). The process and timing of our suffering has a maturing effect. God allows trials in our lives at particular times in order to prepare us for what’s next.

Responding to Others

Our response to others needs to be humble. Don’t complain about your trial (28). If you complain, you’ll just draw attention away from what God’s doing and place all the attention on yourself. Don’t be proud (29). Be willing and able to admit wrong. Show grace to those who’ve hurt you. Don’t seek revenge (30). Let God right your wrong. Let him raise up people who will advocate for you.

Finding Hope to Respond

But how on earth are we supposed to react like this? I don’t know about you, but this is a difficult calling. Frankly, I tend to be the type who’d love nothing more than to open a can of whoop-[rear] on those who’ve hurt me. But I’m enabled to respond appropriately when I recognize three truths about God. God has greater things in store for me ahead (31). I’ll lash out or walk away from God if I lose hold of this confidence. And this confidence in a future hope is driven by another truth about God. God is absolutely compassionate toward me (32). I can endure the most uncompassionate snarks from fellow-believers so long as I know that God’s compassionate arm is there to hug me when I cry, support me when I fall, and defend me when I’m attacked. This is my God. He’s so compassionate that Jeremiah says a third incredible thing about God. God doesn’t want us to suffer (33). Suffering is related to the fall, and the fall was not what God wanted for his people. He wanted so much better for us. And, guess what? God went to every length to ensure that your suffering will come to an end. One day our suffering will be glory because of this truth–God doesn’t send suffering on his people from his heart.

But what about the injustices that have been done?

Jeremiah isn’t ignorant of the real injustices that have happened. Just because God cares about our suffering doesn’t mean that he overlooks the injustices that have happened to us. To those who’ve wronged us (and to the cry for justice in our hearts) Jeremiah reminds us of 3 truths.

  1. Don’t forget that God is watching (34-35). My favorite line from the Bourne series is when in the middle of the manhunt, Jason Bourne calls the CIA agent who’s hunting him. Watching her from within the obvious easy range of his lethal abilities, he tells her: “Get some rest Pam, you look tired.” In a single instant, the agents’ entire perspective on their situation shifts because they’ve become aware that one who holds their life in his hands has them in his sights. But I, personally, would rather be in Bourne’s crosshairs than in God’s (Matt. 10.28). Take comfort or fear in the fact that those who unjustly bring trials into the life of the believer do not go unnoticed by God Almighty.
  2. Don’t forget that God is judge (35 – “Most High”). God is the one who has the prerogative to right the wrongs. Human courts of justice can be perverted. Even the God-given method of conflict resolution in the church can be turned on its head. But God is the Supreme Court of the Universe. And it’s his verdict that really counts. Your boss’ harsh review of you isn’t the final word. That boy at school who humiliated you doesn’t have the final word. Those Christians who’ve attacked you don’t have the final word. God does.
  3. Don’t forget that God angry with injustice (36). Those who have a position of influence and use it to hurt or harm don’t just flip the lever of God’s justice, they unleash the angry arm of God’s wrath. And deep down we really believe that this makes sense. If there’s a God, he needs to be ticked when the killer goes free because he’s got the right skin color. If there’s a God, he needs to look with fury on those who kill children or those who make themselves rich on the suffering of others. If there’s a God, he must be angry with those who abuse children and traffic women. The fact is that deep down we really want a just God for every abuse and sin in the world except our own.

The Gospel teaches us that God has seen us in the crosshairs of his wrath, but that he turned the anger of his justice on his own Son so that we might not only escape, but that we stand forever as righteous in the sight of the Most High God.

Objections to the Results of Contextualization

The first half of the objections we’ve overviewed centered on perceived errors in the methodology of contextualization. In this article, I’d like to address the perceived errors in the results or aims of contextualization.

Contextualization produces personality cults

I guess the snarky side of me would reply that if contextualization results in personality cults, Paul and Apollos must have contextualized par excellence (1 Cor. 3.4).  But in all honesty, I’ve seen plenty of churches that don’t consciously contextualize to the culture around them and still form into personality cults. I tend to think that personality cults either result from pride in the leadership (which can enter when one contextualizes well or when one bucks contextualization) or from idolatry in the congregation (as in Corinth). I don’t think we can make a 1:1 correlation between contextualization and personality cults.

Contextualization will never attract the world

There are so many errors in this claim, but let’s deal with the obvious ones. First, attracting the world isn’t the aim of contextualization. Our goal is communication to those in our culture. Second, with this objection, we’re back to this sort of angst over the use of means in order to communicate the Gospel. No one ever said that because we’re doing what the Apostles did that we’re going to get apostolic results. Our goal is obedience to the Great Commission and faithfulness to the presentation of the Gospel as shown in the Scriptures. The results are God’s. Lastly, although I hesitate to argue to the contrary (in order that someone were to assume that I’ve proven a result orientation), I think it should be noted that contextualized ministries tend to see great organic growth rather than the transfer growth of ministries that don’t consciously contextualize. I’ve mentioned Tim Keller’s church before, and I think that the way in which Redeemer Presbyterian is able to communicate and connect the Gospel with men and women who should have hit all sorts of roadblocks in terms of worldview in other ministries is nothing short of impressive. This shocking effectiveness of contextualization as a God-ordained means to communicate the Gospel makes me wonder if lack of intentional contextualization is partly to blame for so many churches’ abject failure to fulfill the Great Commission.

Contextualization changes the shape of the church every generation and excludes generational outsiders

Several observations: First, the shape of the church has always changed with the culture around it. Even the Anabaptists (Mennonites) changed with culture until the 19th century. Our churches are inherently culturally-bound expressions of Christianity in community. We can, Amish-like, revere and contextualize to a holier era of the past or we can missionally speak truth into our own era. God didn’t drop down a heavenly cookie cutter in order to make a series of identical churches from the first century until now. He gave us the organic makeup of the Church in Christ and the structure of the Word upon which it flourishes. And that’s why a church in Jerusalem didn’t look like a church in Colossae. And a church in Greer, SC doesn’t look like a church in Cape Town or Berlin or Hong Kong.

Contextualization has resulted in shallowness and sin among young evangelicals

Real contextualization is a focus on the clarity of the communication of the Gospel message into the sitz im leben of the culture around us. I honestly struggle to see how clarity of the Gospel results in shallowness and sin! I think I have an idea of what these generic fears are reflective of. They are fears of the big box church down the street that holds concerts for teens and college students. You and I see tons of people filter through these churches and then practice sin in their daily lives. I would argue that (a) the practices of individuals do not always align with the teachings of their churches, (b) the percentage of non-practicing but professing Christians in these churches is probably roughly the same as in smaller traditional churches, but the number is higher, and (c) there’s a great likelihood that the feel good churches aren’t really practicing biblical contextualization, because biblical contextualization communicates even the truths that people don’t want to hear in language and forms toward which they can respond understandingly. When contextualization is practiced (not simply accommodation or syncretism), Christians and non-Christians are confronted with the life-changing message of the Gospel.