Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Problem of Mixed Motives

I’ve been talking to people lately about a roadblock that I think I see in spiritual growth.  It looks like a two-step process: (1) “get” (understand) the principle and then (2) “apply” it, which means to incorporate it into our, attitudes and practices, to make it part of who we are.  Knowledge and application are both critical.  But there’s something missing.

I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about emotions, lately, and I’m caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, I think we insufficiently understand the role and power of emotional tonality for spiritual maturity, because we have a much impoverished vocabulary.  We tend to reduce emotions to talk about “how we feel” about something.  On the other hand, when it comes to Christian doctrine, we tend to avoid feelings, because we’ve been taught that emotions actually muck up understanding.

Consider the connection between emotions, desires and motives and let’s try a little scenario.  I desire to grow spiritually in some way, let’s say, in prayer.  (Desire: I want a more intimate relationship with God.)  I can read a book, hear a teaching and gain a new understanding of the practice.  OK, so I’ve done step 1.  I understand better.  Now, I’m supposed to “apply” what I’ve “learned.”

(Hint: merely understanding a concept is not yet learning.)

Actually, when I start trying to “apply” the new “knowledge,” I discover that it’s really harder than it first seemed.  Prayer takes time.  And focus.  And persistence.   Persistence requires a degree of courage.  Notice the emotional tonality?

But I am busy.  I can’t get that song out of my head when I’m trying to pray.  I’m distracted by work projects and a million other thoughts.  I’m tempted to give up (discouragement – more emotional tonality).  And now comes the problem of mixed motive.  (1) I want to learn to pray fruitfully, effectually.  (2) I’m not inclined to demonstrate the persistence that fruitful praying takes.  So, (1) I desire to pray and (2) I desire not to go through the time-consuming process to get at the goal.

Actually, in reflection, I discover that I want the benefits of prayer (peace, confidence that I know God’s will, other benefits), especially as the book on prayer describes them.  It sounded so good there!  But prayer is interacting with God.  Well, I do want to interact with God, but on my terms, in my time frame, under my own schedule and with the envisioned benefits, as I’ve already mentioned.  When I discover that they don’t come that way, my desire for intimacy with God is tested.

And – dare I speak for God!? – God is more interested in my growing to maturity than in meeting my deadlines or other criteria for receiving the benefit of prayer.  And when I begin to realize this point, I’m challenged with awareness of my mixed motives.  I do want to pray and grow in intimacy with God.  I also want it to occur according to my designs.  What happens when the motives clash?

To grow spiritually, we need to think about and recognize mixed motives.  Where do your mixed motives reside?

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July 26, 2010 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Mystery of Iniquity

Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library.  We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story.  He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962) and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen.  Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.

The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives.  One piece particularly caught my attention.  A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.”  The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament.  As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture.  The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself.  Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.

Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture.  It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word.  I am not engaging in a counsel of despair.  I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.”  Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.

The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be ab.  The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.”  And here the mystery of iniquity enters.

I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible.  As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught.  And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened.  We must always remember this propensity in the human heart.  Lord, have mercy on us.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Easter Monday

Easter Monday.  The second day of the New Creation.  

Because I am again serving as pastor to two small congregations, I preached yesterday.   I followed the lectionary and used Mark 16:1-8 as the Gospel text.

Perhaps because of our circumstances, I was taken with how the story describes the response of the women to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.   “Terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here the so-called shorter ending of Mark stops.  It is thus replete with ambiguity.  The scripture clearly states that Jesus is alive.  The women don’t know how to deal with this news, so they do nothing.

Their lack of action seems particularly relevant for the way many of us live today.  We Christians claim to be Easter people, but we live pretty much like Jesus were still dead.  It’s Easter Monday.  After the little bump of Easter festivities, what is different about today?  What is different about our vision?  Our witness?

As part of my personal prayer time, I have been reading through 1 Corinthians.  As you might imagine, chapter 15 has been holding my attention.  This morning I re-read verses 24-25: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”    

I found myself asking, “By what means is Christ now destroying every ruler, authority and power?”  Clearly Paul believes that God is the Lord of history, period.  We’ve all had our view about history distorted by learning that it involves (social history excepted) only major public events: governments and wars and world leaders and such.   Jesus doesn’t seem to fit very well in that picture, even for Christians.   

This historical myopia exposes a huge problem.  I think the answer to how Christ is destroying rulers and authorities is “by means of Christian witness,” not a comforting thought.  We (American) Christians are not doing too good a job in the witness department.  

We’ve gotten too cozy with rulers and powers.   Again I’m using terms I don’t like.  Conservative Christians have tried to use the levers of governmental power to legislate against abortion, homosexual practice, taxes, etc.  Liberals have taken the same tactic with a different view of the same issues.  Then the two groups argue about who is “more Christian,” as if advocating for legislation is Christian witness.  

Certainly we have a responsibility to act as good citizens, which means we should have opinions about such matters.  But we should also remember that this citizenship is double-edged, fraught with temptation.  And when we permit our witness to narrow to nothing more than expressing certain political opinions, even if couched in the rhetoric of morality, we should be ashamed.  I know it has been said a thousand times by people more eloquent than I: when Christians get too comfortable with worldly power, we forfeit our good witness.  We still have a witness.  It’s just a bad one.

It’s Easter Monday.  By God’s grace, let Jesus’ people make a good witness.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Point of the Story?

A couple of times recently, I’ve listened to “what the Bible says” conversations that have left me scratching my head. Today’s Sunday School lesson (written by a well-known author/pastor) dealt with personal affliction and God’s glory and used an excerpt from John 9, the story of Jesus healing the man blind from birth.  The aim of the lesson: to teach about how God is glorified and how we can grow, even (and especially) through affliction.   

The author made particular reference to John 9:3, which gives Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question about whether this man was a sinner or his parents (since he had been blind from birth).  Jesus’ response: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Our author followed with his interpretation: “The point of the story, then, is how the blind man’s affliction revealed God’s glory.”

No.  That’s not the point of this story!  It’s really about spiritual blindness and faith.  As the story continues, after the man’s healing, he is interrogated by the Pharisees about whether Jesus was a sinner. Ultimately, they boot him from synagogue fellowship and the story ends with Jesus’ word: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  He aims directly at the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  

You see why I’m bugged by using that verse to talk about affliction?  If I don’t read the rest of the story, I miss the whole point!  I’m worried, then, about how people read or hear the Bible, once they’ve “learned” some principle in this way.  It makes me think of how often we miss the point because we already “know” the point.

Preachers and teachers, we are most to blame.  Too much  “biblical preaching/teaching clouds biblical truth with “applications” that draw people away from the Bible’s own claims.

There is much in the scriptures that teaches about affliction without resorting to ripping off other parts.  Job is about affliction, especially undeserved.  A number of the Psalms speak about affliction.  James teaches about affliction.  Not John.  

Preachers and teachers work against spiritual growth when we treat the Bible this way.  I fully concede that I’m saying nothing new, but I don’t think we’re paying sufficient attention to the problem.  We who are responsible for guiding people spiritually mislead them by distraction, when we already have our topic and carelessly grab for proof texts for support.  It makes me think of another verse: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters…”  Have I gotten the point of this story right?

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality | 1 Comment