The Spiritual Journey Part 2: Deconstruction (Or Playing Jenga with Your Faith)

Last time I talked about receiving the building blocks of faith, the stage of the spiritual journey we might call construction. How we begin to become people of faith because of other people of faith. Beliefs get handed down. And at least for a period of our lives, we accept these beliefs without difficulty or question.

For many, however, there inevitably comes a time, an occasion, or an experience that raises doubts. Questions pop up. Bits of what we’ve inherited seem to make less sense. Or how we’ve practiced our faith no longer seems to work.

“Why do we believe this?”

“Does the Bible really say that?”

“Do I have to ignore science to believe in God?”

“I really don’t want to go to church anymore.”

“Why should I believe in God, Jesus, and that what the Bible says is true?”

Or maybe we see stuff happening in churches or the larger Christian world and have trouble squaring that with what Christians say they believe. Christian leaders you admire make big mistakes. Your congregation gets into a fight over something stupid, revealing the spiritual immaturity beneath the facade.

Or maybe someone in the church hurts you. James says that the tongue is a fire (James 3:6). A thoughtless comment or a personal slight has led to many exiting churches. And because churches already are often places where difficulties, conflicts, doubts, and questions are handled poorly, those involved may feel badly but are either unable or unwilling to pursue reconciliation.

All of these questions and experiences, left unaddressed or dealt with poorly, can turn someone into a spiritual and theological refugee. All of these things can cause us to enter that spiritual wilderness we call deconstruction. Deconstruction means going through a season of profound spiritual and theological questioning and doubt. It means no longer being sure of what you were raised to believe. It means entering into the process of trying to figure out what you believe and why you believe it.

It’s destabilizing.

It’s painful.

It’s scary.

And yet.

It can also be good. Quite possibly necessary. It’s a process whereby you can actually grow and mature in your faith.

For me, it was an opinionated friend who had recently became a Christian, and while reading the Bible began comparing what it said to what different Christian denominations, including Catholicism, taught and believed. Let’s just say this led to several conversations between the two of us, conversations which were hard for me but still forced me to think through what I believed.

When I began to question some of what I was raised to believe, it felt like the ground underneath my feet was shaking. And when what you thought was firm ground begins to crumble, it’s hard to know where you stand. I was experiencing an epistemic earthquake of sorts. Whatever building blocks of faith I had received during my childhood, faith now felt like a game of Jenga. Would the whole thing eventually topple over, leaving me with nothing left to believe?

During this period I felt anxious about what my Mom and other members of my very Catholic family would think if they knew that this good Catholic boy was no longer sure about ideas like transubstantiation, the male priesthood, and praying to Mary and the saints. Piece by piece, I was pulling apart my Catholic upbringing. It was like living a double life. While at university I felt free to question and to explore, whenever I was home or visiting family I kept a tight lid on what was going on in my head and in my heart. Not only was my family thoroughly Catholic, for whatever reason I didn’t feel free or able to express my doubts or to share what I was going through. My being an introvert could very well have had something to do with it. But I also think that there was this underlying sense that you were just to accept what you were taught. Don’t think about it. Don’t express doubts or questions out loud, because they are not the stuff one brings up in polite company.

Here’s the thing about deconstruction. There is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to go through it.

Over the last few years, there have been several stories of prominent Christian leaders not only going through deconstruction but leaving the faith behind altogether. Often they cite a perceived conflict between science and faith, issues around sexuality, or other ways in which their faith comes up short against large, cultural questions and issues. It’s as though they had been living in some sort of impenetrable Christian bubble and were woefully unprepared to handle the intellectual and existential challenges that living as a follower of Jesus in our society involves.

Even more mystifying is the impression they give that somehow these questions and challenges are a huge surprise. Truth is, none of the hard questions we can ask about our faith, about the Bible, about Jesus, about church, and about God are new. Thoughtful Christians have been asking them for about two thousand years. And this means we have a long tradition of people wrestling with all the issues that cause people now to deconstruct their faith that we can draw upon for wisdom and counsel. We are never alone in our questions.

But then I wonder if this is how some of these people feel. Alone. Maybe they grew up in a church that didn’t allow questions or gave unsatisfying, simplistic answers. Perhaps they were never given spiritual and theological resources, to say nothing of the wise pastoral counsel, that would have helped them traverse the difficult terrain of deconstruction.

I’m guessing some feel embarrassed, guilty, or afraid of their doubts and questions, like somehow they are unfaithful and inadequate as believers for having them. Being honest and vulnerable about what they’re going through is too costly. “What will other people think and say?” “Will I be criticized and judged?” “If I don’t believe in a literal 6-day creation, will my church revoke my membership?”

So is it any wonder some simply decide to cut and run?

If that’s the unhealthy way to go through deconstruction, what’s a healthier way?

There’s a few things I would say. First, realize that everyone–and I mean, everyone–experiences doubts and has questions. If they say otherwise, I really wonder if they’re being honest: with themselves and with others. The point is, you’re not alone. Or you don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to come up with answers all by yourself. Nor do you have to feel ashamed or afraid. Questions and doubts are–and hear me on this–perfectly normal and even to be expected. Having doubt isn’t a lack of faith but perhaps is the surest sign that someone has faith. After all, you’re doubting something, aren’t you?

As a pastor, I would want people in my congregation to feel comfortable asking me their difficult questions. I don’t want them simmering in doubt but not addressing it. I don’t want people to hold onto their theological questions out of fear or guilt. Ask your questions. Speak out loud.

Another point to make is that Christianity also has a rich tradition of wrestling with and working through serious doubts and difficult questions. There are plenty of books that can help. Check out C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, for starters. Read A.J. Swoboda’s new book After Doubt. I’ll warn you, though. You may very well have to do some work and push yourself a little more to think a little deeper than you are used to doing.

And while there is so much more to say about deconstruction that this little blog post can’t possibly hope to address, I will say one last thing. God is with you in your doubts and questions. It’s one thing to worry that you’re going to disappoint your family or your church, but it’s another thing altogether to worry that you’re going to disappoint God. Maybe we say to ourselves, “God wants me to trust him. He calls me to believe. And if I have doubts and questions, then he’ll be disapppointed in me.” We think having doubt is a failure of faith.

Let me say this: You can never disappoint God because you have honest doubts and questions. Never. Case closed. Full stop. Put that notion out of your mind right now. It’s a satanic lie, an absolute falsehood that, if we believe it, actually keeps us from growing in faith and walking with God more closely.

More to the point, God invites us to wrestle with our questions. See a time of deconstruction as an invitation from God to go deeper in your relationship with him. Let your questions drive you to your knees in prayer. Be willing to take the time to work through your questions. Have patience with yourself and with God. And stay in a worshipping Christian community. For goodness sake, don’t isolate yourself.

Roughly 30 years ago I began to feel the theological ground under my feet quake. I found myself unsettled and uncertain. Questions and doubts filled my mind. It wasn’t an easy process. It took years. Some of the building blocks of faith I received I have discarded. Not everything I was taught to believe do I still believe.

Yet I am still here. I still follow Jesus. The core of my faith has only gotten stronger. Do I have all of my questions and doubts resolved and answered? Not hardly. Do I still wrestle with God? Most definitely. But I am standing on much more solid ground. And part of that solid ground is the freedom of being able to address rather than hide from the questions that I find myself asking.

Next up we’ll talk about reconstruction.

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26

Humility

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.

C.S. Lewis

True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.

Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

I am far from a humble person, for I am filled with thoughts of myself. Sometimes these thoughts are driven by an insecurity that, while having lessened over the years, remains a part of me. It’s as though I can still be that scared, afraid to be unnoticed, stuck-on-the-outside-looking-in adolescent boy. This is the inner-sense of feeling like I don’t belong or fit in.

On top of that, I am also aware of an inner pride. Of how in subtle ways I can regard myself as better than others. It might not happen through conscious thoughts, but rather that I will occasionally “feel” myself to be–intellectually, spiritually, etc.–above others, or maybe this person in this moment. But I may not realize in the moment that this is what I am doing or what it means.

So, there’s my confession for the day.

The quotes from Lewis and Keller above express well what genuine humility is. Keller, in particular, articulates well how a lack of humility operates: by making everything about me. We can do this through insecurity or pride; they’re two sides of the same self-occupied coin.

No doubt many of us aren’t self-aware enough to realize this is what’s going on much of the time.

Keller speaks of humility as the “freedom of self-forgetfulness.” Imagine not only not worrying about what others think of you, but not even having it occur to you. Not because you think you are better, but because you’re not really thinking about yourself at all.

It’s almost counter-intuitive. We become more of ourselves when we’re not so pre-occupied with ourselves.

It doesn’t always help that I am an introvert. I can very easily end up living in my head. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, of course, except that when insecurity or pride get in the way what’s going on in my head is anything but healthy or life-giving for myself or those around me.

Put simply: I have at times in my life found myself wallowing in self-pity or worry or fear, my thoughts and emotions stuck going in the wrong direction. Not a great place to be. Though I have also found myself rationalizing it. Thankfully, in more recent years I am a little more self-aware when this is happening. Thankfully, too, I have a wife who has the wisdom to bring me out of such a stupor.

This is, by the way, why humility is not equivalent to thinking less (or poorly) of yourself. Thinking poorly of yourself is still thinking of yourself, even if poorly. And even if Jesus doesn’t want us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, he’s also not looking for us to beat ourselves up constantly. That’s not what being humble means. Being humble is not being a doormat. It’s not about ignoring our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Perhaps we could say it’s about having a healthy, honest estimation of oneself.

Humility is a fruit of the Spirit, even if it doesn’t make Paul’s famous list in Galatians 5:22. Only God by his Spirit can more and more fully free me from myself in all the ways that needs to happen. Humility is the freedom to step out into the world knowing who you are in Christ and being able, because of that, to see people for who they are. Or I think that’s at least part of it. I think humility leads to an openhanded generosity towards others because we’re not constantly playing a comparison game.

And I think it begins by taking our eyes off of ourselves and putting them on Christ, who is our life, our hope, our joy, and our peace. We don’t grow in humility by focusing on it directly. Instead, it grows in us the more we take time to let Christ into our lives and hearts. The more we look at Jesus, and the more what we see, know, and experience of him transforms us, the more we will look at ourselves and others with healthier eyes and hearts. I think that’s what it means to grow in humility.

And I know I am not there yet. But it’s where I want to go, where I want to end up.

“Pain and delight flow together”

I’m closing in on the end of The Return of the King, and I have really enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. When I last spent some time reading it, something in the text stood out. In the aftermath of the victory over Sauron and the forces of Mordor, there is a scene where a minstrel breaks out in song. Here is the description of the effect his singing had.

In the midst of the their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

After I read this, I read it again, so beautifully did Tolkien capture our experience that “pain and delight flow together.” In a very real sense, our moments of joy are all the more joyful because of the pain we’ve known. So closely connected are experiences of delight and suffering that we can scarcely understand or experience one without having experienced the other.

Putting it the other way round, C.S. Lewis speaks of the relationship between joy and suffering in this way:

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

In this instance, he’s speaking of dealing with the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. Grief is often the result of joy and love we’ve known.

This is why Tolkien says that “tears are the very wine of blessedness.” In The Return of the King, evil has been defeated, but there have been deep and painful losses along the way. Even those who have survived the War of the Ring have been profoundly marked by their experience of it. Theirs is a joy tinged with sadness.

It goes without saying that this is true of us with our own experiences of grief and loss.

Of course, the end of The Lord of the Rings is not the end of the story of Middle-Earth. More grievous ills may well plague those who remain. I can’t say, because this is all the Tolkien I’ve read, save The Hobbit. But for us, the story does have an end. The book of Revelation describes a key part of it this way:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4

According to Scripture, therefore, a time is coming when God’s kingdom will arrive in its fullness, when the pain and loss we know in this life will indeed be overcome. Whether our experience of the new heaven and new earth will lack all remembrance of our earthly sorrows, I can’t say. But it seems altogether certain that even if we do have some such remembrances, the joy of being in the presence of God eternally will be so overwhelmingly profound and full that they will no longer be dampened by our tears.

Again, at the end of The Return of the King, Samwise meets Gandalf for the first time since the beloved wizard (seemingly) fell to his death in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Upon seeing him, Sam bursts out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” This is the promise–the sure hope–to which we are invited to cling, a hope made possible by the resurrection of the King, the Lord Jesus, and his eventual coming again. Echoing Samwise the hobbit, author Tim Keller once summarized all this wonderfully, when he said, “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”