Unlike so many history buffs, I’ve always found the Civil War one of the more uninteresting periods of American history. After finishing Thomas Keneally’s Abraham Lincoln (Penguin, 2008), this was no longer the case. I’ve enjoyed this short introduction to our 16th and greatest president both for its insights into the extraordinary character of Lincoln and for its treatment of other topics – such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the feats and failures of Civil War generals, and the colorful members of Lincoln’s cabinet – that I’m less familiar with and want to learn more of. As an example of the former – insights into Lincoln’s character – is the below excerpt, which reminds me of the biblical truth that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Years before he became president, while Lincoln was working on a patent case,
“…a new lawyer, the stocky, pugnacious Edwin M. Stanton, joined the team. Stanton was already such a legal star that he wondered why they had bothered to bring in a ‘long-armed Ape’ from Illinois. (He had, of course, no idea that he would one day serve very happily in the supposed simian’s cabinet.) Lincoln had the gift of humility – it was one of the reasons he was beloved – and as best he could he sat and learned from Stanton, but was hurt by his daily contempt and hubris” (59).
The hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.
(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)
“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?
“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.
“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)
I just started my second reading of Augustine’s Confessions (I first read it in the spring of 2012), a work that merits multiple readings both for its importance in the canon of Christian literature and as a richly edifying meditation on the self in relation to God. There are many translations of this classic work, and a couple of years ago I came across the one I’m now finally reading at the Barnes & Noble on M Street, which, sadly, has been replaced by a Nike store (You take back those Air Jordans and give us back our books!). This version, translated by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, is incredibly readable and accessible to a modern audience. In other words, It’s not stuffy, making it easy to get swept away in Augustine’s deeply personal, earnest, and brilliant self-examination before the God he loves and longs to know more deeply. You can expect more posts with excerpts from this book, but for now, I’m happy to share this doozy of a passage – an expression of praise to God worthy of the theological mountain that was the Bishop of Hippo (the town of his bishopric in North Africa):
“What are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God? For who else is lord except the Lord, or who is god if not our God? You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely, beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing; yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby” (5).
Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
Better than Ben Franklin’s list of virtues, which I featured in this post, are the questions that George Whitefield would use to examine his spiritual life at the end of every day. Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English Anglican preacher whose eloquent, passionate sermons were an icon of the British and American Great Awakening, making him, according to some historians, the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century. He and Ben Franklin actually got along quite well – both intelligent and gregarious – and Franklin, a skeptic, famously confirmed that, even in those days before loudspeakers or microphones, Whitefield’s preaching could be heard by as many as 30,000 people at one time.
But, the excerpt below is not so much about Whitefield the preacher, but rather about Whitefield the Christian. His deep spirituality and intentionality of purpose evident in these questions are an example for us all. This is quoted in Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (1991):
1. Been fervent in prayer?
2. Used stated hours of prayer?
3. Used ejaculatory prayer each hour?
4. After or before every deliberate conversation or action, considered how it might tend to God’s glory?
5. After any pleasure, immediately given thanks?
6. Planned business for the day?
7. Been simple and recollected in everything?
8. Been zealous in undertaking and active in doing what good I could?
9. Been meek, cheerful, affable in everything I said or did?
10. Been proud, vain, unchaste, or enviable of others?
11. Recollected in eating and drinking? Thankful? Temperate in sleep?
12. Taken time for giving thanks according to (William) Law’s rules?
13. Been diligent in studies?
14. Thought or spoken unkindly of anyone?
15. Confessed all sins?
Which do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.
Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.
“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).
I absolutely loved this description of Jonathan Edwards as a devoted, generous, and tender father, and the lasting effects this attention had on his children. From Owen Strachan’s Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Once the day began, Edwards took up his pen and dove into the life of the mind, writing sermons and treatises and reading books. He frequently interrupted his work, though, for interaction with his children, ‘to treat with them in his Study, singly and particularly about their…Soul’s Concerns,’ always being ‘careful and thorough in the Government of his Children.’ In response, his children ‘reverenced, esteemed and loved him.’ Edwards was not a perfect father, but the record of his family life shows that he did not selfishly shut himself off from his loved ones. As important as his work was to the pastor, it seems that his children took first priority. Their later flowering testifies to this. The girls married well and had numerous children who became Christian leaders and important social figures. The boys distinguished themselves as pillars of their communities and the broader New England region. The lives of successive generations suggest that the Lord blessed the Edwards home for its fidelity to Him” (70).