Who are the “celebrities” of Christendom?
We might think of important historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and Luther, and run up to the present day with people like C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Pope Francis (who of this group probably comes closest to true celebrity status).
But we know the dangers of too highly exalting someone and forgetting that all they were and did was given by God, the Giver whom we dare not take our eyes off even as we thank and praise him for his gifts. And besides, it is appropriate and biblical to remember that true greatness usually lies where we least think to look – in the lives of suffering and weak saints whose childlike trusting and leaning on Christ for succor and comfort amid life’s troubles may seem unremarkable to us but is in God’s eyes precious. So look not to the famed preacher who’s written dozens of bestsellers and whose ministry reaches every corner of the world, but to the woman at church sitting in the back who feels socially disconnected and is struggling with depression but who comes to church anyways because she knows that God intends to use the preaching of his word and the fellowship of his people for her good, even when she doesn’t see immediate results. This is what Tony Reinke calls “gospel simplicity” in his book John Newton on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015):
“Newton supposes that if he could search out the world to award a man, woman, or child with a trophy for being the most godly Christian on the planet, the award would not go to an eminent Christian, or even to a public Christian—not to a pastor, seminary professor, or author. The greatest Christian in the world, Newton supposes, is most likely a man of faith who just barely survives in this world thanks to a homeless shelter and the meager employment he finds on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Or perhaps, Newton speculates, the greatest Christian is a bedridden old woman in a mud cottage who has learned through years of trials to adore Christ and trust him and his timing in everything. Low thoughts of self and high and admiring thoughts of Christ are the sure marks of the godliest Christian, even if such a Christian is likely unnoticed by the world and overlooked by most Christians. The best models of gospel simplicity are the poorest and the weakest Christians who have been emptied of all self-sufficiency, and who have learned to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ, his will, his wisdom, and his timing” (105).
In her excellent book Discipline: The Glad Surrender (Revelll, 1982), the great, late Elisabeth Elliot (wife of Jim Elliot, a missionary who was killed by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, and author and speaker) offers a terrific, and sweet, example of the kind of worry-free trust in God and his provision that should mark us:
“Things are given by God. We can trust Him to give to us. My little dog, MacDuff, taught me many lessons. How simple life was for him! He trusted me. He lived his life one day at a time, wearing his one ragged black coat, provided by a heavenly Father, appropriate to all occasions, all year round. Supper was there in the dish – Ken L. Ration, Gainesburgers, table scraps, whatever. No decision about the menu troubled him. He owned a house and a tremendous yard and quite a few squirrels and rabbits that he felt responsible to chase and bark at, but he had no taxes or mortgage payments. Everything was taken care of. What he did naturally is a hard lesson we human beings have to work at” (116).
I’ve just started Handbook of Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 1994), the classic work by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two professors of philosophy at Boston College. Already it’s an engaging and highly stimulating read, with gems like this: “All the arguments in this book, and in all the books on apologetics (the defense of a religious system through the use of reasoned arguments) ever written, are worth less in the eyes of God than a single act of love to him or to your neighbor,” and “Apologetics gets at the heart through the head. The head is important precisely because it is a gate to the heart. We can love only what we know.”
In it they provide the following neat analogy to explain the difference between the intellect and the will and how they interact with each other as one reasons and comes to believe in something:
“The intellect is the soul’s navigator, but the will is its captain. The intellect is its Mr. Spock, the will is its Captain Kirk, and the feelings are its Dr. McCoy. The soul is an ‘Enterprise,’ a real starship. The will can command the intellect to think, but the intellect cannot command the will to will, only inform it, as a navigator informs the captain. Yet the will cannot simply make you believe. It can’t force the intellect to believe what appears to it to be false, or to disbelieve what seems to it to be true. Belief is what happens when you decide to be honest and put your mind in the service of truth.” (31)
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)
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
As we pause to consider the start of the new year, and the opportunity to grow in different areas of our lives – such as health, intellect, relationships – let’s not neglect to give attention to the most important area of our life: our spiritual condition. This condition, the state of our soul, must be given life and nurtured because it reflects the quality of our relationship with our Maker, and determines our posture toward life and its inevitable trials.
We must always stand ready to examine our own souls before the searching but gentle Spirit of God; but as J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic Holiness (1877), certain seasons afford a welcome opportunity to set about this happy and most important business, the business of our souls:
“To every one who is in downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?
“The question is one that is always useful, but especially so at certain seasons. A Saturday night, a communion Sunday, the return of a birthday, the end of a year – all these are seasons that ought to set us thinking, and make us look within. Time is fast flying. Life is fast ebbing away” (99).
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.