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).
- What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
- What kind of father did you have?
Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy – he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)
But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):
“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…
“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)
Thomas Aquinas was a remarkably lucid and logical thinker, one of the best minds to have graced this earth who set his mind to work on the most important of topics: God and the things of God.
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has done us a huge service in compiling an anthology, with his own footnotes, of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, one of the most important texts in the history of Western thought, let alone theology and philosophy. In this book, titled Summa of the Summa, we find the explanation to why our medieval ancestors considered theology the “queen of the sciences”:
“Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint it is nobler than other sciences” (42).
Kreeft then writes in the footnote: “The medieval formula ‘philosophy the handmaid of theology’ and the associated idea of theology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ are seldom taken seriously today…Yet neither philosophy nor science have ever refuted the claim during the past seven hundred years. It has been dismissed by fashion, not by reason. If God is, and is our ultimate end, then the science of God must indeed be the queen of the sciences” (43).
In his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:
“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.
“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’
“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.
“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)
In The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson seeks to balance the popular view of the love of God (often reduced to the fuzzy, feel-good claim that “God is love”) with what Scripture says about his holiness and sovereignty, attributes that actually enrich our understanding of God’s love. And while most of us, whether Christian or not, tend to think of the love of God as his love toward us, Carson spends a significant amount of time on the intra-Trinitarian love of God – the love expressed among the three persons of the Trinity – which is the basis for the love that we receive and, because of Christ, are empowered to give. The passage below, which discusses the primacy of the Father’s love for the Son, completely blew me away.
“We too quickly think of our salvation almost exclusively with respect to its bearing on us. Certainly there is endless ground for wonder in the Father’s love for us, in Jesus’ love for us. But undergirding them, more basic than they are, is the Father’s love for the Son. Because of the love of the Father for the Son, the Father has determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23). Indeed, this love of the Father for the Son is what makes sense of John 3:16. True, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’- there the object of God’s love in the world. But the standards that tells us just how great that love is has already been set. What is its measure? God so loved that world that he gave his Son. Paul’s reasoning in similar: If God did not spare his Son, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things (Romans 8:32)? The argument is cogent only because the relationship between the Father and the Son is the standard for all other love relationships.” (35)
In Can I Really Trust the Bible? (The Good Book Company, 2014), Barry Cooper offers a compelling series of arguments for the historical reliability and truth of the Bible. Cooper puts forth several types arguments – historical, logical, philosophical – but my favorite type of “evidence” he gives is the living testimony of those he calls “Bible-shaped” people. The best part of this for me is that I know many people like this. They’re many of the people at my church, and they were among those in the church where I used to attend before moving to the District. Some aren’t from my church but were part of the campus ministry my wife and I were part of in college. What they all share, as Cooper writes, is a love of God and others that is informed by what the Bible says about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. But enough of what I think. Below, see what these “Bible-shaped people” – who do exist! – are like:
“As people look for certainty that the Bible really is from God, they sometimes miss what seems – to me at least – to be very persuasive evidence.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know are a wonder to me. You don’t hear much about them in the media because their lives are self-sacrificial and other-centered. They love tirelessly and genuinely, in the background, under the radar. They want to find ways to encourage you or mourn with you or give you practical help. They are patient. They are kind. They take their Bibles seriously, but not themselves. They know how to laugh. Engage them in conversation, and they want to talk about you. They don’t pelt their Facebook feeds with mock-humble pronouncements of their own greatness. And when others say that Christians are bigoted or stupid, they don’t lose heart or respond with anger. They carry on, quietly loving and serving others.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know have been men and women who opened their homes and their lives to me. They spent time with me. Loved me when I was at my least lovable. Some of them, having no education to speak of, spoke with a wisdom that left me slack-jawed. During periods of depression, when I was seemingly unreachable, they sat patiently with me, they put their arms around me. They never lost patience, they never lost hope. They called me to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, but they weren’t shocked or self-righteous about any darkness they saw in me, because they acknowledged it in themselves. Love like that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It isn’t self-seeking, or easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
“I’ve only ever seen love like that in two places. I’ve seen it in Jesus. And I’ve seen it in the most Bible-shaped people I know” (75-76).
BONUS: Here’s a funny promotional video of Barry Cooper talking about the book, the “most yellow” that’s ever been written.
One of the best things about St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8) is the bishop’s deeply personal, searching expressions of praise to God. These are not only fascinating statements by perhaps the most important and influential mind in the history of Western Christianity, but also fine examples of prayers of confession and praise. Here’s another short excerpt that struck me for its beauty and which I wanted to share:
“Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity – all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day…I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendor. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, ‘I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me'” (147).
Which is more impressive: the man who observes, studies, and investigates a plant, knowing all its properties and contents and even uses for medicinal and other beneficent purposes, but who denies the existence of God, or the man who owns a plant and, while knowing little about it, eats from it and thanks God for creating it and giving it to him? Most of us moderns might more readily be impressed by the first man, whose scientific prowess and non-religious, humanitarian sensibility accords well with the spirit of our age. Yet as Augustine – that intensely religious thinker among the ancients – makes clear in his Confessions (Penguin, 1961), it is of no lasting benefit to know all about a created thing if one does not know the One who created it: the God of life-giving power, “whom all things serve.”
“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight” (95).
I just read this brilliant little reflection by Lewis in The Joyful Christian, a collection of 127 readings from his various nonfiction works, including Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. This really does not need much by way of introduction, I think. Enjoy, and perhaps more importantly, allow yourself to be challenged if you’ve found yourself thinking of God in these terms!
“The Russians, I am told, report that they have not found God in outer space. On the other hand, a good many people in many different times and countries claim to have found God, or been found by God, here on earth.
“The conclusion some want us to draw from these data is that God does not exist. As a corollary, those who think they have met Him on earth were suffering from a delusion.
“But other conclusions might be drawn:
1. We have not yet gone far enough in space. There had been ships in the Atlantic for a good time before America was discovered.
2. God does exist but is locally confined to this planet.
3. The Russians did find God in space without knowing it because they lacked the requisite apparatus for detecting Him.
4. God does exist but is not an object either located in a particular part of space nor diffused, as we once thought ‘ether’ was, throughout space.
“The first two conclusions do not interest me. The sort of religion for which they could be a defense would be a religion for savages: the belief in a local deity who can be contained in a particular temple, island, or grove. That, in fact, seems to be the sort of religion about which the Russians – or some Russians, and a good many people in the West – are being irreligious. It is not in the least disquieting that no astronauts have discovered a god of that sort. The really disquieting thing would be if they had.
“Space travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye” (5-6).
Many religious and non-religious observers have said that one remarkable trait that separates us moderns from ancient peoples is our belief that we are basically good. We’ll readily agree that “no one’s perfect,” but other than that, most of us have a fundamentally good orientation and are of a wholly different moral and psychological make-up from a Hitler, or a serial killer, or a rapist. From a religious and specifically Christian perspective, then, we have no need to be forgiven, much less “saved” from anything, since we haven’t done anything terribly bad. I would argue that this view is dangerously mistaken, however, and the excerpt below from Mike McKinley’s Passion shows this error in stark contrast to what is true. There is a place in this (so far) excellent and short book where McKinley argues that because God is perfect and holy, his anger at human oppression and injustice is completely justified and righteous; indeed, God’s wrath is “actually part of His perfection – not a suspension of it.” He then argues that if people are made in God’s image, then we would expect this righteous anger to be expressed at times by people. To illustrate this, he tells:
“A friend of mine recently told me about a time in an east Asian nation where his hosts drove him into the capital city. As they entered the city, they were confronted by a long line of young girls, lined up by the side of the road. These girls had been sold into slavery as prostitutes (often by their parents), and they would spend their lives being used and abused until they were finally cast aside when they were no longer desirable. My friend described his feelings as he saw these girls: an anger, a rage in his heart that made him feel as if his chest was going to rip in two. “…If that goes for humans, it goes for the God who made humans, too… [And here is the key part for us] But where we really run into a problem, where we really object to God’s wrath and justice, is when it comes to us. We may be happy with a God who punishes the rapists and the murderers, but we aren’t happy with a God who punishes us. But where would you draw the line? How much should He tolerate from you? How much of your pride, anger, deceit, manipulation and selfishness do you think God should overlook?… The Bible tells us where God draws the line: He demands perfection” (18-19).