I had heard so much about this book, and about Timothy Keller after the whole splash that The Reason for God made; but I put off reading it in a fit of perverse contrariness (book lovers, beware how you rave to friends; your well-meant but condescending pressure may just set them off the book, if for no better reason than sheer human nature! I dread to think how many friends I may have unwittingly turned off from my favourite books in this manner.) Sure, I put it on my to-read list, but loudly proclaimed that I had plenty of other good books to read, and wasn't in any particular hurry to start on this one, just because it seemed so wildly popular. Misguided hipster mentality or just plain pig-headed?
Grudgingly, when a copy was actually pressed upon me--how more direct could you get--I overcame my prejudice and opened the book.
It was a familiar feeling (I'm afraid) of realizing that my silly assumptions or prejudices made me miss out on something good. I'd had this experience with Greg Gilbert's deceptively simple What is the Gospel, years ago, as I documented here; but apparently I hadn't gotten wiser since!
My favourite passage from The Prodigal God was Keller's explanation of the gospel, versus Christianity as a religion:
"Religion operates on the principle of 'I obey--therefore I am accepted by God.' The basic operating principle of the gospel is 'I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ--therefore I obey.' "
Basically, the mentality that equates good deeds as a way to earn ourselves something good (or save ourselves from something bad) is a very natural aspect of human nature, a far cry from the grace and mercy of the gospel, and something we actually have to actively let go of: "...A fundamental insight of Martin Luther's was that 'religion' is the default mode of the human heart."
Keller discussed the significance of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) in this light:
"There are three groups of people who 'receive' and accept the gospel, but two of the groups do not produce changed lives. One set of people do not have the endurance and patience to handle suffering, while another group continues to live an anxious, materialistic life. The only group of people who produce changed lives are not those who have worked harder or been more obedient, but those who 'hear the word of God and understand it.' (Matthew 13:23) Bonhoeffer insisted that people whose lives remained unchanged by God's grace didn't really understand its costliness, and therefore didn't really understand the gospel. They had a general idea of God's universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ's death on our behalf. In the end, Martin Luther's old formula still sums things up nicely: 'We are saved by faith alone [not our works], but not by faith that remains alone.' "
I love the emphasis on understand. Not those who simply 'respond in the right way', which is all too easily the emphasis we may unconsciously end up with when teaching this parable (this makes me look back uneasily on when I taught this in Sunday School. Oh gosh. I wonder what kind of ideas my kids got?) Because when we truly understand, when we grasp the significance of what the gospel is trying to tell us about ourselves and about God, how can we not respond?
Along this line, Keller reminiscences about a woman he met whose response to the grace of the gospel was " 'That is a scary idea! Oh, it's good scary, but still scary.' "
Asked 'why scary?' her reply was: " 'If I was saved by my good works--then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace--at God's infinite cost--then there's nothing he cannot ask of me.' She could see immediately that the wonderful beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her--she was not her own. She was bought with a price."
Wow. Just let that sit for a while.
I enjoyed Keller's ability to present truth with disarming simplicity and clarity, something which to me C.S Lewis will forever epitomize, and which never fails to give me a thrill whenever I find it in other writers. Here he wrote about the gospel in a way which addressed both readers who came from non-Christian as well as Christian backgrounds, in a fresh and insightful manner--something which is challenging to say the least. In my own limited experience of writing for this blog I have yet to achieve that!
I have yet to read his other works (Counterfeit Gods, of which I've heard much praise for, will probably be the next, unless any Keller fans out there has a better recommendation!)--but I think I'm going to enjoy this writer.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
This is a beautiful passage from the Bible which is justifiably famous.
I always saw this verse for its comfort, but one day suddenly realized that 'continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing'--isn't exactly what you expect a weeping person to be doing. You want to be alone at home, preferably in your own room, with plenty of tissue and water, and maybe some melancholic background music for ambience; or walking aimlessly in the rain (if you've been watching too many movies.)
The verse depicts the farmer who has to sow to live. It is a necessity to go out sowing--not only because it benefits others, but for his own survival in the long run.
This reminded me of a passage in one of my favourite books, and my favourite romance; Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. (Which, with its politics and social issues and philosophy, is not exactly your typical romance, though John Thornton is/ought to be up there alongside with all the other famous Byronic, broody fictional heroes like Edward Rochester and Fitzwilliam Darcy--the Collin Firth interpretation, that is.) I admit that I did watch the BBC adaptation before I actually read the book; but Richard Armitage aside, I genuinely love the book for a whole lot of reasons; and a main one is the character of Margaret Hale, who proves herself a resilient, courageous, self-sacrificial if very human and flawed heroine; and is one of my most deeply admired female protagonists. Let me try not to become incoherent here, and if I relapse into raving you have my permission to tell me off.
At any rate, Margaret goes through some horrible experiences, one of which is the sudden relapse and death of her mother. Her brother Frederick--who has been wrongly accused of mutiny, and cannot return to England on pain of death--manages to come secretly back for the funeral, and when Margaret finally breaks down under the pressure of supporting her father and bearing her own grief, encourages her:
"Come, come, come! Let us go upstairs, and do something, rather than waste time that may be so precious. Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life. My theory is a sort of parody on the maxim of 'Get money, my son--honestly, if you can; but get money.' My precept is, 'Do something, my sister--do good if you can; but at any rate, so something.'"
Life must go on. It sounds callous sometimes, and is callous if you disregard the fact that one must first of all confront grief, allow oneself to grieve instead of repressing or denying it...as an introvert, I'm the last person to advocate not having time alone, or a space of quiet. I remember funerals becoming terrible, traumatic events if I did not first have some time to myself to grieve, before I had to be plunged into all the activity of the living commemorating the dead--itself a natural part of the process, but secondary.
From a Christian's point of view, sowing can be seen as continuing to actively trust God--whether this means in service, in perseverance of prayer or the fight against sin, or simply continuing faithfully in one's duties. Somehow, the image of the farmer, going faithfully out into his field to sow his seeds even as he is weeping, even as the tears run down his face and he chokes back sobs, is very poignant to me; and I know that my sense of pity and empathy is nothing compared to God's.
And God's encouragement to us is that this weeping farmer will 'reap in joy,' come back carrying the fruits of his labour and trust, radiant with fulfilled hope; 'rejoicing.'
These seeds are so much more than just 'character training,' or therapy to help distract us from our feelings; more than just 'going on;' they are necessary; they are part of the joy to come that God promises us.
How beautiful is that?
'...so yeah, just pretend you don't know ok!'
I think we've all experienced one of those 'bomb texts', as I think of them. The kind which once you open, you sit there paralysed, wondering wildly what you should do--forgetting what you were just laughing about and why you were looking forward to having a good day--and are haunted by for the rest of the day until you lie in bed trying to sleep--still worrying about it--as it sucks the life and energy out of you, reducing you to a gibbering wreck of social anxiety, insecurity, and overthinking--
--welcome to the wonderful world of 'friend drama'!
If there was something one could do or take which would immunize you from these awful experiences--well, I would be lining up for it right now.
Though no one has yet invented an anti-drama spray, there's hope; with transparency and honesty, I believe, one can live above this exhausting pettyness of friendship drama--or at least manage to avoid getting entangled in much of it.
If we are able to live honestly, to conduct our friendships transparently, to demonstrate sincerity--to do, as Benjamin Franklin once resolved, 'nothing that may require a lie'--we create for ourselves a reputation of being straightforward. People who have observed us will know instinctively that we are 'not the sort of person' who would do such a thing, or to have ulterior motives or meanings. Even when we've made a faux pas, they won't jump so immediately to the worst possible interpretation of it, and hopefully give us the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, you'll also find yourself with less burdensome secrets forced upon you, because the people telling them will think twice.
However, we can't get here without humility. To be honest at all requires humility, the willingness to admit we were wrong, that we are not as good as we'd like to make ourselves out to be. If we were truly honest, we'd be able to let go of all those petty struggles and temptations which are so effortlessly a part of what we call social interaction. Thank you, social media, for teaching us to prioritize our appearances--as if that didn't already come naturally. The temptation to control how others see you, even in insignificant things like manipulating how something is represented so as to put yourself in the best light. Or to minimize what you did wrong/put the blame on someone else.
I'm afraid I've caught myself doing this countless times. The way I withhold or emphasize certain points when I'm telling something to someone. Why it feels so important that someone knows (or doesn't know) something.
You realize you're actually hoping to make it sound as if it was more someone else's fault than yours; that you want others to get the impression that you worked really hard or had such good intentions. This is so subtle that it's quite amazing how many times you can catch yourself doing something--no matter how small--out of this motivation.
It could be that last (actually unnecessary) line in a text. It could be why you look away deftly, pretend you didn't see. It could be that brief remark that belittles or casts a shadow of doubt on someone else's praise, or that subtly amplifies the compliment you just received. I don't want to sound paranoid and nit-picky, but really the more I think about this the more I find myself convicted of pettyness as the motivations in much of what I do and say.
That brings in another interesting (and almost as pervasive) way that pettyness manifests itself, when we try to manipulate how others are seen. Besides the obvious culprits of gossiping and badmouthing, it includes those microscopic activities that make up cold wars. Maybe because we feel slighted by them, and we want to do the same back. Maybe because we're insecure about our image and they seem a threat to us, so we feel compelled to put them down, to put them in an unflattering light. So-and-so didn't reply my text. Fine, I'll make you wait five hours before I answer yours. You think I care so much about how soon you reply me? (which very obviously is the case)
To put it another way--the belief that our value lies in our image, and that controlling this image means controlling our value, is a mental hobble that ensures we keep going in endless, mindless circles, obsessing over how we appear to others. Likewise, thinking that controlling how others are seen becomes a way of controlling their value.
First of all--as should be obvious--this is an enormous amount of time and effort and emotional energy. That alone is a perfectly sound reason in itself why you should distance yourself from pettyness.
But on the other hand--pettyness isn't just about cultivating self-worth and 'removing negative people from your life,' as media so glibly assures us is the cure to drama. It has a root, as all human actions do, and that root has something to do with honesty and humility--or the lack thereof.
If we were more honest about ourselves, if we were more humble towards others, we wouldn't see the need to engage in all these little rubber band wars.
We wouldn't agonize over interpreting other people's actions and words, and always be weighing how it affects our image/value...
Or spend ages obsessing over a text message.
We wouldn't live in dread that not everyone acknowledged our birthday, which of course would mean that we're a social failure and all our so-called friends are fake and hate us--right?
We wouldn't be scheming not to sit next to someone, or on who to exclude...
Or have to agonize over which side to take--which clique--
Life would be a whole lot simpler.
But more importantly, our minds and hearts would be liberated from the almighty idol of pettyness, the desire to control how others see us, the desire to control how others treat us.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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