A cow ambling into a slaughterhouse doesn’t know it’s about to be killed, cut-up, wrapped up, and shipped across the country to end up as dinner. It thinks it’s taking a walk. It doesn’t know that it’s a product.
When you signed up for your FREE social media account, you didn’t know that you would be mentally tied-up, digitally diced-up, and have the resulting fragments of your time and attention sold to the highest advertising bidders. You thought you were keeping in touch with old friends or keeping entertained. You didn’t know that you were the product.
Don’t worry; it’s not just you. I did it, too. Lots of people did. Here’s how many:
Facebook: 2.7 billion users (2.1 billion of whom log in daily)
Instagram: 1 billion+ users (500 million access the app daily)
Twitter: 331 million users (134 million daily users)
Snapchat: 310.7 million users (190 million snap daily)
If everyone is doing it, it can’t be that bad, right?
Let’s ask a different question, one that will be familiar to many of you: “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”
Honestly, is there anyone left who doesn’t know that social media is bad for us? Oh sure, you have the perpetual optimists who point out the benefits. But, the cons outweigh the pros and, deep down, we know it.
When we read an article like this one that tells us that the very people who designed the “best” parts of our social media experiences are opting out of the “services” themselves, why do we not even blink?
When one article links an increase in social media usage to depression and another finds a connection between decreased scrolling and happiness, why do we ignore it?
We ignore the facts for the same reason that a cow keeps munching its corn and getting fat: we like what we’re getting out of the deal.
Cows bodies need food to survive. Human brains need interaction with other humans. But just like the cow eating corn, we’ve unwittingly settled for a cheap substitute provided by social media handlers with ulterior motives.
A cow isn’t designed to munch on corn: it’s made for eating grass. But grass is labor and cost-intensive and takes longer to build up the cow’s body mass. Corn is cheaper, easier, and fattens the bovine body faster, enabling the cow’s owner to convert fewer expense dollars into more profit dollars. And the cows literally eat it up, undoubtedly thinking how great this free lunch is.
The digital handlers over at Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. have done something eerily similar to us. They’ve hijacked our brains’ desires for the rewards of relational connection, something that usually takes lots of time, attention, and, yes, loving labor to produce and given us something instantaneous, fleeting, and cheap that presses the same button.
And we eat it up, not realizing we’re being sold in the bargain.
What Should You Do?
The poor cow doesn’t have a choice as it mindlessly munches its way to destruction. But we do.
More crucially, YOU do.
As a thinking, reasoning, functioning human being, you have a choice to make. Once you realize that social media is turning you into filet mignon for the advertising industry, you can go one of three directions:
1. Change nothing.
2. Limit your engagement.
3. Opt out.
Let’s look a little closer at each option, shall we?
Certainly, this could be your choice. After all, ignoring what’s true to preserve what’s comforting is practically an American sport. No matter how many times studies indicate that being overweight significantly increases one’s medical bills and substantially decreases one’s life expectancy, it’s a safe bet that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola won’t fundamentally disappoint their stockholders anytime soon.
If this is your choice, so be it. But don’t go blindly: understand what is happening and why.
Limit Your Engagement.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Whether in social media, junk food, alcohol, or garage sales, there’s something to be said for moderation. Things which are bad for us in large quantities are often good for us in small quantities.
As humans, we are hardwired to seek happiness. Social media can make us happy. So, you could very easily try to keep the benefit of social media but mitigate the dangers by limiting your engagement.
For example, you could make a rule that you only check your social media accounts at certain times throughout the day and never exceed X number of minutes on them. (An app like Freedom can make this easier).
Or, you could set a “weekends-only” rule for your social media. Or, you could reverse that.
Regardless, you can limit the amount of time you give to social media, moderating its impact and control. You’ll still be the product, but lose less of yourself to the process.
However, there’s one more option to consider:
Above, I said that moderation is good: it is. However, that is not always the case.
There are some things which can be good in small quantities. For many, there’s no harm in having a beer with dinner. But what if you’re an alcoholic Then, that beer can be disastrous.
The same scenario proves true with social media. If you are addicted to social media, limiting your engagement is not going to help.
And social media is nothing if not addictive. Regardless of the platform, social media is purposed-built to suck you in, keep you scrolling, and sell longer and longer stretches of your attention to advertisers.
Ask yourself these questions:
Have I ever checked social media while driving?
Have I ever checked social media in the middle of a conversation?
Have I ever checked social media during an important meeting?
Have I ever checked social media while watching a movie, playing a game, or eating out with friends?
Have I ever scrolled through social media feeds when I should have been sleeping, studying, or something else?
If you answered “yes” to one or all of those questions, the system worked as its designers intended: your eyeballs glued to a screen, advertising dollars rolling in, and you missing out on the real world. Moderation is an option, but not for the addict.
If that’s you, consider opting out of the social media machine entirely.
What Are You Going To Do?
Social media is sucking you in and selling you for parts. But they can’t take away your ability to choose.
I literally had someone laugh at me when I asked them this question recently. I didn’t realize how stereotypically “interviewy” it was.
Apparently, it’s a rather gauche thing to ask.
So…where do you see yourself in five years?
Because, socially acceptable or not, I believe it is an important question. And it will increasingly be so in our 24-hour-news-cycle, instant-coffee, attention-span-of-a-goldfish society.
Because it forces us to think (and think personally rather than rhetorically) about the future and our place in it.
And, because it forces us to think restrictively rather than globally. In answering the question, we have to make a choice, intentionally narrowing the limitless horizon of “the future” to a concrete timespan and a concrete field of vision.
Elton Trueblood said it this way:
“It is a common characteristic of all the high moments that one choice inevitably eliminates others. Loyal devotion to one mate precludes loyal devotion to a rival; the spending of money on perfume precludes the spending of the same money to aid the needy and suffering; the dedication to motherhood make impossible an equal dedication to some other pursuits. Man must choose; that is his very life.”
Elton Trueblood, The Common Ventures of Life, (emphasis his)
This isn’t one of those cheap “how-to” articles that promise to guide you through a simple five-step process to “creatively leverage your future for incredible results.” Nor will I artificially pad its length: I just want you to recognize that drifting never results in progress.
Where you actually end up in five years depends largely on what you choose to do today. So, one more time: where do you see yourself in five years?
That statement is surely one of the most popular cliches in our modern culture. And that’s because it’s true.
We human beings do not begin our lives thinking in words; we start by thinking in pictures. For some, this pictorial processing is gradually diminished as our vocabulary grows and words take on a greater role, but the fact remains: pictures are our first language.
This fact explains the importance of story, illustration, and analogy in any sort of attempt to convey information from one person to another. It’s why the greatest orators of history have not been mere stringers-together-of-words, but have been verbal artists, painting pictures as much as speaking truths. It’s also why more visual media forms are quickly supplanting more verbal forms as the preferred means of information transfer in our culture.
And, it’s why Jesus taught the way he did. Jesus often spoke in pictures. He often taught through stories that connected everyday life to the greater spiritual truths he had come to reveal.
A couple of years ago, there were a lot of videos floating around the interwebs of colorblind people receiving glasses that allowed them to see color for the first time. Many of these people wept tears of joy when they saw the beauty around them.
Here’s just one example:
When we speak in pictures, like Jesus did, our listeners might suddenly grasp what had eluded them before. Our gray words might suddenly be transformed into rainbow-hued bits of wonder as they finally glimpse thetruth.
Communication is about so much more than information-transfer. When we converse, communicate, talk, or preach, we should not just be seeking to move bytes of data from our brain to our listener’s brain. Instead, we should be attempting to transfer joy, passion, beauty, and truth in ways that stick.
This goal is the same whether we are conversing with the employee in the checkout lane or preaching to thousands in a stadium. The gospel, the fact that there is a Kingdom utterly unlike the kingdoms of this world and that the King of that Kingdom came here to die on a cross to make us citizens of it and rise from the dead to give us hope again, radically reorients every aspect of our existence, including our communication.
There is no such thing as small-talk when Jesus is King. There are no disposable encounters with our fellow image-bearers and potential fellow-citizens. Each interaction we have with other people is full of eternal potential. We must maximize the impact of our words. And stories help us do that.
Jesus spoke in pictures. Those of us who desire to follow him ought to do the same.
Imagine a door. Shut, it is an effective barrier to entry; open, it is an invitation to enter. What enables the same piece of wood, metal, or plastic to function in such opposite ways? It is the hinge on which the door swings. The door’s make-up is unchanged; its state, barrier or entry, is wholly dependent on the direction of the hinge. The hinge itself is also unchanged; open or closed, it is simply reoriented. Now imagine a man created perfectly good becoming evil. Such a transformation would, like a door opening and closing, require a hinge.
The Fall of a Righteous Man
Francis Turretin asks the question that naturally arises from seeing such a radical change: “How could a holy man fall?” This question has presumably been asked ever since Adam and Eve took those fatal bites. It is not hard to imagine Adam himself asking in a befuddled tone, “How did this happen?” The question is an enduring one because man’s original fall from a state of created goodness is one of theology’s most thorny questions: there are prickly results no matter the answer proposed. It is at this point, the Fall, that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility intersect and whatever resolution is accepted will have radical effects on subsequent theological development. And, as with most persistent theological debates, there is an element of mystery that seems to shroud the solution, in spite of every best effort to pierce through to an ultimate answer.
This enduring lack of clarity does not, however, forbid further consideration. Indeed, upholding God’s goodness and man’s responsibility in the Fall is a worthy and necessary task. In order to accomplish this goal, a solution would need to identify something in man’s original created nature that was good, but could, without divine sabotage, be turned to sin. This mechanism would be a kind of hinge, present before and after the Fall which could explain its occurrence. One such hinge could be man’s pursuit of happiness, a philosophical tenet held by secular and religious scholars as well as by common experience. Man, it is presupposed, pursues happiness as the end of all his thought and activity. This paper will argue that God created man to pursue his happiness in what he rationally perceived to be the greatest good, that this process was sabotaged by Satan’s deception, and that man’s subsequently flawed reasoning led to the Fall. The problem is not the door, in other words, but the swinging of the hinge.
Why is a Good Man’s Fall an Issue?
A question must first be addressed and that is why the issue of how a good man fell need even be addressed? A quick glance at the ten o’clock news will readily reveal a fallen reality and questioning its origin can seem an unnecessary labor. Ultimately the issue is not the Fall of the creature, it is the goodness of the Creator. How, if God created him “very good”, is it even possible that man fell? More importantly, was God unable to create a wholly good man and thus not omnipotent? Or did He intentionally create a flawed product, deceptively label it “very good” and thus reveal Himself to be morally flawed? In order to defend orthodoxy, both God’s ability and His moral character must be upheld. Examining how a righteous man could become unrighteous is not simply about understanding man: it is about understanding God.
The Nature of Created Man
Given that the greater issue at stake is the nature of God, what was the nature of God’s crowning creation, Man, in the paradise of a pre-Fall world? There is a part of man that is indistinguishable from the stuff that makes up all the rest of creation: “the dust of the ground.” But man is not merely comprised of dust: God breathes “the breath of life” into this dust sculpture and suddenly it becomes something entirely new. Man is a hybrid being with two parts. There has been little consensus throughout theological history on the exact nature of how these two parts, physical and spiritual, interact, but it is biblically certain that man was created “in the image of God.”
How this image of God is communicated to man though, can bring its own issues apart from deciding what it contains. For example, Jonathan Edwards, in his work The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, presents this explanation:
When God made man at first, he implanted in him two kinds of principles. There was an inferior kind, which may be called natural, being the principles of mere human nature; such as self-love, with those natural appetites and passions, which belong to the nature of man, in which his love to his own liberty, honour, and pleasure, were exercised: these, when alone, and left to themselves, are what Scriptures sometimes call flesh. Besides these, there were superior principles, there were spiritual, holy, and divine, summarily comprehended in divine love; wherein consisted the spiritual image of God, and man’s righteousness and true holiness; which are called in Scripture the divine nature.
While his description of man’s image of God being implanted distinct from other parts of his nature is appealing, Edwards’ categories of “inferior” and “superior” rise from outside understanding of the image of God proper and actually lean into the relationship of God and man. This blurring of the lines unnecessarily complicates the subject.
Edwards portrays the Holy Spirit as indwelling Adam from the moment of creation, only departing when man fell into sin: “When man sinned and broke God’s covenant, and fell under his curse, these superior principles left his heart: for indeed God then left him; that communion with God on which these principles depended, entirely ceased; the Holy Spirit, that divine inhabitant, forsook the house.” If Edwards is correct at this point, why did the Holy Spirit’s super-added righteous presence combined with Adam’s original goodness not suffice to prevent the Fall? This state of relationship between God and man would seem to necessarily preclude the Fall or, worse, risk a Fall that almost assuredly implicates God in the guilt of the first sin. After all, the Holy Spirit’s presence in the redeemed believer suffices to grant the possibility of a fallen person not sinning. How much more would that same Spirit’s presence in a wholly righteous man heighten that ability?
Edwards is correct when he argues that man possessed original righteousness. Indeed, he states the case forcefully: “It would have been a disparagement to the holiness of God’s nature, if he had made an intelligent creature unholy.” His placing man’s holiness in the Spirit’s indwelling is not helpful, however. A better way forward is to understand man’s nature as wholly created, materially and spiritually different from God. Man was created for relationship with God. Nonetheless, this relationship was not the same as that enjoyed by redeemed sinners who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is better to understand man’s original righteousness as being wholly good, wholly derived, wholly dependent and yet wholly integral to his created nature. The Triune God was in relationship with Adam, but God’s righteousness and being were external to man.
In all the discussion about the nature of man, it cannot be forgotten that man did, in fact, fall. Man is entirely responsible for this fall and God bears no guilt for it. To accommodate these truths, there must be a firm distinction made between God and His creation. It is on this point that Augustine asserts that God, immutable and sovereign, created the world and Adam and Eve in it, mutable, or able to change. Francis Turretin picks up the same terminology when he considers the Fall. He recognizes the essential nature of the debate as defending God’s righteousness. But, while the fact of man’s mutability is undeniable, the value of affirming it seems limited. In effect, mutability argues that in order for a righteous man to fall, he had to be able to fall. Obviously, this answer will not satisfy. A door indeed turns because it can turn, but simply stating that fact doesn’t hold it in place or answer how.
The Pursuit of Happiness
A mechanism for man’s Fall has to be sought then and one possibility is found in man’s pursuit of happiness. Happiness can be defined as the, “complete satisfaction of desire.” While Edwards’ may have run into problems with his understanding of original righteousness, his understanding of man’s purpose seems spot on: John Piper famously summarizes Edwards’ perspective by declaring that, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”.From a human perspective we are happiest when we are glorifying God. When Adam and Eve were living in obedience to God’s commands, glorifying Him by living exactly as He had created them to, they were happy.
Happiness as the complete satisfaction of desire is not only accepted by theologians, but by philosophers operating within a Christian worldview as well. A person may be happy, as John Locke asserts, only so long as there is not an “uneasiness of desire”. Adam and Eve were not only “very good”, they were very happy because there was no lack, nothing between them and complete satisfaction in God and His benevolent provision for them. They, as Thomas Boston states, “had a life of pure delight, and unalloyed pleasure, in this state.” Happiness was not merely accidental to Adam and Eve: it was the end God had created them to pursue.
It is not only the Christian philosophers who agree: no less a figure than Aristotle gives what is considered by many to be the archetypal statement regarding the issue in his Nicomachean Ethics:
Therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue…we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by the means of them we shall be happy.
Happiness for Aristotle and many other philosophical thinkers is the end towards which all men strive in thought and action.
It should not be surprising that both theologians and philosophers, Christians and pagans, would agree with revealed truth. The light of general revelation is sufficient to analyze, though not perfectly, the nature of the human reality. It is not surprising that if there is a hinge in the Fall of man, that it would be witnessed to by those who exist in a fallen world. As Augustine said, “let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” When pagans point from general revelation to a concept that accords with revealed truth, it highlights rather than obscures that truth. Considering that thinkers like Aristotle would, solely in the light of general revelation, argue that all men pursue happiness in their current state strongly suggests that this point is indeed the hinge for the Fall since Adam and Eve pursued the same in the original state.
God created mankind to pursue happiness and gave them the tools to do so. Turretin writes that man’s original state “abounded in all goods…necessary for obtaining true happiness in that state, so it experienced the most holy and agreeable government of God”. These goods include the ability to reason and by that reason to conclude that the ultimate good to pursue to bring about happiness was submission to God’s rule. Adam could not doubt that he was a derived being and that God was the Sovereign Creator of all that he saw. He had an intimate relationship with God, a clear view of God’s transcendent beauty and goodness. God, and His benevolent rule, was the greatest good that Adam could conceive of and so he pursued his happiness in that reality.
It is in this idyllic setting that God commands Adam and Eve to enjoy what was given to them, to work in exercise of their stewardship, and to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The command functions in part as a test of mankind’s acceptance of the Creator’s role as supreme good and source of man’s happiness. In particular, the command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil indicates God’s desire for man to prove his submission. The other commands, to enjoy the gifts and tasks given them seem redundant: how could they not do so? The garden delighted mankind, so must be enjoyed; the One in whose image they were created worked, so they should work. But God gives them a choice that does not follow necessarily when He places a fruit-bearing tree in the middle of the Garden and says, “No.” Nonetheless, this rule would also seem inviolable and natural at first, because Adam and Eve assumed God’s authority to direct their lives towards the happiness they were created to find. Had things continued unaltered, there is no reason to suppose then that man would have ever turned from the path of righteousness and thereby tasted the horrible consequences of ignoring God’s command.
The presence of the command, however, was an opportunity for Satan to bring his temptation into the picture. It is helpful to walk through the process of this temptation in order to understand it and how it relates to man’s pursuit of happiness. Satan comes to Eve and to Adam and asks a question: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” He knew, and the original pair knew, that this statement is not at all what God had said. But it serves an important function: it gets Eve to question what exactly had been commanded. This questioning of God’s Word was not natural to man because God created him to receive as truth what was revealed to him. Satan had to start by introducing grounds for questioning God.
His next move is to present an entirely new concept: that God might be wrong: “You will surely not die.” Had he not established the question, he could not have followed with this assertion. He is saying that life (and happiness) will not cease if mankind disobeyed the command of God. The obvious assumption behind his statement is that if God could be wrong about the consequences of disobedience, He could be wrong about other things as well. It is here that Eve is able to begin to form the rational grounds for disobeying God. She was created to pursue happiness and ignoring what God had said need not interrupt the pursuit. She begins to see the possibility of happiness outside of God and His commands.
Satan’s final attack is his most direct: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Essentially, Satan says, “Eve, if you will taste what God has commanded you not to, you can become the source of your own happiness by governing yourself instead of relying on God.” The deception is consistent with her deepest desire. The nature of the temptation is revealed in Eve’s perception of the tangible object: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” Note the repeated emphasis on “good”, “delight”, and “desire”: all words that point to the satisfaction of a human desire.
The temptation has its root in the mind of man. Satan appealed to both the pride and the will of Adam and Eve, but the unbelief had to come first. Eve could not have believed herself capable of fulfilling her desire for happiness had she not first disbelieved God’s Word. Adam could not have joined his wife in her rebellion had not he thought God’s command laughable. Pastor Jared Wilson calls this aspect of the original sin, “the gnostic transgression”. Turretin says that man fell because his rational mind was “imbued with a false idea” through the serpent’s deception. Both are pointing to an intellectual root for man’s fall: it came on the basis of an altered mind.
Essentially, Satan exploited man’s mutability, his rationality, and his pursuit of happiness to bring about the destruction of created goodness. He presents an alternative to God’s benevolent rule as the source of mankind’s happiness. The serpent claims that God’s command is not a benefit but is designed to keep man from finding happiness within himself. Up until this point, God’s benevolence and rightfully sovereign position was unquestionable; after it, man was given the means for rejecting both God’s goodness and His kingly authority. In its place, Satan gave man the rational, though horribly deceptive, basis for elevating himself to the position of both arbiter of good and self-determinate being, able to pursue happiness on his own terms.
The Fallen Reality
John Milton writes pityingly of Adam and Eve’s experience immediately following their rebellion: “They swim in mirth, and fancy they feel / Divinity within them breeding wings / Wherewith to scorn the earth…” Their elation does not last: Adam speaks to Eve:
“O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear / To that false worm, of whomsoever taught / To counterfeit man’s voice, true in our Fall, / False in our promised rising; since our eyes / Opened we find indeed, and find we know, / Both good and evil, good lost, and evil got, / Bad fruit of knowledge, if this be to know, / Which leaves us naked thus, of honour void, / Of innocence, of faith, of purity.”
Adam and Eve, attempting to find happiness outside of God, found instead the exact opposite.
The original pair found out the hard way that they had been deceived. Their sin defaced everything that had been created good, tarnishing their souls beyond recognition, and prompting the righteous wrath of a jealous God. Where the door had been open before for them to be completely fulfilled in God, it was shut afterwards by their decision to look for fulfillment on their own. The consequence is that they are driven from the Garden, cut off from God and from the blessing of His goodness. In this expulsion, there is utter devastation: they are unable to connect again to the true source of their happiness. They had to adjust to a new reality.
The Fall’s effects do not stop with Adam and Eve, though. Scripture teaches that all men are born in a guilty state because of that first rebellion. This theological fact is commonly called “original sin”. Essentially, if Adam truly fell through his pursuit of happiness, there must be some way to account for sin’s continued effect beyond the original pair to their offspring. Not only were the first man and woman unable to continue in pursuit of God as greatest good, but every descendent in the millennia since has, left to themselves, chosen to look anywhere but towards God for satisfaction. How can this be?
The simplest explanation is found in John Locke’s understanding of close and distant means of pleasure.Locke does not explicitly state that he is working within a fallen reality at this point, but it is clearly seen in his understanding of man’s struggle. Though he gives nearly an entire chapter of his On Human Understanding to the topic, it can be briefly summarized here. Locke argues that man does not pursue the greatest good, but pursues goods that his deceived will convinces him are either better, more certain, or closer. Otherwise, intellectual knowledge of God as greatest good and true source of happiness would suffice to “redeem” any man and cause him to immediately forsake any other means of being happy. He writes, “If it were so that the greater good in view determines the will, so great a good…once proposed, could not but seize the will, and hold it fast to the pursuit of this infinitely greatest good, without ever letting it go again…But that it is not so, is visible in experience: the infinitely greatest confessed good being often neglected, to satisfy the successive uneasiness of our desires pursuing trifles.”
God’s punishment of Adam and Eve and their subsequent descendants with banishment from His presence served to remove Him as a close solution to man’s pursuit of pleasure. The punitive distance between man and God is cluttered by a myriad of closer, though lesser, goods for man’s pleasure drive to pursue. Man, through his nature, is unable to surmount these more immediate pleasure producers even if his mind can rationally accept God as the greatest good. His fallen nature, his fallen tendency to view himself and his own desires as the source of his certain pleasure, will continue to sidetrack and sabotage his best efforts to approach God again as ultimate good.
Briefly, this explanation is clearly in agreement with the teaching of the Scripture that man’s nature is irredeemable apart from a unilateral work of God. In order for the cycle of desire/false solution/despair in pursuit of more immediate pleasures to be broken for mankind, God has to come near. He has to radically and fundamentally change the perspective of a fallen creature by breaking into its field of vision in order for it to see God as the sovereign Creator and supreme good end. This divine proximate presence is seen in various Old Testament texts, but is more fully seen in Christ’s incarnation and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Thus, Christ comes in the flesh to redeem and the Holy Spirit comes to indwell redeemed men. God has to come near to man, because man is unable to come near to God on his own.
This idea, that God must come near to break into man’s pleasure pursuit, also accords with progressive sanctification and with ultimate glorification. In sanctification the presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer gives him the ability to pursue God but it also vies for control of man’s pleasure drive with what Paul calls “the old man”, that part of man still seeking to fulfill himself by himself. This process of sanctification is only finally concluded by the believer’s death and immediate presence with God. Likewise, the final end of all present reality is when God removes all barriers to His people’s pursuit of Him as the ultimate source of pleasure and they are ultimately and finally glorified.
The constant between the created righteousness and the fallen reality is man’s pursuit of happiness; it is the hinge on which man’s fall turned. In creation, Adam and Eve pursued their happiness in God as supreme good; at the Fall, and ever afterwards, they looked for the same happiness in themselves. Like a door that was open to an infinite, brilliant and beautiful light, while they remained faithful to God’s revelation of Himself, they were constantly and totally satisfied. But like when that door is shut the room becomes small, dark and dangerous, so Adam and Eve’s unfaithfulness in pursuit of their own selves led to persistent dissatisfaction and ruin.
As a hinge shutting a door folds in on itself, mankind folded in on himself, looking for happiness where it could not be found. Man, apart from God, is incapable of finding or sustaining meaning as seen in the complete inability of any humanistic philosophy to provide ultimate meaning to life. Augustine writes that, “If (man) loves himself for his own sake, he does not look at himself in relation to God, but turns his mind in upon himself…thus he does not enjoy himself at his best, because he is better when his mind is fully fixed upon, and his affections wrapped up in the unchangeable good,” in God (italics added). The pursuit of happiness in a good other than God was not only the mechanism of the Fall, but it is the constant state of man in the new reality ushered in by that dreadful event.
Limitations of this Argument
There are no doubt limitations to this argument. There is a point beyond which we cannot go in reconciling the fall of man with the goodness and sovereignty of God. Any explanation made will leave something to be desired. Indeed, there may be a risk in delving too deeply into the matter. Francis Turretin thought so, enjoining his readers that “here we truly meet the depth of the wisdom of God – rather to be wondered at that to be pried into, far surpassing the reach of reason…let us remember that the ways of God are not our ways and that we must here be wise with sobriety, lest searching into his majesty, we be overpowered by his glory.” Turretin’s caution is perhaps a bit melodramatic, but highlights the risk of claiming to have all the answers to the deepest mysteries of God’s sovereign design.
This subject may be carefully inquired into, but it should only be done with a great deal of humility because there are limits to any explanation of the Fall. Objections of many sorts may be made against the present concept. Some may object that God’s creation of man as mutable is evidence that He is culpable for the subsequent Fall. These critics will reason that if God had merely created man unable to change or even never have created him, the Fall would never have happened. Others may assert that God is guilty because He gave Adam and Eve a command He knew they would disobey. If a sovereign, omnipotent God knew an end, is that not the same thing as Him causing that end? There are responses to these objections of course, but none of them wholly complete. Somehow, in the mysterious and secret will of God, He created humanity capable of change and He knew they would. Ultimately, it must be affirmed that humanity bears full responsibility and God bears no guilt: there is no bulletproof answer.
Nonetheless, it may be that there is a logical explanation for Adam and Eve’s mutability, a way of understanding how a righteous man could fall. It has been argued that their pursuit of happiness serves this purpose as a hinge connecting their created righteousness and fallen sinfulness. More important than seeking logical resolution to the issue though, such an explanation also seeks to remove God as far as possible from the taint of sin’s guilt. If God created man to pursue his happiness in what he rationally perceived to be the greatest good, but this process was co-opted by Satan’s deception and man’s subsequently flawed reasoning led to the Fall, then the fault is on the man who fell and the devil who deceived. God is not to blame. Instead, He takes the gracious initiative to restore the fallen and deserves all the glory.
Questions about how a sovereign, creator God can be reconciled with a righteous man’s fall will always persist. But when all reality reaches its fulfillment in the glory of a new heaven and new earth perhaps then understanding will be possible. It is more likely though, that all these concerns will be left aside, tossed to the ground as the door opens and God’s people fall in down in wholly satisfied pleasure before Him, the gloriously visible, close, and present Lord of Righteousness. That end is more to be desired than any answer so come, Lord Jesus, come.
Aristotle. The Works of Aristotle. Vol. 2. Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Albert C. Outler. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library , 1955.
_________. Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love. Translated by Albert C. Outler. Grand Rapids, MI: Christians Classics Ethereal Library, 2013.
_________. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings. First Series. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Vol. 5. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.
_________. On Christian Doctrine. Public Domain. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2013.
Routledge, Robin. Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Edited by Jr. James T. Dennison. Translated by George Musgrave Giger. Vol. 1. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992.
Wilson, Jared C. The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. Jr. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger, Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 606.
Turretin, Elenctic Theology, 610.
Genesis 1:27; See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, “The Creation of Man”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), Grudem argues that there is a dangerous tendency to narrow the definition of the terms “image” and “likeness”. He argues that the goal should be to seek what the original audience would have understood: that man somehow resembled God. His perspective is very helpful for getting to the heart of the matter. For a brief summary of other perspectives, see Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 138-141.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Christian Classics Ethereal Library PDF, Vol. 1, “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended”, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1140-1141.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Christian Classics Ethereal Library PDF, Vol. 2, “Sermon: God Glorified in Man’s Dependence”, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 8.
See Turretin’s discussion in his Elenctic Theology, “Fifth Topic: Creation”.
Augustine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, First Series, ed. Phillip Schaff, Vol. 5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 485.
Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. Albert C. Outler (Grand Rapids, MI: Christians Classics Ethereal Library, 2013), 9.
Augustine, Handbook,9. See also Augustine, Confessions, trans. Albert C. Outler (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library , 1955), 211.
John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 18. See also Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Christian Classics Ethereal Library PDF, Vol. 1, “Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World”, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974).
 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Electronic Classics Series, ed. Jim Manis (Hazleton, PA: PSU-Hazleton, 1999), 246.
As far as months go, October really stands out. Fall colors in the trees, lots of crisp mornings and clear nights, the sudden availability of pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more.
Unfortunately, it’s also Pastor Appreciation Month. It may seem strange that I, a pastor, would lament that this month has been unofficially but nonetheless nationally recognized as “Pastor Appreciation Month.” And yet, I do.
I have read posts from other pastors, church leaders, and church members expressing the necessity of a month dedicated to appreciating pastors. I’ve read guides for how to give better gifts during this month. But I’ve read startlingly few pieces questioning whether or not we should actually have this weirdly-niche holiday in the first place.
Because I don’t think we should have it.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s biblical to appreciate pastors; I just don’t think Pastor Appreciation Month is the best way to go about it. I understand that I am probably in the minority. If your church still chooses to celebrate it, I don’t plan on fighting you over it. But here are seven reasons I think churches shouldn’t celebrate Pastor Appreciation Month:
1. It is artificial
Pastor Appreciation Month isn’t a natural holiday, like New Year’s Day. It’s not a civic holiday like July 4th. It’s not a religious holiday like Christmas.
It’s an artificial holiday. It was invented by a group of clergy in 1992, promoted by a prominent Christian organization in 1994, and bought into by Christian retailers throughout the country as a great way to unload their overstock of pastor’s office tchotchkes. It’s not the only artificial holiday, nor does its artificiality mean it is automatically unworthy. (I mean, Valentine’s Day is a manufactured holiday, but ask a boyfriend or husband who has neglected it to his own detriment if it is a worthy holiday.)
But, its artificiality is a reminder of its dispensability. The church and its pastors survived for a long time without it, and we can do so again.
2. It is awkward for visitors
Imagine a scene with me: you have just moved to a new area. You’ve never really been a church-goer, but the new setting, loneliness, and curiosity have led you to “check out” the church down the street. You walk in, are warmly greeted, chat with someone you recognize from the office of your apartment complex, and sit down in a well-lit, comfortable room. A guy gets up and prays to start the worship service. A band plays songs that, while unfamiliar, tug at your heart and bring a few tears to your eyes. Then, another guy gets up, directs you to open the Bible you find under the seat in front of you, and shares a message that clearly comes from his heart and touches yours. He closes with a prayer, the band plays another song, and you are suffused with a sense of God’s goodness.
And then someone else stands up, grabs a microphone, and talks for five minutes about how much the pastor does for the church people, and how they should appreciate him every day, but especially this month, and that there will be an usher at the door with an offering plate, and everyone should give whatever they can so the church can buy him a nice gift.
How awkward is it for you, a non-church-going, non-pastor-knowing, first-time-visitor, to hear that announcement? What thoughts run through your mind as your contemplation of God is interrupted by it? Imagine what you’re feeling as you walk past that overeager usher pushing that plate in front of you?
Not good, right? Not only can it be a shockingly abrupt and uncomfortable intrusion, but it can also reinforce the lie that pastors are all about getting your money.
We are often tragically inattentive to the visitor amid our church gatherings, but even more so in our celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month.
3. It is awkward for church regulars
Pastor Appreciation celebrations can be uncomfortable for church regulars, as well.
The typical bon mots about how hard pastors have it can sound a bit contrived to the ears of the single mom who serves in the nursery every week even though she works two jobs to make ends meet while she struggles to raise her kids alone.
The call to give generously in October can weigh heavily on the middle-aged man whose 20 years at the factory have him making a salary that’s half the pastor’s regular pay package.
The widow who struggles with loneliness may berate herself for the jealousy she feels when this person who has never even learned her name is praised as God’s gift to the saints.
Then there’s the false guilt that comes when someone forgets to organize a celebration or when they compare what their church did to what the bigger church down the street did or when the pastor seems ungrateful for what they did do.
Whatever the cause, Pastor Appreciation Month can lead to some awkward feelings and situations for those who are a part of the church but not a pastor.
4. It is awkward for pastors
But it’s not just awkward for guests and church regulars; it is awkward for pastors, too.
Most pastors, myself included, really struggle with receiving compliments and gifts when it’s just one person giving them. We know that any good in us, any ability, any quality, are solely of God, not ourselves, so the compliment or gift ought to be directed at him and not us. And yet we don’t want to seem hyper-spiritual or falsely humble by denying the giver’s gift. So we stumble through a “thank-you” and feel like it isn’t enough and yet is too much, at the same time.
Now, compound that by 100, and you have the typical struggle of a pastor facing his congregation after they just feted him with a celebration dinner, had several church leaders speak about his excellencies, and handed him a generous financial gift.
What can he say, and how should he say it?
Or, the awkwardness can derive from another angle. Imagine a pastor who just accepted a call to his first church. He remembers October as Pastor Appreciation Month from his time as a church member. He thinks of the cruise that church sent the pastor and his wife on, the cards he made in Sunday School as a kid, the deacon chairman’s pat on the pastor’s back.
Then, his first October rolls around, and it’s crickets at his new church. Nobody says anything, does anything or acknowledges the occasion. His expectations weren’t met.
That’s awkward. But it could have been avoided if we simply got rid of Pastor Appreciation Month.
5. It cheapens pastoral ministry
One of the chief arguments for Pastor Appreciation Month seems to boil down to the fact that pastors have a hard job. But most pastors I know don’t need the reminders about how hard ministry is: they’re living that reality. But most pastors I know are still glad to serve. They didn’t get into ministry for recognition or an easy life: they did it to follow Christ’s commands. They don’t want to be singled out, they don’t want to be rewarded on earth: they’re looking forward to Jesus being exalted and joining with the saints in a heavenly reward.
Pastor Appreciation celebrations and gifts can give the impression, however unintentional, that the hard work of ministry can be rewarded here and now. That cheapens it. Pastoral ministry is not about what it gains the pastor in the here and now, and any pastor worthy of the title is not looking for such menial reward anyway.
These gifts can also be potentially manipulative or coercive. A church that gives a large Pastor Appreciation gift may be trying to keep a pastor in line. A pastor who receives such a gift may feel pressure to avoid saying or doing things that God’s Word demands of him for fear of offending his generous congregation. Either way, the ministry is diminished, changed from something that is God-directed to something that is financially-steered.
I understand that the same could be said for pastoral salaries. However, most churches provide a salary to free up the hours a pastor would generally spend working to provide for his family so that he can focus on his ministry. In such cases, the salary is not a reward, but a substitute designed to enable his service. The argument would stand, however, if a church or pastor viewed his salary as the bait on the hook for keeping him around or the stick for keeping him in-line or as payment for services rendered.
Regardless of your stance on that broader discussion, however, Pastor Appreciation Month doesn’t diminish the difficulty of the task; it cheapens it.
6. It reinforces the unhealthy clergy/laity distinction in our churches
Frankly, I was torn on whether to put this reason first or last (the places where “science” tells us things are remembered most). I ended up not putting it first because it is too heavy a topic, and you would have quit reading. I didn’t want to put it last, because I wanted to not just be a Debbie Downer and actually give some positive statements about appreciating pastors at the end. So, here is where it landed and I hope you don’t forget it.
That October is Pastor Appreciation Month is one of the funniest ironies in all of Christendom. Why? Because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther first posted his 95 theses. While this document was basically an extended argument against the pope selling salvation to the highest bidder, it sparked the widespread movement we call the Protestant Reformation. (Ok, the funny part takes a while to develop). One of the fundamental tenets of the Reformation was the priesthood of every believer. This was opposed to the Catholic Church’s insistence that there was a distinction between the clergyman and the layperson. (Still developing…). The Reformation sought to reestablish the New Testament principle that, while every believer is gifted differently to serve, every believer’s gifts are essential, and all believers are equal. Yet, in October, the same month that kicked off a movement that sought to abolish the clergy/laity distinction, we reinforce just such a division with our celebrations (Hahaha! Get it? Ok, maybe it’s not as funny as I first thought).
The point is that Pastor Appreciation Month can, by definition, reinforce the perception that the pastor is the “professional” Christian and that the “amateur” Christian’s job is to recognize and encourage him and be his audience rather than his co-laborers. This continues the Catholic error of separating out one class of Christ-follower apart from all the others and elevating it in importance. Pastors may have God-given authority for their flocks in Christ, but they are also still sheep in need of the gifts of their fellow flock-members.
7. It can be a substitute for biblical pastor appreciation
Finally, celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month can serve as a substitute for what the Bible actually commands as pastor appreciation. It is so much easier to write a card, write a check, and write off the much harder ways in which Scripture calls us to express our appreciation for those who lead us in the faith.
Look at Hebrews chapter 13:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
“Consider their way of life…imitate their faith…obey…submit” so that they can “do this with joy and not with groaning.”
That’s much harder, but I assure you that every single pastor I know would find such a lifestyle of appreciation much more valuable than any once-yearly gift or public thank you.
If that isn’t enough, look at 1 Thessalonians 5:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
“Respect…esteem…love…be at peace” all the time, not just once a year.
Most pastors don’t ask for a month dedicated to appreciating them. But God does ask his people to live a lifestyle that speaks to an appreciation for their pastors, but that is ultimately devoted to Christ every day of the year.
I don’t want to just be the pastoral neighborhood curmudgeon, scowling and mumbling about confetti in my yard. I totally understand that most churches, church members, and pastors celebrate Pastor Appreciate Month with no intention of making things awkward, cheapening the ministry, or avoiding biblical commands. And many churches, either because they can’t pay their pastor enough, or because they love him so much, enjoy the opportunity to take up a collection and bless their pastor. And many pastors probably take what is given to them and use it to bless others. For these, and many more reasons, I hesitated to post this piece.
Still, for all the good that is intended with Pastor Appreciation Month, I worry about the perception of a money-hungry ministry, I struggle with the reinforcement of a professional ministry, and I long to elevate every Christ-followers’ ministry. The organizational declaration of a particular month dedicated to pastors isn’t helpful in any of those regards.
And, ceasing to observe Pastors Appreciation month in our churches in no way hampers individual Christians from expressing their gratitude for their pastors. In fact, it probably opens more opportunities, and more genuine ones, at that. If a husband only showed his love for his wife once a year, on Valentine’s Day, how do you think his wife would feel about their marriage? Just so, a pastor will feel more appreciated when he receives cards, calls, texts, conversations, etc. from genuinely thankful church members all year long, than just during the “official” holiday.
So, it is with genuine feeling that I’m asking us to stop celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month. Instead, I want to challenge us to prioritize a genuine “building-up” among the saints all year long.
With that in mind, here are some closing words for various readers:
Fellow Pastors: Sorry if I rained on our parade. And if I am in error in my views here, please reach out and correct me. (brandonmckayboone @ gmail.com, minus the spaces, is the best way to get in touch).
Personnel/Other Committee Responsible for Pastor Appreciation Month Plans: If you are in charge of coordinating your church’s corporate celebration of your pastor in October, consider going a different direction. Write a letter informing the church members of the church’s commitment to biblical pastoral appreciation. Encourage them to send individual cards to their pastors if they feel led. Point out the Hebrews and 1 Thessalonian passages and urge them to prayerfully consider how the Holy Spirit would lead them in response. Share this post with those who have concerns: blame me, if you need to. And feel free to email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you have any questions.
Disgruntled Church Folks: Please don’t send this post to your pastor or others in your church on November 1st as a form of protest against their celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month. Be at peace with one another. Matthew 7 is still in the Bible. Don’t ignore your Lord’s commands. Don’t cause your pastor to serve with groaning.
Other Church Folks: Pastors are just like any other people. They love to be encouraged; they want to feel appreciated. But not only does Pastor Appreciation Month not check those boxes most of the time, but it’s also not sufficient when it does. Instead, look to the Word and seek to encourage your pastors by following Christ whole-heartedly all year long. If there is a message that is particularly helpful to you throughout the year, take time to let him know (be specific as to how it helped you if you want to be extra encouraging). If you see an admirable quality in him, write him a quick note saying how grateful you are for his Christ-like example. Appreciate your pastor, not just once a year.
Non-Church Folks: Why did you read these 2300 words, exactly? If you’re not committed to a local church and submitted to its leadership, there are no pastors for you to appreciate, once a year or every day. Find a local church, commit to it, submit to its leaders, and then figure out where you stand on the issue. Email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you need help finding a local church.
“It doesn’t take long for everything to go wrong.”
You could be forgiven if that is your initial thought when reading the Bible starting in Genesis. It is a thousand-page book, and everything is broken by page three.
It was off to such a good start, too.
Genesis 1: God creates everything, and everything is “very good.”
Genesis 2: Mankind is given the tremendous privilege of filling the earth with more of God’s goodness and love.
Genesis 3: Mankind listens to one of the beasts they are supposed to be reigning over and rebel against God, breaking everything for everyone.
It’s a tragedy and not a very long one.
Or, it would be a tragedy if not for a promise that God makes while speaking his judgment against the snake, the woman, and the man.
In Genesis 3:15, a verse it is tempting to skip over, we see a ray of hope for the future:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (ESV)
It’s tempting to read that and interpret it as a vague antagonism between women and snakes, and between humans and snakes. Except for the last clause: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” That is a singular, masculine pronoun.
And that is important. God is making a promise that one day, a man will come along who will gain victory over the serpent. To be sure, the snake would get his blow in and bruise the man’s heel. But the man will bruise the serpent’s head.
The implication is that the man will suffer, but that it will not prove ultimately fatal. The blow to the snake’s head, however, will lead to his demise.
See? We may merely glance at the statement, but it is essential: God is giving humanity hope! When Adam and Eve heard this promise, they understood that while the serpent’s deception had led them to lose everything, God’s promise would one day restore everything.
As God clothed them in animal skins, they understood that God was going to make a way for their lives to be redeemed.
As they were driven from the Garden of Eden, they understood that God would someday grant them safe passage back into his presence.
They understood these things because of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15.
How do we know? Because of what follows. In Genesis 4, we’re introduced to Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is born first, and Eve’s reaction is telling: “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (ESV)
Why did it matter that she had gotten a man? Did Eve, a woman, believe that a man was inherently better than a woman? Maybe, though God had created both man and woman in his image. Did she merely rejoice because a man would be more useful in the labor of daily sustenance? Maybe, but not necessarily as women can be just as resourceful in providing for their families.
It is far more likely that Eve was remembering God’s promise of a future male offspring who would break the curse of sin by triumphing over the deceptive serpent, Satan.
But Cain wasn’t the promised one. Nor was Abel. We know that because of what happens next.
We see them worshipping God by each giving an offering to him. Abel’s offering to God is in line with what God had revealed in Genesis 3 by killing animals and clothing Adam and Eve: a blood sacrifice. Cain’s offering is the fruit of his labor in the fields: vegetation.
Both worshipping God. Both making an offering. But God accepts Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. There may not have been anything wrong with Cain’s offering, but we quickly see that there was something wrong with his heart.
Because when God rejects Cain’s offering, it reveals jealousy and rage that drive Cain to kill Abel. God deals with Cain, but we need to see his mother’s response to understand, again, how Adam and Eve understood God’s promise. Genesis 4:25 records Eve’s reaction to the birth of her third son, Seth: “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” (ESV)
Eve was still looking for the promised “offspring.” She trusted God and knew that Abel couldn’t be the promised one because he was now dead, unable to strike the blow to the serpent. And she knew that Cain, though he was still alive, couldn’t do it either: he had sullied his hands with the blood of his brother and was no longer worthy of spilling the blood of the snake. The promised one would have to be pure, unstained by the lies of the serpent and rebellion against God.
But she had another son, by God’s hand, so she had hope.
But Seth wasn’t the promised one. Nor was his son Enosh. Nor was his grandson Kenan.
But humanity kept looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. That’s what the genealogies in the Old Testament are there for: to help God’s people, those who trusted his promise, in their search for the promised one.
Generation after generation, name after name, there was hope for humanity because God had made a promise. And God always keeps his promises.
Some stand out from others. A descendant of Seth, named Lamech, thought he had the promised one identified. He said about his son, in Genesis 5:29, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” (ESV)
That son was Noah. Noah was important, and God used Noah to preserve the human race through the judgment of the flood, but Noah wasn’t the promised one. His deliverance of humanity from sin didn’t last: he fell into drunkenness after the flood.
The promised one would be like Noah in that he would provide sanctuary for all who would take refuge within his protection, but he would have to be better than Noah.
So, the search for the promised one continued. It zoomed in on the land of Ur, on a man named Abram. God called Abram to leave and to move to Canaan. God promised to bless the whole world through Abram and renamed him, Abraham. But Abraham, for all his obedience, struggled with letting God’s promises come about in God’s way: he continually manipulated the situation to try and bring about the promise on his own. So, Abraham wasn’t the promised one, merely one through whom the promised one would come.
The promised one would be like Abraham in that he would do whatever the Lord told him to do, but he would have to be better than Abraham.
At least the scope of the search was narrowing: the promised one would be Abraham’s descendant.
But it turned out not to be Abraham’s son or his grandson.
Years down the line, however, Abraham’s descendants found themselves slaves in the land of Egypt. And God called one of them, Moses, to lead them out of slavery and out of Egypt and back to the land of Canaan. But Moses had a problem with his temper: he killed an Egyptian and disobeyed God in leading the people towards Canaan. He wasn’t the promised one.
The promised one would be like Moses in that he would lead God’s people out of captivity, but he would have to be better than Moses.
God’s people make it into God’s promised land, but the promised offspring doesn’t appear. The people get into a cycle of ignoring God, falling into the hands of their enemies, repenting and being rescued by a judge raised up by God to save them, only to ignore God again as soon as they were safe. Each of these judges had the potential to be the promised one in the eyes of the people. One, Shamgar, killed 600 enemies with no weapon but a wooden ox goad. But his victory didn’t last, and God had to raise up another judge after him. So, Shamgar wasn’t the promised one.
The promised one would be like Shamgar in that he too would use an instrument of wood to conquer his enemies, but he would have to be better than Shamgar.
Eventually, God’s people grew tired of the never-ending cycle with the judges. They asked God to give them a king. God warned them that they wouldn’t like it, but they insisted. The first king, Saul, didn’t work out very well, but the second king was promising. His name was David, and the Bible tells us that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” Surely, he was the promised one. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. David failed to keep himself pure, committing adultery with a friend’s wife and then arranging to have that friend killed. David wasn’t the promised one.
The promised one would be like David in that he would indeed be a man after God’s own heart, but he would have to be better than David.
And on and on. God’s people, those still clinging to his promise of the coming one who would be God’s man, grew weary of watching, weary of waiting. A hundred years was a long time to wait, but thousands were passing. Every time a potential promised one appeared, he failed.
It was becoming clear: no one was good enough. The best and the brightest of humanity had tried and failed. If God’s promise was going to be kept, God was going to have to do something remarkably different than what people had seen before.
One group of God’s people realized this quite clearly. The Sons of Korah were servants of God and helped to write some of the Psalms that we find in the Bible. These were worship songs, sung by God’s people as they praised and trusted him. In Psalm 49, the Sons of Korah realize something significant: the promised one couldn’t just be a man. In verses 7-9 of that Psalm, they write, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” (ESV)
The Sons of Korah looked at this dismal record of failed promised ones and recognized something vital: a mere man wasn’t going to be enough to fulfill the promise. To ransom humanity from their enslavement to evil, the promised one would have to be someone who wasn’t under the curse, who wasn’t bound by the lies of the Father of Lies, Satan, that old serpent.
But to fulfill God’s promise, the promised one still had to be the woman’s offspring. In other words, he couldn’t be merely human, but he had to be nonetheless still human.
The Sons of Korah suggest a solution, whether they recognized it or not, in verse 15 of Psalm 49: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” (ESV)
They recognized that a mere man could not ransom another man, but they rightly discerned that only God could, and would, be able to ransom them.
God knew that too. All the “failures” that happened along the way weren’t God’s: he allowed the hope to build and his people to look expectantly at each new candidate. People may have been surprised by the failures, but God wasn’t. God wasn’t crossing his fingers as David’s eyeing Bathsheba, thinking, “Man, I hope he doesn’t do it!” God wasn’t biting his fingernails as Moses is standing in front of the people at the rock, whispering, “Please, oh please, don’t hit the rock!” Their failures aren’t God’s failures. God knew that they weren’t the promised one; he knew they weren’t good enough. But he was preparing us for the one who would be. He was preparing us for the GodMan.
See, God’s promise could be fulfilled only if the promised man was also God.
Many missed it, but that’s exactly what eventually happened.
After thousands of years of delayed hope, of waiting and watching kings and prophets and judges, of praying for the promised one, God sent his promised one.
He was a man, born to a young peasant girl named Mary. His birth was just the same as every other human’s: messy. His first breath was like every other human’s: a prelude to a newborn’s squall. He grew. He learned. He got hungry, and he ate. He got thirsty, and he drank. He got tired, and he slept. He was human, an offspring of the woman.
He was also God. In the beginning, he was with God, and he was God. Before Abraham was, he is. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega. He receives worship as God and does not correct the worshippers. He is God, able to ransom us from sin and death.
God’s man is the GodMan.
Jesus Christ is the only name given among men by which we may be saved because he is the only offspring of the woman who is also the one who created the woman.
Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man to finally fulfill the promise of God and reconcile humanity to himself.
Jesus Christ was the only one who could fulfill Genesis 3:15. He was wounded by the serpent, dying on the cross. But he struck the serpent’s head by rising through the power of his divine perfection.
Jesus Christ opened a way for humanity to return to the presence of God, not by setting a good example for us, but by bringing the presence of God to us and taking the punishment we deserved.
Time and time again, we fail. But the GodMan, Jesus Christ, invites us to put our trust in him, in his incarnation, in his life, death, burial, and resurrection.
Will you trust him? Will you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead?
Because that’s the only way that you can see God’s promise fulfilled in your life. That’s the only way that you can be redeemed from sin and death: trust in God’s Promised One.
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If I had a dollar for every time one of my kids pointed to a flower beside the Spring Creek Trail outside of Kannarraville, UT, and asked me to take a picture, I’d have 82 dollars. At least, that’s how many flower pictures I had to sort through when we got back home.
This hike was actually our second attempt at Spring Creek. The first one, several years earlier, had ended with a round of “I’m tired” choruses about 300 yards into the hike. For our second attempt, I was determined to actually make it into the slot canyon portion of the trail.
With that definite goal in mind, I briefly considered a solo hike. It was already late in the afternoon, and I knew that hiking 4 miles before dark would be a challenge if I were dragging kids along. But guilt at strapping my wife with them in addition to the evening chores she wanted to stay home to do was more than I could bear. Before I agreed to take them, however, I elicited firm agreements from my young children that this would be a “serious” hike, one focused on reaching a specific destination, and that I wouldn’t be putting up with any whining, dilly-dallying, or related tom-foolery. In other words, I was doing a solo hike, and they were welcome to come as long as they didn’t interrupt it.
The related tom-foolery started almost as soon as we left the trailhead parking lot. Scarcely had we crested the mild hill that obscures the mouth of the valley entrance than one of my darlings declared their need for alimentary elimination. After explaining that there were no facilities constructed for that purpose, dealing with the outburst of indignation that followed, and directing said darling to a convenient shrub a suitable distance off the trail, we waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Eventually, the darling returned. Apparently, pointing your kid towards a cactus patch for such an occasion is not only lousy parenting but also leads to a prolonged search for a “safe” place to take of business.
Mission accomplished, we proceeded up the trail. At the 300-yard mark, I heard a child inhale, and their lips began to form the word, “I’m.” I stopped the rest of the statement with a mean-eyed stare that would have made Clint Eastwood proud.
…another 50 feet. There, twinkling merrily in the afternoon sun, was the first of what would be several intersections of trail and creek. Clear, cold, and narrow, Spring Creek crossed the trail, burbling among the convenient rocks someone had thoughtfully placed for hikers to cross on and keep their feet dry. Some, however, eschew such conveniences and we continued past the crossing with three pairs of dry feet and one pair partially soaked and picking up a fine accretion of red-tinted dirt. I knew it would look exquisite smeared over the tan interior of our vehicle.
And, yet, we were still going. At this point, a good 55 feet farther along than our first attempt, we came up the first stunning example of native flora.
“Take a picture, Daddy! Then we can show Mommy!”
Having placed my trusty DSLR in the pack, I had to briefly weigh the benefit of stopping, opening the pack, getting the camera out, and taking the picture to satisfy the oh-so-sweet desire of my daughter to share this moment with her mother against the near certainty that, while the pack was open, the treasure trove of snacks said mother had packed would be spotted. I knew that, even if they caught just a bare glimpse, there would be nothing preventing a ten-minute feast of tangerines and chocolate-covered granola bars.
“The lighting’s no good for a picture right now. We’ll stop on the way out.”
I figured we’d need those ten minutes.
Five minutes, 15 flowers, and 98 yards later, we stopped for snacks in the shade of a juniper tree.
As tiny, chocolate-smeared mouths chomped enthusiastically and clear water turned suspiciously cloudy as cups were raised and lowered, another family hiked by.
At this point, I should probably explain that my family is not poor. You wouldn’t know that to see us in our hiking outfits, however. My stain-encrusted t-shirt could have passed for desert camouflage, though it had started life as pure as the driven snow. One kid had on pants she’d outgrown two years before, which I figured mostly made them capris. Another refused to wear any other shoes and thus had on some cute canvas flats with giant, rainbow-colored bows still peeping out from the red mud. The coup de grace was the dust-flecked snot trail running down a poorly-wiped nose and cheek that blended incredibly with the chocolate ring around a mouth.
Anyways, this family that passed us as we enjoyed our snack looked like they’d stepped out of a hiking magazine marketed solely to upper-crust western families who’d made their fortune investing in Columbia, Merrell, and Osprey stock and then received a bunch of promo gear from the companies and an invite to be a part of an upcoming ad campaign. They were serious about this hike and seriously equipped.
I tried to hide my face behind my thrift store farmer’s hat, waving a greeting that I hoped clearly communicated that we actually weren’t homeless and living off the land back here but also discouraged further conversation. My kids, however, waved enthusiastically, calling out hellos. Embarrassed into interaction, I wished the family a good hike and a good evening. They all smiled, waved, and hurried down the trail before they could catch whatever it was we had.
Snacks finished and thirst quenched, we carefully gathered all of our detritus and stowed it back in my pack. I pulled out the camera, and we continued.
We came across a section of trail that was covered with some of the most perfect sand ever discovered. It was perfect for running through fingers, drawing fun shapes in, and throwing at your siblings.
I hurried the kids along before our free hike could be encumbered by an optometrist’s bill.
We came to a spot where the trees arced gracefully overhead and almost formed a tunnel for us to walk through. It was the kind of place that I had loved as a kid. A place alive with possibility, precociously stirring the soul with vague glimmers of romance, danger, and mystery.
And alive with bugs. Cicadas to be exact. The kids took turns urging one another to touch the rattling things while I snapped a few pictures. We laughed whenever the loud buzzing the followed a hesitant touch drew shrieks of semi-delight from whichever one had gathered enough courage for the act.
And we continued down the trail. After another creek crossing, this one mercifully dry, we found another bug, a butterfly. One of the darlings wanted a picture of it but, after chasing the manic creature for a few minutes, we concluded it was camera-shy and started walking through a grass and sage meadow.
Ahead, we could finally see what we thought was the entrance to the slot. It was almost wholly obscured by a sandstone outcropping that bulged towards the south rim, but we were soon past the obstruction and into the canyon. The creek that had flowed narrow in the wider valley below spread out here, tripping over smooth rocks between the walls of the canyon. A brief duck under some low-hanging branches and we were in a clearing. A brushy embankment covered the north side, but the south side was an exposed face nearly overhanging the creek as it meandered gently.
We stopped and threw rocks in a bend of the creek, scrambled onto the narrow bar between two channels, and floated leaf boats in regatta races. The lowering sun shone perfectly through sheltering leaves and glinted off the peaks of tiny ripples in the stream.
Realizing the sun was sliding inexorably towards the horizon, I gathered my brood and continued, certain that we hadn’t reached the best part yet. But, as we pressed on into the canyon, the walls narrowed occasionally, but never all the way to a “true” slot.
We came to a sand-slide and scrambled up it to explore. At the top, a small cave with a triangular maw greeted us. A brief discussion ensued, mostly concerning who the mountain lion who undoubtedly lived inside would eat first. Anxious to prove the non-existence of said big cat, I crawled in, my heart beating a strange rhythm in my chest and my hands unusually sweaty. When no yowls or claws greeted me, I coaxed my kids into at least peeking in. They did, and then we all clambered back down the sand, filling our shoes and “accidentally” flinging it down the back of the person in front of us.
At the bottom of the slide, we paused to let another party, one we could hear coming but not see, pass. As they emerged from the foliage to the east, I recognized them: it was the ad campaign crew. One kid was yelling at a sibling, and the dad was red-faced, packing another. Mom huffed as she passed by. I asked how it was farther up, and she said that they hadn’t made it much farther so couldn’t really say.
My competitive fire stoked, I urged the kids to tackle the trail again. We passed another interesting branch off the main trail, but I resisted the calls for another exploration. The sun was sinking, and we didn’t have much more time before we’d need to turn around.
“Dad, can we go back and race some more boats?”
“Only if we have time.”
“Well, what if we go back there now?”
“We’re so close to the actual slot! Let’s keep going.”
“Daddy, take a picture of that one!”
“If you kids keep going and don’t stop and don’t whine, we’ll go get ice cream when we get back to town.”
“Daddy, which nature souvenir would you like better: this snail shell or this flower?”
I sighed. And thought. And stopped. We were on a broader section just before a bend. The south wall had crumbled down enough that I could see what lay ahead. It looked like a narrow cut started right there, maybe 100 yards away. I was convinced this was the section I’d wanted to reach.
But there was my child, not looking up, not looking around. She was simply contemplating a plain, brown shell and a purple flower not unlike 562 others we’d already passed. And she was content for one of those two items to be her memento. There was no competition, no inferiority complex, no destination that mattered nearly so much as the decision, right now, between a spiral of calcium carbonate and a semi-crushed splot of petals and pollen.
I told her I’d pick the shell, told my son we’d go race some boats, and assured my oldest that we’d take pictures of each flower she wanted to on the way out.
Then we turned and, backs to whatever lay beyond the bend, headed out the way we’d come in, committed to nothing more than making memories.
And getting some ice cream.
Disclaimer: This post IS based on an actual hike. It IS NOT a 100% accurate portrayal but is semi-fictionalized because, as Mark Twain is frequently (but dubiously) cited as saying,
“never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
But, don’t let that distract you from the fact that there is Truth. Thanks for reading!
There’s been a great deal of hoopla on the interwebs regarding the prospective border wall between America and Mexico. All-caps cries have floated through cyber-space (“RAPISTS,” “BIGOTS,” & “HITLER” being among the most popular) from parties on each side of the issue.
My electronic friends (at least those that the gatekeepers at Facebook deem worthy of my attention) seem to be obsessed with the border wall. Indeed, as someone who deliberately cultivates friendships with individuals from wide-ranging points on the political spectrum, I have been privileged to witness veritable streams of vitriol on the subject, flowing in opposite directions, crashing together in my own newsfeed.
I truly believe that some of my friends truly believe that the border wall is the single-most important issue of our day.
And, if you don’t believe in the existence of a sovereign God who loved humanity enough to come to earth in the flesh and die for the sins of humanity in order to restore to them eternal life and give them meaning and purpose by enlisting them in the task of taking this good news to the ends of the earth, maybe it is the most important issue.
But, if you believe the good news and you’re still convinced that what the world needs most from you is your support for the wall, may I humbly suggest that you re-examine your priorities.
This is not a post about the border wall, for or against; it’s about Christian priorities, on and off-line.
While you’ve been foaming at the digital mouth in your defense of this American Shibboleth, did you know that the Christian faith has been under attack around the world? That your brothers and sisters in Christ have been jailed, had their property confiscated, and even been killed? Not because of a political position, but because of their faith in Jesus Christ?
I just received a copy of Open Doors‘ World Watch List for 2019 from a fellow church member, and it brought some badly needed perspective to my world. Open Doors is a Christian organization that seeks to connect American believers with their persecuted brothers and sisters worldwide. Their Watch List is a ranking of the 50 countries where persecution is at its worst. And it’s incredibly informative:
Did you know, for example, that the number of Christians facing persecution has risen from 215 million to 245 million over the last year?
Did you know that 1 in 9 Christians worldwide faces high levels of persecution?
Did you know that, on average, 11 Christians are killed EVERY DAY because of their faith?
Did you know that in Iran it is illegal to share your faith or conduct a Christian service in the national language?
Did you know that there has been ongoing strategic imprisonment of Christians taking place in Eritrea over the past ten years?
Did you know that the two most highly populated countries in the world are also seeing an increase in their persecution of Christians?
If you’re like me, you’re much less aware of these things than you are the intricacies of the border wall debate. Why is that?
Because, based on what I see online and hear discussed in-person, American Christians are choosing to turn a blind eye to Christian realities in favor of American realities.
Think about it: every single person with access to the Internet has more potential influence that any pre-web newspaper baron ever had. With the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger, they can transmit words, images, and ideas to thousands, millions, and even billions of people.
Christ-follower: Is it really the best use of that power to contribute your own invective to the torrent already flowing regarding a border wall? Are the concerns of your chosen political party really worth sacrificing gospel opportunities for?
Could you not better use your online voice to draw prayerful attention to the needs of your brothers and sisters living under persecution? Could you not use your influence to call for a re-engagement of the American church in the life of the global church?
God has not called you to make Republicans or Democrats: he has called you to make disciples.
He hasn’t called you to give your life to a political party: he has called you to give your life to the King.
He hasn’t called you to stump for a border wall: he has called you to pray for your brothers and sisters and to meet their needs, regardless of which country they live in.
May our engagements, online and off, reflect the One who has called us and advance the mission he has called us to.
I know that some of you reading this won’t agree with it. That’s ok. But, just so you know, I am not anti-wall, nor am I anti-American; I am just pro-using-all-the-tools-we-have-to-preach-the-gospel-and-serve-others.
Eliciting much sympathy for the American church is hard. It seems we have been blessed with more widespread freedom, leisure, and resources than any other geopolitically-defined group in Christian history. While brothers and sisters in Christ starve physically and endure persecution socially in places like North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia, and others, we sit, seemingly fat and fit.
But, while we are indeed physically fat, we are not spiritually fit. When the Christian best-sellers list is filled, year after year, with gussied-up, pseudo-spiritual, self-help titles in which a bible verse actually quoted in context is as rare as the Western Plains Jackalope, we’ve got a problem. When our chief spiritual export to the world is a false gospel that says to the less-fortunate, “if you have enough faith, God will give you the kind of life we enjoy by the accident of our having been born in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we’re sharing that problem. When both our pastors and the people they lead are more concerned with propping up a corrupt system of government than promoting the kingdom of Christ, we’ve crossed a line.
I know, I know: it’s not all bad. Incredible things are happening through various American churches, organizations, and individuals. But the primary weight of our collective Christianity is mired in a bog of spiritual apathy and ineptitude. The few still pulling us towards Christ are hampered, if not stymied, by that life-sucking weight.
What happened? How did all of our apparent advantages lead to this mind-boggling situation?
One reason is that we have an enemy and he convinced us that we could follow Jesus and live the American dream.
That Jesus could be our King and our lifestyle remain unchanged.
That so long as we prayed a prayer, sang some songs, and dropped 10% in the plate each Sunday, we could do what we wanted with the rest of our life.
That the needs of our brothers and sisters could be matters of prayer and not matters of sacrifice.
That our churches could glorify God even as they promoted their brand.
That concern for the poor is now the government’s job as we stuff our coffers and bedazzle our sanctuaries.
And it’s killing us. The lie that we can serve both God and money [or political power] is driving the American church over the cliff and into oblivion.
American Christians are certainly not the first in history to believe, erroneously, that we could have all the benefits of both this world and of the next. But we have mastered the art of trying.
We have stripped the call of Christ of its cost.
We have proclaimed the grace that saves while ignoring the fact that the same grace must sanctify.
We have dreamed up a discipleship full of instruction but freed from obedience.
More and more, I am convinced that the only hope for us, the American church, is to repent of our futile double-mindedness and return to the historical, biblical faith.
To recognize that,
“when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer
To proclaim that while
“faith alone saves, the faith that saves is never alone.” Calvin
To reinstate biblical discipleship:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…(and) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus
Let’s recapture the self-sacrificing, self-denying, others-seeking ethos of King Jesus and his kingdom and leave behind the self-promoting, self-satisfying, and others-ignoring lifestyle of our culture.