Genesis 18: The Call of Abraham, the Call of the Church

 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:17-19).

 The Lord called Abraham to the most glorious of callings—to be a vessel of blessing to all the families of the earth.  The passage above suggests to means, one implicit and one explicit, by which Abraham was to carry out that calling. 

 First, the Lord calls Abraham to intercede.  This is inferential, but I believe real nonetheless.  As the Lord sets out toward Sodom, judgment impending, He takes Abraham, the one through whom the Lord will bless all the world, into his confidence: “shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (18:18).  Abraham is called to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, and the Lord has an intention regarding some of those nations.  Therefore he goes to Abraham.  Why?  This work done through Abraham is just that—a work done through Abraham, in which Abraham has a real part.  And what is that part?  It would seem here that the Lord is calling Abraham to intercede.  If Abraham is called to be a blessing to all nations, might not the Lord be calling Abraham to intercede for some of them?  This is not explicit, but I believe likely.  (It is interesting that Abraham doesn’t intercede as a response to a command, but apparently as an instinctive response to what he assumes will be the Lord’s response to the sin of Sodom.)  While Abraham’s intercession didn’t save Sodom, it nevertheless appears that intercession was the Lord’s intention.  Perhaps not just for this instance, but for the nation Abraham would become.  If this is the case, it suggests a role for Israel in relation to the nations.  Are they called to intercede for the nations?  It would seem so here, an inference only strengthened by Israel’s calling as a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6), the priests being called to be intercessors for the people.  This makes Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh all the more striking. 

 There is another part to Abraham’s calling, this one explicit.  Abraham is called to his family: “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promise him” (18:19).  The strategy is simple.  The Lord will bless the nations is through Abraham’s teaching his household the ways of righteousness and justice.  Not preaching or teaching, and not works of service, as important as all that is.  He is called to his family.  And, as he is called to his family, he is therefore called to the world.  Raising children to do righteousness and justice is not an inward matter, for righteousness and justice have outward and social trajectories.  And this has to do with my neighbor.  This is the means for the blessing of the nations.  Not a program, but a household (then households) actively seeking the good of the world.  This is what it means to be a light to the nations, a city set on a hill.  It appears that the Lord will full the promise to Abraham as Abraham and his household faithfully lives and passes down the fear of the Lord to the generations.  For in so doing, the world will see the form of righteousness and justice, and therefore come to learn something of the Lord, and be blessed.  

Psalm 8 Reflections on Humility

Psalm 8

 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens.  Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

 For David, humility consisted in acknowledging two things.  First, that he, and the rest of mankind, is very small: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).  David is, of course, not alone.  We know how gazing upon the stars on a clear night, beholding the handiwork of God in the heavens, can make one feel small.  And so it is.  It is an amazing thing that, in the vast majesty of the created order, that the Lord would care for ones as small, and seemingly insignificant, as we are.  (This is a good reason to be much out of doors, face to face with God’s creation.)  We need to remember this—for one of the common sins of man is to think far too much of ourselves.  We are not as strong as we think we are.

 And yet the Lord does care, which leads to the second point.  We are made gloriously, a little lower than God himself (the Hebrew elohim can here also be rendered “gods” or “heavenly beings”), crowned with glory and honor.  We have been given dominion over the works of his hands.  In other words, we have been crowned with glory and given the charge to extend that glory throughout the world through taking care of world and its creatures.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but we become humble by remembering that we have been crowned with glory, and that we have been given glorious and noble purposes in life.  If we can imagine ourselves wearing a crown—a crown of the Lord’s giving—then we’ll be far more likely to walk into the Lord’s good and noble purposes.  It will keep us from trivialities and endeavors unbecoming one so crowned. 

 We are very small, and astonishingly glorious.  Both are true.  And they must be held together, for they belong together.  One who believes himself insignificant, and not glorious, will fall into self-loathing and despair.  One who believes himself to be glorious, not realizing that he is small, will fall into pride and self-promotion.  True humility lies in knowing that I am both small and glorious.  I can keep myself from despair by remembering that the Lord really does care for me (8:4).  And I can keep from pride by remembering that I am small, and that the glory I have (the gifts, talents, etc) is a gift from God, to be stewarded for His purposes and His glory.  In the end, for both, the true test of humility lies in being able to acclaim, with David, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (8:1, 9). 

Psalm 27:1

 The Lord is my light and my salvation, who shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1).

Recently I was reading Dante’s Inferno, and came across a line that was at once obvious, and yet profound: 

We should fear those things alone

that have the power to harm. 

Nothing else is frightening. 

It raises the all-important question—what has the power to harm?  There are real answers to that question.  And the child of God will answer the question differently than the child of the world. 

Psalm 119:57

The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep your words (Psalm 119:57).

 A portion is a part, something that one can consider one’s own.  At the table, for instance, my children show no indignation whatsoever when their brothers and sisters eat their own piece of cake.  But should one transgress and steal a bite of his sister’s piece, indignation abounds. 

 In this rather common scene lies a profound truth—claiming my portion requires me to relinquish my claim on another’s.  This is true even, perhaps especially, of the things of God.  For instance, consider the words of David: “Who have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).  Hear in David’s words both embrace and renunciation.  Content with the failure of his own flesh and heart—for he desires nothing on earth but the Lord—, David rejoices that the Lord is his portion, which frees him from coveting the success of the wicked around him (see the whole of Psalm 73).  Or consider a somewhat obscure verse in Numbers, where the Lord forbids Aaron and the priests to own their own land: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them.  I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel” (Numbers 18:20).  For Aaron and the priests, claiming the Lord as their portion required relinquishing any expectation of a portion elsewhere. 

 That embracing the Lord as our portion means forsaking any other portion is apparent throughout the Scriptures.  Jesus offered to be the portion of the rich young man, but could only be received if he forsook the portion of his worldly wealth.  The disciples, of course, understood this, leaving everything and following Him.  Hebrews describes the early church as those who “joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34), then going on to speak of the character of faith:

 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13-16).

 One of the great snares in the Christian life is not being clear that receiving Jesus means relinquishing not only our rights, but also our expectations of any portion apart from God Himself.  Yes, the Lord gives good gifts, and sometimes he calls one to a different kind of stewardship than another.  But we may never consider any part our portion, apart from God Himself.

 And how do we know, practically, whether the Lord is our portion?  As the psalmist says above, “The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep your words.”  To flip it around, if the Lord is not my portion, I will not keep his words.

 Our irritabilities and our selfishness and our grumblings and our dishonesties—in short, our failure to keep the Lord’s words—stem, in the end, from one source: we haven’t embraced the Lord as our portion.  Our only portion.  In laying claim to our time or our property or our reputation or our health or our dreams or our whatever, we relinquish our claim to the Lord as our portion.  Whenever we find ourselves in either neglect or open disobedience to the word of God, we do well to ask the question: What do I seek for my portion?

 No man can serve two masters, because no man can possess two portions. 

Psalm 107

Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD (Psalm 107:3). 

 Psalm 107 is a psalm of praise, extoling the Lord who redeems those who cry out him, whether in trouble due to their own sin, or through no fault of their own.  The psalm testifies to four groups of people in distress: those with no home, the prisoner, the sick, and the seaman on the threatening seas.  Those in prison were there for rebelling against the word of God (v 11), and the sick were sick because of their iniquities (v 17).  There is no mention of sin in the cases of those wandering in desert wastes (v 4-5) and those who are doing business on the seas (v 23-24).  In fact, for those on the seas, the Lord Himself commanded the storm that brought fear and crying out.  No matter—the Lord delivers those who cry out to him. 

 Although the circumstances differ in each of these four deliverances, two things are said of them all, in exactly the same language.  First, the people in distress cry out: “Then thy cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”  Secondly, a call to respond to the Lord’s deliverance is given: “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man.”   

 Could it be said that this is all that the Lord requires his people—to look to Him as Savior, and to give Him thanks for His goodness toward them?  In fact, is it possible that the Lord will seek to put people in a position to do that very thing, as He did with the merchants at sea?  Such a thought is not alien to the Scriptures.  For instance, when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, the Lord led them in a direction where they would eventually be hemmed in between the mountains, the sea, and the pursuing Egyptian army (Exodus 14:2).  Why?  Apparently so that the Lord could deliver Israel through the Red Sea, making crystal clear that their only hope is that the Lord would fight for them (1:14, 15:1-3). 

 Those who know God do two things.  They cry to the Lord in their distress.  And they give thanks to the Lord for their deliverance. 

The Lord’s ways are higher than ours, and there is much that we do not understand.  After all, according to His own counsel, the Lord turns rivers into a desert, and the turns the desert into pools of water (107:33, 35).  Yet each is a reflection upon His steadfast love (107:43), which he extends, as always, for His glory and for our good.

Keep Them from Idols: The Education of Children Takes Generations of Fidelity 

by W. Ross Blackburn

Several years ago I was struck by the first sentence in Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a quote from Eberhard Bethge describing his lifelong friend: "The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation." Given that "certainty of judgment and manner" are increasingly rare, even in the Church, there is something very arresting in Bethge's description of Bonhoeffer. Even more arresting, to my mind, is Bethge's claim that such character can only be forged over generations. Is this true? And if so, how is deep, lasting generational character forged?

The question of character became quickly apparent to my wife and me when our oldest son William was three years old. Having enrolled him in a morning preschool, and in some ways quite a good one, it wasn't long before we noticed a different attitude. William's sunniness was giving way to a contentiousness we had not known. Curious, and a bit troubled, I took a day off from work and accompanied William to school. Things became clear as I observed four-year-old Tommy and marveled at how precisely William had picked up not only Tommy's words and gestures, but also his attitudes. Without complaint to the school (and with best wishes for Tommy), we withdrew William that day, now committed to keeping him at home, at least for his early and most impressionable years. Years later, when William was about nine years old, from a distance I heard him singing hymns while swinging at our neighborhood park. Apparently he hadn't yet learned that you don't do that kind of thing in public.

The Scriptures understand that we are largely a product of our generations, and therefore put great weight on generational faithfulness, particularly passing on the knowledge of God to future generations. This is nowhere clearer than in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4–9, perhaps the best-known passage in the Old Testament. In a time when, to borrow Andy Crouch's phrase, the Church is hearing a renewed call to "culture making" as a way of faithfully living out her mission, it is remarkably underappreciated that the home is both the primary place where God intends his people to be formed and the chief means of forging the kind of cultural character that shines brightly in a dark world. With this in mind, we will look carefully at the Shema, exploring not only what it commands about family life, but also the contours of family life it assumes. The passage lays out what we might call a philosophy of education, giving Israel both the content and the context for forming her children, to the end that Israel would live well in the land, and be a faithful witness to the rest of the world.

The Content of the Commandment

The Shema begins as follows:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5)

After asserting the uniqueness of God, the Shema calls for Israel's exclusive love and worship, and that in every area of life, for "all your heart, all your soul, all your might" does not just suggest an intensity of love (be that as it may), but also the all-encompassing nature of love, which influences every area of life. Or, to say it differently, Israel's life is to be lived out in all areas as a practical response to God, who redeemed her and called her to himself. It had a bearing on, among other things, worship, one's economic life, one's sexual relationships, one's understanding of justice, and, as we shall see, the raising of one's children. Even the "success" of one's career was rooted in faithfulness: "you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day" (Deut. 8:18). Nothing in Israel's life fell outside this command to love God, for all of life was an expression of this primary call.

The corollary to the Shema, the First Commandment, gives the negative side of this command, to reject completely any other gods:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Deut. 5:7–10; cf. 7:8–11).

That loving God means rejecting other loves or allegiances, axiomatic in Deuteronomy, is reflected throughout the Scriptures. John puts the matter precisely: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. . . . And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:15–17). James says it even more starkly: "whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4).

The thrust of the Shema and the First Commandment, then, has both positive and negative implications. Positively, it is a call to love God with all of one's being, thereby ensuring that the love of God orders all other loves, placing them in their proper relationship. The call to love God is also a call to love one's neighbor, implied in Deuteronomy and expressed explicitly by Jesus (Mark 12:28–31) and in the rhetorical question of John: "if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). Negatively, it is a call to refuse to love the world and its loves, which finds practical expression both in what the Church does and in what she refuses to do.

While the call to break from the world is clear, discerning what is of the world and what is of God is not always self-evident, for we live in a world that exercises its influence in unseen and subtle ways. Paul's call, "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom. 12:2) is necessary precisely because of our tendency to follow reflexively the ways of the world in which we live. The call to the Church, therefore, is necessarily counter-cultural. The only way to be faithful in the world is to be decidedly not of it.

The Context of the Commandment

The above is largely uncontroversial within the Christian community, perhaps in part because it is largely theoretical. We now come to the practical instruction that Deuteronomy gives concerning the education of children. The Shema continues:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:6–9)

These words are nothing less than a philosophy of education. At least three matters are worth noting. First, the command assumes that education is chiefly about God, in the implication that loving God and following his commands is the most important thing that a child can learn. Second, it establishes the parents as responsible for raising children to love God. Finally, it calls for such an education to be carried on in the course of life. We'll look at these in order.

First, education is chiefly about God. If that sounds strange, it is because we have understood education to be a different endeavor than raising children to know God. Yet Deuteronomy implies that an educated child is not, in the first place, a child who has acquired skills or information, but rather one who knows and loves God. In other words, the goal of education is not simply for a child to know certain things, but rather for him to become a certain kind of person, one who loves God with all his heart, soul, and strength, and therefore is able to recognize and embrace that which is good, beautiful, and true, as expressed in the Scriptures. Learning to know and love God is the ground from which all other knowledge and love is born and judged. As Traherne put it, "Can you be righteous unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem?" The point is not to diminish the importance of learning a trade or gaining knowledge of the world, but to observe that the primary—one is tempted to say "only"—concern of the Scriptures is that children learn to love God, apart from whom all else is in vain.

The Scriptures testify to this in a myriad of ways. Proverbs, the book most explicitly concerned with the education of the young, begins with the blanket assertion, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov. 1:7), making plain that the fear of the Lord is foundational to all further knowledge, and implying that apart from such fear, knowledge becomes foolishness. Jesus said essentially the same thing when he called his disciples to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33) and when he gently rebuked Martha, reminding her through Mary's example that "only one thing is needful" (Luke 10:42).

Second, it is the calling of parents to teach their children to love God and his word. The Shema establishes the foundation of this calling—the parents must love God themselves. It is crucial that parents love God because covenant faithfulness, by its very nature, is generational. 
Again, the First Commandment is helpful here, particularly its warning that the Lord is "a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Deut. 5:7–10). Whatever one's understanding of how this iniquity is visited upon succeeding generations, it is nonetheless clear what attentive parents already know, that the sins of the parents pass down to the children. As does righteousness. It is difficult to underestimate the power of a parent's example in the life of a child.

Thus, the parents' faith is of paramount importance, for there is neither promise nor encouragement that unfaithful parents will raise faithful children. So understood, Joshua's commitment reveals a certain precision: "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15). If Joshua does not personally serve the Lord ("as for me"), there is no reason to suppose that his household will, either. It will not do to have the form of godliness while denying its power, for, as we know, it is quite common for a child to turn away from the faith by citing the hypocrisy of his parents. On the other hand, the Scriptures give great confidence to parents who love God: "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed" (Ps. 112:1–2).

The calling of parents to teach their children is consistent with a child's normal desire to spend time with his parents. Like many, I was deeply instructed when I heard of the simultaneous journal entries of Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Adams and son of John Quincy Adams) and his son. Referring to the same fishing trip, Adams wrote, "Went fishing with my son today—a day wasted," while his son wrote, "Went fishing with my father—the most wonderful day of my life." It is perhaps not unlike a recent experience I had with my 11-year-old son Joseph. Working with him on his spelling, I took him on an errand in which we were an hour in the car, and I spent the whole time quizzing him on different words and explaining different parts of speech. Upon returning him home, he cheerfully said, "Thanks, Dad. I had a great time!" The desire a child has for his mother and father lends peculiar power to their instruction.

Finally, the Shema gives practical form to education, to be carried out in the sitting and the walking and the rising and the lying down. It is perhaps of little importance whether the command speaks prescriptively, calling for parents to teach their children in the course of life, or descriptively, assuming life lived together and therefore calling for the Scriptures to be discussed during that time. The implication is the same: teaching the word and the ways of God is carried forth in the course of life. We should not be surprised that the Scriptures speak this way, for if loving God finds practical expression in all of life, it follows that children would be taught to love God practically in all of life.

Furthermore, the expectation that parents will interact with their children at this level is entirely consistent with the powerful influence that parents have in the lives of their children, for good or for ill. The all-encompassing means of teaching the Scriptures is called for not just because such concentration and consistency provide the best way to learn the Scriptures, but because they provide the best way to learn anything. It is the best way to learn of God. And it is the best way to learn of not-God.

The Practical Effect

Here we come to some practical observations. To reiterate, the modern church largely has assumed that education is something distinct from growing in the knowledge of God, or that one's Christian formation and one's education are, generally speaking, different things. When that kind of dichotomy takes hold, it becomes natural to assume that religious education can take place in one arena, and other education in another.

Deeply embedded in our culture's understanding of education is the notion that it should be value-neutral, meaning without reference to God. The practical, if at times unintended, effect of this notion is to proceed with education as if God does not exist. In other words, in refusing to begin with the premise "God," modern education proceeds from the premise "not-God," a premise axiomatic in our public, and much private, education. To see this, one need only recognize that teaching, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" is forbidden, while the equally radical notion that God did not create the heavens and the earth is taught as scientific truth.

The problem with a not-God premise is not chiefly that public institutions refuse to teach the Scriptures. It is not even that our children are subjected to the confusion brought about by agendas such as "comprehensive sex education" (mandated in the Healthy Youth Act in my own state of North Carolina in 2009) or transgender bathrooms, which teach volumes about who we are and what it means (or does not mean) to be male and female. Most basically, a not-God premise means that state schools teach, if only implicitly, that God is irrelevant to education. The idea that God has anything to do with the natural world, or historical movements, or mathematics, is effectively sidelined in the name of "neutrality."

Yet this supposed neutrality is in fact a very bold statement that it is possible—even appropriate—to understand the world apart from God. In other words, underneath such a philosophy is a sturdy metaphysical commitment that is just as "religious" as any religious perspective it might seek to sideline. In effect, the prevailing philosophy of education has institutionalized Psalm 14:1: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

The problem is not simply theoretical. Students really do learn to view the world apart from God. The language of values, pervasive even in Christian circles, is a good example of this. "Values" is not the language of right and wrong and good and evil, but of preferences. And yet we apply this word to issues that are at root profoundly moral, such as sex, abortion, racism, practical generosity, and notions of civic responsibility.

Most foundationally, students learn to view themselves apart from God. For instance, in the not-God system grounded in Darwinian evolution, human beings are not understood to be categorically different from animals, but only to be further along an indeterminate evolutionary trajectory. And that has profound implications for how we treat one another. If my neighbor is the image of God, that suggests one thing. If he is just another animal, that suggests something else entirely.

One of the things that religions do—even the chief thing they do—is to tell us who we are. Leaving no basis whatsoever for speaking of right and wrong, we are left with only values, or preferences. Even apart from Darwinism, teaching about the world while explicitly and intentionally avoiding the One who created and has purposes for the world has the effect of teaching that God is irrelevant. And children are learning.

And why do they learn this? Because, generally, children are at school when they sit and walk and lie down and rise. When the context of the home is replaced by the school, the content of what is being taught will be absorbed accordingly. The context of education is not irrelevant to education, and the atmosphere in which children spend their time (they are always learning) may very well override what their parents might teach. Lesslie Newbigin, with typical clarity, makes this very point:

Even in homes where the parents are committed Christians, it is hard, to the point of impossibility, for children to sustain belief in the meta-narrative of the Bible over against that understanding of the meta-narrative—the picture of the origins and development of nature, of human society as a whole—which is being offered to them at school. It is possible to maintain the telling of the biblical story in the privacy of home and church, but in so far as this story contradicts the meta-narrative of the schools, young people are placed in an impossible situation. . . . A belief which is permitted only to exist in a bunker may survive for a time, but it must finally be obliterated. (Lesslie Newbigin et al., Faith and Power [Wipf and Stock, 1998], 158–159)

The extent to which any educational system is built upon the premise of not-God, whether explicitly or implicitly, is the extent to which that educational system has become idolatrous. And it is so by definition. Which brings us back to the First Commandment. What does "You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God" mean for the Christian Church in the arena of education? What is the practical form of forsaking idols as a necessary expression of loving God?

A Revealing Comment

Earlier this year on a political commentary website, I heard the following comment in response to the dissolution of the family in the U.S., and the consequent effects on raising children:

I think there are all sorts of traditional, social ways of taking care of kids, and of taking care of your parents, and as those things evaporate the real problem is we are not yet efficiently replacing them with state-based solutions. (

The comment is revealing, for it locates the problem not in the dissolution of families, but rather in the lack of state-based alternatives, clearly implying that the family is irrelevant as long as the state picks up the responsibility of raising and educating children. While obviously the words of one commentator, the Church does well to pay attention here, for our culture is moving decidedly in the direction of offering our children to the state. Political initiatives such as universal publicly funded pre-school make clear that there are many in our world who believe the state should take the lead in raising children, and who have the political power to see it done.

Final Suggestions

Let me conclude with several suggestions:

• Countercultural Call: First, let us take seriously that the call to love God is countercultural, sometimes even in the Church. Loving God should be practically discernible, positively and negatively, in the life of the Church, and in the families within the Church. It is important to note that the call to love God and forsake idols was given to Israel, and that those warned not to hate the Lord in the First Commandment were Israelites. In other words, implicit in the commandment is the understanding given later in Paul that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6). In the effort to discern and forsake idolatries, Christians will sometimes make decisions that are at odds not just with their culture, but with their church.

Paul's exhortation not to be conformed to the world, but that we be transformed by the renewal of our minds is particularly important, and worth revisiting here. Paul's words reflect the power of the cultural climates, and the tendency for our thinking to conform to those climates. We do well to ask the question: do our decisions concerning the education of our children conform to the Scriptures, with an eye to shaping the character of our children as lovers and servants of God, or do they conform to the educational philosophies of our culture and its systems of education? The dichotomy between what we call secular and religious learning is powerful, as is the notion that education should somehow be religiously neutral. These philosophies are pervasive, and easily internalized. And they will not be dealt with passively.

• Parents as Prime Educators: Second, let us recognize the home as the primary context of education, and the call of parents to educate and disciple their children. Education is far more than imparting information. It is chiefly about forming Christian character and judgment, teaching children to love God in all of life. Yet much of our current practice, allowing secular education to be undertaken by the schools and religious education by Sunday schools or youth groups, in effect suggests that education is best carried out by experts that can impart secular or religious information. The effect is to sideline parents, who are often deeply involved in neither.

Perhaps the Church serves her people best not by reflexively taking charge of opportunities for education and discipleship, but rather by using her resources to encourage and enable parents to do that, insofar as they are able. Given that certain philosophies of education have become deeply entrenched in our culture, this is no small matter. How to work this out practically, since public school appears to be the only option for many, particularly single-parent families, is something that needs to be approached creatively, and by the whole Church. But it must be done. As Bonhoeffer wrote, "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction."

Is the foregoing an argument for homeschooling? I am tempted to say so, but don't want to push that far. As the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) suggests, God is not a micromanager, and I don't assume one thing works for everyone. Furthermore, not all schools are alike, and not all people have real choices in the matter. Indeed, in the midst of a rich education at home, Bonhoeffer himself attended a local school.

However, I would make several comments. Homeschooling can mean different things, and there is great diversity under the homeschooling umbrella. For my own children, the older they get, the more they learn outside the home, and from people we trust in our community. As a father who keeps his children home, and who often takes his children with him, I am also aware that it is entirely possible to "homeschool" and miss the spirit and the call of the Shema, opting instead to transfer the forms and content of a secular education to the home.

Yet I do think that we need to reorient our thinking in this direction. Several years ago, a clergyman friend of mine told me that homeschooling is a very special calling, one to which not everyone is called. While I concur that not all are called to homeschooling, I would suggest that the norm runs in the other direction, that the Scriptures suggest that teaching children at home is far more normal. Sending children away to school, particularly one that teaches without reference to God, is a very special calling, and therefore to be undertaken cautiously and carefully. Parents who send their children away to be taught by people they don't know, to be taught subjects they have not chosen in a manner they don't know, to be involved with friends they don't know, and perhaps to be involved in activities they don't know, should not be surprised when their children follow the ways of the world in which they have been immersed and from which they have learned. Recognizing such constitutes a call upon the Church to encourage us to open our homes, communities, and other resources to give real alternatives to those who don't have other options.

• Centrality of the Cross: Third, let us remember that teaching children to love God means that education is firmly grounded in the cross of Christ. Why this is so is well encapsulated in 1 John:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:7–12).

Why is the cross of Christ so crucial? The cross reveals God most completely. We only love God insofar as we know who he has revealed himself to be in Christ and what he has done for us in Christ. Correspondingly, because man is made in the image of God, it follows we cannot know ourselves apart from knowing God, and it is folly to seek to understand the nature and movements of man if we don't know who man is. Man is not only the image of God, but as Christ is the most complete revelation of God, man is the image of Christ. And he is therefore the image of Christ crucified. The call to Jesus' disciples, therefore, is to "love one another, as I have loved you" (John 13:34). And what is the purpose of education, if not to love God and learn to serve one another because we love him? In this light, consider the words of Micah: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (6:8).

Moreover, the cross makes us humble, ensuring that our boasting is not in ourselves, but in God alone. We do not seek to raise "moral" children, or to inculcate "Christian values" (both of which can lead to insufferable pride), but rather children—who will become adults—who love God and their neighbors. When this is the case, whatever subjects and areas we study—math, science, literature, a trade—will be studied to their right end, to glorify God by exploring his creation and acquiring skills by which to serve him, our neighbors, and the world.

• Family & Witness: Finally, we need to see the connection between the family and the witness of the Church. As evident throughout the Scriptures, the witness of the Church is chiefly manifest in her presence, even before her proclamation, for the witness of God's people rests on who we are before what we do. Israel's missionary calling, to witness to the nations as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, depended upon her obedience to the word of the Lord. The means by which Israel received this word was intended to be from the parents, and particularly the fathers, who taught their children to love God and keep his commandments, as they sat in their homes or walked in the way or rose in the morning or went to bed at night. To the extent that this was done faithfully, Israel would truly be unique, a culture that was visibly distinct from the surrounding world that did not know God.

Likewise for the Church. Jesus' call to the disciples to be a city set on a hill and a light that would cause the world to see their good works and glorify their heavenly Father is precisely the same vision. A city set on a hill is a city that is different, different because it knows and loves her God. And the means by which she knows her God is the same, through parents who love God and who teach their children to love God as well. This is the foundation of culture-making, and the source of its power. Cultures rooted in the love of God, whose children grow into those who exhibit "certainty of judgment and manner," will shine very brightly indeed, especially as the surrounding culture grows darker and more uncertain. •

Psalm 80:4

Prayer is Not Enough

 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? (Psalm 80:4).

 For me, and I suspect for many of us, prayer can be among the biggest battles we encounter as a Christian.  I have heard, and believe, that one can tell more from a man’s prayer life than just about anything else.  We can have all sorts of reasons why we might do this or that, but secret prayer shows us who we really are before God. 

 Which is why the question of Psalm 80 quoted above is so arresting.  Given that it is often so difficult to pray, and given how repeatedly the Lord calls His people to pray, how then might the Lord be angry with his people’s prayers? 

 Because prayer is not enough. 

 There are many reasons why this is the case.  Some pray even as they oppress their neighbors and workers (Isaiah 58).  Some pray that they might be seen and praised (Matthew 6:5-14).  Some pray without thankful hearts and don’t do what they know they should (Psalm 50:14-15).  James is very direct:

 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?  But he gives more grace.  Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. 

 We can pray for all kinds of things, and from all kinds of motives.  But what of humility?  Of submission?

 Perhaps this is why when Jesus taught us to pray, he did not say be sincere in your prayers, or lengthy or learned or eloquent.  Rather, He gave us a specific prayer.  It begins like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10).  Before Jesus calls us to pray for our daily needs, for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation and evil, he calls us to remember that God is our Father, and to pray for the glory of his name, the doing of his will, and the coming of His kingdom.  Not only do these petitions concern the glory of God, but are also the very petitions that concern our own good.  By beginning in this way, it orders the desires of our heart, and by God’s grace enables us to pray as we ought.  In effect, Jesus’ prayer reminds us that true prayer comes from a heart surrendered to God, trusting that His glory is our good, and reminds God of our need to be truly surrendered to Him.  This is the humility of which James speaks above, and the submission that he calls for.  This is the foundation for prayer in which the Lord delights. 

 Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4). 



1 Corinthians 10:23-33

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful (1 Corinthians 10:23).

As a Christian grows in Christ, he becomes less interested in what is lawful, and more interested in what is helpful.  This is not because he does not believe in the law, or considers himself above it, but rather because he understands in ever-increasing measure that the law was meant to be helpful.  Let me use Paul’s words concerning food offered to idols, from which the line quoted above was taken, to explain.

In the Old Testament, Israel was given certain dietary laws which allowed some meats and forbade others.  The OT never gives a specific reason why it was OK to eat lamb but not pork, or trout but not crab, but it does suggest that Israel was given these laws to separate her from the surrounding nations, therefore guarding her from the temptation to follow the gods and customs of those nations.  In other words, we are not told that eating certain meats was intrinsically evil, but we are told that not eating certain meats restricted the fellowship Israel might share with other nations.  That is part of what it meant for Israel to be holy—different and distinct from the nations of the world. 

In the New Testament, these dietary laws no longer apply to the people of God.  But the spirit behind those laws does.  A Christian—whether a Gentile Christian or a Jewish Christian—could eat whatever he pleased with thanks to God, for he knew that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (1 Cor. 10:26; cf. Ps 24:1).  But that didn’t mean that he always ate anything he pleased.  Paul gives an example of one who is presented with  meat, having been told that it had been offered to idols.  The Christian at that point does not eat that meat, not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with it, but because he does not want in any way to participate, or appear to participate, in idolatry.  Just like Israel in the Old Testament, the Christian will have nothing to do with the gods of the nations, and he will take care to ensure others know it, lest he confuse them by implying that one can serve both Christ and idols.  Eating that meat might be lawful, but it would certainly not be helpful.  And therefore he does not do it. 

As one grows in Christ, the question becomes less “am I allowed to do this?” but rather “will this encourage my walk with and witness to Christ?”  The question is not whether I am allowed to buy a certain thing, but whether what I buy would serve the glory of God in some way.  The question is not whether I am allowed to listen to certain music or watch certain movies, but whether so doing will move me closer to Jesus and his intentions for me.  There are many ways one can spend his time without breaking any law—am I spending mine in ways that honor God and bless my neighbor? 

In the end, the controlling questions concerning matters of law is this—does this thing (what ever this thing is) encourage me in my love of God and my neighbor?  Does it draw me closer to God?  Does it serve my neighbor well?  These questions are of a different order than “am I allowed to do this?”  In the end, one set of questions is all about me.  The other set of questions is all about God, and my neighbor.  One set of questions is legalistic, serving the letter of the law, and is primarily concerned with what I can or cannot do.  The other set of questions serves the spirit of the law, and is not primarily concerned with me, but rather with loving God and neighbor. 

Perhaps this is what was meant when the Lord promised in the Old Testament that one day he would write the law upon the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

Several years ago I read a book by John Ratey titled “Spark,” which argues that one’s physical well being is directly correlated with one’s brain function.  People who are fit, and particularly people who have just engaged in physical exercise, concentrate better and learn more effectively than those who do not.  The book begins by citing a study of a school district in Naperville, Illinois, who installed a physically demanding PE class to first period, to see their standardized test scores rise to first in the nation. 

I was reminded of Ratey’s book by Paul’s words quoted above.  Paul is talking of his calling as a minister of the Gospel—his singleminded commitment to preaching to all men, and living in such a manner that permits no one to question the integrity of himself or his message.  What I find interesting about the passage, however, isn’t Paul’s commitment to his calling, but more specifically the manner in which he must discipline his body in order to carry it out.  And even more specifically, he disciplines his body so that, in the end, he may not forsake the blessings of the gospel that he preaches to others. 

Paul’s words are a bit jarring, at least to those who have neatly separated physical well-being from spiritual well-being.  When we think of what it might mean to grow in Christ, many think firstly of such things as reading the Scriptures (with an eye to obedience), prayer, connecting with Christian community, and loving our neighbors.  Without denying the importance of any of those things, I suspect not many would say the discipline of our bodies.  That’s not to say that we don’t appreciate the importance of keeping fit—most everyone knows that being fit effects everything else, and few of us are satisfied when our bodies are unfit, when we are weaker than we might otherwise be.  But I doubt that most of us think of being fit as a matter of spiritual importance. 

And yet many of the maladies we often consider spiritual have physical components.  Depression, for instance, has been linked with excessive intake of sugar.  Lack of exercise has been linked with anxiety, and the ability to concentrate.  The links are many, and not difficult to find.  And they raise certain questions.  For those of us who have a difficult time maintaining concentration during prayer, what if part of the answer may be that we are physically unfit?  What if my irritability with my children is due in part to my lack of energy?  In other words, if physical activity helps the children in Naperville to concentrate better in science class, might physical activity help us in prayer and in reading the Scriptures?  Is is possible that the fruit of the Spirit is connected to the well-being of our bodies? 

God did not create us as spirits only.  He created us as bodies.  Not as spirits with bodies, but as people—body and soul united.  That is why we are so disturbed by both ghosts and corpses—we know the separation of spirit and body isn’t the way things should be.  Which is also why, in the end, God will resurrect us in our bodies.  Our bodies may be different, but we will be bodies nonetheless. 

None of this is to say that physical fitness alone makes people more like Christ.  Obviously, many with world class fitness want nothing to do with God.  But Paul is clearly implying, in his own experience, that the state of his body affects the state of his soul.  If you are finding that you are lacking and lifeless in the things of God, perhaps you need to tend better to your body.  It may not be the whole answer, but it might be part of it. 


Proverbs 19:17

It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice (Psalm 112:5).

God does not need us.  Theologians call this the sufficiency of God, that God is sufficient in Himself, and therefore has no need of man, or of anything else in creation.  The Scriptures attest to this very thing.  Consider the following:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine (Psalm 50:10-11). 

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

There are others.  Which makes the proverb from this morning all the more striking:

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed (Proverbs 19:17). 

The Scriptures have a lot to say about lending and borrowing.  For instance, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives” (Psalm 37:21), and “the rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). 

I say this with care, and caution, because in the end, I do believe in the sufficiency of God—that He doesn’t need me, and that all His dealings with me and with the world are all of grace.  But, taken together, the implication of the Scriptures above suggest this—if you want to put God in your debt, be generous to the poor.