Monthly Archives: September 2016

Anxious Times

 

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We live in anxious times.

We are facing challenges from China, Russia, North Korea, Daesh (ISIS), …. As I write this there have been several terrorist incidents in the US over the past few days. At home, we have to deal with debt, underemployment and unemployment, and other economic problems, threats to liberty, a culture that is changing so rapidly in fundamental ways that will have completely unpredictable results, and a presidential election where the two most unpopular politicians in the country were nominated by the major political parties.

Many of us can relate to Woody Allen’s comment, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Paul offers us a solution in Phil. 4:6-7: do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The thanksgiving portion of this is important. It is an act of faith in which we affirm that despite circumstances, God is still on the throne and and has promised to take care of His own. And when we do this in faith, our hearts are calmed and our mind is assured that all will be well.

Unfortunately, we face such a relentless bombardment of bad news and spin every day that it is very easy to be pulled away from God’s peace. In a way, this is good, because it constantly drives us back to God. But somehow it seems like we should have more spiritual resilience than that.

That’s where the context of Philippians 4 fit in. Verses 4 and 5 are important for setting the groundwork for verses 6 and 7, but here I want to focus on verse 8 which tells us: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. This is critical: we have to replace our anxieties with something, so this is what we are to think about.

Yet most of us spend far more time thinking about falsehoods being touted as truth, or things that are dishonorable, not right, impure, ugly, or contemptible, or about bad reports about people, in short, about things that are far from excellent and that are worthy of condemnation rather than praise.

Is it any wonder we lose our peace?

It isn’t enough to bring our anxieties before God; we need to fill our minds with positive things as well. As Paul put it in Col. 3:1-2, we need to set our hearts and minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. That is also part of the key to thanksgiving. If we are focused on God and trust in Him, we will be able to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18).

We have our choice: anxiety and outrage by focusing on this world, or peace by focusing on the things described in Phil. 4:8.

So check yourself: is your attention focused on the negative things going on around you? How much time do you spend thinking about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? When you are not thinking about anything in particular, where does your mind wander to?

The world will drag us down to its level if we let it. We need to be informed about the troubles that surround us so that we can respond appropriately, but we cannot let them obsess us and rule our hearts and minds. As we bring our anxieties before God, His peace will guard our hearts and minds, but only if we let those anxieties go and turn our minds to the Kingdom of God.

A Clarification

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In my last post, I talked about cataphatic theology, which emphasizes God as revealed, and anaphatic theology, which emphasized God as mystery. I argued that while both have their place, the higher of the two is anaphatic theology since God is so far beyond our comprehension and our theological systems that even the best of them fail to capture who God is completely. And I would add here that when we absolutize our theological systems without recognizing the limitations of our formulations about God, we run the risk of turning them into idols–mental images that conceal more about God than they reveal.

What I didn’t say is that cataphatic theology does tell us real truth about God accommodated to human language and to our ability to understand. Thus when God tells Moses He is the slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, those words describe God in a way that is comprehensible to us; they convey true Truth about God in normal human language.

This is in contrast to Islam, for example. Allah is described as merciful, yet anyone who reads the Koran would be hard pressed to find a merciful Allah there. When pushed, Islamic scholars will tell you that Allah is merciful because he says he is, but we have no idea what that word actually means when applied to him.

When we talk about the Bible being accommodated to human understanding, it means that when Scripture says God is merciful, it means exactly what it sounds like it means. Cataphatic theology has it right: God is merciful in a way that we can understand.

The anaphatic perspective would add that there are limits to our understanding of mercy (particularly as it relates to justice), and that though God is merciful, His mercy utterly transcends our ability to comprehend it completely. This does not mean that the cataphatic perspective is wrong, just limited.

The point is that cataphatic theology is a valid and necessary pursuit, and we should do our best to understand God through His revelation to us. Without question, we must be committed to this. And there are some things that are truly non-negotiable for Christians. No question there either. But we must also be careful to recognize the limits of our ability to understand God and not try to put Him in a box. Quite simply, He won’t fit.