by Martin Jacobs
Good news for those who are conflicted, and bad news for those who aren’t.
(But not in the way you might think)
Some time back, a friend of mine at church observed that I was quite internally conflicted. She was right, of course, but she seemed to think that I shouldn’t be.
[Author’s note: I had included some words here about a personal situation. Sitting in Church, I realized that they might cause some unnecessary aggravation, so I left, came home and removed them. Hopefully, I’m acting in line with Paul’s admonition below.]
I have heard these sentiments before, particularly among the friends in my previous charismatic churches. I am writing about them because I feel that they might be well intentioned, but they are ultimately misguided. They are misguided because the idea behind them is not supported in the Bible.
The troubling aspect is the underlying idea. The underlying idea is that the Spirit-filled person would experience a kind of Zen-like internal calm (in polar contrast to my internal conflicts, for example). This is typically expressed in terms of stilling your mind until it becomes a millpond, so that the image of God can be reflected in you, or so that you can detect the slightest hints of the Spirit’s movements.
Sounds spiritual, doesn’t it?
Though these metaphors sound at home in a typical Christian greeting-card, bookmark or button, they have no equivalent in scripture. Indeed, the more I read the scriptures, the more I see them contending with this kind of thinking.
My concern is that sooner or later, the Christian who holds to the Zen ethic is going to have to decide whether they believe it’s true because it feels right, or because it’s supported in scripture. I can claim some experience in this regard. In short, I tried the former strategy, but it didn’t work, so now, God willing, I’m trying to head down the latter way.
This has led me to revise much of my earlier thinking, and this revising has yielded much internal conflict. If I had avoided the internal conflict, I would not have allowed the Word of God to shape my thinking. See how skewed things become if we evaluate them by how internally conflicted we feel about them?
So, lets take a look at what scripture actually says on the topic. The following is a brief survey, based on the kind of language used by the Zen promoters in Christian circles.
Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10, KJV)
Incidentally, it’s the title of one of my favorite choruses.
Consider what it actually says. The NASB renders “be still” as “cease striving”, but the Hebrew simply states “cease”, “drop” or “abandon” (הרפו / harpu, see http://net.bible.org/#!bible/Psalms+46).
The translators did not miss the boat here, because the meaning of the Hebrew word for “cease” comes out of its context; the Psalmist observes the restlessness of the heathen, and the turmoil of life, and points the believer to the sure refuge of God. As we all know, a castle on a hill cannot be moved (unlike, say, a tent), so, according to the Psalm, what we need to do for our security is to stay in it. The heathen, by contrast, were always trying this or trying that, running around restlessly looking for safe ground.
The metaphors and typology of the Psalm are exquisite, and the message is profound; you will find refuge and our rest in God, so don’t try to find it somewhere else. He, not our internal state of mind, is the fixed point, the rock on which we stand. So, be still and know that (however you might feel about it, or whatever your internal experience of it might be) the God of Jacob is your refuge.
The still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12, KJV )
The story goes that, after defeating the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah runs away and hides in a cave. Elijah, evidently, is your quintessential anti-hero. God comes to Elijah and asks him what’s going on. Elijah, despite the overwhelming vindication of God at Carmel, is depressed because he thinks he’s the only one of his generation who sees God. God needs to teach him something.
First, God sent a wind, but God was not in the wind.
Then God sent an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.
Then God sent a fire, but God was not in the fire.
Then came a still, small voice, and Elijah was ashamed because God had spoken to him.
It’s a beautiful story and it tells us that God does indeed speak to us.
What I find remarkable is that after hearing the still small voice, Elijah expresses exactly the same anxiety as he did before (1 Kings 19:14 is a verbatim repeat of 1 Kings 19:10, the only difference being the substitution of “because” for “for” in the King James Version, but the Hebrew is identical). The difference is that after hearing the voice, Elijah has an answer, or a plan of action, which he then executes.
Consider Elijah’s state of mind when the still small voice came to him. I would not call it “calm”. It looks obvious to me that Elijah is being torn by internal anger, conflict and anxiety, which is why he goes and hides in a cave. My point is that this is the state of mind in which God comes and speaks to him. It is good news for us, because it means that we don’t have to foster an internal Zen-like calm before God speaks to us.
Let this cup pass from me (Matthew 26:39)
This is not a favorite of the Zen promoters. I strongly suggest they spend more time thinking about this than their favorite slogans.
The story here is that Jesus is praying on the night before he will die. He knows what is coming. Matthew describes him as “grieved and distressed” (Matthew 26:37). The good news is that Jesus, being fully and wholly human, is reacting to the situation in an absolutely normal human way. He is reacting the same way you would if you knew that in the morning, you would be publicly humiliated, have the skin flogged off your back, and then you would be impaled on a scaffold and left to die of exposure or asphyxiation in public as your tormentors watched to ensure that they would win.
At this point in time, under these circumstances and in his present frame of mind, was Jesus filled with the spirit?
We need some theology to explain why. Jesus Christ is both fully and wholly human all the time, and fully and wholly God all the time. How could God not be filled with himself? If you try to take the Holy Ghost out of Jesus in Gethsemane, you start down the short, broad road to the classic heresies.
Incidentally, I wonder if the contentions that Athanasius and the other Church Fathers had with the heretics crystallized on this issue; the followers of Arius believed his story because it felt right, whereas Athanasius stuck doggedly to what the scriptures said.
Consider this: Christ was filled with the Holy Ghost whilst experiencing unbearable internal conflict, grief and distress. Why then, do we insist that the sign of the Spirit’s indwelling is an internal calm. Does God operate differently with us than He did with Jesus? Emphatically, no.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15)
At first glance, this appears to support the idea of the millpond mind.
Except, that is not what Paul is writing about. What Paul is writing about is actual or potential conflict between believers in the Christian community. The context is so important, it’s worth repeating in full;
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
In this passage, Paul anticipates conflict in the Christian community, and he gives us the perspective and tools to deal with it.
Why is it about conflict? Because Paul writes to a situation where believers need to “bear” one another, and “forgive” one another. They would not need to do so if all they did was sit in a circle and gaze at their navels. These were people who interacted with each other in a human way, and they evidently didn’t always get it right and they didn’t always agree.
The cults make much capital over the apparent disagreements in Christendom. Their mistake, which is repeated too often among Christians who should know better, is that they substitute the unity of Christ’s community with cultural or ideological hegemony. The message of the Gospel, by contrast, is that Christ’s Kingdom is made up of all sorts of people, from every tribe and nation.
In Colossians, Paul gives us the outlook to deal with conflict in the believing community. He lays down the foundation for our relationships; we should take on an attitude that is remarkably Christ-like and highly attractive. It’s based on a whole raft of classic virtues, which are bound together by love. It is in this context that Paul writes about the peace of Christ in our hearts. So, what he is writing about is something that dwells in the space between us as we interact with those with whom we might not ordinarily or voluntarily interact in a way that benefits them.
Then, Paul gives us the tools for the job. His toolkit starts with the word of Christ, and includes teaching, admonishing, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (we’re back to the role of worship music here), which are all applied with a spirit of thankfulness to God.
We ought to be thankful to God because these people, who might have offended or wronged us, are still beautifully made in the image of God. However much the ravages of sin have disfigured the image of God in every human being, they can never erase it, and that gives us cause to rejoice for even the foulest of sinners, including me.
What Paul’s toolkit does not include is my internal impulses; Paul does not list any criteria related to the state of my internal experience. And, it’s for good reason. As I have written previously, the Gospel of the New Testament trumps the Jesus of our imagination with the Jesus of the Flesh.
Finally, though Paul writes about how we should deal with others, can we rightly apply the same strategy to ourselves? Emphatically, yes. Should I treat myself any differently than anybody else? Emphatically, no.
If the Gospel is true for them, it is also true for me, and for everybody. If I can bear and forgive someone else for his or her conflict, why can’t I bear and forgive myself? I should accept that I will not always get it right, and I will not always agree (not even with myself), but it is Christ who reconciles me and gives me room to live, just as He reconciles all in His new creation.
Good News to Those In Conflict
So, the message about the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts is good news to those in conflict. It means that we don’t have to react to situations in ways that are not normally human. You can be internally conflicted, and still be filled with the Holy Spirit, and still hear the voice of God.
The bad news for those who don’t experience conflict internally or externally is that it is not normally human. This is a real problem because Christ inhabits a space that is populated by normal humans, the first of which is Himself.
For a better and more comprehensive exploration of this issue, I highly recommend Professor Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do (because they are not in the Bible)
May Jesus Christ draw our vision away from an unhealthy preoccupation with our own internal state of mind, and may we fix our eyes on Him, who is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).
(Originally posted on the “MartinOf Brisbane” website. Reprinted with permission.)