I often like to think about things over and against other things in order to better understand them. This isn’t because I want to start fights – I’m trying to be more anabaptist! – but because thinking things through in this way brings a better kind of clarity, one that isn’t content to simply see two options or opinions (the black and white) but all the facets of the diamond. The fact is – and the premise of this blog is – that there is truth to be found if we are willing to blaze a trail beyond black and white.
In American evangelical culture, it seems that there is a tendency to go in one of three directions. There are intellectual/theological conservative churches, pragmatic/relatable seeker churches, and passionate/wild charismatic churches. In the first direction, which, these days, would be likely Calvinistic, there is a seriousness about God that comes from a high view of scripture. In the second, there’s a concern for meeting people where they are and not having our heads so far in the clouds that we aren’t getting wisdom for real life. In the third direction, there’s passion and energy about Jesus that sometimes drifts towards the self-indulgent and even heretical. (For the record, what many folks deem ‘missional’ these days often ends up falling into one of these main categories, and, I fear, it’s mostly a reincarnated seeker church category.)
One of the lectionary readings this past Sunday (first Sunday in Lent) was Psalm 91. Growing up in charismatic churches, I think bits and pieces of this passage made it into hundreds of the sermons, exhortations, and studies I experienced, all of them very passionate, all of them trying to stir up big faith in God. And, as we read it on Sunday, one word came to my mind, which is also a rallying cry for charismatics everywhere: BREAKTHROUGH.
Except, instead of the trite and, honestly, empty plea made at many a Pentecostal women’s or men’s conference, I heard a serious, theological, practical, and passionate word from the Lord. Reflect with me:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Breaking through in life – out of seasons of struggle, suffering, want, or weariness – is a legit thing. It’s not low-brow pragmatism or mindless passion. It’s a thing. And the way of breaking through is the way of trust.
Problem is, as my own life has attested this past year, an emotion of trust or faith is difficult to come by when you are really in the wilderness, deep in the valley of decision. The charismatic prodding to produce big faith seems indeed an exercise in wishful thinking, if not outright denial; there are no easy answers. But this is where the theology comes in: God-as-fortress is not so much practicality as mystery. And trust is not so much emotion as leaning on a transcendant hope.
In other words, trust is the confession that God is my refuge and my fortress. No matter how it looks, or how I feel, and before there is any hard evidence of this. God just is.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
For my family and I, this weekend really was one of breakthrough. It brought a measure of fulfillment to that transcendant hope that we have been desperately leaning on for these last months. Our sometimes unbelieving trust in God’s “fortressness” has proven worthy in some vital ways. And this, precisely at the moment that even more arrows flying by day and pestilence stalking by night came our way.
My wife remarked that the coinciding of these two things – blessing and more arrows – were actually even more faith-building than blessing alone. The feeling of projectiles whizzing past your face or overhead while ducking behind the fortress wall was strangely exhilarating, spiritually speaking. Passion was ignited – there was even a wildness to it.
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Ancient wisdom literature and poetry is highly practical. When I observe “gospel-centered” folks trying to push back so hard on the seeker church that they basically want to strip the Bible of any practical wisdom and bring everything back to penal substitutionary atonement, I get bummed out. So much wisdom in here! Some of it is strikingly gorgeous; some of it wonderfully strange. All of it may prove useful at various times in our lives.
At the same time, much of modern Christianity is infected with a kind of superficial happiness that this wisdom and poetry simply can’t get down with. For the psalmist, there are enemies, and they are people. And that’s because sometimes people act in such a way that coincides with the real enemy, the darkness Jesus himself faced in the 40 day wilderness. In other words, even the call to love our enemies isn’t a call to denial. They are, in fact, enemies. They shoot arrows. They act wickedly. The passage indicates they should be – and will be – punished!
What coud be more wise than this last bit, though – that the Lord will rescue me because I love him. That God will deliver me. Be with me. Honor me. Even grant me a satisfying life (salvation!).
I am not naive. I know the Bible isn’t magic, and these statements are not universal promises to be activated by confessing the right things and praying the right prayers (a’la that heretical prosperity teaching).
But I am also not so heavenly minded that I can’t see the practical deliverance of God when it breaks into my earthy, messy world.
I’m not so cerebral that I can’t get passionately excited about BREAKTHROUGH.
What about you? Are you experiencing breakthrough? Do you NEED breakthrough? I’d love to hear about it!