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Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Polycarp

As I wrote in the first post in this series, I have been reading through Michael W. Holmes’s edition of The Apostolic Fathers in English as part of my daily devotional readings. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Today, I want to focus on Polycarp.

The Life and Letter of Polycarp

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp served as the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and was the recipient of one of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, his friend and mentor. Polycarp is one of the more notable figures of the early (post-apostolic) church,[1] and his fame stems from at least three streams:

  • His writing The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
  • His death as a martyr in AD 155-160, the details of which are shared in The Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • His status as a significant link in the chain of apostolic tradition: as a child, Polycarp knew John the Apostle in his old age, and, in turn, later in his own life knew Irenaeus of Lyons when the latter was a child

In The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Polycarp relies heavily on both the Old Testament scriptures and also early Christian writings and emphasizes the strong connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: wrong beliefs inevitably lead to wrong behaviors, and wrong behaviors are evidence of wrong beliefs.[2]

In The Martyrdom of Polycarp (written by anonymous eyewitnesses) records the account of the pursuit, arrest, trial, and execution of Polycarp, who is martyred for his faith at the age of 86. The Martyrdom of Polycarp reveals the growing challenge that the church of the mid-second century faced for its proclamation that Jesus was Lord. Situated firmly in an empire that proclaimed that Caesar was Lord, the Christian proclamation could not be left unchallenged, and persecution and martyrdom was increasingly the fate who held to their confession of faith in Jesus.

Themes and Insights from Polycarp

The Importance of Right BeliefsPolycarp clearly shows a strong reaction against gnostic teaching, and echoes words from 1 John. Indeed, he holds the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus and His role as judge to be essential aspects of Christian faith.

“For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the firstborn of Satan. Therefore let us leave behind the worthless speculation of the crowd and their false teachings and let us return to the word delivered to us from the beginning; let us be self-controlled with respect to prayer and persevere in fasting, earnestly asking the all-seeing God to lead us not into temptation, because, as the Lord said, ‘the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.’”

(Polycarp, To the Philippians 7.1-2)

The Importance of Right BehaviorsA key theme of Polycarp’s letter is his discussion of righteousness, which the Philippians had apparently asked him about. Relying heavily on New Testament teaching, Polycarp addresses wives, widows, deacons, younger men, and elders, instructing each group to lead righteous lives. Living a righteous life that pleases God is very important:

“If we please him in this present world, we will receive the world to come as well, inasmuch as he promised that he will raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we will also reign with him—if, that is, we continue to believe.”

(Polycarp, To the Philippians 5.2b)

Willingness for Martyrdom: With Ignatius, we saw an eagerness for martyrdom that is startling to modern ears. With Polycarp, one does not sense the same degree of eagerness (Polycarp actually leaves the city and then changes location again to avoid the authorities who are searching for him), but he is certainly willing to die for his faith.

After he is caught and implored to swear an oath by Caesar to deny Christ in order to secure his release, Polycarp famously responds:

“For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3b)

When the proconsul persists and threatens him with death by fire, Polycarp remains firm:

“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 11.2b)

Polycarp is killed for his faith, and his martyrdom is “in accord with the pattern of the gospel of Christ” (19.1), as he followed the example of Jesus, an innocent who was killed unjustly. His last words are a prayer to God:

“O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence, I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, so that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.1b-2b)

Powerful hope inspires powerful courage.

Concluding Thoughts

The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians is so heavily influenced by Scripture that large chunks of it are very familiar, and read like a cut-and-pasted pastiche of biblical teaching. It is a simple and edifying read. The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a compelling narrative that fills the reader with admiration for this elderly churchman who has clung to Christ all his life, and is determined to cling to Him in death as well.

Polycarp is burned at the stake for refusing to forsake Jesus.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 130.

[2] Holmes, 132.

The Very Political Book of Revelation

Recently at Cloverdale, our preaching minister completed an excellent series of lessons on the Book of Revelation. Not only was the series well done, it was also incredibly encouraging in a very difficult season (the worst statistical days of the pandemic and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath).

Revelation is somewhat of an infamous book: as an example of apocalyptic literature, to modern readers it comes across as strange, unfamiliar, and notoriously difficult to understand. Efforts at understanding the book have been further complicated by long traditions of treating Revelation as some sort of crystal ball that gives detailed geopolitical predictions about the time period of the interpreter in question. This has led to all sorts of fantastical claims—Christians needing to support the modern nation of Israel in building a third Temple to hasten the return of Jesus, references in Revelation to the USSR, or the COVID-19 vaccine being the mark of the beast—that would have been absolutely unimaginable to John, the author of Revelation, or the first-century Christians to whom he was writing.

Although the imaginative imagery and apocalyptic genre of Revelation are challenging to us as modern readers, it remains an intelligible book if we seek to understand it on its own terms. John is writing to seven congregations of Christians in Asia Minor about things that actually would have been relevant to them in their time and place. He peels back the curtain to allow his audience to see the spiritual realities that lay behind their daily experiences.

Specifically, he addresses the pressure that Rome, the great beast (itself under the influence of Satan, the great dragon), is placing upon Christians to deny their allegiance to King Jesus and instead succumb to the social, economic, and religious demands of Caesar. To those faithfully resisting Roman pressure, John encourages them to persevere with the assurance that Jesus has already claimed the victory over Satan, and that His followers will be vindicated. To those who have already compromised their faith and acquiesced to the demands of Rome, John’s message is one of warning and judgment: they must repent before they are destroyed along with the rest of God’s enemies.

The message of Revelation would have come across as strikingly political to the original audience. Click To Tweet

A third-century Roman coin (AD 244) depicting Emperor Philip II holding the earth in the palm of his hand.

Though challenging to us, this message would have been easily understood by John’s original audience(s), and it would have come across as strikingly political. After all, the Mediterranean world of the New Testament time period was all about Rome. Propaganda proclaimed that Rome was good news (“gospel”) for the world and the bringer of peace. Rome deified its emperors and depicted them as omnipotent rulers whose dominion extended over the entire earth. So interconnected was Roman government, Roman religion, Roman military might, and Roman society that it was impossible to be considered a good citizen or a good neighbor if one resisted the expectation to sacrifice to the gods or pledge allegiance to Caesar above all else. And in such a context, John depicts Rome as a hideous beast under the influence of evil spiritual forces! This is a deeply political text.

In light of this reality—the evil and corruption of the world around them, what are Christians to do? Before we answer that question, we should first note what they are not encouraged to do:

  • They are not encouraged to obsess over how beastly Rome is and constantly rail against it because of this. After all, it should be expected that beasts will act in beastly ways. Rome is a beast, not the Bride of Christ! 
  • Furthermore, they are not encouraged to “Make Rome Great Again”, hearkening back to some fictitious history when the beast was somehow not a beast. 
  • On the other hand, neither are they encouraged to revolt against Rome or tear down all the pillars upon which society is built and work to create a utopian society where justice reigns.

Instead, John encourages those to whom he is writing to remain faithful to Jesus, their Lord, at all costs. Keeping with the political nature of Revelation, as I have discussed before, the statement “Jesus is Lord” is an inherently political claim:

“Lord” is an interesting word; to us, it is almost exclusively a religious term. We tend to think of it as a synonym for “God”, but really, “Lord” was a favorite title of Jesus in the early church. And it’s not primarily a religious title, either; it was a title with distinctly political overtones. “Lord” was the official title for the Roman Emperor: laws, edicts and decrees were signed “Lord Caesar.” This means that when early Christians called Jesus “Lord”, they were making a political statement: by saying that Jesus was Lord, they were simultaneously saying that Caesar was not. Jesus was the One who had absolute authority over their lives, He set the standards by which they were to live, He was the One to whom they owed primary allegiance, and it was He who sat on the throne of the universe.

The Book of Revelation may not tell us when Jesus will return or what will happen in the Middle East next year, but it is incredibly relevant. It makes the striking political claim to Christians that, rather than worry about the kingdoms of this world—which are beastly and will one day come to nothing—we are to “return to our first love” and live out the confession that Jesus is Lord in our daily lives. Instead of trying to reform or uphold or overthrow the society in which we live in order to make it better, our focus should be on living as citizens of God’s kingdom, the better reality that already exists. It is a kingdom that will never be destroyed and will one day supplant and replace all earthly kingdoms. It is a kingdom that subverts worldly understandings of power and wealth, led by a King who laid down unparalleled power and unimaginable wealth to live as a servant and die as a sacrifice to save His subjects.

I have frequently said that I am not a very political person, but that is not technically accurate. Certainly, I am not very political in the sense that I do not focus on partisan loyalties in the American political spectrum, but I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life.

As the Book of Revelation shows us, that is a very political claim.

I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life. As the Book of Revelation shows, that is a very political claim. Click To Tweet

Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Ignatius

As I wrote in the first post in this series, I have been reading through Michael W. Holmes’s edition of The Apostolic Fathers in English as part of my daily devotional readings. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Today, I want to focus on the writings of Ignatius.

Ignatius and His Letters

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius served as bishop of the church of Antioch in Syria, and we become aware of him as he is journeying to Rome to be martyred early in the second century.[1] Following his arrest in Syria for unknown reasons, Ignatius is sent to Rome in the custody of soldiers to be executed. While on the journey, Ignatius composes a series of letters: to churches that send delegations to meet him on his journey, to the church at Rome alerting them of his impending arrival, to churches he had previously visited, and to his friend Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Ignatius disappears from the historical record after being warmly received by the church in Philippi; presumably, he was thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. Our best guess is that he was killed during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 98-117).

There are seven Ignatian letters that are held to be authentic: Ignatius to the Ephesians, To the Magnesians, To the Trallians, To the Romans, To the Philadelphians, To the Smyrnaeans, and To Polycarp. As Michael Holmes says, these letters collectively represent Ignatius’s last will and testament, and are of great value:

“[These are] seven letters of extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at that time, and because of what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author. Because of the early date of these writings and the distinctiveness of some of his ideas, particularly with regard to the nature and structure of the church, Ignatius’s letters have influenced later theological reflection and continue to be a focus in scholarly discussion of Christian origins.”[2]

Themes and Insights from the Ignatian Letters

The Image-bearerEach of Ignatius’s letters begin the same way: “Ignatius the Image-bearer to…” The Greek word for Image-bearer, Theophoros, “is commonly used in Greek inscriptions as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions.”[3] It is possible that here, Ignatius uses the word as a name rather than a title (e.g. “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus”), but if so, this would be the first instance of such a usage. It is fascinating, then, that a church bishop of such renown would choose to describe himself in a way that places him on common ground with those to whom he is writing: humans created in God’s image.

Eagerness for Martyrdom: As mentioned above, Ignatius composes his letters while en route to be martyred, so it is not surprising that the topic of his impending death features prominently in his writings. What is more surprising, indeed startling, to the modern reader, is the degree to which he is eager about the violent death that looms ahead of him.

“For when you heard that I was on my way from Syria in chains for the sake of our shared name and hope, and was hoping through your prayers to succeed in fighting with wild beasts in Rome—in order that by so succeeding I might be able to be a disciple—you hurried to visit me.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 1.2)

“For while I strongly desire to suffer, I do not know whether I am worthy, for the envy, though not apparent to many, wages war against me all the more.”

(Ignatius, To the Trallians 4.2)

“Since by praying to God I have succeeded in seeing your godly faces, so that I have received more than I asked—for I hope to greet you in chains for Christ Jesus, if it is his will for me to be reckoned worthy to reach that goal. For the beginning is auspicious, provided that I attain the grace to receive my fate without interference. For I am afraid of your love, in that it may do me wrong; for it is easy for you to do what you want, but it is difficult for me to reach God, unless you spare me.

For I do not want you to please people, but to please God, as you in fact are doing. For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment. For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice. Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west, having summoned him in the east. It is good to be setting from the world to God in order that I may rise to him.

Just pray that I will have strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, so that I may not merely be called a Christian but actually prove to be one.

(Ignatius, To the Romans 1, 2, 3.2)

“From Syria all the way to Rome I am fighting with wild beasts, on land and sea, by night and day, chained amidst ten leopards (that is, a company of soldiers) who only get worse when they are well treated. Yet because of their mistreatment I am becoming more of a disciple; nevertheless I am not thereby justified. May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch. And if when I am willing and ready they are not, I will force them. Bear with me—I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!

Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me.”

(Ignatius, To the Romans 5.1-6.1.)

“For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only. Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to sword, to beasts? But in any case, “near the sword” means “near to God”; “with the beasts” means “with God.” Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him! I endure everything because he himself, who is the perfect human being, empowers me.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 4.2)

Ignatius is clearly eager to die. To the Romans, he specifically requests that they not interfere in any way in an attempt to prevent his martyrdom, but to allow it to happen. If the beasts of the Coliseum prove too timed, he vows to “force” them to kill him. While this may come across as off-putting to modern Christians, there are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Ignatius clearly believed that he could only fully be a disciple of Jesus if he followed Jesus to execution, and this explains his desire to die. Furthermore, this was the clearest and most direct way for him to reach Jesus, which was his life’s desire.
  • Additonally, Ignatius’s attitude could have been affected by the fact that, “…generally, the only basis for releasing a Christian condemned to death was apostasy; even if the Roman church had won his release for good reasons (something he feared they might attempt to do [Rom. 1.1-2.1, 4.1], rumors that he had apostatized likely would have arisen, and he no doubt wished to avoid such speculation.”[4]
  • There is no evidence that Ignatius sought out persecution or prompted confrontation with Roman authorities. But, once arrested, he sought to rejoice in persecution and glorify God in his suffering, as Scripture commands.

We might still quibble with aspects of Ignatius’s perspective, but on the whole, I think he represents a helpful corrective to many modern, Western Christians who seem to live in constant fear of the spectre of persecution. In the United States, Christians go to great lengths to accumulate political and cultural power as a means of remaining free to worship as we choose and to avoid persecution. I think that would be hard for Ignatius…or Paul…or Jesus to understand.

Obedience to the BishopI belong to a religious fellowship where we believe that Christ is the head of the universal church, but that local congregations are to be led by a plurality of elders (also referred to as shepherds or overseers) based on the teaching of the New Testament.[5] Although I would argue that the biblical witness is a little more complex and nuanced than we sometimes make it out to be, I affirm the basic validity of this model of church governance.

Having said that, it must be admitted that, in Ignatius, we have a very early witness to monoepiscopal church polity: the elevation of a single bishop as the leader of a church (likely, Ignatius refers to a church with deacons, presbyters/elders, and the bishop functioning as the “chief presbyter”).

Ignatius emphasizes the importance of obedience to the bishop in nearly all of his letters; some of his statements were jarring to me:

“Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.

Furthermore, the more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him. For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him. It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 5.3b-6.1)

“Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 8)

Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. It seems there are a few different options:

  • We can, based on Ignatius’s words and testimony, suggest that monoepiscopacy was the form of governance in the early church, and that this developed soon after the writing of 1 Timothy and Titus, or that instructions in those letters should be read in light of Ignatius.
  • We can view what Ignatius says as non-authoritative, classify the church governance model that he describes as an early departure from the biblical model, and reject it accordingly.
  • We can conclude that governance in the early church is perhaps not quite as clear as we sometimes make it out to be, and approach discussions of the topic with a dose of humility. This is my current position.[6]

Core Christian DoctrineNot unlike with Clement, we see in the writings of Ignatius an emphasis on key elements of Christian faith.

In multiple places, he emphasizes the centrality of certain facts about Jesus: that He really came in the flesh, suffered and died for our sins, was physically resurrected, and will come again:

“There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 7.2)

“But the gospel possess something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel is the imperishable finished work.”

(Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 9.2)

“For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers sa, that he suffered in appearance only… For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection…And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 2.1, 3.1, 3)

Wait expectantly for the one who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way.”

(Ignatius, To Polycarp 3.2b)

Ignatius also emphasizes radical daily living that echoes the Sermon on the Mount:

“Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see who can be the more wronged, who the more cheated, who the more rejected, in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 10)

On the importance of the church meeting together regularly:

“Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 13)

Concluding Thoughts

I enjoyed the letters of Ignatius more than 1 Clement; although the content from letter to letter is similar, the individual letters are much shorter so it is easier to follow the argumentation throughout each.

Ignatius’s views on martyrdom and church bishops were jarring enough to me that they forced me to reflect upon my own views of these topics. Although I am ambivalent about his exhortations regarding church governance, I do believe that his perspective on suffering and martyrdom is a needed corrective for Christians who are so used to comfort and power that we seek to avoid persecution at all costs. This reason alone is sufficient for Christians to read Ignatius today; his powerful testimony of important Christian doctrines is an added bonus.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 87-95, is the source of the background information that follows.

[2] Holmes, 87.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] Ibid., 89.

[5] Typically speaking, Churches of Christ are opposed to the “Senior Pastor” model, and are rigidly opposed to hierarchical models where multiple churches fall under the authority of a regional bishop (or archbishop, or Pope, etc.).

[6] I think it is worth pointing out here that there is a wide gulf between what Ignatius seems to describe here—a singular bishop of a congregation or perhaps a city who functions as the head of a group of elders/presbyters, possibly a “first among equals”—and the full-blown hierarchy that was later developed and still exists within the Roman Catholic Church. But, it is easy to see how the principle of the former could have led to the development of the latter.

C.S. Lewis on Dogs and the Love of God

As regular readers of The Doc File have probably surmised, I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis. I reread Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia in 2020, and so far in 2021, I have reread The Screwtape Letters and am currently in the middle of The Problem of Pain.

I think there is a lot to like about Lewis’s writing, but one helpful quality is his ability to use helpful analogies to illustrate theological points. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis describes different ways in which it can be said that God “loves” humanity:

Another type is the love of a man for a beast—a relation constantly used in Scripture to symbolise the relation between God and men: ‘we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’ This is in some ways a better analogy than the preceding, because the inferior party is sentient, and yet unmistakably inferior: but it is less good in so far as man has not made the beast and does not fully understand it.

Its great merit lies in the fact that the association of (say) man and dog is primarily for the man’s sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed to the man’s. The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, not can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it.

Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the ‘best’ of irrational creatures, and a proper object for man to love—of course, with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely.

To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts. It will be noted that the man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and gives all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less.

The Problem of Pain, 35-36

Lewis’s analogy is astute:

(1) Indeed, God does interfere in the lives of those who would be His followers. He does not leave us alone to follow our natural impulses and, instead, makes all sorts of demands upon us and calls us to live in ways that are decidedly unnatural (what can be more unnatural than voluntarily laying power aside to instead serve others, or foregoing the opportunity for retaliation when it is presented?) This can certainly be frustrating.

(2) However, as we mature beyond being spiritual “puppies” and begin to grow and be trained through the sanctification of God’s Spirit, it becomes easier to see the grace that was present, all along, in God’s demands. We are so much better off than if we had been left to our own devices.

Praise God for His interference, a great manifestation of His abundant love!

Scripture Reflections: Our Utter Dependence Upon God

In a previous post, I discussed my intentions to share some brief thoughts spurred on by my daily Bible reading this year. I have, so far, not done this as well as I had hoped, but today represents the next installment.

Genesis 2 provides a focused look at the creation of humanity, man first, and then woman taken from man’s side. Genesis 2.7 reads (this is from the Jewish Publication Society translation):

“The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

Man becomes a living being only after God breathes into Him. We are utterly dependent upon God for our very existence. 

In some ways, this may seem so obvious that it appears to not be insightful at all. Believers would universally agree with the sentiment: of course we are dependent upon God for our existence. Scripture emphasizes this in so many different places and in so many different ways:

  • In the wilderness, the people of Israel were utterly dependent upon God’s daily provision of manna.
  • At the end of Job, God appears to Job in a whirlwind and confronts him with the limits of Job’s wisdom, and God’s unfathomable provision for, governance of, and interaction with His creation.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells His disciples not to be anxious, but to trust that their heavenly Father would provide for their needs.
  • Later, Jesus tells His disciples that apart from Him, they can do nothing.
  • In 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that although Christians labor in God’s vineyard (he uses himself and Apollos as examples), it is God who causes the growth.
  • In Colossians, Paul talks about Jesus as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things: the fabric of existence is held together by Him.

So, again, this all seems obvious enough. But I am not sure that we consistently live in accordance to this obvious truth:

  • We assume that life is a right, and just take for granted that we will continue to wake up day after day. But life is a gift, not a right: we wake up day after day only by the merciful provision of God. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We scramble frantically to save and plan and store for the future, and feel calm and comfort when we have set enough aside to “provide for ourselves.” It is wise to be good stewards of what God has blessed us with, but it is God who holds the future in His hands and provides for us. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We agonize over political developments in our nation and pledge our loyalty to candidates who pledge to fix what is wrong. If the wrong person is put in charge, we fear that everything may fall apart. It is appropriate for us to seek the welfare of our communities and nation, but it is God who sits enthroned above the universe, who determines the times and seasons of earthly kingdoms, and who is actively supplanting the kingdoms of the world with His own eternal kingdom. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We worry about injustices and evils throughout our world and work ourselves into great fervor trying to remedy what is wrong (and great despondency when the injustices and evils persist despite our efforts). Of course, love of neighbor should prompt us to alleviate suffering and promote justice in our world, but our efforts will not fix this world; God’s efforts will bring about a better one. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • (This last one is especially for church leaders.) We stress over trying to do all the right things to make our congregations as healthy as possible. What can we do to help people grow as disciples? To help them better understand Scripture and process life through a Christian worldview? To be more focused on the kingdom and less distracted by other matters? To ensure that our churches will bounce back healthy after the pandemic? It is appropriate for church leaders to be concerned about their churches and work toward their health, but it is Christ who is the head of the church and who has promised its endurance. We are utterly dependent upon Him.

We are utterly dependent upon God for our very existence. That’s it; that’s the post. The idea is simple enough. But if we believe it, internalize it, and order our lives in response to it, it changes everything.

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