Sinking Sand

All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach—yet his appetite is never satisfied! — Ecclesiastes 6.7

Though he had been without food for 40 days, Jesus refused to turn stones to bread. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The offer had been made: quench your material longings by your own ability. Jesus’ reply? In the end, that wouldn’t satisfy my deepest longings. 

We spend our days, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, trying to satisfy our appetites for more. Money, power, control, sex, food, status—every longing promises to be satisfied by the next acquisition—every longing proves insatiable.

The Divine Comedy chronicles penalties for each earthly sin as acts of contrapasso—to suffer the opposite. Rather than divine retribution, every circle of Dante’s Inferno is “the fulfillment of a destiny freely chosen by each soul during his or her life,” explains scholar Peter Brand.

The gluttons, Dante writes, writhe in a cesspool of waste from their endless consumption. As Virgil guides Dante he explains the gluttons’ damnation; “What these shades could not satisfy in life, in death, they shall be denied for eternity.”

Where Dante imagined the result of chasing earthly appetites to their end, modern writers like David Foster Wallace chronicled its present cultural symptoms. Upon his death in 2008 the New York Times celebrated Wallace’s writings as “a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification.”

A recently republished interview reveals Wallace’s candid reflections on one of his most successful books:

A lot of the impetus for writing “Infinite Jest” was just the fact that I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad.

I think it has something to do with being raised in an era when really the ultimate value seems to be… a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.

Greed is timeless, our appetites limitless. Yet we are not left alone. Jesus was strong enough to defeat broken appetites in the desert and loving enough to forgive us for the times we have fallen in the wilderness of our own desires. “On Christ the solid rock I stand,” penned Edward Mote in 1834, “All other ground is sinking sand.”

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 6 (Listen – 1:44)
2 Timothy 2 (Listen – 3:17)

Seeing Work Through New Eyes

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. — Ecclesiastes 5.10

“In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million—and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough,” writes Sam Polk in the New York Times. “I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”

Polk’s story reads like a modern-day reenactment of Ecclesiastes. “I said in my heart,” the author of the ancient book of wisdom confesses, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” The pursuits of money, power, and pleasure feel so wonderful in the short-term—and our society is engineered to deliver such rewards, on demand, to anyone willing to chase after them with reckless abandon. Polk confesses:

I felt so important. At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan—Per Se, Le Bernardin… I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game… The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Ecclesiastes concludes, “But behold, this also was vanity.” Polk, following in the footsteps of many before him, would discover this for himself:

In the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth… They were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had. From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes.

The calling of Scripture is to see wealth and power, in Polk’s words, with new eyes. Those whose view of vocation has been redeemed, Ecclesiastes says, “eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work on earth during the few days of their life which God has given them, for this is their reward.”

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 5 (Listen – 2:50)
2 Timothy 1 (Listen – 2:37)

The Heart of the Reformation :: The Weekend Reading List

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther, then a Catholic Priest, pounded his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Posting topics for debate on the church door was commonplace, and wouldn’t have felt monumental that particular day, but Luther’s confrontation of Catholicism would ultimately spark the Protestant Reformation.
While we want to fasten on the Word, we also want to show how we’re part of a chain in history that goes back, and back, and back. We’re not trying to be so innovative that we’re the first generation to get it all right. — D.A. Carson

Reading the language of Luther, John Calvin, and the other Reformers can be disheartening today. In addition to calling the Pope the “antichrist,” Calvin also hurled names like “pigs,” “riffraff,” and “asses” at his opponents.

“When you read Luther and Calvin, a lot of their polemical statements, a lot of the ways in which they talk about the Papacy, and so-on, you look at them and say, ‘you shouldn’t talk that way,’” concludes Timothy Keller. “But that was a different situation… It was life-and-death.”

The tension of orthodoxy and ecumenicism is the foundation for understanding how the Reformation affects faith today. In an article on the tendency to overuse the label “heretic,” Episcopal Priest Justin Holcomb observes, “We may be tempted to think that since theology so easily divides, we are better off simply agreeing to disagree.”
We must remember that the sum of what Christians should believe is not identical to the essentials we must believe for salvation. We need to leave room for believers to grow in their understanding of the faith. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. We are saved by grace, not by intellectual precision. — Justin Holcomb

This doesn’t mean the abandonment of disciplined and thoughtful faith, however. Holcomb reminds, “In order to love God aright, and to be assured of the salvation he offers, we must know who God is and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.”

Modern believers won’t handle the relationship between the Protestant and Catholic Churches the same (even Dr. Keller admits, “I don’t own all that rhetoric”), but we can grow in our understanding of the gospel through the words of the Reformers.
The reason we believe the Reformation is so important is because we think they did get the Bible right. You had a massive movement in which people sought to look at Scripture and find out what the biblical gospel truly was. — Timothy Keller
Integrating the gospel-centrality of the Reformation with a humble and winsome unity with Christians from various theological backgrounds is critical today. And there may be greater opportunity as Protestant support of the Pope soars. For his part, Pope Francis has extended an olive branch. In a letter to Evangelicals and Catholics in Chicago the Pope writes:

We know that the visible unity of the Church is the work and gift of the Holy Spirit, who will bring it about in His time… The division among Christians is the fruit of our sin, and it is a scandal and our greatest impediment for the mission for which the Lord has called us: announcing the Good News of the Gospel.

Today, the blood of the many Christians slaughtered in diverse parts of the world cries out to heaven. The one that persecutes does not make a mistake, he doesn’t ask if they are Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox… they are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, and that is enough. This blood challenges us: Do we have the right to make our divisions a priority while the blood of our brothers is shed for the testimony of Jesus Christ?

This is the moment of reconciliation, to accept “the unity in reconciled diversity,” an expression of Oscar Cullman. We know very well what divides us, let us be more strengthened in what unites us: the common faith in Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior, the Word of God, and Baptism. — Pope Francis

Luther’s intention wasn’t division, but renewal. The heart of the Reformation is the recovery of the gospel, inside the Church, for the good of the world. The Reformers teach us that waywardness in the Church — whether theological heresy or structural division — is overcome by the work of Christ, and that by joining this work we plant seeds of faith for future generations.

Today’s Reading
2 Kings 11-12 (Listen – 7:38 )
2 Timothy 2 (Listen – 3:17)

This Weekend’s Readings
2 Kings 13 (Listen – 4:33) 2 Timothy 3 (Listen – 2:21)
2 Kings 14 (Listen – 5:06) 2 Timothy 4 (Listen – 2:48)

The Weekend Reading List

How to be Filled with the Spirit :: Throwback Thursday

2 Timothy 7, 14

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control… By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

By Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981)

Any holiness teaching or any doctrine of sanctification which begins by saying, ‘Now about getting rid of that particular sin of yours,’ is in itself starting in the wrong way. The scriptural method is positive; the way to deal with these things is to be filled with the Spirit.

The scriptural way of dealing with them is to clarify our thinking about these various sins, and it says: Can you not see that those things are incompatible with this great truth? If you want to avoid the pestilences and diseases that arise out of the swamps down in the valleys, the best thing to do is to walk to the top of the mountain.

Far too often, it seems to me, we tend to think of being filled with the Spirit in mechanical terms. The idea seems to be conjured up in our minds of an empty vessel and of something being poured into it. But clearly that must be wrong, because the Holy Spirit is not an influence, nor a power. We must not think of him in terms of electricity or of steam, for the Holy Spirit is a Person; he is described everywhere in the Scriptures in a personal manner. So when we think of being filled with the Spirit what we really mean is that the blessed Person of the Holy Spirit is controlling us, dominating and influencing us.

We often speak about being ‘full of life’. Or we say of certain people that at the moment they are really full of something. When a man becomes interested in some special person he is absolutely full of that person. It does not mean that the person is poured into him, but it does mean that the person is controlling his thoughts, his desires, and his activities, dominating the whole of his life and especially his thoughts. He is thus under the influence of and is being mastered by that person.

Most of the excesses and errors into which people have fallen with regard to this doctrine of being filled with the Spirit are almost invariably due to the fact that they think of the Spirit as some force or power that can be injected or transfused into us, instead of thinking of him in terms of this relationship to the Person who has been given to us and who dwells with us.

*Excerpt from “Growing in the Spirit.” Republished in The Assurance Of Our Salvation: Exploring The Depth Of Jesus’ Prayer For His Own: Studies In John 17, Crossway Books, 2015.

Today’s Reading
2 Kings 10 (Listen – 6:30)
2 Timothy 1 (Listen – 2:37)