I’m So Spiritual

In my (admittedly limited) experience spiritual is one of the most meaningless words in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Anymore, the term is ubiquitous and much of its use leaves us with the nagging notion that we often don’t have a clear idea of what we mean when we use it. Perhaps more troubling, when pressed on its meaning, many of us use it in ways that are contradictory to some pretty major ideas in the New Testament.

(By the way, this includes me. I’m not picking on anyone here – and certainly not condemning. Just this last week, I went on about something being spiritual and wanted to kick myself after I caught it. As contemporary, Western Christians, it’s simply part of the cultural air we breathe.)

So, how can we talk about something or someone being spiritual in a healthier way? Let’s do a little digging.

You might be surprised to know that the word spiritual is relatively rare in the English New Testament. In the NRSV, spiritual appears 33 times in 28 verses that are almost exclusively found in four of Paul’s letters. In fact, 55% of occurrences are in 1 Corinthians alone. The primary Greek word translated spiritual is the adjective pneumatikos. It is related to the Greek word for spiritpneuma – which may be why it is so easy to assume that spiritual is the opposite of physical. (More on that later.)

Here’s how the New Testament uses pneumatikos, with each instance of the word rendered like so:

  1. Romans 1:11 – “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you … “
  2. Romans 7:4 – “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
  3. Romans 15:27 – “They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”
  4. 1 Corinthians 2:13 – “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
  5. 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
  6. 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
  7. 1 Corinthians 9:11 – “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
  8. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 – “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
  9. 1 Corinthians 12:1 – “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
  10. 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
  11. 1 Corinthians 14:47 – “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.”
  12. 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 – “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.”
  13. Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …”
  14. Ephesians 5:19 – “… as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts …”
  15. Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
  16. Colossians 1:9 – “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding …”
  17. Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
  18. 1 Peter 2:4-5 – “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

First, let’s make some observations about how Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians, as spiritual is a relatively major topic of discussion in the epistle. In chapters two and three, Paul contrasts those who are “spiritual” with those who are “of the flesh.” Here, spiritual does not refer to something that is spirit, but something that comes from / originates from / or is rooted in the Spirit of God. Conversely, something is “of the flesh” not because it is physical but because it comes from / originates from / is rooted in that which is physical (read: not the Spirit).

By way of illustration, we might remember the way the Preacher talks of things being “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” was an idiomatic way of talking about life without God. The Preacher had been seeking meaning apart from God and found his purposes thwarted by death at every turn, so he concludes that life “under the sun” is meaningless. In 1 Corinthians 2-3, Paul is working with a similar thought. The spiritual person is the person who’s way of life originates with God’s Spirit. The fleshly person is the person who seeks a way of life apart from the Spirit. Both sorts of life are physical – they are lived out in bodies. Both sorts of life will involve similar things – eat, sleep, drink, work, play, enjoy relationships, etc. – but will go about those things in very different ways, as they begin from very different starting points.

If we begin with this idea – spiritual is that which derives from (or is driven by) God’s Spirit – we will see it makes sense of the majority of the texts in our list – particularly for the discussion in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul points back to the time when God miraculously provided food and water for Israel. Their food was spiritual in that it came to them by the power of God’s Spirit. Of course, he connects this to the Christian communion meal. While the bread and cup come from more “material” methods the meaning and power of the meal is driven by the Spirit. (Read 9:11 in this light – even that which is not expressly spiritual [i.e. from the Spirit like manna and water flowing from a rock were] is co-opted into the spiritual life as Paul has described it. For Paul, material things are not in opposition to spiritual things, but are to be used as a part of our life driven by the Spirit of God.) Later, the “spiritual” gifts are embodied abilities and practices that came from the Spirit. In Ephesians and Colossians, the church will sing “spiritual” songs – songs anchored in the life and power of the Spirit. (This is a mark of being “filled with the Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18].)

In our current context, it is important to note that the dominant context for spiritual is an embodied experience that is rooted or driven by the Spirit.

First, while there are physical things (as in 1 Corinthians 9:11) and purely spiritual entities (as in Ephesians 6:12), God created humans as physical beings meant to live life in a spiritual context. While our underlying Platonism may lead us to think that “material” things – like bodies with all their passions, emotions, and urges – are bad, this is not so in Scripture. God created us to be embodied spiritual creatures and called us “very good.” The problem of sin and death has less to do with the fact of our bodies than it does with the distorted ways we’ve used those bodies apart from God’s Spirit. (Augustine calls these our “disordered loves.”)

Second, this helps us understand the implications of saying things like, “Jesus has a spiritual kingdom.” To my knowledge, the New Testament never makes this claim and it can only be accurate if we understand spiritual as Paul does in 1 Corinthians. The kingdom is driven by God’s Spirit, but it is very much a physical experience that pertains to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of our earthly existence. When Jesus defines the kingdom, he doesn’t define it as a thing that is separate from “the cares of this world” (as we often refer to them in the Churches of Christ), but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). (This week’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer have included Psalm 72 and the language of the poem is striking in its revelation of what God is concerned with as Sovereign.) The spiritual nature of the kingdom is not a dismissal of the world, but a radical reorientation of the way we look at the world.

Third, as we’ve already hinted, Paul’s notion of spiritual doesn’t minimize all the “secular” things we do, but reorients them. Things like prayer or worship aren’t the only spiritual activities Christians are involved in. We are called to see everything as spiritual because the entirety of our life is being reshaped by God in Christ. Shopping is spiritual. Work is spiritual. Eating is spiritual.  Rest is spiritual. Play is spiritual. Politics are spiritual. Our relationships are spiritual. Sex is spiritual. On and on this goes. These are all things established by God to be used for human flourishing within a proper relationship with him. Spiritual is not the rejection or diminishing of these things, but realizing their fullness when we place them in their proper context. (Augustine would talk about this in terms of properly reordering our loves.)

Last, and we’ll have to explore this more later, Paul gives shape to speak of our future hope. In the resurrection, we will be given spiritual bodies. This is not non-physical bodies (an oxymoron), but bodies that are fully plugged into their proper source of life – the Spirit. A common confession for Christians around the world is that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Confessing this within the larger story of Scripture has some pretty profound implications – both for the future and now. We’ll pick those up in the future.

I’m So Spiritual

Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith

Another re-post from an older blog space. From early 2016 as we were beginning to make a push for spiritual formation in the Valley.

James Bryan Smith is the author of The Apprentice Series — three books comprising his curriculum for Christ-likeness. He developed these books — The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community — over a period of years based on his experiences as a teacher and as a student at the feet of men like Richard Foster, Rich Mullins, and Dallas Willard (who personally challenged Smith to write these books).

Since discovering Smith’s books in 2011, his approach to spiritual formation has been enormously helpful to me as a Christian and a teacher. As my 8&H community moves toward a renewal of our commitments to being formed as cruciform, Christ-like followers, I thought it might be helpful to share the basics of his model here.

In the opening pages of The Good and Beautiful God, Smith lays out a model for spiritual formation that involves four main components. As we look toward deepening our culture of discipleship at 8&H, each of these components will find a place in our approach.


The first is story-telling. Smith points out, correctly, that we are story-telling creatures. We use stories to make sense of the world, to pass along what is valuable to us and what is “normal,” and (most importantly) to imagine what the world should be. Stories motivate and shape our decisions, and in doing so shape our character and interactions with one another. With all this in mind, it is no surprise to find Scripture is largely a collections of poems, narratives, and reflections on what those stories might mean for our lives.

As Smith points out, the challenge is we often discover the stories we tell about God, ourselves, and others simply aren’t true, and so long as we live out of these false narratives, we will be essentially malformed. As such, one of the primary tasks of spiritual formation is to learn to tell better stories. For example, it will matter enormously over time whether one speaks of God as an “angry God” or “a loving God that sometimes gets angry.” To those who’ve grown up believing God is looking for an excuse to send them to Hell, it is life-changing to discover the truer biblical story of God’s love and grace.

Telling better stories — first, about God, and then about ourselves and the world — is the primary task of preaching, teaching, and much of our small group discussion from the vantage of spiritual formation. These are tools used to expand, transform and calibrate what I call our “holy imagination,” as we learn to tell (and live out of) good stories about who God is and what he is doing in the world. Once again, the notion is that as we give our stories and our imagination over to God, our lives will follow (cf. Matthew 6:19).


We cannot stop with stories, however. As the theologian James K.A. Smith points out, Christianity is an embodied faith. It does not exist purely in our head as some abstract, intellectual exercise. Cruciform living requires every part of our body. The challenge here is that even as our stories begin to change, our bodies have become habituated to the older stories, and habits are harder to change than stories. This is where the ancient practice of Christian disciplines come into play. (Smith calls them soul training exercises.)

These disciplines are embodied practices that help us bring our bodies, “second nature” reflexes, and ingrained responses on board and form new habits. Much like working out to increase strength, flexibility, and mobility for real-life tasks, spiritual disciplines help us learn to respond in Christ-like ways. The discipline of fasting helps us learn to say “no” to ourselves and be content in a world that thrives on the stories of consumption and excess. The discipline of being silent draws us back to God as the source of our identity and worth in a world enamored with popularity and co-dependency. The discipline of hospitality challenges the many judgments we automatically make about those around us on a daily basis.

Learning new stories is essential, but the disciplines help us reattune our entire beings toward God and what he has in store for us. This is why each week, our small groups will focus on introducing a discipline to help embody the new stories we are learning to tell.


Third, Smith emphasizes spiritual formation must be done in community. We need encouragement. We need support. We need accountability. We need to learn from each other. We need to be challenged by each other. As we often say in Celebrate Recovery, Christ-likeness is never a solo sport.

The apostle Paul loves to talk about the church as the “body of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 12, he points out that each follower of Christ is unique and makes up one part of larger body. Each part is essential for the body. Each part depends on the body. So for instance, an eye, no matter how sharp its focus, cannot be all it is intended to be apart from a body. In the same way, a heart, no matter how strong, cannot survive detached from its body.

It is only in the context of a body that individual members are able to grow and thrive as disciples. As such, Smith argues that formation must be done in community — hence our focus on consistent, intimate small groups that provide a context for real formation to happen.

The Spirit

Last, Smith points out the Spirit is essential to spiritual formation. The presence of God’s Spirit permeates every facet of the discipleship process.

When we think of spiritual formation, we understandably focus on what we need to do, and to be clear, we do have a part to play. Following Christ is a relationship and those are always two-way things. So, we need new stories and we do play a role in seeing those come to fruition. We do have to engage the hard work of forming new habits, and this can be an intense and difficult task. At the same time, there is a larger picture we must always remember: it is God who forms us.

Here, I find the language of Romans 8:29 helpful. Succinctly, God’s purpose for us is Christ-likeness — that we would be conformed to the image of his Son. Yet, note a few things. First, this is an artist’s language, drawing to mind a sculptor working with hunk of granite or clay. Second, as followers of Jesus, we are the recipients in this text. It is not “conform yourselves,” but we will be conformed. Paul pictures us as God’s work of art. He is forming us. Anything we do is merely yielding to his artistry.

A helpful way to show how this looks practically is to look one more time at the practice of the disciplines. Occasionally, those who aren’t familiar with the disciplines will assume they are meant to garner some favor before God — “Look at how righteous I am! I fast twice a week!”- and, of course, this can be true. Yet, this is not what the disciplines are really for. Those most familiar with the disciplines will point out they are not done to impress God, but to yield one’s life to God’s transforming power and work.

For instance, the discipline of simplicity clears clutter out of one’s life, making room for God to do his work in us. The practice of silence may still our own voices long enough to discern what God intends for us. In this way, the disciplines become a way of opening ourselves to what God wants to do with us through his Spirit. It is developing a life rhythm that makes room for God to work in, on, and through us.

As we enter more intently into the world of spiritual formation, we will want to make sure we maintain an awareness of how God is working on us.

Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Sometime last year, Arnold Robledo and I did a quarter-long class called “Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible.” Preparing for this class was life-changing for both of us. Now, I can’t make any claims for myself — I stuck to the script — but Arnold outdid himself in this class. Below are the links to all 13 sessions. We need to be talking about this as we struggle for what it means to be faithful to Jesus amidst the current debates about refugees. My prayer is we will always be shaped more by Scripture than our own fears or those with governmental power.

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six

Session Seven

Session Eight

Session Nine

Session Ten

Session Eleven

Session Twelve

Session Thirteen

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

A Philosophy of Ministry

Recently, I’ve been asked about my philosophy of ministry, so my goal here is to lay out the broad strokes as briefly as possible. Here goes nothing (!) …

First, a few words about what I believe God is doing in the world and how the church operates within those purposes. Any notion I have of ministry exists inside of that context.

I believe God made a good world and even though it’s now broken by sin he loves it enough that he is tenaciously bent on its redemption and reconciliation (cf. Genesis 3:15; John 3:16-17; Colossians 1:18-20; Ephesians 1:9-10; et al). In faithfulness to the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is now bringing about this reconciliation through Jesus Christ who: reveals what God looks like in his person; revealed what we are created to look like as God’s image bearers; defeated sin and death through his cross and resurrection; has ushered in God’s long-awaited kingdom promises as Lord over all creation. Now having God’s Spirit, we anticipate the culmination of God’s kingdom project when God’s glory fills the earth. As Peter says, “… according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:13).

Within what God is doing through Christ, I believe the church exists to foster and equip people for the kind of life that Jesus lived – people who will nurture and fit into a world where “righteousness is at home.” Jesus describes this calling in terms of discipleship (Matthew 18:18-20), so I might the church exists to be and make disciples. Paul describes discipleship in terms of becoming Christlike (cf. Romans 8:28-29; Ephesians 4:11-16), so I might also say the church exists to be like Jesus – as Dallas Willard was known to say, to follow Jesus into his “total way of life.” Both Paul, Jesus, and others will also describe this calling in terms of properly loving God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 4:19-21), so we might speak of the church’s purpose as loving truly and deeply. In other places, Paul calls the church to be the ministers of God’s reconciliation (Colossians 1:19-20; Ephesians 2:11ff; Galatians 2:11-3:28; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Peter reminds us that we are the community of God – “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation” – that exists in Christ for the blessing of the world (1 Peter 2:9-10). Each of these are different ways of expressing and nuancing the same invitation to join God in what he is doing in the world.

In practical terms, this means the church is a place where our broken world and God’s kingdom of reconciling love collide. It is a place where the vulnerable, the grieving, and those hungry for a better life find reason to rejoice because of what God is doing (more here). The church is to be a place where people find freedom from the destructive cycles that oppress and harm them (and others!) and are introduced to the healing of a new way of life (more here).

And as a minister, my particular role within God’s kingdom project is to help equip Christians to faithfully and passionately take up this vocation (Ephesians 4:11-16). Over the years, I’ve come to describe this work in terms of fostering three rhythms in the life of the church:

Shared Life

Life in the kingdom involves our reorienting every area of our existence to Jesus’ person and calling. From that reorientation, we nurture and share the wisdom, skills, virtues, and practices that reshape our day to day activities in deep ways. This is learning the art of living Christlike lives and this school of life must 1) be done in community and 2) be bigger than our formal Sunday, Wednesday programs.  The “in and outs” of our Monday through Saturday existence are where this reorientation takes root and Christlikeness is honed in practical ways as we learn to rejoice with one another, weep with one another, and work for the blessing of one another and our neighbors.

This rhythm has worked itself out in various ways. Michelle and I have always made working in the context of community a priority. For example, in Harlingen, I was tasked with developing a small group project. Within two years of the project’s launch, the group Michelle and I led simply referred to itself as village. As we ate, played, worshiped, studied, served, rejoiced, and wept together village life became the dominant context for learning what God called each of us to be. (For much more about how this project was organized and operated, see here.)

It was also in the context of village life that Michelle and I became dedicated to the discipline of radical hospitality. We practice an open door policy in our home and it is not unusual to walk in and discover “extra” people who have happened by. (We always tell first-time guests, don’t be surprised if people just wander in and out of the house, getting things from the fridge – it’s normal.)

This commitment to shared life also extends to the way I approach more formal ministry tasks. I created a “sermon team” that existed to help me discern appropriate topics for our particular context, to join me in meditating on the text for upcoming sermons, and to help ensure I spoke in ways that actually communicated to our church family. Worship was planned in community. I loved to team-preach and team-teach as well, frequently reminding my sisters and brothers that “Christianity is not a solo sport.”

This rhythm becomes the springboard for the remaining rhythms.

Shared Worship

If our shared life is where the practical art of following Jesus is developed and honed, our shared worship is where we learn to envision the world we embody the rest of the week. Humans are deeply formed by the stories they tell and worship is primarily an act of story telling (more here). We gather to declare the glories of what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. Worship shapes our vision and our values, framing how we see and respond to our world, ourselves, and our neighbors.

In a word, worship roots us.

I do not treat our gathered worship as if it is the only aspect of “church” or my role as a minister, but I do treat it as utterly important. It grounds and energizes us as a community of faith, both feeding from the rich depths of shared life and making new depths possible. I am always working to develop deeper rhythms of worship in the life of my church family, both in terms of Sunday worship and in terms of regular routines of disciplines such as prayer, reading, and reflection through the week.

Shared Faith

When I speak of developing rhythms of shared faith I do not speak of merely evangelism as we’ve often conceived it in the modern world. Nor do I mean benevolence. What I mean is developing rhythms and practices in the shared life of our faith community that declares who God is to our neighbors. Here, what we say and what we do work in concert, much as Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If you must, use words.”

I’ll give you one example of how this has played out in my life. Several years ago, I was privileged to work with a small team preparing food in a community that had been devastated by a tornado. Through that week, we were able to not only provide meals, but offer a moment of respite to those ravaged women and men – a place to rest, smile, laugh, cry, and share their stories. Near the end of the week, one lady asked, “Why did you come all this way to do this? You don’t know us. You don’t owe us anything.” My response was to say, “Because we want you to know that God will not let disasters like this have the last word.” Through declaring God in our actions, it opened opportunities for Christians in that community to share God with their words (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

In my time as a servant in God’s kingdom, it has also been a privilege to be involved with our local food bank, a free community medical clinic, local immigrant and refugee aid programs, our local Celebrate Recovery chapter, Healing Hands International, local community gardening projects, and ministries to serve our homeless neighbors. All of these efforts and investments were undertaken as opportunities to demonstrate who God is.


Of course, much more could be said on every point raised above and I would be happy to answer questions! But, this is a basic overview of what I am about. It is worth noting that I have made my Facebook profile public over the last few years and you can check out those day to day interactions (in all there mundane and pun-laden glory!) here. I have also been asked to provide samples of my preaching. Below, you will find a few exhibits I believe are relatively normative, but I’ve also included the link to all of them – so you can listen to the bad ones too!

Additionally, here are a few recent sermons from the Linary Church of Christ in Crossville, TN. I spent about five months serving as one of two interim preachers during their transition between senior ministers. If you visit their Youtube channel, you can find several more recent sermons.




A Philosophy of Ministry

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3

This is another port from a previous blog space. It is the sequal to the blog post linked below that I transferred over earlier in the week.

In a previous post, I shared some things I’ve been thinking about concerning sin and death. Specifically, scripture seems to suggest we have a death problem rather than a sin problem — though sin is inextricably bound to the death problem — and that in a post-fall world, our fear of death drives much of our sinful behavior.

Today, I want to tease that out a little more by looking at how our anxiety over death plays into the curses of Genesis 3. Genesis 3:16–19 serve as a poetic framework for understanding how the world changed when sin and death entered at the fall. In a later post, I want to go back and look at the first part of Genesis 3 and explore how it plays into this theme.

To set the stage, take a look at a familiar passage from Paul:

Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)

Through one human, sin came into the world, opening the door for death. As such, death has now spread to everyone because we have all sinned. What I’m arguing here is simply that once death was set loose in the world by that first sin, our anxieties about death subsequently become the de facto drive behind many subsequent sins. This emphasis on anxiety seems to be present in the earliest descriptions of our broken world in the “curses” of Genesis 3.

Take a look at Genesis 3:16:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”

Let’s focus on the first part of the text. This is Hebrew poetry, and the two lines of the curse represent a synonymous parallelism, which means we read the second line as restating the first in synonymous terms. We should note a few things.

First, in Hebrew, the phrase very painful refers to the certainty of pain rather than the severity of pain. The English Standard Version picks up on this rendering the phrase “surely multiply your pain.”

Second, the word we translate painful (issabon) is a rare word, only used three times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:16, 17; 5:29), and taken by itself could refer to either physical or emotional pain.

Third, while the first reference to pain is ambiguous as to whether physical or emotional pain is in view, it’s parallel in the second line (eseb) more commonly refers to emotional pain or anxiety. Further, both words share the same root which is commonly used to refer to emotional distress or anxiety.

Fourth, as we will see, issabon is used in verse 17 in a context that more clearly refers to anxiety rather than physical pain. This is also the case in its only other use in Genesis 5:29.

On the whole, it is more likely the curse refers to the introduction of anxiety or emotional distress into the experience of childbirth rather than physical pain. This provides a more coherent reading of the whole text. Eve and her daughters will now experience anxiety associated with the birth of their children. Why? Death has entered the world. Prior to this, one would not need to ask questions common to us:

“Is the baby all right?” “Is the mother all right?” “What kind of world have I brought my children into?”

There is a powerful counterpoint to this idea in Isaiah 65. If Genesis 3 describes the point at which everything falls apart, Isaiah 65 looks forward to the point when God will put everything back together. In the new heavens and the new earth, mothers will no longer “bear children to a world of horrors.”

Sin has let death loose on the world and a mother’s anxiety at this possibility (or awareness of its inevitability) is the heart of the new reality she helped create.

A similar thing is happening in verses 17–19:

To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread — until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”

Again, there are several things to notice.

First, this curse is set against the backdrop of the abundance we find in Genesis 1–2. In God’s good creation, things thrive, and multiply, and fill the earth, skies, and sea. Adam and Eve have an abundance of food at hand. Therefore, the news that the earth will now fight back against humankind is about the introduction of scarcity. Now, Adam and Eve will have to tend to their next meal.

Second, within this context of scarcity, the curse is not that Adam will now have to work. It is not even necessarily the case that he will have to work harder — although that could be a part of it. Work was an integral part of the original human calling to bear God’s image. In Genesis 1, humans were called to bear dominion over God’s creation. In Genesis 2, this is expressed in terms of farming and taking care of the garden. Whatever the curse is about, it is not the introduction of work into human experience.

Third, we find the second instance of issabon in Genesis 3:17. Here, it is paralleled with an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety: “the sweat of your face.” The idea is not that Adam will suddenly start sweating for the first time. Rather, this expression is similar to saying someone “broke out in a sweat” when they became nervous, anxious, or frightened.

Fourth, notice the curse here is explicitly tied to death. You will experience this anxiety until you “return to the fertile land.”

The idea here seems to be sin has now introduced an element of scarcity which hits humanity at it’s most vulnerable — the table. As such, Adam will now work with an enduring anxiety about where the next meal will come from.

At first glance, we may seem far removed from this sort of anxiety in America. I would argue that it is not so far off, that we have gone to great lengths to assure “food security” and that we would go (and have gone) to greater lengths still to keep it. Nonetheless, millions around the world do have this experience on a daily basis.

Anxiety ushered in by death is right at the heart of this early description of what our broken world looks like. My contention is that from Genesis 3:16 onward this deeply rooted fear becomes the driving force behind much of our sinful behavior.

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3

Discipleship & Church Building

Lately, I’ve put a bit of thought into what you might call my philosophy of ministry. The West is in a time of transition and churches are feeling the effects of those changes. These are times for intentionality, and it strikes me that thinking out loud about how we do business may be a healthy part of that doing things with intention. That’s what I am attempting here.

Recently someone articulated an old truism that gets to the heart of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. “When your goal is to make disciples, you always get the church; but, when your goal is to grow the church, you won’t necessarily get disciples.”

Pretty near the heart of my ever-evolving approach to my calling is the fact that Jesus never asks us to grow churches. In fact, I tend to believe it is impossible for us to make the church grow. Growth is a by-product of life. At the very least, I tend to privilege faithfulness over growth as a metric of the church’s success. If growth is going to happen, God will bring it about.

We plant. We water. God grows.

Jesus does ask us to be and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not the same thing as making the church grow. If discipleship is our calling, the means to our end is largely established. We are called to be a Christ-like community and invite others into that way of life. Only disciples can make other disciples. Only Christ-likeness can foster Christ-likeness in others. Our strategy is constantly leaning deeper into Jesus’ way of life, which will inevitably put us in the path of our neighbors, working for their blessing, reconciliation, and healing as Jesus did for those around him.

If church growth is our purpose, we can do that by being and making Christ-like disciples. However, there are any number of other strategies I might employ (and churches do employ) that neglect or ignore discipleship and Christ-likeness. For instance, a growing group of anxious people enamored with the control that legalism and fundamentalism offers is never healthy, no matter how fast their numbers go up.

What I’m suggesting is that if my goal is to get more people, there are lots of ways to do that. I can stir up their fears over our changing world and offer them security in a nostalgic return to the way things used to be. We might master the art of manipulating emotions so that each gathering provides a euphoric, mountain-top experience. We might tap into the consumerism of our age, analyze our market, and cater to their whims and desires as a spiritual box store.

While these strategies, and any number of others may draw a crowd, it will not produce disciples. And, producing disciples is what we’ve been put here for.

I don’t mean that, as some assume, a growing church is a bad church. I am not suggesting emotions are bad, because I don’t think they are — although I don’t want to manipulate them in others. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t need to know our neighbors well enough to know what they are facing. What I’m suggesting is it is a matter of carts and horses. Discipleship is what we’ve been called to, trusting God can take care of growth when we live and share Jesus and his way of life. Growth is a product of discipleship. Developing a robust, growing Christ-likeness in the life of our congregation, our neighborhoods, and our homes is our way forward.

When I’m on my game, that central idea sits near the heart of how I think ministry needs to be approached.

Discipleship & Church Building

Slavery to the Fear of Death

This is another in a series of older posts I am porting over from an older blog space. This one is from the Fall of 2015. These thoughts continue to be foundational to the way I’ve come to look at things. Enjoy!

Over the summer, I read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin. These two works have really helped nuance and deepen my understanding of how the broken world goes round — and how the work of Jesus counters that brokenness. Today, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.

Growing up in an evangelical context, I have always viewed humanity’s primary dilemma as sin. Working from passages like Romans 6:23 — “ … the wages of sin is death …” — I’ve carried a pretty straightforward view of how things worked. We sin and that leads to death, and so Jesus comes to somehow deal with our sin problem.

In recent years, and especially since I’ve started thinking more deeply about themes of atonement and resurrection, a second set of texts have come to my attention that complicates the simpler narrative about sin and death and Jesus on the cross. For instance, here’s a key passage in Hebrews 2:14–15:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death — the devil — by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

Here, the Hebrews writer characterizes what Jesus did on the cross as the defeat of the devil who holds power over death. In accomplishing this victory, Jesus redeems us from our slavery to the fear of death.

While not denying sin or it’s ill effects, the writer seems to believe atonement is not so much about our sin problem as it is about our death problem. Then, there is an interesting suite of passages in 1 Corinthians 15:

Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end … (vs. 26)

Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? Death’s sting is sin … (vs. 54–56)

1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s treatment of resurrection. This is the victory he refers to in the concluding remarks of vs. 54ff. Of particular interest is that Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus in terms of the defeat of death rather than the defeat of sin. In fact, in quite the reversal from my typical way of thinking about the subject, he calls sin “death’s sting.” Here, sin is what results from death.

Again, these texts suggest a way of looking at the human predicament that is different from the way I’ve grown up looking at it. They suggest the primary dilemma is not sin, but death. Further, while it is clear sin opened the door to death, we are also left with this intriguing notion that our slavery to the fear of death also leads to sin.

This last point, in particular, has captivated me. Working from the perspective of thinkers like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Ernest Becker, it seems that our anxieties about death motivate an awful lot of the sinful things we do.

The Preacher points out that our search for meaning in life “under the sun” will always be futile because of death. Whatever we make of the other texts, this is clearly the issue for him. No matter what you accomplish, no matter who you become, it is all vanity because you die. That’s a heavy thought.

Becker comes in and argues (convincingly) that an awful lot of what we do in life amounts to trying to forget, deny, or push past the Preacher’s conclusion. We push back against our anxieties in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes we even push back violently and at the expense of others.

So, sin not only leads to death, but our fear of death also leads to more sin. Round and round that goes, on and on. For me, the old way of looking at the causality of sin and death has changed. It used to be a straight line — sin leads to death. Now it has been replaced by a downward spiral that leads us deeper and deeper into slavery, with death being the primary dilemma we face. Here’s how I sketched it out earlier this week:


Slavery to the Fear of Death