Afraid of Being Afraid

In Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death, he makes a case from Scripture, theology, and psychology that in our broken, post-Fall experience, much of our human endeavor is driven by the fear of death. A central notion for him is the Hebrews author’s contention that Jesus set us free from slavery to the fear of death when he defeated the devil in his cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Beck tells us there are two basic forms of death anxiety. The first is obvious and primal. We experience anxiety when we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from or when something (or someone) threatens to take our life. Many people around the world experience this sort of anxiety each day as they are refugees or live in areas suffering from famine, drought, disease, etc.

The second form of anxiety is more nuanced and a lot harder to describe. We might say it is attached to the search for meaning in the face of death. This is the core issue the Preacher deals with in Ecclesiastes. In a world where everything “under the sun” is rendered empty by death, where does one find meaning? The sociologist Ernest Becker explores a similar thought in his The Denial of Death where he argues that we develop culture as a way of pushing away the looming fact of death and thereby invest meaning in our life that is bigger than our mortality. Becker believes we’re all pretty much like the Preacher, working to find something meaningful in the face of death, and that is what we call culture.

Sociology and psychology have observed (much as Scripture has) that once our basic survival is relatively secured, we begin to operate out of this second kind of fear or anxiety. The Hebrews writer would say we are slaves to it, that we serve death. Last year, I took a survey course in World Literature and was interested to see how often this theme pops up. In the oldest extant narrative we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk seeks immortality and, failing that, looks for meaning in the face of death. At one point, he says, ““I have peered over the city wall, I have seen the corpses floating in the river’s water. So too it will come to pass for me, so it will happen to me … Since no man can avoid life’s end, I would enter the mountain land and set up my name.”

Importantly, Scripture, Beck, and Becker all agree on one point. Motivated by our anxieties over death, we hurt each other. We find an obvious example in the Exodus narrative (cf. Exodus 1). A new Pharoah rises to power that doesn’t know what Joseph did for the nation. As such, when he sees the Hebrews, he only sees a threat to national security and he is afraid. Acting out of this fear, he institutes a domestic policy of Hebrew enslavement. When that fails to ease his anxieties he calls on all patriotic Egyptians to execute any Hebrew boys of a certain age when they encounter them. This narrative is paradigmatic for how death anxiety operates in human culture.

Put another way, for those of us who don’t have to worry about starving to death or living in a war zone, the reality of death is still present. Because of this, we build up structures – culture – to help us push away this reality. When I’m at the symphony, shopping at the mall, eating a great meal, playing video games, working hard at my job, or tossing a football in the backyard with my kids, I can deny the fact of death. What’s more, when I engage in this way of life I’ve helped build up, I tell myself that my life is meaningful in the face of death. But, when someone challenges that way of life, when someone threatens to unmask the reality of death that I’ve been pushing away or they call into question the meaningfulness of my way of life, I respond with violence because they reintroduce the anxiety I’m working to forget.

In the introduction of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, she summarizes this second, existential anxiety helpfully. She says, “Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid.” And history shows we’re willing to go to great lengths to deal with that.

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Afraid of Being Afraid

Being Human – Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a series exploring some aspects of the biblical call to be human. Here is where you can find parts 1, 2, and 3.

The discussion of what humanity is centered on the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-28. Today, I want to briefly trace one way that idea is used throughout the Bible. As a refresher, here is the text from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

As we have already noted, being human is descriptive of a way of life rooted in relationship with God as his image bearers. Being human is more of a vocation than it is anything else. We have been created to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and hold dominion over God’s creation, on God’s behalf.

Much later, Israel’s Poet in Cheif – King David – will pick up this same language when reflecting on nature and the place humankind holds in it (Psalm 8):

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David draws on the human dynamic we outlined in the last post. Humankind has been created “a little lower than God,” but has, “been crowned with glory and honor” and has been given, “dominion” over the work of God’s hands. When David contemplates the place of humankind in God’s cosmos, he draws on the Genesis language of vocation. This is what it means to be human.

Again, much later, the Hebrews writer will pick up David’s language (which echoes Genesis’ language) in making her or his case about the supremacy of Jesus. After quoting from Psalm 8, the Hebrew writer observes (Hebrews 2:8-9):

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The argument is simple and powerful. God created humanity to rule as his representatives but we see that has not happened. Humankind has rejected and muddled up that vocation in endless ways, both large and small. But, Jesus came in flesh- “made lower than the angels,” as we are – and fulfilled the human vocation where the rest of us had not. At every point we have forgotten or forsaken our divine calling, becoming less than human, Jesus sided with God’s intention, being what he (as a human) was meant to be.

There are lots of things we want to say about this – and we will in future posts without throwing too much out at once. Here, let’s begin by repeating something we said last time and by adding something new.

First, Scripture takes a high view of humanity. Sin doesn’t reveal our humanity – “Oh, I’m only human, after all.” Sin reduces our humanity. It makes us less than human.

Second, in not sinning, Jesus got Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 right where we have not. Jesus is the only genuine human. In that, he stands to show us what it looks like to return to our humanity. Importantly, the Hebrew writer is eager to point out, he also makes that return possible.

Being Human – Part Four

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.

His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,

… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)

In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.

All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”

Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”

They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

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

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:

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Slavery to the Fear of Death