Going the Distance: Resources for Preventing Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Caregivers

[The following is a presentation I gave at a conference sponsored by the Center for Faith and Health at Samford University, November 2017.]

Introduction

Burnout and compassion fatigue are known occupational hazards for caregivers.  The causes of these conditions are more complex that mere physical exhaustion.  In this presentation, I suggest three ideas that can provide assistance to caregivers for the prevention of burnout and compassion fatigue: a sense of vocation, sufficient margin, and positive social networks.

I spent much of my career in campus ministry, working as a college chaplain on six different university campuses.  My first such job was in 1990. I would wager that my professional experience is similar to many of yours in several key ways.  Chaplains are typically generalists, not specialists, because we often work with a small staff (or no staff) and limited resources.  Chaplains wear many hats.  In 25 years, I have worn many hats: pastor, preacher, teacher, professor, lecturer, counselor, advisor, mentor, supervisor, manager, administrator, coordinator, event planner, travel agent, cook, caterer, editor, chauffeur, sound technician, stage lighting engineer, web designer, graphic artist, photographer, videographer, historian, accountant, DJ, mechanic, pop culture expert, etc. The skills required to continue this work year after year include a willingness to learn quickly, to change readily, and to grow continually.  But maybe more importantly, the job requires determination, endurance, and grit.  We spend long hours, nights, and weekends, dealing with student crises, emotional meltdowns, financial burdens, family dysfunctions, addictions, mental illnesses, academic struggles, and relationship drama.  And honestly, we don’t get paid that well, yet we still love our work and the people at the center of it.  Caregiving in my field requires 10% intelligence and 90% endurance; a little bit of inspiration, a whole lot of perspiration.

I suspect that this sounds familiar to most caregivers, so I also suspect that it comes as no surprise that among the most common occupational hazards of caregiving are burnout and compassion fatigue.  A survey published in 2014 on the prevalence of depression found that over 14% of professionals working in the social services and health care sector suffered from episodes of major depression, the third worst rate of any of the 55 occupations studied. [1]  Frequent interaction with distressed clients and patients, high levels of stress, and low levels of physical activity were found to correlate with depression rates among professionals.  Rates of burnout and compassion fatigue in the healthcare sector could be as high as 60%, further pointing to the costs associated with caregiving.[2]  Additionally, a 2009 study found that nearly 66 million Americans were providing unpaid care for at least one family member.[3]  The emotional, psychological, and spiritual costs of caregiving represent significant personal and professional challenges to many. In my experience, we pay close attention to the details of caregiving, but far less attention to caring for the caregivers.

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

The concept of burnout was first identified in the mid 1970s by the German-born Jewish-American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger.  He identified burnout as consisting of (1) feelings of overwhelming exhaustion, including physical and/or emotional depletion, (2) interpersonal detachment or cynicism characterized by intense negative feelings toward aspects of one’s job, and (3) a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of achievement and productivity at work.[4]  Compassion fatigue, also know at Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), is a condition similar to but distinct from burnout.  STS is described as a state of extreme stress, tension, or preoccupation with the suffering of others to a degree that is traumatizing for the caregiver.  The key factor distinguishing STS from burnout is the presence of trauma in those for whom one is providing care, although burnout is frequently a symptom of STS, along with frustration, anger, depression, sleep difficulties, fear, intrusive thoughts, debilitating anxiety, and decreased feelings of compassion and empathy over time.  Caregivers at high risk of STS include those who are regularly involved in emotionally charged or traumatic situations, such as first responders, trauma unit workers, oncology caregivers, hospice nurses, public defense attorneys, and military chaplains.[5]

Some of the research on the prevalence of burnout and STS may shed some light on its causes.  Studies indicate, for example, that in many caregiving professions, young caregivers are at significantly greater risk of burnout than older ones. This seems counter-intuitive, does it not?  Female and unmarried caregivers are also at greater risk than male or married ones, suggesting that a sense of control over one’s life and work plays a role in preventing burnout and STS.[6]  Additionally, caregivers who report being “quite a bit” to “extremely” religious had lower levels of diminished empathy and emotional exhaustion than those who were less religious.[7] 

The key point here is that burnout and STS involve more than mere physical exhaustion. These conditions result from an absence of meaning, the lack of belief that one’s work is important or significant, and a sense of hopelessness in the face of life’s demands.[8]  These conditions are emotional, psychological, and spiritual as much as physiological, and so a holistic approach to their prevention and treatment seems clinically advisable and arguably unavoidable.

I think you agree that solutions to the problems of burnout and STS involve more than mere rest from caregiving, otherwise I would simply recommend that you go somewhere and take a nap!  But that’s not my recommendation, so it seems to me that my task as a presenter is to help provide you with some emotional, psychological, and even theological resources to help you who are caregivers for people in crisis stay in this profession and remain effective over the long-term.

Vocation

The first helpful resource that I would like to discuss is vocation.  An oft-quoted passage from the American Presbyterian writer and theologian Friedrick Beuchner serves as an effective introduction to the concept of vocation:

“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[9]

The concept of vocation is rooted in the claim that you are the happiest and most energized when you are doing the work that bring you joy and meets a genuine need.  [e.g. cigarette sales and cardiology]  No doubt, the world needs caregivers, but if Beuchner is correct, you are not going to last very long at it unless you find some level of gladness in it.  Vocation frees you to think about your work as a calling rather than merely a job.  Your vocation and your job need not be the same thing identically.  St. Paul, the missionary who authored a considerable portion of the New Testament, was a tentmaker by trade, a job that allowed him to pursue his missionary vocation.  A job is meaningful only to the degree that it allows you to pursue your calling, and can be stifling if it does not.  A series of jobs strung together over a lifetime we call a career, and careers typically follow the paths of ambition and upward mobility.[10]  But they need not do so. 

Henri Nouwen and Albert Schweitzer provide two examples of people who forsook the enticements of career for the rewards of vocation. Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic Priest who left a successful academic career that included two decades of teaching at prestigious universities such as Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  He left the academy at the age of 53 to live and work with physically and mentally handicapped people in a small community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. Schweitzer, a German organist, theologian, and medical doctor left behind a brilliant music career in Paris at the age of 30 and became a medical missionary in what is now Gabon, Africa.  During his first 9 months on the continent, he treated thousands of patients and performed hundreds of surgical procedures with the help of his wife, a trained anesthetist, in a hospital that he built on his own out of corrugated iron.

These men left behind prestigious careers to become caregivers.  They traded ambition for vocation.  Their work was not easy and they were not perfect – Nouwen struggled with depression and Schweitzer with exhaustion – but their stories illustrate the powerful pull of a call.  Are you called?  Do you think that you have merely inherited your work by accidental necessity?  Or do you believe that there is a divine providence that organizes our universe by matching others’ necessity with your ability?  Vocation reminds you that you are here for a reason, created for a purpose, and equipped for that purpose.

Margin

I first encountered the concept of margin in a 1995 book by that title, written by the physician Richard A. Swenson. Swenson describes margin as “the space that exists between ourselves and our limits.”[11]  Swenson observes that the stresses of modern life devour margin. Technological progress helps us do things faster, but simultaneously gives us more to do and increases the pace of life. Every space is filled with clutter.  Every moment is filled with noise.  Every dollar is spent, and probably a few more.  We have not a minute to spare.  Our relationships with family and friends weaken, we limp through life physically exhausted, sleep deprived, and emotionally drained.  We lack the time to practice genuine reflection and build true virtue.  So although scientific progress benefits us in many ways, it may also make us less likely to experience lives of meaning and purpose.  As a medical doctor who restructured his own life and practice in order to create margin, Swenson’s prescription for what he calls “overload syndrome” is fairly predictable: work less, earn less, spend less, accumulate less, exercise more, sleep more, rest more, etc. (That actually sounds like vacation to me.)  In other words, we regain margin not by making a few small behavioral changes, but by transforming the way we live entirely.

Good caregiving requires margin, doesn’t it?  We need margin for emergencies, for unexpected or unwelcomed interruptions, for serendipitous opportunities to show kindness, and for timely conversations.  Genuine compassion is difficult to schedule because caregiving is the ministry of interruptions.  Add to that the fact that many of us in this room chose our professions for reasons other than earning potential, so we are particularly subject to the economic pressure to spend more than we earn, and the resulting pressure to work harder and longer in order to earn more.  So in a profession in which margin is sorely needed, the evidence suggests that it is sorely lacking.  We need change, individually, institutionally, and culturally. 

What Swenson is suggesting, and what I am suggesting, is not unlike what Christian theologians have commended for centuries.  In the Christian classic Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that “superficiality is the curse of our age.”  By contrast, “the classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths so that we have the capacity to “be the answer to a hollow world.”[12]  Foster’s prescription for the shallow life consists of three sets of practices: the inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, and study), the outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and the corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration).  But who has the time, or the discipline, for all of these disciplines?  Just glancing at this list of disciplines makes me tired.  And here is the irony: how many of us seek to reclaim some margin by avoiding the practice of margin-giving disciplines?  We have become very much like the proverbial woodchopper who has little time to sharpen his axe.  We know we could work more efficiently with a short break, but we feel as if we will fall hopelessly behind if we take one.  And so we continue to chop, with decreasing effectiveness, until exhaustion overtakes us, and the blade becomes almost irreparably dull.  All the while the disciplines of religious faith call to us, or more accurately, God calls to us.  “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”  If we cannot claim the time to respond to that call, to care for our own souls, then we will not likely care well for others for very long.

Positive Social Networks

Let us turn our attention now to the network of people that you need to survive as a caregiver long-term.  In a 2012 book entitled When Our Leaders Do Bad Things, social worker and clinical psychologist Mangal Dipty argues that people fall into three categories in terms of their impact on us. There are positive, negative, and neutral people.  Positive people are those who, on the whole, contribute more to us relationally than they cost us.  Every relationship costs you something, but positive people make a net contribution to your coping resources and your margin.  Negative people, on the other hand, cost more than they contribute.  Neutral people cost about what they contribute, for zero net gain or loss relationally.  Admittedly, you cannot quantify relationships with exact precision, and relationships change such that people who were once positive can become negative and vice versa.  That said, I still find this idea persuasive, that you need a critical mass of positive and neutral people in your life so that you can help negative people.  We cannot and arguably should not spend all of our time with positive people.  Most healthy adults consider helping others an essential part of life, so we should spend some time with negative people.  The key strategy is to balance the negative people with positive to maintain balance.

The problem for us caregivers is that we are particularly at risk of spending much of our time with relationally negative people.  Notice that I am not necessarily talking about the attitude of the people who need care.  Some may have quite positive attitudes, but relationally they likely require more of us than they can give to us.  And if we surround ourselves with mostly negative people most of the time, then we will eventually be of little help to anyone.  Excessive relational negativity can lead to what University of Washington psychologist John Gottman refers to as “negative sentiment override,” a condition in which a relationship becomes conflicted to the degree that even positive messages are interpreted negatively.[13]  When you reach this state, your environment has become toxic and your physiological response to that environment changes biochemically.  Your blood pressure and heart rate increase, your brain’s ability to process information is reduced, hormones trigger your body’s most basic fight or flight instinct, and compassionate care becomes almost impossible.  Emotionally, physically, and spiritually you cannot sustain critical levels of relational negativity.  They have the power to taint your vocation and ruin your career. 

The bottom line is that we need relationships that nourish us.  All caregivers need caregivers.  We are incapable of surviving long-term in these demanding fields without resources that we simply cannot get on our own.  We are fallible and dependent creatures.  Until we admit this, we are in trouble.  When we admit this, then we are free to seek in humility what can save and sustain.  The Christian tradition calls this grace.  And I know that other religious traditions provide comparable resources. The forgiveness and compassion that was hard earned by Christ is offered to us freely, so that we in turn can offer it to others.  Grace is the relational resource that feeds our vocation, giving us the margin to run with endurance the race set before us.

Conclusion

Three years ago I took up trail running.  I have been a runner and cyclist for many years, but with age I have slowed.  So, when the Red Mountain trail system opened just seven minutes from my home here in Birmingham, I found a new hobby.  Trail running requires of me physically what my vocation requires of me spiritually.  Many trail races are longer than marathons (usually 50k or longer) and as a result, trail running is less about raw speed and more about steady progress.  Trail runners must carefully balance nutritional intake with the strategic expenditure of energy for long hours over difficult terrain.  Even the best trail runners walk or fast hike up steep inclines in the mountains.  At mile 30, every runner wants to quit and every runner needs a good reason to keep going, a calling to continue.  Slow and steady wins the race, or at least finishes it.  Strangely enough, trail running energizes me.  A weekend without a few hours on the trail seems empty, almost wasted.  The physical depletion that accompanies a dozen miles in the July heat also includes for me a reconnection with God’s creation, a time for reflection, and a rejuvenation of the soul.  Everyone needs his or her version of a good trail run.

For the surgeon and author Richard Seltzer, it is the library.  And now I’d like to quote a brief excerpt from an essay that appears in Seltzer’s book entitled Letters to a Young Doctor that will conclude and I think captures the heart of my talk today.  The essay that I abridge here is called “Toenails.”

It is the custom of many doctors to withdraw from the practice of medicine every Wednesday afternoon.  Some doctors spend Wednesday afternoon on the golf course.  Others go fishing.  I go to the library where I join that subculture of elderly men and women who gather in the Main Reading Room to read or sleep beneath the world’s newspapers, and thump through magazines and periodicals, educating themselves or just keeping up.

How brave, how reliable they are!  So unbroken is their attendance that, were one of them to be missing, it would arouse the direst suspicions of others.  And of me.  For I have, furtively at first, then with increasing recklessness, begun to love them.  Either out of loyalty to certain beloved articles of clothing, or from scantiness of wardrobe, they wear the same things every day.  For the first year, this is how I identified them.  Old Stovepipe, Mrs. Fringes, Neckerchief, Galoshes – that sort of thing.

Neckerchief is my favorite. He is a man well into his eighties with the kind of pink face that even in July looks as though it has just been brought in out of the cold. A single drop of watery discharge, like a crystal bead, hands at the tip of his nose. His gait is stiff-legged, with tin, quick, shuffling steps accompanied by rather wild arm swinging in what seems an effort to gain momentum or maintain balance.  One day, as I held the door to the Men’s Room for him, he pointed to his knees and announced, by way of explanation for his slowness: “The Hinges is rusty.”  From that day, Neckerchief and I were friends.  I learned that he lives alone in a rooming house eight blocks away, that he lives on his Social Security check, that his wife died a long time ago, and the he has no children.

One day I watched as Neckerchief , having raided the magazine rack, journeyed back to his seat. As he passed, I saw that his usually placid expression was replaced by the look of someone in pain. Each step was a fresh onslaught of it. His lower lip was caught between his teeth. His forehead had been cut and stitched into lines of endurance. He was hissing. I waited for him to take his seat, which he did with a gasp of relief, then went up to him. “The Hinges,” I whispered. “Nope. The toes.” “What’s wrong with your toes?” “The toenails is too long. I can’t get at ‘em. I’m walkin’ on ‘em.”.

I left the library and went to my office. “I need the toenail cutters. I’ll bring them back tomorrow,” I said to my nurse. Neckerchief was right where I had left him. “Come down to the Men’s Room,” I said. “I want to cut your toenails.” I showed him my toenail clippers, the heavy-duty kind that you grip with the palm, and with jaws that could bite through bone. One of the handles is a rasp. I gave him a ten-minute head start, then followed him downstairs to the Men’s Room. “Sit here.” I pointed to one of the booths. He sat on the toilet. I knelt and began to take off his shoes. “Don’t untie ‘em,” he said. “I just slide ‘em on and off.” The two pairs of socks were another story, having to be peeled off. The underpair snagged on the toenails. Neckerchief winced. “How do you get these things on?” I asked. “A mess, ain’t they? I hope I don’t stink too bad for you.”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat. Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside. With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh. There was dried blood on each big toe.  It took and hour to do each big toe. The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters. They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp. Now and then a fragment of nail would fly up, striking me in the face. The other eight toes were easy. Now and then, the door opened. Someone came and went to the row of urinals. Twice, someone occupied the booth next to ours. They’ll just have to wonder, I thought.

I wet some toilet papers with warm water and soap, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on. He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. “How is it?” “It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety-deposit box at the bank until the day I die. “That’s a Cadillac of a toe job,” said Neckerchief. “How much do I owe ya?” “On the house,” I said.

The next week I did Stovepipe. He was an easy case. Then, Mrs. Fringes, who was a special problem. I had to do her in the Ladies’ Room, which tied up the place for half an hour. A lot of people opened the door, took one look, and left in a hurry. I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase. You just never know.


[1] Lawson Wulsin, Toni Alterman, et al, “Prevalance Rates for Depression by Industry,” Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (2014): 49:1805-1821.

[2] Bernie Monegain, “Burnout Rampant in Healthcare,” Healthcare IT News (April 30, 2013) online at http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/burnout-rampant-healthcare.  Accessed July 31, 2015.

[3] Lauren G. Collins and Kristine Swartz, “Caregiver Care,” American Family Physician (June 1, 2011): 83 (11): 1309-1317.

[4] H. J. Freudenberger, “Staff Burnout,” Journal of Social Issues (1974) 30:159-165.

[5] L. R. Simpson and D. S. Starkey (2006), “Secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and counselor spirituality: Implications for counselors working with trauma.” Retrieved July 2015, from http://www.counseling.org/resources/library/Selected%20Topics/Crisis/Simpson.htm.

[6] L.L. Emanuel, F.D. Ferris, C.F. von Gunten, and J. Von Roenn eds. Education in Palliative and End-of-life Care for Oncology (Module 15: Cancer Doctors and Burnout). Chicago, IL: The EPEC Project, 2005.  Retrieved July 2015, from http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/754366.

[7] K.M. Kash, J.C. Holland, W. Breitbart, et al. “Stress and Burnout in Oncology,” Oncology (2000) 14:1621-1633.

[8] A. M. Pines, “Burnout: An Existential Perspective” in W. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, and T. Marek, eds. Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis, 1993.

[9] Friedrick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973, page 95.

[10] Brian J. Mahan, Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002, pages 9-14.

[11] Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Navpress, 1995. A newer edition of this book was published in 2004.

[12] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978.

[13] John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999, page 21.

Campus Ministry Leadership Theology

Message to SouthLake Christian Faculty and Staff

As we began faculty in-service last week at SouthLake Christian Academy, I addressed our teachers with an annual State of the School update and some words of encouragement and motivation. I commended their unity as a faculty and their commitment to teaching our students in ever changing circumstances, and also acknowledged the challenges they face as our operations are turned upside down in every conceivable way. I offered the following devotional thought and challenge.

Matthew 14 and John 6 tell the story of Jesus walking on water, but they tell it a bit differently. In Matthew’s account, Jesus walks on water through a storm, gets into the boat with his disciples, and “the winds ceased.” In John’s account, Jesus gets into the boat and “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. If you are a contemporary historiographer, this may appear as a contradiction. Some argue that the two writers are telling two different stories. For Matthew and John, however, I believe the gospel genre in which they were writing was use for theological rather than purely historical purposes. Matthew tells us when Jesus arrived, the waters calmed. John says that when Jesus arrived, they were carried across the waters; the voyage ended. Sometimes God intervenes to calm our waters and we keep on rowing. At other times he carries us through the waters, the voyage ends, and the difficulty is over. How God chooses to intervene is his choice by providence, and I believe, for our greater good.

In that light, I challenged our faculty and staff to shift their thinking in the following ways:

  1. Shift from likes to needs. Rather than think about operational changes as things we like or don’t like, conceive of them as things we need to continue live instruction as safely as possible for as long as possible.
  2. Shift from opinions to facts. We may all have opinions about school opening, about CDC recommendations, about the politics of wearing masks, etc. but those matter far less right now than science and data. Opinions matter, but facts are actionable.
  3. Shift from feelings to strategies. As conditions change, and inevitably they will, how we may feel about changes is less relevant than the strategies we implement to cope as well as possible with whatever comes our way.

While I would prefer that God simply carry us through this storm, it appears that we still have some rowing to do. So I will hope for calm waters, trust God’s providence, and pray for endurance to give every stroke of the paddle my best.

Biblical Interpretation Leadership Theology

Why Christian Education

Why Christian Education

[The following is a written summary of an address to the faculty of Westminster Catawba Christian School on August 5, 2019.]

At SouthLake Christian, we began a strategic planning process earlier this year to identify our main priorities as a school for the next chapter in our history. We spent a few months gathering data from our various constituents – teachers, students, parents, alumni, and members of the community – to clarify who we are and what next steps we should take, to select among all the good options the very best ones. Early and often, people identified two traits that characterize our school and must be preserved at all costs: our commitment to academic rigor and our identity as a Christian school. These conjoined twins represent the two main reasons our school was established and continues to exist, the reason parents hire us and pay us to do a job, the reason volunteers and donors give their time and money, and the reason that independent, public, and charter schools haven’t crowded us out. And yet, there are reasons for Christian education superior to those pragmatic considerations, important as they are. I propose that Christian education casts out fear[1], nourishes freedom, and tells a better story.

Bob Woodward’s 2018 book entitled Fear describes the inner workings of the White House with this phrase: “Real power is fear.” Machiavelli’s The Prince articulates a similar refrain: “It is better to be feared than loved.” Many leaders rise to power and maintain that power because they manage effectively to understand and articulate the underlying fears of their constituents. Some leaders maintain power by stoking that fear while promising to ameliorate it. These strategies work because fear plagues us all. It drives us to work and overwork, robs our sleep, wrecks our bodies, taints our relationships, and blinds us to life’s beauty. Fear. Cable news fuels it, social media feeds it, marketing firms monetize it. And the thing we have most to fear is fear itself. Yet we have a solution. Christians have always taught that the antidote to fear is love. The apostle John, for whom 4 books of the New Testament are named, writes that “God is love” and “perfect love casts out fear” and “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (1 John 4.8, 1 John 4.17, and John 15.13 – NIV). The love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us lives in us. As we love each other and our students and their families, we cast out fear. As we teach that love, and acknowledge explicitly its source and power, we smother the fires scorching our society. Christian education literally makes the world a better place, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

As we cast out fear, we nourish freedom. Years ago, I attended a conference of the American Academy of Religion, one session of which concerned academic freedom. The panel discussion was led by professors at various types of universities – state, private secular, and Christian. As they each described their context, something became blatantly obvious. Only Christian schools have any chance at true academic freedom! Public and secular private school teachers avoid religious conversations like the plague, by necessity. They can lose their jobs if they appear to advocate for any particular religious conviction. In the name of tolerance or open-mindedness or diversity, our society has pushed theological belief to the margins, treating nearly every other form of belief more amicably. A rather strange state of affairs now exists whereby religious belief, so important to so many, can barely be discussed by anyone in a secular classroom. And so, I ask, who is really free? The answer is YOU. You teach at a school that sees theological conviction not merely as a subject worthy of open discussion, but one foundational to all discussion because every belief of any kind begins with an unproven assumption. All learning requires faith. Your students attend a school where they can ask ANY question and get a straight answer. We can actually promote tolerance and open-mindedness and diversity not because these things are fashionable, but because they are beautiful, and good, and right, and true, and biblical. We have rich theological language by which to say that we should treat each other with respect and kindness because we are all created in God’s image, that we value people different from us because such is the Kingdom of God, that we seek community with people who do not look like us because heaven will be filled with people of “every tribe and tongue and nation” (Revelation 7.9 – ESV). We do not fear others because we love them. We love them because God first loved us. God’s love sets us free.

Christian education casts out fear, nourishes freedom, and tells a better story. This summer I spent part of a day with Scott Dillon, Head of School at Westminster Catawba, and we talked at length about the why of Christian education. What sets us apart from other academically rigorous schools? Why do parents pay us to educate their kids? What do we offer that is distinctive? To approach an answer to those questions, play a game with me. Imagine your school is not a Christian school. A student asks, why do I need to learn this math? You could answer, because you will need it for next year’s math class. Why do I need next year’s math class? Because you will need it to graduate. And why do I care about graduation? Because you need a high school degree to go to college or vocational school. Why do I need college or vocational school? Because you need more education to find a job in a competitive global economy? Why do I need to a job? So that you can live, pay your bills, raise a family, enjoy the world. Why do I need to do these things? Because they contribute to the greater good. And why should I care about the greater good? And on, and on, and on. Eventually, every answer becomes depressingly utilitarian. We do these things because they have pragmatic value. BORING! As Christian educators, we have a better story to tell. We teach and we learn because all truth is God’s truth. Because every equation displays God’s handiwork, and every element on the periodic table gives evidence of God’s ingenuity, and every musical note sounds God’s beauty, and every star in the solar system declares the God’s glory, and every language expresses God’s love, and every event in history ultimately tells His story. And we are story tellers. And what an amazing story we get to tell.

[1] The idea that Christian education casts out fear I owe to Dr. Dennis Sansom, Professor of Philosophy at Samford University. He presented this idea in a Convocation address to the university sometime during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Biblical Interpretation Education Leadership Theology

In the Beginning – Reflections on Genesis 1

[Note: The following is a sermon I preached at Samford University in 2012. Because it is a sermon, it is longer than my typical blog posts. I’m blogging it here as I begin a series on Genesis for young adults at Shades Mountain Baptist.]

For the past few years I’ve been teaching through the Bible each semester; that’s all the way through the Bible in about 4 months (approximately 36 hour-long class periods). The disadvantage of this approach is lack of depth but the advantage is the big picture. There’s no time to miss the forest for the trees. So often we look at the trees – those individual stories that fill the Bible – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, etc. and the moral lessons they teach. We miss the forest – the One Story of creation, fall, rescue and redemption. Take Jonah for example. We often read and remember the story like this: God told Jonah to go to some city and preach. Jonah refused so God had him swallowed by a big fish. The moral of the story is “you’d better obey or something bad might happen to you.” We fail to see how Jonah is connected to the larger narrative of scripture, that Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, sworn enemies of Jonah and the nation of Israel that was his home. This is why he fled, not simply out of disobedience but fear for his life. If he goes, the Assyrians will likely kill him and if they repent, his countrymen will likely kill him for helping save a dangerous enemy. We tend to ignore Jonah chapter 4 that tells us Jonah went, preached, and the Ninevites repented and God spared them in spite of his threats to destroy them, and Jonah got angry. And the lesson God teaches Jonah is that God cares about all people, even those we hate, and fear, and write off as too far gone for God. The Bible is filled with stories of God reaching out to people beyond reach and calling us to do the same.

Genesis introduces us to the ONE story of the creation, fall, rescue, and redemption of all humanity. When I was a kid my favorite toy was Legos. I had dozens of sets, thousands of little pieces that I could assemble any way my imagination saw fit. And every Lego engineer knows that when it’s time to get serious, the first step is to find a large open spot on the floor and dump out all the Legos. Only then can you see what pieces you’ve got, begin creatively to think of the design possibilities, and then start putting things together. Genesis 1 dumps out the Legos. We see from the beginning the major characters and theological themes that permeate scripture. Now I’m going to look at the first 5 verses of Genesis 1 to examine the Who, What and How of creation, and therefore the Who, What and How of the One story of the Bible.

  1. First, who created? “In the beginning, God created.” This is how it begins. The most read, copied, translated, distributed, and sold book in human history begins with “In the beginning, God.” Before the beginning of time and space, before anything we can know, or see, or comprehend, before any-thing, there was God – pre-existent, eternal, the uncreated creator creates. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” hovering a Hebrew word connoting the way a mother bird hovers over her babies – concern, care, nurture. “And God said” – there was the spoken word. The apostle John, inspired by these words, wrote the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

God, Spirit, Word – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – all three together, in the beginning – one, inseparable yet distinct, one person with three natures, equality, unity, trinity. From the earliest words of scripture we see a profound and mysterious truth about God. God is relational, God is love, even before there were people to love. Innate within God’s being, central to God’s character, the essence of God’s nature is love. Why did God create? Not out of need or necessity or loneliness or isolation. Not so that God could become love, but because God is love. He created because he loves. Why does loneliness and isolation hurt? Why does conflict with others feel so stressful? Why does alienation from community, or family, or friends make you sad? Because creation itself originates with a God who is innately relational so that loneliness, isolation, conflict, and alienation are contrary to the very essence of creation and the heart of God.

  1. Second, what was created? “And God said, ‘Let there be ….’” What did God create? The physical universe. Before the beginning, God was all there was, and then God created out of nothing, something that was different, new, separate, other than God. God used his ultimate, unsurpassed power to bring something out of nothing, to give power, individuality and freedom. Not pawns or puppets, not lines of code in a computer program that is running its course. We, and the world that we occupy are free. Free beings. Free to relate to God. Or not. Free to enjoy God’s creation. Or not. God in His sovereignty made us free, and that is good.

7x God pronounced the world good. God used his ultimate and unsurpassed power for good. The physical space we occupy, the natural world, the environment, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our bodies, appetites, senses, emotions, thoughts, all intended for good. Fallen and broken and twisted and perverted, yes, as we will see in Genesis 3, but as designed, they are good. Here we see one of the great truths – that evil exists only as the absence or perversion of good. Genesis 1 mentions darkness to show us the world without light. Without the Word, the world would remain in darkness. But God spoke, and light vanquished the darkness because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Dark is no-thing. Light is something and it is good. By analogy, all that is bad in our world and in your life is bad because something that is good is missing or messed up. Light is good. It grows plants, produces food, and nourishes our bodies with vitamin D. Too much light, without SPF 30 or higher, turns a day at the beach into a nightmare for a fair-skinned, formerly red-headed campus minister. The same sun that nourishes the earth can scorch the soil and skin. Without the light, there’d be no soil and skin to scorch. Food is good. There are few joys greater than a good home-cooked meal. But too much food and you’ll get sick. Not enough food and you’ll get sick. Poisoned or spoiled or tainted food can make you sick. All that is wrong is wrong because God made something that was right, and it went wrong. We are free. That is good. But God made the world so that it could go wrong. And he knew it would go wrong and he created it anyway. Why? Because a fallen and redeemed world is greater than a world that never fell in the first place.

  1. Third, how did God create? Here’s the formula repeated in chapter 1: “God said … God separated … God called.” God spoke things into being, put everything in its place, and gave everything a name, designated it for a purpose. In other words, God orders and gives purpose to all things. Here’s how the text drives home this truth: In Genesis 1, we see 7 days. The name of God is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of 7). The word heaven is mentioned 21 times. The word earth is also mentioned 21 times (multiples of 7). The word good is mentioned 7 times. The number 7, the perfect number, the number of completion, illustrates order and purpose. All that God created is free and for a purpose. What purpose? Now that’s the question isn’t it? The answer to that question is the meaning of life, the ultimate truth, the reason you’re alive and breathing and here in this room. You have a purpose more profound than you can imagine, greater than yourself, of immeasurable value and meaning. And here it is, right here in Genesis 1. The God of creation created you because he loves you and has a purpose for you. This seems elementary, grade school, old hat. Yet it’s the meaning of life and we forget it every day. In the chaos of our busy lives, we forget our purpose. Genesis calls us to remember.

Now let me pause, here near the end of this sermon, and say that we’ve been talking about Genesis for [18] minutes now and not once have I mentioned evolution, the issue that has dominated conversations about the Genesis for the past 90 years. Often, the questions we ask aren’t the ones Genesis answers because Genesis has a greater purpose. Let me illustrate.

In the summer of 2011 I taught a course in London and spent a weekend in Paris with my wife and three kids. While there we visited the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and is the most visited museum in the world with over 15,000 visitors daily. The Louvre employs 2000 people, contains 380,000 objects, is comprised of 652,300 square feet of exhibit space that cover 100 acres. It’s a 5-6 mile walk just to traverse every corridor. Without question, the Louvre single greatest collection of art and antiquities in human history. Perhaps the most famous piece of art at the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. The day we were there, crowds swelled around the painting so that it took us almost 20 to get close to it. I put my then 6 year-old Kate on my shoulders so she could see. And when we got close, she uttered these words that I’ll always remember: “I want some Nutella.” For those of you not familiar, Nutella is a creamy chocolate hazelnut spread that the Parisians are crazy about. They serve it in crapes all over Paris, and in the snack bar at the Louvre, and my daughter has some just as we entered the museum. [By the way, it turns out that eating Nutella within close proximity of priceless art is “frowned upon.”] But after 4 miles of walking through the museum Kate was hungry again. And so as we stood inches in front of the most famous and recognizable work of art in history, all that my daughter could think about was a tasty snack.

Often times we go to Genesis, or for that matter to the Bible, or for that matter to God himself, with OUR questions, our agenda, our curiosities, our desires for a spiritual snack. The corridors of the Bible filled with beauty and value beyond imagination and miss the splendor of the stories in front of us because we crave intellectual junk food. The questions we ask are not the ones God is answering and the questions God is addressing are often not the ones we are asking.

So why are we here? Because a God who loves you created you for a purpose, to love him and to reflect him to the world. This is what it means to “glorify God.” And there is nothing more important in the entire universe than that. The question is, is that the most important thing in your universe? College is busy. Your world after college is even busier. How do you keep it all in order? God turned chaos into the cosmos! Will you allow that God to bring order to the chaos of life? That is the question that matters.

Biblical Interpretation Theology

The Message of Christianity as Simply as I Know How to Explain It

God created all things and called the world that he created “very good.” Man and woman, happy and in perfect relationship with the creation and the Creator. Tempted by the desire to be like God, man and woman rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Every evil, every ounce of suffering, every war and death and disease and disaster originates from a good creation that is broken by sin. 

In response, God chooses the nation of Israel to use for his purposes to begin to restore the world. He taught Israel how to live as his chosen people, set them free from captivity, provided for their needs and gave them the law (10 Commandments, and a few others). But the law that was a gift was also a curse. The law exposes how truly broken we are. This was God’s plan all along, to teach us that we cannot be good enough to fix the world, to be genuinely happy again, or to restore a perfect relationship with God. The prophets, priests, and kings of Ancient Israel teach us that in the pages of the Old Testament.

Enter Jesus. He was an Israelite, the next step in God’s plan through Israel to remake the creation. He was born, lived, and died as a human being. But he was also God, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, the fullness of God in a human being. He was tempted like us, laughed like us, hurt like us, cried like us, bled like us, but without sin, without fault. So when he was executed he didn’t deserve it. He sacrificed himself for us, and in some mysterious way that I cannot fully understand, he took upon himself the sin and pain and misery of the world in order to fix it. There was a debt I owed that he paid. I was captive to an old life and he set me free. I deserved a punishment that he took in my place. The God of the universe is so just that he could not ignore sin, and so filled with love that he could not let it destroy us. So God sent Jesus to fix the problem. And Jesus did, and is continuing to do so, and will one day complete that task for good at the end of time, at the end of the world as we know it. In the words of Andrew Peterson, the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

What does this mean for us? We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot manage our own spiritual lives. We cannot restore ourselves or the world to the good condition in which God created it. We need Jesus. And the good news is this, literally the Gospel is this, that Jesus invites us to follow him, to believe in him, to trust him with our lives. And if we do so, he saves us from all that is wrong with us and from all that is wrong with the world. He restores us to a right relationship with God and with other people, gives us companionship, meaning and purpose in the Church, and begins the process of fixing everything. We do nothing to earn what God gives – this is grace, all of God offered to us in Christ. We acknowledge our sin and accept God’s gift, with the faith that God is who the Bible says he is, and that Jesus did what the Bible says he did for us. We enter a new relationship with him. All things become new.

– Presented at Freshmen Retreat, Samford University, August 29, 2014 and Shades Mountain Baptist UMin, August 31, 2014

Bible Biblical Interpretation Theology

Myths Christians Believe (finale)

Completing my multi-part (and too long) series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.
  • For Part 4 (myths 7 and 8), go here.

Myth 9: A Christian place is an easy place to be a Christian.

The first Christian school I attended was seminary, and in my first week of classes I observed a fellow student cheating on a Hebrew quiz. Cheating in seminary. Let that sink in. The experience struck me as totally ridiculous, but also taught me that seminarians are people, and just like people everywhere, some are dishonest. Many seminarians played the religious game. They discussed theological topics, engaged in religious activities, but they were in it for the money. The seminary degree was their ticket to a job that would pay the bills, or in some extreme cases, help make them rich and famous mega-church pastors. Seminary shattered my idealistic notions of Christian education. I needed my idealism shattered, but I sometimes found it difficult to maintain a genuine faith and not become cynical.

Now that I work and teach on a campus with a Christian identity and mission, I see some students playing that same religious game, and other students becoming cynical. Some students are shocked that their roommates use profanity or alcohol. Some are appalled by the obscenity they see from their classmates on social media. Others are generally irritated by all the Christian bragging they hear, the Bible studies, mission trips, small groups, etc. that people use to build their résumé. I sometimes talk to students (usually upperclassmen) who are so tired of the Christian culture that they find it all difficult to stomach.  Some ask, “Shouldn’t a Christian place be different, better, or more genuinely Christian?”

Some of the diversity stems from the fact that the school where I work doesn’t hand pick its student population so that every student fits a particular mold, religious persuasion, or ideological perspective. Some of the frustration comes from the unrealistic expectations of people who expect a Christian school (or church or organization or family or whatever) to be a utopia. It turns out that Christian schools are full of people, and people are sinful, and sinful people do sinful things. Perhaps we need a more realistic understanding of what a Christian school is.

Strictly speaking, an organization or institution cannot be “Christian,” only a person can.  A building is not Christian because it is adorned with a cross or stained glass any more than putting a Jesus fish on the bumper of my Toyota makes it a Christian truck.  A school isn’t Christian because it has a chapel on campus, a Bible verse on the front gate, or because it requires students to take a religion class or two.  In fact, it might be more accurate to talk about “schools with a Christian mission” rather than “Christian schools.” Maybe this is linguistic hair-splitting, but when you think of a school or a church or an organization in this way, maybe it eliminates the pressure to be perfect. People can be genuine about their hurts, struggles, and shortcomings. Somehow this type of vulnerability seems to lessen the cynicism. At the end of the day, even the most faithful believers are, all at once, both saints and sinners.

Myth 10: If I live well my life should go well.

The corollary to this myth is that if my life goes badly, I must have done something wrong. While few people will actually admit to this belief, they nonetheless become angry with God when life doesn’t go well. The view that a life of ease is a reward and that trauma is punishment gives rise to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The very question expresses the false belief that good people shouldn’t suffer.

In truth, there are many explanations for the existence of evil and suffering (I’ve written about that subject here) and retribution is one of them. But it is one thing to say that bad behavior is usually punished, and quite another to say that my current suffering must be punishment. If I eat bad oysters I’ll probably get an intestinal illness. But an intestinal illness may have nothing to do with oysters. We all get sick. The reality is that life is difficult and painful for everyone. Your own sense of personal virtue does not mean that God owes you a good life.

When you think about it, blaming God for pain is illogical. If God is powerful enough to be blameworthy, then he is powerful enough to have reasons for my pain that are beyond my ability to understand. Ironically, to blame God is simultaneously to credit God with the ability to be blameless. Here I am not trying to trivialize evil by suggesting that God causes all suffering as a means to a greater good. I am saying that whether God causes or allows my pain is simply beyond me. I cannot always know. I know that ultimately God redeems all pain and injustice in Christ and by Christ’s own suffering and death, but I do not claim to understand fully how that happens or when it will happen fully. I simply know that my responsibility is humble service, not to earn God’s grace but because God has given me grace beyond what I deserve. Grace persists, even in the absence of intellectual understanding.

If you are hurting, it may not be your fault. If you are doing well, it may not be to your credit. “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Theology

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry Theology

How Should We Live? A Very Brief Introduction to Ethics

“Every pursuit aims at some good.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

“Pride comes before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18

Introduction
Students in both my graduate level Corporate Integrity class and my freshmen level Core Texts class read quite a bit of philosophy. Some consider philosophy boring or impractical, but in some ways philosophy is the most practical of academic disciplines because it helps us think about the things that matter most in life.  Philosophy deals with the good, the true, and the beautiful (ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics), the necessary components of a life well lived. Ethics helps us think about what a good life looks like.

From a Christian perspective, a good life comes by grace through faith in Christ, but the gift of grace is not the end of the Christian life. Instead, grace should motivate right behavior. The field of ethics helps us think carefully about right behavior. What is good? How should we live? The major of schools of ethical thought help us answer these questions. Let me list four, describe them, and discuss their strengths and limitations.

1. Consequentialist Ethics. Sometimes called teleological ethics, consequentialism focuses on the outcome of a particular behavior. An action is good if it achieves a good end. There are two forms of consequentialism, egoism (act to maximize your own good) and utilitarianism (act to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number). Of course questions remain as to what goods should be maximized and for whom. Should we, for example, prioritize a growing economy or a clean environment? Should we sacrifice the needs of a wealthy minority for the needs of the poor majority? And how might we distinguish between needs and desires? Surely we desire many things that we do not genuinely need.

2. Rule or Duty Ethics. Sometimes called deontological ethics, rule or duty ethics focus on the obligations, rules, principles, laws, norms or duties that guide behavior. An action is good if it conforms to an accepted rule or duty. One classic expression of deontological ethics includes Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: treat people as ends not means, and act only on that principle that you would will to be a universal law. Another expression of deontology includes John Locke’s Social Contract Theory: if you choose to live in a society, you should respect the rights of others within that society. Deontology, however, raises obvious questions. How do we determine rules, duties, and rights? Are there ever exceptions to a rule? Can I tell a lie to save a life (as many did, for example, to hide Jews from the Nazis)?

3. Virtue Ethics. Sometimes called character ethics, this school of thought focuses on the development of virtue, the traits that lead to ethical decisions. An action is good if it embodies a virtue (integrity, trustworthiness, humility) and avoids a vice (greed, dishonesty, arrogance). Of course one might ask what virtues are most important, and whether or not it is possible for a vice sometimes to produce a good outcome.

4. Divine Command Theory. Here, an action is right if God commands it. There are two (mutually exclusive?) forms of divine command theory: (1) Plato – God only commands actions that are good, and (2) Ockham – Any action God commands is good. Plato’s view runs the risk of placing good over, God if it is something to which God is bound. Ockham’s view runs the risk of making good entirely arbitrary, such that humans could never know what was good apart from specific rules. Divine command theory raises some obvious questions. Which god’s command should be followed? How can one truly know God has commanded an action? Can God command something seemingly unethical (as when God commands Abraham to murder his son Isaac)?

Conclusion
No single school of ethical thought solves every moral dilemma. Some situations involve unavoidable moral complexity. Each school of thought contributes something to the conversation, but each has obvious limitations. Most people utilize a combination decision-making philosophies, but gravitate toward one in particular. It is wise to know one’s own ethical tendencies and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of that school of thought. To know what you don’t know requires humility, without which the good life (and God’s grace) will likely elude you.

Ethics Theology

Christian Conversion: Event or Process?

I grew up as a Baptist in south Louisiana where most of my friends were Catholic.   I went to church weekly from preschool to 12th grade.  As I recall, every church service I attended included two things: an offering and an invitation.  For those who aren’t familiar, as my Catholic friends were not, the invitation is a time near the end of a worship service designated for people to respond publically to a call to Christian faith, or to make other public decisions of somewhat lesser importance.  The invitation represents a key feature of evangelicalism and is tied closely to what I call conversion theology.  Mark Noll describes this theology as a key feature in American evangelicalism with its emphasis on life-changing religious experiences.[1]  The invitation to conversion was such a prominent part of my formative church experiences, that I was converted twice, once at age 7 when I had no idea what I was doing, and again at age 13, precisely because at age 7 I had no idea what I was doing.  This two-step conversion process, I have learned during two decades of work among students in the Bible Belt, is an incredibly common phenomenon.  From time to time, I ask students if they have a conversion story similar to mine.  I estimate that approximately 75% of students say yes.  These admittedly unscientific observations illustrate, I think, that many Protestants obsess about identifying the specific point in time that they crossed the line into faith.  They want to know the moment of conversion, the exact date and time, and to keep it in their memory.  Many write it in their Bibles.  My intent here is not to debate the relative theological value of conversion theology, but rather to point out that a great many sincere believers, C. S. Lewis included, could not tell you exactly when they crossed the line.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christian faith in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy.  There he gives details about his commitment to atheism as a young adult and the slow process by which he came to believe in the existence of God.  He writes of his 1929 conversion to theism, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”[2]  His acceptance of Christian belief came nearly two years later, following a late night conversation with J.R.R. Tolkein and Hugo Dyson, and on a bus ride with his brother to the zoo.  He writes, “when we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought … It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is awake.”[3]

Rumor has it that years later, Lewis was asked by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to give testimony to his Christian conversion at a 1950’s crusade and Lewis refused, believing that his own story failed to conform to the stories typically told at such events.  For his own part, Lewis once met Billy Graham and liked him sincerely.  Lewis supported offering people a clear call to conversion.  But in an interview recorded in God in the Dock, Lewis was asked whether it was his personal aim to “foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ,” and his response was “You can’t lay down any pattern for God.  There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom.”[4]  D. E. Myers argues convincingly that much of Lewis’s writing reflects a style of Anglicanism that emphasizes gradual spiritual formation rather than sudden conversion.[5]  I suspect that Lewis would be deeply uncomfortable with the formulaic manner by which Christian commitment is promoted within southern evangelicalism.

As a teacher and campus minister, I have known literally hundreds of students whose experiences do not fit the formula.  For my own part, I cannot identify clearly the exact point in time that I crossed the line into faith.  I know that prior to age seven, I cannot rightly say that I had any genuine Christian commitment.  After age 13 I can.  In the interim, God only knows.  This used to trouble me, as it does many students with similar stories.  Lewis was the first of many to show me that there are other ways of thinking about Christian commitment than the conversion theology of my home church.  Be comforted if the story of your spiritual formation is much messier than the perceived norm.

[1] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 228-29.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: Macmillan, 1958), 262.

[5] D. E. Myers, “The Complete Anglican: Spiritual Style in the Chronicles of Narnia,” in Anglican Theological Review 66 (April 1984): 148-160.

[The featured image for this blog is a photo I took in June of 2010 of New Building at Magdalen College, Oxford, where C. S. Lewis lived and taught.]

Campus Ministry Theology

Should I abandon the Church?

There are problems with the Church, no doubt. More accurately, there are problems with churches. This is a blinding flash of the obvious. Churches are comprised of broken people in a broken world. Broken people do things that range from mildly annoying to downright evil. Your involvement with churches likely includes experiences across this spectrum. Many use church problems as their reason for avoiding church altogether, and people in the U.S. are avoiding church in record numbers. They’ve been hurt, burned, mistreated, offended, or generally irritated by the church, so they disassociate themselves from the institution entirely, either intentionally and explicitly, or unintentionally and implicitly by their lack of involvement. If you’ve been abused by a representative of the Church, I am certainly not going to try to minimize your pain or attempt to talk you out of your offense. Rather, I offer my sincere apology and affirm that victimization in the name of religion is evil. I suspect that most who have left the church, however, have done so for reasons far less severe than abuse. In any case, the question I want to ask here is this. Is it reasonable to leave the Church, and every expression of it, in response to an offense? Should you throw the baby out with the bathwater?

If you are involved with a church long enough, you will be offended, and you will offend. Such is the nature of human relationships. In fact, the more deeply you know someone, the more profoundly that person can hurt you. I can ignore a stranger’s insult. The same words spoken by my wife may wound deeply. But we do not necessarily denounce the institution of marriage in response to the insult or injury of a spouse. In a church, relationships center on something deeply personal and ultimately significant, one’s belief in and relationship to God. Genuine relationships of this sort leave one remarkably vulnerable, making offense inevitable, but also making healing and joy and growth and fulfillment possible. In other words, the conditions necessary for good create conditions that make evil possible. It is precisely because the Church can be such a powerful force for good in the world that it is capable of being such a source of evil.

We live in a throw-away society. If something breaks, we toss it and replace it. In a fractured and individualistic society, it is far easier to leave a community than to reconcile with it. Especially in the Bible belt, with churches on every corner, I can leave one congregation for another in an attempt to find the “right” church, one that makes me comfortable, where everyone shares my beliefs and values. If such a place were possible, and if I found such a place, I suspect that as I changed and the community changed we wouldn’t be perfectly compatible for long. At some point, I must acknowledge that if I choose to surround myself with only those people who agree with me, I have more or less become my own standard for life and truth. I have become my own God. I have created a world that revolves around me. If that is my goal, then I shouldn’t be surprised when a church, whose objective is to lead me to worship someone above and beyond me, rubs me the wrong way.

Theology