I am a worm, and not a man…

13 08 2011

Yesterday I learnt a sad, hard lesson: I am inept at barbecuing.

Well, that’s not strictly true… I didn’t get far enough to test my skills at the actual cooking. I suppose what I mean to say is that I am inept at lighting barbecues.

There are many factors I could blame for my failure:

  • The charcoal was old, and perhaps a little damp
  • I didn’t have the right equipment
  • It was too windy
  • Once the coals started to get warm, the rain began to fall

But as they say, ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ and I know if I’m honest that the failure was not due to any implement, but to an individual. There is one person to blame for my incompetence, and one person alone: my father.

You see, nobody ever taught me to light a barbecue. Surely that was his job! I was taught to tell the time, swim, ride a bike, and spit cherry stones with laser-like precision… but nobody ever taught me how to get little blocks of charcoal hot enough to burn a burger! Why this omission from my otherwise adequate education?

The art of barbecuing is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. People seem strangely cagey about their methodology, and there is something unnervingly ‘cloak and dagger’ (or rather ‘apron and tongs’) about the way in which the secrets are guarded.

It has been this way since primeval man first learnt to burn things and eat them. For many thousands of years, women and children have been banished from the grill, lest they discover the techniques behind the wizardry of the embers. Women were told ‘this is a man’s job’. Or perhaps if he were feeling a little more devious the male in question would adopt a tone of faux-chivalry and say, ‘put your feet up love and let me serve you’, whilst children were scared with stories of explosions, scorchings, and facial-scarring.

But presumably there would be some point at which the child would be taught the methodology of barbecuing? Just the male children, of course. Stone-age fathers who gave birth only to daughters would have been scorned, or considered cursed, for having not produced an heir to the grill.

At some point in time, the young boy would come of age and be allowed into the circle of trust – perhaps once he had undergone a right of passage, such as slaughtering a wild boar with his bare hands, or spending a night in a snake infested cave – only then earning the right to learn the secrets of the cinders. At that point, and not a moment before, would a father take his child to a remote forest, and teach him the ways of barbecuing. And as they left the village, the other stone-age fathers would exchange knowing looks; today is the day a child becomes a man.

Somehow I missed out on this experience.

At some point in the early ‘90s, the father to son transmission of the secrets was interrupted, and I was never inducted into the order of the embers. I feel that perhaps I was the only one. Did I not prove myself? If there was some kind of task I was meant to complete in order to ‘come of age’, nobody ever told me! I would happily have wrestled a bear, or drunk the blood of a goat, or whatever it took to earn the right to learn this precious skill.

And so, alas, last night I spent hours standing before a pile of frigid coals, using an entire box of matches, googling many tips and techniques, writing the majority of them off as old wives’ tales, and finally retreating inside to the hob and the electric grill. I smelt of smoke and had nothing to show for it.

I can’t help but wonder if Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, felt the same sense of shame and bewilderment as I did? Was King Louie some self-referential device, used to vent the author’s personal angst at his inability to barbecue?

What I desire is man’s red fire, to make my dreams come true.’

All this is to say that I am not to blame for my failure. I am the victim of inadequate parenting! I have been overlooked and under-taught and I protest that my inability to light a barbecue in no way diminishes my masculinity.

That’s my excuse, and I’m clinging to it ‘til I die.

p.s. Dad… I’m only joking; I don’t blame you. But seriously…

Give me the power of man’s red flower, so I can be like you!

Please stop the bandwagon. I’d like to get off.

3 12 2010

I know it’s trendy. I know you think it’s shocking. But it’s not. It’s overdone. It’s lost its impact. And I’m sick of it.

I am tired of articles and opening chapters of books that follow this tired formula. In fact, they are so ubiquitous that I am beginning to wonder if there actually is a formula for randomly generated intro chapters. See if you recognise it. It goes something like this:

I used to be a Christian.
Now I’m not.
I’m embarrassed to call myself a Christian.
Here’s why:
[Insert a handful of extreme examples of fundamentalism gone wrong]
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a follower of Christ.
I’m just embarrassed by the name.
And the connotations the name carries.
Let’s rename ourselves [insert some trendy name, which is probably also the title of the book]
If we do that then everything will all be fine.

You see, whilst the analysis may at times be insightful, and some of the solutions offered extremely provocative, I am so sick of the premise that I struggle to get past chapter one.

The ‘I used to be a Christian – but I hate the name – now I’m just a follower of Christ by another name’ thing used to be shocking. It used to make the reader feel uncomfortable. Now I read articles like ‘Anne Rice quit being a Christian’ and I don’t think ‘woah, that’s powerful!’ I think ‘chalk that up as the tenth this week!’

It’s not that I think the content of the books is always wrongheaded, although often it is. It’s not that I think that the authors are trying to sell us some wishy washy liberal distraction from preaching the gospel and building churches, although some of them are. I’m just bored of the premise! It doesn’t shock any more.

What is the most shocking or unexpected twist in a film that you can remember? The first time you watch it, it blows you away; you never saw that coming! What happens the second, third, or fourth time you watch the film? You get numb to it. It loses its power. What would happen if you took that scene and transposed it into a dozen other films? Every time a kid wanders onto your screen and says ‘I see dead people, all the time’ you’ll instantly know where the film is heading.

It’s stale. It’s done. I’m bored. Let’s move on.

The best opening I have read recently is in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. Buy it and read it just for the opening chapter. Don’t skip to the end of the chapter; read it through! See if it doesn’t achieve what the ‘tried and tested formula’ above aims to. See if it doesn’t kick you in the gut and leave you gasping for air. See if it doesn’t make you turn the page faster than you have ever turned a page in your life!

Like I say, many of the books are great, just not as shocking as they think they are, and I fear that by jumping on the ‘bandwagon of embarrassment’ their effectiveness is significantly reduced. But for what it’s worth, here are three verses I’d just like to throw into the ring for consideration next time someone fancies copying and pasting this formula.

In the New Testament the word ‘Christian’ appears three times:

In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.’
(Acts 11:26)

Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”’
(Acts 26:28)

The title ‘Christian’ was given to the early believers by the unbelieving public. It’s always been a label applied to us by people outside, loaded with particular connotations. Why should we expect it to be any different today?

The term ‘Christian’ has always been a way of differentiating us based on what we’re not. For the early church they were not Jews, they were Christians. It was a boundary marker and a necessary distinction. Why should we expect it to be any different today?

‘Well then,’ you might say, ‘if it was a label given us by unbelievers, intended to separate and categorise us, are we not entitled to reject it or feel embarrassed by it?’

And I would reply, ‘Well, you may well have a point, but consider the third New Testament reference’:

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.’
(1 Peter 4:16)

Where has that attitude gone? There was a day when people were proud of the name.

When persecution, misunderstanding, false accusations and lack of respect abound, by all means let us clarify, build bridges, nuance our statements, draw the lines, disassociate with particular views, readdress the balance. But can we do it in such a way as to avoid being ashamed, and still be proud of the title?

It would make Peter happy, strengthen your case and alleviate my embarrassment-fatigue!

Honour and Shame iv – Strung Up and Lifted Up

24 09 2010

In this fourth and final post I explore two more passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example:

Disarming the Powers

‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (Colossians 2:13-15)

Similarly to Leviticus 16, in Colossians 2 we see God dealing not only with the legal demand of guilt, but also the problem of shame. The cross was a hugely brutal and shameful thing to endure. As Jesus hung there, bloody, bruised, broken, naked and humiliated, with a mocking sign above his head, to all intents and purposes it seemed like the powers and authorities (both Roman and Demonic) had won. But actually, as Christ wilfully endured that shameful act of cruelty on our behalf, he turned the tables on the powers, triumphing over them and putting them to open shame as he broke their power forever more. Colossians 2 says he did it ‘at the cross’ but implicit in this as well is the resurrection. It was not only at the cross that he shamed them, but at the grave as well, where he demonstrated their impotence and rose again in glory. And now he is ascended into heaven and there is only, and will only ever be, glory for him!

The Christ Hymn of Philippians

‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil 2:5-11)

Philippians 2 is an awe-inspiring passage that depicts beautifully Jesus’ willingness to transition from glory, being in very nature God, to shame, becoming like a servant/slave, and ultimately dying a humiliating criminal’s death. The passage ends with God exalting him to a position of extreme honour – every knee bowing before him in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Jesus took on a shameful form to pay for our shame, and his resurrection and ascension in glory prefigures our own eventual resurrection at the second coming.


The Gospel cuts across every culture at some point and causes discomfort. It is not only those in honour/shame cultures that will feel some repugnance at the notion of leaving your family (and dying father?) without a farewell, in order to follow Jesus (Luke 9:59-62). Socialising with prostitutes is as much of a cultural faux pas for modern western politicians (and footballers!) as it was for ancient eastern Rabbis! (Matthew 21:32) The Gospel has always been, and will continue to be, foolishness to the perishing (1 Cor 1:18).

There is no easy and comfortable portrayal of the Gospel, as it will always confront our assumptions and challenge us to give up something our culture holds dear; independence, personal comfort, prejudices etc. In a sense, Gospel and Culture will always be somewhat in opposition.

Having said that, it is vital we contextualise the Gospel responsibly, and ensure that we present it in a way that genuinely addresses the concerns of the recipient. Failure to recognise the differences between cultures can result in the presentation of an irrelevant and incoherent gospel.

Honour and Shame iii – Scapegoat and Son

23 09 2010

In this third of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.

The Scapegoat

‘Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.’ (Leviticus 16:9-10)

Leviticus 16 tells the story of two goats, one of whom is killed on behalf of the people as a means of paying the penalty for their sin (guilt), whilst the second is sent off into the desert, carrying their shame with him. The second goat, the scapegoat, is driven outside the camp, separated from the community. It is symbolic of the penalty of sin; shameful separation. [1]

Removal of guilt is not the only thing God is concerned with. He is concerned with the feelings of shame and the social and relational ramifications of sin. His scapegoat is the means of removing that shame, and Jesus, who was sent outside the camp, ridiculed, naked and bearing our shame, fulfilled both the role of the sin offering and scapegoat in one fell swoop.

The Prodigal Son

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:21-24)

The story of the Prodigal Son is a brilliant example of how the gospel is relevant to the honour/shame culture. In fact, there is little in it to appease those of us entrenched in a guilt culture, such is the emphasis on the restoration of relationship. The following elements are of particular note:

  • The younger son brings shame upon himself by wishing his father were dead, thus enabling him to have the inheritance (15:12)
  • He brings shame upon the father by squandering his hard earned wealth (15:13)
  • He gets a job tending swine, which is immeasurably shameful for a Jew (15:15) and he even contemplates eating the swine food (15:16)
  • He is in such dire need that he considers going back to his father, begging him and offering to become a hired hand – to give himself in slavery to his father and giving up his title as son (15:19)
  • But the father himself takes the bold move of running, undignified, towards his returning prodigal son (15:19) rather than rejecting him.
  • Even more amazing, he refuses to allow his son to be a slave, but blesses him. He doesn’t even allow him to return and carry on as if nothing had happened, but he showers honour upon him, with a robe, a ring and a feast (15:22-23)

This story paints the picture of a God who won’t abandon you to shameful separation, even when that’s what logic and society deem appropriate. He will step out and come running toward you, eager to restore you to a place of honour. I think it is telling that the Father takes a potentially shameful step, putting his reputation at stake by running (an action not befitting of an older gentleman!) and accepting a clearly sinful man back into your family. It beautifully makes sense of the God who was willing to endure the shame of the cross to take away the shame of humanity.

There is a great significance in the character of the older brother as well. He reproves his father, a clear advocate of the honour/shame mindset; “This son has dishonoured you, I have only brought honour to you, it is dishonourable for you to accept him back!” But God defies the logic of those who are bemused by his lavish grace. The cross is foolishness…


[1] It is worth noting that death would have been the fate of both goats. The scapegoat didn’t simply wander off to live a long, albeit lonely, life. In fact the Rabbis indicate that they went to extreme lengths to ensure the goat didn’t return, bringing the shame back into the camp. They established ten booths along the way towards a large ravine in the wilderness. At these booths, a man whose job it was to lead the goat could stop for water, food and rest. When the man reached the ravine he would push the goat into it, ensuring it died. He would then wave a towel so that the people at the last booth could see the goat was dead. This was communicated from booth to booth all the way back to the camp, where the people would rejoice that their shame was gone, no more to return. Thus it was essential that Jesus not only bore our shame and went outside the camp, but that he died too, thus putting an end to our shame once and for all. He will never return to us with our shame. Our shame is in the grave, and now the risen Christ is clothed in only glory!

Honour and Shame ii – Eden and Exodus

22 09 2010

In this second of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example. It’s a fairly arbitrary selection and there are, of course, many more I could add…

The Fall

‘The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed […] Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths […] And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.’ (Genesis 2:25, 3:7, 21)

In God’s original creation, shame was non-existent; or at the very least, the things of which we are now ashamed bore no stigma. Right at the beginning of history we see a story that shows a number of key elements of the gospel, namely:

  • We were created to be without shame, in perfect relationship with one another and with the Lord (2:25)
  • Sin leads to shame (3:7)
  • Man tries to cover his shame through his own efforts (3:7)
  • Shame leads to fear, not only of what others think, but what God thinks (3:10)
  • The result of man’s actions is a curse of enmity (3:15, 16), pain in childbirth (3:16), a curse on the earth (3:18), painful work (3:19), physical death (3:19), loss of eternal life (3:22) and, crucially, banishment from God’s presence (3:24)
  • God took an active role in covering our shamefulness and restoring dignity to us (3:21) probably through an act of sacrifice.

Thus in the story of the fall we have a basic structure for explaining how sin affects relationships, creating a sense of shame that results in banishment, and how God Himself offers a way of covering our shame and restoring our dignity.

The Exodus

‘The Egyptians set taskmasters over [The Israelites] to afflict them with heavy burdens […] they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.’ (Exodus 1:11, 13-14)

The Exodus story depicts a people who are removed from their homeland and reduced to the shameful position of waiting on their ruthless Egyptian captors. Slavery is a shameful thing, and being oppressed and unable to do anything about it would be looked down on in honour/shame cultures (as it would in most cultures, I imagine.) Yet the Exodus story paints a picture of a God who:

  • Cares about His people, and doesn’t abandon them because He is ashamed of their degraded state
  • Acts to bring an end to shame, when the Israelites could do nothing by their own strength to free themselves
  • When God brings Israel out of exile, he doesn’t merely bring them to a neutral position, but promises to bless them with an honourable status in a fertile land flowing with milk and honey

So although it takes a step of humility for someone in an honour/shame culture to recognise that they are unable to do anything to remedy their shameful state, and that they are indeed in need of rescue, the Exodus narrative gives a good structure for showing how God is not ashamed of His people enough to give them up, but instead gets involved to rescue and restore them.

Honour and Shame i – The Jumping Frog

20 09 2010

Tiswango - Hurricane Katrina

Mark Twain once stumbled across a French translation of his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He decided to convert the French version back into English, word for word, retaining the French grammatical structure and syntax. There were, predictably, quite notable and humorous differences between the original and the back-translated versions. The latter was clunky, indecipherable and bore little resemblance to the original story. Finally, in 1903, the three versions were published together under the title The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilised Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.

Back-translating a document, from one language to another, and back to the original, is a perilous undertaking; a good deal may be lost in the process, and you’ve got to wonder what you’ve gained over simply using the original document!?

I can’t help but feel that the question of how to communicate the Gospel in an honour/shame culture has the potential to fall foul to the hazards of back-translation. The audience to whom Jesus spoke was, after all, entrenched in an honour/shame worldview. And so here am I, not particularly au fait with the intricacies of the honour/shame worldview, trying to back-translate my own interpretation of the gospel into its original form!

I say this not to claim it is an impossible or unfruitful task, but simply to highlight a slight peculiarity about the task in hand, and also to admit that I know very little about honour/shame cultures. I should like to know more, and given that Britain is becoming increasingly multicultural, our interaction with people who hold this worldview is only likely to increase.

A short while ago I had to write an essay on how the gospel could be communicated in an honour/shame culture. It was a challenge and I fear my own observations, given their lack of intricate knowledge, may prove to be as clunky and indecipherable as version three of the Jumping Frog! Reading Carson’s article reminded me that I wanted to revisit the subject and give it some further thought.

Given that the New Testament was written to people in an honour/shame culture, is no great surprise to find that it contains not a few elements, metaphors, stories and concepts that lend themselves to communicating the gospel to these cultures. In these next few blog posts I propose to make a few tentative observations about honour/shame cultures, followed bare-bone structures for how one might present the gospel from six passages of Scripture.

Initial Observations

One of the elements of honour/shame cultures that works in favour of communicating the gospel is that there is already an established understanding of sin. People recognise that some actions are good, and others bad, or at least that certain actions have good or bad outcomes. The concept of sinfulness is therefore relatively familiar to individuals in honour/shame cultures. People will hardly need convincing of the existence and effect of sin, as it is experienced on a regular basis.

However, there are a number of differences between our understandings of the effect sin has. In our culture, which one might call a ‘guilt culture’, the issue with sin is that it leaves us with a sense of guilt for the wrongs we have committed. What we require, in order to appease that guilt, is forgiveness. In honour/shame cultures, guilt is not so much a consideration, as alienation; as a result of your shame, you will be shunned by those you have hurt, and particularly your family. What you need, therefore, is not so much forgiveness – although that will no doubt be a part of it – but reconciliation to your family through the removal of shame.

Sinfulness is often determined in honour/shame cultures by the effect your actions have upon your relationships. What constitutes sin is often defined by how other people perceive your actions, rather than the inherent goodness or wrongness of the action itself. Thus what constitutes a shameful action could vary significantly according to the crowd with whom you interact. [1]

What’s more, the fact that sin is defined as something that brings shame upon the community, may actually prove to be a hindrance to someone making a response to the gospel. In shame cultures, it may be considered a seriously shameful thing to convert to Christianity. Hence many converts who come from Islamic backgrounds find themselves disowned by their family members, or in extreme circumstances threatened with death. The belief that conversion will bring shame upon your family may prove to be a significant stumbling block for a potential convert in a shame culture.

Another potential hindrance raised by the honour/shame understanding of sin is that it has the potential to create self-reliance and promote a works-righteousness mentality. If your actions have the potential to bring honour or shame upon you, then the way in which you obtain greater honour is by performing more honourable actions. This has the potential to create self-reliance and legalism.

Related is the concern that allowing someone to die in your place is a hugely shameful thing to do. Substitutionary atonement will not sit will with someone who believes it is shameful for someone else to take the blame for your iniquities, or that requiring rescue is a sign of weakness, and thus shameful. Of course, pride is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and is likely to be a universally recognised stumbling block, but it is perhaps worth noting.

There is also an inherent and perhaps unhelpful aspect to the concept of shamefulness that produces an inward-looking approach to morality. Take the example of a man who is faced with the potential to exploit someone else’s weakness for their own gain; perhaps stealing from an old lady. In an honour/shame culture the imperative that causes you to resist such a crime is that taking advantage of your strength and someone else’s weakness brings shame upon you. In our culture, presumably, the motivating factor for resisting would be that mugging an old lady is either (i) illegal or (ii) unfair on the lady.  In option (i) an appeal is made to an objective morality that exists apart from us and in option (ii) it is the victim’s wellbeing that is put first. In the honour/shame culture abstaining from robbery has the potential to be a predominately selfish act, motivated by the concern of how your actions will be perceived by others, and what ramifications that will have upon you.

Of course, it is conceivable that the would-be-mugger in our culture may be motivated by the fear that (iii) his actions will leave him unable to sleep at night, a selfish motivation or (iv) the objective morality (in the form of the British legal system) will catch up with him, a selfish motivation which still appeals to an objective moral imperative. But I think the observation stands that actions in honour/shame cultures are more likely to be motivated by selfish ambition than out of respect for the wellbeing of the victim.

Our two cultures are not entirely distinct. There are common elements in each, and it’s not easy to polarise them into neat packages. But nonetheless, with some of these comments in mind, the next two posts aim to summarise six passages of Scripture that appear to address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.


[1] Of course, this is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and in many areas of the western world relativism is still rife. The motivating factor may be different, (honour/shame = what will people think of me if I do this? Western postmodern = ‘it feels good to me so it can’t be wrong!!”) but the effect is the same; a rejection of moral absolutes in favour of a more flexible morality. Additionally, in honour/shame cultures, they still have a law to which they need to abide, and breaking that law will have judicial consequences; imprisonment, mutilation, death. But in the arena of day-to-day life, the sinfulness of the words you say and the way you treat people will be determined not by a perception of ‘what is good and proper’ but ‘what will cause people to think positively or negatively of me.’

D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées

23 08 2010

The new edition of Themelios is out. As always, some interesting, relevant, thought-provoking articles and reviews… (and some less so!)

Most of all, I enjoyed this: D.A. Carson’s Pastoral Pensées: Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion.

‘Most of us, I suspect, develop fairly standard ways, one might even say repetitive ways, to appeal to the motivations of our hearers when we preach the gospel. Recently, however, I have wondered if I have erred in this respect—not so much in what I say as in what I never or almost never say.’

There have been a large number of articles, books and popular preachers who have encouraged us in recent years to think about the many strands of the gospel, and how we can apply each of them to the hearer as is most apt. Equally, there have been a number of articles, books and popular preachers who have favoured one model over another, or indeed over all the others (such that one particularly high-profile book on the atonement argued until its authors were blue in their faces that ‘penal substitution is the primary atonement model, but of course we believe in all the others as well!’ and then proceded to articulate each of the other atonement theories, practically disregarding their subtleties and describing all of them as in such a way as to make them sound just like penal substitution under a different guise!)

I feel that for all our talking about the many strands of the gospel, when it comes down to making an appeal, we still don’t quite get it. I still don’t get it. I still rely on tried and tested appeals, phrases, metaphors and methods. I fail to ask what my audience member might be thinking and feeling at that moment and instead preach a formula.

So for that reason I found Carson’s article helpful and enlightening. In it he surveyed eight possible motives we can and should appeal to in our hearers:

  • Fear
  • The Burden of Guilt
  • Shame
  • The Need for Future Grace
  • The Attractiveness of Truth
  • A General Despairing Sense of Need
  • Responding to Grace and Love
  • A Rather Vague Desire to Be on the Side of What Is Right, of What Is from God, of What Is Biblical, of What Is Clean, of What Endures.

I don’t intend to repeat all he said. Read it for yourself. But let me offer a couple of comments and some further reading:

  • I’d never before thought of ‘The need for future grace as a category of its own apart from Guilt and Shame…
  • ‘A Rather Vague Desire…’ deserves more thought. I wonder how many of the people I encounter fall into this category rather than any of the other seven? I’m also not entirely sure how I would tailor my appeal to them any differently than to those in the ‘Attractiveness of Truth’ camp.
  • ‘Burden of Guilt’. Carson writes:

‘I specify “the burden of guilt” instead of “guilt” because I prefer to use the latter for one’s moral and legal status before the holy God. In other words, one may be very guilty and not feel guilty, that is, not labor under any burden of guilt. If one is in fact guilty but feels nothing of the burden of guilt, the objective guilt is not a motivation for conversion. Until one cries, in these words or something similar, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4), one is not strongly motivated by the burden of guilt. On the other hand, that guilt, rightly perceived, can be a crushing burden and thus a powerful and desperate motivation for relief.’

I found this a fascinating distinction. Guilt is objective, but oft-unperceived. The Burden of Guilt is a feeling we can appeal to.

It strikes me that this is the one most of us fall back on regularly. But I doubt whether it is always the most effective. I remember preparing a talk a year ago for a student guest service and I had agonised over it for ages. When I took a step back, I realised that I was spending 70% of the talk trying to engender a feeling of ‘Burden of Guilt’ in people who had not the slightest perception of their objective Guilt. As a result, it simply came across as doom-mongering.

Now, sometimes that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I remember in an old job that a colleague of mine would, every day, just take some of the chocolate that was lying out in the kitchen, not realising that you were meant to pay for it! (As if the Civil Service has a habit of being exceedingly generous to its low-level grunts?!) I wondered at first how they didn’t seem to feel guilty about it, until I realised that nobody had ever explained the system; how much it costs, where to put the money etc. So I told them of their objective Guilt, which engendered a Burden of Guilt and led to a solution.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one less trivial examples, not least relating to salvation. But in general I feel that we depend solely on the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach because we know no other. And more often than not, it falls flat, because that’s just not where our listeners are at. Often our gospel is so small that the only way we are able to preach it is to lead someone to the point where they think ‘I feel so guilty‘ and then say ‘Hey, I have an answer to that‘ rather than addressing the real questions and emotions they had in the first place!

Enough said on that before I labour the point. I’m not asking that we abandon the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach. Just don’t unthinkingly take it as your default.

His concluding statements (expanded from these below) were a helpful check to keep the conversation in balance and limit knee-jerk reactions.

  1. We do not have the right to choose only one of these motivations in people and to appeal to it restrictively.
  2. On the other hand, we may have the right to emphasize one motivation more than others.
  3. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of our appeal to diverse motivations will reflect the comprehensiveness of our grasp of the gospel.
  4. To put this another way, all of the biblically sanctioned motivations for pursuing God, for pursuing Christ, say complementary things about God himself, such that failure to cover the sweep of motivations ultimately results in diminishing God.

I still feel we have a lot of work to do on this. We have the theory in place, but have to regularly fight the flesh and the temptation to rely on safe, easy, road-tested formulae. Ultimately we will serve people better if we genuinely engage with their emotions rather than fling a series of propositions at them and hope one hits home.

I’d encourage you to read Carson’s article and see what you think, especially if you’re a preacher. And to put flesh on the bones, check out this excellent paper by Andrew Wilson from Kings Church Eastbourne on ‘The Essential Gospel.’ It will really serve to model some of what Carson suggests.