A Salvation Manifesto (In Progress): As It Concerns Anxiety, Legalism, and Perfectionism.

A conversation in response to 12/3/2016, 1/19/2017: On Perfectionism and Creativity

In early 2017, a friend had some questions about a post. My response ended up summarizing my whole soteriology at the time, which of course is built with the humble and talented bricks of so many profs, books, and pastors and mortared together with my own thought and experience. I’m putting it here for posterity and will probably comment on it later.

D:  I have been thinking about this a lot lately, specifically how fear relates to perfectionism. Maybe you can expound on that some…

Me: What have you been thinking?

D: Well recently I feel like perfectionism is somehow related to self- protection or fear. But I haven’t figured it all out yet. You said it’s fear of failure which makes sense. Trying to protect a false image I have of myself maybe? But what if the fear of failure is of moral failure or sinful failure? I guess that’s what you were saying, that even that can become an idol. I’ve not thought of that before. But yes, it steals creativity & risk taking, but since perfection is impossible it also steals joy & peace.

Me: Yeah, moralism—that Christ-agnostic standard that has ruled much of my life—is a huge offender. And a sneaky one, since it masquerades so well as being scriptural. Learning the difference between moralism and the Gospel, which is about Christ’s meeting all godly standards on our behalf, was a huge change for me. The Grace Awakening by Chuck Swindol was a big help for me in this, among other things.

A corresponding key nuance is that ALL salvation—even sanctification—is by grace through faith. The emphasis in my tradition was always on our responsibility and need to work in sanctification (which we should) rather than on our dependence upon God for good works, just as much as we depend for initial belief and for future, eternal deliverance. We are called to work, but the goodness that comes within our working, when it comes, is always, always, always by grace through faith and not because of the work, itself (Phil 2:12-13). That grace—that dependence upon God for sanctification-salvation—frees us from the idolatrous tyrant of moral success. And again, it’s only because Christ has already met the standard on our behalf.

The Gospel is always, and in everything that’s eternally good (things whose goodness transcend temporal benefits, I suppose), “Christ saves us.” So any fear regarding anything eternally good, given Christ’s power and love for us, must arise from some lack of faith in Christ//faith in something in place of Christ. It must come from some flaw in our beliefs and values rather than from some valid application of the Gospel.

D: I agree. My trouble is with figuring out in the moment where my motivation is coming from- empowering grace or moralism.

Me: Another helpful nuance for me (we seem to share the same vice, though I’m not surprised)—we are at all times both sinner and saint. Nothing we do is ever wholly one or the other. So waiting for “good motivation” isn’t really a thing. We’ll never have it even if we think we do.

God just wants us to work, and to the degree that we do good, it’s because of him. And to the degree that we don’t, it’s because of us. And when we fail, because Christ has already pardoned us, we learn, and we keep on working, correcting our methods and actions on the way. It’s painful to learn through failure, but I think that’s one part of suffering we’re promised in this life. Putting to death the deeds of the body is putting them to death. It’s not a day spa. That one’s a fairly recent nuance for me—within the past six months, probably. He just wants us to keep working as best we can in each moment, and worrying is not ever a good work.

Given that all good we can do is by grace through faith, worrying about whether or not we have a good motivation with the intention of withholding that action if we don’t is, in my estimation, symptomatic of a return to moralism. The worry—the fear of failure—signs that we have lost faith in the righteousness and grace of Christ, upon which we are dependent for both our pardoning and for the good motivation/works. If we trust in him for what, in short, could be called our sanctification (good works out of good character), we trust his provision AND his withholding. Whatever he chooses to do—and he does not promise all salvation to all men—he is God, on whom, alone, we are dependent. And here it gets hairsplitting—if we trust ONLY in the provision and NOT in the (apparent) withholding (and also on our ability to know what provision we need and when, how, etc. we get it), we trust in the provision. It has become an idol. If we trust in the PERSON(S) who provides (or not), we trust not only his provision but also in what way he provides or not. We trust him and all he does in all the ways he does them, even when we have no idea what he’s doing or if he will ever extend us what we desire or what we think he should. All that to say, a person who trusts God, including his provision of the grace required for either our pardoning or our good works (again, ALL aspects of salvation) trusts HIM, and fear signs a trust in something less than him—something untrustworthy, thus the fear.

And another nuance—I use “lack of faith” more broadly than just in regard to belief. I think we are dependent not just for the belief but also for everything required for the belief, including the correct knowledge.

One mistake I fall into is making the removal of perfectionistic fear an idol. Given that God is both infinitely loving and powerful, fear is symptomatic of a lack of faith and thus sinful. If God is such, what have we to fear that’s actually worth fearing? Is he not capable to know good and evil, and in loving us and doing as he pleases, does he not give good perfectly? So the lack of faith requires grace (through faith), like all sin. So applying the above, God is good (i.e., loving and good) whether or not he gives me the grace to believe and so be free from fear (salvation from that sinfulness by grace through faith [faith is by grace as well]). And to follow that, in wanting to do the work that he commands me to do, I do my best to deny fear-led thinking and instead focus on good things and actions. Sometimes it’s a TEDIOUS moment-by-moment battle and far beyond me to be able to detect and redirect my thought life, especially when it’s led by something as strong and as confounding as fear. But I feel like that falls into the “work as best you can in all moments” and all the corresponding things I mentioned above. And I, in and of myself, am not capable of winning it because whether or not I believe it, I am wholly dependent upon God for salvation from any and all evil, whether by way of pardon or by way of outright deliverance, with the removal of temptation, whether I recognize it as such or not. And he loves us and is more powerful than we can comprehend. But I work, and if I will be delivered within that work, it will be God, by grace, through my faith— which is just another product of grace—and not by the work, itself.

All good things come from God. We are wholly dependent upon him for everything worth having. And that’s just the Gospel, which we learn on and on and on and on and on.

Do you mind if I put all this on my blog sometime? I’m not sure I’ve written all this down in one place before.

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12/4/2017: Artful Success

I wish I could find it, but I read a meme earlier with a pic of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that said something like, “Standing out only leads to benefit if it can also benefit other persons, in which case it becomes extortion.” And that’s quite like the idea of the story, though from a cynical slant.

And while I think the idea needs some counterbalancing to be true, I think there’s something to be said about how worldly success works. Every person is intrinsically out for his own good. Such was the effect of the fall.

This doesn’t bar common grace, nor does it account for the nuances of “his own good,” which could also include moral success and therefore non-extortion helps to other persons. But it does speak for much of consumerism.

If I would be successful in the worldly sense, I would be of commercial value. I would be of consumptive value. That’s the nature or spirit of the fallen world. So to seek success in that sense is to seek to be consumed, to seek to be commercialized. And I, upon receiving those junk food profits, would ostensibly turn and eat others.

The more I learn about art—not commercial art or The Arts but art—the more I am convinced it’s the natural occupation of the godly.

 

 

Photo by Birte Liu on Unsplash

7/17/2017: On Self

This sent me spinning.

TaylorTweet

Kind of reminds me of my reaction when reading The Grace Awakening.

Is self-absorption wrong? Short answer—only when it lacks love.

If the focus on self follows a similar model to C.S. Lewis’s metaphor about ships, then no. If a person becomes absorbed with the self but does so as self relates (in love) to God or others, then it’s as right as actively working with or for others. For instance, recognizing/correcting/suppressing/dealing with one’s own anger in order to more healthily relate to a spouse is loving. And what about the person who, in introspection, further plumbs his own sinfulness, with the result of a greater appreciation for and dependence upon God? Sometimes love requires us to become absorbed in self.

However, a person who is only absorbed in self cannot at the same time love. That self-absorption—or perhaps, better, “ego-absorption”—is symptomatic of a lack of love.

Because of his adjectives, I don’t think, necessarily, that Taylor condemned the former. The type of self-absorption to which he refers seems to be that of the unloving kind.

As is often the case with “over thinking” or “worry,” people tend to define self-absorption by degree. If a person is “too” self-absorbed, it’s bad. But it’s not the degree that’s the problem. It’s the quality or the reason. It’s the motivation behind it. The man who cries “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” is surely thinking about his own sin. But he is also thinking about God’s goodness, and he desires to have the span between God and himself bridged.

It also reminds me of the little I learned about the Ego and Self idea. But as I understand it, Ego is the I, whereas Self understands I only in relation to We. The I doesn’t disappear, but it’s context is different. The Self is part of a unified diversity of communal individuals. The former is the lack of the love, and the latter is the love—the relationship.

I am afraid of being self-absorbed. To the extent that I become self-absorbed about being self-absorbed. And then I write documents to determine whether or not I’m being self-absorbed or justifying why I am. Taylor could easily be writing about my blog. And, at least in part, the fear of that led to the creation of this document.

A couple thoughts:

As saint-sinners, and assuming the I is the only alternative to love, all we think and do is, to some degree, self-absorbed. Until glorification, we cannot escape it. No man-created thought or system is safe. No man-understood thought or system is safe. We are wholly dependent upon God for anything not self-absorbed.

Learning by Keyboard documents are meant to depict the development of my thought life over time. They include sinful and incorrect thoughts. They also include some grace and some love. I imagine every form of thought and conversation from every person in this age, no matter how godly, follows the same pattern. Indeed, Taylor might as well have said, “I come across people sinning all the time.”

I’m not defending or diminishing the sin to which he refers. It’s sinful, and the goal of the believer is to love better.

But duh. Really. Of course artists will sin while arting.

But back to the LBKs—Taylor could mean my blog (I doubt it, but I could fit his model), but that’s fine. That’s part of being authentic and transparent. I don’t mean these articles as didactic. They’re exploratory.

To the degree that God provides grace through faith, as I work to obey, I will love while writing. And while thinking and learning. And thus to that degree, these documents will lean away from the sinful form of self-absorption and toward the more relational, loving form, in which relationship provides the context, rather than the ego.

But again, Taylor says this as well. #LordSaveUs

Verily!

 

 

 

Photo by Masha Danilova on Unsplash

3/16/2017: Art and Cultural Norms

“Only worship music is good music.”

I grew up with this belief, or something like it. I have trouble responding with any measure of clear-headedness when someone brings it back up, though I have been and am being convinced that valuable art is a much broader category than just worship music.

This is from a document for my novel:

This is the issue with southern moralistic Christianity that requires that all “art” be “Christian” to be good. It’s an application of a cultural norm more than a recognition that intent always qualifies morality and that the intent should be “love one another.”

Otherwise—and this is not a reason or a proof against this system but a symptom or result of it—a southern moralist cannot accept or interact with other cultures that do not censor the same taboos but that might still be loving. He cannot speak with the Irish or persons from Spain or the Nordic countries, who cuss like crazy. He cannot hang out with the English or persons from Seattle or Colorado (or pretty much anywhere) because he can’t handle being in a pub. He can’t regard art that incorporates disturbing imagery even when its message is the Gospel.

Indeed, how can southerners interact with the Gospel? Maybe by Lifeway books and movies.

Intent determines moral purity; rules do not (unless they are followed with pure intent). Christ certainly exemplifies this when combatting the religious leaders, whose rules had the appearance of purity but no heart. I think our tendency is the same—to make rules and then forget the heart. And maybe it’s a parenting failure, or maybe it comes from losing faith. Or maybe it comes from failing to understand or care where rules come from and why those origins matter. Though it’s probably at its core an issue of faith.

I think Israel is a really interesting example. They began with the heart, in Abraham and then down through the central figures. They also had God-given rules designed to cultivate and guide that heart. But they lost the heart, kept the rules, and built upon the rules. Didn’t they? (12/13/2017: A friend once told me that the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of Law was more idealistic or prescriptive than prohibitive—”Look upon this law, understand the truth and justice behind it, and apply that truth and justice in whatever way is best per context”; even so, it’s pretty clear that the Jews of Jesus’ day were of the prohibitive brand). It was culture that they built upon purity, but it was godless culture. The same is true, I think, of much of southern moralism today. And surely other brands of moralism.

The problem for Christians, and anyone else looking for goodness and beauty and truth (may they find Christ), is when we assign purity or impurity to culturally normalized morals, like “(So called) worship music is the only music worth listening to” or “No cussing,” “No drinking,” “No ‘vulgar’ media,” and even, sometimes, “No nudity.” I do not believe anything is necessarily impure. Impurity requires less-than-pure intent.

The standard is love. Not just lack of unlove, but the act of love. If it’s not in love, it’s impure.

I do not mean that we should disregard all prudence when dealing with these things. Paul talks about this. Don’t tempt the alcoholic with the real freedom to drink in appropriate contexts. Don’t tempt the porn addict with the real freedom to regard the human body in appropriate contexts. But the reason for those rules (I suppose they are rules) and therefore the only thing that makes them worth following is love. Assigning these rules without assigning love leads persons into sin and wickedness. So love requires that we encourage them away from things that tempt them, until such time that they grow in faith and not be overcome with their temptations as they love.

With this in mind, certainly all bad art, and bad thinking, takes at face value the norms of its cultural context—culture being the things that man has developed.

  1. Cultural norms, because they typically originate in fallen man, are less than good.
  2. Good things accord with God. So good art accords with God—in its truth, in its beauty, in its recognition of the world and the human condition, in its creation of cosmos from chaos.
  3. So good art, and good thinking, always calls into question (typical) cultural norms.

3/6/2018: If art accords with any particular culture (given that all our cultures, even in the church, are man-touched), my guess is it’s not good (stick this word on a scale in your mind before impaling me on my perfectionism). And if you think it’s good, maybe you’ve got some introspection and repentance to do. My only real point here–good art challenges.

Edit 3/7/2018: Apparently astrophysicists agree.

Edit 2: Also G. K. Chesterton (whom I’ve yet to read).

3/15/2017: On Success

If artistic success, and indeed Christian success, is not measured in dollars, then what is success? What would success be for my pursuit of writing?

A life of love is a success. A life spent, poured out, in service to God and others. And what does that look like? It looks like quality relationships. Dialogue. Humility. A corporate and cooperative search for truth. It looks like learning, like recognizing failures and doing what I can to make up for them. It looks like depending upon grace and extending that same grace to others.

Art is the same. Art pours itself out in service to others. It works to heal wounds. It encourages. It questions wrongs. It seeks what’s right and invites others to do the same. It stands before others in vulnerability, asking to either be part of their lives or to be set aside or to be demolished. It relates.

Thus artistic success is using my craft in relation to—in relationship with—others. And not just to the nameless masses—that plumb-line of success I tend to follow and I think that much of the world around me tends to follow. It is in relation to others in the same way that I am called to relate to others in all of life. I am called to love those who are in my sphere. If I abandon those persons in my sphere and seek to share my work with other spheres, where does that leave me? Surely not love. My desire for other spheres couldn’t be a loving one, given that plenty persons exist in my current one.

Thus my art should begin with persons I know. And it probably ends there, too. But I haven’t developed in my understanding that far, yet.

And if success isn’t measured in dollars, how do I make enough money for my family and still art? Do I just jam it in the cracks, like after the kids go to bed? I guess it depends on whatever time God affords me. Right this second, I have enough time to write freely. At least for the moment. After this, I don’t know. (2/20/2018: Not anymore I don’t. I’m currently pulling the cracks as wide as I can and cramming it in there.)