Gordon-Conwell Blog

Joy In A Prison Cell

August 30, 2016

 By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.

Paul was chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting his day before Caesar, knowing that his life might soon be “poured out like a drink offering” (Phil. 2:17). And yet, he says in the very same verse, “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” In fact, in the same letter he mentions “joy” or “rejoicing” 14 times! That is more than I’ve probably ever mentioned “joy” on a good day with the sun shining and things going well for me!

Of course, hardships were a constant part of Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 6:4- 10 he speaks of having experienced, among other things, troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, hunger and dishonor. Did you notice his use of plural forms? Not a beating, but beatings. Not imprisonment, but imprisonments. And that was before he wrote any of his “prison epistles.”

Later on in that letter he gave more details. He says he had been in prison more frequently than other believers the Corinthians knew and had been “flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (11:23). He says, 

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (11:24-27).


Typically, however, when Paul thinks of the hardships he has experienced (or is experiencing), he thinks at the same time of God’s strength, support and grace. The hardships are reminders of the power of death. Paul knows full well death’s power and its impact on his life and the lives of others. It is seen not only in failing bodies and funerals at the end of earthly journeys; it is also seen in the trials, tribulations and deprivations that are experienced along the way. Paul, however, knows a power that is much stronger than the power of death. It is the power of God and of the resurrection life that will not only be his and ours on resurrection day, but is already manifest as the Spirit provides life in ways that help him—and us— continue on despite death’s power in the here and now. That point is made over and over in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.

Note below how Paul alternates back and forth between references to his (and others’) challenges and difficulties on the one hand and references to God’s sustaining grace on the other. He then ties these to what we know about Christ’s death and resurrection as the pattern that makes sense of our own experience as Christians.

 

                        Crucifixion/Death                                        Resurrection/Life

4:8a We are hard pressed on every side...                          ... but not crushed;

4:8b perplexed...                                                                 ... but not in despair;

4:9a persecuted...                                                               ... but not abandoned;

4:9b struck down...                                                              ...  but not destroyed,

4:10 We always carry around in our
body the death of Jesus...                                                ... so that the life of Jesus
                                                                                             may also be revealed
                                                                                                      in our body.

4:11 For we who are alive are always
being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,                     ... so that His life may be revealed
                                                                                             in our mortal body.

4:12 So then, death is at work in us,                              ... but life is at work in you.

4:14                                                                                 ... we know that the one who raised the
                                                                                          Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us
                                                                                           with Jesus and present us with you in
                                                                                           His presence.


4:16a                                                                             ... Therefore we do not lose heart

4:16b Though outwardly we are
wasting away...                                                                 ... yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

4:17 For our light and momentary troubles                       are achieving for us an eternal glory that
                                                                                          far outweighs them all.


4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
preludes to the glory.

In 4:16a and 4:18 Paul breaks away from the alternating pattern to indicate how it relates to his own understanding of Christian hope and endurance. A comparison of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 with what Paul says in Romans 8:18 reveals that this is Paul’s constant way of thinking about the issue:

8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us

“Our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17), that is, “our present sufferings” (Rom. 8:18) are “what is seen.” But this “is temporary,” not that on which we fix our eyes (2 Cor. 4:18). Rather, our focus is on the “eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17), i.e., “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), that “is unseen” and not temporary, but “eternal.” God's grace is sufficient to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory.

We don’t lose heart because, although we can’t help but notice the former, we fix our eyes on the latter, and live mindful of the fact that death comes before resurrection glory, and that God’s grace is sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10) to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory. In the strength God gives us to persevere despite our difficulties, we see the promise of the ultimate victory of resurrection life and glory.

Is there any evidence that this is the same way of looking at things that undergirded Paul’s tenacious faith while in Roman chains, and that allowed him to write the Philippians a letter so marked by the theme of joy? What was the pattern of thought that Paul urged the Philippians to adopt? Their attitude, he said, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). How did he face suffering? He “humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him” (vv. 8-9). Christ was obedient in suffering even unto death, and then was raised to glory.

Of course, Christ’s obedience and glory both outshine any Christian obedience and glory, but the pattern is the same. It is in light of that pattern that Paul can speak, later in that same chapter, of looking forward to “the day of Christ” (v. 16) and of being glad and rejoicing with the Philippians even if he is being “poured out like a drink offering” (v. 17). And he calls on the Philippians to also “be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).

This is confirmed in Philippians 3:8-11 where Paul says he considers all the losses1 experienced in this life “rubbish” (or garbage, or dung) “that I may gain Christ and be found in him” with the righteousness that comes from God by faith (vv. 8-9). Then he explicitly mentions suffering and relates it to the theme of Christ and his resurrection (vv. 10-11): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul’s tenacious hope, his joy in the midst of the challenges he faced as a follower of Christ, was founded on his understanding that as he followed Christ, his sufferings entailed sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in death, and that it was the power of the resurrection— at work in Christ and now in him—that would see him through his challenges all the way to the ultimate goal of his final resurrection and the glory that awaited him.

For Paul, it was now impossible to think of death and its friends (e.g., difficulties, trials and suffering of various sorts), without being reminded of the resurrection and the power of resurrection life in the present (to get us through the challenges we face) and the future (where we will experience the final victory), with, and thanks to, Christ our Lord. That was a key to his tenacious faith and joy in the midst of trials.

Dr. Roy E Ciampa is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies and Director of the Th.M. program in Biblical Studies. He joined GCTS after 12 years of cross-cultural experience, teaching at two different theological schools in Portugal, and collaborating with the Portuguese Bible Society in the revision of its contemporary translation of the Bible. He is an ordained minister and serves on the Board of Overseeing Elders at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA. Dr. Ciampa is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research and the Evangelical Theological Society. He is also on the Advisory Council of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society and a regular participant in the annual Nida School of Translation Studies. He is co-mentor of the Gordon-Conwell Doctor of Ministry track in Bible Translation.

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The Call At 2AM: Caring for Devastated Parishoners

August 23, 2016

 By Kenneth Swetland, D.Min.

Pastors tell me that they have never received a call in the middle of the night that was good news. When the 2 a.m. call comes, pastors brace themselves for hearing bad news, and are then relieved when sometimes it’s only a misdialed number or someone playing a joke.

But, when the call is serious, it’s time to act. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often for most pastors, although some say that a younger generation apt to keeping late hours and used to instant gratification or help available 24/7, are often the ones making the middle-of-the-night call to their pastor. An older generation tends to wait until 6 or 7 a.m. unless they are so devastated that they need pastoral care immediately or know their pastor would want to respond quickly.

Pastors can help educate their parishioners by informing them (often more than once) that they are available at anytime if there is a crisis. This kind of availability is part of the call to be a pastor. Not wanting to help when people hurt raises the question of whether one has a genuine call to pastoral ministry, which at its biblical base reflects a desire to minister grace and comfort from a Triune God to people in need. I know a pastor who did not want to be bothered outside of the 9 to 5 office routine and had an unlisted phone number at home. It’s not surprising that he did not last more than a short time at his first church and is not a pastor today.

On an accreditation visit to a seminary in Costa Rica afew years ago, I was touched with the sign on the practical ministry department door: “Pastoral Accompaniment.” That’s what pastors faithful to the biblical model of pastoring do—accompany people when a crisis comes. So, what do you do when the 2 a.m. call comes and it is indeed bad news? First, determine whether you need to go immediately or wait until later. For example, if individuals calling are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and you determine in talking with them that they are safe but would be unable to “hear” what you have to say if you responded in person, it may be best to affirm your love for them and concern for their well being, but firmly advise that it would be better for them and you if you visited later in the day. Then keep your word. You can certainly pray with and for them on the phone. And, when you hang up, hope they do not call right back. It may be wise to phone a family member to report what happened and enlist that person’s help as needed.

Sometimes unstable persons, such as those with Borderline Personality Disorder or in a manic phase of Bipolar Disorder, call in the middle of the night, insist on talking at length and want you to be with them right now. Responding by going along with their request often does not help them towards spiritual and emotional health and it can be intensely frustrating and time consuming, not to mention tiring for you. But, not going along with their request often causes them to become angry and accuse you (often to others) of not caring. And, there’s nothing that strikes pain in a pastor’s heart like the accusation that he or she does not care. It is wise, therefore, to have a plan of action in mind for when emotionally unstable persons call. For example, assure them of your concern on the phone, pray with them, help them recognize that they can make it without seeing you immediately and hold to your decision not to get out of bed to go visit them. You may also need to call a family member to provide assistance. If a person is suicidal, you need to call the police and report what has transpired.

Once a woman I had been counseling who had Borderline Personality Disorder called me to say that she had taken a bottle of pills in order to kill herself. Since she had agreed to contact me if she was suicidal (“suicide contract”), she made the call and told me what she had taken. I then called the Poison Control Center for our region and learned that she had taken a potentially lethal dosage and needed immediate hospitalization. My next phone call was to the police who broke down her door and got her to the hospital where she was revived (and for several weeks hated me). I also called an elder in the church to accompany me to the hospital since I did not want to be alone when I visited her. This brings up the question of whether to see someone alone in the middle of the night or take someone with you.

My rule of thumb is that if the person I am going to see is a woman and is alone, I want someone with me so there is no appearance of anything improper. The same principle holds for female pastors visiting male parishioners. If other family members are going to be present, then going alone may be the best course of action. Here’s where it’s good to have aboard of elders trained and ready to assist you in a crisis.

Other words of advice:

  • Make good use of Scripture in responding to people in crisis: Be so immersed in biblical teaching yourself that reflecting solid biblical doctrine to people in need flows naturally from your mind. Done rightly, there’s nothing more powerful than God’s word to bring healing to hurting people.
  • Pray honestly and gently for people in their presence: People expect pastors to pray; we don’t have to force it on them. There are times when we don’t know what to say, but here is where the Holy Spirit’s ministry is evident (Rom. 8:26). Don’t shy away from prayer.
  • Have a system in place where church hospitality (food, prayer, presence, etc.) kicks in when someone is in crisis:The Bible refers to Christian community as the Body of Christ for good reason. We need every part of the body to be spiritually and emotionally healthy.
  • In the case of an abused spouse or children, act immediately: Get the person/children to a safe place, e.g., a safe home with a family in your church prepared for such possibilities. (Every region of the country has a safe place for women and children. Look in the whitepages of your telephone directory under HAWC, Help for Abused Women and Children. It’s a 24-hour hotline.)
  • Live within your own appropriate boundaries of being “extra-available”—a term used by some to refer to the pastor’s always being on call: If several crises come in a row or you’re experiencing an especially intense emotional period of expending time and energy with someone in need, take the necessary time off with full support and understanding of your elders to recover your own spiritual and emotional balance.
  • Keep notes of what happened: These are for your own record and are your private file; but in this day of easy litigation, being able to refer to notes is better than a poor memory if you need to substantiate anything.
  • Commit your way to God: He is the “cure giver.” We are only the “care givers.”
     

Kenneth L. Swetland, D.Min., is Professor of Ministry and Campus Pastoral Counselor at the South Hamilton campus, providing pastoral care for students and graduates, and served as Academic Dean of the Hamilton campus from 1992-2002. He has pastored churches in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, was a chaplain at Penn State University and for nursing homes in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, and has worked as a psychotherapist at Gordon-Conwell Counseling Center, Health Integration Services in Peabody, MA and Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton. He has also taught in Eastern Europe, and has an interest in helping European seminaries in their development. Dr. Swetland continues as a supply speaker for many New England churches.

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Is Jesus Really the Only Way to God?

August 18, 2016

By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics

In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious affliation, beliefs and practices in the United States. One of the significant findings was that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all self-identifying Christians. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that 56 percent of all Evangelical Christians believe that there are many paths, other than faith in Christ, to God and eternal life (See http://pewforum.org).

Many were so shocked by these numbers that the Pew Forum went back and did further polling to make sure that by religion, respondents did not have in mind other Christian bodies or denominations. Their earlier results were essentially confirmed. In this most recent study, large numbers of Americans believe that actions or a combination of beliefs and actions can lead people to God. Even among the 30 percent of Americans who say that eternal life depends on one’s belief, nearly half designate belief in God, a higher power or other generic beliefs as sufficient for salvation. Among Evangelical Christians, only 45 percent clearly affrim that a personal belief in, or relationship with, Christ is essential for eternal life.

Increasing numbers of Americans, Christians and even Evangelicals are questioning the long held commitment of the Church that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Among all Americans affiliated with a religion, 52 percent believethat Islam leads to eternal life with God, 53 percent believe that Hinduism leads to God and 42 percent even believe that atheism leads to God. Among Evangelicals, the numbers are 35, 33 and 26 percent respectively. Clearly in recent years, in the midst of growing cultural and religious pluralism, large numbers of Christians are troubled by, or ignore, the claim of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). What are we to make of all this? Is Jesus really the only way to God? In a pluralistic world, why shouldn’t we accept an inclusivity that embraces multiple ways to salvation? Isn’t it arrogant to believe otherwise?

Our Pluralistic Context

The perspective that there are many ways to God is essentially one variant of universalism, the belief that ultimately all humans will be embraced by God and experience eternal life. To be sure, it is an old belief that was occasionally found early on in Christianity. In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen contended that in the end God would restore the whole of creation, including Satan, to a perfect state. This meant that people who never trusted Christ would be saved. Origen’s beliefs were condemned by a Church council in the 5th century.

Over the years, and in our own time, there have been many arguments for a universalism, or at least religious pluralism, which question the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Some argue that it is arrogant and triumphalistic to believe that any one way is essential for salvation. Others contend that surely God is a God of love and mercy who will accept people into his presence who don’t believe in Christ. The mercy of God trumps all other characteristics of God.

Some contend that all religions are essentially the same, simply using different names for the divine and different emphases in following the divine path. Still others attempt to articulate a religious pluralism or universalism on biblical grounds, citing texts such as Colossians 1:18-19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross;” or Romans 11:32, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” But perhaps the most significant factor for the growing belief in many paths to God is the pluralism of our social context. By pluralism I don’t mean merely the existence of multiple nationalities, races, ethnic groups or religions in a society. More fundamentally, pluralism means that varying worldviews, belief systems and moral frameworks exist side by side in a given culture.

With pluralism, we now rub shoulders daily with people who put their world together in vastly different ways. Thereare varying perceptions of God, the good life, salvation and human nature. There are varying ways of life reflecting these worldview assumptions. As we daily live with a plethora of worldviews, we experience these folks to be exceptionally fine people, who often reflect integrity, high morals and outstanding contributions to our communities. For a democracy to work, we recognize that these multiple frameworks all need to have a voice in the public square, and all religious and moral frameworks need to be assured of essential rights under the law.

In the milieu of social and legal pluralism, it is quite easy to glide into a religious pluralism which questions the uniqueness or truth claims of Christian faith. When we experience people of other religions as good, moral people, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain any notions other than multiple paths to God and salvation. When we encounter the plurality of the public square, it becomes almost second nature to believe that such plurality must exist with regards to truth and paths to eternal life. Moreover,when we look around us, many who are exclusive in their beliefs often appear to be arrogant and intolerant. Religious pluralists appear to be kind and accepting, and exhibit a tolerance needed for a pluralistic world.The reality of this sociocultural pluralism makes it difficult to maintain a belief in, and commitment to, Christ as the only way to God. Our context of multiplicity tends to undermine the long-held belief that salvation is found only in Jesus.

How Do We Respond?

Given the contexts of our time, what do we do with the question, “Is Jesus really the only way to God?” As we respond to this question, we need first to note that Jesus thought himself to be unique and the only way to a personal relationship with God. In Jesus’ teachings, he made very direct claims about himself and his work which clearly reveal his own identity:

  • All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Mt. 11:27-28).
  • Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn. 6:29).
  • I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst…. My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day( Jn. 6:35, 40).

  • I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).
     
  • I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (Jn.11:25-26).
     
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well (Jn. 14:6-7a).


Such statements may not sit well with a postmodern mindset which is squeamish about truth, and particularlyany claims to truth. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many are willing to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher but not his unique claims to be God. In Lewis’ memorable words he responds:

"That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God"  (Mere Christianity, p. 41).

Not only did Jesus himself believe that he was the only way to God, being one with God the Father, the early followers and apostles believed the same. Peter, in one of his early sermons, said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The apostle Paul had hated Christians before he became one. After his conversion, he spoke frequently about Christ with clear conviction that he was the only way to salvation. Speaking of Jesus he said, “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 acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10, 11).

In similar fashion the apostle John wrote, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God…God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I Jn. 5:1, 11-12). Since the days of the apostles, the historic Christian Church has affirmed the uniqueness of Christ in his identity and in his role as the only savior for human sin. There has, of course, been substantial variation regarding particular doctrines among the various families and denominations of Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have historically been in agreement that salvation is found in no other than the person of Christ. The recent trends are contrary to those convictions.

Conclusion

The growing number of Christians who are troubled by Jesus’ claims to be the single course to salvation indicates how much the world has come to live in us as we attempt to live in the world. We easily allow the push and pull of our culture to define our beliefs, commitments and way of life, even while giving lip service to the name of Jesus. Perhaps the Pew Forum poll will be a wake-up call as to how much Christians have allowed the world to shape their sentiments.

Affirming the uniqueness of Christ for salvation and eternal life does not, of course, answer all our questions.There is much that God has not told us about the mysteries of life, death and eternity. We naturally wonder what happens to those who never had opportunity to embrace Christ. To such quandaries, we must simply trust in a Savior who is both loving and just, and whose understandings are far beyond ours. We must acknowledge that from Scripture we know relatively little about heaven and hell. What we do know is that Jesus, the apostles and the historic Church in all its variations have affirmed that Jesus is the only true way to God. And it only makes sense that if a person didn’t want Jesus as Savior and Lord on this earth, they would hardly want to spend forever with Him.

To affirm the uniqueness of Christ for salvation is not cause for arrogance and boasting. In fact, Scripturally it is exactly the opposite. Our salvation has nothing to do with our attainments, efforts and native beliefs. In salvation we do not find God through our own ingenuity. Rather, God finds us as we respond to his loving mercy in Christ as evidenced on the cross. The embrace of Christ as Savior and Lord can never be touted as cause for human triumph, smugness or self-assertion. It is not a sign of our superiority, or cause for triumphalistic efforts in society. The uniqueness of Christ is a sign that the triune God of the universe cares so deeply for his wayward creatures that he mercifully provided a path to forgiveness—a way to the Father’s embrace. It is in the Father’s embrace through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we come to realize that we can never pull the Triune God apart. For indeed to know Christ is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know the Spirit, who enables us to stay true to the One Savior in the midst of a pluralistic world.

 

Dr. Dennis P. Hollinger is President and Colman M.Mockler Professor of Christian Ethics. He formerly served as President of Evangelical Theological Seminary; as Provost, College Pastor and Professor of Christian Ethics at Messiah College; and as a professor at two additional seminaries. He has also been a visiting professor at seminaries in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and India, and a full-time pastor at three churches, including an urban church on Capitol Hill. He speaks extensively in the U.S. and internationally, has written or co-edited eight books, and has authored more than 65 articles. His Ph.D. is from Drew University.

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Made by a Maker to be a Maker

August 04, 2016

By Bruce Herman, MFA

I love that memorable line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell’s sister confronts him with his duty as a missionary for Christ in China, admonishing him and scolding him for his “frivolous” participation in the pagan Olympic games in Paris. His reply: “Yes, of course! I am indeed a missionary—but God made me fast, and when I runI feel His pleasure!"

Giving God pleasure—imagine! This has to be the heart of glorifying the Lord—a desire and capacity to give our Maker pleasure. I also love Augustine’s famous paean of praise: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” It may be a bit cheeky, but I’d revise this just a little for the purposes of my article: “You are our Maker, and You made us to be makers. Our hearts are restless until we make something—something beautiful like what You have made.”

And the beautiful is at the heart of all that God has made. Open your eyes, and even a superficial glance at the night sky or the fields of wildflowers below our feet reveals this: God loves beauty—in its full range, from the awesome raging of the thunderstorm to the fragile petals of a rose. One might even be bold and say that just as God is Good and God is Truth, God also is Beauty—true beauty in all its multivalence and grandeur—God’s kabôd . And this is where I begin as a painter, desiring above all to give my Lord pleasure in the works of my hands.

My heart has been restless since my earliest days—restless to make something that would point toward my beautiful Maker—and by His grace I cannot remember a day when I didn’t feel this way. I have always made art, and I’ve nearly always wanted it to please God. Except for a brief interlude in my life during which I was confused about how to serve God as an artist, I’ve always at least intuited that God takes pleasure in the works of our hands and hearts and imagination—when it is done unto Him and for His glory.

What does it mean, in real terms, to make art to the glory of God?

First, I believe that because God is the author of all things beautiful and significant, it is a natural desire of all children to make beautiful and significant things. Children can, and do, distort this urge in order to simply garner attention for themselves. But adults are always disappointed to see this in their child. And that is because we all value the unselfconscious joy of making that we witness in children. The famous artist Pablo Picasso once memorably quipped, “I spent four years in the academy learning to draw like an old master. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning to draw like a child!” And what he was pointing toward, I believe, is the very principle being discussed: childlike, unselfconscious making—which naturally glorifies God just as the rest of God’s creation does, merely by being what it is.

It is easy for a child to make art to the glory of God—just as the sunrise or sunset, the thunderstorm or wildflowers glo-rify God without vanity or self-consciousness. But how is a fully grown person to do so, much less a professional who is paid and must always be promoting her works in order to gain exhibition space? Are we to copy the work of children and make clumsy, charming little works that show no knowledge or sophistication? No, of course not. This would be to indulge in even greater self-conscious posturing. But I do think there is a principle here to be noted: the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows. To make art to the glory of God requires that we give our all in the process of making—holding nothing back. But the difference between the child and the grown artist is that knowledge, technique, experience, even a kind of artistic “wisdom” is operating as we mature and practice art over a lifetime.

Yet the requirement that a work of art be free from pretentiousness or self-conscious posturing is a good one—and the artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted. In his seminal work I and Thou , Martin Buber says:

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Buber has uncovered something deeply signifcant here. There is in the creative process a certain mystery. His phrase “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him” indicates that there is a dimension of authentic art-making that involves assent to a certain loss of control, a certain giving in to the form itself. This idea about art might sound at first quite romantic: mysterious forms jos-tling to be made into works of art independent of the artist, etc., etc. But I believe that Buber is simply describing the reality of the artist’s situation.

When an artist truly desires to be a servant of God, she relinquishes some of her autonomy. There is no room for prima donnas or dilettantes in God’s service—nor is there room for the artist to over-determine outcomes. In that case we are not talking about art but something else. Perhaps propaganda? There is at the heart of the authentic creative process a tacit acknowledgment that we are derivative creatures ourselves. We have not created ex nihilo. And the “form” that Buber speaks of here is nothing less than the artwork of God upon which we must draw in order to make our own works.

Moreover, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his famous Mars Hill speech, there is an echo of God’s own voice in the poetry and philosophy of even the pagans—whose culture was rich with reference and patterning derived from the natural world. Plato’s concept of the pure forms is one of those echoes, and it is fairly obvious that Buber is referencing that platonic idea of form. The sensitive artist perceives those forms that our Maker employs in His own making. And those forms call out to us for a response of praise.

The most fitting praise for the works of our Maker is to be found in our earnest creative work. We were made by a Maker to be makers. Scripture tells us that we are formed in the image of God—the Imago Dei—and the first thing we learn of God from Scripture is that God creates. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we are restless until we engage in creative making ourselves. Buber’s thought is that we must give our all in our making—all our talent, skill, knowledge, feeling, intellect, love—holding nothing back. In this same passage from I and Thou he goes on to say:

The deed [making a work of art] involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Again, he emphasizes that wholeheartedness is a prerequisite. But an additional requirement is glimpsed: there is a risk and a sacrifice in art making—and the artist must resist the tendency to objectify the form that “wants to become a work” through her. What does this mean? Buber’s entire book is predicated on the idea that human beings always assume one of two postures in relation to each other and to God’s creation: either we treat the creation as objects to be used and experienced (“It”) or we relate to the creation as “Thou”—that is, as being worthy of love, respect and care rather than possession, use and objectification.

We may seem to have wandered far from the question of how to make art to the glory of God. But this is the connection I am trying to make for us: to glorify the Maker, we must become makers. The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God’s own character in our creative process. Just as God imbues his human creatures with autonomy and dignity and loves them rather than manipulating or possessing them, human artists are to serve the forms they create—endowing them with a certain freedom and autonomy. And this is what Buber is at pains to express, namely that human creativity involves the very same risk that divine creativity engenders: the risk that the created work might break or break the maker. And if there is any doubt that God’s creatures have the capacity to break their Maker, simply remember the Cross.

Where have we come to in our attempt to investigate the connection between human art and God’s glory? I believe that the spark of divine creativity that is within the human imagination is deeply connected to the principle I have been attempting to elucidate. It is in our very capacity to make works that outlive us—works that seem to exist independently of their author’s interpretive grid—that we most echo our Maker. The element of risk and sacrifice is also at the core of that resemblance to our God. In a very real sense, the Lord engaged in a cosmic risk by creating human beings. The possibility that we might rebel and refuse God’s love was there from the beginning. And that very capacity of the created thing to resist its creator is what eventually calls forth a sacrifice.

To make art to the glory of God, the human artist must imitate this “deeper magic” of God’s own creativity: risk and very real sacrifice must accompany our making process. If we avoid these and play it safe in our art making, we will always fall short of glorifying our Maker. To conclude let me recount a passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :

‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. - Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 482). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

So then, as the Elves put the thought of all that they love—all the beauty and mystery and majesty of Lothlórien, their lovely land—we are called to put the thought of all we love of our own dear Lord’s handiwork into all that we make. Perhaps then He will be glorified and we will feel His pleasure
 

Bruce Herman, MFA, is the Lothlórien Distin-guished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He joined the faculty in 1984 and became the first Chair of the Art Department in 1988. His primary focus as a teacher and artist is figurative painting. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 1992 and was awarded the first fully endowed Distinguished Chair at Gordon in 2006. His art has been exhibit-ed internationally and is housed in museums such as the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

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