Thursday, December 17, 2015


                       Holiness on the head,
               Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
               To lead them unto life and rest.
                       Thus are true Aarons dressed.

                       Profaneness in my head,
               Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
               Unto a place where is no rest.
                       Poor priest thus am I dressed.

                       Only another head
               I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live not dead,
               Without whom I could have no rest:
                       In him I am well dressed.

                       Christ is my only head,
               My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev'n dead;
               That to the old man I may rest,
                       And be in him new dressed.

                       So holy in my head,
               Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
               But lives in me while I do rest),
                      Come people; Aaron's dressed.

—George Herbert, The Complete English Poems (New York: Penguin, 1991), 164.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

PRAYER: A Pattern for Praying

The following is a pattern for praying that I've developed to help me and my wife to pray biblically and cover the ground that prayer should cover (even if not all at once in a single prayer):

PPraise: Or, we might say, adoration.[1] Praise and adore and exalt and magnify and glorify God for who he is, as the triune God of eternal glory (the essential/ontological Trinity); and for what he’s done, as Father, Son, and Spirit for our redemption (the economic Trinity/the Gospel). That is, worship God and give him glory for his nature and character (theology proper) and for planning and carrying out the glorious drama of redemption in fulfillment of his promises (the Gospel of God).

RRepent: Or, we might say, confession. But we’re also going beyond confession at this place in PRAYER. In addition to confessing our sin(s) at this point, we are also doing the hard heart-work (or hard heart work) before the Lord to renounce all rebellion against the King. Our confession and repentance here find their full expression in Y (yearning) and E (exert) below where we complete our turn from sin toward God, Christ, holiness, righteousness, godliness, truth, and love. And our repentance and confession ought to include both personal and corporate sins (or private and public), starting with the private, but then moving on to public sins (both national and ecclesiastical). We certainly see examples of both in Scripture (e.g., Psalm 51 and Dan. 9:3–20).

AAcknowledge: Or, we might say, thanksgiving. At this place in prayer, acknowledge all God’s benefits (Ps. 103:2). The supreme blessing, of course, is the pardon of our sin(s) (Ps. 103:3). Acknowledging this blessing fittingly follows confessing and renouncing our sins in the last place in PRAYER (R—repent). But we ought not to forget any of God’s provisions (e.g., daily bread, Matt. 6:11). And so we ought to thank God both for his free forgiveness and for his plentiful provision.

YYearn: Or, we might say, supplication. Yearning expresses what comes next in our acronym, and it gets at our great goal and good, namely, fellowship with God. I think yearning goes beyond the supplication of ACTS, or at least it focuses what we're seeking more specifically in a Godward way. And up to this point, if we’ve been praying at all, we’ve been enjoying fellowship with God. But in this place in PRAYER—yearning—we give ourselves even more to God. We want to seek to cultivate at this point a loving longing for the Lord (e.g., Pss. 42:1–2; 63:1). And our longing ought to be expressed similarly to the psalmist’s in Psalm 119, where there is longing to know and understand God’s covenant communication to his children (e.g., “Make me to know . . .” and “Teach me . . .” and so on throughout the whole of Psalm 119). God has made himself and his mind known. And so the psalmist’s love affair with the Lord of his life is a love affair with the law of the Lord. It is an intense desire to know and do God’s will. And alongside this longing for knowing and understanding, and indeed as a natural outworking of it, comes a longing for closer walk with God. “O for a closer walk with God!”[2] We know that “it is good to be near God” (Ps. 73:28). And we know that a sweet fellowship with the living Lord is so often spoken of in Scripture metaphorically as walking with God (e.g., “Noah walked with God,” Gen. 6:9). And no small part of this is our depending on him who is the Giver of good gifts to provide all we need, to provide "our daily bread."

EExert: Or, we might say, effort. This place in PRAYER goes even further beyond the ACTS formula than did the previous places in PRAYER.[3] And it is the move from being on our knees to doing good deeds in step with turning from the sin(s) we’ve confessed and forsaken and in step with the yearning we’ve expressed for a closer walk with God. Here we are readying our hearts—and hands and feet!—to get up and go out into our world “in the strength that God supplies” (1 Pet. 4:11). We are readying ourselves to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that “God works in us, both to will and to work his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). Our prayer in the yearning part of PRAYER no doubt slides easily into this part where our hearts are eagerly embracing faith and obedience and asking God for his strength and grace to do what pleases him.

RRejoice: Or, we might say, joy or delight. And perhaps you’re wondering why PRAYER finishes this way. PRAYER, if it’s praying in the Spirit, will probably be punctuated throughout with rejoicing in God and the Gospel. But I include rejoicing here, not just to finish the acronym, but because (as Paul puts it) it is safe for us (Phil. 3:1). Joy is so essential a part of the life of the disciple of Christ and child of God that we ought routinely to recall and practice it as a spiritual discipline. If Paul can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4; cf. 1 Thess. 5:16), well, then, we really should rejoice in the Lord always. And perhaps there’s no better place to remember this than in prayer as we’re getting off our knees and moving out into the troubles and distresses of our circumstances. “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).

Here, then, is a snapshot of PRAYER for your mind's eye (or perhaps to place in your Bible on a post-it note):

PPraise: glorify God for who he is (God’s nature and character), and for what he’s done (the good news in Christ).
RRepent: confess and renounce sin(s), both personal and corporate, both private and public.
AAcknowledge: recognize God’s pardon and provision, and give him thanks.
YYearn: long for the Lord, seeking understanding of his works, will, and ways, straining after a closer walk with God in them.
EExert: get up and go out into the world in the strength that God supplies.
RRejoice: “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

One caveat is in order before signing off. Please keep in mind that this acronym is intended as an aid to prayer, not as the law of the Medes and Persians. It is intended to assist with the various elements of praying and thus ought not to be worn like a straight jacket. In other words, don’t feel like you need to go back to R (repent) if you yearned (Y) before you acknowledged (A), or feel like you need to confess if you’ve left an element out. Prayer is personal, and it is particular to one’s situation and God’s guiding. But I do believe PRAYER covers the basic range of our communion with God, I seek to practice it myself, and I commend it for your consideration. 

[1] As in the familiar ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). You’ll note the similarity of PRAYER to ACTS, which is also a good guide, but you'll also see how PRAYER fills out and focuses prayer a bit differently.
[2]  William Cowper, “O for a Closer Walk with God” (No. 534) in the Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission, 1990).
[3] And I really do believe that PRAYER, though similar to ACTS, does go beyond ACTS and fills out more what prayer ought to be, yes, including those elements (PRAY: Praise, Repent, Acknowledge, Yearn) that are so similar to ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Divine Impassibility

There was a day when the impassibility of God was impassible. That is, it was assumed as something we simply knew about God's being. But that day appears to have passed: now it seems that the mass of men and women in the know (those who think and write about such things) want to affirm as basic theology the passibility of God. And by this they mean that God feels pain and suffers emotionally as one who is subject to the free agency of others and the vicissitudes of a broken and battered world mired in tragedies.

The first step we must take, in order to decide whether or not we ought to walk in lockstep with these people on the passibility path, is one in the direction of definition. Specifically, we need to define what we mean by suffering and by emotions.

If by emotions (or we might say passions) we mean, for example, that God "loses his cool" from time to time, or "flies off the handle" (as they say), or becomes overwhelmed, or is overtaken by sorrow unexpectedly, or the like, we must assert emphatically that God has no such emotions or passions. God is the sort of being who, although experiencing emotions analogous to ours, never experiences them apart from his deliberate and sovereign choosing in line with all his perfections. And in this sense—at least vis-à-vis fallen creatures—God is sui generis. There is none like unto him, as the King's English told us hundreds of years ago.

Now, if by suffering we mean, for example, that God experiences pain inflicted upon him from without, as a passive subject of hurt or harm done to him, unable to avoid the pain or keep himself from experiencing emotional hurt, well, then, again we must assert unequivocally that God experiences no such suffering. God is "above it all" in this sense. He's out of the reach of any harm or pain that might be inflicted upon him. The aseity of God and the absolute freedom of God are unassailable. God's Godness is immutable. All that he is, he always is (God's simplicity). And no one can take his serenity or joy from him. Or anything belonging to his essential nature, for that matter.

So, at some level, in some sense, we really do need, then, to affirm the impassibility of God. For if we don't, we shall end up de-godding God. But, in doing this, let us never forget, if we go along with the cool crowd in the direction of divine passibility, we shall only be de-godding God in our idolatrous minds (for in truth God is beyond our attempts to domesticate him). And in this reducing God to the size of a giant human, we shall lose all our hope and joy. For a god who is unable to avoid pain that a creature throws his way is a god who cannot save us in our plight either. He can only commiserate with us in our misery as one subject to a similar misery. And so, it turns out, such a god is not God at all.

Yet, we must say more. Even while we seek to steer quite clear of reducing God to our size, we must also steer equally quite clear of the god of the philosophers, a deity who is stoical and untouched in any sense whatever by our pathetic condition. We must not head off in the other unbiblical direction and confess a god who commands us to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15) while he himself is unmoved by our tears. No, we ought not to suppose that the God who lives is the sort of being who puts our tears in his bottle (Ps. 56:8) without any feeling for us in his doing so. "Jesus wept" (Jn. 11:35). The God who reveals himself in Scripture is a God who grieves (e.g., Gen. 6:6; Eph. 4:30). Yet he does so (and this point is crucial) as one who embraces the grief willingly, in total control, without his perfections being altered in any way, without a loss of sovereign serenity and volcanic joy.

Immediately an objection comes to mind. (That bubble over your head gives it away.) You say: "But how can it be that God really experiences grief if he never loses his peace and joy?" To which I reply: it must be something like what Paul says redeemed humans can experience in 2 Cor. 6:10. It must be like Paul's "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing," but without any creaturely limitations or imperfections, and without God ceasing to be all that he is in his triune glory. If we can be both sad and glad simultaneously, why can't we get our minds around a being far more resourceful than we are doing the same? And doing it far better than we do, with far more integration and consistency of character. I can't see why God couldn't be infinitely glad and yet choose to embrace sorrow in some way akin to the sorrow we suffer. It seems to me that the biblical presentation of God necessitates this sort of stance and way forward in our walk with God (for after all, we're going to walk with him along the path of life, and not with those who seek to assault his glory, aren't we?).

It is important at this point to elaborate on and elucidate (one hopes) the element of choice in God's being who and how he is. Since I've now claimed twice in this post that God chooses as one completely in control of all things at all times (including his emotional or affectional life), we need to think a little how this can be so. How can it be that God would choose to experience certain emotions in response to his nearness to his creatures? We all know that you don't just turn on an emotion like you do the light switch in the entryway to your home. Right, not just like a switch. Agreed. It's not mechanical like that. But perhaps we also need to think about whether or not we're thinking about controlling our emotions entirely rightly. After all, God does command emotions in Scripture. A lot. And how could he dare do this unless there is some capacity for doing what he commands, or some culpability for not doing what he commands?

I've already mentioned one such passage (Rom. 12:15). If God commands us to "weep with those who weep," presumably there is such a thing as choosing thoughtfully to respond to others with an appropriate emotion that fits the situation. To point out only a few others, we're commanded to "rejoice always" (Phil. 4:4), and this includes even tough times. We're commanded to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), which emotionally is not easy for reasons with which we're all familiar. And, to cite only one more, we're enjoined to be grateful in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18), which really can't sincerely be done with a sour attitude. So, if we are to be subject to God's mind on these matters, we must say that at least for those renewed according to God's Spirit there is a capacity to "turn on" (to stay with the light switch illustration) certain emotions.

And so now, perhaps we can see, on analogy with what we're required and enabled to do, God himself chooses to embrace certain emotional responses that are fitting and meaningful as he relates to his creatures. If his word speaks to what we're required to be and do in line with imitating who he is (and it does), then it ought to be clear that God himself behaves similarly to what he requires of us. That is, God, for example, weeps with those who weep, as it is fitting to respond this way according to his infinite perfections and wisdom.

Lastly, we need to take a look—the longer and harder the better—at the cross of Christ. For there God's glory shines most brightly. And there we see the divine Son of God suffering at the hands of sinners. On those Roman gallows hung the God-man like a damned malefactor, tortured by mere mortals, spit upon by their hatred, mocked and ridiculed by fools, all the while suspended stark naked because they chose to strip him in their malice with the volitional and legal powers they possessed as free agents. And yet, Jesus taught us that no one took his life from him, but he laid it down of his own accord (Jn. 10:18). Moved by love, he suffered the cross because he wanted to do it in obedience to his Father (Phil. 2:8) and to redeem his people (Gal. 3:13). So, yes, he experienced pain. But he did not do so as one who was merely the subject of circumstances and volitions that neither he nor his Father could thwart. No, they planned it. They foreordained that the Son would suffer (Acts 2:23; 4:28). But they were by no means passive or helpless in this. No, as the church fathers used to say, Jesus was even then reigning from the cross.

Therefore, we should continue to affirm that God is impassible. But we should not do so in a way that, for example, mutes the testimony of Scripture that God took to himself suffering by embracing a body in order to die. And we must also affirm that he experiences emotions on analogy with ours, but without any imperfections tainting the emotion, and without any diminution to any of his perfections. Surely there is mystery here. But if we're Christians at all, we've already come to grips with many such mysteries, mysteries that we glory in. We know the incarnation is true, but can't fathom how it can be true. The mechanics, so to speak, are beyond us. We know man made upright rebelled against God, because God has revealed this to us. But we can't for the life of us see the depths to how it can be so. How on earth did a righteous man do unrighteousness? Yet, there it is, from the mouth of God. And so we bow low. And submit in faith.

And so it is with the nature and character of God. We know certain characteristics about him are true, because he's revealed these, but we don't foolishly pretend or suppose we're getting to the bottom of these things. "The finite cannot contain the infinite." God is God, and we are not.