2011 in review – 10 things i learned

No doubt this post is late. Most people wrote their “2011 review” columns in December. But I guess it just didn’t occur to me until recently that it would be beneficial to me (and maybe others) if I spelled out what a year’s worth of God pursuing me accomplished.

In 2011 I saw a seismic shift in my theological presuppositions. I was raised a fundamentalist, and I saw enough good in fundamentalism that I wanted to remain in those types of churches. That was until I realized that my disagreements with fundamentalism were not just minor ones (as I had always convinced myself) – they were major enough that they were keeping me from growing the way I should. So, for the first time in my life, 2011 saw me in a non-fundamentalist church, and there were many things that I found myself thinking and doing that I had never thought or done before because of my upbringing – and yet many of these things seemed so simple and obvious.

So I say this to warn you that some of what I “learned” will likely be radical to you if you fancy yourself a fundamentalist. For many others, these things will appear incredibly basic, even elementary. With that in mind, let’s begin.

1. Gospel-centeredness. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, one of the main things that drove me out of fundamentalist churches was their teaching of the gospel. To the majority of them, the gospel is something for the unbeliever, and growth through good works is for the believer. I had a significant problem with this works-based model of sanctification (Paul calls it “another gospel” in Galatians), and so I fled to the gospel and found that my growth in Christ is not based on something I must do, but what He has already done.

I had striven my whole life to put on the fruit of the Spirit in my own power – with zero success. I realized that the fruit of the Spirit is something that comes naturally when one looks to the Cross. We love because He first loved us. We have joy because Christ has secured our eternal home for us in heaven. We have peace because God’s wrath has been satisfied by Christ’s death. Think about what an insult it is to our Savior when we feel like we need to conjure up the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Was His death not enough? Is the knowledge of Him and what He accomplished not sufficient for life and godliness? These truths gripped me more than ever this past year, and the result was dramatic.

2. Continuationist but not entirely “charismatic.” My church is continuationist is doctrine and it’s very refreshing to be around Spirit-led people who are pursuing the gifts of the Spirit. This is, in my experience, absent in most churches that teach cessationist pneumatology. As a result, I’ve found myself agreeing with the vast majority of continuationist doctrine.

However, I still don’t know what to think about speaking in tongues and healing. I definitely do not see anywhere in the Bible that clearly teaches that these have ceased, but on the other hand, I do not see them being performed in the same ways that they were in the Early Church. (When was the last time you saw someone healed of a sickness by going under the shadow of someone with the gift of healing?) So the jury is still out for me on how to view these “charismatic gifts.”

3. Biblical fellowship. I never truly understood the importance of Christian fellowship until this year. In many churches I had been involved with, fellowship is having a pot luck meal with the rest of the church. The result was that spiritual growth was strictly a one-on-one thing. In other words, it’s between “you and God” and no one else should be involved with it. If that were the case, then why did Christ institute the Church? Why does the Bible command us to confess our faults to each other? Why does Paul tell us to encourage one other? How are we to bear each other’s burdens? These are things that cannot be accomplished merely in pot luck dinners and church visitation. These are things that should be done throughout the week – encouraging, warning, helping, loving. Spiritual growth does have a “one-on-one” element, but it also has an “us together” element. And I found this past year that I need the latter just as much as I need the former in order to grow.

4. Enjoyable (biblical) worship. Fundamentalism teaches that you should enjoy worship but not too much. You must develop a taste for classical music and 18-19th Century hymns, otherwise you won’t be able to worship properly. For much of my life, I attempted to do this, and I had some success with it. But it always felt shallow. It seemed strange that, even though Scripture never addresses the subject of specific musical styles, this was such an important aspect of worship. Why was it that the music that I was best able to express myself through was so sinful? Why was it that the worship that I most enjoyed allegedly resulted in me “walking in the flesh?”

In reality, I had tossed out that bad doctrine a few years ago, but it wasn’t until this past year that I actually began visiting churches that had a biblical view of worship. It was remarkable what a difference it made when I was able to enjoy worship for the first time. It was no longer just a part of the Sunday service but a crucial time of offering my praise back to God.

Now, worship is one of the highlights of my week. In fact, when my wife and I went on vacation last year, we actually went out of our way to find a good church to attend on the Sunday we were out, drove over an hour to visit it, and loved every moment of it. In past vacations, attending a church service would have been absurd. This time, it felt like our week would’ve been incomplete without worship.

5. Loving parenting. Being a parent is hard. Being a loving one is even harder. Many times this past year I found myself responding to my daughter in the flesh. It’s the easy thing to do. When something goes wrong, get angry, yell, and put the child in her place. But this model of parenting isn’t what we find in the gospel. God is our loving Father who graciously shows mercy and love to us in our rebellion. This is still something I have to constantly grow in, but what I learned in 2011 was an important first step.

6. Bible reading/study programs. There are many Bible reading programs out there, but all of them involve one thing – time. The Bible is no small piece of literature – a compilation of 66 books which each have their own unique message but which also depend on each other to comprise the larger message of the gospel.

This creates a challenge because each book contains so much depth that it is virtually impossible to understand one book without camping out in it and studying it for days, weeks, or even months. But at the same time, you cannot understand that book without understanding the other 65 books. So you must choose your poison – either study one book at length to the detriment of the others or read through all of them relatively quickly to both the advantage and detriment of each of them.

However, in 2011 I found what I believe to be the best possible compromise – a read-through-the-Bible-in-90-days plan that exposes a person to the entirety of Scripture but still leaves 9 months to study several books in depth. It’s certainly a challenge to stay on a plan like that, but it is much more beneficial than a “camp out on one book” plan that ignores the rest of Scripture or a “read the Bible in one year plan” which has just enough daily reading to make it difficult to study in depth but not enough to give you a big picture overview of the book.

Many people object that 90 days forces you to read through the Bible too quickly to digest what you’re reading. I 100% disagree. I feel like that is the perfect amount of time for catching on to some of the major themes and ideas that the authors were trying to communicate. Many, if not all the books of the Bible were written under the assumption that the audience would read through them quickly. As such, there are many things that you pick up on reading through a book in 1, 2, or 3 days that you would not pick up on in 10 days. If there is something you don’t understand that you would like to camp out on, you can make a note of it and come back to it after the 90 days is up. You still have 9 more months for in depth study!

7. Bible audio. One thing I did more of this past year than ever before was to listen to audio of the Bible. I always shied away from it because I liked to have the option of taking time to stop and think about a verse or passage that struck me, and I didn’t think listening to an audio recording would allow that.

However, what I learned from this experience is that much of the Bible makes for great listening. The majority of the Bible was written as a narrative/story and the authors probably intended that their stories would be read aloud. I found that there were many things that I never picked up on when reading a passage that I did pick up on when listening to it. There were several, “Ohhh, that’s why that happened!” moments that occurred as I listened to the books.

And really, the same thing is true of some of the “meatier,” deeper books – most notably, the epistles. Many, of them were written with the intention that they would be read allowed to a local church body. (If you look closely, you will see references to this throughout the Bible, such as in Revelation where John commends those who both “read aloud” and “hear” the book.) So while there is good reason to read and study a passage in depth, parsing each noun and conjugating each verb, many passages were ultimately written with a listener-audience in mind.

8. More reformed. I’ve had a more reformed theology of salvation since high school, but only recently have I started questioning dispensational eschatology as well. Having always been taught dispensationalism, some of the nuances of reformed theology are a little foreign to me, but the more I learn it, the more I find myself embracing it. I do not currently consider myself amillennial, but maybe in the near future I will. There is still much studying that I must do on the subject before I fully come to my own conclusions.

9. Knowing less than before. In many ways I feel like I know less than I did last year. That’s not because I have forgotten a substantial amount during that time (although that may be true). It’s more of a mentality shift, and it’s built on the foundation that Christians (myself included) tend to be more dogmatic on many relatively inconsequential issues than Scripture is. The Bible says a lot, but it also doesn’t say a lot.

For instance, Genesis says that God created the world and poetically depicts Yahweh as speaking creation into existence in 6 days. Did Moses intend for his audience to interpret that literally or is there a more figurative significance? (Maybe the “speaking” the world into existence signifies the ease with which God created everything, or maybe the “6 days” was intended to be more of an allusion to the work week (and subsequent Sabbath Day of rest) than it was an actual time stamp on God’s creative labors.) I tend to learn towards the more literal understanding of Genesis 1-2, but the reality is that Moses explains the entire creation of the cosmos in 2 short chapters, and he clearly does not intend for his readers to analyze these chapters scientifically (yikes). Shouldn’t that lead us to be a little less dogmatic on how it all happened, considering that there are clearly an abundance of details left out from this creation narrative? The answer is: yes. And I don’t feel like that’s a heretical response, as long as you believe in the one part of the narrative that is clear – that God created the world on His own the way He wanted to. Ultimately, that’s what all the debate over Genesis 1-2 is about anyway.

So whereas in the past I would staunchly challenge those who disagreed with my interpretations of passages, such as Genesis 1-2, now I find myself becoming less certain that I am right and those who disagree with me are wrong. The reality is that no one is right 100% of the time – not even theologians. I think it’s better to recognize that up front instead of having to learn it the hard way.

10. Conservatism vs. Christ-likeness. Maybe the most drastic change in my thinking occurred when it finally sunk in that I could be extremely conservative and yet know nothing of Christ. The Pharisees were probably the most conservative people of their day, and yet their conservatism became sin because they elevated it above the clear teachings of Scripture.

As I began to meditate on this, it became clear that many times the most conservative choice is not the most biblical one. Was Christ conservative in the way He approached the Sabbath Day? Clearly not. Read the OT Sabbath laws and then read what Christ did on the Sabbath. Many of the things He did appear to be blatant violations of Scripture, but that was ok because He recognized the big picture and understood that slavishly conservative adherence to Sabbath law was not what God was looking for.

What is wrong in large doses might be right in smaller ones. What is wrong in some circumstances might be right in others. What is wrong to one person might be right to another one. Obedience to God isn’t a formula. You can’t just assume that it’s always best to be conservative, to play it safe. Christ didn’t play it safe. He didn’t just do the most conservative thing all the time. He did things that caused others to call him a drunkard, a glutton, a friend of prostitutes, and demon-possessed! And if Christ-likeness looks to some like gluttony, then I hope someday to be accused of being the most gluttonous person alive.

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