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The God of the Ordinary

So far throughout this series we’ve underscored this point: it’s not just the theology we profess but also the habits and practices that make certain doctrines plausible or implausible in the first place.  But the doctrines obviously matter.  Faithful convictions expose unfaithful ones and persuade us to re-evaluate the practical assumptions that we take for granted in our lives.

The doctrine of providence is that sort of doctrine.  It has fallen on hard times, though.  Its marginalization is no doubt a major contributor to our lack of appreciation for the ordinary.   A casualty of the culture wars, the doctrine falls through the crack between secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism.  Either everything is a miracle, or nothing is.  The result is that everything is brought down a notch.  Miracles lose their distinction as exceptional and extraordinary divine acts, while ordinary providence seems hardly capable of fending off a full-strength secularist virus.  To appreciate the ordinary, we have to begin with God as the original worker.  Here I try to distinguish God’s miraculous and providential ways of working while giving both their due.

Once upon a time, many average Christians expected to experience God in the ordinary and familiar routines of daily life.  You couldn’t go to the market or the park without passing the church in the center of town, with the graveyard reminding you that we all are hanging by a thread, dependent in every moment on the generosity of God.  In times of famine, drought, disease, or natural disaster, people worked hard, but they also prayed hard.

Today, God’s involvement in our everyday lives seems increasingly remote.  We go to the superstore to buy our packaged food items.  We find it easier to follow the Weather Channel than to pray during natural disasters.  For relief from plagues, we wait eagerly at the altar of technology for some word of a new pharmaceutical answer.  We want to believe that even these natural remedies are ultimately from God, but we often find ourselves trusting in the gifts more than in the Giver.

The options seem pretty stark.  On one hand, we encounter a dogmatic naturalism that identifies ordinary with natural, the means with the ultimate cause.  There is no God.  The world is self-caused and self-sustaining, the result of chance plus time.  On the other hand, in reaction, many Christians have adopted a hyper-supernaturalism.  In its laudable eagerness to uphold God’s existence, power, and involvement in the world, this approach tends to downplay the ordinary and natural means through which God fulfills his purposes.  Ironically, these opposing views end up agreeing on at least three crucial points: (1) There is only one cause; (2) If God is this cause, then his fingerprints must be obviously evident; (3) To the extent that natural explanations are appealed to, God’s involvement is negated.

None of the major branches of the Christian church or their representative theologians have agreed to any of these points.  A host of examples could be cited, but I will only summarize the consensus.

First, mainstream Christianity has never held that there is only one cause—one agent (namely, God).  Every now and then, a thinker has come along to suggest that everything that happens is a direct act of God, but this idea has typically been dismissed as a form of Creator-creation confusion (that is, pantheism or panentheism).  The traditional view that one finds in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant teaching is that while God is the Lord of all, apart from whose eternal purpose nothing exists, he is not the immediate or proximate cause of every act.  This would include sin especially.  It is generally recognized that Scripture teaches both God’s all-encompassing sovereignty and human responsibility.  God is not the author of evil.  The fact that both of these truths are true is part of biblical revelation; how they can be true is beyond our comprehension or explanation.

Second, God uses ordinary and natural means to accomplish his purposes.  Following Luther, Calvin referred to these means as “masks” God wears.  We pray for our daily bread, but manna does not fall miraculously from heaven as it did for God’s people in the wilderness.  God fulfills this petition through natural processes and our neighbor’s vocations.  Some people plant, water, and harvest grain.  Others load and transport the grain to the mill and send the processed product to shops where bakers make the bread.  Still further steps are required, with other “masks” fulfilling their calling, before a sandwich appears on the table.  Do we thank God for that sandwich?  Of course.  Did he make it?  Ultimately, yes, but through many hands.  Therefore, we cannot choose between supernatural and natural sources.  God did it, through natural and ordinary means.  Similarly, our restoration to health may be attributed both to doctors and to God, but in different ways.  God is the ultimate healer, but he ordinarily heals through natural processes and remedies and skills that he has created, sustains, and gives.

Third, because God works ordinarily through so many layers of creaturely means, we cannot expect to decipher his immediate providence.  To begin with, we do not know his ultimate purposes if he has not revealed them to us in his Word.  We see the mask, but not the one wearing it.  What we encounter ordinarily is the baker—the immediate rather than the ultimate source of our daily bread.

In our day, we are even further removed from the baker by more layers of mediation.  Usually, we pick up our bread at the supermarket.  Normally these days, we don’t meet the dairy farmer who harvests the milk we drink.  As medical advances have exploded, we seem to have more natural diagnoses and treatments on hand before resorting to supernatural explanations and cures.  At this point, we may be inclined to embrace naturalism: the view that only that which we can see and subject to measurement and prediction truly exists.  Or we may react by embracing a hyper-supernaturalism that looks for God in the gaps—that is, where natural explanations are not readily evident.  Yet, as apologists have discovered, this approach ends up backfiring as scientific research expands and the gaps in the natural explanations are filled in.  Where is God to go?

The other response—the one that I am advocating, consisting with traditional Christianity—is that God has not gone anywhere.  We must not relegate God to those occasions when he is one cause among others that we can see, measure, and test.  We only have direct access to the natural means, but they are God’s ordinary way of working in the world and in our lives.  Every time a cut heals naturally, God is the ultimate healer.  The birth of a baby is not a miracle, but a splendid example of his providence that never fails to fill us with awe.  Instead of detracting from God’s sovereignty, natural explanations—especially the more complex ones that display the obvious evidence of God’s design—should provoke wonder at God’s concern, wisdom, and loving involvement in every detail of our lives.

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Extraordinary Gifts Through Ordinary Means

If you’re wondering whether your life counts if it consists of so many ordinary things every day, you are in good company.  After all, God works through ordinary means every day in so many ways that we often don’t even notice his involvement and our complete dependence on him in each and every moment.

Typically, we identify an “act of God” with the big stuff.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, and parting seas.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it: we identify the big stuff with what can be measured and obvious as a direct, miraculous intervention by God.  Millions of people around the world will turn out for a prosperity evangelist’s promise of signs and wonders.  But how many of us think that God’s greatest signs and wonders are being done every week through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper?

Even in creation, God works through ordinary means.  Sure, there is the initial fiat-command, “‘Let there be light!’  And there was light.”  But then there are the other verses in the creation story where God said, “‘Let the earth bring forth…!’  And the earth brought forth….’” There’s nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a normal and natural process.  But does that make it any less the result of God’s sovereign word?

In every work of the Trinity, the Father speaks in the Son and by his Spirit, who is at work within creation to bring about the intended effect of that word.  But God uses means, often many layers of means.  This is actually for our good.  Since no one can see God’s face and live, we need God to wear various masks as he condescends to love and care for us.  We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We don’t expect it to fall from heaven.  Rather, we know that God will give it to us through farmers and bakers and warehouse employees and truck drivers and shop clerks and so on.

Of course, the eternal Son’s incarnation was extraordinary.  Like, “‘Let there be light!’” was a direct miracle.  So too were his signs and wonders culminating in his own resurrection.  And yet, his gestation and birth were a normal nine-month process as he assumed our humanity.   Even our divine Savior “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52).  Imagine Jesus learning Mary’s favorite Psalms and asking Joseph questions in the shop about God and life while they were making chairs.  Daily, ordinary, seemingly little stuff that turns out to be big after all.  Even his crucifixion was just another Roman execution, as far as what the onlookers witnessed.  And yet, through it, God was reconciling the world to himself.

Then think of the way the Father unites us to his Son by his Spirit today. “So Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).  A normal process: a fellow sinner is sent by God to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me in Christ’s name and I believe and am thereby saved (vv 14-15).  Baptism seems less dynamic than, say, raising someone from the dead or giving sight to the blind.  And yet, we are “baptized for the remission of sins” and “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  What can the regular administration of the Lord’s Supper accomplish, with the most ordinary daily bread and wine as the elements?  Nothing by them alone, but through the Lord’s Supper God promises to deliver Christ with all of his benefits (1 Cor 10:15-17).

We keep looking for God in all the obvious places.  Obvious, at least, to the natural eye.  But God chooses to be present in saving blessings where he has promised, in the everyday means that are available to everyone and not just to the spiritual “storm trackers.”  We don’t climb up into heaven or descend into the depths to find God.  Christ is present where he has promised: that’s the argument Paul makes in Romans 10.

If our God is so keen to work in and through the ordinary, maybe we should rethink the way we confine him to the theatrical spectacles, whether the pageantry of the Mass or the carefully staged healing crusade.

What’s true in our salvation is also true in providence.  The birth of a baby doesn’t have to be elevated to the status of a miracle to be a stupendous example of the wonder of God’s ordinary way of working in our lives and in the world.  We can’t rule out miracles, but we also can’t expect them.  By definition, they aren’t ordinary.  Miracles surprise us.  But have we lost our joy in God’s providential care, working through normal processes and layers of mediation that he himself has created?

Once we recover a greater sense of God’s ordinary vocation as the site of his faithfulness, we will begin to appreciate our own calling to love and serve others in his name in everyday ways that make a real difference in people’s lives.

 

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Ordinary Excellence

Far from throwing a wet blanket on godly passion, the goal of this WHI series is to encourage an orientation and habits that foster deeper growth in grace, more effective outreach, and a more sustainable vision of loving service to others over a lifetime.

But is “ordinary” a cop-out for mediocrity?  Is it a call to low expectations, failure, and passivity?  On the contrary, it’s a call to sustainable discipleship over the long haul not only throughout an individual’s life but also over generations.  It’s not a call to do less, but instead is a call to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return.

So, in order to get off on the right foot, I want to identify what we don’t meant by “ordinary.”  Too often, it’s seen as synonymous with nominal, mediocre, passive, disengaged—a cop-out for just not caring.  The very fact that “ordinary” now has these connotations underscores the shift in our cultural imagination.  It’s a shift that makes it difficult to nurture those values that actually sustain deep commitments, values that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

Many of us had parents who were wind beneath our wings.  They encouraged us to aim for the stars.  We can all recall a coach or teacher who believed in us when we weren’t so sure of ourselves.  People like that are worth their weight in gold.  We cannot live without drives, passions, and goals.  God wired us that way and pronounced it “good.”  Yet everything that the Bible identifies as sin, and that even our nature recognizes as such, is something essentially good gone wrong.  Or more precisely, something that God has made that we corrupt.  Augustine defined the essence of sin as being curved in on ourselves.  Instead of looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, we turn inward.  We use God’s good gifts as weapons in the service of our mutiny against him and each other.

A good example of this is the pursuit of excellence.  It is going over and beyond the call of duty, with God’s glory and our neighbor’s good as the goal.  But this virtue can easily become warped when it is centered on us.  Whether due to a lack of confidence or over-confidence, we focus on goals and our own measurable progress rather than on the end toward which we should aim.  When this happens, “standards of excellence”—at school, at work, in the church and in family life—become an idol.  We have a certain image of ourselves or of the persona that we would like to project and we guard it at all costs.

Obviously, excellence is not the problem; we are.  The question is whether by excellence we mean quality or quantity, hype or substance, perpetual novelty or maturity.  It has often been said that American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep.  If we were to measure excellence by God’s standards, the list might seem a little foreign and strange: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).  Not exactly the qualities that are mentioned in job postings for leaders these days.

I have to say—and it will not come as any surprise to anyone involved in ministry—that things don’t often seem different in the church.  Love, joy, and peace are often threatened less by doctrinal disputes than by selfish ambition.  Tribes gather around a charismatic figure and then the movement that they form exalts itself over other churches or movements that haven’t caught up with the spirit of the age.  The mutual submission of members in local churches through the oversight of pastors and elders is seen as a fetter on one’s unique and utterly personal relationship with God.  The New Testament vision of local churches (and their leaders) submitting themselves to others in broader assemblies of accountability for doctrine and life surrenders to the atmosphere of the marketplace and political campaigns.  Patience is threatened by restless devotion to the latest slogan, the emerging generation, or the newest church growth/personal growth/social transformation program.  Kindness and goodness have given way in large measure to a coarse and inhospitable rhetoric that would have been considered sinful by our forebears and socially inappropriate by their contemporaries.  Faithfulness is not likely to thrive in an environment of perpetual revolutions, self-expression, and makeovers.  And the mature qualities of gentleness and self-control are made subordinate, at least in practice, to the sort of reckless, visceral, and often ill-informed judgments that we once associated with adolescence.

Excellence is still a goal to which we strive.  That’s true of anyone who’s driven by a worthy prospect, cause, or calling.  But the goal will not only determine the means but also whatever we assume excellence to be in the first place.  Since our failures are liberally pardoned by a merciful Father in Christ, we can strive “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”  It is life not of fear, but of “endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:10-14).

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Ordinary: The New Radical?

Radical.  Epic.  Revolutionary.  Transformative.  Ultimate.  Extreme.  Emergent.  Alternative.  Next.  Impactful.  On The Edge.  Beyond.  Awesome.  Legendary.  Innovative.  Breakthrough.

 Everything has to have an exclamation point to catch our attention these days.  For many of us, the worst word in our vocabulary is “ordinary.”  Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”?  Who wants to be an ordinary person in an ordinary town, a member of an ordinary church with ordinary friends and callings?

Our life has to count.  We have to leave our mark, a legacy, make a difference.  And this has to be something that we can manage, measure, and maintain.  We have to live up to our own Facebook profile.

Yet there seems to be a restlessness with restlessness.  It seems that a lot of us are becoming less eager to jump on bandwagons or trail-blaze totally new paths to greatness.

Truth be told, it is actually easier to dream big, pull up roots, and become anonymous—to start over—with a new set of upwardly mobile peers.  And then to do it all over again, somewhere else, reinventing ourselves whenever we want a fresh start and a new set of supporting actors in our life movie.  There is nothing wrong with moving to the city or pursuing adrenaline-racing callings.  But the hype creeps into every area of our life.  It’s making us tired, depressed, and mean.

Given the dominance of The Next Big Thing in our society, it is not at all surprising that the Christian sub-culture is passionate about superlatives.  Many Christians were raised in an environment of managed expectations with measurable results.  Like other aspects of life, growth in Christ as individuals and as churches could be programmed with predictable outcomes.  Many Christians express astonishment when a fellow believer is content with an ordinary Christian life, with an ordinary church, among ordinary Christians, where God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace.

 

“Everydayness Is My Problem”

The writer Rod Dreher observed, “Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think about what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through, or if you spent a month in Paris, or if your guy wins the election, or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair.”[1]  I know just how he feels, and I’m guessing you do too.  Facing each day with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing dreams.

In Christian circles, successive waves of extraordinariness have whipped us up into a frenzy, only to leave us exhausted or disillusioned. Sometimes it’s a new program for personal growth.  For others, it’s a new form of worship.  According to others, radical discipleship means more social interest in transforming the wider world.  For still others, it has meant a longing for revival and awakening to stir us from our apparent slumbers.

For all of its vitality, evangelicalism is a movement, not a church.  In many ways it has not only been influenced by but has helped to shape this aspect of the modern American personality. “Institutions kill the entrepreneurial spirit,” evangelicalism says, “You have to break out of the ordinary and follow the Spirit into new frontiers.”  How much of this actually comes from Scripture and how much of it is simply part of our cultural conditioning?  As Mark Galli, executive editor at Christianity Today, puts it, “The strength of the evangelical movement is its activism; the weakness of the evangelical movement is its activism.”

My target isn’t activism itself, but the marginalization of the ordinary as the richest site of both God’s activity and ours.  Our problem isn’t that we are too active. Rather, it is that we have been prone to successive sprints instead of the long-distance run.  There’s nothing wrong with energy.  The danger is that we’re burning out ourselves—and each other—on restless anxieties and unrealistic expectations.  It’s an impatience with the familiar, sometimes slow, and mostly imperceptible aspects of life.

Think of the things that matter most to us.  They aren’t movements; they are institutions.  They require us to submit to a community, to be “tied down” in ways that clip our restless wings.  Yet in the process, the discipline brings wisdom and delight.

Take marriage, for example.  Is there a plan or program that allows you to expect and to measure progress?  How do you measure a relationship?  My wife and I often have different takes on how things are going.  We may be able to rejoice in the way the Lord has bonded us together since our first year, but how exactly do you measure it from week to week?  And as you look back, what counted most: the extraordinary weekend retreat or the ordinary moments filled with seemingly insignificant decisions, conversations, and touches?  You have distinct memories (if not photos) of the former, but probably not of the latter. The richest things in life are made up of more than Kodak moments.

Is it any different with raising children?  When it comes to the time we spend with them, the mantra among many upwardly mobile parents (especially dads) is “Quality Time.”  But is that true?  What happens in those seemingly mundane moments that are unplanned, unscheduled, and unplugged?  Nearly everything!  Lifetime nicknames are invented; identities and relationships are formed.  On the drive home from church, your child asks a question about the sermon that puts one more piece of the puzzle into place for an enduring faith.  The trip to Disney World may be memorable, but it can’t compensate for just being there in ordinary ways through ordinary moments.

Big expectations are placed on Christians.  Some fly coach; others find their way to first class.  There are the “ordinary” believers who are content to come to church regularly, participate in fellowship and hospitality, and support the ministry financially.  Then there are the truly Spirit-filled, victorious, soul-winning or society-transforming warriors who take it to the next level.

Of course, we’re not new at this.  There were plenty of schemes for spiritual ladder-climbing in the medieval church.  Many Protestants created their own version of “lower” and “higher,” ordinary and extraordinary.  You could still be a member of the official church in town, but if you’ve experienced the new birth you’ll join the nucleus of the true church that meets in small groups.  It isn’t the ordinary ministry of the church—its public and corporate hearing of the Word, baptism, the Supper, and the prayers—, but the extraordinary “after-hours” programs that sift the wheat from the chaff.

Then revivalism came along.  It led to an even sharper division between the ordinary Christian life in ordinary churches and families and the summons to individuals to break away from the herd and join the extraordinary move of the Spirit.

I recall the anxiety over not having a great “testimony.”  Every time we went around in a circle to recount our “before” and “after” pictures of conversion, I was tempted to embellish a little. I couldn’t even remember the date of my conversion!  I was raised in a Christian home and church.  I couldn’t recall a time when I didn’t trust in Christ and sense his gracious hand in my life.

If you think of initial conversion as a measurable and datable “big bang,” it stands to reason that, when that gets old, you’ll keep looking for the next crisis experience.  You may be “saved,” but are you “Spirit-filled”?  The ordinary growth of a believer from baptism to burial was considered at best secondary. At worst, it was a “churchianity” that stood in the way of a genuine personal relationship with Jesus.  The revival was planned, staged, and executed with predictable outcomes.  The climactic moment at summer camp was more exciting and measurable on a spiritual Richter scale than the gradual growth in Christ through faithful family members, friends, and elders.  You may have been baptized and looked after by Christ’s under-shepherds in the church, joining gradually in the songs of Zion as you matured, and learning to join the church in its prayers and, eventually, at the Lord’s Table.  You may have heard and prayed the Scriptures with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture through a catechism.  Yet none of this really counts.  What really matters is the extraordinary spiritual event.

In American church life, we’ve gone through successive waves of the Next Big Thing. There were giant crusades in stadiums and campus crusades.  There was the Jesus Movement that just happened to coincide with the 70s youth revolution.  For every cultural upheaval in society, there was a Christian knock-off.

In recent decades, the Emergent Movement captured the attention of the hipster generation, at least for a while.  It was supposed to be a radical “rebooting”: “The Next Christians,” “A New Kind of Christian,” and all. Already, though, it seems to have spent its fuel.

Adapting to the culture—and especially to the profile of each generation—has been a remarkable strength of evangelicalism.  Yet growing up into Christ as members of his body, across all generations and locales, is being undermined by frenetic activity.  Patient dedication to the ordinary and often tedious disciplines of corporate and family worship, teaching, prayer, modeling, and mentoring are often eroded by successive waves of enthusiasm.

Even Calvinism seems to have gotten back its groove.  According to TIME, the “New Calvinism” is one of the top ten trends changing the world today.  Collin Hansen’s description—and title of a book explaining the phenomenon—says it pretty well: “Young, Restless, and Reformed.”[2]  While it’s exciting to see many younger folks digging into the doctrines of grace, the “restless” part works against the “Reformed” bit.  Like all movements, the “New Calvinists” often display a greater interest in making it up as they go rather than wrestling with the actual confessions, concerns, and convictions of churches that have forged their consensus through a long conversation.  There is more to being Reformed than “five points.”

In many ways, it’s more fun to be part of movements than churches.  We can express our own individuality, pick our favorite leaders, and be swept off our feet at conferences.  We can be anonymous.  Although encouraged by like-minded believers, we are not bound up with them so that we should feel compelled to bear their burdens or suffer their rebukes. Yet this movement-mentality keeps us restless and makes ordinary life in and submission to an actual church seem intolerably confining.

It’s precisely because we need to look outside of ourselves—up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love—that it’s important to talk about the ways we’re stepping over God’s activity in ordinary and everyday ways.  I’m not trying to throw a wrench in the conversations about various ways of being radical, but to add a few cautions and caveats that I wouldn’t have been prone to think about, much less write about, in younger years.

Just think of all of the pastors, elders, and deacons whose service is as unheralded as it vital to sustainable discipleship; to all of the spouses and parents who cherish ordinary moments to love and be loved; and to all of those believers who consider their ordinary vocations in the world as part of God’s normal way of loving and serving neighbors right under their nose each day.

And who knows?  Maybe if we discover the opportunities of the ordinary, a fondness for the familiar, and marvel again at the mundane, we will be radical after all.

 


[1] Rod Dreher, “Everydayness,” Nov. 14, 2012 at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/everydayness-wallace-stevens/, accessed 7/24/2013.

[2] Collin Hansen, Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).

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