Recognizing the darkness for what it is

“See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.” (Luke 11:35)

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

Since the time of Christ, knowledge has made truly incredible advances. At the time of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, there were no real defenses against the ravages of the plague. You watched your neighbors die, then you got the symptoms and a couple of days later you dropped dead. We’re still working on vaccines, but at least we have some defenses against COVID-19, supported by a large body of knowledge and research, not superstitions or speculations based on gossamer-thin “evidence.”

In agriculture, scientific and technological advances have boosted crop yields to unheard of levels from a hundred years ago. But the most obvious advances, of course, are in what I’m sitting in front of as I write this. The computer landscape is so different from when I attended college in the late 1970s, it’s hard to imagine a world without the Internet, laptops, tablets, etc. that I take for granted.

But the one institution that seems to buck the linear trend toward improvement has been the church. From Pentecost, the church survived persecution and minority status in the empire until the time of Constantine. But before Christianity was declared the empire’s official religion, it was growing steadily anyway. In fact, it grew out of its minority status without any emperor’s help.

But fast forward to the late 15th century and no believer from the 1st century would recognize the church just before the Reformation. It was so corrupt, cluttered with traditions and practices foreign to the New Testament and devoid of spiritual life, even the secular historian William Manchester (A World Lit Only by Fire) could wonder what any of this had to do with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The key difference is that the church feeds, grows, develops and maintains itself on a different sort of knowledge: the knowledge of God. And I don’t mean the accumulated findings from archeology that verify biblical accounts, the ever-growing avalanche of books and digital resources that help us understand the world of biblical times and shed light on the text’s meaning or even the testimony of church history.

All of those can help. None of them is a substitute for the knowledge of God. But that knowledge is not something you “go up and get” through meditation or other mystical means. It comes to you and me by revelation, from the Greek word with a sense of uncovering, like removing a tarp from your classic car to savor its beauty and workmanship.

Before any of us knew God, or were known by him, we were in the same boat as the rest of humanity from the beginning: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21).

In other words, when you don’t “glorify” or honor God as God it “dims” your mind in general and in its capacity to know God in particular. Morally, you can’t think straight. You make decisions confident they are wise and will result in good outcomes and they turn out to be foolish and wrongheaded.

Some people get offended at this notion and protest they can be just as “righteous” as any believer by reference to sound moral and ethical codes. They’re half right. What they actually end up being is self-righteous. Paul had to address this issue in Romans 2 by pointing out that even those with the law didn’t follow it. Self-righteousness is not the same as the righteousness that God desires.

But what do religious people do to end up like the moribund, decadent late 15th-century church? Of course they disregard the Lord’s commands, but they don’t necessarily jettison their whole faith. Instead of revelation, they resort to rationalization.

If you want to read a biblical account of this, there’s one in 1 Samuel 15. God commands Saul to wipe out the Amalekites for waylaying Israel in the wilderness. He means a “scorched-earth” attack that leaves nothing whatsoever. Saul disobeys by leaving the king, Agag, alive along with some animals that Saul sacrifices. Saul thinks he’s had a pretty good day, Samuel tells him “to obey is better than sacrifice,” and Saul is rejected as king. So much for Saul’s excellent adventure.

At some point after the Roman empire became officially Christian, the attitude must have emerged that, hey, isn’t it great that we not only have Christian laws but an emperor on our side to enforce them? The idolaters, the adulterers, the usurers, etc., all finally get their due for breaking God’s law.

Well, was it so great? Yes, these things may violate the commands, but where is mercy in all this? God is just as merciful as he is righteous. In fact, you really have to concede that God is more merciful than we give him credit him for or I wouldn’t be typing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

By letting in some darkness, world history was changed. When you get to Henry VIII of England, “Defender of the Faith” by papal decree for opposing Luther, the king doesn’t just put the fear of God in offenders, he Overnights them right into his presence.

It was in Henry’s reign that the Protestant Reformation took hold in England, but as you probably know, it was Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn that precipitated his break with Rome and not anyone’s piety. So it’s more accurate to say that God accomplished something in England in spite of, not because of Henry. His reign might have been good for the ax industry and the early 15th-century equivalent of persons hawking tee shirts at rock concerts (executions were a public spectacle), but the kingdom of God didn’t make the evening news.

But we don’t have to go through the sordid, appalling failures of the church to find evidence of darkness tolerated. In fact, it shows up in surprising places. Like the notion of a “deeper life” in Christ. (I first wrote about this here.)

I bring this up again because threats to the ministry of the gospel and making disciples can come from all directions. You have to look past the superficial similarities and identify their sources. If it hinges on some rationalization rather than revelation, you’re in trouble.

The people at Babel wanted to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves (Gen 11:1-9). This put them at cross-purposes with God and God therefore put a stop order on the whole enterprise. The “deeper life” proponents want to do the same thing.

They tell themselves and prospective adherents that there’s an ordinary, pedestrian path on which most Christians are satisfied to walk, but there’s more available for the spiritually hungry and thirsty that aren’t satisfied with this. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt 5:6)?

Yes, of course he said that. But where did he reveal there were different meal plans?

As it turns out, it’s a definite article that verifies the genuine article. Jesus said plainly, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”(Jn 14:6). There aren’t different grades of “life” like different grades of meat.

This is simultaneously exclusive and inclusive. Salvation and the life that results is through Christ only. But it is available to anyone, and everyone is offered the same “product,” period. There is no such thing as a “deeper life.”

But to their adherents, this tiny bit of darkness puts them in a different light. They are “set apart,” the “remnant,” and whatever other self-exalting words they choose to “make a name for themselves.”

If we as Christians are on the same footing, recipients of the same grace, experiencing the same life, and drawing from the same well, why do we need to distinguish ourselves from each other anyway? What purpose does it serve except to make us proud of ourselves? Is there any meaningful difference between us unless we make it up?
    

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