Listen to that Existential Dread

In the Christian worldview, there is always a god.

In every person, there are desires and drives and values. Every person has purpose. Whatever most controls and compels you, that is your god. Whatever has the strongest hold on your emotions and behavior, that is your god.

In those with powerful addictions, this is easily seen. In others, however, and perhaps in yourself, it is not so easy to discern. But it is there, rest assured, as surely as there is a brain in your head if you are reading this. (Apologies to any brainless readers). This needs some nuance, as I recognize in myself the working of many different gods at different times, although I profess and strive to worship one God alone.

Speaking of the human heart, Thomas Chalmers put it this way: “Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.” This is from his excellent work, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” which lays this out about as well as I have ever seen.

How can I know what these gods are? Where can I find them? How will I uncover their hiding places? Often this is a good thing that we’ve turned into a god thing. This is a large part of what counseling tries to do—let’s find out why you do what you do and feel what you feel. Discovering the roots of your behavior and emotions can be profound, enlightening, and transformative. For Christians, this rooting out of false gods and replacing them with the worship of the true God is one way (among many) of conceiving of progressive sanctification—the lifelong stuttering journey towards maturity and Christ-likeness.

One sure way to identify such an idol is to find where in your life you experience what I call existential dread. This is the feeling of the ground opening up to swallow you into darkness. We experience this when someone or something threatens one of our gods.

Falling into Pit

For example, as a young single man I took in a lot of solid teaching on marriage and developed a deep desire to be a good and godly husband. At some point this went from being a good thing to a god thing. It subtly became a part of my identity and hope. This was revealed over time as I experienced recurring existential dread when my wife would point out some obvious, glaring, usually minor shortcoming in me as a husband. These conversations would send me into the depths of despair and elicit unbidden a blizzard of dark emotions. Whoa. Touched a nerve, as they say.

This overly strong reaction was a flashing neon sign for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It took me a few years to develop those eyes and ears. As a child of God I know I am to root my identity and hope in God Himself, but I only do this partially. I couldn’t accept the truth that I was not the kind of husband I wanted to be because I had to be that kind of husband. My worth was tied to it. And when that worth was threatened, a dark pit swallowed my heart.

Armed with this new insight, I can now repent of absolutely needing to be a good husband. In fact, shifting my hope from this god to Christ frees me to listen openly to my wife’s constructive criticism—the very doorway that edges me in the direction of being a good husband. Which, by the way, I still want to be.

Perhaps for you it is being a certain kind of employee, or boss, or leader, or spouse, or parent, or musician, or writer, or pumpkin-spice latte-maker, or anything else under the sun. This is what Calvin meant when he said that our hearts are idol-factories. To quote Chalmers again:

[The heart’s] desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.

1984… and the Gospel

Ever since we moved into our new apartment here in Cambridge, we’ve been reading a lot more. I think it has to do with how comfortable and at-home we feel here compared to the place we were in for the summer. Knowing we were only there 3 months made it really hard to feel settled. And it was dark with small windows and cold floors – not exactly the kind of place that lends itself to quiet, comfy evenings on the couch with a book.

I just finished reading the political classic 1984 by George Orwell. If you’re not familiar with it, check out the wikipedia article, which aptly describes it as a “dystopian novel about the totalitarian regime of a socialist Party.” As far as politics go, I am a self-labeled cotton-headed ninny-muggins, so I don’t have much to say about Canadian politics or “how an offshore corporate cartel is bankrupting the US economy by design,” nor how a “worldwide regime controlled by an unelected corporate elite is implementing a planetary carbon tax system that will dominate all human activity and establish a system of neo-feudal slavery.”

Anyways, one thing that struck me was the part where the main character, Winston Smith, first has a sexual encounter with Julia. Any such relationship is strictly forbidden in that society. He asks her if she has done this sort of thing before, and she says that she has done it many times. Orwell writes, “His heart leapt. Scores of times she had done it: he wished it had been hundreds – thousands. Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew, perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity.” Winston then tells Julia, “I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”

An early edition of 1984 by Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell

Now why does he hate purity and goodness? Does he have a devil-like hatred of purity and goodness, where his soul is so distorted and evil that he just hates anything which is right and good? I don’t think so.

All through the book he deeply rejoices in all kinds of things which are truly good and right – the beauty of nature, the song of a bird, a good cup of coffee. No I think the reason he hates purity and goodness is because of the hypocritical veneer of purity and goodness that the “Party” had.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between this and some Christian environments. When Christian ‘righteousness’ is represented, taught and demanded by a hypocritical leadership, those under that leadership grow sour to such ‘righteousness.’ Having been exposed to a diseased version of righteousness, they then become allergic to anything which smells of it.

Can we be surprised by statements like “I hate purity, I hate goodness!” when the only supposed purity and goodness they have seen has been the impure, bad version of it. Likewise, can we be surprised when scores of people are turned off of Christianity when some of the most prominent and well-known leaders of Christianity turn out to be living lives so crazily out of line with the most basic teachings of Christianity?

From the extreme examples like evangelical super-pastors in sex scandals and Catholic priests involved in systemic child sexual abuse to the more mundane hypocrisy of legalistic church-folk, it all contributes to this effect.

The world of 1984 is a world run by the legalistic elder-brother (of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15) where younger-brother tendencies are illegal and punished by death. The problem is that the younger brothers can see through the fake facade of the elder brothers.

Without the gospel, all the state-enforced morality in the world can never produce an ounce of true goodness.

Without the gospel, the elder brother is lost in his morality, religion, and self-righteousness; and the younger brother is lost in his immorality and rebellion.

The sad part is when the younger brothers reject Christianity because they only know the Christianity of the elder brothers – and who the heck wants that?

Once again, the gospel breaks through every human system and offers the only true hope for humanity.

Watching Out for the Wrong Thing

“The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
This short paragraph in letter 25 of the Screwtape Letters made me realize that I often watch out for the wrong thing, or guard against the extreme that I am in the least danger of falling into. For example, I am by nature a bit timid and reserved. I don’t like confrontation at all. If I’m honest with myself I’m far more often a coward than a bully, and yet I am usually far more worried about not being ‘too bold’ or ‘too forceful’ than being a coward. The error I’m likely to fall into is lack of boldness and yet I usually guard against excessive boldness. This seems backwards.
Likewise, in my spiritual life I tend to avoid structure, discipline, and rigid plans. I like my freedom. I guess I tell myself I’m guarding against legalism, but let’s be honest, I am far more likely to fall into laziness and complacency than ritualistic legalism. On top of that, one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit is “self-control” (Gal. 5:23).
I think this is true corporately as much as it is individually. In some churches, worship times seem to be emotion-free.
“Leave your affections at the door please.” Worship is more of a cognitive assent to propositional truths. They say they are guarding against emotionalism, but let’s be honest – their danger is not emotionalism but intellectualism. The opposite is true of other churches of course. It seems that when there are two groups who emphasize opposite ends of a given spectrum, the effect is to polarize both towards extremes as they react against the other, which frankly leaves each one worse off than before.
We all land at different places on a number of continuums like this. I find it helpful to zoom out a little bit and gain some perspective on the whole.

My Testimony (in 3 minutes)

This is what I read before the church on July 25th when I was baptized.

Hi, my name is Phil Cotnoir, and I was born and grew up in a loving Christian family. As I grew older and continued attending church and youth group, I came to the conclusion that I was a Christian, but just not a very good one. This is because I never read my Bible or prayed by myself at home. It’s not that I hated God or the Bible, I just found video games and sports far more interesting. I see now that my desire to live a good Christian life was not the result of the Holy Spirit moving in my heart, but it was due to the fact that in my family and church social group, that was the expectation. On a purely social level, it was expected and rewarded to act like a Christian, and so I did. It was out of self-interest, not out of my love for God.

As I grew older and went to High School, I began to struggle with and eventually became addicted to pornography. I was truly a slave to this sin, and I continued to be in slavery to it until Jesus – the Son – set me free, and then I became free indeed. But I am getting ahead of myself. This part of my life was hidden. I was one person at church and at home, and quite another at school with my friends, and then quite another still alone in the darkness of my private thoughts and life. It was during this time that I was baptized the first time. I wanted to get baptized because, again, that is what people my age were expected to do, and my brother was getting baptized, so I did too.

Things started to turn around in the Spring of 2003. I was driving home from school, when after a moment of inattention I plowed my car into the back of an SUV, making it roll over three times on the highway. By God’s grace no one was hurt even though both vehicles were totaled. I started to really ask myself if I was sure I was saved. What if I had killed someone? What if I had died? Over the next few months God revealed to me that I was not a true Christian.

On the night of September 21, 2004, God chose to open my eyes. I realized for the first time the depth and weight of my sin, as well as the holiness of God. I knew these things before, but that night they became incredibly real to me. I remember being overwhelmed with how sinful, rebellious, and proud I was – and I knew that if I died in that moment, and stood before God in all of his blazing perfection, I would have nothing to say for myself. All my good works seemed like straw next to the mountain of my guilt – and even my good works had been done for my glory, not God’s. Yet I was a very good person in everyone’s eyes. So if you think your good works will appease God, I feel compelled to tell you that you are incredibly mistaken. Like me, you don’t realize the depth of your sin OR the intensity of God’s holiness.

But as I realized these things, I suddenly felt how desperately I needed a Savior. And that is when I really understood why Jesus had to die on the cross. Nothing short of death was needed to pay for my sins; and nothing short of Christ’s perfect life was needed to clothe me and make me able to stand before God.

Since that night God has radically renovated the inner parts of my life. The next day I remember thinking “So this is what it feels like to ‘walk in the light.’” By God’s grace alone, I have been brought from darkness to light, and from death to life.

For the past 5 years I haven’t been sure whether I should get baptized again or not. But after Pastor John made it abundantly clear at the last baptism that if you came to Christ after you were baptized, that you needed to be baptized again, I decided to go through with it. So that is why I am here. Oddly enough, my Dad also came to know Christ after being baptized, in fact he was already a deacon and treasurer when he was born again. He was baptized a second time as well. I guess it’s something of a family tradition now…

In conclusion, I just want to say: We have such a wonderful, powerful, precious and beautiful Lord and Savior in Jesus Christ. I implore you to put all your hope and trust and faith in Him today.

There is Nothing God Cannot Ask of Us

The moralist and legalist pays his taxes and demands his rights from God. There are certain things God cannot ask of him. The gospel Christian has come to understand he deserves nothing good, and so relinquishes any concept of rights before God. In the gospel, there is nothing God cannot ask of us.

This is why the legalist cannot handle too much suffering. It is essentially a breach of what he thinks is the deal or contract between him and God.

Any insightfulness in these words should be attributed solely to Tim Keller.

Thoughts on Hamilton Impact

This past week, our church was running Hamilton Impact – a one-week intensive Evangelism training program. Three churches in Hamilton partnered together to make it happen: West Highland Baptist Church, Hughson St. Baptist Church, and Lightway Church – which is a plant out of Hughson. These events started in Toronto, and are a partnership between a church and Operation Mobilization, which provides teaching on evangelism and various world religions. For example, this week we studied Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Roman Catholicism, and visited a mosque, a Sikh gurdwara, and a Hindu temple. In the evenings the participants go door-to-door in the neighbourhoods around the partner churches and go through a simple survey with people which often leads into spiritual conversations and an opportunity to clearly share the gospel.

I learned a lot this week. First, I learned that door to door evangelism, despite suffering from a major image problem, does work. I was able to clearly share the gospel with quite a number of people that I’ve never met, leave quality literature with them, and have truly meaningful interactions that I would never have had in the normal course of my daily life. We are still compiling statistics, but it was pretty clear that the more affluent and more Canadianized the people were, the less they were open to talking. But thankfully the neighbourhoods around Lightway and Hughson St. are full of an amazing diversity of peoples from literally all over the world. This kind of diversity can be easily found in Toronto, Vancouver, Hamilton, Montreal, and other major gateway cities in Canada. It seems to me that these people are for the most part not on the radar of conventional churches in those cities.

During the week we met people who had Christian neighbours and yet who did not actually know what a Christian Bible was, who Jesus is, or anything else at all about Christianity. And, even more amazingly, they were eager and curious to find out more about this Jesus.

I have read and listened to a lot of pastors and urban church planters in the USA and have actually never heard anyone mention reaching out to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists. After this week, I’m blown away by that fact. I don’t know the demographics of American cities, but it’s quite possible that they don’t nearly have the immigrant population that we have in Canada. If that’s the case, then we Canadians need to make sure we don’t take all our cues from our American brothers, but that we seek the Lord and develop strategies that are appropriate and effective for our specific context. More and more, I am convinced that the Canadian context demands that churches in the cities be intentionally multi-cultural, and very discerning to avoid causing unnecessary cultural offense. Christians need to be educated about other cultures and other religions, and taught to extend hospitality and love to new Canadians. Instead, I often see fear-mongering and ignorant email chains about how the Muslims are taking over our government and schools. We need to do better than this. As one participant this week commented: ignorance breeds fear and intimidation, but knowledge brings empowerment.

A Dozen Incompatible Philosophies Dancing About Together In Your Head

Uncle Screwtape Trades in Pen & Paper for a ThinkPad

This is why I love C.S. Lewis. He takes what you inherently know to be true and puts it into words. This is just as true today as it has ever been – the reason people believe this rather than that goes far deeper than evidence. Thanks to Michael Krahn for nudging me to read Lewis – I grabbed this off my shelf yesterday and read it at the beach (the wind blew it into the water too… but with minimal damage).

“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I really see this at work in our day. There are philosophies and ways of thinking that are exciting and new, and the climate and vibe of our culture makes them even more appealing. But the draw is not truthfulness or explanatory power, it is more like some weird alignment with one’s internal compass – it feels right on a deeper level – if that makes any sense.

So my question is: Do you then try to present Christianity fundamentally as true or as more exciting [or whichever desired adjective] than the rest? Or both?

What do you think?

Young Leaders and the Trojan Horse

Like soldiers in the trojan horse, selfish ambition and a desire for glory is often smuggled into a young person’s life through pious expressions like “I want to do something BIG for God!” or even “I want to serve God in ministry.” I’ve had these sinful desires within me revealed recently. It’s led me to think about how common this must be among young Christians, especially aspiring future leaders.

Winner of the Humility Award…

I’ve been trying to unearth some of the roots of this in my own life, and one of the things that blows me away about the apostle Paul is how deeply he identified with Christ. Let me explain. He writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” And in Philippians 1:20, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Paul’s personal ambitions seem to have suffered a decisive death-blow: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.” And in place of his own personal ambitions are what we might call his Christ-ambitions: “I expect and hope that I won’t be ashamed, but that Christ will be honored.”

Paul had such a profound sense of his union with Christ. A sense that I certainly lack. My struggle reveals to me that I have not fully clued into the fact that my personal ambition for ministry success and recognition died with Christ at the moment I was born-again. And I suspect that I am not alone. Jack Miller told a young missionary, “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work alone has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there” (p.44). But I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of young Christian leaders feel like they do have something to prove.

Tim Keller insightfully points out that for many young pastors, the underlying subtext to their preaching is a desire for affirmation and approval, communicated very subtly in an almost imperceptible nervousness. Behind the words that they are saying, and in their heart, the message is “Do you like me? Do you think I’m a good preacher? Do you think I’m really called to ministry?”

Paul had a deep and humble union with Christ. The interests of Christ are my interests. The sufferings of Christ are my sufferings. The ambitions of Christ in the spread of the gospel for His glory are my ambitions.

Young people like me lack that. A lot of the time my heart sounds more like this: My interests will be furthered by adopting the interests of Christ for a while. My ambitions will be furthered by a willingness to suffer for Christ, if it’s noticed. My ambition for the spread of my name, for admiration and glory will be furthered by a commitment to spreading the gospel in a prominent way. Young people like me are likely tempted to see ministry as the place to distinguish ourselves and make our mark, as opposed to the place to crucify our selfish ambitions in order to further the purpose and message of Christ, who loved us and died for us.

In light of all this, the words of Peter to “young people” at the tail end of his first epistle have hit home like never before.

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

1 Peter 5:5-7

Young man or woman, you and I need to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand like this. We need to daily repent of and put to death our desire for adulation, applause, and recognition, and be “asking the Spirit daily for the faith and humility to do Christ’s work Christ’s way.”

A Tribute to Craig Simmons

A few days ago, a friend of mine named Craig Simmons was hit by a bus while walking home from work in South Korea, where he and his wife Kristin (married less than one year) were teaching English. He was in very critical condition when he arrived at the hospital, with severe damage to the right side of his brain and chest. He seemed to get a little bit better evert day until yesterday, when things took a turn for the worst. His wife Kristin was with him yesterday evening (our time) when he passed away. Kaitlyn and I stood by the edge of lake Erie (which looks like an ocean) yesterday after getting the news and just mourned for our friend and brother and for the young widow that he leaves behind. I am studying Philippians 1 in order to preach from that passage in August, and Philippians 1:21 came to mind: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I have to believe that it’s true. Yet the pain which surrounds that gain is still real, excruciating, and ugly.

I ask you to hold Kristin and their families up in prayer through this unspeakably difficult time. What a painful and unwelcome reminder of the uncertainty of life, the mystery of God’s providence, and the need to cherish each day as a gift. I think Craig had a good grasp of this. On June 8th, the day before he was hit by that bus – in other words – his last full day of consciousness, he wrote on his facebook: “One of the best days I’ve had.” Thank you, Lord, for giving Craig such a damn good day. And thank you, that every day now for him is a million times better than June 8th, as he is now perfected in grace and beholding Your face.

I don’t really know what else to say right now. I’m weeping as I read what some of the most important people in his live are leaving as final words on his Facebook wall:

Charlie McCordic:

“Craig, we spent so many hours together – in class, my office, at our house, the golf course, and even in Chad. It was a privilege to be your advisor, and even more, to be your friend. You thought I had an influence on you, what a challenge and blessing you were for me! Being in on a wonderful romance, premarital counseling, and then celebrating your wedding was such a joy – those are sweet lifetime memories for us.”

Haniel Davy:

“Looks like we’re gonna have to hold off that celebratory steak for a little while brother… looking forward to the Great Reunion!!”

I had the privilege of seeing Craig grow downward in humility, wisdom, and faith every year that I knew him. He was a raw, joyful, brilliant man; with depth of soul, depth of laughter, and love in his heart for God and those around him. At 26 he was way too young to die.

I’ll just close with some touching words that Denise Spencer wrote about the recent untimely passing of her husband, Michael, who was known by many as iMonk:

In that moment I realized that the hardness of Michael’s death was a reminder that it is not supposed to be this way. Ever read the first three chapters of Genesis? Man was created for life, not death. But we live in a fallen world, and the cherubim still guard the tree of life with white-hot swords. Our only hope is a Redeemer who has conquered death itself and has risen as he said. He will deliver us to a new world, a world where “there shall be no more curse,” for “… on either side of the river [is] the tree of life…”

See you there, buddy.