Hunger Pains

Of all my various research interests (and believe me, I have a plethora), one of the top three is Christian worship. I love liturgy, the work of the people coming together in service to God. I love the sacraments. I love the “smells and bells” of high church worship, and I love simple services ending with an altar call instead of the Eucharist. Exploring all of that and how it has changed over the course of two thousand years is one of my favorite things to do. If I were telling the truth, my passion for worship and liturgics is probably due to a single professor I had in seminary, the man who taught my first worship class (and my course in church music). His passion for liturgy was infectious, and I caught the bug. But aside from that, he repeated a single phrase over and over again, a saying which has reverberated in my brain for several years now: “The greatest gift God can give a believer is a hunger for more of Himself.”

Therein lies great wisdom, my friends.

When we come to God in worship, we should never do so out of a sense of obligation. It should be out of a desire to become closer to the One who made us. The One who saved us. The One who is at work in our hearts and in our lives so that we become willing vessels of the gospel of Jesus Christ and go into the world, baptizing and teaching and making disciples. We should hunger for God more than we hunger for food, crave spiritual nourishment more than even physical sustenance.

Moreover, it should be a constant hunger, one which never gets sated. I really don’t think anyone should ever wake up in the morning, blurredly stare at the ceiling, and decide in our hearts, “Nah. I’ve had enough God for one lifetime. Time to do my own thing.” It’s a daily commitment, this walk with Christ. Luke 9:23 puts it this way: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” Did you catch that? This is a daily thing. Not one day goes by when we can be a committed follower of Jesus and put aside the cross of self-denial and run around helter-skelter doing as we please. (Can I still say “helter-skelter”?) I’m not saying we can never do what we want, nor am I trying to paint God as some divine dictator. But if we want a life pleasing to God, we lay aside our own desires in favor of God’s desires for us. We stop hungering for our selfish wants and hunger for God Himself.

This, I feel, has become the dominant problem in westernized societies. Atheism, etc. aside, those who do profess a belief in God and in the atoning work of His Son on the cross don’t actually live like it makes any difference to them whatsoever. American culture is self-indulgent, not self-denying. We would much rather hang a cross on the wall to show how Christian we are than to take up our own crosses every day and display our faith by our works (as James says). Instead of hungering for God, we hunger for anything else which we think will fill that God-shaped void in our life. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes,

 “What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

And he’s quite right. By hungering for power, or sex, or status, or even happiness for the sake of happiness, we have invented unspeakable evils such as those Lewis lists. If our society continues to desire other things above God, then we will continue a steady decline into precisely these sorts of atrocities. War. Famine. Pornography. Poverty. You name it. And let’s face it: our culture doesn’t even want to want God. We’d rather want those other things, our bread and circuses, and continue a downward spiral involving conveyance in a handbasket.

Until such time as we truly hunger for God, until we take up our crosses daily, until we truly strive towards personal and communal holiness, then we will have an existence plagued by the pains of a hunger which will never be sated. Today, of all days, we must be about the Father’s business, sharing the gospel with those who need it, encouraging one another in holiness, and working for the poor, the neglected, and the oppressed.



F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.