I hope you enjoyed last week’s sample chapter from my new book Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down. I’d love to hear what you think.
Here’s another sample chapter.
Jesus and the Three Spirits
Things come in threes.
That’s the folklore, anyhow. Good things, bad things: all follow a tri-fold pattern. You lose your car keys, then break the coffee urn, then your water tank ruptures. One, two, three. Or, pleasantly, you win dinner for two at the new Italian restaurant, then get an unexpected check in the mail, then the boss gives you a raise and a week’s get-away for your hard work and great attitude. One, two, three.
Well, maybe it works that way.
Just as often, though, things comes in ones, or twos, or a dozen. I think, more likely, our minds have a certain Trinitarian structure and rhythm to them, so three-fold patterns tend to light up our grey matter, set our synapses humming.
All the same, I have noticed a three-fold repetition in the ministry of Jesus – and, by extension, in churches who join Jesus’ mission in the power of his Spirit.
Almost every time Jesus said anything or did anything, three spirits attended. Almost, you could say, three spirits woke up. They stood to attention, at high alert. They engaged. They stopped whatever else they were doing, and came running.
The first, most obvious, is the Holy Spirit. It’s unhelpful, I know, to talk about the Holy Spirit “waking up.” But we do know that we can quench the Holy Spirit. We can refuse or sabotage his fire and passion and vigor so frequently that, for all intents and purposes, it dies within us. And we know that we can grieve the Holy Spirit. We can spurn or trample so often his love and compassion and wisdom that the Spirit within us is wrenched with sorrow. I think, also – this is only a hunch, with thin biblical warrant but ample empirical evidence – that we can bore the Holy Spirit. We can love comfort and evade the Kingdom so habitually, the Spirit eventually loses interest.
Whenever and wherever Jesus showed up, the Holy Spirit began leaping. You see it as early as the day Mary, ripe with child, showed up in the home of her relative Elizabeth, even riper with child. John the Baptist, just hearing the voice of the Christ-bearer, leaps in the womb. It’s deep unto deep. It’s the Spirit testifying with his spirit that the Son of God is in the house. And we see the Holy Spirit roused to full alert whenever, wherever Jesus appears. Jesus comes to town, and crowds come running, demons start shrieking, the desperate become hopeful, the powerful grow afraid.
All in all, the Holy Spirit’s afoot and afire. This is arguably the most obvious thing about Jesus and the early church: wherever, whenever they appeared, the Holy Spirit showed up, howling down the rafters, shaking lintel posts, loosing tongues, giving valor, healing sickness, raising the dead.
But other spirits showed up, too. Evil spirits. Vicious, malicious, predatory, unclean things awakened and mobbed together, wreaking havoc however they might. I’m not sure, I’ve already said, whether Christians sometimes bore the Holy Spirit. But I am close to a hundred percent certain that Christians sometimes, maybe oft-times, bore evil spirits. Too seldom do we pose any threat. Too seldom we live in such a way as to arouse even faint alarm in the heart of Beelzebub. Too often we get so preoccupied with Screwtape’s old shop-worn tricks – jealousy, suspicion, divisiveness, discouragement, a spirit of complaint, and so on – we give him no cause to come up with anything fresh. He can toss into our midst a little bone of rumor, and get us fighting over and gnawing that, and meanwhile he can just keep doing whatever he does in his spare time, never mind us.
Not so when Jesus arrives. Then, all hell breaks loose, since it’s the only tactic the devil has when all heaven breaks in. He typically puts on quite a display – bellowing, writhing, gnashing, mouth-frothing. It’s Linda Blair on speed. All his antics pose not the slightly twinge of worry in Jesus. He deals with it, fast, hard, decisively. And so too his disciples, once they get their training wheels off. One thing is clear, though: that when Jesus is on the move, the demons get no rest, find no shelter, lose all cool, drop all guises. They resort to open, unconcealed aggression of the nastiest sort. Jesus deals with it, lickety-split, and plants the Kingdom ensign on the rubble. The church doing Christ’s mission with Christ’s heart in Christ’s power should expect no less – full demonic assault met with decisive Kingdom conquest.
Those are two of the three spirits awakened by Jesus and his Bride.
The third spirit is often more noxious than the second. Indeed, it is often simply the second spirit – evil spirits – masquerading as something good.
I speak of the religious spirit. Wherever Jesus arrived, the religious spirit was soon aroused, to withering disdain, to cold fury and malice aforethought. This is a spirit the evil spirits enjoy taking captive. It’s a dangerous spirit because it’s evasive and camouflaged. It shape-shifts. It’s seditious, insidious, always posing as its opposite: keeper of virtue, upholder of purity, protector of doctrine, defender of truth. It’s rigidity masking as piety. It’s control pretending to be watchfulness. It’s judgment posing as discernment.
The Holy Spirit is only ever what it is: the pure presence of Christ.
So, too, an evil spirit. It is only ever what it is: the pure presence of the Anti-Christ.
But a religious spirit is never what it seems. It’s corruption masquerading as goodness.
And it’s very hard to cast out. Almost impossible. Jesus could dispense with evil spirits with a single word. One command, and they were flung headlong into fiery torment, shrieking their protest in vain.
But Jesus could not cast out a religious spirit with a thousand words. Indeed, the more he spoke to it, the more it cloaked itself with God-talk and strutted its impeccable credentials. You know the general list: sat on this board since before the dawn of time, taught these studies for years beyond numbering, read the Bible end-to-end every year for decades, tithed and then some since childhood. And so on.
Jesus met those people all the time, and made nary little headway with any. Consider, for example, the trajectory of John’s gospel, from chapter 7 through chapter 12. The religious leaders mount an increasingly belligerent attack on him personally and on his work. They begin with semi-polite requests for his bona fides, move to increasingly shrill accusations against him – he’s got questionable parentage, he’s had no schooling, he’s a Samaritan, he’s demon possessed, he’s an enemy of Rome – to, finally, hatching a plot to kill him. All the while, Jesus explains to them who he is and what he’s doing. But with every word he speaks, their ears grow duller, their opinions louder, their vision cloudier.
It’s hard to get past all that, or through to that.
An example. This portrait is fictitious, but assembled from many real encounters.
Let’s call her Deirdre. Deirdre grew up in a good Christian home. In fact, her religious pedigree goes back centuries, and includes prominent and founding members of churches stretching all the way back to the Scottish highlands on her dad’s side, the English mid-lands on her mom’s. Her grandmother and grandfather met at a holiness conference in Keswick, England. Her own mom and dad attended Sunday School together at First Church in a small farm community in Saskatchewan, and both can tell funny stories of their third grade teacher, the formidable but lovable Ms. Doolittle, who drilled them with Scripture and made them learn it by heart. Deirdre’s father was First Church’s youngest lay preacher – people compared him to C.H. Spurgeon. He went on to become a full-time pastor, then a missionary in Indonesia, and then an officer in their denomination. He died of a stroke at age 63, speaking at a Revival conference.
Deirdre was married at 17 to a boy she had met in Sunday School, just like her parents. What was never talked about was that she had to get married because there was a problem—she was pregnant. Deirdre was sent to Calgary for her last year of school, and the baby was promptly given up for adoption, but she was made to marry the boy anyhow. They’ve made the marriage work, largely by staying busy and staying out of each other’s way.
Deirdre and her husband came west for reasons they’ve never talked about. Within weeks, she was involved in three or four things: teaching Sunday School, organizing the women’s ministry, delivering hot meals to shut-ins, and volunteering to answer phones at the church when the secretary needed to get the bulletin ready for Sunday. Within six months, she was superintendent of the Sunday School, and helping with the Youth Group. She’s also mentored three young moms, and visited the shut-ins she delivered meals to.
The pastor couldn’t believe his good fortune. He didn’t know how the church had ever managed without her. When a position on the Deacon’s Council came available, he heartily suggests her name. She happily accepted it.
And then the trouble began. There are a number of things Deirdre’s observed at the church, and she feels she must, now that she has been given the sacred responsibility of being a Deacon, speak them out. To wit:
• The toys in the nursery are not properly sanitized, and a number of them are unsafe for small children.
• The sign at the church entrance does not say that we’re part of the Convention of Bible-believing Kingdom-come Teetotaling Baptists. People should know this before they come through the doors.
• Nowhere in our constitution have we taken a position on the events surrounding the Second-Coming of Christ. This is potentially confusing for people. And where do we stand on those matters?
• Likewise in the Constitution, nowhere have we spelled out our position on Creationism, Biblical inerrancy, birth control, drinking and smoking, or what we’d do if we found a gay person in our midst.
• She saw one of our Youth leaders talking with a married man downtown. She’d like the pastor to deal with this.
• Is there a policy about how short the skirts can be for people on the worship team? If not, can we make one?
• Is she the only one who sometimes finds the pastor’s sermons a little – she doesn’t want to say “liberal,” but doctrinally fuzzy? She’s kept a record of instances of this, and she’d be happy to share that with any of the other council members.
• She appreciates our church’s helping street people and the like, but should we put our energy (and money) into those people when our own church members rarely if ever get a visit from our own pastor?
And that’s just the first round.
The pastor now wonders how to get rid of her. Every time he tries to talk with her about any of this, it either goes nowhere, or it gets worse. And it turns out that Deirdre talks with a lot of people. She freely shares her growing concern about all the things with which she’s growingly concerned, and she tells the pastor “a lot of people” feel this way. When he asks her to name anyone, she replies that sharing names would be a breach of confidence, and she’s surprised the pastor would even ask her to do such a thing.
Most of us who’ve spent any time in the inner workings of a church will find this portrait, fictional though it is, eerily familiar. And most of us are nonplussed by it. No prayers, no confrontations, no frank discussions, no backroom deals make it go away. One day, mercifully, Deirdre and her ilk usually leave of their own accord. They leave embittered, accusatory, and often try to sabotage the church from a distance. The pastor is relieved almost to giddiness. The only thing that spoils his happiness is the thought that seven Deirdres, each worse than the last, might be on their way.
Deirdre is the embodiment of the religious spirit.
Now the point of saying all of this was to say that all three spirits – the Holy Spirit, evil spirits, and religious spirits – rouse whenever Jesus is in the house.
They can’t help it.
The Holy Spirit is necessary, since apart from him we can do nothing.
The evil spirits are inevitable, but easy to identify and clobber.
But the religious spirits are inescapable, and nearly impossible to deal with.
So what shall we do?
I’m learning the art of holy indifference. One of John Wesley’s biographers described the man’s “regal disdain for trifles.” That’s brilliant: a kingly contempt for trivialities. Most of what the religious spirit cooks up is too petty to waste a moment on, too paltry to dignify with a response. And too toxic. This spirit’s offerings are not just flighty things pretending to be weighty things, but rancid things posing as sacred things. It’s bile passed off as holy water. Poison hidden in a chalice.
What I’m learning is that we don`t have to drink it. This is one cup you can let pass. In my early days of pastoring, I didn`t heed that. I drank from the cup every time it was offered to me. I drank, and it rankled, twisted, and inflamed me. I allowed it to eat me alive. And always I would find that the more I fought against the religious spirit, the more I became it. I fought bile with bile, pettiness with pettiness. I rarely did this openly. But that’s part of the way it works: rarely is anything done openly. Instead, it`s done secretly, furtively, in a sideways manner.
Wisdom refuses to stoop to this.
Which isn`t to say I just ignore it. We still need to confront the religious spirit. Jesus did this repeatedly. He called it out of the shadows, named it for what it was, and made it clear that the Kingdom of God will not be beggared by this spirit. It will not be held ransom. It will continue its work of healing and liberating and proclaiming.
If the religious spirit is at all as I`ve been describing it, then of course its preferred haunt would be synagogue on Sabbath, or church on Sunday. Its stage is not the public square. It shows up on hallowed ground, amidst consecrated halls. It inhabits the place set apart for worship and prayer and the public reading of the Word. This is the place the religious spirit gravitates to, because it’s camouflaged for just such an environment. It can perfectly mimic the gestures, postures, tone, and language of this place. It can go for years undetected in these quarters.
Until provoked. Until Jesus shows up.
So Jesus often encountered this spirit at church, as you do.
There was, for instance, the man with the shrivelled hand. I think I met this guy once, so to speak: one hand perfectly fine, wide and leathery and strong as a hydraulic pump from having to do double duty, and the other a wilted and bony rag of a thing, curled in on itself like a small animal dying. His bunged hand trundled up under his arm, carried there like a loose package awkwardly jutting, threatening to drop.
Anyhow, if that was him, Jesus ended up meeting him in church. And the watchdogs were watching. The religious spirits were hovering. They figured Jesus might be stirred with one of his odd emotions – love, compassion, tender-heartedness, that sort of thing – and that he might make a move. And he doesn`t disappoint. Best I give the story in full:
On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.
But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.
These stories can be multiplied. Maybe most glaring is the account that follows Jesus’ most spectacular miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisees are so alarmed by this, they call an emergency meeting of the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, and after urgent debate they come to fierce resolve: “from that day on they plotted to take his life.” They don’t in any way deny the miracle: they defy it. They pull out all the stops to destroy the author of such wonders because “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
The last thing the religious spirit wants is Jesus “going on like this.” It’s dangerous, subversive, a threat to order. It imperils temple and nation, the touchstones of religious pride and identity.
Stories like this must have fed the imagination of Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky as he wrote his famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. In that riveting piece, Ivan Karamazov, ever bent on destroying the sweet faith of his brother Alyosha, tells him about Jesus walking into Seville, Spain, “during the grimmest days of the Inquisition. When throughout the country fires were burning endlessly to the greater glory of God and… wicked heretics were burned.” Ivan goes on to explain,
Of course, this was not the coming in which He had promised to appear in all His heavenly glory at the end of time… No, He wanted to come only for a moment to visit His children… He came unobserved and moved about almost silently but, strangely enough, those who saw him recognized Him at once…drawn to Him by an irresistible force.
But the crowds surging around him draw the attention of the Grand Inquisitor, a man ancient, austere, terrifying. He seizes and imprisons Jesus, and intends to execute him, but only after he spends the night lecturing him on why he is a threat to the church and to public order. He explains to Jesus that only three forces can “overcome and capture once and for all the conscience of these feeble, undisciplined creatures, so as to give them happiness. These forces are miracle, mystery, and authority.” He claims that Jesus “rejected the first, the second, and the third of these forces and set up his rejection as an example to men” when he spurned the devil’s three temptations. What Jesus offers people, the Grand Inquisitor accuses him of, is freedom. And that is an intolerable gift. People don’t know what to do with freedom.
Ivan ends his story this way:
The Grand Inquisitor falls silent and waits for some time for the prisoner to answer. The prisoner’s silence has weighed on him. He has watched him; He listened to him intently , looking gently into his eyes, and apparently unwilling to speak. The old man longs for him to say something, however painful and terrifying. But instead, He suddenly goes over to the old man and kisses him gently on his old, bloodless lips. And that is His only answer. The old man is startled and shudders. The corners of his lips seem to quiver slightly. He walks to the door, opens it, and says to Him, “Go now, and do not come back… ever. You must never, never come again!” And he lets the prisoner out into the dark streets of the city. The prisoner leaves.
Alyosha asks Ivan, “And what about the old man.”
“The kiss,” he says, “glows in his heart… But the old man sticks to his old idea.”
The old man sticks to his old idea: the epitaph of those who love the religious spirit.
This is not a counsel of despair. It’s a counsel of reality. It’s facing squarely a biblical fact: wherever the kingdom of God forcefully advances, opposition mounts fast and hard – and much of that opposition comes from within the camp. I have stopped counting the churches I know where a great vision embodied in a godly pastor has died a brutal death at the hands of those with a religious spirit. I wonder how many of those pastors would have carried on in the face of that spirit if they had known, for one, that these spirits always show up when Jesus is on the ground and, for another, that the best way to deal with them is to defy them.
Two samples of the kind of letters children send to Santa Claus each year, c/o The North Pole:
You did not bring me anything good last year.
You did not bring me anything good the year before that.
This is your last chance
There are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey, he is 2. There is David, he is 4. And there is Norman, he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time.
I am Norman.
The legend of Santa is rooted in the life of a real person, Saint Nicholas, the 4th Century Byzantine Bishop of Myra. He was renowned for his generosity, which had a distinct element of justice to it: one of his more famous and lavish acts of giving was to provide large dowries to three impoverished daughters of a pauper to spare the girls a life in prostitution.
The St. Nick legend morphed along the way, especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but the Santa of modern imagination – the Santa of sleighs and reindeers and irrepressible jollity and chimney-invasions and an insatiable appetite for sugar cookies, the Ho Ho Hoing Santa who dandles little children on his knees while they whisper their consumerist fantasies in his ear – is shaped largely by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 Poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally published anonymously as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).
That really started the snowball rolling.
Something got lost along the way.
I’m not trying to spoil the fun – some of my favorite memories of my children when they were young was their annual visit with Santa down at the mall. But Santa has been co-opted by a consumerist conspiracy to subvert the Christian virtue of giving and replace it with the capitalist fetish for spending. That should give us all pause. The modern Santa has no continuity with the 4th Century Saint: he has become almost his nemesis. Modern Santa-hood eclipses ancient sainthood. It is hard to imagine, for instance, the modern Santa breaking the bank to rescue poor girls from the brothels.
But that’s not the worst of it.
This is: The Santa myth preaches a toxic form of legalism. Legalism is, in essence, the belief that everything I receive is owed to me because I earned it. In religion, legalism says that God owes me a good life here and now and salvation eternally because I earned it by my upright living. In economics, legalism is the idea that only the productive are deserving. In nature, it’s that only the fittest survive. In relationships, it’s that only the beautiful are happy.
And so on. Legalism reduces everything to a transaction: I’m owed something because I earned it.
The myth of Santa is incurably and irreducibly legalistic. At its heart it says he owes us gifts because we earned them by our good behavior: he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice….
That old legalist.
Don’t you see? A gift stops being a gift to the extent you’ve earned it. It’s just a reward. It’s remuneration. It’s compensation. It’s what you have coming to you. You did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything the year before that. This is your last chance.
Such thinking only makes sense in a world in the death grip of legalism.
But we live in a world that’s grace-soaked. In a stunning irony, it’s a lament in the book of Ecclesiastes that actually turns legalism on its head
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all (Ecc. 9:11).
This is a lament sung in the key of despair. It is a complaint against some cosmic unfairness. But hear it through the filter of the gospel, and it becomes great good news. It means we live in a world where it’s possible to win races and battles and eat meals and receive money and favor that you never earned. The gospel would add that we get all this, not merely because time and chance happen to all, but because grace reigns. Grace soaks this sin-dark world, and breaks the grip of legalism. And no longer does the law of return have the last word.
Listen, I’m not saying go tell your wide-eyed 4-year-old that Santa is a fraud in the service of capitalistic greed.
But I am saying, tell them first, most, often and always the real Christmas story. Tell them about the real gift-giver, Jesus. Tell them about his grace – the gift we didn’t earn. Tell them about his best gift – himself, given at ultimate cost to himself but free to us. Tell them that, and make that the center of everything.
Merry Christmas indeed.
I am seeing two broad and worrisome trends in the North American church today: a nitpicking, name-calling crankiness, and a shoulder-shrugging, yawn-stifling complacency. We have a surging tide of angry self-appointed prophets, and a sprawling mass of apathetic self-indulgent spectators.
It’s not our finest hour.
On the one side are the rigorists and dogmatists. They lather each other up, largely through blogs, into fits of vitriol. Their main activity is to ferret out and denounce anyone whose theology doesn’t line up neatly with their own. Their black list includes, variously, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Rick Warren, Richard Foster, and many others (and all who approve of those on the black list). In other words, the list includes men and women whom God has used to further his kingdom and deepen our faith. But never mind that. Somewhere, on page 303, say, of so-and-so’s book on such-and-such, he quotes a medieval mystic on prayer whose doctrine of salvation is, let’s say, quirky.
Off with his head!
Or at a conference in Toledo she appeared on the same platform as a mega-church pastor who endorsed a book by someone who once said something questionable.
To the gallows!
Or he wrote, in his very own words, something stupid and regrettable (as most of us are prone to do from time to time).
I even stumbled across my own name on one of these black lists. Last year, when I was preparing to speak at a well-known Christian university, I searched my name along with the name of the university to find out my speaking times. What popped up first was a website warning these university students against my dangerous thinking. My crime? I was friends of someone who was friends of someone who had been influenced by someone whose theology the writer found objectionable.
I’m neither joking nor exaggerating.
This is tiresome, foolhardy, and futile. It is the wrong fight. I am a great proponent of clear and biblical thinking, but this is not that. This is an exercise in hair-splitting that effectively shuts down the Great Conversation and replaces it with diatribes, jeers, and mud-raking. It is generating massive heat and almost no light.
Then on the other side are those who are no more interested in theological inquiry than in learning Sanskrit. They don’t care about creed or doctrine: they just want to “be encouraged,” “feel good about” themselves, “be inspired by the sermon,” “enjoy the worship” – all phrases I’ve heard many times. It’s a faith cobbled together from hunches, slogans, emotions, but not much thought. It’s an elixir for the narcissist. This is a caricature of biblical faith, and provides no defense against error and no ballast against storm.
I plead for us to transcend both dogmatism and complacency. And I know just the thing: conviction. What the most robust, winsome and effective Christ-followers have always had in spades is deep conviction. Here’s what that looks like: being willing to die for your beliefs, but never to kill for them. It’s being willing to face prison or torture for your faith, but to imprison or torture no one who refuses to share it.
I think of Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof, booming out the keystone of his life: “Tra-di-tion!” But in this case the keystone is Con-vic-tion!
Conviction is when we are personally gripped and transformed by what we believe, and when we love to share those beliefs, but when we feel no compulsion to crusade for them, force them on others, or denounce those who think differently. Virtually, all holy wars spring, not from the overflow of belief, but from its deficiency. They are a way we overcompensate for doubt.
Jesus said a Christ-like life, not the loudness of our pronouncements or the deepness of our feelings, is the primary evidence that we know him.
That only grows in the soil of deep conviction.