Falling Through the Cracks, or Straying Sheep?

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“It’s an all-too-common phenomenon in churches. A church member stops showing up on Sunday mornings. A few weeks pass, and then a few months, before someone notices.”

This past November, on our annual elders retreat, the elders of White Fields Community Church read Jeremie Rinne’s book Church Elders, which is part of the 9 Marks series. Jeremy brings up an interesting point:

‘People in my congregation refer to this phenomenon as “falling through the cracks.” They say things like: “Have you seen Sally around church lately? I hope she didn’t fall through the cracks.”

What if, instead of “falling through the cracks,” we use a different image: “straying from the flock.” That picture seems more fitting for at least two reasons. First, “straying” implies that a disconnected church member bears a personal responsibility to stay involved with the congregation. Sheep don’t ordinarily leave a flock by inadvertently plummeting into a void. They wander away over time through a series of choices.

Second, the image of straying sheep also suggests that someone should keep watch over the flock and take action when a sheep begins to meander away. Yes, each member has a personal responsibility not to roam, but all church members have a duty to watch out for one another. However, one group in particular has an obligation to be on the lookout for straying sheep: the elders.

Elders watch to make sure that no “wolves” infiltrate their congregations with false teaching. But elders also keep watch for unwanted movement in the other direction: members straying away from the flock and from the Lord. This is part of basic shepherding work. Shepherds feed the sheep, guard them from predators, and keep track of them.’

He goes on to point out something interesting from Ezekiel:

‘Ezekiel prophesied against Israel’s leaders by accusing them of negligent shepherding: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock?” (Ezek. 34:2). And what was one of the ways they failed to shepherd? “You have not . . . brought back the strays, or sought the lost” (v. 4). As a result, “My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them” (v. 6).’

Jesus, in contrast, is the “good shepherd” who leaves the 99 to pursue the one wayward sheep, something which is indeed “reckless” from a business perspective (and this is exactly what the lyrics of Cory Ashbury’s song “Reckless Love” come from).

The difficult balance from a church leader’s perspective is how to be a good shepherd under Jesus, and being overbearing. May God give us wisdom and grace as we seek to do His work!

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SNL’s Nativity

Emma Stone and SNL put together a great skit on the nativity and how un-glamorous it must have actually been to have a baby in a barn.

My favorite lines:

Wise man: “We brought you gold, frankincense and myrrh.” 
Mary: “Great! I heard ‘blankets, diapers and a crib…'”

“I’m sorry, I guess when I found out that I was going to give birth to the Savior, I just assumed it was going to be … nicer. There would be a real bed, and, I don’t know, like: a doctor. And no sheep poop on the floor.”

Check it out:

Christmas Eve Church Services in Longmont

Join us at White Fields Community Church on December 24, 2018 at 4:30 or 6:00 PM for a special Christmas Eve service which will include Christmas music from our band and choir, as well as a reading of the Christmas story and a message about why Jesus’ birth is good news of great joy for all people.

Location: St. Vrain Memorial Building, 700 Longs Peak Ave. Longmont, CO 80501

Invite someone to join you as well! Studies have shown that most people are willing to attend church on Christmas Eve if someone invites them, so consider yourself invited, and invite someone to join you and get Christmas started by focusing on Jesus!

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“They worshiped Him, but some doubted.”

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One of the most intriguing phrases to me in the Gospel of Matthew is found in Matthew 28:16. It says that after Jesus’ resurrection, the 11 disciples (Judas was gone now) went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. And when they say him they worshiped, but some doubted.

“When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16)

It would seem that it is possible to worship and have doubts – at the same time!

Doubt is Part of Having Faith

In fact, there is a sense in which doubt is an inherent part of faith.

Jude tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22)

For more on doubt and faith, check out: The Role of Doubt in Faith

It has been said that “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” 1

It is important that we ask the hard questions and wrestle through our doubts in order to make sure that what we believe is really true! Anselm of Canterbury famously defined the study of theology as, “Faith seeking understanding”.

So it would seem that is it possible to worship and have doubts – at the same time.

Why Did Matthew Include This Detail?

What is interesting is to consider why Matthew included this phrase in his gospel account. I believe it is because Matthew, with a heart of empathy and pastoral sensitivity, recorded this detail about doubt so that readers would be encouraged in their own struggles between worship and doubt.

This detail shows us that the disciples were not spiritual giants; Jesus gave the “great commission” to go out into all the world and carry on his work by making disciples of him – to an ordinary group of people like you and me.

What Should We Do With Our Doubts?

I was really encouraged this year by a podcast episode I heard this year about the importance of directly addressing the doubts that people have in regard to Christianity: not only for the sake of those who aren’t Christians, but also for the sake of those who are sitting in our churches, who are worshiping, yet they are struggling with doubts. By addressing some of the opposition to Christianity, you are speaking both to critics of Christianity, but also to those who want to believe, but are struggling to do some in some areas.

We did a series earlier this year, which has borne a lot of fruit – even residually. It was called: The Trouble Is… (link to sermon audio – and – link to YouTube follow-up videos). In this series we addressed some of the reasons why people commonly reject or doubt Christianity, including: Science, Hypocrisy, Hell, Suffering, and others.

We put that series onto pen-drives and have handed them out at community events here in Longmont, as well as made them available for free for people who come on Sunday mornings for church, and we have not been able to keep up with demand. We have handed out several hundred of these so far, as people take them to give to friends and co-workers. In fact, I had someone tell me the other day that they have been using the series to lead a group discussion at their workplace; every week they listen to one message and then watch the YouTube follow-up video, and then discuss it. Attending this group are people from all kinds of backgrounds, including agnostics, Buddhists, and lapsed Christians. Very cool to see God using it in this way!

What should we do with our doubts? We should press into them, and seek out answers, because if what the Bible says is true, then it will hold up under scrutiny, and our seeking will lead to finding, which will lead to the dispelling of doubts and the strengthening of faith. This is exactly what happened with the disciples themselves, who – though they doubted here in Matthew 28 – they were able to dispel their doubts and became so convinced of the reality of it, that all of them suffered for it, and all but one (John) gave their lives for it!

I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

As we look forward to the new year and plan our teaching schedule, we will be doing another series along these lines. Likely, this will become an annual thing for us.

This one will be called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…” We will spend 6-7 weeks directly addressing the questions that people struggle with, such as: sexual orientation, genocide in the Old Testament, the historicity of the Bible, why “bad things happen to good people”, etc.

As I did previously, I will be posting a poll online to gather information and would love your feedback, so please keep an eye out for that.

In the mean time, don’t let your doubts stop you from worshiping! But don’t let your doubts derail you either. Press in, seek God, and seek the answers to the questions you have. You will be strengthened in the process, and you will also be equipped to help others.

 

The Christmas Song Which Isn’t Actually About Christmas

One of the most characteristic songs of the Christmas season is Joy to the World. It’s sung by carolers and played in instrumental pieces all over the world, and wherever its famous tune rings, it sets the tone of Christmas.

Except… this quintessential Christmas hymn isn’t actually about Christmas.

67460Written by Isaac Watts and first published in 1719, Joy to the World was a hymn Watts wrote based on Psalm 98, which describes the eternal kingdom which God promised to one day bring about via the Messiah.

Watts, in writing this hymn, considered Psalm 98 along with the New Testament writings about Jesus’ second coming, and wrote this song – which is all about what the world will be like when Jesus comes again.

In this sense, we can say that Joy to the World is an Advent hymn, even if it is not necessarily a Christmas hymn.

Advent is the four weeks leading up until Christmas, during which Christians have historically focused their hearts and mind’s on Jesus’ coming. The word Advent comes from the Latin phrase Adventus Domini, which means: ‘the coming of the Lord.’

During the Advent season we do two things:

  1. We look BACK to Jesus’ first coming and the incarnation (Christmas) – that act in which God took on human flesh in order to save us.
  2. We look FORWARD to Jesus’ second coming, when he will come again according to his promise, to judge the nations and rule over his eternal kingdom.

And so it is in this latter sense that Joy to the World is absolutely an Advent hymn, as it looks forward to the second coming of Christ, when nature will sing and Jesus will rule as King over all.

Another thing you may not know about the hymn Joy to the World is that it was originally set to a different tune than the iconic one that we associate with it today.

Over 100 years after Isaac Watts originally wrote the song, a composer named Lowell Mason, inspired by Handel’s Messiah, wrote the melody which we know today. He titled this musical piece Antioch, but it didn’t have any words to go with it.

For three years Mason searched for the right words to fit his melody, finally settling on Isaac Watts’ lyrics for Joy to the World, and the rest is history.

Joy to the World: An Advent Series

This Advent at White Fields Church in Longmont we are doing a series for the month of December, including Christmas Eve, called Joy to the World, in which we will be looking at how the gospel brings lasting, powerful joy into our lives which overcomes sorrow and cannot be taken away.

Yesterday was our first message in that series, which came from the Gospel of John chapter 16 and was titled “Your Sorrow Will Turn Into Joy.” For the audio of that message, click here.

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We’d love to have you and your friends and family join us at White Fields this Advent and on Christmas Eve. Our services will be at 4:30 & 6:00pm at the St. Vrain Memorial Building at 700 Longs Peak Avenue in Longmont, Colorado. For more information and directions, click here.

 

If Jesus is God, Why is He Called the “Son of God” and “the Firstborn Over All Creation”?

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In my recent post, Was it Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?I mentioned that one of the issues that some people struggle with is regard to the deity of Christ is that the New Testament calls him the “Son of God” and Colossians 1:15 says that he is “the firstborn over all creation.”

If Jesus is God, why is he called the “Son of God”? And if Jesus was not created, as Christians claim, then why is he called “the firstborn over all creation?”

Let’s look at these two questions one at a time:

Why is Jesus Called the Son of God?

The long and short of it is that “Son of God” is a Messianic title, which means that Jesus is the long-awaited, promised king of Israel whom God had promised to send to save the people and set them free in an eternal and ultimate way.

The most important text for understanding this is Psalm 2, which is a “coronation psalm,” meaning it would be read at the coronation of a king. 

It includes this line: I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:7) This line is quoted and applied to Jesus in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 & 5:5.

Most important is to understand the context of this phrase “Son of God” in reference to the king. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings were considered to have a special relationship with God. In many cases, like in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the king was considered to be deity themselves. Such an idea would be an abomination to the Jews and in complete contradiction to everything their Scriptures said about God. However, they too believed, as we see in Psalm 2 and other “royal psalms” that the king had a special relationship with God.

Thus, the term “son of God” spoke of the king’s special relationship with God, but throughout the Old Testament there is the hope of a true and better king, the one who will establish the throne of David forever and rule over an everlasting kingdom which will have no end (see: the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7). Then though there were many kings of Israel, none of them were the ideal, TRUE KING that God had promised and Israel waited for.

To call Jesus THE Son of God is a reference to him being THE king whom God promised to send to set the people free and save them ultimately and eternally, i.e.: the Messiah.

For more on the meaning of the term “Son of God” check out: What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?, or the related topic: If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself “the Son of Man”? 

Why is Jesus called “the firstborn over all creation”?

Does Colossians 1:15 imply that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated God created? If Jesus is the uncreated God, then why is a term like “firstborn” used of him – I mean, it actually contains the word “born” in it, which implies coming-into-being, does it not?

The word firstborn (prototokos) is also applied to Jesus in Colossians 1:18, Romans 8:29Hebrews 1:6, and Revelation 1:5. In each and every case, when this word is used of Jesus, it refers to supremacy in rank.

All ancient culture had a practice called “primogeniture” – which meant that the firstborn son got all the wealth of the father and he got all the father’s status and power. From a legal standpoint, a firstborn son was equal with the father.

So when this title is used of Jesus, it in no way means that Jesus is less than God, or that he was created by God, rather it refers to supremacy of rank. To say that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation means that he holds the position of primacy over all of creation, i.e.: no one and nothing holds a candle to him; he has all the status and power of the Father and is equal to the Father, although still distinct from the Father. 

Interestingly, John Lightfoot cites Jewish rabbis who sometimes referred to God as “the firstborn of the world,” meaning that God was supreme over all of the world — that there is none higher than him.

How do we know this interpretation of Colossians 1:15 is the correct one? By looking at the verses which immediately follow, which declare Jesus to be the uncreated creator. 

Colossians 1:16-17 say: For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Bible begins by telling us that God created all things, and here it tells us that Jesus created all things. The clear message is that Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God. He is beginning-less creator, equal to the Father in substance, status and power, and yet distinct from the Father.

Thus, rather than undercutting trinitarian theology, Colossians 1:15-17 undergirds the foundation of trinitarian belief.

Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?

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Advent is the time of year when we think and talk a lot about the incarnation, that event in which God took on human flesh and became one of us in order to save us.

Recently on the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM someone called in asking if it is necessary to believe that Jesus was fully God in order to be a Christian. He explained that he believes that Jesus was fully human, but not fully God.

Arianism: A Brief Background

Without knowing the name for it, he described his beliefs, which were basically Arianism: a belief popularized in the early 300’s by a man named Arius, who taught that – contrary to the generally-held Christian belief, Jesus was not fully God in the same way that the Father is God, but that he was a special created being, whom God created in order to bring about salvation for human beings. Arius was afraid that by saying that Jesus was God, Christians were slipping into polytheism, and that in Colossians where it says that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), it means that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated Father created.

Arius’ beliefs were condemned as unbiblical and incorrect at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the church, which gave birth to the Nicene Creed, asserting that Jesus was of one substance (ousia) with the Father and that Jesus is “very God of very God”, leaving no ambiguity whatsoever that Christians unanimously believe that Jesus is in fact God.

(For more on Arius, Nicaea and St. Nicholas of Myra, check out: Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas)

But still… why is it important that we believe Jesus is God?

Is it just because that’s who Jesus is and who God has revealed him to be (ontological/revelatory reason)?  – OR – was it actually necessary for our salvation that Jesus be God (soteriological reason)?

Nicaea dealt with the ontological and revelatory side of this question, but my caller on the radio show asked the latter question: is there a soteriological reason why Jesus had to be God in order to save us?

My immediate answer was to point him to Romans 8:1-4, which says that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s righteous requirements on our behalf. In other words: Jesus lived the perfect life that I should have lived, and the good news of the gospel is that he then offers his perfect record to me. Jesus, having been the only human not born of the seed of a man – other than Adam – becomes the “new Adam”, who then fully obeys God whereas Adam disobeyed and sinned (see Romans 5:12-21 or listen to Who is Your Champion?)

He then asked, “Couldn’t God have created a perfect being, without a sin nature, in order to do that work of fulfilling God’s righteous requirements on our behalf in order to save us?”

Here’s Why Jesus Had to Be “Very God of Very God” in Order to Save Us:

The Scots Confession of 1560 addressed this issue directly. The answer it gave is that the full reality of Christ’s deity is essential for salvation because salvation must be an act of God, or else it is not salvation. The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

Karl Barth explained that the full deity of Christ is essential because it is only God who can forgive sins. He refers to Mark 2:7, ‘who can forgive sins but God alone?’ It is equally necessary for atonement, Barth pointed out, that the one who makes amends for sin is human. 

Salvation, in other words, is an act of God, but an act that must be done from within humanity – thus Jesus had to be fully God and fully man in order to save us.

The whole of our salvation depends on the fact that it is God in Christ who suffers and bears the sin of the world, and reconciles the world to himself.

T.F. Torrance discusses the terrible implications of denying the full deity of Christ:

If the deity of Christ is denied, then the cross becomes a terrible monstrosity. If Jesus Christ is man only and not also God then we lose faith in God, because how could we believe in a God who allows the best man that ever lived to be put to death on the cross? If you put Jesus Christ as a mere man on the cross and put God in Heaven like some distant god imprisoned in his own lonely abstract deity, such a god is monstrously unconcerned with our life as he does not lift a finger to help Jesus.

The validity of our salvation depends on the fact that he who died on the cross under divine judgement is also God the judge, so that he who forgives is also he who judges.

Thanks be to God for what He has done for us by becoming one of us!

What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

[Negative: the Status Quo] But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.