Tag Archives: grace

Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5)

This is the final post of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


He is blind and has been blind since birth. He can neither see nor speak, though occasionally he laughs. His head is large, and his hands are small. His legs are twisted, and his feet are as tiny as a five-year-old’s. He can’t learn. He can’t even lift his head. He has to be spoon-fed and sponge-bathed, and someone has to change his diapers. Sometimes he has convulsions, rattling not only the frame of his bed but the hearts of those who love him…

Who would think that in that bed was the power to move presidents? Who would think that muteness could be so eloquent? That blindness could open so many eyes? Who would think that so many lives would be uplifted by someone who couldn’t lift his own head?

You would. You would think those things. If you had been to Oliver’s room…

So writes Ken Gire, in his forward to Christopher de Vinck’s memoir about his brother, Oliver.  Few books have moved me as powerfully as this one.

Gire continues:

From the bed in Oliver’s room comes a glimmer of Bethlehem. If you will not look away, you will see something of what was revealed in the straw and swaddling clothes of the manger.

You will see the power of the powerless.

It is the way God works in a world that idolizes strength and worships the means of attaining it. “His strength is perfected in weakness,” is the way the Bible puts it. And weakness is what you find when you come to Oliver’s room.1

The book is called The Power of the Powerless. Henri J. M. Nouwen writes the introduction:

Chris… writes about… people who by many are considered misfits, vegetables, tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God’s messengers, they are the divine instruments of God’s healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness, and life into a death-oriented world.2

If the words of Gire and Nouwen resonate with you, read de Vinck’s book for yourself.   His brother Oliver illustrates the central point of this blog series: “weak” people are indispensable in Jesus’ church.

“In patristic thought the theme recurs that believers need those to whom they can show active care, protection, support, and love,” writes Thiselton. “Otherwise they cannot serve as Christ served ‘for others.’” 3 We need “weak” Christians, and God intentionally composed Christ’s church to include them.

“The church is a school for sinners, not a museum for saints.”4 This witticism, Thiselton notes, “underlines that a church made up only of self-styled ‘gifted’ elite would not be the church of Christ.”5

IS WEAKNESS ALWAYS GOOD?

Weakness and mutual suffering are not the sum total of God’s purposes for us, of course. His eternal design includes much more. That body you inhabit, which is the scene of so much dishonor and weakness? “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43).

Even now, what was true of the blind man in John 9 is also sometimes true of us: He was born blind, not because he or his parents had sinned, true enough, but also not because God intended for him to remain blind his entire life. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him”—the works, that is, of God healing him and thus demonstrating that Jesus was sent from God (John 9:3).

If this blind man had resisted being healed by Jesus, his weakness would have missed its purpose. What about us?

And should we really lump all forms of weakness together as equal? Surely it is not only the “strong” who should seek to become skilled physicians of the soul who can distinguish between different soul diseases. Those who are “weak” must likewise seek to be honest about the mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of their weaknesses, submitting to God’s grace for each.

It is also true that, though weaknesses need not destroy our usefulness in the church in general, they may limit our usefulness for specific missions. Well-meaning Christians won’t always agree when this is the case; recall Paul and Barnabas splitting ways over John Mark (Acts 15:37-40).

We do not know what sort of weakness (spiritual? emotional? physical?) caused Mark to “withdraw” from the “work” of Paul’s first missionary trip. Whatever the cause, Paul experienced Mark’s withdrawal as an indication that he could not be trusted to persevere in the hard work of traveling gospel ministry. Yet Mark’s life contains many lessons for both “weak” and “strong” Christians. Consider:

  • Barnabas took Mark with him on a mission trip to Cyprus; quite likely he proved useful there under his cousin Barnabas’s softer leadership.
  • Mark later proved to be “very useful” to Paul “for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
  • Mark was humble enough that, despite having been rejected by Paul, he was willing to again be one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Phm. 1:24).
  • Paul was humble enough to call Mark “very useful,” to count him as a “fellow worker,” and to make a special point of insisting that others “welcome him” (Col. 4:10).
  • Mark’s great usefulness was revealed most powerfully when he wrote his Gospel.

Was it wise for Paul to refuse to take Mark along on his return missionary trip? We really don’t have enough data to answer that question well. What we do know is that “weak” Mark proved indispensable to the Church for all ages.

Mark’s story also suggests that “weak” Christians may grow in strength and usefulness. Similarly, right after our key passage about God honoring the weak, Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). We should not assume that God intends for us to remain lacking in new gifts that could equip us for new forms of service.

LOVE, WEAKNESS, AND THE GOSPEL

But something is even more important than “the higher gifts.” Something is better even than if all of us possessed all the gifts, better than if we all appeared strong and bursting with honor. “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

That more excellent way is the way of love (1 Cor. 13). And in this broken world, love blossoms most fragrantly in Christ’s body when we do not each possess all the gifts that are most honored among us. Love blooms most fully when some of us appear weak.

And so we rest in God’s design. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18).

If simply getting out of bed in the morning to feed your family requires every ounce of your of faith, then perhaps God says of you as Jesus said of the widow who put two small coins into the temple offering box:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)

Perhaps this widow overheard Jesus’ words. If so, imagine how honored she felt!

Witherington reminds us that the same sort of honor must be given to the seemingly weak within the church:

Paul’s word about giving more honor to the weaker members of the body of Christ, the less “presentable” ones, needs to be heeded. He believes that even these folk have essential gifts and functions to exercise. It is a mistake to bring the world’s evaluative system into the ekklēsia and to set up an honor roll that favors the more presentable and dignified, or those with the more outwardly showy or dramatic gifts. Paul believes that the body of Christ is only truly strong when it gives special honor and attention to its weakest members. The more presentable members do not need such attention.6

In offering honor to its weakest members, the church displays something that is essential to the gospel message itself. Listen to Paul’s description of those whom God has gathered around the “folly” of cross:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Paul was speaking, in part, about himself. Later he contrasts himself and the other authentic apostles with the arrogant Corinthians:

I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-13, emphasis added)

Again, this “weakness” was not a distraction from Paul’s ministry. Nor was it a mere happenstance, a set of circumstances that was neither here nor there. Rather, this “weakness” was essential to the nature of the gospel Paul was preaching. It was essential for the display of God’s grace.

Jesus’ weakness in the manger was an essential element of the gospel story. His weakness on the cross was crucial for our salvation. Just so, our weakness today remains an indispensable part of the good news of God’s mighty kingdom.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord assured Paul (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord’s assurance is for us, too. Therefore we, like Paul, can respond with courage: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Are you weak? Do others consider you weak?

Do not despair. Your weakness is exactly what God needs to complete his composition.

He chose you. He placed you. His design is that “the power of Christ” will “rest upon” you.

You may appear weak, dishonorable, and even unpresentable. But you are indispensable.

God needs you. Your weakness is God’s gift to his church.

(Dare I preach this even to myself? “God needs me. My weakness is God’s gift to his church.” I believe. Help thou my unbelief!)

Trust the Artist. Someday we will see that every shadow has enhanced his glory and our joy.


Thank you for reading this blog series. I would love to hear your feedback. What is your experience of strengths and weaknesses in the church? Where have you seen Christians do well or poorly in how we honor the “weak” among us? What have I missed in my exposition? Please share your insights in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Ken Gire, foreword to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 9-10. Bold print added.
  2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, introduction to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18.
  3. Thiselton, ibid., 1008.
  4. On page 287 of The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), Thiselton credits this quote to “J.C. Wand.” Though I have not been able to find the original source, my research confirms that this Wand is otherwise known as John William Charles Wand, Anglican bishop of London after World War II.
  5. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1008.
  6. Witherington, ibid., 263.

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Easter Graces in Atlanta

Today was a busy, grace-filled day. Tonight, as darkness settles onto our neighborhood, I feel tired but satisfied. This was truly the Lord’s Day.

This past week was not all easy. We had some difficult conversations with our dear church teammates. Yes, it is possible to hurt people you deeply love. I have done so; have you? I am thankful that, as recipients of God’s grace, we can each give the grace that we each so desperately need. Then yesterday was a difficult day for me. Emotionally drained, I found my mind did not want to focus on the writing assignments before me. Let’s just say it was not my most productive day (though I did enjoy some good times at the piano).

But today.

Today was a day that was better than I deserve. (Aren’t all?) Tomorrow will be another battle. I will need fresh grace. But today was a day where the grace was heaped onto our plates, impossible to miss, sweet to the taste. Let me recount a few of the sweetest morsels.

Today was our turn to host church. The spring Georgia weather has been amazing lately, so we swept the freshly-fallen tree blossoms off the concrete pad just over the stream, and gathered for church in our backyard.

I would love to share a picture of the group that gathered with us today. But it is important to me to honor people’s privacy. So you’ll have to look at me and trust me that this was not just a solo piano session.

The gathering spot was delightful, with birds and stream blending with our voices and sunlight dappling the sanctuary. The blend of friends who gathered was also delightful—if a little raucous at times. Our family of five was there. So was the Smucker family of five. Then about another dozen joined us. Our international student friend was here. So were several adults from a house just down our street—some for the worship time and some for the meal. And so were a whole passel of children from two different houses on our street. (That was the raucous part. The fact that our “sanctuary” was just next to the “gymnasium”—a trampoline—didn’t help. The day’s bouncing started about an hour before our stated “start time,” which didn’t ease setup. But I reminded my wife that Rich Mullins would have been delighted.) At one point during our morning worship Zonya looked around and counted 10 white, 11 black, and one Asian present. Not exactly representative of ratios in our neighborhood, but so much better than if we had each gone our separate ways today.

We sang with piano, we prayed “popcorn praises” (great for children), we read from the Gospels the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we sang a cappella (revealing a lovely singing voice brought by a first-time visiting neighbor), Steve shocked the children by making the “body” of one of his sons “disappear” from a card-table “tomb,” we sang some more, and we marveled over the 1 Corinthians 15 promise of our own resurrection. One person present expressed how glad he was to be celebrating his first Easter. Others learned to answer “Jesus rose from the dead” rather than “we look for Easter eggs” when asked “What is Easter all about?” Some had their hearts strengthened as they identified all too well with Peter while singing “He’s Alive!” (with guitar this time) and then sharing in the Lord’s Table.

Okay, here’s one more, since the only face you can see is Steve’s. Why can’t you see anyone else’s face? Because they are looking for Jesus’ body. They can’t see that, either. That’s because “Jesus” slipped out from under the table and is hiding inside the fireplace. (Note the gymnasium in the upper left corner.)

Lunch was delicious (lovely ham, Dearest!), if a bit of a zoo, what with refilling several hundred cups of tea and lemonade and water—“No, I want tea and lemonade together, with ice”—for about a thousand demanding children who were fighting for turns on the trampoline (or ignoring turns completely) and riding bikes up and down the drive and along the street. But how lovely to include several neighbors whose children have often enjoyed our backyard, but who had not yet been inside our house!

Shortly after lunch several unfamiliar young men appeared out on the street (we were still in the backyard), calling something out to us and apparently looking for, or expecting, trouble. First they ran away, but the second time this happened several of us men wandered out front in their direction. We managed to calm some mutual fears, shake hands, exchange names, and send the hungry visitors off peacefully with plates of leftover lunch. More on this later.

As outdoor cleanup ended and various guests left, my international student friend and I stole off to the piano studio for a little, where we practiced our duet (Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8) that we are preparing for my upcoming piano recital. He also shared pictures and videos of a “piano club” concert that happened in his home country yesterday—a special event that he helped plan months ago, but then ended up missing thanks to now being in school on the other side of the globe. I find it fascinating and delightful how an English literature major and a math major born poles apart can find such common ground in their shared enjoyment of music. I am already starting to dread the day when our friend will leave Atlanta for the next destination in his educational journey.

Then the house was quiet. Just our family. I settled onto the sofa to relax, and my two youngest girls settled with me—one on top and the other beside, reading us “a scary story—but not too scary” about Horton hearing a Who. (Because “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” including the little ones we help parent in our backyard while trying to share in the Lord’s Table, right?)

But we had not even finished the story when our oldest bounded in with news of an Easter egg hunt that the neighbor children were about to head off to. Well… Easter isn’t really about egg hunts, but we had already shared the real meaning of Easter with these children, so… And they had come to our house, and now if they seemed to be inviting us to join them in their fun…? So I took the girls to go see what was happening. Turns out our van was needed to help carry all the children (10 total) who wanted to go to a nearby park for the hunt. Time there brought more friendship-building conversation with adult neighbors while our children, like a bunch of Energizer Easter bunnies, expended yet more energy.

I’ll skip over the bit about helping my wife accomplish her project of building a birthday gift for one of our daughters to say that part way through that activity yet another neighbor called across the yards to invite our daughters to join her son with his bubble machine. Our oldest drove her bike through the bubbles a few times then headed in the opposite direction to spend more time with the older church-and-Easter-egg-hunt friends from earlier in the day. Our two youngest enjoyed the comparative quiet of chasing bubbles with only one young friend.

Meanwhile, Zonya and I headed a couple houses further down our street to visit yet another house. There was a big family party there, and one of the children from this morning’s church gathering had invited us to drop in there, since it was his house.

That was a strange moment for Zonya and me. It was only one year ago that Zonya and the girls first joined me in our new house. We had not even officially moved in yet, and we knew almost no neighbors. Now, one year later, we were leaving two of our daughters at one neighbor’s house, the other daughter was hanging out with other neighbor friends at another house, and we were walking childless to follow up on an invitation to a third house, all on our block.

Two parts of that little visit stand out. Two, our hostess neighbor insisted on loading our hands with delicious food from their party—chicken and ribs done on her backyard grill, baked beans, macaroni salad, and cake. Mmm. And one, several men mentioned that they had seen our interaction with the young “trouble-makers” on the street earlier that afternoon. It turns out the same young men had been called out to their party, too, prior to meeting us. I was roundly praised (“Are you a pastor?”) for not doing what one of them said he would have done if he hadn’t been wearing a cast, and for defusing the situation by sending them off with food. More on this later.

We returned to the bubble-bursting daughters and invited this neighbor and her son to accomplish the oft-mentioned goal of letting her son jump on our trampoline. This brought more neighbor conversation opportunities for my wife and a chance for me to do a little more trampoline-side Jesus-shaped child training and encouraging. Chances like this aren’t hard to find these days, for some reason.

As Zonya walked this neighbor home, they bumped into a neighbor who lives between us. (She grew up there and is truly a gracious person to have next door.) Turns out this neighbor, too, had witnessed the food giveaway that happened on the street in front of her house. Wow. And to think that it never once crossed my mind that anyone might be watching. What might have happened if I had blown it? God, help us to be faithful in the little opportunities to live like Jesus! (More on this later?)

By this time day was dying in the west, so we retreated into the house that God bought and enjoyed the supper provided by the grandma of one of our regular backyard bikers and jumpers.

If I’m counting correctly, we visited in the yards and/or houses of four households on our block today. People from two of those households showed up at our own place as we hosted church. Plus, we exchanged friendly greetings as we passed a couple more houses on our block. And gave food to several passers-by. Oh, and I forgot the lady biking past this morning who stopped in just as church was about to begin to see if I could fill her bike tire. Yet another opportunity to share names and invite a new friend to join us for church sometime.

If you’ve read this far, you may feel as tired as I do.

I thank God for all the dear people with whom we shared this day. We feel both welcome and useful among our neighbors. I thank God for placing us here in Atlanta, here in West Lake, and right here on this block. I thank God for a day full of opportunities to offer our voices and hands for Jesus. And I thank him for a day when his grace is as sweet as the strawberry shortcake my wife served us last week.

Please pray for us. Tomorrow will be another battle. I have battled discouragement from time to time and expect to face this giant again. My wife needs God’s grace in her heart and on her lips. Our whole church team needs your prayers. But Christ dealt Satan his deathblow on that first Easter weekend, right? Satan is a wounded lion, roaring in anger as he goes down. Christ has the upper hand. May his hand be strong in West Lake! And may every day be the Lord’s Day this week, in your heart and mine.

May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Thank you for listening. If you are a neighbor, or if you are a friend far away, feel free to leave a message in the comments below. We thank God for you.


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There Are Better Books (Than “The Shack”)

This is (yet another) blog post about The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. The Canadian in me wants to apologize immediately and get back to smiling, but that wouldn’t be quite honest. So I’ll just say I wish posts like this never had to be written.

(Before you scroll on: I promise to end this post on a positive and constructive note! And I will need your help to make it even more positive.)

[Update: Actually, this post is more a review of the theology of the original author of The Shack than a review of the book itself. As I understand it, pastors Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings helped shape the manuscript of The Shack, so that Young’s theology was not so fully expressed there. (There have even been lawsuits about who all should be named as authors.) Please bear these facts in mind as you read the rest of my post.]

What I’m Not Saying and Why I’m Writing

As debates about The Shack have escalated to a near frenzy online in recent weeks, I have been trying for the most part to hold my tongue about Young. I don’t like conflict, especially between Christians. I don’t like putting myself in a place where I’ll almost certainly receive some criticism. I don’t think reviewing controversial books or evaluating complex topics (such as God’s gender) are usually done best in Facebook text bites. Doing it in blogs is hard enough. And I want this blog to usually focus on more foundational matters than the latest hot topic—Bible reading skills and theological understandings that prepare us to navigate multiple topics as they come along.

But “this website exists to build up the Church of Jesus Christ by helping her listen carefully to the Scriptures,” and it seems to me that too many of my fellow Christians are following someone who is neither building up the Church nor listening carefully to the Scriptures. So, I’d like to shine the light of the Scriptures on a few corners of The Shack.

Before I continue, though, please hear me when I say that I nearly tremble to share this post. I realize there are some readers who feel they have (and may indeed have) found great help in Young’s writings. Some of these readers, like Young, have experienced terrible abuse and great suffering of spirit. They have found solace in Young’s depiction of God’s great love. I tremble lest my words reopen wounds or sound like a callous diminution of God’s tender love. I tremble lest, in noting the imperfections of the arm upon which some are leaning, I am the occasion for someone falling without hope of any arm upon which to lean.

If, perhaps, I may be describing you, let me assure you: There are better books than this one, and God’s love is even richer than Young describes it to be, for it reaches even lower than he imagines.

I also tremble lest my words of caution drive some even more devotedly after Young.

But, imperfect as I am, and imperfect as this post will be, I will carry on.

I have some words of firm rebuke to say later, so I want to first clearly say several things I’m not saying:

  • I am most certainly not calling any fan of The Shack a heretic. Enjoying an imperfect book does not make someone a heretic. Even believing untruths about God does not automatically make one a heretic.
  • I am not denying that The Shack contains many beautiful truths, that many find it to be an engaging story, or even that God has used it to help some people learn more about himself.
  • I don’t agree with every criticism that is being leveled against The Shack or its author.
  • I’m not interested in attacking Young as a person, belittling the suffering he has experienced, or making statements about his standing before God.
  • I am not telling you whether you should or should not either read or watch The Shack. Sometime after the novel came out and controversy first swirled around it, I read it. I don’t regret doing so.

What did I think of it? I enjoyed maybe 80% of it. It was a rare “light” read for me (I usually read non-fiction biblical studies books), and much about the plot and characters was engaging. But I also read it with an eye open to test what it was teaching–for it was written with the intent to teach, right? I’m glad I read it, but my copy ended up full of sticky notes where I sensed that something didn’t seem to be lining up with Scripture. Here’s my copy:

Orange means “caution.”

What nudged me to write this post was a chance today to scan another book by Young. As I was servicing a Choice Books rack at a Walmart this morning, I noticed Young’s book Lies We Believe about God on a nearby rack. I had already heard of the book, but had never seen it.

Unlike The Shack, Lies We Believe about God is (or at least is intended to be) non-fiction. Here Young clearly states the set of beliefs he was trying to teach us through his earlier novel. (I understand the novel was first written for Young’s children, then later published for mass readership. But, as Young shows in his new book, The Shack was indeed intended to portray and teach theological truths.) This new book contains multiple short chapters, with each chapter title being a “lie” he aims to prove false.

I took time to scan parts of five or six chapters, and snapped photos of a few pages to help me share excerpts here. (A fuzzy “dumb phone” camera partially frustrated my purposes, but Amazon preview came to the rescue.) I’ll share some excerpts, then comment.

Problems with Young’s Theology:

Near the end of the chapter entitled “Sin Separates Us from God”—one of Young’s “lies”—we read this:

If separation is a lie, does it mean that no one has ever been separated from God? That is exactly what it means. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

Jesus did not come to build a bridge back to God or to offer the possibility of getting unseparated. One of the multifaceted purposes of the incarnation of Jesus is that we who are lost in the delusion of separation can witness a human life who knows He is not.

There is “nothing” outside God. There is only God, and Creation is created “in” God; and according to John 1, Creation is specifically created “inside” Jesus, the Word who is God (see verses 3-4). (p. 232)

As I compare with Scripture, I see multiple problems with these paragraphs. Here are several:

  • Young is teaching universalism. (This will become explicit later.) Normally, universalism is the belief that God will ultimately save everyone, so that no one will spend eternity estranged from God. Young’s version of universalism is even more radical: He believes that already now no one is separated from God.
  • Young’s language about being “lost in the delusion of separation” sounds more like Hinduism than Christianity. And his solution sounds more like Hinduism’s enlightenment than Christianity’s salvation. [I originally compared Young’s thought to Bhuddism rather than Hinduism, but a reader suggested, correctly I think, that Hinduism is a closer comparison.]
  • Young’s biblical foundation is very shaky.

More on this last point. First, Young twists Scripture to make his point. Romans 8 is not denying that sin separates us from God. It is written about Christians who have already been freed from the penalty (Romans 3-5) and power (Romans 6-8) of sin, and it is assuring them that those who are already elect and justified cannot be separated from God’s love by any external threat. Romans is clear that apart from Christ every person is an “enemy” of God who needs to be “reconciled” to him (Rom. 5:10)—a reality only experienced by those who pursue righteousness by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-25; 9:30-32). It is the Spirit who bears witness that we are children of God, and “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9 ESV).

Young likewise uses John 1 in a suspect manner, both building theology on a questionable translation of a Greek preposition (“inside”) and also stretching a passage about the Son’s role as divine Creator to say something unsuggested in its original context—that if everything was created “inside” Christ/God then nothing can be estranged from God. We don’t have to read much further in John 1 to know Young’s interpretation is wrong, for we soon read that Jesus own people “did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1 John 1:11-12 ESV). The clear message here is that (a) not all are children of God and (b) those who are, became such—they were not children of God prior to receiving Christ and believing in his name. This is not universalism!

Second, the excerpts above are the only scriptures that Young cites in his entire chapter on the “lie” that “sin separates us from God”! That is the only biblical evidence he provides as he attempts to overturn a standard Christian teaching. The rest of the chapter is just his own theological musings.

Here is only one of many other Bible passages that Young might have considered:

Behold, the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear. (Is. 59:1-3 ESV)

In the same chapter Young discusses the definition of “sin”:

The Greek word often translated into English as “sin” is hamartia. A moralist will tell you that the word means “missing the mark” and then go on to explain that the mark is “moral perfection” or “right behavior” and once again we are back on the performance hamster wheel. But if the essence of God’s nature is relationship, then sin must be defined and understood as missing a relational reality, a distortion of the image of God in us.

Hamartia is made up of two parts: ha- (an aspirated alpha), which is a negation (like un- or dis-), and -martia, from the Greek word meros, which means “form, origin, or being.” The fundamental meaning is “negation of origin or being” or “formlessness.” Yes, it is about missing the mark, but the mark is not perfect moral behavior. The “mark” is the Truth of your being.

…Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is. Behavior becomes either an authentic way of expressing the truth of your good creation or an effort to cover up (performance behavior) the shame of what you think of yourself (worthlessness).

And what does the truth of your being look like? You are made in the image of God, and the truth of your being looks like God.

You are patient.
You are kind.
You are good.
You are humble.
You are forgiving.
You are a truth teller.
You are… [many more]… pure of heart…

And so on.

These are all expressions of the truth of our being.

Difficult to believe, right?

I think that is the point. (pp. 229-230)

I see several problems with this passage. First, there are several problems with his discussion of the definition of hamartia:

  • He cites the definition a “moralist” might give to hamartia, but never cites any standard Greek dictionary. This sets up somewhat of a straw man argument, or at least misses the opportunity to check his understandings against what experienced Greek students have concluded. For example, Mounce notes that hamartia “typically refers to the transgression of the law” and that “thus, hamartia is used to denote our sin against God” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Note Mounce’s observation that sin is not merely about missing some abstract “moral perfection” or “right behavior,” but about transgressing God’s law—thus making sin a relational matter (as Young claims) but a matter of our relationship to God (not to ourselves, as Young suggests).
  • Young commits what linguists call a “etymological fallacy” when he defines sin based on its word components. What does “butterfly” mean? Don’t try to define it by dividing it into “butter” and “fly”! True, many words won’t lead you quite so far astray if you divide them into parts to define them. But the dependable way to get a working definition for any word is to see how it is used in real life. Hence Mounce’s approach above, when he says that hamartia “is used to denote” such and such.
  • Young then makes a leap from his etymologically-derived definition to assume that “the mark is the Truth of your being.” Why not (assuming for the moment his definition) say that “the mark is the truth of God’s being”?
  • Young says that “the essence of God’s nature is relationship.” I don’t deny that relationship is essential to God’s nature. But I also recall that the God of the Bible never says “I am relationship.” Nor is he ever praised as “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” But there are many places where he declares “I am holy,” and multiple places where he is praised as “Holy, holy, holy.” Surely holiness is essential to God’s nature. Why does Young not consider this in his understanding of sin?

This thought flow leads to a definition of sin that doesn’t seem  anything Iike the standard concept of sin in the Bible: “Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are…” If I am reading Young correctly here, it seems that he believes sin is essentially inauthenticity.  And if you understand yourself correctly, you will know you are good. So sin is to disbelieve one’s own goodness.

I’ll include one more extended excerpt from Young’s recent book, from a chapter about the “lie” that “You Need to Get Saved.” I’ll add bold font to some clauses and mostly let Young speak for himself:

So what is the Good News? What is the Gospel?

The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.

What or who saves me? Either God did in Jesus, or I save myself. If, in any way, I participate in the completed act of salvation accomplished in Jesus, then my part is what actually saves me. Saving faith is not our faith, but the faith of Jesus.

God does not wait for my choice and then “save me.” God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence.

Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation?

That is exactly what I am saying!

This is real good news! It has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now. So much so that we often overcomplicate it and get it wrong. Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God “dragged” all human beings to Himself (John 12: 32). Jesus is the Savior of all humankind, especially believers (1 Timothy 4: 10). Further, every single human being is in Christ (John 1: 3), and Christ is in them, and Christ is in the Father (John 14: 20). When Christ—the Creator in whom the cosmos was created—died, we all died. When Christ rose, we rose (2 Corinthians 5)…

We don’t offer anyone what has already been given; we simply celebrate the Good News with each one: we have all been included. (pp. 117-120, emphasis added)

Young is clear enough that his words need little explanation here: He believes in universalism—that all people are already saved, apart from anything (including even faith) on their part.

Young says that this truth “has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now.” What he does not mention is that universalism has also been considered a heresy for centuries now.

Here, for example, is the assessment of Roger Olson—someone who is actually probably more open to the possibility of universalism than I would be:

Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.

Olson suggests that not all forms of universalism are as dangerous as others. Which kinds are most dangerous?

I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism…  I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it?  If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.

Given Young’s redefinition of sin (and of God’s wrath in other parts of this book), I suggest that his version of universalism is no small heresy.

I do not know Young. I do not know his intentions. I do not aim to make a judgment call on his salvation. I sincerely hope he is my brother in Christ. Again, listen to Olson:

[Universalism] is unbiblical and illogical.  However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian.  I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct.  Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface).  That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.

However, the unfortunate truth remains: Young’s books promote the heresy of universalism—a heresy that reaches near to the core of our understanding of the gospel. Many of us sensed such problems in The Shack; they are now evident to all with eyes to see in Lies We Believe About God.

In addition, our brief discussion of only a few pages of his recent book revealed the following problems:

  • Young radically redefines sin in unbiblical ways.
  • He does not follow standard lexical methods for defining biblical words.
  • He uses relatively little Scripture, takes it out of context when he does use it, and overlooks passages that contradiction his assertions.

Sadly, what Young does not seem to realize is that his attempts to emphasize God’s love (by promoting universalism and its supporting doctrines) actually produce an anemic vision of God’s love. By downplaying the horror of sin’s afront to God’s holiness, God’s offer of love to sinful humanity is also diminished.

I understand that people such as Young who have suffered terribly often struggle to feel God’s love. I do not want to belittle this struggle in any way. I, too, have tasted of it, though I will not compare myself with others. I do suggest, however, that the answer to our desperate sense of distance from God is not to deny that distance via a universalism that strips the cross of its awesome incongruity, but to acknowledge the immensity of the gulf that God has spanned at immeasurable cost on our behalf. In denying that gulf, Young unwittingly diminishes our vision of God’s love.

Better Books

As I left Walmart and reflected on Young’s writings, one thought grew uppermost in my mind: “There are better books!”

With all the great Christian literature out there, why should The Shack float to the top?

I freely affirm that there are valid concerns that lead people to books such as The Shack. Many of us have experienced terrible injustices and abuses. Many of us have been hurt by our churches. Most of us have stood in urgent need of a fresh vision of God’s love and grace!

But why turn to The Shack as the best answer to these needs? Yes, Young writes with great authenticity (a virtue which is opposite of his definition of sin, after all). But many other writers have also written with authenticity. And authenticity is not the same thing as truth. Why do some of us seem to value authenticity more than truth? Without truth, there is no real life—no eternal life. Why not seek and promote books that speak healing and grace and love—and truth!

This is where I need your help. If you share any of my concerns about our need for fresh, healing visions of God’s love and grace, if you share any of my experience of being hurt (once or repeatedly) by the church, and if you also share any of my concerns about the false teachings found in Young’s writings, then please do us all a favor:

Share in the comments below the name of a book or two that you would suggest instead of The Shack.

Pointing out false teaching is unfortunately essential work at times. But merely pointing out the false does not bring life to anyone. Help us out! What books would you suggest to someone who is wrestling with suffering, abuse, pain, distance from God, hurt by the church, or other major heart tragedies? Which books have helped you?

Let me begin by listing several:

  • Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. Eugene Peterson suggested that The Shack could do for our generation what Pilgrim’s Progress did for Bunyan’s. Actually, Pilgrim’s Progress served many generations well. Why not read an updated version today?
  • Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. This one was helpful to me in my early twenties. Yancey recounts his “horror story” about his church experience, then mini bios of  many saints past and present whose lives renews his own faith.
  • Speaking of Yancey, he has written many good books on suffering and wrestling with God, as well as an influential book on grace: What’s So Amazing About Grace? [Note: I originally called this a “great” book, but I amended my endorsement after someone emailed me with a concern about the book. I confess I have not read this book, but shared it based on earlier positive feedback I’ve heard and my experience with Yancey’s other books.]
  • When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes. (This one was recommended as an exceptional read to me several years ago by Clifford Schrock of Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute. Tada has a new one that may be even better.)
  • The Gospel According to Job: An Honest Look at Pain and Doubt from the Life of One Who Lost Everything, by Mike Mason. Mason’s book on marriage is the only marriage book that my wife and I have both deeply enjoyed. I gave this book on Job to my friend Lowell Herschberger, and I think I’ve seen him reference it multiple times since.

Those are a few. My list is tilted toward nonfiction. Try Les Miserable or some Dostoyevsky for some tested fiction that wrestles deeply with tragedy and grace.

What can you add to this list? Please suggest a helpful book in the comments below. And again… if you think I’ve been overly critical of Young and The Shack, I sincerely hope we can still be friends. God’s love can cover a multitude of sins, including my own.


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