Pastoral Backstory 10.17.13


(What is this and why?)



October 17th,  2013

We thought we’d broken the siege.

antsizes_2It had begun with a bite on my big toe (tell me I’m not transparent). Soon nearly my whole family fell victim to their assaults. Ants, large and small, but all courageous enough to clasp their mandibles to every giant opposing their imperialism, were subtly but methodically laying claim to more than one room of what we thought was a home impervious to their menace.

So out flipped the smartphone to make our distress call to the Google gods for insight into warcraft against Family Formidicae.  Sprays and dusts, boiling water and baits–these were the weapons we had to choose from.  At first we tried the more humane and natural repellents, at which I could almost hear the ants laugh in collective taunt. So out came the bigger guns, applications with terrifying names like Spectracide.  Sprinkle a little of its chemical Lambda-Cyhalothrin atop the mound and just add water.  In short order you see the devastating and ostensibly definitive results.

But then I read the fine print: the substance was only a surface treatment.  Unless something lethal finds its way down to the core, and to the queen of the colony, most times a remnant of those who turn their antennae up at the forbidden fruit survive to build another siege-works.  And so they did.  Lambda-Cyhalothrin, no matter how menacing its name sounds, is still no match for a colony’s cunning relentlessness.


We couldn’t overstate the menace of selfish ambition and conceit last Sunday–two words which fall under the rubric of what C.S. Lewis referred to as “the great sin” of pride. The very antithesis of humility (and of faithful presence we argued), pride operates with the same cunning, subtlety and resourcefulness as the tiny marauders besieging our home.  Just consider a sampling of the profile on pride from the eminent theologian Jonathan Edwards (HT: Justin Taylor)

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

[Pride is] the main door by which the Devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion. ‘Tis the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit, to darken the mind, and mislead the judgment; this is the main handle by which the Devil takes hold of religious persons, and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces, to clog and hinder a work of God. This cause of error is the mainspring, or at least the main support of all the rest. Till this disease is cured, medicines are in vain applied to heal all other diseases.”

There is no sin so much like the Devil as this, for secrecy and subtlety, and appearing in great many shapes that are undetected and unsuspected, and even appearing as an angel of light: it takes occasion to arise from everything; it perverts and abuses everything, and even the exercises of real grace and real humility, as an occasion to exert itself. . . .

It is a sin that has, as it were, many lives; if you kill it, it will live still; if you mortify and suppress it in one shape, it rises in another; if you think it is all gone, yet it is there still. . . .

There are a great many kinds of it, that lie in different forms and shapes, one under another, and encompass the heart like the coats of an onion; if you pull off one, there is another underneath. . . .


e had need therefore to have the greatest watch imaginable, over our hearts, with respect to this matter, and to cry most earnestly to the great Searcher of hearts, for his help. “He that trusts his own heart is a fool” [Prov. 28:26]

Pride lurks and pounces. It constricts until its chokes.  It seduces so it can subdue.  It is eminently versatile, able to infiltrate every domain of human existence.

And perhaps its greatest artistry–artistry in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way–is in how it works within those who tend to think and speak so highly of humility.

newtonlettersJohn Newton, famous for being the slave-trader turned hymn-writer, wrote to a younger pastor who had occasion to publish a series of responses on a burning (and enduring) theological dispute.  The responses would be to another pastor who held the differing perspective, so Newton sought to provide guidance for this budding young shepherd in the handling of controversy.  

Our faithful presence to one another may sometimes involve a matter of theological controversy, but Newton’s guidance for the one in his charge applies to whenever and with whomever we find ourselves in dispute.  Our presence to one another depends on wisdom in controversy.

Marshaling humility begins with how you regard one opposed to you.  Newton writes, “before you set pen to paper”–or for our purposes, speak a word–“you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.” For if this person is a fellow believer, “in a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon the earth is to you now.”  Humility necessarily takes a long view. It does not let us don blinders that see only their adversarial position.  As we’ve said in weeks previous, if all you see in the one with whom you take issue is the issue itself you see neither them nor yourself.  And sometimes the only way to regain the longer view and wider context is to stop and pray for them.

Humility is at work also when we see the limitations of what our arguing can achieve.  The human heart can surely be persuaded by reason, but not by reason alone. Therefore Newton argues, “if, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less consistency be offended at their obstinacy.”  He’s saying we’ll be less likely to force the issue, to overplay our hand–and thereby exacerbate the problem–if only we’ll recognize how our arguments are but the seed sown.  Other conditions must come to bear if the fruit is to flower.

Perhaps the greatest need for humility comes not so much in handling your disputant but yourself.  Newton warns, “there is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.”  That is, we can be far too easily pleased by our ostensible rightness, our hearts fooled into thinking we are celebrating truth when really we’re celebrating the act of vanquishing.  Newton continues, “self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines [or any truth claims] as well as upon works. . . .the best men are not wholly free. . .and are apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule. . . .Controversies for the most part are so managed to indulge rather than repress this wrong disposition.”  Newton does not dissuade us from engaging in dispute, but admonishes us all to tread lightly into its theater if only because the context threatens to turn us foul.

And thus we need something greater than us, greater than what’s within us, to keep the perils of controversy at bay and allow its outworking to bear fruit.  “What will it profit a man,” Newton asks, “if he gains his cause, and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?”  One may win an argument, he says, yet suffer a greater loss.  Strength of will cannot restrain pride’s seduction in the cause of truth. Therefore, “if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct your communion with God. . . . If you think you have been ill-treated, you will have opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who, ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.'”  As we said Sunday, Christ is the model of humble restraint that becomes the motive for such when we trust that what He gained for us will always outweigh what we might “lose” in controversy.  Our trust in His steadfast kindness diminishes our proneness to defend ourselves at any cost.

Pride will always and everywhere lay siege to us.  Fortunately we’ve been granted not a surface treatment but one that works its way into the core of our being–and by the one who entered the depths of death to provide it.


A church of faithful presence is indeed a way of being–to God, to one another, and to our world.  But it’s also a way of progressing, moving from one way of being to another.

Peter Eugene Ball, ‘Crucifixion’, c1998

Peter Eugene Ball, ‘Crucifixion’, c1998

This Sunday we’ll spend one more week exploring what faithful presence to one another entails, this time from 1 Peter 2:1-12.  Three “moves” a church of faithful presence makes:

  • from haunted to holy
  • from halting to heralding
  • from hemmed to haunting


Community notes

  • SamuelMillerSee Samuel Miller over there to the right? He’s leering at you.  Leering at you for your heart’s recalcitrance toward reading his brief instruction to church members about their elders.  Well, time to turn his frown upside down.  Read the two pages, and then stay around for 2nd hour this Sunday for our 2nd round of interview and Q&A with our elder candidates: Jim Akovenko, Hugh Comer, and Doug Pollock.   Click on the icon of Leering Samuel Miller to read his essay.
  • We’ve heard from some of you who have an interest in serving our school age kids in 2nd hour sunday school. We need to hear from more of you–either as willing teachers or assistants.  Let us hear from you.


And would you pray:

  • for our respective struggles with humility be they in the context of controversy or not
  • for the bruised and broken among us
  • for those suffering loss, affliction, and confusion
  • for our elder candidates as they are examined this Saturday, and for our time of discussion with them Sunday
  • for the hard and holy work of being faithfully present to one another

See you Sunday (and would love to see you on time at 9:30!), Patrick

Author: Glenn Machlan

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