Two decades into the 21st century we are in the thick of the culture wars, and there are no signs of any peace talks on the horizon. We fight on a virtual battlefield, but if sticks and stones may break your bones, words more deeply wound you (Matthew 5:21-26; James 3:1-12). Passions are high, and everything is deeply felt; everything is personal. Our tribal thought-boundaries are fixed and we are poised ready to respond to enemy attack. Sloganeering masquerades as deeply considered world-view while opinion pieces pretend to be balanced news. Tony Payne’s recent post drew attention to two follies which Oliver O’Donovan has observed in the skirmishes of on-line culture:

Passions are high, and everything is deeply felt … we are poised ready to respond to enemy attack.

  • The folly of inconsiderateness—where we don’t think or interrogate reality, but only watch, feel and react
  • The folly of opinion—where we replace reflection and action with an anxious social participation in shallow, reactive opinion-sharing. [1]

Along with everyone else who holds a phone, it’s all too easy for me to broadcast; passionately announcing and denouncing far and wide. We have all had that experience of snapping out of those cycles of hypnotic scrolling; when that cloud of endlessly shifting words and images, including my own, may just as well be one more bucket of sand poured out and merging with the virtual sand-dunes. The wisdom preacher of Ecclesiastes seems more relevant than ever:

‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’
Of the making of posts there is no end, and much scrolling wearies the body. (Ecclesiastes 12:8,12b—adapted!)

The Secret Things and the Examined Life

Socrates asserted that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ If he was right, the western thought world he helped to birth is in a lot of trouble. So what does the ‘examined life’ look like for those who have been forgiven and set free by the living Lord Jesus?

Recently I found both encouragement and challenge in a very short yet profound book by Richard J. Mouw aimed at Christian academics. The central point of his book can be summed up in his adaptation of Arthur Holmes’ argument for ‘epistemic [i.e. what we claim to know and understand] humility and ‘epistemic hope.’ Mouw writes:

Christians need to live in the tension between ‘epistemic humility’ and ‘epistemic hope.’ We confess that only the Creator has a clear and comprehensive knowledge of all things. This should inspire us to deep humility. But we also have received the promise that God will eventually, in the end-time, lead us into the mode of perfect knowing that is proper to us as human creatures. [2]

Again and again in the Scriptures this tension of humility and hope is a chief expression of our faith in God; who in Christ is both our Maker and our Saviour. This response to God’s grace, in turn, shapes all our interactions with others—as well as our engagement with the world. Later Mouw writes:

Because of the One in whom all reality coheres [cf. Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4], we can explore that reality with a profound love for that which we are studying … If we effectively appropriate these attitudes—humility and hope—we can display the kind of patience that is capable of tolerating complexities and living with seemingly unconnected particularities without giving in to despair or cynicism. [3]

Humility and hope are for every believer, not just scholars.

Of course, humility and hope are for every believer, not just scholars. It was the stance that the LORD God called Israel to take—having graciously chosen them; delivering them from slavery and constituting them as his treasured possession for the sake of his plan for the nations (e.g. Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19:1-6). We hear it in Moses’ words to the second generation in the desert who would soon cross the Jordan to receive their inheritance in the Promised Land.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Do God’s people have exhaustive knowledge of God and his ways in the world? No, for the secret things belong to the LORD. However his people do have true knowledge of God and his ways, as well as certain hope for the future. How so? Because God in his mercy has chosen to make himself known to his people that they might know him and love him and serve him in the world. He has made promises and given us his way of love to live; and he keeps those promises to us, and creates that life in us, finally and fully in his great ‘Yes!’ the Lord Jesus Christ:

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2Corinthians 1:20-22)

Because of Jesus Christ and his Spirit who lives in us, we have certain and true knowledge of God and his purposes (c.f. 1Cor 2:14-16). We understand that our whole being belongs to him: Jesus became our Saviour in order to become our Lord. We have a sure and confident hope, which the gift of God’s Spirit within us both anticipates and guarantees. We have confidence that we will be brought through death and judgment into God’s eternal kingdom.

But, as Paul needed to remind the Corinthian church loudly and clearly, this is not a divine permission slip to embrace an arrogant triumphalism! Rather, because Christ is our Wisdom, we know that we are not saved by our wisdom, but by the divine ‘foolishness’ of the cross. In our life for God, we serve by the Spirit’s power, not our own. We are armed with the message of the cross, not our own understanding. We persevere, serving in our weakness—our incompleteness and brokenness this side of the new creation—proving not our self-sufficiency, but the sufficiency of God’s grace to us in Christ (e.g. 1Cor 1:18-31; 3:18-23; 2Cor 4:7-18; 12:6-10).

The Apostle Paul—who beheld Christ in his risen glory; who stood up in the Areopagus and declared a greater wisdom than Socrates; who evangelised Roman rulers and in imitation of his Saviour willingly gave his life in the cause of Christ’s mission—this same confident, joyful, hope-filled missionary, described his ministry to the Corinthians in this way:

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1Corinthians 2:2-5)

‘What’s with those Confident Christians?’

In my honours year I took some seminars in Jewish studies. Our lecturer and tutor was a liberal, secular Jew. He was an inspiring and articulate teacher, who knew the pain of a broken world. Both his parents had been in concentration camps during the Second World War; a reality that deeply impacted his own world-view. It soon became clear that I was the only Christian in a relatively small group; and a ‘conservative evangelical’ at that. On the whole this was a positive experience, as our teacher encouraged a healthy culture of careful listening and a rigorous but careful engagement of ideas. At the end of the year he took the class out for drinks on Lygon Street, and in a relaxed moment remarked to me: ‘The thing about you Christians is that you’re so positive and confident in what you know. We Jews are more like God’s tortured philosophers; we have more questions for God than answers. Why is that do you think?’ At that moment as Jesus promised; the Spirit gave me the words to say: ‘I think it’s because we believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. We still have fears, struggles and questions, but we go through them in hope.’

The conversation moved on at that point to the menu and lighter topics, but it has always stayed with me. It’s one of those moments that reminds me that Christians should be the most humble people in the world, and simultaneously the most hopeful.

Jesus on Humility and Hope

Jesus calls us not to be ‘the winners’ in the culture wars; but the ‘foolish ones’ … servants who are willing to be forgotten.

Reading John’s Gospel in our university Bible studies this semester we’ve been reminded that the Lord Jesus calls us not to be ‘the winners’ in the culture wars; but the ‘foolish ones.’ We are not called to be famous blog posters or writers; to be remembered for our great wit and intelligence, but servants of Jesus who are willing to be forgotten. Jesus’ ambition for us may not be to rise to the heights of political influence, or scholarly renown, but rather to be willing to be defamed, misunderstood, spat on, wrongfully imprisoned; even tortured and put to death for the sake of the elect (c.f. 2Tim 2:1-13). We are called to take up the servant towel of our Lord, and go and do the same (John 13:12-17, 34).

But Jesus was no Stoic. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:1-3)! And this same joy is promised to us; the certain hope of sharing in his glory. If we join with him now (together with Christians throughout the ages and around the world today) in his suffering, we will also join him in his glory with the Father, in the home that he has prepared for us with him.

Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me. (John 12:23-26)

God at the Centre

When the 72 returned, rejoicing that ‘even the demons submit to us in your name,’ (Lk 10:17), Jesus took the opportunity to remind his servants of the fundamental reason for our confidence in our life with God:

‘… do not rejoice that the demons submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:20b)

Real humility and real hope are only possible when God and the gospel of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ is at the centre of our confidence for our lives and ministries.Whatever others think of us; or whether or not our words and actions are acknowledged, or our contributions rewarded, we are known and loved by God (Rom 8:29-37). This is the way of life we are called to as children of our loving heavenly Father, and as disciples of our humble Saviour—this is the path of humility and hope.

… For we know in part and prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears … For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1Corinthians 13:9-10, 12-13)

[1] Tony Payne, ‘The Sin of Opinion.’ TGC, 30/4/21.

[2] Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars. (Grand Rapids Mi/Cambridge UK; William B. Eerdmans, 2014). 26. I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Sandy Clarke-Errey for recommending this book to me.

[3] Richard J. Mouw, 71.