Reflections on Annual Council: Fundamental Beliefs 1 and 2

It was a historic Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Fundamental Beliefs were reviewed for the first time since they were put together in 1980. That alone would have made the Council historic. But the review was completely overshadowed by the issue of ordination, and how the church should relate to women in leadership. I was not there, but I just spent a couple of days with the Biblical Research Institute Committee of the General Conference at Andrews University and had a chance to debrief a number of major players in these events. I will share some of what I have come to understand, respecting confidentiality and the fact that I know a lot less than I would like.

First let me reflect on the Fundamental Beliefs (hereafter “FB”) discussion. The “28″ were reviewed over a period of years, taking into account consultations with many groups of leaders around the world and also suggestions that were mailed in to headquarters from leaders and lay people all around the world. Appeals for change focused particularly on two doctrines, the Trinity and Creation. Changes were then proposed in 2013 and circulated further around the world church. The revised set of FBs was then discussed last week and further revisions were made. The current state of the document, including all changes and comments by the committee chair and editor, can be found at http://www.adventistreview.org/assets/public/news/2014-10/FUNDAMENTAL_BELIEFS_STATEMENT-last_version.pdf. As you will see from this document, everything was done in the open, including suggested changes and comments on the process. Please refer to that as I share some brief comments aided by the discussion at BRICOM. Two global changes I won’t comment on further are putting Scripture references in canonical order and the use of inclusive language wherever that would not be painfully awkward.

FB1 is on The Holy Scriptures. The main intent of the wording changes there is to highlight the centrality of the Bible in SDA doctrinal discussions. There has been a tendency through the years to settle discussion by means of quotations from Ellen G. White (a respected founder of the Church who is viewed by most SDAs as having the gift of prophecy) rather than careful Bible study. The new wording of this fundamental highlights the centrality of the Bible in any discussion of doctrine in the Adventist Church. I consider this a very important and helpful re-emphasis.

FB2 is on The Trinity. There is a rising movement in some circles of the Church (particularly conservative circles) to return to a less trinitarian formulation of Adventist belief in the godhead. Since the Church had been fairly settled on the issue for around a hundred years, this caused church leadership considerable concern. The point was well taken that the title of FB2 (“Trinity”) was a word not found in the Bible. So it was argued that the wording should be more biblical and less philosophical (perhaps simply “God”). But the argument was then made that if the Church removed the word “Trinity” from FB2 the anti-trinitarians would declare victory, which would not have been the intent of those framing the language. So in the end little change was made, only to emphasis that “God is love.” What that biblical point (John 3:16; 1John 4:8) may seem obvious, it was missing in the earlier version.

To be continued. . .

The Latest on Women’s Ordination and the Annual Council

I am sitting in the Biblical Research Committee of the General Conference. Just heard a report on the women’s ordination debate and I am now much more satisfied with what took place at the Annual Council of SDAs. It seemed to me at first that the church had simply “punted,” sending the 2015 session the same question they had already settled in 1995. It sounded to me like “deja vu all over again.” I couldn’t see why sensible people would agree to that. But that was because my attention had been focused on the question going to the floor of the General Conference as to whether segments of the church can differ in how they relate to ordination. But that was not all that was voted.

The actual voted document is four pages long. It was affirmed to me today by the chair of TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) that the voted question should not be read in isolation, but in the context of the whole four pages that were voted, and this is significant. Page four, paragraph one, essentially makes the point I have made in my solution to the problem. The Bible does not address the issue with the kind of clarity needed for the church to settle the matter for everyone in every place on the basis of the Bible alone. Please read the whole document: http://www.adventistreview.org/assets/public/news/2014-10/statement.pdf.

The bottom line of that paragraph is the point I made earlier this morning: The Bible does not either affirm or deny ordination to women. What makes this even more significant is that this statement comes as the unanimous affirmation of the world church’s officers. In other words, the entire leadership of the church wants us to understand that the settled outcome of two years of study by more than 200 people is that neither side has iced its case on the basis of the Bible. That being the case, the way is open to diversity on the matter, wherever mission to diverse situations calls for it.

Doubt the church leaders  were paying attention to my earlier blogs (well, I know that some did), but it feels good to know that the two-year process has been taken seriously. I was wrong to suggest this morning that the church “punted” the issue to next year, I believe they have actually listened carefully to the years of study around the world and felt that the Holy Spirit led them to this unanimous consensus in spite of many differences among them in detail. I look forward to further evidences of the Spirit’s work in the year to come.

What About Headship Theology?

As I understand things, traditionally the opposition to women’s ordination within the Seventh-day Adventist Church came on two grounds, using simple terms. 1) The Bible doesn’t mandate the ordination of women. 2) We never did it that way before. These two arguments were sufficient to carry the day during the decades when the issue was not front row and center. But in recent years it became evident that these two arguments were no longer sufficient. Since Adventists have always been leery of “tradition,” an argument from current and historical practice will only take you so far. And the first argument also has its limits. The Bible doesn’t mandate the use of cars, cell phones, computers, Facebook or the internet. Yet people who take the Bible literally do all of the above in today’s world.

So with the traditional arguments against women’s ordination disintegrating, my old friend Sam Bacchiocchi vowed to take six months off and study the issue of ordination in order to write a book showing that the Bible is against it. Now however you may feel about his methodology (knowing before his study began what the outcome would be), Bacchiocchi was a very determined and capable scholar. If there was a biblical argument out there against women’s ordination, he would find it. And he did. It was called “headship theology” and he found it in the “neo-Calvinist” movement, which starting gaining steam among some evangelicals in the 1970s. Some key names promoting this theology were Wayne Grudem and Bill Gothard (I personally heard Gothard on more than one occasion in the 70s).

Headship theology is based essentially on two NT texts, 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. While these texts had been noticed by Adventists and other Protestants before 1970, they were never used to teach what the neo-Calvinists now use them to teach, namely that there was a hierarchy within the Trinity from eternity (Christ in submission to the Father), that Eve was in submission to Adam before the Fall, that Eve’s sin was trying to escape her role in creation, and that Adam’s sin was not exercising his authority over Eve. Some Neo-Calvinists even think slavery was appropriate in light of such Scriptures. While these ideas were attractive to Bacchiocchi as a way to prevent the ordination of women in the Adventist Church, they were not known in Adventism before Bacchiocchi (1987), so their introduction into Adventism does seem to me like a desperate measure that we may one day regret. Can one pick a single apple from a tree that includes other apples like predestination, everlasting burning hell and Sunday sacredness? For a thorough study of how the new headship theology entered the Adventist Church see http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433232.

A few years ago, before I ever thought of applying headship theology to the issue of women’s ordination in the Adventist Church, I wrote a paper on the NT language related to leadership and authority. I think it has implications for the theory of headship. One can draw implications from a text or two that are contrary to the whole trend of Scripture. Whatever doctrine we teach needs to be based on the whole Bible, not a couple of convenient texts. Here is what I had to say about the Greek word for headship (kephalē), for example:

“The root meaning of kephalē is with reference to a person’s physical head, the part of the body that contains the brain. By extension it is used metaphorically as a reference to the person of high status or superior rank in a hierarchy. In the Hebrew Old Testament, “head” (rosh) is frequently applied to human leaders, such as the patriarch of a family (Exod 6:14, 25), the leader of a tribe (Num 7:2; 2 Chr 52), or simply leaders in general (Exod 18:25; Num 25:4; Judg 11:11). These “heads” in the Old Testament were parts of a hierarchical leadership system (Exod 18:21) in which each “head” played a specific role under or above other heads.
“In the New Testament, kephalē is also used in the basic sense. But in the epistles of Paul, head and body are usually used as metaphors of Christ and the church and occasionally kephalē is applied to the husband’s role in the home (Eph 5:25-27). The church, however, chose not to apply this word to apostles, overseers, elders or deacons, it was applied solely to Jesus Christ. The church is more than an institution, it is a living organism and living organisms can successfully have only one head. Leadership functions in the church, therefore, are substantively different from other kinds of organizations. Kephalē does not point to a hierarchy, so much as a relationship. As “head” Christ is the one who sustains the body and provides for its growth.”

Notice how the New Testament uses headship language in a completely different way than the Old Testament. In the OT there is the language of hierarchy and status, because that is the way the ancient world was. But in light of the cross, the NT introduces a new form of leadership, leading through service and self-sacrifice. Thus Greek words that imply hierarchy and dominance are never used for offices in the church. Neither is headship language so used. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). And if you have seen Jesus, you have seen what God is like (John 14:9). This is the larger context in which texts like 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 need to be read.

When you “take the Bible as it reads” without any sense of the ancient setting or the larger biblical context, it is not hard to imagine that 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 suggest some sort of hierarchy between men and women. And one could even suggest that such hierarchy is taught in the texts and intended to be an absolute principle for all time. But when you pay attention to the meaning of these texts in the larger ancient and biblical setting, you can see that Paul was using the language of the culture, but pointing people to the cross of Christ as the principle that would, in the end, undermine that culture. While the Bible does not mandate the ordination of women, it is not unbiblical to suggest the abolition of human rankings and distinctions in the service of a greater mission.

Can We Fix the Problem?

Can the unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church be maintained in the face of so much division over women’s ordination? Two possible approaches seem almost guaranteed to destroy unity at this point. One would be mandating that ordination to the positions of both pastor and elder be restricted to males only once again. Since the church first moved away from that position in the 1970s, the western world has shifted enormously in favor of full equality and inclusion for women. To step back at this time would be devastating to the mission of the church in the western world and also the Far East (China in particular). In my travels around the world I find the younger generation in areas opposed to ordaining women much more open to full inclusion as well, although the leaders of the church are still reluctant. Similarly, a position mandating the ordination of women worldwide would be devastating in many cultures where full inclusion of women is not appreciated at this time. The Middle East, Africa and parts of Southern and Central Asia and South America likely fall into this category. It would hurt the mission of the church to force a global vote on women’s ordination either way.

Clearly the flexibility of options two and three that TOSC has put forward offer some encouragement that unity could be preserved. In option two (see summary and links in previous blog) the church would affirm that ordaining women is the right application of Scripture for today, but it should not be forced on entities of the church that are not ready. Option three affirms the biblical pattern of male headship, but allows for new forms to leadership in places where that pattern no longer makes sense. In both options the biblical understanding is not taken as absolute and unbending for all cultures and places. It is the biblical summary that makes up the primary difference between the two options. My guess is that neither would garner a majority of votes in any meeting of top church leadership. Many would be uncomfortable with the assertion that the Bible affirms the ordination of women and many others would be equally uncomfortable with the assertion that the Bible affirms male leadership as the norm. Is there some other way that might point us forward?

The problem with all three options is that they presume the Bible is reasonably clear, one way or the other. Option One is so clear that it not only takes the field but pillages the opposition’s kingdom. Not a formula for unity. Option Two presumes that the Bible, rightly understood, teaches women’s ordination but that those who disagree can get permission to continue their traditional practices. Option Three presumes that the Bible teaches male “leadership,” but those who want to ordain women can apply for permission to do so. But all these positions presume that the Bible speaks to the issue with reasonable clarity.

When you have dueling positions on a topic (in this case women’s ordination), both claiming to be from the Bible, there are only two options that I can see. Either one side is perverse (deliberately twisting Scripture to get their way) or the Bible is, in fact, unclear on the subject. I have good friends on both sides of the women’s ordination debate. I cannot look either side in the eye and say, “You are perverse, you are deliberately manipulating the Bible to get your way.” To do so would be to pass a terrible judgment on people I have enjoyed as colleagues for many years. And it is a judgment that puts me in great peril (Matt 7:1-2; Rom 2:1-3). But if the Bible is, in fact, unclear, then that should be the foundation of the church’s position, rather than according victory to one side or the other.

That leaves two options for attaining unity. One is being proposed by David Newman. If ordination itself as generally practiced is a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages (the word “ordination” is Latin term, not found in the NT), then let’s not ordain anyone and solve the problem in that way. I could live with such a position, but since the Adventist pioneers adopted ordination as a practical necessity (rather than a biblical mandate), something like “ordination” is probably needed. I suggest, therefore, one other option. The simplest approach to honor the Bible and yet preserve unity is to affirm that the Bible does not directly address the question of women’s ordination and that, therefore, it does not mandate either the ordination of women to the gospel ministry nor the denial of the same. Neither party would have to give approval to a theology they disagree with. Let’s just agree that the Bible doesn’t directly address the question and that, therefore, differences of opinion on how to apply the Bible to ordination today are to be expected. When differences are the norm, unity requires that ordination be driven by the mission of the church rather than the direct teachings of Scripture. Divisions and unions should be allowed to ordain women or not ordain them, based on the leading of the Spirit and the demands of mission in those territories.

Won’t that in itself destroy the unity of the church? What will happen if an ordained woman is called to a union that doesn’t ordain women? The same thing that happens now with female church elders. If an ordained female elder moves to a church that doesn’t ordain females as elders, she should not expect to be an elder in that church (for better or for worse). If an ordained female pastor receives an invitation to pastor in a union or division that doesn’t ordain women, she should understand that her ordination will not be recognized there, and respond to the invitation with that in mind. If an unordained female pastor is invited to a region that ordains women, she should not be compelled to accept ordination. While there will be relational challenges in the process, the overall unity of the church need not be destroyed on the basis of such an arrangement. It has certainly not happened over the last forty years since women have been ordained as elders in parts of the world. Practical arrangements in one local church need not affect arrangements in another.

A possible wording for the above “unity option” could be as follows: “We acknowledge that the Bible does not mandate the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. Therefore, any union or division that considers ordination of women to be a detriment to the mission of the church in that region will not be considered out of harmony with Scripture. Likewise, we acknowledge that the Bible does not forbid the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. Therefore, any union or division that considers ordination of women to be useful to the mission of the church in that region will not be considered out of harmony with Scripture. To maintain the unity of the church, we continue the practice of the Adventist pioneers, who adopted ordination, not primarily on biblical grounds, but as a practical necessity to enhance the mission of the church.” I’m not thrilled with that specific wording, but hopefully it helps point the way forward.

What About the Ordination of Women?

I have shared in the past about the two-year Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) efforts to understand what ordination is and whether or not it is appropriate to ordain women to the gospel ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, when the blog site was suddenly shut down a few months ago we lost several years of archives and I’m not sure we can recover the series on ordination (written in 2012) without re-posting the whole series, which I may choose to do.

The hope in 2012 was that TOSC would first of all come to a consensus on the meaning of ordination and then on the question of ordination of women. Failing to attain consensus on the latter question, the request was that the committee bring suggested solutions to preserve the unity of the church when it is divided over the interpretation of the Scriptures.

By a vote of 86-8 TOSC voted (on July 23, 2013) a theology of ordination statement that affirmed that ordination is the public recognition of those the Lord has called to local and global church ministry. Ordination confers “representative authority” rather than “special qualities” or a role in a “kingly heirarchy.” The official report can be found at http://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2013-07-23/study-committee-votes-consensus-statement-on-theology-of-ordination/. The statement itself can be found at http://www.adventistarchives.org/consensus-statement-on-a-seventh-day-adventist-theology-of-ordination.pdf. Based on these points, the question before TOSC became whether or not “the Lord has called” women in the Adventist Church to local and global church ministry and whether women can represent the church in such roles.

When it comes to women’s ordination, the bottom line is that the Bible NEVER addresses the question. No Bible writer ever raises the question. That means that arguing the case for or against women’s ordination is always an extrapolation based on Scriptures addressing other issues. As a result, it is rare for anyone to change their mind on the subject based on Bible study alone. If the Bible does not truly address the subject, then the conclusion will be driven more by culture and providence (the sense of God’s working in a particular context) than by Scripture. An example of such an occurrence in the Bible is Acts 8-15. Before Acts 8 Christians assumed that the church was a subset of Judaism and would include only Jews. But then Philip met the Ethiopean, Peter met Cornelius, and Peter had a dream. By Acts 15 it became apparent to the majority in the church that the Spirit was working with Gentiles and bringing them into the church. The church then took a fresh look at Scripture and saw possibilities there that they had missed before (see Acts 15:13-19). The mission of the church demanded the inclusion of the Gentiles and the church learned to read the Bible differently as a result.

As TOSC continued, the North American Division of the Adventist Church produced an amazing and persuasive document in favor of ordaining women: http://static.squarespace.com/static/50d0ebebe4b0ceb6af5fdd33/t/5282a08be4b0b6e93a788acc/1384292491583/nad-ordination-2013.pdf. By way of contrast, divisions of the church opposed to women’s ordination seem to have done little fresh study. The one exception to this was the minority report of the North American Division (pages 193-208 of the NAD document linked above), which broke some new ground, suggesting that male “headship” was a core element of biblical theology that limited ordination only to men. This was a new theological approach that had never been seen in Adventism before the mid-1980s (Sam Bacchiocchi) or even in Christianity generally before the 1970s. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it does raise questions as to whether such a reading of the Bible is compatible with historic Adventist theology, for example (headship arguments were used against Ellen White in the 19th Century, for example). The faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary has concluded that headship theology takes a dangerous turn away from Scriptural principles and I agree with them. You can see the Seminary statement at https://www.andrews.edu/sem/unique_headship_of_christ_final.pdf.

Instead of one “solution” to the division in the church, TOSC came up with three. A summary of each can be found at https://www.scribd.com/doc/228366133/TOSC-Final-Papers. In short, the first proposal denies ordination of women to the gospel ministry and rescinds the ordination of women to positions of local elder. If accepted this proposal would return the church to the position it was in before 1970. The second proposal was to affirm that the Bible supports ordination of women to the gospel ministry, but that it should not be imposed on church bodies that would find ordaining women detrimental to mission in their fields. The third proposal affirms the Bible exhibits a pattern of male leadership, but that such biblical patterns are often adapted to changing circumstance, so entities of the church that feel mission requires the ordination of women could apply to do so.

What to do? What to do? In the next blog I humbly offer my solution to the potential division in the church.

Stages of Surrender, Part 11

Surrender is not a work, in the negative way that Paul uses that terms. We get both the will and the strength to surrender as a gift from God. But sometimes we need a little encouragement to align our wills with God’s will. In stage five we sometimes return to the one thing we least wanted or even expected. I sometimes call it The Dark Night of the Soul II: The Sequel. You see, one would think that the closer you come to God, the more you would be appreciated by other people of faith. But it doesn’t work that way. People at earlier stages are often perplexed or even enraged by the things God does in us at the later stages. The deeper one goes into the stages of faith the more isolated one may feel in the church. So it is natural at later stages to worry about what other people think. It is a sign that pride is not totally eradicated. Hence another experience of the Dark Night.

I think of Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah. That was his second dark night of the soul, the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham seems to have had many dark nights, but the first major one would have occurred in the context of leaving his comfortable situation in Mesopotamia to strike out toward a strange land that God would show Him. Job’s afflictions began in the context of his family, and then in conversation with his friends and in the end he experienced the direct presence of God, and that was a pretty tough experience too. Job had multiple dark nights of the soul. Jesus in Gethsemane experienced his second dark night of the soul. God often allows us to re-enter the path of suffering, so that we may lay aside everything that is in the way of our relationship with Him.

Those who endure the second dark night have the opportunity to enter Stage Six, which is the stage of unconditional love. And one would think that the person who loves unconditionally would be the most popular person in the church. Who wouldn’t love to be around someone who loves everybody? But that is not the case. The reason is that the person who loves everyone unconditionally also loves my enemy. And the one thing I will not allow you to do is to love my enemy. You might say that real Christians don’t have enemies. In one sense we don’t, and in another we do. When somebody shows love and kindness to a person who has abused us, or has made life difficult for us, that can be a very big challenge.

Ruled by unconditional love, people are compassionate, even under extreme hardship. God’s love flows through them to others, and the channel is clear: it is a life of forgiveness. My wife and I have learned in our marriage that it’s not enough to forgive now and then. In any  marriage you need to forgive every day, probably every hour, because we’re human beings and we rub each other the wrong way from time to time. But to make forgiveness a habit is just a wonderful way to live.

People at this stage also need less material things, so people may say things like, “Why aren’t they doing anything to the car, or to the house?” People who live a life of love don’t pay attention to things anymore. And there is considerable benefit in that style of life. There is a freedom from anxiety and inner peace. These cannot happen when we spend our lives in fear of what other people think. When we surrender that fear to God we experience true freedom, true peace.

Are there any challenges to the life of love? Above all people, those at Stage Six seem out of touch with reality. They act as if there are no enemies in this world. But you can’t love Osama Bin Laden, you just can’t! You can’t love Adolf Hitler, you can’t! Some people would even say you can’t love Obama or John Boehner. You can’t love such people and be my friend. So, the person who loves everyone seems completely out of touch with reality. The biggest issue, perhaps, is a tendency to neglect their own physical needs, and those of the people closest to them, in service of a wider mission of love to the world. So I will suggest a rather strange surrender point for people in Stage Six. They at times need to surrender their other-centeredness. Their tendency to put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own and the spiritual needs of others ahead of the physical needs of the family.

Have you ever met someone who was so concerned for others that they didn’t take care of themselves? Not many people reach this stage in life, but should you ever be there, remember that there comes a time where God asks you to surrender your other-centeredness, and go out and take a vacation. Or repair that dripping sink. Or make sure that your spouse has something decent to wear at the church potluck. You may need to surrender your other-centeredness at times to actually take care of your health and your family. I suspect that as long as life lasts in this world, there will be something to surrender.

Stages of Surrender, Part 10

I call Stage Five the journey outward. It is a renewed engagement with the world grounded in a renewed sense of purpose. If you’ve gone through the dark night of the soul and have been transformed with a new sense of purpose, you can go back and do the things that you were successful at before, but now with a new sense of purpose, a venture outside of self and its ambitious plans. Instead of ministering for God with the subtle goal of making yourself look good, there is now a focus for others, ministering for God without a conscious or unconscious eye toward a reward. The motivations, the passions, are more authentic. There’s a focus on people and their needs, not just on numbers and adding to the community. AT this stage we’re willing to go smaller, humbler, riskier, newer. One of the startling things I have noticed over the last ten years is a trend for significant leaders of the General Conference to simply quit and say, “I want to move to a small church in the middle of the country. That’s where God is calling me. It is OK to go smaller, humbler, riskier, and newer because it doesn’t matter how big your mission is, or how big your job is, what matters is where God wants you to be. There is nothing like being where God wants you to be and doing what God wants you to do.

There are challenges to this stage as well. You would think that a person who was emptied of self, someone who is loving and self-sacrificing, would be the most popular person in the church. Nope! Most people won’t recognize what God is doing in your life. Instead they feel as if you have gotten out of touch with reality. “He used to be really something for the Lord, but now he’s kind of weird. Whatever he had he seems to have lost it. He’s become kind of odd.” But sometimes people seem odd because they are following God to places others have never gone. And they seem odd because God is working with them in a way that hasn’t happened in others’ lives yet. And as people mature in their walk with God they may feel more and more alone, even in the church, because God has led them to a place that others don’t understand because they haven’t been there yet. In the eyes of others, people at stage five may even appear careless about the faith; they don’t seem to take it as seriously, they don’t dress right anymore, they don’t do the devotional exercises that they used to do (because their relationship with God can no longer be confined to set times). What’s wrong with them? Maybe it’s because they are tuned into God, that they are walking with Him in a different way than you could possibly walk with Him.

Surrender at this stage is one of the most difficult to deal with, the fear of what other people think. Let me illustrate. I have a minor malady which is a stress related thing. Everytime I feel an extremely high degree of stress I feel something like a golf ball in my lower intestine. Maybe nobody else feels anything like that, but the moment I feel that “golf ball” I know I’m under stress. Here’s what God revealed to me recently. I was wondering why I was under so much stress. My administrative job has been high stress for over seven years, yet I had rarely felt the golf ball until a few months ago. It dawned on me that the real problem wasn’t the specific issue or issues on the job, the real problem was that I was worried about what other people would think about my actions. I had thought that I was over that, but God helped me realize that I was still plagued with that tendency. And that can be one of the biggest means by which the power of God can be blocked from our lives.

Sometimes we are afraid to move on with God because we are afraid of what other people might think of us. Particularly in stage five, God calls us to surrender that fear to Him, it is safe with Him, because if you are right with God it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. If God approves of you, then it doesn’t matter if anyone else does or doesn’t. When did God approve of you? Already at stage one. So, if you are in stage 2, 3, 4, 5, or wherever you might be (and you can be in more than one stage at a time), God approves of you. And if God approves of you, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks.

Stages of Surrender, Part 9

Those who absorb the dark night of the soul and move forward with God enter the fourth stage of faith, the journey inward, as I call it. The goal of the journey inward is to discover God’s unique purpose for our lives, His personal direction. The concept of purpose is no longer centered primarily in the broader mission of the church or a specific profession, but in a very specific mission gifted by God. To live according to God’s purpose is to be unique, to do a work for God that maybe nobody else can do. The dark night of the soul calls us to surrender our illusions of purpose and yield ourselves to God’s ultimate purpose for our lives. That purpose will be uniquely individualized to us. If we don’t pursue it, no one else will do it for us. God’s unique purpose for us is not our profession. If being a doctor or dentist is the purpose for your life, you will be out of a job in eternity! But if your unique purpose is exercised through those professions, that purpose will continue by other means in eternity.

The life of faith is about increasingly turning away from pride and becoming more and more like Jesus. Jesus is the opposite of pride, the opposite of self-centeredness. In the dark night of the soul God is saying, “Can you let it go, your plans, your ambitions, your own sense of purpose? If you find my unique purpose for your life, it will be the greatest thing that ever happened to you.” To know that you are where God wants you to be and that you are doing what God wants you to do, is the greatest experience ever. Yet God’s unique purpose for you may be totally different than the life you would have chosen.

I remember thinking when I turned 40, “Man, I’m more than halfway there. And the best half is already behind me. It will probably be all downhill from here! I’m just about ready to totter into the grave.” Nearly 25 years later I realize God has done lots of things in my life recently that I never would have dreamed of then. When looking at the first 40-50 years of my life, I now see that all of that was preparation for the things God wanted me to do in my 50s and 60s. Plants, when they’re healthy, keep growing. When you’re 60 it doesn’t mean you have to stop growing. It may in fact be the beginning of the greatest work in your life. To be 75 doesn’t mean you stop growing either. If you free up the channel and let Him, He can do the miracle. And His miracle will usually be a surprise, even to you and me.

Stage Four is a wonderful stage in which we learn how to move from the head to the heart. This means a deepening of old relationships and the discovery of exciting new ones. As we find our purpose we become attractive to others who are finding theirs. This stage is usually accompanied by the healing of unresolved issues that have blocked our way in the past. There is a great deal of personal growth as we gain greater self-understanding and greater empathy with others who are struggling.

There are challenges at this stage as well, because people in stage four sometimes get consumed with self-assessment and negative thinking. They’re always trying to figure out who they are and where they are. “Am I doing this right? Why aren’t things going better?” Sometimes, you just have to surrender that kind of stuff. Negative thinking blocks the channel and doesn’t allow the miracle to occur. Actually, it’s a secret form of pride. The person who says, “Woe is me! I could have been great but they blocked my way. I could have really done something, but this person abused me or this person made fun of me, etc.” You visit in your mind the places where you were disadvantaged, where bad things happened to you, and waster a great deal of time moaning about it. That’s a form of pride because your attention is focused on “me, me, and me.”

If you have ever visited a mental institution you will probably have noticed the one word that appears in virtually every sentence there. That word is I, I, I. Negative thinking is just another form of pride, it’s a hidden pride, an unexpected pride. And pride blocks the channel like nothing else. God calls us at this stage to surrender that pride by his grace. Try as you will you cannot get rid of pride by your own effort. Humility would not be an option for us if it were not for God’s miracle. Whenever you meet a person who is truly humble, you know that you are witnessing a miracle of God. And that miracle is available to all who surrender.

Stages of Surrender, Part 8

Surrender is very hard at Stage 3 because human beings enjoy the perks that come with success; the praise of others, a sense of job security and often financial rewards of various kinds. Because it can be so hard to surrender at this stage, God allows suffering to help and motivate us to surrender. The dark night of the soul is a personal crisis, usually beginning somewhere in the middle stage of your life, when you are in your 30s or 40s. In the dark night of the soul, past certainties become inadequate and you often question everything you have ever believed up to that point. God uses the dark night to shatter our foolish certainty, tarnish our pride, and summon us to deeper intimacy with Him. When we refuse to give up our pride and our certainty, God allows circumstances to shatter them for us.

In this painful shattering of pride and certainty, we should hear the call to a deeper intimacy with God. As we learn the real truth about ourselves, the way is open to learn deeper truths about God. A psychiatrist once asked me, “What’s the difference between the dark night of the soul and depression?” I said that they can certainly be related, but what I mean by the dark night of the soul is something that comes from God, something that God allows into your life for a spiritual purpose. Depression can be just a chemical problem, something that needs treatment, something that needs getting out of as quickly as possible. But the dark night of the soul is a call from God. It may have a chemical component, but it is more than that.

The dark night of the soul is sometimes precipitated by a stage of life, like when you hit 30 or 40. Sometimes it kicks in as a mid-life crisis. It can involve an external event, like the loss of a loved one, an accident, or being fired at your job. It can likewise be precipitated by an internal event; like cancer, heart disease, or a psychological trauma of some kind. Sometimes it is just the sense that the presence of God in our life isn’t there anymore. Our prayers are simply bouncing off the ceiling. The dark night of the soul is a very painful thing, and it afflicts most or all of us at some point in our lives. If you’re more than 50 years old you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You may even be in that place now.

The only remedies I know for the dark night of the soul are solitude and mentoring. But the only mentoring that really helps is the kind that comes from people who have already been through the dark night of the soul. The stage three people can’t help you now and that is a high percentage of spiritual leaders. It takes a person who has truly suffered to help the suffering. It takes a person who knows darkness to help someone else through the darkness. If you’ve lived with a bright light your whole life you can’t help someone through the darkness. So many of those to whom we looked for help before are inadequate guides for this part of the journey. Those who have been through this stage and know how to do spiritual counseling are unique people and are worth seeking out.

The good news about deep suffering is that it indicates God has a big plan for us. I am not suggesting that God sends the dark night, but that He allows it to happen at this stage because we need it in order to make the decisions that we need to make. When God has big plans for someone, He puts them in the best place so surrender all to Him. The decision is still ours to make, but God uses circumstances to reach out to us and make it as easy as possible to yield our ways to Him.

There are challenges in the dark night of the soul. People are tempted to escape it by going back to stage three. They keep on preaching, keep on teaching, and most people don’t even notice. Yet deep down inside they know in their hearts that God called them and they said no. So there is a certain emptiness and hollowness inside. Other people decide in the dark night of the soul that the whole problem is the church they belong to. It’s the doctrines and practices they were taught as disciples, so they decide to abandon ship. Granted, there are times when changing communities is a positive thing, but as a reaction to the dark night, such a decision can be tragic. The dark night of the soul is a call to go deeper with God, not a call to avoid Him.

That brings me to the surrender points of the dark night. The core point of surrender has to do with a false sense of purpose. In stage three, people have big ambitions for God. They have big plans for their ministry, a sense of purpose, but maybe it was a purpose that was given to them by their parents, or by the local church, or by the larger church. In their time of success they thought they were living God’s purpose, but in the dark night of the soul they realize, “All of that was for me!” It was all about pride! “I wanted to be all I could be for God in order to get recognition.” Related to this surrender point, the dark night of the soul completes our stage 3 surrender of our need for certainty, our need for applause, and the selfish drive for perfection. The outcome of the dark night is that our focus is less and less on ourselves and more and more on God.

Stages of Surrender, Part 7

Stage three is the success stage, the doing stage. This is the stage of faith where people become pastors, Sabbath school teachers, and church elders. They become leaders, not just disciples. They help other people learn what they have learned. At this stage people usually develop a high-level reputation in the community, they win awards and other forms of recognition. At this stage people praise you and you get lots of nice letters, and similar acknowledgements. Most people would think it great if the stages of faith reached the top right there. “I made it now. I’m teaching Sabbath school, I’m good. I’m the pastor, so I’m good. I’m the conference president, so that’s good, nothing to worry about now.” However, that’s not what the New Testament teaches.

With every success comes spiritual challenges. As we have seen already, every stage of faith has its challenges and its points of surrender. Those who stand up front are often motivated by applause, by what other people think of them, and by how others respond to their ministry. They can be stuck in perfectionism. That’s the idea where you don’t just want to be better, but instead you have to be the best. People in Stage Three are often motivated by perfectionism. Like with Stage Two, this is a stage that likes to be right. Being right is one of the motivations that makes people at this stage go. I think you can already see a number of points of surrender related to this stage.

The first point of surrender is the need for applause. Ellen White said of Jesus, “He was never elated by applause nor dejected by censure.” (DA 330) Does that apply to you? Not me. This is a surrender point that I recognize in myself, to surrender the need for applause, the need for perfection. Because when you focus on perfection, the miracle of perfection (whatever that means) can’t happen. You’re trying to grow the blade of grass. You cannot be perfect without a miracle from God in your life. It’s that simple. You can’t make a blade of grass. That is something only God can do. The more you focus on the perfection the less likely that it will happen. When it happens, it is a miracle.

But what about the need for certainty? Isn’t that an important piece of the Christian experience? It is important to be certain of some things. You want to be certain of the cross and that Jesus loves you and the kinds of things where obedience is very important. The problem is that conservative Christians are often certain about everything. If you’re certain about your politics, dietary habits, exercise routine, religion, and how to do your job right; that kind of certainty tells more about you than about God. It’s all about you. And that kind of certainty can get in the way of letting God work. But here is where the issue comes to a head. People in stage three, successful spiritual leaders, don’t take mentoring very well. They have arrived, they’ve made it, and everything is all good. But it isn’t. The reality is that there are still issues there. There is still pride and selfishness. So much of what we do for God in the success stage is subtly driven by our own ambitions and goals, by our desire to please. And because surrender is especially difficult at this stage, God often does the last thing we expected and probably the last thing that we wanted. I call it the dark night of the soul. More on that next time.