Although of Course You End Up Becoming Someone Else
Life is split into befores and afters. Here’s one for me. I was probably in my second year of college. I was a bible major, having been called into ministry, and I was reading voraciously. Along the way I became convinced that if I put in enough time and effort, read enough books from across the spectrum, sat down and did the requisite exegetical work, and so on, that I would be able to have the Bible figured out. After doing this, it would be clear what side of the debate was correct on a variety of positions, from the Calvinism-Arminianism debate to the nature of the Lord’s Supper and even (the horror!) the correct interpretation of Revelation. Like the apocalypse, world-shattering meaning came along with these convictions and my voracious appetite ended up consuming not only my mind, but my spiritual life.
I got burned out on it all. What’s the point of putting in all of this effort if I am going to have it all figured out in some fixed amount of time, whether it is 5, 10, or whatever years. For some that might come as a beacon of hope that invites sustained focus to excessive amounts; for me, it spelled my death. I did not particularly care to read the Bible anymore. The books on theology, the New Testament, the Old Testament, etc. no longer intrigued me and I had no idea what to do.
Somehow I had stumbled upon one of the most widely praised books in New Testament scholarship, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays. Sometimes Paul invokes Scripture without specifically citing said Scripture or using a citation formula (“it is written”). In doing this, Paul wants us to hear not only this verse, but the wider context of the verse too. That verse and its wider context should inform our reading of Paul’s writing.
Here is one of the most intriguing examples. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul is warning the Corinthians about idolatry. He does this by discussing episodes from the wilderness wanderings, found in Exodus and Numbers. Let me just quote the first four verses because I am not sure you would believe my recapitulation of them if I didn’t. “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
As noted above, Paul is talking about the wilderness wanderings. Here is what seems to be going on: Paul is talking about the manna with the phrase “spiritual food” and then about the time they received water from the rock with the phrase “spiritual drink.” (Num. 20) But then Paul talks about how the drink came from the spiritual rock and this rock followed them and the rock was Christ. What is going on? Briefly, here is Hays’ suggestion. 1 Cor. 10:20 is an allusion to Deut. 32:17 and 1 Cor. 10:22 alludes to Deut. 32:21. If we go to Deuteronomy 32, we see that God is frequently described as a Rock. This explains what is going on earlier in chapter 10 when Paul says the Rock is Christ. The upshot is twofold. First, Paul identifies Jesus as the God of Israel praised in Deuteronomy 32. Second, to quote Hays, “The leap creates an extraordinarily interesting case of metalepsis [an unstated resonance with an earlier text that sheds light on the meaning of the later text by attending to the unmentioned points]: the trope of 1 Cor. 10:4 is fully intelligible only as a transformed echo of a text cited later in the chapter.”
Echoes changed my life. All of the sudden, reading was not just a science, it was an art, and a beautiful one at that. There were so many interesting things going on that had never crossed my mind and now the full panoply of possibilities lay before me. So, the before-Echoes Brett is different than the after-Echoes Brett. When we speak of this, we even use terminology that betrays how fundamentally important these events are. The person who only knows the before-Echoes Brett does not really know me that well because I’m a different person.
So all of that was a long introduction to speak about something else: Isaiah 6. I can only imagine how crazy of an incident this was for Isaiah. My before/after moments only pale in comparison to this, I am sure. And there is a bunch of weird stuff going on. Isaiah has this vision of God where these heavenly creatures fly around and shout that God is holy. Isaiah is, naturally, frightened by it all because he recognizes his sinfulness. One of them then brings a coal to and touches his mouth with it. Then Isaiah is commissioned and the words used are super puzzling, “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa. 6:9-10; a heavily cited text in the New Testament; for instance, Mark 13:14-15)
A brief explanation is in order (for more on all of this, see Gregory Beale’s We Become What We Worship). The coal has to do with an Ancient Near Eastern ritual called the washing of the mouth. In essence, after wood or some other material is made into the form of an idol, it is still not an idol. It has to go through this ritual to open its mouth so that the god can speak through it. Applied polemically to Isaiah, then, the text is telling us that Isaiah is the one who is truly in God’s image and speaks God’s words.
The commission picks up with similar themes. By attending to parallel texts in Psalm 115 and 135, we learn that these texts are speaking about what Beale has titled his book: becoming like what you worship. Beale adds the explanatory phrase: either for restoration or ruin. The people are engaged in idolatry and so like will become like the idols they worship. The idols have eyes but they do not see and they have ears but they cannot hear. Behold your gods, o Israel!
Or to quote David Foster Wallace (watch here):
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
We become what we worship, either for restoration or ruin. This is what it means for God to be holy, to be jealous, zealous for His people, caring about us as His image bearers and wanting us to flourish in right relationship with Him, others, and the rest of the created order. And the really tough thing about it all is something Jesus would later tell us, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matt. 6:24)
There are no split allegiances here. You cannot give part of your life away to God and another part to money or power or fame or beauty or anything else. God does not ask for our partial devotion, He claims all of us as His and His love extends so far that He wants us to claim Him as wholly ours.
I have read numerous times that there is a Christian tradition that speaks in terminology of becoming more or less human. In worship, we are transformed and in being transformed we either become more human or less so. I cannot cite a reference to confirm this, but I think it gets at something important. There is a sense where by worshipping God and being conformed into the image of His Son by the work of His Spirit that we become more real. Before I became a Christian and I was chasing after fame in sports and worrying about making a name and earning a lot of money, there is a sense in which I was becoming less real. I was slowly fading out of existence, almost becoming ethereal.
C.S. Lewis gets at something similar in his wonderful book The Great Divorce. He says this:
“At first, of course, my attention was caught by my fellow-passengers, who were still grouped about in the neighborhood of the omnibus, though beginning, some of them, to walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps. I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent-fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air. One could attend to them or ignore them at will as you do with the dirt on a window pane. I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed.
“Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn’t break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t twist. I tugged till the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even like iron, but like diamond. There was a leaf-a young tender beech leaf, lying in the grass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal. As I stood, recovering my breath with great gasps and looking down at the daisy, I noticed that I could see the grass not only between my feet but through them. I also was a phantom. Who will give me words to express the terror of that discovery? ‘Golly!’ thought I. ‘I’m in for it this time.'”
We are all being transformed, even if we do not realize it yet. We are all becoming like what we worship. Sometimes it slips through, either in our fights with others over petty things related to cash or sex or whatever, and we try to cover it and say that that was not the real me, but it was. We realize it in quiet moments at night when we cannot fall asleep because the bed is not quite right and the thoughts of what is most important run through our anxious heads. And when we encounter really great people, I mean the truly wonderful who care more about people they do not know then we think we have cared about those that are closest to us, the ones who devote themselves to God and the world and each particular person they come into contact with, the people who give us this sense of transcendence and make us think that maybe the 9 to 5 with the 2.1 kids and the nice house with a white picket fence with a bit of savings so we can buy a corvette and move to Florida or California or Arizona or wherever at the end of it all is not what it is all about, in those people we see ourselves. Those people show us that people can still be great, truly wonderful, loving and caring about God and others in a real, deep way that would make us wonder if it were at all possible if it were described in abstract terms. They show something about what we could be and we distract ourselves from realizing that we do not measure up.
Those are the people who will be treading the grass under their feet and playing with the daisies. For they are more real than we, and we are only ghosts.
Over time I have come to appreciate God’s holiness. His holiness does not simply mean that He is other, although it does mean that. He is not contaminated by our sin or confined by our limits. He is perfect. But I have learned to see God’s holiness in another light too.
God’s holiness is not just abstract anymore; it is something I have come to see has practical import. God’s holiness means He does not leave us where we are at. Because I was not a particularly caring person, but God has changed me, through books by people I have never known, kids who would never understand their impact, and people who have cared enough to give their time and energy. And He changed me through a Man who had compassion on the crowds, who wept over the loss of a friend, and cried and desired to be motherly to a city that He knew would reject Him.
The Jewish people lived in the hope that God would come down (Isa. 64:1). And as Jesus was being crucified He was mocked and they told Him to come down from the cross in order that they might believe (Matt. 27:42). But God had come down and now He was there, on a hill near Jerusalem, coming to set the world aright. God had come down, but we wanted nothing to do with Him so we lifted Him up on a cross.
Because it turns out that the cliché is true. You find your life by losing it. You gain your life by giving it away. It is better to serve than to be served. Every thing I thought I knew about what it was all about has become flipped on its head. It isn’t about fame or power or anything of the sort, it is about following in the footsteps of the Crucified God. Self-giving love so that justice and peace abound.
James and John echo the sentiments of us all when they ask to be at Jesus’ right and left hand. This is what we desire: status and recognition and authority. But if we pay close attention, we learn what it means to be at Jesus’ right and left hand: to be crucified next to Him at Golgotha. If we truly desire Jesus and being near Him, not just in word, not just so that others can see how great we are, but if we truly care and set our eyes upon Him and want to follow Him and be conformed into His image, then take up your cross and follow Him. Die so that you may live.
So God’s holiness and His jealousy are not some abstract thing that I worry about, they are living realities that do not leave me where I am at, to wallow in my sin and become less real over time. They are God’s love for me to call me to difficult tasks so that I might become restored, conformed to His image, made more real. Because when I think about the God-Man Jesus, I do not wonder if He is truly a man, I only wonder if I am.
Jim Elliot gave his life so that people who had never heard the gospel would hear. He could have had what we in America think of as a good life. He was well-liked and accomplished, but He was sold out to Christ, no matter the calling. Reflecting on why he would travel to distance places in order to be in poor conditions to preach to a people that did not believe the gospel instead of staying in comfortable America, he said:
That’s the big question: is our condemnation written on our bank books and in the dust on our Bible covers? Have we sold our lives to the service of the god of Mammon, that grotesque god that tells us we never have enough and we really aren’t that rich anyway and we know people who live a lot more comfortably than we do. We become like what we worship, either for restoration or ruin. And God’s holiness and jealousy says that the restoration part is true. We really can become more whole, more real, if we are willing. As Kierkegaard said, “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.”