The Adventure Gospel

Not long ago, I heard a sermon that shocked me — and, at the same time, took me back in time.  “Life is a great adventure,” said the preacher in his peroration.  “And if you’ve lost sight of that, you need to repent.”

I looked around at the familiar faces of the congregation.  Here was a man dying of stage 4 cancer; there, a family forced by financial pressures to sell their home.  This couple has a son who harbors resentment amounting to rage and will not speak to them.  And so on and on through all of us, divorced, bereaved, addicted, ill, injured, unemployed, uprooted, depressed.  The poor and needy.

And I thought, So now it’s not enough that we put our hope in God (Psalm 42:5; 130:7), and wait for His salvation (Psalm 27:14; 130:5-6; Lamentations 3:26; Romans 8:19-25; 1 Thessalonians 1:10); that we turn from idols and keep from grumbling (1 Corinthians 10:7, 10); that we attempt to count our trials joy (James 1:2) and to rejoice in God alone (Habakkuk 3:17-18; Philippians 4:4); that we retain our confidence that we shall still see His goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13); that we sow in and through our tears (Psalm 126:5-6) and do good without wearying, expecting a harvest (Galatians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 15:58); that we consider ourselves dead (Romans 6:11; Galatians 2:20), take up our cross each day (Luke 9:23; 14:27), present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), accept our share of the suffering (2 Timothy 2:3; Philippians 3:10) to which we have been called (1 Peter 2:21; 4:13), abide in the Lord Jesus (John 15:4-10), and allow the Holy Spirit to refresh in us our first love for Him (Revelation 2:4); and that we clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27) and with His love for others (Colossians 3:14).  Now, if we do not also deem the journey and each of its phases a thrilling adventure ride, we have turned our hearts to rebellion and require cleansing and correction.

In dismay I asked, Where is this coming from?  And then I remembered: Oh, yeah.  John Eldredge.

Diminished Men

I couldn’t find my copies of The Sacred Romance and Wild at Heart — the books never resonated with me as they have with many men.  But my local public library furnished the latter volume, as well as a book called Desire.  From these, I gather that Eldredge starts from a place of compassion.  He sees Christian men, frustrated and bored with their lives, struggling to remain faithful or even engaged with God and family and church, silently screaming, “Is this all there is?”  Feeling stuck and short-changed, they may bust out or break down or quit.

Most Christians I know, women as well as men, are disappointed with their churches.  Decades ago, the promise of charismatic renewal was that we would rediscover the gifts distributed among all believers, and enter upon new forms of “body ministry.”  Today, in our church services, we are neither trained nor equipped; two or three people do all the talking, while the rest of us listen passively, put money in the plate, help rearrange the furniture, and go home.  We are left to find life “in the Spirit,” life “in Christ,” in a small group or at home.

Eldredge goes further, though.  He doesn’t hope to reform our churches.  They are, he believes, an essentially “feminine” domain, places of nice manners (1) and “sanctified resignation.” (2)  For the most part, he is quite ready to abandon them, to venture outdoors into wilderness to encounter the God who Himself is “fierce” (Wild 31) and “wild” (Wild 33) at heart:

Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man.  The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. . . .  Look at the heroes of the biblical text: Moses does not encounter the living God at the mall.  He finds him (or is found by him) somewhere out in the deserts of Sinai, a long way from the comforts of Egypt.  The same is true of Jacob, who has his wrestling match with God not on the living room sofa but in a wadi somewhere east of the Jabbok, in Mesopotamia.  Where did the great prophet Elijah go to recover his strength?  To the wild.  As did John the Baptist, and his cousin, Jesus, who is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  (Wild 5-6; emphasis in original)

You might even need to give up going to church for a while or reading your Bible.  I stopped going to church for a year; it was one of the most refreshing years of my life.  I hadn’t abandoned God, and I very much sought out the company of my spiritual companions.  What I gave up was the performance of having to show up every Sunday morning with my happy face on.  (Desire 169)

The settings for Eldredge’s books have to do with mountain climbing and fly-fishing; in addition to Scripture, his reference points include movies like Braveheart and Gladiator.  He also draws more than a little from the “men’s movement” of the 1990s, particularly Robert Bly’s Iron John.  So, when he speaks of “adventure,” Eldredge actually means a spiritual quest.  Every man secretly wonders, “Do I have what it takes?  Am I powerful?” (Wild 64).  We need to be “initiated” (Bly’s word), and God is the One who can do it (Wild 103-07).

More recently, Mark Batterson has taken up the theme of adventure.  But in his hands, the quest disappears; there’s no wound to be healed, nor any initiation to be accomplished.  Instead, life itself becomes a rich and rewarding series of surprises:

You are hardwired for an adventure that is as unique as you are. . . .
The very nature of the gospel is Jesus inviting the disciples on an adventure.  (3)

If you follow Jesus, adventure comes looking for you.  (Trip 18)

. . . I’m going to squeeze as much adventure out of every day as I possibly can.  (Trip 172)

Eternity is adventure without end.  (Trip 191)

Batterson acknowledges that his “life motto” — “Another day, another adventure” — is taken, not from the Word of God, but from a Spanish can of Sprite (Trip 197).  Still, his message may engage jaded, disaffected teens.  The larger question is whether it is the right message — God’s message — for adult believers in the midst of life.  Has God really promised us endless variety, a personal roller coaster of excitement?  Or does He in fact call us to something far more difficult, to a road shadowed by a Cross, described by Eugene Peterson as “a long obedience in the same direction”? (4)  I believe this question deserves further consideration.

A Road Less Traveled

The metaphor of the journey is one of the oldest pictures of the Christian life.  As “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; compare 1 Peter 2:11), we wander.  The “way” by which God leads believers is more than a road; it becomes a course of life.  Ultimately, Jesus Himself is the Way (John 14:6), the “new and living way” into the Father’s presence (Hebrews 10:20).

The Bible has much to say about this road, but a few of its adjectives are particularly relevant here.  Contrary to Batterson, although the paths of God are “pleasantness” and “peace” (Proverbs 3:17; compare Isaiah 59:8; Luke 1:79), they are also “narrow” and “hard” (Matthew 7:14, RSV), and often “solitary” (Psalm 107:4, KJV, Amplified).  Batterson’s co-author writes, “Adventuring, for me, is going somewhere new, by any means, with Jesus and friends” (Foth, Trip 196).  But we may not insist  on the newness, nor the friends, and we will often be assailed by the wrenching doubt that whispers relentlessly that we have been abandoned.  As Peterson says, there are no shortcuts on the way, and it is not for “tourists” who “only want the high points” (Obedience 17).

Eldredge is entirely prepared for hardship, and to some extent for loneliness.  He sees that, though the paths of God are “ancient” (Jeremiah 6:16) and “established” (Proverbs 4:26, KJV, Amplified), they also appear “hidden” (Job 3:23), and that at times He leads us by ways “not known” and “unfamiliar” (Isaiah 42:16, NIV).  He even accepts, at least in the short term, that following God may sap rather than increase our strength; in the psalmist’s words, “He weakened my strength in the way” (Psalm 102:23, KJV; Amplified “He has afflicted and weakened my strength, humbling and bringing me low [with sorrow] in the way”).  What Eldredge seems to forget sometimes is that God leads us in “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3; Proverbs 16:31; 2 Peter 2:21), “the Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8, NIV) — from which it is all too easy to turn aside quickly (Exodus 32:8; Deuteronomy 9:12, 16; Judges 2:17) in order to follow some “way that seems right to a man” (Proverbs 14:12). (5)

Both writers tend to overlook the fact that the journey is one metaphor among many.  The believer is also compared in Scripture to “a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3, NIV; Jeremiah 17:7-8), “rooted and grounded” (Ephesians 3:17, KJV, RSV; Colossians 2:7) in Christ the Vine (John 15:1-8; Romans 11:17-24).  If Eldredge should complain that this image is not “masculine” enough, note that, for the psalmists, godly daughters are “pillars carved to adorn a palace,” while it is the sons, explicitly, who are “well-nurtured plants” (Psalm 144:12, NIV; compare 128:3; 52:8).

Eldredge and Batterson take a heroic view of life.  God is “wild” and “fierce.”  Jesus is “the quintessential adventurer” (Trip 42), a leader much like Braveheart‘s William Wallace (Wild 26).  Since they begin with the assumption that every man desires “a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue” (Wild 9-10) — whereas every woman, though she wants “an adventure to share,” especially needs “to be fought for” and “chosen” (Wild 16-17, 184) — they are naturally drawn to the Biblical narratives about Jacob, David, Elijah, Paul.

But if the Lord is “a man of war” (Exodus 15:3, KJV, Amplified, RSV), the God who strolls in His garden (Genesis 3:8), and teaches toddlers to walk (Hosea 11:3), and yearns to gather His brood (Luke 13:34), and gazes longingly down the road (Luke 15:20), may almost be called a divine Homebody.  He is not so much wild as surprising, and never more so than in His faithfulness.

And while Jesus is a Champion, He consistently disappoints every human, fleshly expectation concerning a Savior.  His words confound (Matthew 13:10-15), and cause many to take offense and leave (John 6:60-66), and this is largely because He does not invite people to go adventuring, but to follow Him — to receive Him by faith as Lord and Messiah.  Batterson defines “disciple” as “learner,” (6) but the New Testament disciples are led and shaped and broken, not merely instructed and amused.  Soon enough, Jesus tells them that following Him means death to self and a daily cross (Luke 9:23-24).  The man who enlists in a spirit of adventure — “I will always follow You no matter where You go” (Luke 9:57, Living) — is quickly dismissed.

He would not let His casual hearers turn Him into the king they imagined (John 6:15).  He will not allow us to separate the Lion in Him from the Lamb, submissive to the Father unto death.

As for the men (and women) of the Bible, “hero” is not the best word to sum up most of their careers.  Abraham wanders and waits; Jacob and Moses spend decades tending sheep (vividly described in Genesis 31:40-42).  An aging David tires in battle (2 Samuel 21:15-17), and must make a difficult transition out of his identity as a warrior.  Peter discovers in Gethsemane that he is neither called nor cut out to be a sword-wielding Braveheart.  Paul is most like an “adventurer” or a “hero” when he is Saul the persecutor; (7) after he meets Christ, true to his theology of the Cross, he is conscious of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10, RSV) — and he calls upon his converts, not to embark on a great adventure, but “to live quietly and peacefully, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, Amplified).

A “typical” person in Scripture is not a king, a judge, or even a common foot soldier.  It might be someone like the man we meet in Acts 3.  “Crippled from birth” (verse 2, NIV), and now more than 40 years old (4:22), he has spent most of his life sitting outside one of the Temple gates, begging.  There is nothing remotely exciting or adventurous about this existence.  He has no trade, no social status; at worst he is despised and abused, at best a figure of pity and charity.  Wholly dependent on others, he must be carried to and from his post each day (3:2).  From day to hardscrabble day, he makes do, as best he can.  But he has been placed in this condition (as Jesus says of another man, born blind) “in order that the workings of God should be manifested — displayed and illustrated — in him” (John 9:3, Amplified).  Healed through Peter and John, he becomes a walking, leaping demonstration of the power of the risen Lord.

Can’t this be said of every believer?  We carry “treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV).  This is not a matter of exploits, but of receiving grace and strength to rise and walk in newness of life.

We each tend to have a story that we tell ourselves, explaining who we are and what our lives are about.  If Paul is right, this is a form of whistling in the dark, a cloak for ignorance — because, in truth, we rarely glimpse the “treasure” of God’s “all-surpassing power” in our lives; it is on display for others, not for us.  Part of the value of the Adventure Gospel is that it shows the harm done by our make-believe.  Let’s look briefly at three key components of one popular version of the story — two from Eldredge, one from Batterson — to see the types of glaze we bake onto our clay jars.

The Illusion of Self-Fulfillment

Eldredge is fond of saying that believers are not just “sinners saved by grace”; we are new creations with good hearts (Wild 146), and our deepest desires are good (Desire 168):

Sin is not the deepest thing about you.  You have a new heart.  Did you hear me?  Your heart is good.  (Wild 136; emphasis in original)

Now follow me very closely here: we are never, ever told to crucify our heart.  We are never told to kill the true man within us, never told to get rid of those deep desires for battle and adventure and beauty.  (Wild 147)

On Eldredge’s view, we need to learn to listen to our deep desires (Desire viii – ix).  We are desire (Desire 11), and desire or longing is faith (Desire 57-59).  Whatever brings me back to my own heart brings me to the heart of God (Wild 173).  The statement in Jeremiah 17:9 — “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (RSV) — no longer applies; it has been replaced by Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (RSV) (Wild 136).

These are reckless statements — as when the prophet Nathan says to David, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you” (2 Samuel 7:3, NIV).  The Lord soon overrules this blanket approval (7:4-5).  Samuel gives similar encouragement to Saul (1 Samuel 10:7), with disastrous results.

The New Testament consistently teaches that the transformation of our hearts, and the purification of our desires, constitute a gradual, ongoing process:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV)

This “putting off” and “putting on” is neither quick nor painless.  It requires the crucifixion of hopes and feelings that go very deep, as well as an ongoing watchfulness lest we revert to old ways:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with [or “walk in line with”] (8) the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.  (Galatians 5:24-26, NIV)

It is irresponsible to suggest that we can somehow “die to self” and become Christ’s while still insisting on our own way, clinging to the “core desires” of our hearts.  God demands nothing less than our death — as when He tells Abraham to offer up his only son, whom he loves (Genesis 22:2), the boy who is his heart and his hope.  Abraham’s faith during those three days was emphatically not the same as his desire; rather, he “against [this-worldly] hope believed in hope [of a life beyond this world]” (Romans 4:18), placing his trust in a God who can raise the dead (Hebrews 11:19).  When he receives Isaac back, it is not as if his desire has never been relinquished; rather, more than ever, he lives as one “having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10, RSV, NIV).

It is wrong to say that we are asked only to crucify a false self (Wild 147) — and, even if it were true, we are in no condition to exercise discernment.  For the New Testament warns that we are easily deceived (Hebrews 3:13), often by ourselves (James 1:26), and not least when we cling to heroic images and agendas: “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3, NIV).

The frustrating thing is that Eldredge knows better.  In scattered comments, he acknowledges that we can’t simply follow our hearts (Desire 202), that the Law of God helps guide us to legitimate desires (Desire 176), and that it takes Christian maturity to know what we’ve been made for (Wild 208).  He has a good chapter about God thwarting our (apparent or illegitimate) desires (Desire 89-105).  He even has a warning for “adventure addicts,” arguing that they have settled for a “counterfeit” (Wild 151).

But the confusion is there.  So long as Eldredge paints Jesus as an action hero, and talks more about uncovering desires than about the Cross, his message is one of self-fulfillment.

John Piper, who has written a much better book on godly desire than Eldredge’s, follows Jonathan Edwards in suggesting that, in regeneration, God implants a new sense or taste: a longing for, and delight in, the person of Christ. (9)  This means that the believer is no longer limited to the original (since the Fall) set of human or “typically male” desires that Eldredge makes so much of.  Instead of finding a Christian way to fulfill adolescent desires for adventure, we should be living from new and God-centered desires.

At present we are still engaged in “putting off” as well as “putting on.”  Our new desire for God exists alongside all of our old hopes, and some conflicts and confusions are inevitable. Batterson is quick to quote the words of Jesus, “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance — to the full, till it overflows” (John 10:10, Amplified), and he links this to the adventure, here and now (Trip 17).  But what if the “abundant life” is less about varied scenery and events, and more about becoming spiritually alive, even in the midst of a “quiet life” of servanthood and suffering?  Meditating on 1 Corinthians 15:19 (“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied,” RSV), Piper concludes that Paul chooses present suffering and future hope, repudiating any middling view that “Life goes better with Christ” (Desiring God 214-15).  In effect, Paul rejects the Sprite can.

This extends as well to frustrations concerning the present state of churches and Christian fellowship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, amid very difficult circumstances, devoted himself to building Christian community, penned these words:

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more.  One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood.  He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. (10)

In fact, knowingly or not, we go to other Christians to be pared down, to have “the secrets of [our] heart[s] laid bare” (1 Corinthians 14:25, Amplified).  Christ must increase in our hearts and lives, and we must decrease (John 3:30).

The Illusion of Significance (11)

At least since the 1590s, and the exploits of Edmund Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight in The Faerie Queene, we have had explicitly Christian adventure stories.  Why then should we question the modern offshoots?

Well, for one thing, the early writers knew that they were working with metaphors and symbols.  And the quest was not their only model; they were apt to be as steeped in The Song of Solomon as in the life of David.

It’s also noteworthy that the adventure, in and of itself, has not always been seen in a positive light.  In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Christian has no love for the open road; he sets out because he is convinced that wrath is coming and that there is an incorruptible inheritance for those who believe. (12)  His wife Christiana is even warned by Mrs. Timorous that it is a “desperate adventure” to follow him (Progress 179) — all risk and danger, with little hope of enjoyment.  “Adventuring” here is no end in itself, and not to be undertaken lightly.

By 1908, the year of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, we are in a different world.  Christianity is perceived as established, traditional, stale, predictable, and dull.  Against this background, Chesterton ably argues that people need “adventure and romance,” (13) that life itself is a wonder-filled adventure (Orthodoxy 35).  Still, for him, the great adventure is not the journey of an individual but the career of the Christian Church, a thundering chariot miraculously steered between extremes, maintaining a perilous equilibrium, a dramatic sanity (Orthodoxy 68-70).

Historian Douglas Frank describes American evangelicals contemporary with Chesterton as cultivating a “hero system,” holding forth examples of “overcoming” and “victorious” Christian living (Conquerors 250-51).  No one expressed this more forcefully than the revivalist Billy Sunday: “Let me tell you the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ.” (14)  Sunday preached against alcohol while feeding his hearers’ deep thirst for more — more things, experiences, adventures (Conquerors 273).  Frank pores over Sunday’s sermons, with their constant theme of heroic manhood, and concludes:

All this would indicate that perhaps Sunday’s deepest purpose in preaching was not to speak of God, of his victory and his salvation, but to speak of humanity and its possibilities for strength and heroism and goodness.  (Conquerors 193)

The hero venturing forth to vanquish monsters has ceased to be a metaphor in Sunday’s words.  And this is the world Eldredge inhabits, too.  In one especially sad and telling passage, he tries to encourage a man who fears he’s not cut out to be a hero:

“I’d love to be William Wallace, leading the charge with a big sword in my hand,” sighed a friend.  “But I feel like I’m the guy back there in the fourth row, with a hoe.”  That’s a lie of the Enemy — that your place is really insignificant, that you aren’t really armed for it anyway.  In your life you are William Wallace — who else could be?  There is no other man who can replace you in your life, in the arena you’ve been called to.  If you leave your place in the line, it will remain empty.  No one else can be who you are meant to be.  You are the hero in your story.  Not a bit player, not an extra, but the main man.  (Wild 144; emphasis in original)

Earlier, Jesus was William Wallace (Wild 26).  Now every man can be his own William Wallace — and his own Jesus Christ.

The Illusion of Constant Engagement

Batterson sounds a curious refrain: “Trust me, you cannot follow Jesus and be bored at the same time!” he writes in a chapter titled “Never a Dull Moment” (Trip 120).  Of course this isn’t literally true, as he acknowledges elsewhere, but he is sure that it should be:

Anything less than leveraging all our strength for God’s purposes is boring at best and hypocritical at worst.  So many Christians are so bored.  So many Christians are so frustrated by the gap between their theology and reality.  The way to close the gap, and the way to experience that holy rush of adrenaline again, is to break a sweat serving others.  (Primal 135)

The promise of a life free from boredom is perhaps an effective carrot to dangle before the eyes of jaded and apathetic young people.  But it’s a promise that God never makes.  Never bored?  Even the wise virgins drop off to sleep (Matthew 25:5)!  If anything, it’s the rich fool (Luke 12:18-19) who manages to keep himself entertained.

Batterson’s insistence on this point — and his setting in opposition to boredom, not contentment, not hope, not worship and praise, but a “rush of adrenaline” — indicate something deeper: a horror of being found to have lived an ordinary life.  Because her story influenced his conversion, he seizes upon Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian sent to a Nazi extermination camp for rescuing Jews; after her release, she spent decades traveling the world, sharing her message that the light of Christ is deeper and stronger than the darkest pit. (15)  Batterson makes this odd remark:

One thing is for sure: Corrie ten Boom may have been scared, anxious, brave, courageous, wounded, triumphant, weak, powerful, desperate, and hope filled . . . but she was never bored.  (Trip 121-22)

This is a throwaway line, but it is also an article of faith, and so it merits examination.  Let us take a moment to see how Corrie ten Boom herself described her exemplary life of service.

Arrested at the end of February 1944, she was taken first to Scheveningen prison in the Netherlands.  She spent four months there, mostly in a solitary cell.  She entered what she calls “the dull routine of prison life.” (16)  “Then a prison boredom — which I soon learned to fear above all else — settled over the cell” (Hiding Place 142; compare Prisoner 24).

It was oppressively quiet in the prison.  The time dragged slowly by.  So unlike former days!  I always had been so very busy.  There was never a moment in the day that I was not doing something.  And now . . . !  However, my days of imprisonment would not be over until I had served my time; and my one purpose therefore had to be to pass away the time, somehow.  (Prisoner 33-34)

Through the bars I could see the blue skies of Spring and now and then a bird.  I lay for hours gazing at that window, my thinking at a complete standstill.  Was I becoming dull?  Never before had there been such an emptiness in my life.  (Prisoner 34)

Well, but surely this was just an effect of solitary confinement.  Next, Corrie ten Boom was transferred to the Vught prison camp, still in the Netherlands, for a couple of months.  Now she was surrounded by other prisoners — and of course Jesus was with her.  So boredom was out of the question.  Or was it?

For hours we now sat side by side at the tables doing nothing.  Boredom gradually crept over us.  (Prisoner 50)

Our biggest problem was idleness, wedged together as we were around the long rows of tables with nothing to do.  (Hiding Place 172)

All right, but all of this was merely preparatory.  The real work began, the mission field opened, when she was transported to the Ravensbruck extermination camp in Germany.  That must have been tremendously exciting! — except that, here too, she writes of the “sheer boredom” of prisoners (Prisoner 127).  She longed for an end (Prisoner 133); grief and fear joined with the emptiness, and “the accumulated misery threatened to overwhelm me” (Hiding Place 212).  “How dark and burdensome days can be!” (Prisoner 151).

Still, Batterson might say, Corrie ten Boom’s entire prison ordeal, which set the course for the rest of her life, lasted only a little less than a year.  Once released, equipped with a message and a mission, she must never again have been troubled by boredom.

Indeed, she had 30 years of travel and ministry.  Though “often lonely” (Life Lessons 141), she experienced considerable variety.  But this was followed by a very different life stage, which many people know nothing about.  In August 1978, this valiant servant — who hoped to die “in harness”; (17) who with all her heart believed, “God does not take away from us” (Tramp 158) — suffered the first of three major strokes.  “Tante Corrie no longer had the ability to speak and understand, nor could she read, write, interpret gestures, or make meaningful signs to those around her.” (18)  She lived another five years, once again in “a kind of imprisonment” (Silent 128, 138).  She accepted a straitened life, with “moments of frustration and an emotional debility” (Silent 155).  For a time she struggled to relearn the names of simple objects, but the speech therapist had to stop the lessons when she showed insufficient improvement.  Presented with “the news that she would in all probability never speak again,” she wept (Silent 122-23).

Settled into a home of her own in California, cared for by loving companions, her life was not desolate, but it was . . . boring:

The days went slowly by.  We heard the familiar whirring of the electric bed as we lowered it to change her position, the metallic clicking of the rails as we raised and lowered them to turn our patient, the ticking of the brown clock.  Nine months passed.  It was not easy for her or for us.  It was very hard sometimes.  There were days when the routine seemed endless and the hours seemed to last for days.  (Silent 158)

It is good that none of us knew that at eighty-eight years of age more than two years of complete physical helplessness were still ahead of Tante Corrie.  (Silent 169)

The plodding routine became almost numbing.  (Silent 170)

“One thing is for sure,” writes Batterson: “Corrie ten Boom . . . was never bored” (Trip 121-22).  As we have seen, nothing is less assured.  One must create a mythical Corrie ten Boom with a heroic, action-movie life story in order to maintain this fatuous fiction.

From the real Corrie ten Boom, we may learn several lessons:

1. There are worse things than boredom.

Only people who are rich, pampered, spoiled, full wish to be delivered from boredom.  The oppressed of this world, the homeless, the refugees, the abused, the terrified and traumatized don’t ask for an adventure; they seek a shelter.  Usually God saves the rich by first making them poor.

Corrie ten Boom endured terrible boredom, all the while keeping her eye on a deadlier foe: “the most dangerous disease of the concentration camp, egoism” (Prisoner 155).  When she first arrived in Ravensbruck, others advised, “You can hold out provided you learn to take care only of yourself” (Prisoner 123). (19)  She came to see just how pernicious this reasoning was:

Now that I had been here for some time I could see what a great danger this camp life was for us spiritually.  Egoism would creep into our hearts before we were aware of it, and it was a tenacious devil, most difficult to dislodge.  For instance, a sweater was for sale.  Who should have it?  At once one thought, “I should, because I was so cold this morning.”  That others needed it just as badly you would be tempted to forget.  Need teaches us to pray, but need can also make us selfish.  (Prisoner 123; emphasis in original)

In the camp hospital, the suffering of others threatened to overwhelm compassion, and egoism offered a way to keep one’s head above water:

Even in the other patients I saw that stony indifference to others that was the most fatal disease of the concentration camp.  I felt it spread to myself: how could one survive if one kept on feeling!  The paralyzed and the unconscious kept falling out of the crowded narrow cots; that first night four women fell from upper bunks and died on the floor.  It was better to narrow the mind to one’s own need, not to see, not to think.  (Hiding Place 224)

John Piper makes the case that it is not selfish or idolatrous to take joy in worshiping God (Desiring God 84-87).  And we are invited to come to Him with our wounds, needs, and cares.  But is it not egoism — the same spiritual toxin that Corrie ten Boom describes — when I stand before God demanding fresh adventures, or insisting that He cast me as the lead in Braveheart?

2. There is something better than adventure.

Corrie ten Boom uses the word “adventure” in describing several seasons of her life.  Writing about the late 1930s, before the German occupation and her work with the underground, she says that she and her family “were about to be given adventure such as we had never dreamed of” (Hiding Place 7).  Her arrest closed “an exciting chapter” of her life (Prisoner 20).

After her release from Ravensbruck, she returned to her old life as a watchmaker, but experienced persistent “restlessness” (Hiding Place 232).  She began her travels, which she described in 1967 as an “adventurous life of dependence on the Lord” (qtd. in Life Lessons 165).  Her companion, Pamela Rosewell Moore, also found that their itinerant life “fulfilled my longing for adventure perfectly” (Silent 41).

Notice, though, what Ten Boom does not say.  She does not regard her 50 quiet years, before the Germans came, as deficient in some way; in fact, she was very fond of her family, their neighbors, and the life she led.  Much less does she call the lack of adventure a sin for which she must repent.

More importantly, when a period of adventure is brought to an end — first by imprisonment, and again, years later, by a stroke — she submits.  She trusts.  She seeks to honor God, even when she does not understand the path along which He leads her.  She resists the egoism in her and around her, giving, serving, loving.  After her stroke, Moore observed her closely:

I had not yet detected in my silent leader any attitude that balked at these strange new circumstances, although she sometimes seemed a little depressed.  What I did notice was a sweetness and patience in her spirit that were there to a more marked degree than I had ever seen before.  (Silent 113-14)

Even in this serious illness there was an inner tranquility that had not been disturbed.  We knew it was the Lord’s doing.  For His own reasons He was allowing a further testing of her faith, and she was going through it with Him.  (Silent 146-47)

Meditating on the silence of Jesus during His trial (Isaiah 53:7; Matthew 27:12-14; Luke 23:8-9; 1 Peter 2:23), Moore sees that Tante Corrie is being made like Him to a new degree:

He had been silent for her sake and mine.  And she had been silent, too.  Silent because she had to be, but silent also in the attitude of her will.  She had not protested.  (Silent 185)

And this leads to the third lesson:

3. God works in the place of “boredom” and suffering.

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, NIV; Proverbs 3:34).  To prepare us for grace, God allows our pride to be stripped away, as Joseph’s brothers tear away his gaudy robe (Genesis 37:23). (20)  But this is not the end.  When humiliation has done its work, He removes the sackcloth of mourning and clothes us with joy (Psalm 30:11).

I doubt that Corrie ten Boom was ever particularly proud.  But even Jesus humbled Himself, laying aside His dignity (John 13:4), stripping or emptying Himself to serve (Philippians 2:5-8).  His grace is released, His power made perfect, when we follow Him on the path of weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

In the prisons much was stripped away from Ten Boom:

There was a constant feeling of helplessness.  We no longer had things under control.  (Prisoner 71)

But in her need she began to sound the depths of the faithfulness and the reality of God:

The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”  [Romans 8:35, 37, KJV]

I would look about us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face.  More than conquerors. . . .  It was not a wish.  It was a fact.  (Hiding Place 194-95)

Similarly, in the stillness following the stroke, the grace of God was working.  Tante Corrie had asked God for a new ministry (Silent 14), and she and her companions believed that His answer had come, bound up with suffering:

Had the Lord allowed her to come into this state of silence, helplessness, and utter dependence on Himself in order to show her more of His glory?  We became more sensitive to watch for God’s handiwork in this suffering, wondering how this seemingly endless situation was going to work out in conformity with His nature of goodness and love.  We thought of Tante Corrie’s attitude.  It was saying to us that although she did not like to suffer, seeing it had come to her, she was not fighting it.  She was accepting it, believing that somehow He was going to turn it into freedom and glory in His time.  Could it be that this mysterious time in her life was not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the people immediately around her and of those to whom she was reaching out?  (Silent 134)

Yes, Paul says, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, RSV), but he says it two chapters after reminding us of Jesus pouring Himself out in service.  That is the One he lives and moves “in.”  And Jonathan says, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6, NIV); but Jonathan will lay down his own life so that God may save by David (1 Samuel 18:4; 23:17; 31:6).  There are mysteries here: some believers conquer kingdoms and some wander destitute; some are raised to life while others submit to death (Hebrews 11:33-38).  We are not to compare our lot with others’, nor to strive to prove ourselves by anyone’s developmental yardstick.  “What is that to you?” says Jesus.  “Follow Me” (John 21:22, RSV).

350 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the spiritual state of “boredom” — a stripped-down awareness very much like the “constant feeling of helplessness” Corrie ten Boom knew during her imprisonments (Prisoner 71).  Pascal says that we will do anything to flee this awareness, to divert ourselves.  Above all, we crave the distraction of excitement:

. . . I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. . . .

Imagine any situation you like, add up all the blessings with which you could be endowed, to be king is still the finest thing in the world; yet if you imagine one with all the advantages of his rank, but no means of diversion, left to ponder and reflect on what he is, this limp felicity will not keep him going; he is bound to start thinking of all the threats facing him, of possible revolts, finally of inescapable death and disease, with the result that if he is deprived of so-called diversion he is unhappy, indeed more unhappy than the humblest of his subjects who can enjoy sport and diversion.

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular.  It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: no one would take it as a gift.  What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.  That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. . . .

All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces.  We must get away from it and crave excitement.

We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.

Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him. . . .

A given man lives a life free from boredom by gambling a small sum every day.  Give him every morning the money he might win that day, but on condition that he does not gamble, and you will make him unhappy.  It might be argued that what he wants is the entertainment of gaming and not the winnings.  Make him play then for nothing; his interest will not be fired and he will become bored, so it is not just entertainment he wants.  A half-hearted entertainment without excitement will bore him.  He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. (21)

Transformation occurs when we stand in our “boredom” and emptiness and accept the truth of our condition: that we are helpless, powerless to save ourselves.  This is why I cannot agree with those who suggest that adventure is simply a positive attitude, and that Christians should cultivate a “spirit of adventure” no less than a “spirit of wonder.”  Wonder is truly an attitude — literally, a posture or position; we can choose to go through life looking for signs of God’s presence and traces of His handiwork — as Corrie ten Boom, in all her imprisonments, delighted in trees, flowers, sunrises, hummingbirds, the song of a lark.  But adventure is properly a genre, characterized by an eventful plot (often at the expense of character development) and by plenty of diverting danger and excitement.  The main character is usually a hero and always the center of attention.

In Scheveningen prison, Corrie ten Boom was tempted by a diversion.  She soon saw the deception that lurked in the mild excitement:

To escape boredom I learned to play solitaire.  What an innocent game it seemed to be!  I thought about Father, who had scruples against all card playing.  But he certainly could have nothing against this game.

After a few days, however, I understood the danger of even this apparently innocent game.  If the cards came out right our spirits soared, there was hope and confidence that our release would come soon; if not, our spirits sank into the depths.

What a lot of superstition everywhere! Fortune telling with cards was also a favorite pastime of many prisoners.  And they attached such great significance to the outcome.  (Prisoner 25)

If adventure could fairly be called an attitude, it might be described as a posture of being “ready for anything.”  And this is a snare for those who follow the One who “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7, RSV). (22)  For we may be called upon to be ready for nothing.

The Lowest Place

Eldredge, as we have seen, finds it natural and even commendable that people (or at least men) should ask, “Do I have what it takes?  Am I powerful?” (Wild 64).  We need to be tested — to test our mettle against others’ — and God Himself stands ready to lead us out into the arena (Wild 101-04).

After one has read this, the actual words of Jesus come as quite a shock:

When He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, He told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’  Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.  But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to His host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14:7-14, NIV)

In Jesus’ day, local social rankings were on public display every time someone threw a banquet.  The couches nearest the host were places of honor; any guest might claim them, but you ran the risk of — literally — being “put in your place.”  Your position at the table told you and everyone else exactly where you stood.  This sign of status was important both to Jews and Greeks: the Pharisees “love the place of honor at banquets” (Matthew 23:6, NIV), while:

The Greek writers refer to the absurd contentions which sometimes arose for the chief seats at table.  Theophrastus designates one who thrusts himself into the place next the host as mikrophilotimos, one who seeks petty distinctions. (23)

But Jesus turns this entire pecking order on its head:

  • Guests should vie for the lowest place, not the highest.  Why?  Because they trust the Host.  He is not looking for strivers and self-promoters, but for humility.  Peter echoes the thought: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6, RSV).  Both formulations are filled with hope: Jesus’ because we are still feasting on the abundance that is God’s presence (compare Psalm 36:8), Peter’s because we are submitting to the mighty hand of our Almighty God — the same hand that raised Jesus from death (1 Peter 1:21), indeed, the same hand that caught and held Peter when his faith faltered and he began to sink beneath the waves (Matthew 14:31).  Instead of asserting our value and struggling to prove it, we commit ourselves wholly to enjoying His presence, and we await His pleasure.
  • Hosts should invite, not the rich who can return the favor and make them guests of honor next time, but the poor — the destitute and despised — who in this life can never repay.  These hosts recognize that in the Kingdom “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30, NIV): some who have been powerless in this life, and esteemed of little account, will one day be in a position to welcome us into an eternal celebration (Luke 16:9). (24)

Jesus Himself is better than His word.  He does what is unthinkable, stepping clear off the hierarchy; He ceases for a time to be a guest with any place at the table, choosing to become a slave.  (Similarly, He does not stop at making Himself the most generous of hosts, but Himself becomes the Supper.)  He does not wait passively for the Father’s promotion, but busies Himself where He is, serving others.  The “emptying” thus continues over time; in the prophet’s words, “He poured out His life unto death” (Isaiah 53:12, Amplified, NIV).

When Jesus rises from His place as host and lowers Himself to wash His disciples’ feet, John emphasizes His full awareness:

. . . Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, . . .  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, . . .  (John 13:1, 3, RSV)

He acts in hope, but also with a clear consciousness of every new indignity to which He is descending.

He comes to Peter — perhaps first of all the 12. (25)  No one could miss the impropriety of the Teacher, the Master, the King, the Lord girt with a towel and bearing a basin, but I suggest that it is the adventurer in Peter that reacts so strongly.  It is a small step from defensive egoism: “You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:8, Amplified) — setting boundaries even as he appears to submit — to sheer bravado: “I will lay down my life for You” (verse 37).

It is easy to overlook the significance of this exchange.  Jesus tells Peter that he doesn’t need to be bathed, but only to have his feet washed; on the other hand, if he balks at this, he will have no part or portion in Jesus (John 13:8-10).  Eldredge believes that Christians (who have been washed) have good hearts; therefore, their “core desires” are clean and good.  Perhaps.  But we still have other desires that get us into trouble, and the Bible often speaks of these using the imagery of feet.  Our steps determine our way (Job 23:11; Psalm 119:133), and feet have a tendency to stray from the path and rush into sin (Proverbs 4:27; 1:15-16; Psalm 119:101).  Judas’s rebellion is described as lifting his heel against Jesus (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9).  Like priests at the Temple, resorting to the bronze basin (Exodus 30:17-21), we require frequent cleansings.  And as Peter’s example shows, a slight or “superficial” washing may bring to light deeper issues of the heart.

What does it mean to take the lowest place?  I am very far from wishing to write a how-to piece; but I pray, “Show me Your ways, O Lord, teach me Your paths” (Psalm 25:4, NIV), and His “most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NIV) seems to lead precisely here.  Consider five distinct components:

Those who take the lowest place stop striving.

Hemmed in by God, burned and hammered by His words, the prophet Jeremiah offers this confession:

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself,
that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.  (Jeremiah 10:23, RSV)

He relinquishes the illusion of control, of being William Wallace or the “main man” in his own story.  He turns his eye away from the seats of honor.

Peter tries ever so hard to turn the story of Jesus into the action movie Gladiator, to take up a sword and defend Him in the arena.  This is not God initiating him, but his own adventurous flesh, refusing to die.  When he fails, and when Jesus succeeds in reaching the lowest place of all, they are reunited.  The Lord who once washed Peter’s feet now feeds him, and makes this strange pronouncement:

I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.  (John 21:18, NIV)

Jesus is speaking of the manner of Peter’s death, but He also points to a larger truth.  Already, from this point on, Peter does not “direct his steps.”  His way is “in Christ,” following “in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Perhaps we have all spurned the Lord’s “gently flowing waters,” only to be overwhelmed by the “mighty floodwaters” (Isaiah 8:6-8, NIV).  We need to allow Him to lead us again “beside the still and restful waters” (Psalm 23:2, Amplified).  Our God is filled with compassion and longs to be gracious, but we must come to Him in repentance and rest, quietness and trust (Isaiah 30:15, 18, NIV), not “speed [our own course] on horses” (Isaiah 30:16, Amplified).

The lowest place involves waiting on God.

Particularly in the Old Testament, “waiting” takes on many different shades of meaning.  Yahal means to wait with expectant hope, whereas qavah suggests the tension of a stretched-out cord; damam is a stilling or silencing. (26)  Often, too, “wait” is simply understood, and must be supplied in English.

Overall, I like John Piper’s description:

To wait!  That means to pause and soberly consider our own inadequacy and the Lord’s all-sufficiency, and to seek counsel and help from the Lord, and to hope in him (Psalm 33:20-22; Isaiah 8:17).  Israel is rebuked that “they did not wait for his counsel” (Psalm 106:13).  Why?  Because in not seeking and waiting for God’s help, they robbed God of an occasion to glorify himself.  (Desiring God 146)

In much Biblical waiting, there is a strong sense of utter dependence on God:

Be still [damam] before the Lord, and wait patiently [hul] for Him; . . . (Psalm 37:7, RSV, NIV).

Sometimes God draws us into an intimate isolation.  I have taken jobs in which I became “invisible” to others: people ceased to care what they said or how they behaved in front of me, because I was completely off their social scale.  This was good for me, but not if I continued to gaze at them and their rankings.  Rather, these were opportunities to learn to fix my eyes on God, fully alert, like a slave looking to the master’s hand (Psalm 123:1-2); both patient and eager, like a watchman straining to see the first sign of daybreak (Psalm 130:5-6).  However long it takes, I must be fully invested: “My eyes grow dim with waiting [yahal] for my God” (Psalm 69:3, RSV; compare 119:82).

As we wait in the lowest place, Jesus washes our ways and cleanses our desires.

Waiting does much to focus our longings and challenge our priorities.  And so, quite often, our gracious Host comes along to “demote” us from our hard-won honors, humiliating us and positioning us to receive grace.

This interim is often bleak and painful.  Hosea and his faithless wife Gomer must live together for many days, not as husband and wife but in a state of waiting (Hosea 3:3).  Presumably this is a time of healing and of gradually renewed affection.  It also serves as a picture of the relationship of the Lord and Israel during the Exile (verses 4-5).

Ultimately, the intimacy that develops through our waiting on God becomes a joy, Piper’s “feast” of worship (Desiring God 85).  One of Isaiah’s word pictures of the Day of the Lord is, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3, RSV, NIV).  Against Eldredge, we are not quickly done being saved; but God’s provision and presence become for us a bottomless fountain of delight.

Looking back on 40 years of wilderness wanderings, and before that on his own decades marking time as a shepherd, Moses has this to say about the process:

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 8:3, NIV)

There is a sharpening here, a learning to listen.  And in many way, the Israelites who entered Canaan under Joshua were the Old Testament’s greatest generation.

At the cleansing touch of Jesus, new desires rise in us.  We may become bolder. (27)  But we lose the immaturity of an action-movie hero.  Saul, who refuses to wait (1 Samuel 10:8; 13:8), remains a mere adventurer, and is rejected as king.

No, when the apostles and other believers “tarry” 10 days to be “clothed with power” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4), and when Paul abandons the Pharisaic pecking order and, conferring with no man, goes off into Arabia (Galatians 1:16-17), the most striking outcome is the same:

We begin to desire the salvation of the lost and, compelled by that desire, we serve.

Elisabeth Elliot makes a remarkable and pertinent statement.  Writing of her husband Jim Elliot and his four missionary companions — Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian — who were martyred by Waodani or Auca people of Ecuador in 1956, she says:

Was it the thrill of adventure that drew our husbands on?  No.  Their letters and journals make it abundantly clear that these men did not go out as some men go out to shoot a lion or climb a mountain.  Their compulsion was from a different source. . . .  God’s command “Go ye, and preach the gospel to every creature” [see Mark 16:15, KJV] was the categorical imperative. (28)

How can she say this?  These were young men.  Jim Elliot was characterized by a romantic temperament (29) and a youthful desire for adventure (Shadow 31).  He routinely expressed such convictions as, “The Lord made mountains to climb, not just to look at” (Shadow 175), and he called climbing them “the life we were made for” (Shadow 150).  It was “the thrill of Jim’s lifetime” when he met, close up, a member of a people group who had never been told of Jesus (Shadow 245).

And yet, while Jim Elliot confessed to a restless energy (Shadow 141-42), he tempered it by meditating on Jesus’ years in a carpenter’s shop (Shadow 176).  He learned to wait (Shadow 100, 106-07).

When at last he felt released to go, his motives were well summed up in a Christmas letter by Nate Saint:

As we weigh the future and seek the will of God, does it seem right that we   should hazard our lives for just a few savages?  As we ask ourselves this question, we realize that it is not the call of the needy thousands, rather it is the simple intimation of the prophetic Word that there shall be some from every tribe in His presence in the last day and in our hearts we feel that it is pleasing to Him that we should interest ourselves in making an opening into the Auca prison for Christ.

As we have a high old time this Christmas, may we who know Christ hear the cry of the damned as they hurtle headlong into the Christless night without ever a chance.  May we be moved with compassion as our Lord was.  May we shed tears of repentance for these we have failed to bring out of darkness.  Beyond the smiling scenes of Bethlehem may we see the crushing agony of Golgotha.  May God give us a new vision of His will concerning the lost and our responsibility.  (December 18, 1955; qtd. in Gates, 177-78)

The lowest place of waiting becomes a lowly place of washing others’ feet.  So Corrie ten Boom, in the hospital at Ravensbruck, put to death her egoism by carrying bedpans to strangers (Hiding Place 224; Prisoner 156-57).  Decades later, weak and wordless after strokes, she could still serve and bless visitors, without embarrassment, because of “her lack of false pride” (Silent 150).

In the Church today, there is widespread confusion on this point.  The Identity Reveals Destiny curriculum from Dallas-based Gateway Church is a case in point.  It aims to assist believers in identifying their individual talents, spiritual gifts, and passions.  Apart from the dubious assumption that God, like modern psychology, is more interested in developing strengths than in fixing weaknesses, (30) this provides a useful service.  But the authors go too far when they appeal to the “Law of Pinnacle Attraction”: the idea that it is the best in us that most influences others and draws them to Christ. (31)  In fact, the combination of our weakness and the love of Christ is far more powerful.  Jesus’ enemies were enraged by His teachings and miracles, but deeply moved when they saw Him weep at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:36).  Paul speaks of triumph and “manifesting” Christ, not when he is most eloquent, but when suffering love — anxiety over his rebellious converts — prevents him from opening his mouth (2 Corinthians 2:12-14).

But the real surprise in the Gateway curriculum appears in the Leader’s Guide, (32) on a final page appended as a “closing admonition”:

Are we serving for the benefit of the Body or for our own self-fulfillment?

Sometimes the need for a servant is greater than my need to use a specific gift or skill.

Serving in our local church is not meant to meet our needs for self-fulfillment or self-worth.  We don’t go to church to “find ourselves.”  Or if we do, we learn the only way to find our lives is to first lose them.  That’s the whole picking up our cross & following thing.

Sometimes the need for a servant is greater than my need to use a specific gift.  When you are part of a body that loves & serves & gives a beautiful bond forms.  You see the service of joy in others & you want to follow suit.  You see a need & you long to fill it.

It’s not about self-fulfillment, it is about the joy found through self-denial.  Phil 2:7 tells us Christ “took on the form of a servant” for us.  He freed us from trying to one-up each other.  He freed us to rest in the knowledge that our service does not earn our salvation.

We love because we have been loved & we serve because we have been served.

This is well said, but serving in love cannot be an afterthought, tacked on to the end of programs about self-fulfillment and maximizing our influence.  Jesus “emptied” Himself.  No disciple may aim higher.

We adopt the lowest place in our very thinking.

In the end, there is something more fundamental at stake than whether we see ourselves as adventurers or as demoted strivers waiting on God, as fulfilling or emptying our selves.  For the sake of Christian unity, Paul challenges us: “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10, NIV).  One commentator softens this to, Lead the way in showing the honor that is due to all. (33)  That seems to let us off the hook a little, until we meet with these words:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  (Philippians 2:3, NIV)

Paul himself takes this quite literally.  Although he confronts Peter and rebukes those who fall into error, he describes himself as “less than the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8, NIV).

If this is not the lowest place, it is an important stepping stone toward it.  So let me close by acknowledging that John Eldredge, Mark Batterson, the Gateway curriculum authors, and the preacher who summoned me to adventure are all better Christians than I am.  Today we are quick to accuse others of preaching a false gospel, but what I have called the Adventure Gospel is at worst a misplaced emphasis.  All teachers of the Word make mistakes (James 3:1-2), and God is well able to supply correction (Philippians 3:15) and make His servants stand (Romans 14:4).  These guides have washed the feet of God’s people, and they should be honored.
(1) John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (2001), rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 7.  Hereafter cited in the text as Wild.

(2) John Eldredge, Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 64.  Originally published as The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Only Dreamed Of (2000).  Hereafter cited in the text as Desire.

(3) Mark Batterson and Richard Foth with Susanna Foth Aughtmon, A Trip around the Sun: Turning Your Everyday Life into the Adventure of a Lifetime (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 26.  Hereafter cited in the text as Trip.  Batterson’s co-author, Richard Foth, suggests that some adventures may be internal and contemplative (Trip 22, 140).

(4) The phrase is actually Nietzsche’s (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil [1886], tr. Helen Zimmern [London, 1907], sec. 188).  Peterson comments that Nietzsche “saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity” (Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society [1980], 20th anniversary ed. [Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2000], 17).  Hereafter cited in the text as Obedience.

(5) “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, He makes his steps firm,” writes the psalmist (Psalm 37:23, NIV).  But the context supplies the conditions for God’s delight: this man has committed his way to the Lord (verse 5); he continues to “wait for the Lord and keep His way” (verse 34, NIV).

(6) Mark Batterson, Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 107: “By definition, a disciple is someone who never stops learning. . . .  A true disciple is consumed with holy curiosity that doesn’t take yes for an answer.”  Hereafter cited in the text as Primal.

(7) On this see Douglas W. Frank, Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 266-70.  Hereafter cited in the text as Conquerors.

(8) Robert Mounce, note on Galatians 5:25, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1985), 1787.

(9) John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1986), 10th anniversary expanded ed. (Sisters, OR.: Multnomah, 1996), 66-70.  Hereafter cited in the text as Desiring God.  I am not prepared to agree with Piper in all particulars.  His metaphor of two lenses (again drawn from Edwards) proposes that God is angry or grieved over sin and evil when He looks at the world through His narrow lens, but still delights in the big picture seen through His wide-angle lens (Desiring God 40).  This seems to me to reduce many prized expressions of the heart of God — His refusal to give up on Israel in Hosea, Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem or outrage at the tomb of Lazarus, and even the anguish of Gethsemane — to a mere parenthesis, a temporary loss of focus or perspective, and all for the sake of theological neatness.  I’m not really wild about any metaphor that begins with God “looking at” the world; the God of Scripture is far more involved in His creation than that.

(10) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (1938), tr. John W. Doberstein (1954; New York: HarperOne-HarperCollins, n.d.), 26.

(11) This heading is a deliberate echo of Robert S. McGee’s fine book The Search for Significance (2nd ed. 1990), rev. and expanded ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998, 2003).  Hereafter cited in the text as Search.  McGee addresses the feeling that “we must continually prove ourselves to others” (7).  Unlike Eldredge (Wild 47-50, 64, 101-04), McGee doesn’t respond by suggesting that God will initiate us so that we can prove ourselves.  Instead, he finds in justification “a secure self-worth totally apart from our ability to perform” (Search 42), and he sketches a Christian life that is not merely “like Christ” but “in Christ”:

We are to put on, or envelop ourselves in, this new self that progressively expresses Christian character in our attitudes and behavior.  We are marvelously unique, created to reflect the character of Christ through our individual personalities and behavior.  In a different and special way, each believer has the capability to shine forth the light of God.  No two will reflect light in exactly the same way.  (Search 107-08)

(12) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Old Tappan, N.J.: Spire-Fleming H. Revell, 1972), 14-18.  Hereafter cited in the text as Progress.

(13) Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1908), 84, 78.  See the Christian Classics Ethereal Library online edition at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy.html. Hereafter cited in the text as Orthodoxy.

(14) William T. Ellis, Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1914), 204; qtd. in Conquerors, 193.

(15) Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (1971; Toronto and New York: Bantam, 1974, 1985), 201, 217, 234.  Hereafter cited in the text as Hiding Place.

(16) Corrie ten Boom, A Prisoner and Yet . . . (1945; Eng. tr. 1954; Fort Washington, PA.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1970, 1989), 47.  Hereafter cited in the text as Prisoner.  See the helpful chronology of Ten Boom’s life in Pam Rosewell Moore, Life Lessons from the Hiding Place: Discovering the Heart of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Chosen-Baker, 2004, 2005), especially 211-20.  Hereafter cited in the text as Life Lessons.

(17) Corrie ten Boom with Jamie Buckingham, Tramp for the Lord (Fort Washington, PA.: Christian Literature Crusade and Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1974), 140.  Hereafter cited in the text as Tramp.

(18) Pamela Rosewell Moore, The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan-HarperCollins, 1986), 108.  Hereafter cited in the text as Silent.

(19) Some of the counsel of Al-Anon — to detach, and to practice self-care — seems to border on this egoism.  See, for instance, How Al-Anon Works for Families and Friends of Alcoholics (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 1995, 2008), 82-92.  I find it helpful to remember that the program supports drained caregivers, and also that in time it leads back to service.  But Ten Boom’s account illustrates how spiritually damaging, and how wrong, well-intentioned slogans and advice can be.

(20) William Barclay points out in New Testament Words (1964; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1974), 247-49, that “poor” in the New Testament — the poor to whom Jesus is sent (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18), the poor in spirit who are blessed (Matthew 5:3) — is the Greek word ptochos, which means utterly destitute and wholly dependent on God.

(21) Blaise Pascal, Pensees (1670), tr. A.J. Krailsheimer (1966; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), #136, 67-70.

(22) J.I. Packer defends this as the literal translation, and also argues that there is here no reduction of His deity, but rather the willing restraint of some divine capacities, as Jesus submits entirely to His Father’s will in moment-by-moment dependence.  See J.I. Packer, Knowing God (1973; Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 1975), 51-55.

(23) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 1:379; emphasis in original.

(24) The banquets, as described by Jesus, express all four of the false beliefs discussed in Search (see, for example, 26).  The striving guests must meet certain standards in order to feel good about themselves; they depend on the approval of others; when exposed, they are crushed by shame.  Both guests and the host judge others harshly, responding to failure (or even overreaching) with blame and punishment.  Jesus models a different system, based on grace.

(25) See the discussion in Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883, 1886), new updated ed. (1993; n.p.: Hendrickson, 2012), 815-19.

(26) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 403-04, 875, 198-99.

(27) Thus far I agree with Francis Frangipane, This Day We Fight!: Breaking the Bondage of a Passive Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI.: Chosen-Baker, 2005, 2006): as suggested in Isaiah 61:3, we may have to contend against a spirit of heaviness or fainting or passivity (57).

(28) Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (1957; Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 2011), 176-77.  Hereafter cited in the text as Gates.

(29) Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (New York: Harper, 1958), 129.  Hereafter cited in the text as Shadow.

(30) Allan Kelsey and Brad Stahl, ID: Identity Reveals Destiny (Grapevine, TX: Gateway Create, 2013, 2014, 2015), 57-58.

(31) Allan Kelsey and Brad Stahl, ID: Your Destiny Revealed (Southlake, TX: Gateway Create, 2013, 2015).  This is the accompanying video series on DVD.

(32) An undated binder.

(33) Vincent, 3:159.

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