Monday, March 22, 2021

Saints, Sufferers and Sinners

Saints, Sufferers and Sinners, Michael R. Emlet (New Growth Press, 2021)

Michael Emlet has brought his biblical wisdom and counselling skills together to create this fantastic resource for those who want to pastorally care in a balanced and nuanced way (which hopefully means all of us).

Whether we to minister to others in our personal circles, our ministry, or in a more formal counselling space, Emlet provides a short yet comprehensive way to consider our approach to people and the complexity of their lives.

His first book CrossTalk introduced the idea of people as saints, sufferers and sinners, and this develops that concept in more depth.

He proposes that all people are fundamentally dealing with two main issues:
  • They struggle with identity and are asking ‘what is my purpose?’
  • They struggle with evil - both from without (suffering) and that from within (sin). 
God comes to his people recognising all three:
“Scripture reveals that God ministers to his people as:
  • Saints who need confirmation of their identity as children of God,
  • Sufferers who need comfort in the midst of their affliction, and
  • Sinners who need challenge to their sin in light of God’s redemptive mercies”

And indeed Jesus is the ultimate saint, sufferer and ‘sinner’ (in that he took our place for sin).

While Emlet mainly applies this book to believers, he notes its relevance to unbelievers as well, requiring thought and skill on behalf of the counsellor to adapt it appropriately:
“So, while the fundamental experiences of wrestling with one’s identity, enduring bodily, relational, and situational suffering, and struggling with sin are universal problems, the specific contours of ministry will differ between believers and unbelievers as we employ the biblical categories of saint, sufferer, and sinner.”
Then he turns to each category - saint, sinner, sufferer - in detail, with the same chapter format for all three:
  • Scripture speaks to saints / sufferers / sinners (s…)
  • How God loves s... - a biblical example 
  • Ministry priorities for loving s...
  • How we love s... - everyday examples
  • How we love s... - counselling examples
  • Barriers to loving others as s...
In almost every case, Emlet encourages us to start with people as saints. Consider the good; consider how God is at work in them. Our identity is shaped by our relationship with God, and so our designation as saint is more foundational than sufferer or sinner:
“Ongoing struggle with suffering or with sin must be understood in this basic context of our new identity as children of the living God. We are saints who suffer. We are saints who sin. But we are saints nonetheless at our core.”
He notes,
“It’s an issue of ministry priority—what does this person most need to hear right now? I find that many people, particularly those who are discouraged, anxious, and depressed, have trouble noting the good that God has been up to in their lives. In that sense, I am acting as a signpost for them that points out, “You are a beloved saint and I see God’s grace here!””
“Counseling is hard work. It involves a deep dive into the particulars of suffering and sin in the context of a trusting relationship. In the midst of talking about all that is not right, it’s important to surface for air and gain fresh gospel perspective. Sometimes all the person (and the counselor!) can see are the problems at hand. Because of this, I make it a priority in every session to highlight some evidence of God’s grace I see in my counselees’ lives. They need that encouragement just as much as you and I need that regular encouragement.”
With regard to sufferers, he directs us to our Saviour “with whom we are united, both in his suffering and his comfort”. So we do not shy away from the reality of suffering, nor do we minimise it.
““Groaning until glory” is actually a biblical description of the Christian life. The suffering of God’s people is front and center throughout Scripture. But also highlighted is God’s comfort to his people in the particular moments of their suffering, as well as his promise to bring an end to all suffering, ultimately through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“Ministry to those who are suffering is difficult. It often taxes our own faith and emotional strength to listen to stories of great affliction and misery, particularly in the midst of our own trials. How can we console others when we are so often in need of consolation ourselves? We do share in the sufferings of Christ, but the apostle Paul makes it clear that we also share in Christ’s comfort.”
Moving to the category of sinners, he acknowledges that we are saints who struggle with the ongoing presence of sin:
“Even though the power of sin has been broken and the penalty for sin has been paid for us in Jesus Christ, continued wrestling with sin—war between flesh and Spirit—characterizes our lives in the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return.”
We encourage sinners to see they are loved by a Holy God, who can enable change and growth:
“In both the Old and New Testament, a clarion call for God’s people to live holy lives is always undergirded and motivated by the relational bond of love that exists between God and his people.”
“Celebrating the good you see in someone’s life and being honest about problems you observe are both essential because they keep God in the picture. But as you minister to believers, never forget that their baseline identity in Christ means that you expect to see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.”
All of these chapters were biblical, wise, logically structured, and easy to read and digest. The list of barriers to loving others was particularly insightful in each category, considering why we might find it hard to encourage saints, recognise suffering, or challenge sin. My only issue was that I wanted more detail in some areas.

Emlet finishes with exploring what balance looks like as we hold the triad of saint, sufferer and sinner together. He explore the risks when we overemphasise one over the other. These were multi-faceted, including how we may minimise wrongdoing and responsibility, view ourselves primarily as victims and live without hope, or focus on rules and following laws rather than our relationship with God.
“Ministering wisely means that we hold all three aspects of human experience together even if at a given point in time, we focus on one because that is most needful for the person in front of us.”
He leaves the reader with the hope and promise of the day to come when we will only be saints, no longer sufferers or sinners.

This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to love and counsel others in a well-rounded, biblically grounded, caring way that desires growth and change in the context of a living relationship with our saviour God. 

This post first appeared on TGCA.
An ecopy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.   

If you would like to listen to podcasts of how Emlet looks at these categories by interviewing people, go to the CCEF podcasts.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

Even Better Than Eden

Even Better than Eden, Nancy Guthrie 

I have spent a few months in this excellent book of Nancy Guthrie’s, which follows different themes through the bible, exploring each from creation to new creation, seeing how they are fulfilled in Christ.

Having previously enjoyed many of Guthrie’s devotional materials (for parents, Easter and Christmas) and her book on grief, I was keen to turn to this thematic biblical theology. She is a skilled biblical exegete and writer, and excels at applying the bible to our lives today.

The nine themes explored are:
  • wilderness 
  • the tree 
  • His image 
  • clothing 
  • the Bridegroom 
  • Sabbath 
  • offspring 
  • a dwelling place 
  • the city 
If you haven’t spent much time exploring these themes in the bible, there is much to discover. Many will find Guthrie’s links from creation through exodus and exile, to Jesus, culminating in the new creation, to be eye-opening and insightful. I think that even those who are quite familiar with the bible and how these themes grow, adapt and are fulfilled will be encouraged and see links they not have before. That was certainly my experience. If the whole idea of exploring the bible through a theme is unfamiliar to you and you would like to explore how to do it yourself, CrossTalk by Michael Emlet would be a good place to start.

I realised quickly that using her Personal Bible Study notes to go along with it would be worthwhile, so paid $3 on her website to access a copy. I worked through each study over a few days and found that when I then read the relevant chapter it gave it even more clarity.

Because I was using this in my own personal devotion, I didn’t note many quotes, just these from the first chapter on wilderness:
"God sees the emptiness in your life as his greatest opportunity, because God does his best work with empty as he fills it with himself."
"Do you think, perhaps, that God has let you hunger for whatever it is you are so hungry for so that you might become more desperate for him, more convinced that he is the source of what will fill you up? Might want to retrain your appetites, redirecting them away from this world, this life, even this age, so that your anticipation of the age to come might begin to shape your perspective on whatever it is you lack?"
If you want a taste, have a look at her website, where you can download the introduction and first chapter.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Apocalypse Never

Apocalypse Never, Michael Shellenberger

This book got a fair bit of attention when it was released in 2020, for it seemed that an environmental activist was suddenly saying that perhaps things weren’t as dire as environmental alarmists have been claiming for years.

As such, I was intrigued to read it, having studied environmental science and worked in the field many years ago. I continue to wonder what it means to be responsible stewards of God’s creation, through measured rather than extreme responses to environmental impacts. Things are so much more complicated than simplistic headlines suggest. This is where Shellenberger provides insight, considering issues from multiple perspectives including energy usage and fuel density, land-use, wildlife preservation, industrialisation, poverty and economics. He notes how the developed world has tried to impose their newly established environmental morality on developing nations, preventing their progress in ways they never had to deal with themselves.

Shellenberger has been an environmental activist for 30 years, researching and writing on environmental issues.
“Much of what people are being told about the environment, including the climate, is wrong, and we desperately need to get it right. I decided to write Apocalypse Never after getting fed up with the exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism that are the enemy of a positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism….Apocalypse Never offers a defence of what one might call mainstream ethics. It makes the moral case for humanism, of both secular and religious variants, against the anti-humanism of apocalyptic environmentalism.”
Over 12 chapters Shellenberger highlights an alarmist environmental issue and then seeks to interact with it from numerous perspectives, showing that it’s not as simple as suggested and often the proposed solution is actually harmful to the environment, people and the economy.

Many will be those that we are familiar with, including: 
  • that rainforest burning is destroying the earth’s lungs 
  • that plastic straws are overrunning the world’s oceans 
  • that sweatshops are destroying the planet 
  • that vegetarianism is the answer to climate change 
  • that sea level rises are killing the polar bears 
  • that fishing practices are a problem for oceans 
  • that renewable energy is the solution to all energy problems.
I am not all over each of these topics (as I guess few people would be), and at times I found it hard to figure out which direction each chapter was going; it started somewhere and ended up somewhere else. However I suspect this is the reality of the complex nature of issues when dealing on the world scale. Everything is multifaceted: the fuels people use and the way products are produced affects the world. Energy use has different impacts on different people, as do land-use and waste products.

Those in grinding poverty need reliable energy supply which would reduce charcoal production and land-clearing. In poorer countries, waste management needs to be addressed, but probably after sewer and stormwater systems are prioritised. He raises the question of whether the survival of animals that we deem attractive should be prioritised over the people struggling to live on the same land.

He looks at the higher land use required by renewable energy, bioplastics and other biofuel products. He talks about the advantages and benefits to wildlife of plastic replacements (eg. no more tortoiseshell or ivory since plastics took over). He is unwaveringly and overwhelmingly favourable about nuclear power as the solution to energy supply and production problems. He takes a close look at how oil and gas interests have been funding environmental groups to prevent nuclear power plant production.
“The fact that the energy density of fuels, and the power density of their extraction, determine their environmental impact should be taught in every environmental studies class. Unfortunately, it is not. There is a psychological and ideological reason: romantic appeal-to-nature fallacy, where people imagine renewables are more natural than fossil fuels and uranium, and that's what's natural is better for the environment.”
He notes that industrialisation is a good thing, and we should stop trying to prevent developing nations from doing so, for it takes people out of poverty. “Contrary to what I and others have long believed, the positive impacts of manufacturing outweighs the negative ones”. He wonders why we are trying to keep other nations from developing along the same path we have already done, noting our moral arrogance along the way.

I found the final chapters particularly interesting as he tried to bring together the reasons why environmentalism, particularly the extreme versions, have taken such a hold on the Western world. In the end, he concludes, it’s the secular religion of our time:
“Today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class in most developed and many developing nations. It provides a new story about our collective and individual purpose. It designates good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. And it does so in the language of science, which provides it with legitimacy.”
On one hand, he suggests environmentalism and vegetarianism is a strong break from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, particularly because they reject the view that humans have dominion over the earth. But on the other hand, he proposed that it’s a new kind of religion, one that replaces God with nature:
“I believe that secular people are attracted to apocalyptic environmentalism because it meets some of the same psychological and spiritual needs as Judeo-Christianity and other religions.” 
Yet he notes, while religion provides people with meaning, purpose and a guide to positive, pro-social and ethical behaviour, on the other hand:
“The trouble with the new environmental religion is that it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating. It leads its adherents to demonize their opponents, often hypocritically. It drives them to seek to restrict power and prosperity at home and abroad. And it spreads anxiety and depression without meeting the deeper psychological, existential, and spiritual needs it's extensively secular devotees seek…

negativity has triumphed over positivity. In place of love, forgiveness, kindness, and the kingdom and heaven, today’s apocalyptic environmentalism offers fear, anger and the narrow prospects of avoiding extinction.”
It’s a fact-dense book, with many quotes, figures and references. It’s hard to argue with such data, although we also know data can be used to say many things. He notes if he installed a battery and solar system in his home, it would take 17 years to pay off, hardly a great renewable investment financially. He has access to much cheaper power than we do, for a similar system in our home would be paid off in 6 years. At the same time, woven throughout are stories and anecdotes to illustrate his points. There is specific naming and shaming of various people and players, and he doesn’t hesitate to identify those who benefit financially from their stance, being quite harsh about some. Generally, I think it could have been edited better. A quick look at reviews online suggests he has ardent followers and harsh critics in equal measure, which is no great surprise.

I found it an interesting and thought-provoking read. It broadened my understanding of many environmental issues and provided angles to each that I had not considered in detail before. It is more optimistic and more favourable towards humanity than other writings in this field, which appealed to me. Lots of food for thought.