A Man Knows How to Covet

Late summer, 2018. My friend Dave and I are cataloguing Jim Jordan’s books in the Theopolis library. I come across a few books by a guy named Pink. I snicker and show Dave, who says, “That guy’s great.” I file away the comment and the book.

A few months later, I’m browsing the shelf at TPC where our pastor puts books he’s done with and I find a couple of books by this guy Pink, one called Practical Christianity and one called The Letters of A. W. Pink. I want to know what he has to say about Christianity before I start reading his letters, so I open that one first.

It’s been slow going. Pink writes densely, and I have to work to follow his arguments. But this one comment jumped out to me. Pink is explaining what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “I was alive once without the law.” Pink’s take is that Paul is referring to his life as a Pharisee. He knew the letter of the law, but it hadn’t taken hold of his heart. When it did, sin revived in him, and he died. The law, which was to bring life, had to kill him first.

Pink comments: “verse seven informs us that it was the tenth commandment which the Holy Spirit used as the arrow of conviction.” I imagine Paul reading or reciting the law, getting to “thou shalt not covet,” and going white in the face. I’d always assumed Paul was using covetousness as a synecdoche of the whole law. It’s number ten, after all, so it captures everything that came before. This is how John Piper takes it in this sermon. Pink, on the other hand, suggests that Paul mentions coveting because he was particularly convicted of this sin.

What on earth would Paul have to covet? He doesn’t seem to be particularly attracted to worldly objects, spending most of his ministry freeloading. (In Acts 20, he straight up says he hasn’t coveted silver or gold from anyone.) He writes a lot about money, but he’s always collecting it for the church in Jerusalem, not waxing eloquent on its evils. He’s a realist about money. Similarly, his writing on lust is very short and to the point.

The only thing I can think of that Paul would be tempted to covet is status. The praise of men. When we first meet Paul, he’s participating in the execution of Stephen, perhaps even as a prosecutor. The very next chapter opens with a description of his zeal for persecuting Christians. As a student of one of the most highly respected Pharisees, Paul was probably eager for a chance to prove himself and went the extra mile to show it.

How often does God call us to circumstances that test us at the very points where we’re most weak. The rest of Paul’s ministry is a constant reminder of his own weakness. He depends on help from others. He is beaten, mocked, and thrown out of town. When he and Barnabas go to Lystra and the citizens mistake them for gods, Barnabas, not Paul, is the one they call Jupiter.

I haven’t had a chance to dig up any hard evidence, apart from the conjectures above, but it does put a little bit of a different spin on God’s words to Paul at end of 2 Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

A Man Pursues Holiness

I have just finished reading J. C. Ryle’s fat book Holiness. Ryle’s style is a shade pompous for my taste, but he does pack a lot of richness in these pages. Here are a few quotes that leapt out at me.

A religion which costs nothing is worth nothing.

I wish to be as broad as the Bible, neither less nor more.

On sin:

Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day.

The more real grace men have in their hearts, the deeper is their sense of sin.

On death & resurrection:

Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin, and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects.

Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven, it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.

Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?

Nothing, surely, is so likely to prepare us for that heaven where Christ’s personal presence will be all, and that glory where we shall meet Christ face to face, as to realize communion with Christ, as an actual living person here on earth. There is all the difference in the world between an idea and a person.

Of all the things that will surprise us in the resurrection morning, this I believe will surprise us most: that we did not love Christ more before we died.

A Man Makes No Emotional Sense

Francis Spufford is a talented novelist. He has won prizes for his non-fiction. So I was interested to read his “non-defense” of Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there and one chapter (“Yeshua,” for those with the table of contents in front of them), it was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “not great.”

The problem, as I see it, is that Spufford is trying to have it both ways. He both does and does not want to defend his Christianity to other smart Brits. He does, because he doesn’t like being mocked by them (understandably so). He doesn’t, because he doesn’t really like formal apologiae, defenses of Christian belief. They are, he would say, not true to the actual experience of being a Christian. The question he wants to answer is “what does it feel like to be a Christian?” He’s going for “emotional sense.” Does he manage it? Sort of.

The book is laid out in a definite order, if not quite an argument. Spufford starts with what he calls the “human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU, for short), which he assumes we will all recognize. Given that HPtFtU, especially as it applies to one’s own personal life, it makes sense that the next emotional (not logical) step is to peer into every corner of the universe in search of help. Many people find no help at all. Some people, Spufford among them, find, somewhere at the back of things, a kind of intuitive sense of all-powerful goodness. He sits in a quiet church, closes his eyes, and lets his thoughts roam freely. His insignificance washes over him. His utter helplessness. His wish to make things right. And, Descartes-like, he realizes that his very wish for goodness is a sign that goodness must be out there, somewhere. Despite his crookedness, he remains alive, though small beyond comprehension. Something larger and better than him consciously keeps him going. Throwing himself on the mercy of that large, good thing seemed like the best course of action. As an acquaintance of mine likes to say, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Looks like it’s time to worship!”

From there, Spufford reaches the problem of pain. (If there’s some all-powerful goodness at the back of things, why do I hurt?) His answer to the problem of pain is to throw up his hands and say, “No idea. All the explanations are bollocks. Christians just move on.” Okay… Moving on is part of it, so let’s do that now. Next up, a man in ancient Israel, a man who is that all-powerful goodness and yet fragile and time-bound and utterly human. Spufford’s description of Jesus’s ministry and death is the strongest part of the book by far. Nearly all of the “emotional sense” of the book is contained in this one chapter. The resurrection passes in a blink, then there’s a sort of muddle while he goes through all of the bad things Christians have supposedly done. His treatment of tradition is pretty poor, as is his understanding of the Bible. He has very odd ideas about morality, especially sexual. But he stalwartly declares his union in the body of Christ with undesirables such as Sarah Palin, whom he personally finds horrifying, so I have to admit that, yes, Francis Spufford is a brother in Christ. Christ, check. Church, check. Grace and peace, brother.

I may have mis-remembered bits and pieces of the book in my summary since I don’t have it in front of me. That’s entirely appropriate, since Spufford did no research for his writing, either. I did admire his willingness to admit that he could be wrong about things, but he was far too willing to distance himself from uncool intellectual positions. “Not all Christians believe thus-and-such” was his favorite line.

More than anything, the book affirmed my belief that, when Christians waffle on Scripture, they waffle on everything. Spufford pegs the early chapters of Genesis as a quaint myth. The Old Testament testifies to the Hebrews’ slow understanding of monotheism. The gospels were assembled decades after Christ’s ministry. (Yeah, right. These were Jews, Francis. They wrote down everything.) I may be one of the “really stubborn Americans” he mentions several times in the book, but I’m convinced that we have to treat the Bible as God’s Word, no matter what uncomfortable situations that may put us in (including defending creatio ex nihilo). There is no defense, emotional or otherwise, of Christianity that is not grounded in Scripture.

So does the book defend Christianity’s emotional sense? It defends a shaky truce between Christianity and acceptable British intellectual culture. But who says British intellectuals have their emotions in order?

A Man Arises Today Through a Mighty Strength

Reciting the prose version of St. Patrick’s Lorica in an acoustically alive room with a hundred other Christians will put a fire in your belly.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.