Monday, February 26, 2007

On Austerity: Some "Very Serious" Thoughts

To my knowledge, I have never been accused of being an overly serious person. That has always been fine with me. But when I started to spend a lot of time reading books by puritans and about puritans, a little comparison was unavoidable. When any of us rip our eyes from the television long enough to cast them in an historical direction, these men stand as early-rising, prayer-closet-sitting, eloquent pillars of passion and proclamation. Owen, Perkins, Flavel, Goodwin, Rutherford, Sibbes, Edwards – the names alone conjure images of exalted collars and chiseled faces. Their lives, often riddled with acute suffering, only add weight to our reading of their meticulous theology. These were not hollow men. Very little shadow fell between theoretical and applied piety.

Enter, Tim Bridges. I laugh at The Simpsons and have been known to spend more than a fleeting moment contemplating the sheer joy of cookies. Is my study of these men destined be an endless parade of examples by whom I am utterly put to shame? When unguarded after a few hours of reading, I grit my teeth and decide to memorize Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions so that I can refer to them the next time I am called on to pray at a gathering: “Oh, Lord, thank you that I am resolved to…” I revolutionize my ‘visitation schedule’ so I can read Richard Baxter with a sense of proud camaraderie. I write a short story so Bunyan will be no stumbling block for me. I learn to articulate the ‘L’ in TULIP so I can look Owen in the eye without blinking. Above all, I learn to behave in such a way that people count me among the austere. Ah, a puritan at last.

There is a danger of falling so in love with the behaviors of Puritans, that we fail to see the God by whom the puritans were enraptured. Put a slightly different way, there is a difference between someone who is austere because they take God seriously and someone who is austere because they take themselves too seriously. For one, austerity is a byproduct of a far grander pursuit. For the other, austerity is sadly an end in itself. Often these two people use the same language, read the same books, and listen to the same sermons. Their view of God could not be more different, however.

I certainly profit from the example of the puritans. I value the model of discipline they provide for us. On the other hand, I have found that the more I focus on their ‘disciplines’ the smaller God seems to me. When wrongly approached, the disciplines have also been a source of pride for me. After all, it is possible to tell no one of my fasting and praying and still report it to myself hourly. Conversely, the more I think on the grandeur and glory of the puritan’s God, the more their disciplines become welcome friends that allow me to better know Him. When I read a truly astounding puritan example, I now try (and often fail) to ask, “What about God made him that way?” What attribute of God inspired Baxter to so feverishly attend to his pastoral duties? Who was God to John Owen? Who is the Christ who so enthralled Samuel Rutherford that he could write, “In a word, I am a fool, and He is God. I will hold my peace hereafter”[1] and “Welcome the cross if Christ be with it.”[2] What in God’s character produced the puritan character? If I search the Scriptures to answer these questions I can be a joyful imitator of God, not just a serious impersonator of men.

[1] Rutherford’s Letters. Lxix.
[2] Ibid., Viii.


H.C. Ross said...

Thank you, brother, for a very wise and insightful word ... one I think the puritans themselves would approve.

Susan A said...

Well said! My undergrad friends used to label me a 'puritan', and I liked that, although it was mostly outward show on my part. How much better to be labelled His child and beloved!

Bridges said...

I think one of the felicities of glorification will be that we will be freed to 'be' instead of being obssessed with 'seeming.' I pray that God would do that now in me. How sad it would be if the most accurate thing that could be said about us was "He/she sure seemed to love God."

Praise God for His sanctifying Grace, Amen?


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