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Our “Juvenile” Failure to Love

Among the reasons that I chose to attend Regent College in Vancouver, BC from 2005-2008 was the reputation of their faculty. Eugene Peterson, Gordon Fee, John Stackhouse, Sarah Williams, Rikk Watts, Loren Wilkinson… The list could go on an on. I was not disappointed in my choice, even if I was mildly surprised by how Reformed the theology often was (and how dismissive the conversations could sometimes be of Mennonites and the Radical Reformation in general). My experience at Regent was overwhelmingly good and profoundly life-giving in a wide variety of ways.

One of the biggest of the big names at Regent was, of course, J.I. Packer. My only exposure to Packer to that point had been reading his famous Knowing God when I was younger. I dimly recall vaguely appreciating the book, but I had no idea what an influential work it was and would continue to be. Packer’s teaching schedule at Regent had slowed down a bit already when I was there, but I would often see him walking briskly to and from his classes with his tattered brown briefcase, always with purpose in his stride and a smile on his face. I thought about taking a systematic theology course from him, but I decided against it. I figured that I was already drinking deeply enough at the well of Reformed theology, and, much as I respected Packer, I knew that a class with him would not be much of a departure from this script. Later on, I would come to regret this a little bit. How could I go three years at Regent without taking a single course from J.I. Packer, this giant of the faith in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

This morning I read an interview with Packer in the most recent issue of Faith Today. Packer is now nearing the end of his ninth decade on the planet, so the themes of weakness and lessons from the end of the journey naturally came up. I was struck by the deep wisdom of his answers to a few of the questions, not to mention the humility that accompanied what I thought was a razor-sharp critique of our current church/cultural moment.

First, Packer’s response to the question, “Are your thoughts turning heavenward? What do you anticipate or fear about your earthly life coming to an end?”

I don’t think I have an impressive answer. I live a day at a time. I hope and pray that I shall be left in this world as long as I can be useful—useful to the Church, to Christian individuals, to the glory of God.

I have no idea how long that will be. I’m in very good health at the moment. I believe my proper concern is with living a day at a time and making the most of each day for usefulness.

I have lived long enough, by the way, to realize that usefulness is much more profoundly a matter of the kind of person you are than of the particular things you do.

When you are young, you tend to think of usefulness entirely as the things you do. All through the years, however, steadily God has been reminding me that what I am is fundamental to what I do, and is really much more important than what I do.

That’s the perspective that I live with and relax with, and I try on a day-to-day basis to ensure that I am what I claim to be, what I need to be. That is a concern which I find keeps me God-centred and Christ-centred in my concerns in living rather than self-centred.

And then, Packer offered this analysis in response to the question of whether or not the church is any better than the broader culture at defining worth by who we are than by what we do.

When I go around to churches, I get the strong feeling that we aren’t taking love as our primary calling as seriously as we should—which I now diagnose as immaturity rather than perversity.

In our churches we are juvenile in many ways at points where we ought to be adult. We’re the victims actually of the world’s conviction that your significance depends entirely on what you do and not at all on who you are… And if you hold to that idea that what you do is what counts, it does keep you juvenile. It keeps you from real spiritual development at a deep level.

Yes. I should have taken that course.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    I read that article as well and was moved in much the same way you are. I did have the privilege of having a class with Packer during my time at Regent and interacted with him over the course, from my Anabaptist perspective. It is an interaction I still treasure. I discovered that even Calvinists can be warm Christians 🙂
    The thing that also jumped out at me was in the FT interview his glowing comment about Scott McKnight’s “The Jesus Creed.” That warmed my Anabaptist heart.

    January 22, 2014
    • Even Calvinists?! Who would have thought 🙂 .

      I noticed the Jesus Creed reference, too and my heart was suitably warmed.

      January 23, 2014
  2. Excellent post. Who I am outlasts what I do. It’s easy to miss this, especially as clergy. Integrity matters. Love matters. I’m glad Regent was good for you. I probably should have gone there too. I think Princeton just confused me, but it was where my presbytery wanted me to go. I was a devoted J.I. Packer reader in college, by the way. Peace to you.

    January 23, 2014
    • Yes, it is easy to miss what matters… Maybe even particularly as clergy.

      (Princeton sounds pretty exotic to a small town Canadian boy, by the way 🙂 )

      Good to hear from you, Chris.

      January 23, 2014
  3. Ryan Robinson #

    I considered Regent, particularly after meeting Stackhouse. He came to Queen’s for a guest lecture and did a lunch with the campus ministry leaders the day before, which I was able to go to. There’s one quote I still use from that lunch about the idea of “relationship evangelism” which he was not a fan of because it “prostitutes relationship to evangelism.” Some representatives from the more evangelical groups were visibly squirming in their seats when he said that. I pretty much only turned them down because Vancouver – and Regent’s tuition – was way beyond my price range.

    And yes, great quotes in that article, too 🙂

    January 23, 2014
    • Funnily enough, it was listening to a lecture from Stackhouse here in Lethbridge that began to steer me toward Regent, too. I like the quote about “prostituting relationship to evangelism.” So (regrettably) true.

      It certainly isn’t (and wasn’t) cheap to attend Regent or live in Vancouver. I had help with a scholarship, but we left that city with our wallets considerably lighter than we arrived 🙂 .

      January 23, 2014
  4. Two important women in my faith journey said almost exactly the same thing to me on reaching birthdays they didn’t think they would reach. They were my great-aunt and my grandmother’s roommate in the nursing home. They both said, “I never thought I would live this long, but God must still have work for me to do, so I am ready to do it as long as He keeps me here.” Both women were totally crippled with osteoarthritis and almost blind. The work they were talking about was not deeds, but the act of being, and of being present. I have learned the hard way that this is what is important. I have been sick with two autoimmune diseases for 15 years, being a wife and mom at the same time. I simply cannot do everything that needs to be done, let alone extras. Yet my value to God, that He shows me in His arms around me, His words in my heart, are stronger than ever. Grace, amazing grace. Yet in our Anabaptist history this is a very hard thing to learn, especially about ourselves.

    January 23, 2014
    • So much wisdom in your comment, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing these remarkable examples from your family and from your own life. You’re right, grace is a hard thing to learn sometimes, but oh, how we need it.

      Peace to you.

      January 23, 2014
  5. mike #

    I’m not a diplomat, or a politician, so I don’t know a nice way to say this, but I believe it with all my heart.
    I see Packer and teachers of his kind more as part of the problem with institutional Christianity rather than an asset or National treasure. The blame for the demise of Christianity, in my opinion, falls squarely on the shoulders of the Academics who perpetuate the ‘organized religion’ paradigm by spoon feeding religious doctrine to eager would-be preachers needing “credentials” before they are “officially” permitted to do what The Creator of the Universe presumably asked them to do.
    Scholasticism falls under the category of “vanity of the mind” since God can no more be taught from books than Love can. …Look around your church’s guys, the charade is over.

    I’ve read the ending.

    January 23, 2014
    • I have no doubt that there are cases where this critique applies. I certainly have moments where I feel this way (at least about the credentialing, institutional machine, etc… not so much about the scholarly part 🙂 ), But as an over-arching explanation for “the demise of Christianity,” this seems a bit too simplistic (and convenient) an explanation, to me. Blaming scholars and institutions has the happy effect of taking the responsibility off of the rest of us, doesn’t it?

      And God can’t be taught from books? Really? Never? What about, say, the Bible? I like to think I’ve learned a bit about God (and love) from books. Not everything, of course. But something. To say that something can’t do the whole job doesn’t require the further claim that it is useless.

      January 24, 2014
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, be who you are, loved and loving child of God. The ‘right doing” will follow….I feel that to be true…. in my bones, as the saying goes.

    I like what Mike is trying to say here also. Let us bring one another to authentic experiences of Christ. He is the teacher. Prioritizing prayer over study seems like an obvious starting point for me.

    As for “Jesus Creed”….meh…I see the worst of commercial spirituality within it’s borders. I’ve slapped my forehead more than once over it’s direction….never once brought me to my knees…not like “Rumblings”…they don’t tolerate dissent (to be fair sometimes belligerently so) over there. A committed follower has no choice but to continue to work with a wayward brother… God knows I gave them every chance to repent! :)….they speak to a well orchestrated choir and McKnight needs waaaaay thicker skin….hmmmm, maybe I should take my own advice and pray about this one. 🙂

    January 24, 2014
    • I was thinking of the Jesus Creed book not the blog. I don’t read the blog nearly as much as I used to, and I’ve never interacted with McKnight, so I can’t really comment too much on that. In general, I notice that some of the really big blogs have a different feel to them. Your comment about the “well orchestrated choir” certainly has the ring of truth to it 🙂 .

      January 24, 2014
      • Sorry, I misunderstood. And my critique of JC the blog, is certainly so much less important than the main ideas under discussion here.

        Based solely on my own experience/prejudice? I find greater spiritual comfort and what I would describe as the experience of God’s presence, in a charismatic exposition of scripture steeped in prayer and praise interspersed with historical/academic contexts as opposed to more academic presentations that have brief opening and closing prayers and lengthy, mostly intellectual exegesis’.

        To each his own, to be sure. But for too many the “Word” is unsustainable within them, when the language and the nuance become more than they can honestly comprehend.

        January 24, 2014
      • Well said, Paul. How fortunate that God comes to us as we are, and pulls, pushes, drags us along in ways appropriate to our dispositions 🙂 .

        January 25, 2014
    • Michael #

      Personally I’ve always resonated with C.S. Lewis’ comment: “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.”

      January 25, 2014
      • Fantastic quote, Michael. Thanks for sharing it. Yes, I certainly resonate with this… 🙂 .

        January 25, 2014
      • Paul Johnston #

        I suppose, all books are limiting, theological or devotional. To my ears, Michael, in isolation, apart from broader context, I would tell the author of that quote that if he is serious about devotion, he needs to put down his pen and pipe and be prepared to risk something relational. Deductive reasoning almost always leads to self interest; self affirmation. Love is as breathtakingly irrational, as death on a cross… is precisely the medium of exchange when kneeling devotion leads to the perception of “nothing happening”.

        January 25, 2014
  7. Forgive the last comment and and it’s lack of proper qualification. The term “deductive reasoning” and my opinion of it is meant only to apply to a spiritual context. Obviously it is an invaluable tool in material studies.

    January 25, 2014

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