Resting in God's right rule
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
We might recast his (Percy Shelley’s) objection and say that the problem with both marriage and creeds is that in each case the individual has to acknowledge the existence of an external authority beyond that of immediate, personal desires.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman
I feel as though I’ve written on this topic quite a bit. But because it is so pervasive, I’ll continue to poke this bear a bit so that we continue to grow in seeing it in ourselves. Quite a few circles have been reading this book by Trueman that focuses on the development of the psychological self. I would commend the book to you (but probably the paper book not the audio given the importance of the footnotes, etc.). In his chapter on the Romantic Poets, Trueman notes how their anti-confessional Christianity stance paved the way for the modern self as determined by an individual’s desire. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun.
Now I want to draw our attention to one problem that arises when the individual self is as elevated as it is in our day. It undermines external authority. Like the quote above alludes to, the only authority one has in our world (that is considered valid) is personal desire. In our world today, we see this all over the place. What is the reason anyone moves from one job to another? Desire of one sort or another. What is the reason one person rejects his spouse and family for the sake of another? Desire. What determines what is true? What I desire? And therefore the authentic self is the self that fulfills his or her own desires.
But this isn’t just the belief of secular modern culture. It is also the habit of the Jews in the time of Jesus. Their teachers taught without authority. This enabled them to do what they wanted, and when a higher authority arose (i.e., Jesus), it was astonishing. There is nothing new under the sun. Now just think about it for a second. The scribe taught as one who didn’t have authority. They were avoiding the responsibility that comes with teaching with authority. Their synagogues or their teaching in the temple must have had an anti-personal nature to it. Just think of all the arguments among the Jews that get brought up in scripture: it’s as though they were committed to arguing about ephemeral matters because then they could avoid the weight of their authority reigning themselves in. So sure, they argued about proper divorce, but did they ever stop to care for the Samaritan? Sure, they reasoned about how to tithe and keep sabbath, but did they ever once stop to provide for the poor old couple or widow or single mother? In other words, they used their position to let them do what they wanted all the while laying burdens on everyone else.
The point is not to say the Jews were exactly the same as our culture today, but it is to say there are similarities, and rejection of authority in exchange for self-determined authority is quite common in the heart of humanity. Just remember the Garden of Eden, ‘You’ll be like God’ if you transgress God’s authority. That was a lie. In transgressing God’s authority they actually became like the serpent, opposing God’s good creation that reflected his very nature. God wouldn’t ever work contrary to his glorious and good being. But the serpent did. We did in Adam. And we still do today.
So we should not think we are above or beyond this self-determined authority scheme. In fact, we should be suspicious of ourselves and test our hearts. How do we claim this self-appointed authority? I’ve mentioned this title before, but there is a preaching book I’ve never read called, ‘As One Without Authority.’ I have no idea what it says, but there is a certain truth that the preacher doesn’t rely on his own authority in his preaching, he relies on the authority of God’s word. At the same time, certainly a pastor is appointed to a place of authority within the church. There is a specific and appointed authority in God’s order for the church. But we act often enough as if the church or the pastor has no authority over us. We want to hedge our bets, hedge our life and protect some semblance of home rule; almost against any local congregation. And I think this is why churches often have gone above and beyond the call of duty to rally their congregations around something more or different than the glory of God’s word and the care for the saints and evangelizing the lost. Entertainment feeds self-authority in churches. I get what I want, my desires are fulfilled by the music, the engaging audio-visual apparatus, etc. Being able to treat church like a buffet of options similarly feeds my personal autonomy. The children’s wing of the church is an explosion of decorative imagination (that has to be refreshed every 5 or 10 years) and so on. The Sunday school classes all segregated by age (and never the twain shall meet) permit for local control of each group. In some ways, this is the church of the 1990’s, and it hasn’t really abated much from what I can tell. There are just continually new permutations of the same thing. We can’t get away from it.
But like I mentioned last week, shouldn’t our rallying cry be the gospel of Christ as the word is proclaimed and as it cuts us to the quick? And shouldn’t there be a trust in the authority of both the local congregation who is responsible for us as well as the pastors who are called to exercise authority over this congregation here or there? We aren’t much different from Shelley, but hopefully we are growing out of this anti-authority, autonomism that is so deeply rooted in us. And so as I’ve said before in different ways, this is one reason why we gather regularly around the Word, sitting under the authority of both the gathered congregation and its pastors. When we sit under that preaching, when we sing that Word one to another, we’re confessing our need to change. It’ll likely be a lifelong endeavor to wean ourselves off of thinking our desires are the final authority in our lives. In the end though, when we deny ourselves, we’re finding our rest in the creator God who is the good and rightful authority; who took the government (i.e. rule or authority) on his shoulders in a most gracious way so that we can find rest for our souls. You see, the end of rejecting God’s good rule isn’t a good end: it is eternal separation from God’s grace. But under his good authority, our burden is light and we have rest.