Muted Lights of the World: The Problem of Christian Assurance

I recently got an invitation via email for a new social network for businesspeople, […]

Will McDavid / 2.26.15

I recently got an invitation via email for a new social network for businesspeople, While I know far too little about the finance world to receive an invitation, let alone reflect on it, I think buy side means the people who buy securities for investment, which seems like the more prestigious/lucrative: you can make a windfall if you do it right. The network’s title is clear, expressing a movement toward higher positions, bigger money, more potential for advancement.

Why in the world would you name a business networking site that? Well, it’s an identity marker in a way that LinkedIn is not: would I rather be simply linked-in, or go[ing] buyside? Obviously the latter.

The trouble is that labels aren’t that reliable anymore: far from an elite network of investors, has inadvertently reached out to the non-profit Christian blogging sector. Traditionally, words and labels and identity-markers are ‘signifiers’, like the word ‘tree’; while what they represent is the ‘signified’, like the thing with roots, a trunk, and branches itself. The word ‘tree’ is a reliable sign, because almost any English-speaker will know what I mean when I say it.


GoBuyside would’ve been a reliable sign, if only they’d excluded the Christian bloggers. It’s a sign which is misleading, a lie: it is a sign which communicates a reality which is not there, in this case, a certain exclusivity or elitism.

The pursuit of strong, outward signs to show what we consider our better qualities has long been frowned upon, and rightfully so. The truly masculine person, for instance, doesn’t go around aping a Neanderthal; the true farmer will often complain about her profession, while the amateur WOOFer or hipster lectures you for hours about the value of a simpler way of life. Similarly, a defining mark of nobility was traditionally a lack of ostentation; pursuit of status-symbols was considered crass. Someone who genuinely and fully has a quality has no need to parade it before others, to convince them or oneself. Ironically, something like would traditionally appeal not to an energetic young class of financial elite, but more insecure and overtly aspirational sorts.

These things are worth talking about only insofar as they give context to one of Christianity’s most basic imperatives: that of secrecy, of eschewing outward signs. Jesus said,

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Mt 6]

Note the movement from outward to inward. Do not try to convince others you are pious, including through alms-giving. Moreover, do not even let one hand know what the other is doing: inasmuch as your alms-giving is a sign of your virtue or closeness to God, ignore it! Don’t read the signs; don’t even let one hand know what the other is doing. And finally, do not try to convince yourself (or God, for that matter), that your inner spiritual life is strong, through lofty and heartfelt prayers. Ignore it! Such would be like a millionaire continually taking inventory of his accounts, or a straight-A student flipping back through old tests and report cards.

citizen kane 23

Surprisingly, most straight-A students probably wouldn’t sit around telling themselves they’re smart and industrious; they’ve already proven that. Nor would they (hopefully) join MENSA and get a badge to wear around.

Yet this is precisely what we see happening in the Christian world on an almost-daily basis. Cut to the most-sung worship songs in the US according to CCLI’s rankings, and you get:

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes…

You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find…

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore…

Far from being ignorant of the right hand’s actions, the left is fixating on them, stroking the singer’s, um, ego with all its might. (For a more church overall example, look at the Wikipedia page of a Christian musician sometime! Triple the length of their secular counterparts, often, and occasionally laden with apocryphal anecdotes of famous secular musicians talking about how talented their instrumentation is.)

Why do we feel the need to legitimize ourselves? Why do we praise God by describing feelings – which are often aspirational rather than real – in ourselves? If “whatever may pass” really does, I won’t still be singing in the evening. I won’t be singing in the evening if I get distracted by a Wikipedia article or self-pitying from a fender-bender, much less if “whatever” happens. Points for “let” here, as in a prayer, but still – as a onetime singer of these tunes, it feels less like a request for fortitude than an invocation of it: “let there be light”. For a moment, we convince ourselves we can, we will, be doing this. A long way from the second part of Mt 6, when Jesus’s ideal prayer is a more modest and outward-facing “give us this day our daily bread… forgive us… deliver us from evil.”

One suspects this spiritual ostentation comes from a place of insecurity, a need to prove to ourselves that we’re really living “the Christian life” the same way a man who makes a windfall may buy a Maserati to reassure himself that he’s finally made it, that he’s living the life. If you push the worship incantations about our fortitude onto the Maserati analogy, you end up with a mix equal parts Stuart Smalley and John Fitzgerald Page.

Even descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) messages in sermons – God does X, and it creates Y in us – often have an aspirational sound to them: as Gerhard Forde wrote, “we begin to preach our descriptions as though they were actually maps and motivational influences to the power of new life.” In conclusion, two problems here emerge.

The first is a thoroughly subjectivized Christianity; while Luther and Calvin thought that one cannot measure one’s virtue or state of holiness, many/most Protestants in America now do. We have lost sight, since the empirical revolution, of any objective reality which we cannot immediately perceive. Thus the fact that we are sinners, yet justified, sounds abstract and otherworldly, but trying to worship or pray or think ourselves into certain positive or Christian emotional states seemingly does allow us to perceive our state of new being, and perception helps us feel in control.

The second is that our highly fluid society (a net good) has had the side-effect of a semiotic problem: pursuit of certain identity or status markers is more pronounced than ever before. We pursue the sign in the hope that it can pull the reality it signifies along with it – a semiotic sin, or sin in our distortion of signs and meaning. This occurs in part because feel we must prove ourselves and our worth, and some amount of this feeling almost certainly carries over into Christianity.

Jesus was aware of this semiotic problem as it stands (and has always stood) with regard to holiness or virtue. He calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”: a gorgeous exterior which, by fooling others into respecting them, allows the Pharisees “to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places.” Picture it: a house with a beautiful facade, suggesting life and power and respect, and you enter, and there are only shrouds and bones; a stultified and lifeless grandeur.

This diagnosis applies first to the most respectable and most seemingly religious people. How are we fooling ourselves, and how are we fooling others? My bookshelf full of unread esoteric theology conceals a dilettante who shied away from academia; my carefully disheveled style conceals someone utterly preoccupied with what others think. And those aspirational signs exist not only to fool others, but to reassure my insecurities, too.


How are you fooling others? God renews the inside, which we cannot see: “The heart is devious above all else;/ it is perverse—/ who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9), but our lives are also “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). A little less eagerness to peer into our own souls, God grant it, would be a beneficial thing. Or, for the virtuous, to spend a little less time on Christ’s (sparse) criticism of drunkards and sex addicts and money-grubbers and a little more time on his (thundering) criticisms of the religious, Christ’s message to the well-behaved. 

Just as there is an emptiness in the pursuit of pleasure and riches, an emptiness too steals up on those in pursuit of virtue, who often conclude that Christianity has, after all, little to offer them and leave the church. As they whitewash the exteriors of their tombs, they cannot help but catch unsettling glimpses, out of the corners of their eyes, of the ominous vacuity within.

“Even though our outer nature,” said Paul, “is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day… we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” To look at what cannot be seen is a strange description of Christian life, but what else is there to look for when you’re forbidden from even knowing what your right hand does? What is there to see in Jesus? When the people ask him for more direct communication, Jesus replies, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11). The sign of one near-dead in a whale for three days, then spewed up on shore, exhausted and bedraggled, by God. The true shape of Christian life turns out to be something much more complex, nuanced, opaque, and above all, un-self-conscious than the purveyors of Christian moral development and self-assurance would have us imagine. Which is Good News for those of us who, no matter how hard we try, cannot help but notice we’re spiritual frauds and be pulled back into the mire of sin and despair of self.

(Further links: economics-y and even more long-winded piece here; short/theology-y take here; Max Weber on this ‘semiotic problem’ and capitalism here.)


20 responses to “Muted Lights of the World: The Problem of Christian Assurance”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Good grief, Will, you’ve outdone yourself. Very very helpful and powerful bit of writing. Thank you x 100.

  2. Patricia F. says:

    OUCH. But a ‘good’ OUCH. A post to bookmark and read again and again. Thanks.

  3. Curt says:

    A timely piece Will. Thank you!

  4. Baird Fulghum says:

    If one premise of this article is to cast a jaundiced eye on Christians who are emotional at the foot of the cross and weep (…how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me…), I reject that premise. God created us emotional beings. Certainly emotion, like any good thing, can when tweaked a bit in the wrong direction, lead us into the weeds. However, if the author’s intent is to scorn the idea that a Christian has a heart overflowing when he/she considers Calvary, I reject that. Moreover, he does harm and seems to shame those who might weep while singing Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded.

  5. Will McDavid says:


    Thanks for the feedback.Weeping at the foot of the cross is a response, an expression of emotion which exists. I never meant to demean that, but perhaps a distinction between ‘reponsive’ and ‘incantational’ emotional language would have been helpful. The one expresses reality, the other attempts to exploit the link between reality and expression for the purposes of control: to speak the expression irresponsibly, and so invoke the reality it expresses. This latter is dangerous: at best, it is merely exhausting, like trying to pull oneself out of quicksand by one’s own hair, to borrow an analogy from the early Bultmann.

    At worst, to return to the semiotic theme, it saws off the branch you’re sitting on. Euphemisms, for instance, must constantly be re-invented because they too, through language, try to control reality, to suppress it. To return to aspirational, incantational emotional language (sorry for the wordiness), by tugging a deep reality into existence through its linguistic expression, you put ‘strain’ on the ‘link’ between expression and reality, and the expression has become decayed, and must be replaced. This is could be why the cheeriest Evangelical churches must replace their language regularly, just as euphemisms must be replaced. Right now, things like ‘liturgical’ or ‘incarnational’ are big, which is good. Ten years from now, we’ll have to a have a new American Protestant ressourcement. Trendy concepts in the pulpit are almost always signs that reality is not being allowed to be faced. And secretly, there is an insecurity of the sort the rich man who buys a Maserati, but must change his car with the flavor of the year. The signs change because we would not face the realities. Without a foundation in facing the real underlying emotions, there’s lingering doubt and perhaps a sense of being driven and tossed by cultural winds.And our language breaks down.

    Finally, the aspirational, incantational speech-act is important in Christianity, just not as something we do to ourselves. Hope this is helpful/clarifying – should’ve made some of it clear in the post.


  6. Michael Cooper says:

    I used to think that “raised hands” charismatics or evangelical praise song leaders with orgasmic facial expressions were trying way too hard to show everyone else how much they loved God, i.e. that they were “whitewashed tombs”. But I don’t think that is the case, at the deepest level. This type of incantational religious expression is ancient and universal. It has been around for thousands of years and in all cultural contexts. But there are really two different versions of this incantational expression: one is driven by the shaman, for personal or institutional gain, while the other comes from the individual “worshiper” without undue prodding. At root, this second version I think comes from a deep existential yearning for some meaning, some purpose, some power in this world that is greater than death. I can respect that.

  7. Ian says:

    Will, is the aspirational speech-acts of the Psalms, or Micah, or Philippians 4:13 all semiotic misfires? Or is there not a Spirit-imbued/impelled aspiration rooted in union with Christ, the true worshiper and measure of what authenticity really is? That would help me understand your critique of, say, “10,000 Reasons” better.

  8. Ian says:

    Micah 7 was the passage in question. And obviously “is” doesn’t agree with the plural. Talk about semiotic misfires!

    • Will McDavid says:

      Ha – great question. My opinion’s a little skewed here, as I’ve got some confirmation bias going now, but I’d think that prophetic experience (Micah) or writing with exalted literary/theological inspiration (Psalms) can’t quite be considered normative ‘lay’ experience. The speech-act of prophecy is both exceptionally in-spirited and directed toward others; the Psalmist may well be expressing rather than invoking, but I don’t have the credentials to really lean one way or the other on that.

      And St. Paul’s speech, while aspirational if read literally (all things? really?), maybe expresses an objective spiritual reality rather than a personal religious state (the ‘I’ as universal, as in Romans 7), and it’s addressed toward other believers, and also inspired on a more-than-normal level.

      All the same, even if not identical, there probably is analogy in there: but how analogous is the big question. Certainly not utterly divorced from our experience, nor utterly identical to it. There’s been a lot of good academic writing on Christian experience lately, but I haven’t read very much of it. Von Balthasar’s typology of Christian experiences in Seeing the Form and analysis in Experience God? from new Elucidations may be helpful, too. The latter speaks some about “negative [pneumatic] experience”, something Simeon Zahl writes very persuasively on.

  9. Ian says:

    I would say I don’t disagree with anything materially in your answer here, but I think it’s complicated (in the case of the Psalms) with the fact that the covenant people are to take these words on their lips as their own speech. I was just reading Psalm 108 this morning, and David sings that he will awaken the dawn with his singing of God’s majesty… as the preface to a communal lament! I think even of Psalm 1, the archway into the entire Psalter, and its positive portrayal of the believer’s life as she bathes in God’s words and let’s them shape her entire being. I think you’re right that these portray objective realities which often overflow beyond perceived experience, and that this is why confessing them is so important: that they are invocations, invocations of what is truly True (there I am now, capitalizing stuff) because in putting these speech-acts to use the Spirit changes is from one degree of glory into another (because who even sees that there is any degree of glory in a scumbag like yours truly???). Thus, Job can praise God in the midst of disaster, perhaps not unlike the anonymous narrator of “10,000 Reasons”- not because he is jubilant over tragedy in any empirical, experiential sense, but because we aren’t the only players on the stage?

  10. Ian says:

    P.S. It’s not that “10,000 Reasons” is my favorite song so I’m stepping in the ring, I just hadn’t detected high identity crimes and misdemeanors in it before!

  11. Michael Cooper says:

    I think that many of the Psalms are intended to be “aspirational” in that they express the author’s desire to be a certain way (love God’s law, be righteous, etc.) rather than the current reality of the actual person, and they are meant to be chanted corporately for the same purpose. Otherwise, they often just sound like the musings of a self-righteous prick who wants God to forgive and bless him while cursing his enemies, their donkeys and their house cats to the tenth generation. I think Calvin and Luther both tried to spin them to make them sound less self-righteous. I don’t recall their arguments, but I recall not being very convinced. If read as aspirational, they are at least a bit better, although “the righteous shall bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” sounds like an ISIL praise song.

  12. Ian says:

    Behind the words and emotional states of any singer, however, lives the voice of living Word, the lead Psalmist, so I’m hesitant to the extreme to ascribe smug, self-righteous prick language to our reception of these songs- they disclose the mind of Christ as ideal worshiper.

    • Michael Cooper says:

      Since many of them beg for forgiveness (while at the same time begging for judgment for enemies) I sincerely hope that they don’t “disclose the mind of Christ.”

  13. Ian says:

    Augustine and the early church were persuaded they did: they discerned the “total Christ” leading and encompassing his people as their head and they as his body singing these hymns and lamentations. I don’t see why the emotional complexity of the Savior couldn’t coordinate cries for vindication as well as pleas for judgment- the seven “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” certainly testifies to one focus of that ellipse, no? I don’t mean to go too far afield here. I simply mean to draw attention to our inhabiting the Lord’s emotional life to some extent, an emotional life which covered a lot of ground. And this is important not insofar as grace opens up new possibilities unavailable to our fallen incurvature.

  14. Michael Cooper says:

    So, Jesus hopes that the children of sinners will be wandering orphaned beggars (109) and claims that those who take the babies of sinners and dash their brains out will be happy and blessed (137)? The psalms are simply examples of the Holy Spirit acting on the hearts of very sinful men. As such, they are a very mixed bag. They are not meant to be the gold standard of worship any more than all f the actions and words of the apostlers found in the gospels are meant to be positive examples of the Christian life.

  15. Steven Smith says:

    Mr Cooper think of the material effect, not the wording of what you are decrying. If the children of the wicked wander then they are not established in the land, the society and the power of their household is less, thus they can do less evil. The many of powers given to man need rootedness, agriculture, a home to be practiced, cultivated, and passed on. If as Aristotle says that virtue needs stuff to flower, so does evil, and men are drawn to stuff, as cows are to grass.
    While the virtuous, the holy should not delight in slaying babies think of the effect of wicked men without children, without successors, without students. Do we all not become our parents? Is generational sins and weaknesses not an abiding reality? The sound in body tend to reproduce the sound in body; the sound of mind, spirit, virtue, power, money, wisdom all tend toward the same. Those who are crippled, twisted, broken however still tend to pass that on through genetics or practice. As a farmhand I tried to breed my cows with the best potential, the best seed. The human family is the primary source of such legacies, good or evil. Partly thus why God came as a man to draw us into His own family. To mend, to reform, to stamp out all evil.
    Practically speaking Mr Cooper would not a land that had only homeless and childless practitioners of evil be a happier land, a flourishing land, perhaps closer to a holier land than any yet that men have seen? That this yearning is ensconced in the bloody realities and language of ancient warlords you find it offensive. Yet, despite our concerns, this is how the world is won, so to speak.

    One further concern Mr Cooper. I fear your words don’t take evil seriously. If the primary vocation of man is to be a co-creator with God and if evil is a privation, a lack, an absence of the good, then why not desire that evil men are powerless and children are spared their tutelage in one’s land? If goodness equals creation, and if evil equals a lack of goodness, then evil equals uncreation.

    • JAbernathy says:

      Steven, the last paragraph there is a highly original interpretation of Augustine. And the moral Darwinism thing might offend people. I’d prayerfully consider speaking with an elder about it.

  16. Ian says:

    I just can’t agree that’s all the Psalms “simply” are, nor can I go along with making the parts that get us queasy as enlightened moderns equivalent to Peter’s blunder at Antioch as your final comment seemed to suggest. We’ve gone pretty far afield so I won’t plunge us further into this wormhole, so I leave it at recommending you read Gordon Wenham on the Psalms before deciding on a canon-within-the-canon a priori judgment on what Jesus would or wouldn’t say. Pray I’m not too exasperating with my parries, brother!

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