“Stinkin’ Thinkin’” and “Sloppy Agape”

Next week will see us launching the first of two online, Winter-Spring spiritual formation courses at the Richard & Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship (via their website @ BeADisciple.com).  (A previous post [available by clicking here] shares more about these courses and the larger certification program of which they are a part.)

ifdc courseAmong the topics in the course, “The Spiritual Disciplines for Personal and Parish Renewal,” will be the importance of sound theology in life and ministry.  And among the crucial theological issues wrapped up in any discussion and practice of the spiritual disciplines?  Adequately framing and maintaining the crucial tension which is our human responsibility versus the initiative/grace of the Divine in our salvation and spiritual development.

Here, the Scriptures affirm both poles.  There is the clear affirmation (a cornerstone of the Reformation) that we are saved by faith in Grace (with this faith itself being a gift of God).1  But, there’s also the reminder that faith without works is dead and empty.)2  One text in particular highlights and embraces the tension – there in: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”3  Yes, there they are side by side: “Work out your own salvation” and “for it is God who works in you to will and work for his pleasure.”

Across the years, I have come across or conceived of a variety of metaphors which represent and illustrate this tension.

  • Speaking to the power of personal retreats (and our part in making them happen), Rueben Job used the analogy of righting a windmill from his boyhood days on the farm:
          I spent the early years of my life on a farm in North Dakota. I fell in love with the prairies and with windmills. Our farm was surrounded with huge cottonwood trees that often sheltered our windmill from light breezes that would otherwise have turned it to face the wind and permitted it to do its assigned work of pumping water for the farm. When the breeze was too light to turn the huge fan into the wind, my father would climb the tall tower and physically turn the fan and tail of the windmill until it faced directly into the wind. Properly positioned, the slightest breeze was translated into life-giving water. Personal retreats can be a time of repositioning ourselves, a time of intentional turning toward God.  (A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds, p. 12)4
  • Another metaphor I’ve employed across the years are the love letters my wife, Kathy, and I would exchange while we were courting (do they still use that word?) in college.
          Here I go sounding like an old foggie but “kids these days” will have no idea what it is to go to a mailbox and pull out a letter and read it over and over again.  (And, then, there was the perfume that might have been splashed inside — so that one continually returned to the envelope for a sniff of their beloved!!)
         Did the letter writing and reading and exchanging make the relationship?  Or did the relationship of love make for the reading and writing and exchanging (and sniffing)?  The answer for me — at that time and even to this day — is clear: I was in love, I was in a cherished relationship, I wanted to be about the discipline of exchanging letters.
         Even so, then, with the disciplines of faith!  The Bible is a love letter from God.  And Communion?  It’s dinner with a loved one!  And on we could go.  The spiritual disciplines are not works that make us right.  But, being right with God (being in relationship and in love) makes for these works!

Others could be added.  (I’d be curious to hear any other metaphors that have worked for you.)

But frame (and maintain) the tension we must.

For, as I will tell the participants in our coming course:

stinkin thinkin“orthodoxy [right thinking] and orthopraxy [right practice] go hand in hand.”

As a person thinks and believes, so they are (and behave).5 

Outer behavior is grounded in deeper rules and beliefs – all of which are ultimately wrapped up in the core which is our metanarratives or the stories we tell ourselves.6

Yes, “stinking thinkin’” inevitably results in “sloppy agape.”7


1cf, Ephesians 2:8-9
2cf, James 2:14-26
3Philippians 2:12-13
4John Ortberg employs related imagery in a sermon on “My Part and God’s Part in Spiritual Renewal.”  Drawing on the metaphor of three different kinds of watercraft (a canoe, a raft, and a sailboat), he portrays three distinct ways individuals work out their salvation with the God who works within them: there’s the individual who acts as if his destination is entirely his doing (the canoeist), there’s the individual who acts as if his destination is entirely God’s doing (the floater on the raft), and there’s the individual-sailor who knows that slight adjustments to the wind/Spirit/breath of God is all that’s needed to get himself home.  (Surely, the kinship to Job, above, is clear.)
5Proverbs 23:7
6cf., here, given my affinity for spiritual themes in the movies, I am indebted to and enamored with David Gary Stratton’s discussion of metanarratives in his blog post, “Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s” (cf, http://garydavidstratton.com/2017/05/04/casablanca-and-the-four-levels-of-worldview-why-everyone-meets-at-ricks/)
7“Agape” (pronounced Ah-gah-pee, hence the rhyme with “sloppy”) is the Greek word for God’s perfect love for us and (more and more, we hope) through us.


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