Writings by Cole Huffman

Putting the Tic in Diagnostic

Diagnostic questions, if they do their job, stir reflection and test resolve. Years ago I came across one in J. P. Moreland’s Kingdom Triangle that’s worth returning to somewhere on the back nine of each calendar year. As a professor of philosophy (Talbot School of Theology) Moreland knows how to adroitly pose questions. But this one really puts the “tic” in diagnostic for me: How much of my life and ministry last year required the existence of the Christian God to explain it?

Feel your abdomen tensing? Toes scrunching up in your shoes? Mine too. Those are the tics of conviction.

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning…. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out where we can never return” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters).

Am I living a life of substance with God and His people? Do “the motions” I go through daily—the routines of everydayness—require faith’s finer motor skills? Am I taking any godly risks, and affiliating with those who do? Does hopeful resilience mark me? Moreland’s question pingbacks Psalm 124: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side….” How much of my life and ministry last year required the existence of the Christian God to explain it?

Do I talk about God transforming persons “as a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek”? The phrase is from a poem by C. S. Lewis called “As the Ruin Falls,” and worth quoting in full:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.


Peace, reassurance, pleasure are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.


Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.


For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

Do I actually believe—demonstrably—that “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20)? I seem to prattle on nicely most of the time, “heaping up empty phrases” (Matt. 6:7) like my Pharisee forebears who never really needed God. I say “I want to know Christ” but not as quick to finish Paul’s Philippians statement: “and the power of his resurrection…shar[ing] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:10).

Dillard says we need to be drawn out such that we can never return to our blitheness. Why am I so drawn to safety and security, health and comfort and popularity? Drawn and quartered! Would I really bless Him if the ruin fell?

So Moreland’s question—How much of my life and ministry last year required the existence of the Christian God to explain it?—is huge, so much so I ask it only once a year. But also because the potency of diagnostic questions is moderation. Too much introspection = nervous tics. Most of us are harder on ourselves than anyone else will be, and condemning ourselves eclipses the existence of the Christian God who is rich in mercy. There will always be so much more to Jesus’ fullness and power than I’ll see or show.

And must the answer to Moreland’s question be spectacular—me able to point to the months of 2013 behind me as if water jars from the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), each one now brimming with the tannic tension of tap-water-turned-effervescent-wine? As I tell couples I marry, most of life for most of us is lived in the mundane (mundane does not mean mediocre). I don’t know that I can point to anything this last year that requires the existence of the Christian God to explain it, necessarily. I wasn’t miraculously cured, rescued, or commissioned. And yet I know this: I’m observant and thank God over and again hundreds of times for “small” graces detected every day, evidences to me of His existence, nearness and care.

I read Elijah’s diagnostically instructive story again recently. His story certainly requires the existence of the Christian God to explain it. But then there’s that time when the Lord spoke to him in “the sound of a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12) after shaking the mountain with successive blasts of wind, earthquake, and fire. God wasn’t “in” those spectacular elements though. He was in the whisper, probing, stirring Elijah’s reflection and testing his resolve with a simple question: “What are you doing here?”
Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:20 AM
Share |