Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

    I have been recently reading a book given to me by a friend on evangelism. In it the author points to an article by the late missiologist Paul Hiebert entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle”. The article is about how people live life at three levels.

    The bottom level involves those aspects of life directly encountered with the senses. At this level we plant and harvest crops, build homes, take out the garbage, fix broken stuff and other seemingly simple things.

    The top level deals with those things which are beyond what the mere senses can grasp, the things that are transcendant such as the meaning of life, destiny, true beauty and the infinite nature of God.

    The middle level is that between the bottom and the top where we deal with more immediate yet still profound questions to do with the past, the present and the near future. Things like accidents, tragedies, serendipitous discoveries and unexpected turns of events occupy the middle and it is here that much of life is interpreted and experienced.

    Many people experience their Christianity in the top level but not in the middle or bottom level. Heibert himself found this to be a challenge in his work in missions in India. He found that professing believers would often turn to shamans and luck charms when it came to dealing with life in "the excluded middle." I have found it a challenge at times in my own life to experience God in "the excluded middle." "Can I really trust God to provide for my children's college education?" "Will I be able to perform well in my vocation over the long haul?" "Will I have to endure this arthritic knee and locking shoulder for the rest of my life?" "Why do I feel depressed in the morning so often and how can I change?" Do you identify? I don't think I'm alone.

    Yet, the testimony of scripture is that God is present in the bottom, the top and the middle and calls us to invite him to bring the experience of salvation and the truth of the gospel into every level of life. His word is replete with this invitation both implicitly and explicitly.

Psalm 139 says,
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.”

And Mt. 28:20 - “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age!” .

And the cry of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 -
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

(note - the whole earth, not just the transcendent!)

    So much of the exhortations in scripture that flow from the context of the grace of God have all three tiers in mind. Take a look at Ephesians and watch how Paul masterfully blends the transcendent with the seemingly mundane and everything in between. The celebration of the glorious grace of God, his eternal decree in election and the revealing of his great mystery in Christ flows into the call to practically love and enjoy our church, our families, our spouse, our employees in every aspect of life. All of life is to be worship and the experience of God.

    I have found two things to be very helpful in this – remembering the gospel & prayer. In every situation and challenge I am learning to ask “What does the gospel say about this?” "Do I need to apply the forgiveness purchased by Christ's atonement?" "Is their a promise inherent in the gospel that I must cling to?" "Is their a truth about God and myself from the gospel which I must understand?" There are a number of these sort of “gospel questions” we can ask. I recommend Mike Bullmore’s article and teaching entitled, “Applying the Gospel to All of Life” to get a more complete picture of this.

    And the other thing is prayer – learning to take all things – whether issues at the bottom, middle or top of life and bringing them before our ever near God in prayer, crying out to him and depending on him, seeking his presence. As I have been able to do these two practices, with the help of the Holy Spirit and those around me, I have been able to avoid living life without God in the normally, “excluded middle.”

Hope this helps!

God Bless,

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