18 September 2009


by Phil Johnson

f you have been reading the blog very long, this shouldn't come as any surprise:

I'm not impressed with the postmodern notion of transparency as a substitute for the old-fashioned (and biblical) virtue of humility.

Dan Phillips shares my point of view. Last year he posted a three-part series on the subject.

The type of transparency I'm speaking of is that faux-honesty so often used as an excuse for voicing various kinds of complaints, doubts, accusations, fleshly desires, and other kinds of evil thoughts. This exhibitionistic "virtue" is often paired with a smug self-congratulatory sneer or a condescending dismissal of anyone who dares to suggest that propriety and spiritual maturity may sometimes require us not to give voice to every carnal thought or emotion—i.e., that sometimes discretion is better than transparency.

Here's a biblical case-study that goes against conventional postmodern "wisdom": In Psalm 73, Asaph is rehearsing the confusion he felt over the reality that wicked people sometimes prosper while righteous people suffer. He says:
I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. (Psalm 73:3-12)

A note of resentment against God? A model of the very kind of transparency I decry? Sure sounds like it, huh? He continues:

All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.

Self-pity, too. Wow! Is that not a classic example of brilliant, transparent, postmodern confessional writing? The psalmist is venting his spleen, giving voice to his doubts, teaching us that it's OK to broadcast whatever doubts and resentments we maybe harboring against God. Right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, the point Asaph is making is precisely the opposite: "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of your children" (v. 15).

In other words, Asaph confesses that if he had broadcast his doubts before resolving them, it would have been a sinful act of betrayal against God and against the children of God.

Asaph is actually testifying about how he resolved those doubts and resentments: "But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end" (vv. 16-17).

He has acquired a decidedly un-postmodern kind of confident faith. He reaches a settled certainty about the very things he was tempted to doubt. Then he goes on to explain to his readers that the state of the wicked is not as comfortable as it appears to carnal eyes. He's spreading his new-found faith; not soliciting companions who share his doubts.

So this psalm is not an apologia for the sort of "transparency" whose only aim is to vent in a way that aims to legitimize skepticism; it's a condemnation of precisely that sort of intemperance.

There's nothing vague or confusing about the point Asaph is really making. As a matter of fact, the whole psalm starts with an explicit statement of his main thesis: "Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart."


Phil's signature

PS: Some random notes in passing: Longtime Pyro reader David Kjos thinks my Tweets are boring, and another blogger lists PyroManiacs in some rarefied company. Meanwhile, we came up tenth in a category we didn't even know we belonged to—"Church blogs." And did anyone notice our hit counter went over 3 million this week? Keep your feedback coming. It motivates us to do better.


The Bible Christian said...

Hey Phil

Great insight with your post, but what really got my attention is your PS, Especially "Longtime Pyro reader David Kjos thinks my Tweets are boring, " I think it is border line narcissistic (maybe not that bad), I don't care what your eating, where you been, what color your car is. Just keep bringing the word of God to people, that's your gift, give us something from God, not your Cubs (Go Yankees). Johnny Mac is tweeting that's like saying he and Brian McLaren are best buds(does he even own a Computer) Tweeting, Face book, minute by minute, hour by hour about people lives, give me a sermon from Grace life and a plog from Pyro and I'm good. Phil it was a sermon from you that really got me thinking about the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty God. You didn't tweet that you proclaim it from the word of God.

Anonymous said...

i really appreciate this blog post as it clarifies some questions i've long harbored over this very topic. thanks for explaining what's going on in this text.

as for your tweets, i enjoy them. the day you describe the perfect marmite sandwich should be fun (not to the thirsty theologian though). keep 'em coming.

Wes Walker said...


Nash Equilibrium said...

I think tranparently confessing that we have evil thoughts and desires is a good thing, and can lead to non-Christians understanding that Christians don't think they are morally superior.
But, in confessing them, we should make clear that these are: a) our own shortcomings and not God's, and b) something to be repented of.
Not doing points a and b is the mistake that pomos make, and the mistake that Asaph didn't make. In my opinion.

Anonymous said...

"...that faux-honesty so often used as an excuse for voicing various kinds of complaints, doubts, accusations, fleshly desires, and other kinds of evil thoughts."

Does this post fall under that description?

Neil said...

is reading Pyromaniac comments.

DJP said...

Does [linked]this post[/linked] fall under that description?

Sister... you read Phil's post, all the way through, and then asked that?

Anonymous said...

Yes, sir I read the post al the way through, twice.

DJP said...


Well, Phil's answer will be the final one, but for my part I don't even see a tangential relation.

DJP said...

Phil: much conciser than this three-part series.


x said...

The way I've usually heard 'transparency' talked about isn't by the emergent crowd, but by people who want fellowship in the Church to consist of real confession of sins, so that the body can build itself up by spurring people on out of those sins.

I suppose the difference is that emergents value the doubts and evil thoughts as valid. But I think Biblical Christians value confession - so we don't end up putting on self-righteousness - and so that we can help each other out of the mire of our own sins.

Personally, I think we need more transparency about our sins, not less - and not because we validate sin - but so that we as a body can deal with it.

mike said...

Seems like you locked on the word “transparency” and didn’t really follow what Phil was talking about.
Some time back, in a land far far away… our sound control person was having an issue with the choir director, that ultimately led to a couple of the elders being brought in. at one point, the sound guy feels the need to say that it wouldn’t matter how wrong his mix might be, because the choir sounds like cats in a blender, or something close. When asked to explain how he could have ever thought that was appropriate or acceptable, he replied “Sorry, I was keeping it real; you don’t want me to lie, do you?”
As if those were the only two options. That is not transparency
Yes of course we should confess our sins, but constantly celebrating our weaknesses does more to lower the corporate expectations than to exhort to holiness.
And maybe after that we can look at adding contrition, who knows.

x said...

Oh, I see - sorry - definitely didn't know the background of that...

Solameanie said...

I think this post qualifies as a "merciless beating." In fact, I have a hunch that some pomo-Christian contemporary band will write and perform an angst-ridden song to try and rebut it. It might even come with a parental warning sticker due to the expletive-laden lyrics.

And no, I'm not exercising the gift of prophecy. Just an actuarial stab into the realm of probability and chance.

FX Turk said...

I wear a bull's eye on the back of my head to help the snipers out.

FX Turk said...

Mike --

just keppin' it real. I love that.

Phil Johnson said...

DJP: I have such a lousy short-term memory I forgot all about that series, or I would have linked to it. You even quoted Asaph. Where was I? Out of the country when you posted that, perhaps.

The funny thing is that in my first draft of this post, the opening line was "We're not impressed with the postmodern notion of transparency. . ." and then I thought, perhaps I better speak for myself. Should have gone with my first instinct.

Bible Christian:

Like I said, your feedback motivates us to do better. I agree that Twitter often feeds the narcissistic impulse. So does Facebook.

So does blogging. So does commenting on blogs.

So can preaching. Hast thou never watched Mr. Osteen?

Still, it's the self-love that makes narcissistic expressions sinful, not the medium per se.

Also, one doesn't have to preach a microsermon every Tweet in order to be using the medium in a lawful way. I mainly Tweet with my wife and kids in mind, for their benefit. If you're expecting something more profound than that, most of the time you WILL find my Twittered thoughts surprisingly pedestrian or otherwise unremarkable. (I frankly don't expect a whole lot of people to be interested in what I'm doing at any given moment.) When Darlene tells me she's getting bored with my here-and-there messages, I'll quit.

Until then, others are welcome to listen in or not. Just know that I make no warranty, implied or otherwise, about the profundity of my Tweets.

CGrim said...

Mike Yikes. Why is it that so many people think "honesty" trumps "humility?"

Though the devil is the great deceiver, he can occasionally tell the truth. But can he ever be humble?

Phil - I think your tweets are fine - the occasional links to things you think are interesting are often things *I* think are interesting, too.

Anonymous said...

p.s. Phil, I like your tweets. Keep 'em coming.

Phil Johnson said...

Everyday Mommy: "Does this post fall under that description?" ["...complaints, doubts, accusations, fleshly desires, and other kinds of evil thoughts."]

Well, I had in mind people who use "transparency" as an excuse to complain against God and voice doubts about Him. Doubts about Tim Challies don't really fall into the same category, and I'm certain Tim himself would be first to point that out.

I had lunch with Tim Challies just last week, BTW, and even in person he's much, much nicer than any of us Pyro-troglodytes. It helped me a great deal to realize that Tim is not just a Canadian blogging machine, but a real flesh-and-blood Baptist--with authentic, often non-saccharine, Baptist feelings. I can relate to him much better now.

DJP said...

I can relate to him much better now.

Now that you see that he's a, you know, real person?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, Phil. Have a great weekend and kiss that baby too much, okay?

J♥Yce Burrows said...

Perfectly timed and edifying post and refresher. PERFECTLY!

God is good; thanks so much ~

Terry Rayburn said...

Righteous transparency is to prideful self-abasement what righteous modesty is to exhibitionism. "You think YOU'RE a scumbag? Listen to what I'M really like behind this nice Christian mask!"

By the way, it's bad theology to insist that Christians are just like non-Christians except "saved".

Christians are new creations, with hearts of flesh instead of stone, who love Jesus and hate sin in their heart of hearts. We just can't take CREDIT for it. It's of the Lord.

(Those with said "bad theolody" will now rush to footnote a disclaimer something like "Yeah, but we still SIN, and we still have that yucky flesh, and we still LOOK like the world sometimes!")

I know.

James Scott Bell said...

"...till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny."

Where was this "place of inquiry" during the Captivity? Some place set apart. Now we have the full revelation. Bible teaching church and Bible study, confident that it is the inerrant Word. The latter is what pomos don't have, so there's no hope of the relief Asaph found.

Tom Chantry said...


On a very practical note - it is important to remember what you say - we have that sanctuary. The writer to the Hebrews says that we may enter into the sanctuary of God, and then he urges us not to forsake the assembly. How many times do we find light and understanding when we faithfully gather with God's people to worship - even though the sermon has nothing particular to do with our problem and the preacher could not possibly know about it? This is God at work: He manifests Himself in worship. How much unbelieving angst could be shed if God's people would faithfully gather for humble worship? But instead we all to often voice our complaints against God rather than worship Him. We need to learn what Asaph learned: some things should not be said, and God will make all things clear when He reveals Himself.

James Scott Bell said...

Yes Tom, exactly. Though, sadly, I heard a pastor saying the other day that things need to be more "creative" in worship, and when I asked for an example, said "Well, like interpretive dance, drama, video..."


pentamom said...

Seems like the difference between honest confession and the sin Asaph was trying to avoid is the difference between confessing (as though you think there's actually something WRONG with it) that you're struggling with doubt, and listing all the things you think God's done wrong. To say "I'm really struggling here and I know that's wrong but I need prayer" or whatever is different from saying "I just want to be honest with you -- God messed up this is why I feel that way so there." Had Asaph done the latter, he would have been betraying God. I don't think he would have done so had he emulated David, who sometimes wrote Psalms mid-struggle, but took the burden of the doubt onto himself, rather than placing it on God's putative failures.

greglong said...

Phil said:

I'm not impressed with the postmodern notion of transparency as a substitute for the old-fashioned (and biblical) virtue of humility.

Are you being transparent with us, Phil?

Craig and Heather said...

There is a Biblical form of "transparency", which involves humility, repentance and accountability:

James 5:16 Confess faults to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous one avails much.

The purpose is the purification of Christ's body and glorification of His name.

Then there is a shallow, self-serving, sin focused variety of "transparency" which is the equivalent of putting a glass lid on a septic tank.

There is no interest in transforming the tank into, say a drinking water cistern but now EVERYONE can see the festering mess inside.


tanz said...

"Keep your feedback coming. It motivates us to do better"

I so appreciate this blog. I am a silent but learning observer. This is my 1st post. Not only do I appreciate what I am learning from Phil, Dan and Frank but also I'm learning from all the regular posters. You are teaching me how to think biblically.

FX Turk said...

Phil --

I have a samurai sword, and I'm poking about out back in the dark because I thought I heard something out there ...

... I just realized it's flesh and blood -- a real person.

Does anyone else feel creeped out?

donsands said...

"..spiritual maturity may sometimes require us not to give voice to every carnal thought or emotion"

Amen. Good deep thoughts. Gracias mi hermano.

"A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back." Prov. 29:11

donsands said...

"Does anyone else feel creeped out?"

Not I.

The Bible Christian said...


Please forgive me if I offended you in anyway, that was not my intentions. I was actually trying to be a little funny, obviously failed miserable and for that I'm sorry. I still disagree with most people about twitter and face book, look everybody is doing it Piper, Molher this list goes on and on. I don't read anyone's, including yours. As I'm reading the posts on Pyro you can't help but see your tweeter box. It just seems like everybody wants to be somebody in today Christianity when we should be striving to be like Christ 1 Corinthians 11:1. I personally had struggled for months whether I should start up my web-site, but I just try to help edify people in the small community I live in with the word of God, mostly from preachers our Lord has graciously given a gift to proclaim His word. I think and obviously people disagree that tweeting and facebook and blogging can be just another avenue that takes us away and overtakes lives from Christ and His word. I think we just need to guard against that.

I just have one question. Does John MacArthur know he tweets ?

I don't comment much (you can see why), but appreciate all that you folks do and will keep reading posts and listening to your sermons on Gracelife

Craig and Heather said...

"until in entered the sanctuary of the Lord"

Yes, this is where we find the error of our former "honesty" and see ourselves as the brazenly self centered brats that we are.

Amazing that God allows us to even exist.

Honestly, this humbles me.



Solameanie said...

"Transparency" is beginning to rank up there with "authentic" and "missional" in my wish list of banned words.

Wouldn't angst, keening and spleen-venting be more accurate anyway?

Stefan Ewing said...


Thank you for reminding me of Psalm 73 today. I needed this, though for reasons unrelated to the topic of this post.

Johnny and Tom:

"until I went into the sanctuary of God;"

And what's more, we have a new and living way through the veil, into the Most Holy Place, by the blood of our High Priest and Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 19-20).

Stefan Ewing said...

I mean, Hebrews 10:19-20.

Rachael Starke said...

Wait a minute.

Two pastors prayerfully meditate on the same passage and, indpendent of one another, come to exactly the same conclusion??


Rachael Starke said...

Terry R.

I had to laugh when I read your comment about the bad theology of Christians saying that they're not different from non-Christians, just saved. In the comment thread on Dan's post on fools in love with the wrong things, I told Joshua the story of how I vividly remember you refuting that idea several years ago, and me sitting cross-legged in my living room reading the exchange out loud to my dear husband, who then had to try to peel me off the ceiling because I was so indignant at the idea. (We were in the process of leaving our church which was big into that whole "we all just need to hear the same thing" idea, although that wasn't the worst of it.) Anyway, as I said to Joshua, that interchange led me to do a lot of reading and praying, and ultimately the joyful discovery that I was wrong and you were right, on that point. :) My entire vocabulary has changed.

And this theme of good vs. sinful transparency is another one that's been truly helpful. Every time I catch up with my across-the-street neighbor who doesn't know Christ and we're about to trade whiny Mommy stories about how hard our days are, I remind myself "don't dishonor Jesus. Talk about how everything your feeling is sinful and how Jesus can fix it by fixing your heart." And so I do, and she nods and says something noncommital while looking at me like I am completely crazy. I'm fine with that.

Anonymous said...


One more question...do you consider Tim Challies to be a brother-in-Christ?


one busy mom said...


You said:

"Then there is a shallow, self-serving, sin focused variety of "transparency" which is the equivalent of putting a glass lid on a septic tank."

Beautifully stated and so true!

I've seen some pretty shocking things done in the name of "transparency". Including a young woman privately e-mailing married men in her church 'confessing' she had a problem lusting after married men. You can imagine how well that went over with the wives of those men!!! But even sadder, that young woman had gotten caught up in some really goofy and murky teachings - and actually thought she was obeying God's Word by sending out those e-mails. Sigh.

John said...

One thing you have no lack of is feedback.

Anyway, this is a good post. You so often hear these transparent people saying things like, "I'm sorry, but that's just the way God made me; I speak my mind." But yes, there's always the hint of superiority in their voice. It is, where I live, considered a great virtue to be a loudmouth. Perhaps that is what I'm being now, so I'll stop.

Oh yeah, and what's a "tweet?"

Phil Johnson said...

Bible Christian: "
I just have one question. Does John MacArthur know he tweets?"

Yes, of course. He doesn't follow every Tweet, but he knows the staff at GTY Tweet excerpts from his books and sermons.

He hates the entire Internet as much as you hate Twitter, but he realizes it's a medium that can be used for good as well as evil. So we try to use it for good.

He does all his writing with a pen and paper and he wishes the whole world could go back to that more civilized and genteel medium, but he accepts the fact that this will never happen.

In fact, he now uses an iPhone, and every now and then he'll thumb-type a text message on it. Hates doing it, though.

Everyday Mommy: "One more question...do you consider Tim Challies to be a brother-in-Christ?"


I count him as a dear brother in Christ.

Unknown said...

Sometime reader, first time commenter.

Isn't there a need to examine the context of Psalm 73?
Asaph was a leader of music, assigned by David to oversee music in worship (1 Chronicles 6:39). As such, he was a person of consequence. He was a leader.

Surely, he is correct in saying that as a leader, he would have betrayed many people had he voiced what proved to be sinful doubts. This is wise counsel for any leader. In fact, if a leader has doubts that rise to the level of denying foundational truths, then that person shouldn't be a leader in the church. This is a pastoral concern.

However, if we say that doubts are both inherently evil and unspeakable, are we potentially harming Christians instead of helping them? I'm not talking about the "faux-honesty so often used as an excuse for voicing various kinds of complaints, doubts, accusations, fleshly desires, and other kinds of evil thoughts", but sincere, "Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief" kind of honesty.

The Bible Christian said...


I already knew about how John MacArthur felt about the internet and a computer, so him tweeting Nah!!

Keep the Word emitting, you have encouraged and enlighten me more than you'll ever no.

Thank You

Anonymous said...

It seems like a lot of the 'mind-dump-confessional-angst'crowd seems to have a deep-seeded need for approval and pats on the back. Perhaps just a natural consequence of the 70's self-esteem movement that told them every child is a winner.

By over-sharing, the confessors receive immediate feedback - usually a combo of sympathy, admiration and approval, which seems to be as vital as water to them.

Here's a blog post from a pastor of a Willow Creek-style church who passed out evaluation forms at the end of his "sermon" (for lack of a better word). After saying how much he values evaluation and feedback, he spends the rest of the blog post defending his use of metaphor and movie clips and whines that people are just too "modern" to "get" the nuances:

In some ways, when I hear someone say “I walked away more about Shackleton than the passage”…unfortunately this is a person who is trained (potentially damaged) in a hermeneutical technique that is based on a modern science that slices and dices. Why do they have to even begin the process of categorizing, and not walk away with the whole thing…which all pressed out this very apparent central theme of endurance in the face of a rescuing God? (It would be somewhat like someone saying to Christ…”Sorry, I just feel your spiritual teaching was overshadowed by all this talk about a tree and vine.”)

In other words, 'I really want your feedback, as long as it's positive and you agree with me. Cuz Jesus was all about metaphor and stories and my generation is just figuring this stuff out after all these years in the dark ages. And I'm just shocked that all the feedback wasn't positive! Hunh.' Rather than taking the negative feedback to mean there might have been something wrong with the sermon, he takes it to mean there's something wrong with the feedback-givers...they're POTENTIALLY DAMAGED! Again, the 70's self-esteem movement. You're all winners! Give 'em all a trophy!

Anonymous said...

Favorite comment.

I just have one question. Does John MacArthur know he tweets ? asked The Bible Christian.

Now why did that get a laugh?

David said...

Aw, man ... just like high school. I have to be a smart-aleck to get noticed.

DJP said...

created, don't get too exercised over it.

That post is (wait for it) transparently a creation of Phil Johnson, parodying that movement by taking on the personna of this guy.

However, this time Phil is just too heavy-handed to be credible. I mean:

"...visual elements with arctic props, cold lighting, and icy slideware, and lowering the temperature of the room"

"...set scripture free to not only be exposed or exegeted via literal and specific words…but through image, story, and metaphor"

"...in essence I sought not to have a literal translation with simply words, but a conceptual translation with image, story, and metaphor"

"It was done in a more holistic and interwoven manner to move beyond comprehension and create heart-felt apprehension within the learner."

"...I did attempt to be less literal in the explanation of the text, but much more thorough in my specific placement of image, story, and the use of metaphor to subconsciously or indirectly explain the text (a theological scientist would be very scared of this statement, and a theological artist would applaud it.)"

I could go on, but Phil, Phil — who writes like this? Really?

Nice try, though.


Solameanie said...

GTY Tweet.

LOL! A new division of Grace to You that I knew nothing about.

I love it, but I'm still not going on Twitter. I succumbed to the malevolent pull of Blogger and Facebook, but I'm holding firm on Twitter.

BTW, my word verification tonight was "gosiesp." I take that as a personal attack from my computer.

Susan said...

Thank you, Phil, for this post as an accompanying post to Dan's previous series on the same subject. I guess we really should learn when to let our words be few before the Lord.

As for the tweets, I enjoy them (even though I don't read all of them). If it weren't for your tweets, I would never seen your adorable grandson sporting that serious expression which makes him (IMHO) look rather like Sir Winston Churchill!

danny2 said...

i don't find your tweets boring.

i just find you boring.