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Christian Men and Their Video Games
September 26, 2016

If you’re a gamer, or a Christian gamer at least, you’ve rolled your eyes through a hundred articles by now, each one telling you why your gaming is sad, wasteful, pathetic. You’re immature, you’re addicted to pleasure, you’re a dopamine junkie. You might even have found yourself compared to a porn addict since in many minds porn and PlayStations go hand in hand. That’s not what the articles actually say, of course, but it can sure feel like it. Gamers are an easy target and a lot of people line up to take their swings.

It’s not that gaming isn’t without its downsides, of course. It’s not like gamers haven’t earned at least some of that reputation. Gaming exists in this world, after all, and is enjoyed by imperfect people. But it’s not beyond redemption, not beyond what we can enjoy. Today I want to offer a few simple points about gaming and gamers.

Before I do that, a confession: I love video games. At least, I love some video games. I loved them as a kid, I loved them as a teen, and I love them today. That’s not to say I play them much. I rarely have those extended gaps when there isn’t a long list of higher priorities. But when I do find those times—usually in that slow week between Christmas and New Years or one of those lazy Monday afternoons of a long weekend—I often take advantage. I have fun. I might join my son in some strategic world-conquering. I might sit with Aileen as we work through an adventure or mystery together. Or I might just find something to play on my own. I do it without shame and without regret.

With that confession made, let me speak to other enthusiasts about the highs and lows of gaming.

Enjoy the entertainment. Let’s be honest: There is little intrinsic value in gaming. For most of us it is merely entertainment. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Entertainment is a perfectly legitimate way to expend time, money, and energy—within reason, of course—, and gaming is a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment. This is true when it takes its proper place in life, well behind the more important concerns of family, work, neighboring, church. Well-earned entertainment is a gift we are free to enjoy and I see no substantial difference between playing a game and watching a movie or between playing a game and reading a novel. It’s not substantially different from fishing, for that, or crocheting, or playing a bit of golf. Like all of these, it’s restful, it’s entertaining, it’s neither right nor wrong on the face of it. So enjoy the entertainment that games provide.

Skip the bad ones. We cannot deny that some games are unsuitable to anyone, much less a Christian. Today more than ever there is an abundance of games that revel in gore and bloodletting, that feature sexual violence, that are full of porn or profanity. Those of us who remember the scandal of Leisure Suit Larry or Phantasmagoria a generation ago will know that such games are practically quaint by today’s standards. We need to be okay with skipping the bad ones and we ought to do so out of conviction and conscience. Thankfully, we’ve got access to a thorough rating system and a massive collection of review sites that can steer us away from the ugly ones. Look past the bad ones and we will find many that are harmless, fun, beautiful, and at times even brilliant.

Play in freedom. Many games engage the reward system within the human brain—the same system that can lead to addiction. Even when games don’t lead to full-blown addiction, they can lead to compulsive use, late nights, or neglecting more important responsibilities. This quality of games is both their strength and weakness. Without it they would be boring. The “just one more turn” or “just one more mission” effect is part of the draw and the thrill of playing a great game. But we need to be careful that we assuage the potential of addiction or out-of-control gaming with integrity, priorities, and self-control—the stuff of Christian character. Play your games in freedom, the freedom of moderation that comes through character, maturity, and a clean conscience.

Play in community. Part of the joy of gaming has always been gaming with others and today more than ever games are created with multiplayer capabilities in mind. Sometimes this involves playing together on the same device and other times it involves playing on separate devices connected through the Internet. Either way, playing in community can be a great shared activity, especially between family members. My son and I love to challenge one another or take on the world together. We enjoy this as a father-son experience. As I said earlier, Aileen and I will sometimes settle onto the couch together for an adventure or mystery game, or we’ll join the girls for some Lego The Hobbit. We’ve even been known to get the whole family playing along with The Beatles in Rock Band. These are good times and good memories.

Embrace the challenge. I know it can seem silly to build an imaginary army to invade an imaginary nation, or to serve as fictional mayor of a town that exists only on a screen. And sure, there’s something a bit silly about it all. But each of these scenarios represents a challenge, and challenge is at the very heart of gaming. Whether the game is about solving puzzles, conquering worlds, or completing an adventure, great games face us with difficult situations and challenge us to overcome them. That’s fun! When our lives are mundane, these challenges can trigger a sense of adventure and accomplishment. When our lives are complex, they can provide a welcome respite. The challenge is the point. The challenge is the joy.

So I say go ahead and play your games. Enjoy your games. Play them for the fun of exploring, conquering, experiencing, winning. Just play them like a Christian and you’ll be fine.

Fall From Grace
September 25, 2016

You’ve heard of people who have experienced a fall from grace. The celebrity said something foolish, the media ran with it, and she never quite recovered. “You like me. You really like me.” The athlete was found to have used substances that enhanced his performance, earning him stolen medals, records, and victories. He lied about it, the truth came out, he became a punchline. “I have been on my deathbed, and I’m not stupid. I can emphatically say I am not on drugs.” We’ve all seen these dramatic plunges, these falls from grace.

The Expression

To experience a fall from grace is to undergo a great loss of prestige, a loss of reputation. It is to become an object of scorn and derision. A recent article in The Fiscal Times describes “Chris Christie’s Long, Slow Fall From Grace.” This decline “from brash tell-it-like-it-is frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination to designated liar for the man who ultimately deprived him of that honor, may be nearing its end.” And the expression is not only used of people. A piece in Entrepreneur tells “What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Theranos’s Fall From Grace” after “a Wall Street Journal exposé claimed Theranos exaggerated its services.” It’s a common phrase, a poignant one, always an unhappy one.

The Origin

Like so many of our English idioms, “fall from grace” originates in the Bible and is a direct quote from the King James Version. In his letter to the Galatian church, the Apostle Paul warns “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” Or, in a more modern translation, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”

Of course that fall is a consequence of the very first fall from grace, the one where Adam and Eve chose to sin against God, plunging themselves and all of humanity into a state of sin, of disorder, of chaos. The whole of the Christian faith is concerned with this fall from grace and how those who have fallen can be restored. Now Paul is warning this church against legalism, against thinking they can be restored to favor with God on the basis of their adherence to the law. He knows better. He knows that the law brings only captivity. “For freedom Christ has set us free;” he says. “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (1). If they reject righteousness by a gift of grace to pursue righteousness by works of the law, they will fall—fall from any hope of experiencing God’s grace.

The Application

Deep within the sinful human heart is the knowledge that we have fallen from grace, and with it the conviction that if the fault is ours, so too is the remedy. We naturally believe we can and must be made right with God by our often efforts. Grace is too good, too foreign, too unbelievable for our minds and hearts to receive. And yet the Christian gospel calls us to abandon our own efforts and instead to embrace the work of Christ. The restoration can’t originate from within so it must originate from without. John Stott explains it well: “You cannot add circumcision [as the ultimate sign of law-keeping] (or anything else, for that matter) to Christ as necessary to salvation, because Christ is sufficient for salvation in Himself. If you add anything to Christ, you lose Christ. Salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

We have all fallen from grace. Paul says elsewhere “For the wages of sin is death.” Our fall has taken us from grace to alienation, death to life. Thankfully, wondrously, he goes on: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Grace is there for those who will surrender their own efforts at righteousness and instead grab hold of the righteousness of Christ. No wonder, then, that so many Christian songs celebrate the beauty of grace, for grace is all we have. Why not listen to a couple of them.

“Grace Alone” by The Modern Post (or Dustin Kensrue, if you prefer) declares “By your blood I have redemption and salvation / Lord, you died that I might reap what you have sown / And you rose that I might be a new creation / I am born again by grace and grace alone.” Here’s their acoustic version.

The old hymn “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” ends with a question: “Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, / Freely bestowed on all who believe! / You that are longing to see His face, / Will you this moment His grace receive?” Here is Matthew Smith’s Nashville-inspired rendering:

Here are some other popular English idioms and their biblical origins: A Drop in a BucketGive Up the GhostBy the Skin of My Teeth!

 

Is Seminary Really Necessary
September 24, 2016

The church has been well-served by pastors who ministered without formal seminary training. John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones are standout examples of men who had impactful and long-lasting ministries even though they never attended seminary. No wonder, then, that the question often arises: Is seminary really necessary? Might it be better to get straight into ministry instead of expending so much time and effort in preparing for ministry?

Jason Allen provides an answer in his book Discerning Your Call to Ministry, but he doesn’t do so without admitting his bias. He is, after all, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution that exists to train men for ministry. But he provides a helpful answer nonetheless: Seminary is not necessary, but it is advisable. Let’s track with him and see how he expands on this answer.

In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Allen says “Paul’s exhortation to Timothy rings through the ages, challenging every generation of gospel ministers to be maximally prepared for ministerial service.” The church has little use for ministerial amateurs. Amateurs are not necessarily those who lack academic degrees or formal training, but men who lack “the knowledge base, skill set, and experience for a particular task—in this case, Christian ministry.” A man with a fistful of degrees can be a rank amateur while a man without a single credential can be a faithful minister of the gospel. Yet in almost every case a man will benefit tremendously from receiving a formal theological education. Allen draws out four reasons why this remains true, and may even be especially true, in today’s climate.

The complexity of our times. While every generation of Christians faces challenges unique to their time, “our generation comes with unique baggage. It is not that the twenty-first century is more fallen or more secular than previous ones, but it may be more complex.” There are new questions of ethics and morality, there are “torturously complex ramifications of sin,” and a cultural elite doggedly committed to undermining Christians and their worldview. In the face of such challenges, “the lost need more than shallow answers from ill-equipped ministers. They need minsters prepared to bring the full complement of Christian truth to bear in a winsome, thoughtful, and compelling way.” This full complement of Christian truth is the core curriculum of any worthwhile seminary.

The centrality of teaching the Scriptures. The church has no greater need than the skillful teaching of the Bible and, for that reason, the minister has no greater responsibility than teaching God’s Word. This task requires “a renewed and informed mind. There is simply no place in ministry for sloppy exegesis, shoddy interpretation, or shallow sermons. One can be a faithful minister without a seminary degree, but one cannot be a faithful minister without knowing the Bible well.” Is seminary the only means of learning how to “rightly handle the Word?” No, but it is certainly an effective and time-tested one.

The consequences of ministry. “There is an alarming inverse correlation between the seriousness of the ministerial task and the casualness with which it is often approached.” We insist on trained professionals when caring for our children, our bodies, our dogs, and even our cars. Yet we content ourselves with very low levels of preparation when it comes to the care of our souls. No minister should be content to remain amateurish in his ministry. “Satan is serious about his calling; ministers must be serious about theirs. The ministry is too consequential to be taken casually.” Does this necessitate seminary? No, of course not. Does it make it advisable? Perhaps so.

The priority of the Great Commission. All ministers are to proclaim the gospel in furtherance of the Great Commission, and this requires “a great burden for the lost, a passion for the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, and an equipped mind to reason, teach, and persuasively present the gospel.” Though we often think of evangelism as first requiring zeal, it also requires knowledge. This is the very knowledge gained through a seminary education—knowledge that can set that zeal on fire.

Our times are complex, the church is in desperate need of men who can skillfully teach the Word, the ministry is too consequential to admit amateurs, and carrying out the Great Commission requires men who have zeal supported by deep knowledge. Is seminary necessary for a man called to the ministry? No, says Allen, but it is advisable. I cannot disagree, and if I had to live my life over again, I would certainly pursue such an education. I often feel and lament its lack.

Are You Going to Hurt Me
September 23, 2016

Autumn has descended at last. The heat of summer has slowly, stubbornly given way to the cool of autumn. The long summer days have surrendered to evenings that come too early, nights that linger lazily before yielding to dawn. Most days I find myself outside long before the sun has shown its face, running through darkened streets—my morning ritual. My mind works better when my body has been pushed.

Three vignettes, three glimpses through my early-morning eyes.

As dawn breaks I run across a lonely parking lot, cutting a long corner. As I pass a building, a depot of some kind, I spot a young woman walking. She must be going to the neighborhood I’ve come from. Our paths will cross. She’s eighteen, maybe nineteen. As I come closer her eyes search mine and ask, “Are you going to hurt me? Am I safe?” “Hurt you?” I hear my mind say. “I’m called to love, to love you more than I love myself. How could I ever hurt you?” I’m grieved that the world is this way, that the world has become this way. I smile what I hope is an assuring smile and nod as I pass by.

Pitch darkness lit only by sporadic street lights and occasional headlights. I run one of my new routes, down a brutal hill and back up, down and up again until I’m too tired to go on. A woman, in her fifties perhaps, is on the sidewalk ahead of me. I approach her, the hill’s steep grade propelling me almost to a sprint. She hears or senses me coming, she clutches something in her hand, her body tenses, flinches a little. I think, “I won’t harm you. I would never harm you. I live by an ethic that says that I need to be willing to die for you even though I don’t know you.” Between breaths I say, “Good morning!” as cheerfully as I can. I continue down the hill and by the time I loop back she is gone.

I am far down a lonely walking path, a brilliant running path, forest on both sides. A teen girl approaches on her bike. She’s all alone, far from anyone but me. She sees me. She digs into her pedals, urging her bike to go just a little bit faster. I see what looks like uncertainty in her eyes. Or is it fear? I think it’s fear. “Are you going to hurt me?” they ask. “I would never hurt you. I’d die before I’d hurt you.” I step far aside to let her by, I smile, I say hello. I find myself hoping, praying, she gets safely to wherever she is going.

I hate the fear I see, I hate the questions their eyes ask me, but I don’t begrudge them. I don’t—can’t—know their wariness, their fear. I get to run confidently in the darkness, without backward glances, without ears pricked. But from all I hear, all I know, all I’ve read, their fear is well-earned and their questions legitimate. I have a privilege they do not, a privilege I take for granted.

I’m haunted by words from Karen Swallow Prior. A tweet: “Running on a deserted road today I came upon unfamiliar vehicle pulled over, trunk open, man standing next to it, waving to me. Called 911.” An article: “I was running uphill on a two-mile stretch of a private, uninhabited dirt road when I saw an older model car with an out-of-state plate parked up ahead. A man was leaning against the car smoking a cigarette. Quickly, I pulled my phone from the pack that holds all my necessaries and called my mother, whom I knew to be home. I stayed on the phone with her as I ran a wide berth around the man and his car.” I could stop to offer help. I could run by without making a phone call. Without fear. But she can’t. They can’t. I hate it. I hate that it has to be this way.

But it does have to be this way because ever since our first parents were ushered out of that garden, men have proven their willingness to violate trust, to misuse strength, to blaspheme God’s good order. Not all men, of course. But some men. Enough men. Strength that was given to protect has been used to destroy, what was meant to bless has been used to harm. It has left this trail of fear, this trail of hurt, this trail of devastation.

Brothers, look and you will see. And when you see you are on your way to acknowledging and perhaps even gaining a glimmer of understanding—the fear is there, the fear is real.

Set An Example
September 22, 2016

I was always lousy at painting. In my high school art classes the teacher would give an assignment that involved studying a car or a human form or a bowl of fruit. Our task was to observe and then paint. I would do what she said. I would look at it, I would study it, I would observe its form, its curves, its angles, its colors, its shadows. But when I put brush to paper it would never look like it was supposed to. It didn’t look realistic, it didn’t look impressionistic or abstract, it just looked like a mess. It’s for good reason that I skipped fine arts in college so I could pursue liberal arts—English, history, humanities. That was where I was meant to be.

Yet there is still an area where I know I have the calling of the artist. I may not have the eye, the hand, the skill for painting, but I believe God has given me everything I need to succeed at this other form of art. Francis Schaeffer describes it like this: “No work of art is more important than the Christian’s own life, and every Christian is cared upon to be an artist in this sense. … The Christian’s life is to be a thing of truth and also a thing of beauty in the midst of a lost and despairing world.” That’s a work of art I want to create. That’s a work of art God calls and equips each one of us to create. Even you.

Today I want to begin a short series that I’m writing with younger Christians in mind. If you are sixteen or eighteen or in your twenties, if you are in high school or college or just moving into marriage and career, I want to speak to you. I want to speak with you. Maybe you found this article on your own or maybe it was forwarded by a parent or grandparent, an aunt or an uncle. Either way, I hope you will read it and the ones that follow. I hope you will hear me out. Best of all, I hope you’ll read the Scripture passages and pray about them, asking God to help you apply them to your life. If you’ve got questions, you can send me an email and I’ll do my best to reply. (Just be sure to mention you’re writing about the “Set An Example” series.)

Through these articles I want to focus on one key verse: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). In these words we encounter art, we encounter the ideas of modeling and imitation, of studying a form and attempting to recreate it. But this art does not exist on paper or on canvas. This art exists in a life. Your life is the canvas.

Before I close out this introduction, I want to back up just a few verses. In verse 7 of the same chapter Paul uses a different metaphor, walking down the hall from the art room to the weight room. “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b–8). Physical training is good, whether you’re training for strength, speed, agility, or distance. Just this morning, long before the sun rose, I was training, I was trying to beat my personal best in the 5k run. But this kind of physical training needs to take a back seat to spiritual training—training in godliness. Shaping your character is so much more important than shaping your body. The kind of formation that concerns God most is not physical but spiritual.

There are many good ways to invest your time at this stage of life, but none is better than the pursuit of godliness. The Bible calls you to be an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. We will see that these five terms speak to your inner and outer self, to what you think and what you say, to what is hidden in your heart and what is broadcast in your life. We will see that God means for your life to be a canvas, the setting for a beautiful work of art. And he also expects this work of art to be seen, admired, and imitated.

I hope you’ll join me for the rest of this series as we learn how you can train yourself to be an example to others, even to people far older than you. We’ll pick it up again next week.

The Beginners Guide to Conflict Resolution
September 21, 2016

One matter of continual concern to me is interpersonal conflict within the church. It’s not the existence or even the quantity of conflict, but the inability or unwillingness to deal with it when it arises, and this despite the Bible’s clear teaching that Christians are to resolve conflict and how Christians are to resolve conflict. It’s simple: As believers we are not permitted by God to have open, unaddressed quarrels with other believers. We are to work to bring any and every interpersonal conflict to appropriate resolution.

Yet our churches have too many people who are willing to grumble and complain about one another, who allow disputes to go unresolved, who allow petty quarrels to fester and to threaten to grow into full-out battles. Today I offer this brief piece on how to identify conflict within local church relationships and how to bring them to healthy resolution. It involves just two questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?

What Kind of Conflict Are We In?

Before you can resolve any conflict, you need to understand its nature. Broadly speaking, you will encounter three different kinds of interpersonal conflict in your local church relationships. I’ve been helped here by Lou Priolo who in turn draws from Wayne Mack.

  • Conflicts of differentness arise between people who disagree on matters of preference, especially when it comes to ministry. Here we think of Paul and Barnabas and their conflict over whether to bring John Mark on their missionary journey (see Acts 15:39). Both wanted to do what was best for the sake of ministry but right there a sharp disagreement arose. They saw the situation differently and were unable to bring it to healthy resolution.
  • Conflicts of righteousness arise when people have different understandings of how Christians are to interpret God’s guidance in matters of conscience. In the first century, Paul addressed Christians eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14). Contemporary examples might include Christians using birth control, abstaining from alcohol, or enrolling their children in public schools.
  • Conflicts of sinfulness arise when one person commits sin against another. Biblical examples abound and, undoubtedly, each of us can think of many examples from our own lives, families, and churches.

Most, if not all, conflicts will fit into one of these three categories. The way to resolve a conflict depends on its nature and this is why we must give thought and prayer to discerning what kind of conflict it is. Once we have made that determination, we are ready to work toward resolution. We are ready to ask, What do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?

Resolving Conflicts of Differentness

While we may resist differentness in our churches, it can actually be a sign of God’s blessing. After all, God means to call us into countercultural communities that include representatives of all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, races, and socio-economic groups. The very differences that give opportunity for believers to grow in love, unity, and Christlikeness also represent an opportunity for Satan to incite conflict.

Generally, such conflicts are not resolved through a formal process of confrontation, but through growth in Christian character and deliberate expression of that character. If you find yourself in a conflict of differentness, learn to listen, learn to appreciate rather than fear or resent the differences in other believers. Find ways to express the Christian virtues of kindness, love, and patience. Guard yourself against making rash and unfair judgments about another person’s motives or maturity. Do what you can to care more for the other person than for defending your own views. And if you realize that you have sinned against another person along the way, humbly seek their forgiveness (See “Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness” below).

Resolving Conflicts of Righteousness

God calls his people to himself but does not make us clones. He does not make us utterly uniform in all we believe when it comes to understanding and applying his Word. This is especially true when it comes to matters of conscience such as the number of children we have, whether we have liberty to enjoy alcohol, or whether we must set aside Sunday as the sabbath. We cannot be without convictions in these areas, but we soon realize that our convictions may differ from those of other people in our local church.

Once more, conflicts of this nature are not resolved by a formal process of confrontation. They, too, are addressed through Christian character. In Romans 14, Paul uses the language of “weak” and “strong” and warns of the unique temptations that will threaten to divide Christians. The temptation of the strong will be to despise the weak while the temptation of the weak will be to condemn the strong. The strong may see the weak as ensnared by legalism and immaturity and this will lead to hatred and mockery. The weak will see the strong as licentious and will condemn them for lawless behavior. Both will distance themselves from the other. Paul’s solution is two-fold: Welcome one another and refuse to pass judgment.

When you find yourself in a conflict of righteousness, understand that healthy resolution involves self-confrontation, not confrontation of the other person. (Lou Priolo says, “If anything, some form of self-confrontation may be in order to bring about repentance for any selfish thoughts, motives, and attitudes (if not words and actions) that have been brought to light by the differentness conflict.”) Deliberately seek out the people who differ from you, get to know them, and learn to express love to them. Do your best to understand how they have arrived at their convictions. Be aware of your temptation to divide from people who differ from you (and group together with people who agree with you) and utterly refuse to judge others as godly or ungodly, mature or immature, worthy or unworthy, on the basis of similarity or difference.

Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness

And then there are the conflicts of sinfulness in which one Christian has sinned against the other. In many cases, the best course of action is to overlook the offense in love (1 Peter 4:8, Proverbs 10:12). This is not pretending that it never happened, but identifying it as a minor matter that does not need to confronted.

The second option is to confront the sinner, and this is advisable or even necessary if the sin is too hurtful, habitual, or significant to overlook. The purpose of such confrontation is to bring reconciliation and it involves a process that begins informally but may end with the gravest formality. Jesus lays it out in Matthew 18.

Step 1. Speak to the person who sinned against you. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (15). Approach that person in a spirit of gentleness and humility, explain how he sinned, and allow him to express repentance. Be sure to ask clarifying questions instead of relying on bold accusations. Be willing to believe that perhaps he did not sin at all and that you simply misunderstood the situation. In most cases, forgiveness is sought and extended and the issue goes no further.

Let me add two pieces of counsel here. For church leaders: Some of the most common phrases pastors should utter is, “Have you spoken to him about this?” or “Have you confronted her for what she said?” Leaders can be too quick to short-circuit this Christian-to-Christian process. For church members: There is a fine balance between confronting too often and too rarely. Immaturity or fear of man may keep us from confronting sinners and pursuing reconciliation. Many relationships remain broken simply because no one had the courage to confront. On the other hand, immaturity and pride can compel us to address even the smallest issues. There is a balance that can be attained by seeking counsel from wiser, more seasoned believers. But all the while, know that it is your responsibility to maintain discretion and, initially at least, to protect the reputation of the other person. The best outcome is when the matter is known only to you and the other person.

Step 2. If the person does not express remorse or ask forgiveness after your confrontation, you are bound to follow the second step: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (16). Appeal to one or two mature believers in the church, explain the situation, and let them affirm that you have taken the right approach to this point. Be willing to hear that the other person did not sin or that you misunderstood the situation. But if they affirm your actions, take them with you as you approach the person a second time. As you confront that person, make it clear that you are following the steps laid out in Matthew 18. Once again, the hope and expectation is that the person will seek forgiveness and the matter will be closed. If the person remains unrepentant even now, then it becomes a matter for the church membership and leadership. You may still be involved, but the main responsibility passes out of your hands.

Conclusion

Conflict between believers is a sad, inevitable reality. If even Paul (the great Apostle) and Barnabas (the son of encouragement) had a sharp disagreement, what is the likelihood that we will live out our Christian lives unscathed? Yet conflict is an opportunity to grow in grace, in character, in love, in humility. It all begins with two simple questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve that kind of conflict?

Note: Lou Priolo’s Resolving Conflict is an excellent book that I’ve drawn from substantially (as well as from his previous writings that formed the basis of this work).

Sex Under Law, Sex Under Grace
September 19, 2016

As people of The Book we know that God did not only create sex, but he also created stipulations to go with it, for there must be boundaries on something so significant, so powerful. The clearest stipulation is that sex is for marriage—only for marriage. There are many reasons for this, and at least one of them reflects the loving, caring heart of God: Marriage allows us to enjoy sex under grace instead of under law. This is a crucial lesson Christopher Ash draws out in his book Married for God.

You know the difference between law and grace, I’m sure. Law is a system in which blessings and benefits are bestowed according to performance so that those who perform well enjoy benefits while those who perform poorly have benefits revoked or removed. Grace is a system in which blessings and benefits are contingent on covenant. Under grace, love and commitment compel patience, kindness, and endurance regardless of performance. A marriage relationship is a relationship of grace, not law, and such grace is crucial for the flourishing of sexual intimacy.

As a pastor—one who has performed weddings and counseled many couples—I know how many struggle mightily in the early days and months of marriage. So many couples quickly learn that sexual intimacy isn’t immediately as simple, pleasurable, successful, or fulfilling as they had expected, as they had wished, as they had seen modeled in a hundred Hollywood movies. For some this is the case for a short time and for some it is a lifelong struggle. Ash makes the crucial point that it is God’s good grace that gives us the secure context of marriage to persevere through such vulnerability, fragility, and even failure.

This is another way in which the marriage institution is a good gift of grace. For sex within marriage is sex under grace, with nothing to prove. A married couple may ‘do well’ or ‘do badly’ at sex, and cheerfully laugh about it knowing that their relationship is not threatened when they do badly. And even if the problems are too severe for them cheerfully to laugh, they can work patiently at them, knowing that the marriage does not depend on success in this area, but rather on the solemn public promises already made. For them, sex is “under grace,” within the security of promises made.

It is God’s wisdom and kindness that provide marriage as a secure context to figure out something that often presents such difficulties. As married people, and especially people who believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment rather than a mere covenant of convenience, we have the joy of working patiently at sex, knowing that our performance never threatens to change the nature of our relationship. Great sexual performance does nothing to build or strengthen the foundation of marriage and poor sexual performance does nothing to undermine it. This is such sweet comfort for those just getting started and equal comfort for those suddenly discovering unexpected troubles. Marriage is equally secure when sex is lacking as when it is plentiful.

But this is not the case for sex outside of marriage, for “sex outside marriage is always sex ‘under law’ (as it were): always seeking to prove, always striving to do well enough to keep the other one in the relationship, always anxious lest at any time the other may decide there is not enough in it for him or her, always under trial.” When sex is removed from marriage, it reverts to law, where blessings and benefits are bestowed based on performance. We often hear of people cohabiting to determine their level of sexual compatibility. “How else will we know if we can have a successful marriage?” This is sex under law! This is sex that must prove itself, that must provide sufficient quantity and quality to keep the other person interested and committed. This is sex diminished, hampered, crippled, blasphemed. Adultery, too, is sex under law, with the relationship depending on its frequency and titillation. Fornication is sex under law, with the relationship existing only as long as the sex is plentiful and exciting. Any sex outside of God’s good stipulations is sex under the terrible burden of law.

But marriage is sex under grace, sex with nothing to prove, sex that is free to flourish without fear of failure. “A couple may sleep together and not be married. But if they make their public vows, then they are married, whether or not they then succeed in consummating the marriage. A marriage where the couple fail to have sexual intercourse (for physical or psychological reasons) is still a marriage, albeit a sad and frustrating one. This is important, so that the vulnerabilities and fragility of learning sexual intimacy may take place within the secure context of knowing the promises have been firmly made. At no point in marriage do husband or wife need to prove anything by successful sex.”

This is freedom, this is joy: That neither a husband nor a wife have to prove anything to one another by successful sex. For they live and make love within a sweet covenant of grace.

September 18, 2016

It’s time for a new batch of letters to the editor. These week’s letters address three topics and come from all over the world. As you will see, the majority of them address that tricky matter of whether or not it is okay for Christians to decide deliberately not to have children. But first, there’s a letter from a friend.

Letters on Simple Ways to Spark a Lukewarm Devotional Life

David Powlison kindly sent along a lengthy but helpful letter on sparking a lukewarm devotional life and I felt it was worth sharing in its entirety.

Here’s another item to add to the list, something I’ve found extremely significant in my life. Lukewarmness is not only about the Bible seeming dull and distant. It is equally about our souls becoming dull and distant from how we are doing and what we are facing.

Scripture’s relevance arises because it is exactly keyed our daily, real life struggles. Feel the sting of your sins; feel the weight of the life pressures you are facing; feel concern for the struggles (sins and afflictions) of those you love—and you will know where you need immediate help from the Lord. Whenever we become vividly aware of where we actually need outside help today, Scripture comes alive. Promises speak exactly the hope you need. Commands give exactly the guidance that will set you free. God’s perspective is exactly the perspective that will reframe whatever you are facing. And stories demonstrate how other saints have struggled in very similar ways—different in every detail, but similar in pattern. We do not live by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God. That’s true in detail, not just as a noble sentiment to profess.  

So, for example, Philippians 4:6 speaks a life-rearranging word: “Don’t be anxious about anything.” That’s not just a vague good intention and a call to calm down. It invites you in. Begin your devotional time by stopping to ponder these questions: “What are all the things I’m anxious about? What’s stressing me? Where am I brooding on yesterday or apprehensive about tomorrow?” The entire context in Philippians 4 will explode with significance, with relevant promises, with guidance, with invitations to hard thinking about the intersection of God’s truth with your life, with awareness that you must pray real prayers to the real God whom you really need.

Or consider how the Psalms are written to draw us in and express our life experience. Psalm 25, for example, grapples with feeling the assaults of a godless world, with sensing ones personal need for the Lord’s mercy and instruction, with honest distress at life’s pressures and afflictions, with awareness that brothers and sisters face these same problems and need similar help. It is guaranteed that some or all these realities are relevant today. Unlike the Bible’s stories, a psalm speaks in experiential general categories, inviting us to fill in our details. And psalms do the same thing with the promises of God. We are given summary categories: steadfast love, faithfulness, mercy, blessing, watchful care, refuge, and the like. These speak to us in their own right; they can also be filled in with New Testament details. 

Or consider how the Proverbs are written to provide immediate flashes of insight into what you are pursuing in life, what voices you listen to, how you talk with other people, how you relate to sex, money, food, drink, rest, work. They are relevant. How can we bring our day into contact with a beam of light? One could do worse than simply read in Proverbs until something strikes home, and then take that one striking bit of wisdom out into the day.

It is impossible for our devotional life to stay same-old same-old when we awaken to the intersection of two things: 1) what is really happening in my life?, and 2) how does who God is touch what is really happening? The blessing on the “poor in spirit” comes first for a reason. When we know our need for outside help, for gifts that only the Lord can give, then the kingdom of God is at hand in our day today.
—David Powlison

Letters on The High Calling of Bringing Order From Chaos

I’d just like to say thanks for this article. It’s a great reminder amongst the drudgery of daily chores that each action has purpose and dignity. It is too easy to believe the lies that much of daily life is repetitive and purposeless. Yet it is all ordained by God and given to us for our good. Thanks. I’ll keep this in mind when I pick up after the kids… again.
—Jane S, Brisbane, Australia

Comments on Is It Okay Deliberately Not to Have Children?

Your article was excellent. For those of us who cannot have children, there is another compelling problem – must we pursue having children by other means, and how far do we take this? In an era of increasing infertility, IVF, surrogacy and whatever else, those strongly (and rightly) desiring a child can be tempted to pursue this desire to great lengths and at any cost. I realise this is a whole different topic to your article, but one also worthy of greater exploration.
—Elizabeth C, Canberra, Australia

***

I really appreciate everything you continue to do for the church, Tim. I just had one caveat to this particular article. It may help explain an example of what constitutes an “exception”. My wife and I both desire to have biological children, but we have not been actively trying to for years because of my wife’s serious health issues which prevent her from sitting and have caused her many painful back problems. We have tried many things to help, even surgery, but it hasn’t yet resulted in what we had hoped for. This is why we are looking at adoption, possibly of an older child so they will not require my wife to sit as much. On the positive side, this has allowed her to spend more time discipling other women, even using her physical suffering as an example of God’s perfect purposes for her, and for me to lead a street evangelism ministry. I guess I’m trying to say that there are other valid physical reasons for not trying to have biological children than we often think of. Perhaps in our case, your statement should read “try to have biological children or adopted children.” That would help clarify more exceptions that exist for people in our situation that people often don’t think about. Thanks!
— Jeremy Z, Hudson, WI

***

I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article on whether or not it is ok for a Christian couple to abstain from having children. While your article did mention that for some they may not be able to have children you seemed to have left out the option of adoption. So my question is whether or not it is okay for a Christian couple who is perfectly able to have children to choose not to and instead choose adoption? I often feel like adoption is every parent’s second choice, or it is only something a family does after having biological children. But what if this is their first choice and do not want to have children by natural means?
—Scott R, Wake Forest, NC

***

Your article is very good but misses a reason for deliberate childlessness which is, I think, rather more serious and merits some attention. For many persons (Christians included, see John 16:33), we live in a world filled with pain and senselessness. Even a good life is difficult to bear for many persons. So, why bring children to the world only to be subjected to a difficult, painful existence? See Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 for a similar point of view. Thanks!
—Eduardo S, Asunción, Paraguay

***

I appreciate your insight in writing about a question I have struggled to answer myself as Christians I know begin to consider deliberate childlessness. Though no reasons will suffice (children cannot be imposed on anyone), your article has given me the arguments to defend my point of view.

I consider procreation a crucible to develop generosity and believe choosing childlessness is the ultimate expression of materialism and self-centeredness, in choosing things and what money can buy over people.

That being said, a question remains. If we can choose how many children to have, couldn’t we choose to dismiss them altogether? Isn’t birth control also a rebellion against God’s sovereignty and a desire to fulfill his plans for fruitfulness our way?
—Adriana F, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

***

Recently you wrote about the question “Is It Okay Deliberately Not To Have Children?” with reference to Christopher Ash. Most of the time I find myself agreeing with you, or at least respecting your well thought-out thoughts. However this time, I feel maybe you have erred somewhat.

First of all let me say that, to Christians who do and want to have children, they are indeed blessings - an “inconvenient blessing”, maybe, but a blessing nonetheless. They are not only a blessing to parents, but to others, and to God as well - in time. However, to create out of this a Biblical mandate that all Christians are commanded to have children seems something of a stretch.

Putting aside for a moment the blessings that do come from having children, you refer to three pieces of evidence for your conclusions: Psalm 127:3-5, Genesis 1:28, and Genesis 1:26-27. You state that “they build a solid case” for your conclusions, but it really feels like you’ve pulled them out of context. God’s command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” was for the creation of humanity - not a command for all people, but for a specific time and place. Childlessness as a curse is understandable, in a culture which valued lines of succession, family, etc, and in which older members of the family were reliant upon children for their survival. And humans may still be God’s most important creation without there being a hidden mandate for more and more children.

In the end, does the Bible command Christian couples to have children? No, I do not believe it does. It commands them to follow God’s will for their lives, and throughout all I can remember of the New Testament, that is never combined with a command to have children.
—Josh H, Melbourne, Australia