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April 28, 2015

A friend of mine expects that she will soon be engaged to be married, and finds herself wondering about the nature of engagement. We assume it: We must get engaged to be married before we actually get married. But what is engagement? Is it an inviolable agreement with all the significance of marriage? Is it a tentative agreement that can be broken off on a whim? What exactly is this thing we call engagement?

The first thing we must admit is that there is no New Testament command that a couple must be engaged before they are married, and no New Testament edict about what an engagement looks like. We see a description of betrothal—something similar to engagement—in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but no prescription that we are to imitate this exact form of it. We see glimpses of similar traditions in the Old Testament but, again, nothing that binds us today.

Whatever engagement is, we need to admit that it is a cultural, not a biblical, construct. Like the white dress at the wedding or the black suit at the funeral, engagement is a construct that varies significantly from culture to culture. We see this when we can look past our own traditions.

My church has a significant Ghanian population and I have learned that the West African view of engagement is very different from the Canadian and American view; I have learned as well that many first- or second-generation immigrants practice a kind of hybrid engagement that combines elements of Ghana and Canada. As I travel to the southern United States I see that engagement there is a little bit different from engagement here in the Great White North. When I was in India I met a wonderful Christian couple who had been introduced to one another at their engagement ceremony, and who were still strangers on their wedding day. Each of these cultures has a form of engagement, but there are significant differences between them.

So what is true of engagement here in twenty-first century Western culture? And how can we do engagement well?

I understand engagement as a relationship where a couple deliberately increases the intimacy of their relationship as a prelude to marriage. The primary business of engagement is increasing relational intimacy to ensure compatibility. The couple makes their agreement (or engagement) with one another before their friends, family, and church, making it not only a personal agreement, but a community one. Engagement is a formal agreement that these two people are serious about pursuing the lifelong commitment of marriage and that, though they are not yet fully committed to marrying one another, they are escalating their intimacy to ensure that they can be suitable for one another.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about sexual intimacy. I am not even necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I am talking primarily about relational intimacy. While a man and woman are dating they may discuss previous relationships or past traumas, but when they are engaged they must begin to discuss these things—at least they must if they are wise. Their engagement gives them the structure, the urgency, and the end-goal that allows them to pursue topics that are too intimate for those who are dating, but too serious to leave until after wedding rings have been exchanged.

How does a couple do this? Primarily by both deliberate and casual communication. They talk together on their own, and tell one another about their joys, their fears, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They open up about their family backgrounds, their sexual history, their traumas, and their triumphs. They talk openly, honestly, exhaustively, and intimately.

But there is more. They take pre-marriage counseling together under the guidance of a godly pastor and his wife, or under the guidance of an experienced Christian couple. They read the Bible, pray, and worship together both together and corporately. They spend time with godly couples they admire, peppering them with questions and simply observing how different marriages works. They read books together—books on marriage, of course—but also perhaps books on money or sex or any other area that tends to cause difficulty in young marriages. They ramp up their relational intimacy toward what they will experience as husband and wife, while carefully holding off the sexual intimacy that will eventually seal their relationship.

Can an engagement be broken off? Yes, I believe that it can. After all, the couple has not yet taken their vows and has not yet experienced sexual union. And there is a sense in which this kind of engagement only makes sense if it can be broken. The increase in relational intimacy may expose certain sins or character traits or past traumas that one of them simply cannot tolerate. This makes the modern Western engagement somewhat different from ancient betrothal, and perhaps different from contemporary engagement in other parts of the world. Engagements can be broken off, but the tacit agreement is that this will happen only under the saddest or most serious circumstances.

That is engagement as I understand it at this time and in this place.

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 27, 2015

I have a particular interest in technology and the way human society has been shaped by it. Over the past few years, I have pursued this interest by reading several books and watching several documentary series on the race to the moon. Having been born in 1976, I was too young to witness anything more than the aftermath of this epic race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and maybe this is why it fascinates me so much. It was history unfolding in the world I was born into.

Every film series eventually reaches its climax at the moment Neil Armstrong sets his foot on the moon’s surface. The sound track swells, the camera pans, and then Armstrong steps off the lunar module and utters his unforgettable words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Recently, as I watched another dramatization of this event, I found myself thinking, “I wish I could be involved in something that significant.” Those astronauts and the vast team that supported them left their mark on history. Those men accomplished something unprecedented in human history, and they spent the rest of their lives basking in the fame of their accomplishments. Though forty-five years have passed, we continue to laud and honor them today. For a moment, I wanted to be able to leave behind that kind of legacy.

But very quickly I caught myself. I thought about the sweep of history and all the great moments and inventions, and I realized that even an accomplishment as grand as the space race will disappear into the annals of history. Someday Neil Armstrong will be as significant to history as the inventor of the plow or the first man or woman to shoot an arrow from a bow. These, too, were important historical moments that forever changed the world, but the people involved have long since faded away and been forgotten.

And then I thought of one of the great and enduring privileges that is mine as a Christian. I have the honor and the duty to preach the gospel and to call upon other people to hear it and to heed it. I am able to stand between God and a person He has created and to tell him about the One who made him and the One who can save him. And sometimes that person responds in repentance and faith. Sometimes he is given ears to hear the words, eyes to see the Savior, and a heart to believe and obey.

And this—preaching the gospel and seeing another person transformed by God’s power—this is something that will endure through the ages because human beings will endure through the ages. We’re created for eternity. This accomplishment by God and for God will endure through all eternity—even after the greatest of human accomplishments have faded away.

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April 22, 2015

A few weeks ago I announced that I will be hosting a summer internship program for several high school students. For 8 weeks we will focus on theology and worldview while also working on improving writing and communication skills. All of this can and will be done via the Internet, which means that students from around the world were welcome to apply. In the end, nearly 100 people applied for those 3 internships, with the applications coming in from all across the globe. And let me tell you: The future of the church is looking pretty good.

I deliberately made the application process just a little bit difficult in order to force the students to think carefully before applying. After answering a series of questions ranging from “What is your favorite subject at school” to “What are some ways you serve in your church?”, each of the applicants had to record a short video testimonial—an explanation of how the Lord saved them. I have watched each one of these videos now, and I don’t know when I have been more encouraged.

100 videos at a few minutes each: Do the math and you’ll see that I spent somewhere around 8 hours watching teenagers tell how they became Christians, and then I spent a few more hours reading their answers to the application questions. Now, I promised them confidentiality, so will not speak about any person in particular, but I do think it is interesting to reflect on the applicants as a group. Here are some things I observed.

Of the 100 videos I watched, nearly all of the students were able to articulate the gospel, and were able to express the difference between their life before conversion and their life after. Very few of the students used generic language or easy Christianese; instead, they were able to express how they had personally placed their faith in Jesus Christ, and they were able to explain how the gospel has turned away God’s well-deserved wrath while giving them Christ’s perfect righteousness. Time and time again I heard students express the best truths in deeply personal and soundly biblical ways.

Of the people who applied, roughly half are homeschooled and the other half are divided between public and Christian school. There was no discernible difference between the groups when it came to their understanding of the gospel and their ability to express it. The same was true when it came to church background—whether they were Southern Baptist, Sovereign Grace, Evangelical Free or Reformed Presbyterian, whether they were from The Summit Church, Covenant Life Church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Harvest Bible Chapel, or the little church down the road, almost all of them expressed a similarly deep understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I am not sure why this is noteworthy, but I feel it is: The vast majority of the applicants, over 90%, were Caucasian. There were a few exceptions, though even when there were exceptions the applicants would often tell that they had been adopted into Caucasian families. Whatever else this means, I suppose it means this: If we take the readers of my web site as a kind of “core sample” of the New Calvinism, it remains largely a movement of and by middle-class white people. (I will grant, of course, that many non-Caucasian folk may be thoroughly Reformed but not able to participate in an English-based internship program.)

Another observation I made is how many young people make a profession of faith when they are very young—5 or 6 years old—but then later doubt the reality or significance of that profession. Most can articulate a time when they were a little bit older, often around 10, 12, or 14, when they either had what they now consider a true conversion experience, or when they suddenly realized that they needed to have a faith independent of their parents. Time and again I heard of the good Christian kid who said the right things when he or she was very young, but then actually began to live as a Christian in those early teenage years.

Parents and pastors ought to be encouraged. What you are teaching your children is making a difference. What you are preaching from the pulpit is making a difference. Almost every applicant had heard the gospel repeatedly at home, and almost every applicant had heard the gospel repeatedly at church. And, not surprisingly, over time the gospel did its work in them. If there was anything that concerns me, it is how few of these teens spoke of older friends or mentors (who are neither parents nor pastors) who had helped them in their journey to faith. Get involved in the lives of teens!

My final observation is this: It is going to be excruciating to trim down the list of applicants to only 3. Even after going through the applications again and again, I’ve got at least 10 times more people remaining then I can actually accept. Yet time and finances (this is, after all, a paid internship) dictate that I cannot offer the internship to all of them. In the end I am still looking for 3 normal, godly teens who are eager to learn more about theology and worldview. But I’m also trying to figure out if there is some way that I can at least double that to 6. It grieves me to have to say no to any of them.

(A final note: If you applied for the internship program, you can expect to hear from me over the next couple of days.)

April 20, 2015

I find one of the trickiest matters of Christian living to be the matter of motives. I often find myself wondering why I do the things I do. Just as often, I find myself wondering why I do not do those things I refuse to do. Sometimes, even with a lot of focused thought, I can make little headway.

I think the Apostle Paul would identify with me. In Romans 7, he wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (vv. 15–16). He was not looking to his motives per se, but he was still considering his life and finding that he was unable to discern why he did sinful things even when he wanted to do holy things. He saw his lack of holiness and his pursuit of sin and marveled at his own inability to do even the good things he wanted to do.

Like Paul, I am a Christian. I have been granted salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Day by day, my mind is being transformed by God’s Word, and I am being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

As the Lord does this work within me, I find a growing ability to know the right thing to do in a given situation. When I am sinned against, I have a greater knowledge of Scripture to draw upon as I attempt to respond with grace. When I am asked to give money to a cause or a mission, I have deeper wells to draw from as I consider whether this is a worthy cause. When I am faced with a decision and am uncertain whether I should stay or go, whether I should say yes or no, I increasingly have the mind of Christ and with it the ability to make a wise and God-honoring decision.

And yet sometimes I still do not know why I do the things I do. Am I giving to that mission because I believe the Lord is using those people to do His work in his world, or am I giving to that mission because it makes me feel good or because I want the missionary to respect me? Am I speaking grace-filled words to the person who offended me because I really love him despite the offense, or am I doing it to show off and to convince myself of my own holiness?

Too often I simply do not know. I pray and think and ponder and in the end I simply cannot untwist it all. We are complex people with complex motives. We are being made holy, but in the meantime we still have sin clinging to every part of ourselves.

I have found freedom in two ways. The first is repenting of poor motives. Even if I cannot pinpoint where my motives are sinful, I know there must be some sin in them, and so I ask that they be forgiven through the work of Jesus Christ. And then I determine to concern myself less with discerning motives and more with doing the right thing. I look to the cross, I look to the Bible, and I attempt to discern the next right thing to do for God’s glory.

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April 13, 2015

Just up the road from our house is a plaza or strip mall, a collection of 20 or 30 stores. This plaza has two large wings and right in the joint between the two wings is what must be the worst retail space in the city. At least, those of us who live here know that it is the worst retail space in the city. Aileen and I have been in this area for the past 15 years and in that time we have seen business after business try to make a go of it there, and not one of them has lasted for more than a couple of years. Several have lasted just a few months.

When we first arrived it was a family diner, but quickly the diner went out of business and was replaced by a fish and chips joint. Just a few months later there was a big notice on the door from the landlords saying that they were owed tens of thousands of dollars, and that the store had been shut down. Then it was a Lebanese restaurant, then a sandwich shop and, as of last week, an all-day breakfast place. And I know I am forgetting a couple of other iterations along the way.

The strange thing is that this store looks like it is in a great location. There is a long plaza stretching out on either side of it, with store after store. There is a lot of parking available, and a few attractive and well-trafficked stores just down the way. And yet, for some reason, this one storefront seems to be a retail black hole. It is where businesses go to die, where entrepreneurs go to blow their money.

Before every new store opens, the old sign gets hauled down, and paper covers the windows while the store receives a renovation. Every time I see another “opening soon” sign, I want to go and bang on the door and tell the people, “Don’t do it!” I see them walking in and out, full of excitement, and I feel a bit of dread for them. I know they’ve got a business plan that looks bulletproof, and they’ve convinced the bank to loan them some money to get started, but I want to tell them about all those other people who have followed the same plan and utterly failed. And eventually the inevitable happens.

Every time I see that “opening soon” sign I find myself thinking about people whose theology reminds me of this restaurant. I hear them tell me about some great new theological innovation they have discovered, or some great truth the church had been hiding from them. Or I see them gain a public profile and then their books begin to quote certain authors or hint at certain ideas. And I feel that same sense of dread. And I want to tell them that others have tried this and that it hasn’t gone well.

Others have tried to reconcile God’s knowledge and all the tragedy that happens in this world through various shades of Open Theism, but it has not gone well for them and they’ve soon smeared the very character of God. Others have been convinced that “inerrancy” is too strong a term and that we have to leave some room for minor errors or for certain cultural corrections, and before long they’ve rejected not just the inerrancy of the Bible, but also its authority. Others have become dissatisfied with hearing from God through the Bible and have demanded more; they have begun to live their lives by promptings and whisperings which they ascribe to God, and so often their lives have descended into personal and theological chaos. I see them setting up shop, thinking they are doing the right thing, but all the while they are walking into disaster.

And this is one of the reasons God places us in church communities where we are surrounded by people who are that much wiser and that much more mature than we are. He surrounds us with people who have tried things and found them wanting, or who have witnessed other people trying things and being led astray. He surrounds us with people who can speak with loving authority and experienced firmness of all of their attempts and failures, and who can guide us back to the straight path. He surrounds us with people who are wise enough to detect the first signs of wandering, and who love us enough to warn us of the consequences.

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 07, 2015

A clean house is a sign of a wasted life. Kind of. That’s what I said last week when I looked at Proverbs 14:4: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” I said then that there are two broad streams of interpretation for this proverb, and that my preferred one says that it speaks to the messiness of a life well-lived. A productive life is a messy life. I think that is a perfectly valid and accurate interpretation of the text. But there is a second explanation for the proverb that is [almost] equally intriguing.

Whatever else we believe about the proverb, we know that Solomon meant to tell us that having oxen is better than not having oxen. We can extend this to say that having the appropriate tools for a task is better than having inappropriate tools. Here’s the thing: You can have a full feed-trough if you’ve got a small animal or no animal at all. But it is far wiser to let a big ol’ ox eat the feed and use it as fuel for some hard work. “A farmer persuades himself that if he doesn’t buy any oxen he will save himself both the initial outlay and the cost of feeding and the labour of maintaining them. But this is the fool’s economics. The wise man realizes he himself cannot do the work the ox can do; he will always be scraping a living, whereas if he buys some oxen and fodder, their work will bring a harvest which will feed him and them, with some over.” In other words, a stingy investment in tools earns a stingy return, and a substantial investment in tools earns a substantial return. (see Eric Lane’s excellent little commentary.)

When I interpret the proverb this way, I see it as a call to obtain good tools, even when those tools involve a greater cost. As Lane says, “Investment in the appropriate equipment will more than pay for itself, and the effort put into maintaining it will be saved in its efficiency.” The fact is, not all tools are created equal. We have many options for most of our tools, and we typically need to choose from a spectrum of qualities and prices. We are not surprised to find that better tools cost more money. Solomon’s farmer found the same. He could plow the field himself, or he could use a donkey—both of these would be economical options. But by investing in the ox, he will soon see abundance. Why? Because the ox is the best tool for the job. The ox is the wisest investment.

Now there is a movement afoot in the Christian world that elevates thrift as one of the great virtues. According to this movement, we are to be thrifty people who use our resources carefully instead of wastefully. Well and good, and especially so in an age of instant indulgence. We should not be wasteful! But the danger of thriftiness is that it can easily tip into stinginess. (Of course, in the same way, free spending can tip into a profligacy.) We can elevate the joy of finding an item at a low cost, while overlooking that this low cost may necessitate low quality. However, when we do this we may be settling for lesser tools which subsequently provide a lesser return.

The farmer, like you and me, is completely dependent upon his tools. If he wants abundance, if he wants to be the best farmer he can be, he will need good tools—he will need to buy and feed an ox, the best tool for the job. And if you want to succeed in whatever it is that the Lord calls you to, you will need tools as well. You will need good tools. Expensive tools, even. But take heart. You do not have to feel guilty for spending on your tools. The bigger expense may just be the wisest stewardship.

(And that, my friends, is how I defend my use of Apple products.)

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 06, 2015

We are at an interesting point in history. I guess there’s never really a boring point in history, but there are definitely times when things advance or unravel in a hurry. And today we are seeing the full-out charge of a new kind of morality. We see it playing out in the media just about every day, and Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth is still one of the most helpful guides to understanding what is happening around us.

Our society insists that there needs to be a radical split between two different spheres: the private and the public. In the public sphere we have society’s great institutions: the state, academia, multinational corporations, the mainstream media, and the like. In the private sphere we have the family, the church, and personal relationships. We are told that these public institutions are based only on what is scientific and objective. Meanwhile, the private sphere is composed of all those things that are subjective or based on personal values; we are allowed to have them, but they are less important than the public sphere and must never be allowed to influence it.

Here is how this dichotomy looks when diagrammed:

Personal Preference
Scientific Knowledge

In the private sphere are matters of personal preference, while in the public sphere are matters of objective truth. What is true for all people is on the bottom level, but what is true for you or me is on the top level. Both exist, but they must be kept apart. Pearcey says, “Religion is not considered an objective truth to which we must submit, but only a matter of personal taste which we choose.” For this reason the split is also sometimes call the fact/value split.

Individual Choice
Binding on Everyone

In the upper level is values—individual preferences—, while on the bottom level are facts which are binding on everyone. Facts represent knowledge drawn from and proven by science, which means they are objective and rational and binding on each of us. On the other hand, the top level values are considered subjective. Because they are a product of tradition and are essentially irrational, they have little to say about reality and cannot be binding on anyone’s conscience except my own.

According to this line of thinking, my Christian morality falls into the values sphere, and is allowed to have no bearing on the facts. While I may bind myself by what my religion teaches, I have no right to demand that anyone else hold to those same values, and no right to allow my values to influence the facts. I am required to hold these two spheres completely apart from one another.

Ultimately, these two spheres represent two tiers or two stories of truth that display a divide between what is rational and verifiable (and, therefore, superior) and what is nonrational and nonverifiable (and, therefore, inferior).

Nonrational, Noncognitive
Rational, Verifiable

On the upper story is what is true for me, while on the lower story is what is true for all of us.

Now why does all of this matter? Because it is “the simple most potent weapon for delegitimizing the biblical perspective in the public square today. Here’s how it works: Most secularists are too politically savvy to attack religion directly or to debunk it as false. So what do they do? They consign religion to the value sphere—which takes it out of the realm of true and false altogether. Secularists can then assure us that of course they “respect” religion, while at the same time denying that it has any relevance to the public realm.”

And this is exactly what is happening today in so many different areas. Christians are allowed to hold to their beliefs, but not when those beliefs begin to creep from the realm of private to the realm of public. A Canadian politician came under extreme pressure when he stated his skepticism about Darwinian evolution. Because his Christian faith is considered a value, he has no right to state it and no right to allow it to influence his public life. An American florist determined that she could not support a homosexual wedding by providing flowers. Because her view of homosexuality stems from the private sphere, she has no right to allow it to influence her business decisions. A media uproar immediately followed. We could look to today’s headlines and instantly find another ten or twenty similar stories.

Listen to what Pearcey says: “This same division also explains why Christians have such difficulty communicating in the public arena. It’s crucial for us to realize that nonbelievers are constantly filtering what we say through a mental fact/value grid. For example, when we state a position on an issue like abortion or bioethics or homosexuality, we intend to assert an objective moral truth important to the health of society—but they think we’re merely expressing our subjective bias.” When we see design in the universe, we are making a testable and verifiable claim, but they hear only religious irrationality. When we say that homosexual marriage is against God’s design, they see irrational personal preference creeping into the public discussion. As Pearcey says, “The fact/value grid instantly dissolves away the objective content of anything we say…”

What do we do about it? Well, whatever else we do, we first need to ensure we do not allow such a divide in our own lives. “We have to reject the division of life into a sacred realm limited to things like worship and personal morality, over against a secular realm that includes science, politics, economics, and the rest of the public arena.” We have to understand that the Bible describes a way of looking at the world that is perfectly unified, where both facts and values flow from the same Source and achieve the same great end. Today more than ever, we must be people who know and love and live the Word of God. And then we must be prepared to stand on, and suffer for, what we know is true.

April 02, 2015

The world only works when life is held as precious. Each of us wants to live more than we want to die. We are overwhelmed by the longing to not die, and consumed with the desire to go on living. 

A thousand times a day we make subconscious choices that preserve our lives. We brake when we come to a stop sign. We replace the battery in the smoke detector. We hold on to the handrail. We fasten the safety belt. We double-check the dosage. We do it all so we can continue to live. We do it all to diminish the likelihood of our own demise.

And it is not just our own life that we regard as precious, but all life. Just as we make decisions to protect our own lives, we make decisions to protect others’. We tighten our children’s seatbelts. We put the knives up high. We pay the salaries of police officers. We stop and help when we spot even a stranger in distress.

Life is the most precious thing. The world only works when we maintain this tacit agreement that life is precious, that I will do all I can to preserve both mine and yours, that you will do all you can to protect both yours and mine. Both civilization and civility stand or fall on this simple agreement.

The alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is cars swerving to meet oncoming traffic, bicycles drifting out of the bike lane, toddlers roaming at will, hospitals empty and unstaffed. The alternative might even be a pilot setting his aircraft so that it gradually coasts straight into the ground.

The world reacted with horror—justified horror—when they learned that Andreas Lubitz had deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525, taking his own life and the lives of the other 149 passengers and crew members. The reason for our shock is that he violated the agreement. He chose to take life instead of perserve life.

There are a hundred explanations for this desire to protect and preserve life. But the only one that really makes sense, and the only one that is compelling enough to believe, is that God is the creator of life, and that he has given life intrinsic value. He has made us this way, and deeply ingrained it within each one of us. To recklessly endanger life is to reject both the giver and his gift.

This, then, is why we react with such utter horror to what Lubitz did. He chose to diminish the value of his life, and the lives of each of those 149 people. We know intuitively that this is an outrage, the deepest kind of transgression. And it scares us. It terrifies us. It is unfair, unjust, unconscionable, unthinkable. And yet there it is, emblazoned in the headlines: He did it, and he could have done it to us. He rejected the most basic information, and broke our most foundational agreement.