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November 26, 2006

I wrote a couple of days ago about poetry and its power in communicating. I do love poetry in general, but certain poems stand out. And there is one that I love more than all others. I thought I’d share it with you today, though I suspect most are already familiar with it. It is John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Donne lived from 1572 to 1631 and was a prolific poet. He also coined a couple of immortal phrases that are in use today (“No man is an island” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”) While his Holy Sonnets remain widely read, certainly none of his works are more popular or more beautiful than this, his masterpiece (as with most poetry, it is best read aloud):

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

November 24, 2006

While I was slurping down lunch today I spent a few minutes playing with LibraryThing’s “Unsuggestion” feature. For those who have no idea what I am talking about, LibraryThing is a neat little site that allows you to catalog your books. Or as the site says, “LibraryThing is an online service to help people catalog their books easily. You can access your catalog from anywhere—even on your mobile phone. Because everyone catalogs together, LibraryThing also connects people with the same books, comes up with suggestions for what to read next, and so forth.” I began using the service in September of last year and since then have cataloged all of my new books through it (I have yet to add a lot of older books that don’t have ISBN numbers handy). You can see my list here.

One of LibraryThing’s fun features is “LibrarySuggester.” Using this tool, you can input the name of a book and the program will search through other people’s libraries and determine what other similar books you may enjoy. For example, inputting Sprouls’s Chosen by God reveals that 148 LibraryThing users have that book in their library. It then provides these suggestions based on other books in those same libraries: The holiness of God by Sproul, Bondage of the Will by Luther, Evangelism and the sovereignty of God by Packer, Desiring God by Piper, and so on. While not a flawless system, it does tend to provide solid suggestions.

A related feature is the “Unsuggester” which “takes ‘people who like this also like that’ and turns it on its head. It analyzes the seven million books LibraryThing members have recorded as owned or read, and comes back with books least likely to share a library with the book you suggest.” Now the most popular books in LibraryThing are by J.K. Rowling. In fact, the six most-owned books are all from the Harry Potter series. I thought it would be interesting to run her books through the Unsuggester to see who the program would come up with. I was not at all surprised to see that the Anti-Rowling is none other than John Piper. The top two unsuggestions (and three of the top seven) all belong to Piper. The Dangerous Duty of Delight ranks first with Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ coming second and The Justification of God falling seventh. So if you own books by Rowling, chances are that you do not own books by Piper.

I laughed to see that the top two unsuggestions for Bill Clinton’s My Life are none other than Calvin’s Institutes and Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (which, I suppose, means that Christian hedonism does not inspire people to admire those who adhere to the real thing).

Anyways, just something that amused me while I ate my lunch. Please return to your regularly scheduled programming.

November 22, 2006

I was thinking this morning about one of my favorite passages of Scripture. While the story is well known, the part of it that appeals to me is often just passed over. It is in Acts 9 and involves just two people, the disciple Ananias and Saul. Saul, notorious for persecuting Christians, has departed Jerusalem after obtaining a letter granting him authority to arrest any Christians he can find in Damascus. He is to bring these believers to Jerusalem for trial before the puppet court of the Sanhedrin. But lo and behold, while on the road to Damascus he has a dramatic, life-changing conversion experience. Out of a shining light Jesus calls to him and said “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul is struck blind. Jesus commands Saul to go to Damascus and wait to be told what he must do. He is led to the city by those who are traveling with him and he waits for three days and nights without any food or water. What these days are like we can only imagine. They must be filled with pain, remorse and repentance. They must be filled with great confusion and despair.

As Saul sits and waits, the scene fades momentarily and now we are introduced to Ananias (not to be confused with Ananias the High Priest or Ananias husband of Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit) who is called “a disciple at Damascus.” The Lord appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him “Arise and go to the street called Straight and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” God tells this disciple to run an errand on His behalf.

I have always loved Ananias’ response. Somehow he forgets his place and attempts to give God a bit of a newsflash. I can just picture Him stammering a bit as he takes it upon himself to remind God of just who this Saul guy is. I like to think that he began the sentence with uncertainty and confusion, and perhaps with with the words “Ummm…God….?” He says “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” Ananias had not only heard of how Saul had been systematically destroying the church in Jerusalem, hunting down men and women and turning them over to the authorities, but also knew that he was on the march to Damascus, ready to destroy that church as well. Paul’s hatred for Christ and His followers was common knowledge. We can well imagine that Ananias and the other believers were terrified as they awaited Saul and his cohort, for they knew their lives might be lost for the sake of Christ. They must have awaited his arrival at the city with great dread. And now here God asks Ananias to go and confront the ringleader of the persecutors. Ananias takes the opportunity to remind God of Saul’s credentials. After all, he has done “harm to Your saints in Jerusalem” and is now ready to “bind all who call on Your name” in Damascus.

Ananias showed weakness here. He did not have unwavering trust in God. As a matter of fact, he reminds me of me! I suspect I would have said the same thing to God just in case He had somehow forgotten a little detail. After all, this Saul guy was dangerous! Didn’t God know that? I’ve often wondered if missionaries don’t react in the same way when they feel their hearts stirred for a particular nation or people. “Um…God…don’t you know that that country is closed to missionaries? Don’t you know that your people are persecuted in that nation? Don’t you know what could happen to me, to my family, if I go there? God?”

God knew all about Saul. He tells Ananias “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My sake.” God knew exactly who Saul was and gave Ananias the assurance that He was still in control. As a matter of fact, providence dictated that He would use this man to do incredible things for His kingdom. Saul, the chief of sinners, the persecutor of the church, was God’s chosen means of bringing the gospel to great and small, Jew and Gentile alike.

Ananias is obedient. He appears before Saul and has the great honor of laying his hands on this broken man in the name of the Holy Spirit. At that moment Saul’s blindness is ended. As a symbol of the end of his spiritual blindness he is baptized, probably by the hand of Ananias himself. We then read that “Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.” Whether at that point Saul was the student or the teacher we do not know. Perhaps he sat and learned at the feet of Ananias. The Bible doesn’t tell us.

At this point Ananias fades from the story and we hear of him no more. His role in the drama of Acts is small, yet significant. We see a man who wavered when he heard God’s voice, yet despite his initial hesitation he was faithful and obedient. While at first he thought he might have to correct God, in the end he submitted himself and his very life to God’s call. God then used this man to further His purposes in launching the career of the most influential of the apostles. Ananias’ small act of obedience led to a great harvest for the kingdom.

And this is the lesson of Ananias that I have applied to my life. Small acts of obedience that are premised on the Word of God, even when they seem contrary to reason, and even when they seem to challenge what seems so plain, can have great significance. Our perspective is so small, so limited. God’s perspective is wide, taking in all of history in a single glance. We need to rely on Him, on His Word, on His voice, trusting that He will not lead us astray.

November 18, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (in theory) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s recipient of the award is the Thirsty Theologian, a site moderated by David Kjos, a man who has become a good friend to me in the past couple of years. David has been know to moderate comments around my site and is much more discerning than I am about when to just give up on a discussion that is quickly heading south. On his blog he features all sorts of interesting content, though he doesn’t really post much as I think he should. His site mixes commentary, theology and humor and is almost always well worth reading.

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from this blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

November 17, 2006

I have been reading James Bradley’s Flags of our Fathers, a book describing the infamous battle of Iwo Jima, but more importantly, a book describing the author’s search for the role his father played in that battle. His father, John Bradly, a Navy corpsman who was assigned to the Marines, was one of the men who raised a flag over Iwo Jima in what has become the world’s most reproduced and most famous photograph. His father was thrust into the role of hero or celebrity based on raising that flag, and yet he very rarely spoke of his role in the battle in his life after the war. He mentioned it only once to his wife and only a couple of times to his children. It was only after his death that his children began to consider what their father had done and to try to unravel why he would not, could not, speak of the war. They wanted to know how their father became a hero.

Hero. In that misunderstood and corrupted word, I think, lay the final reason for John Bradley’s silence.

Today the word “hero” has been diminished, confused with “celebrity.” But in my father’s generation the word meant something.

Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion. However he valued or devalued his own achievement, it did stand as an accomplishment.

The moment that saddled my father with the label of “hero” contained no action worthy of remembering. When he was shown the photo for the first time, he had no idea what he was looking at. He did not recognize himself or any of the others. The raising of that pole was as forgettable as tying the laces of his boots.

The irony of John Bradley’s celebrity is that, during the battle of Iwo Jima he was a hero many times over. His heroism earned him a Navy Cross, the second highest decoration possible. His son writes, “the flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically.” He knew that the act of planting a flag in the ground was not an act of heroism, but was an act that had made him a celebrity. “He knew real heroism. He could separate the real thing from the image, the fluff. And no matter how many millions of people thought otherwise, he understood that this image of heroism was not the real thing.” John Bradley had no interest in celebrity and resented those who sought to bestow it upon him.

Last spring, in an article I shared on this site, I discussed our culture’s obsession with celebrity and shared some wise words that Os Guinness wrote in The Call. He discusses fame and heroism and the call of Christ and provides three reasons that heroism has fallen on hard times. The first of these is the modern habit of debunking. Modern people are (often for good reason) cynical and “look straightaway not for the golden aura but for the feet of clay, not for the stirring example but for the cynical motive, not for the ideal embodied but for the energetic press agent.” The third reason is the death of God in Western society, or as Guinness terms it, “the drowning out of the call of God in modern life.” Having lost a perspective of the transcendence of human life, we can no longer properly talk about an ideal human character. In previous generations, to be a great human being was to be a “knight of the faith.” This is, of course, no longer the case. Because there is no Caller and no higher calling, there is no knights of faith and no one who can dub them.

It is the second reason, though, that most gripped me. Guinness points to the press and media and their role in creating the modern celebrity. He did this long before “American Idol” and the rise of the “reality” show, forces that have created celebrities (or “heroes”) faster than ever before. These forces widen the gap between “fame and greatness, heroism and accomplishment.” It used to be that heroism was linked to the honor of accomplishment so that only those were regarded as heroes who had actually made some grand accomplishment, whether in “character, virtue, wisdom, the arts, sports or warfare.” Sadly, this is no longer the case. Today we find that the media offers a shortcut to fame—“instantly fabricated famousness with no need for the sweat, cost and dedication of true greatness. The result is not the hero but the celebrity, the person famously described as ‘well-known for being well-known.’ A big name rather than a big person, the celebrity is someone for whom character is nothing, coverage is all.”

Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image, aptly defined fame in our societal context. “The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image. The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them.” Gregory Foster, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C, wrote on this subject earlier this year. “Celebrities…are qualitatively quite different than heroes, markedly inferior to them in fact. The celebrity is nothing but a person of celebrity, well known for his well-knownness,” he wrote. “Heroes, in contrast, are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness. They may have charisma, presence, and ‘gravitas’; they must demonstrate courage, vision, and character-selfless character. Heroes have stature, if not size.”

It would be easy to dismiss this subject as irrelevant to the Bible-believing Christian, sweeping it away with a terse statement that Christians are not to have heroes. And yet it is not that simple. We, as humans, are naturally followers. There is something in us, and something that I think precedes the Fall, that precedes our sinful natures. Whatever this is causes us to want to follow others. Foster writes, “we are all followers at heart. We praise and preach leadership, but we practice followership. Consciously or not, we constantly seek someone beyond ourselves to tell us when and how high to jump. Better that we relinquish ourselves to someone worthy of adulation and veneration than to the many charlatans and demagogues who prey on us.” Christians are not exempt from this and constantly seek others to emulate. The Bible does not appear to frown on this, but anticipates it, expects it. I think of the admonition of Solomon that “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” I think of Paul exhorting the Corinthians to “be imitators of me.” I think of the lofty moral requirements of those who are to be leaders in the church. Truly we all seek to follow, even those who also seek to lead.

And yet we often follow poorly. With our very souls at stake, it is crucial that we choose our heroes well. Far too often we seek to emulate not those who are most godly, but those who have the highest profiles. We choose our heroes poorly and are moulded into the image of men or women who have not first been shaped into the image of Christ. We follow Christian celebrities rather than emulating true heroes. We follow those who are content to be celebrities, even Christian celebrities. We follow those who offer no stature, only size.

It seems to me that John Bradley knew something that too many in our culture, whether Christian or not, are content to ignore. He saw celebrity for what it was: instant, empty and fleeting. He knew that true heroes are those who are known and remembered not for a meteoric rise to prominence, not merely for being known, but for accomplishment and character. If only we were so discerning.

November 15, 2006

So a friend of mine saw a rather strange item on my Amazon wishlist and decided he would, as a bit of a gag I suppose, buy it for me. And so in today’s mail I found a copy of “Your Best Life Now: The Game.” The box declares that it is “Inspired by the #1 New York Times Bestseller” by Joel Osteen and says, “The 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” I immediately cracked open the box and set the game up on the parquet floor in my office. I did not have time to really figure out how the game works, but did snap a few poor quality photos of it (you can click on any of the pictures for larger versions).

So here is the box. Very exciting. Joel looks happy, as always. I would be too if someone turned my book into a board game.

And here is what the game looks like when it’s all setup. The board is pretty bare. Players begin at the “Today” space and work their way towards the “Tomorrow” space. Or as the manual says, “You’re starting the game ‘Today’ and playing for your full potential ‘Tomorrow.’” I wonder if backsliders can play the game backwards.

Players progress through seven levels in the game. Each level has a challenge that must be overcome in order to progress to the next stage. Naturally, these levels relate to the seven steps of living at your full potential. To begin the game, each player takes a piece of paper and writes a goal he or she would like to reach. These papers are folded and placed in the “My Miracle” envelope which is then placed under the “Tomorrow” space on the board. Each player is also dealt seven Wonder Word cards and two Have Faith cards (which can be used to keep a player from missing a turn later in the game). Tokens are placed on the board, the youngest person at the table rolls the dice, and the game begins.

Level 1 is Enlarge Your Vision. At this stage players select an Enlarge Your Vision card, each of which has a picture or image on it. Players search for images within the image (such as a cat in a cloud or a dollar bill in Joel Osteen’s eyes). There are no right or wrong answers.

Level 2 is Develop a Healthy Self Image. At this level players, after turning the 15-second timer, make positive statements about themselves while looking into the tiny, barely-reflective mirror provided with the game. A player who cannot complete this challenge, either due to low self-esteem or uncontrollable laughter, will lose a turn (unless he wishes to use a Have Faith card). “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”

Level 3 is Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. At this stage players draw a card with a negative word on it and they must build positive words off this negative word much like a crossword puzzle or really easy Sudoku. Players have fifteen seconds to list at least three positive words. If a player cannot do this within fifteen seconds, he can play a Have Faith card. In this case he must also draw a Wonder Word card and make a positive statement using the word on this card.

Level 4 is Let Go of the Past. At this level players must tell stories or list items about their past based on suggestions on the Let Go of the Past cards. If a player cannot do this and opts to play a Have Faith card, he must make a statement about his past using any of the Wonder Word cards.

Level 5 is Find Strength Through Adversity. This time around players draw a card and read a statement about a famous person who faced adversity (I’m guessing Jesus, Stephen and the martyrs are represented). He will then explain how he has faced similar adversity and succeeded. If he cannot do this, he can play a Have Faith card, in which case he will need to make a statement about deriving a positive from a negative based on a Wonder Word card.

Level 6 is Live to Give. The first player to reach this stage opens the My Miracle envelope and reads all of the goals aloud. Each of the players takes the other players’ goals and writes a “Potential Promise” for each goal. This is a promise to help the winner of the game to reach his goal and help him live life to its full potential. The potential promises are placed back into the envelope. Subsequent players to reach the level must use a Wonder Word card and make a statement about giving using that word.

Level 7 is the exciting conclusion. Each player is asked to make statements and tell stories about things that make them happy (Like squirrels. Squirrels make me happy with their silly chattering and funny teeth). A player must make a statement or tell a story according to the instructions on the card.

The first person to reach “Tomorrow” wins the game. He opens the My Miracle envelope and reads about the goals and promises of all players. The other players must now help the winner reach his goal by fulfilling their promises to live Your Best Life Now! No word on whether the losers get to have a good life too, or if they are condemned to mediocrity.

And that’s the game. I feel dirty.

PeleYou know, as I read through the game I was drawn, somewhat nostalgically, to an episode of The Simpsons I watched many years ago. In that episode Springfield has gotten a professional soccer team. At the beginning of the first match, soccer hero Pele is paraded onto the field. He stands at center field and says, “Pele is king of the soccer field. To be king of your kitchen, use Crestfield wax paper.” The owner of the team then hands him a giant bag of money and Pele marches off the field. I can’t help but think that this game represents just that. “Endless Games” handed Osteen a big ol’ bag of money to use his name and the title of his book. I’m guessing, though, that I am the only person in the world who actually owns this game.

My sister and brother-in-law are visiting us next week and I’ll be sure to drag it out and play a game of it with them. Should be fun. I’ll let you know how we enjoy it. Meanwhile, begin to anticipate the imminent arrival of The Discipline of Discernment: The Game, coming your way in the Spring of 2008!

November 14, 2006

There have been a couple of times in the past few years that I have written about spiritual gifts and spiritual gift inventories. These articles continue to be read (thanks, I suppose, to the efforts of search engines) and, since I have given a great deal more thought to this subject, I wanted to update what I have said in the past. When I first began thinking and writing about spiritual gift assessments I was responding to a question that had been posed to me by a friend. He was interested in knowing my opinion on these assessments. I grew up attending very conservative churches and, sadly, the term “spiritual gifts” was largely foreign to me. These gifts were not emphasized in the churches in which I was raised and thus I decided to begin by researching spiritual gifts as one who was largely ignorant. I had taken such assessments a few times through churches I attended as an adult and through various men’s groups and had always found them somewhat helpful. Despite this they never really had a significant impact on my spiritual life.

As I began to research gift inventories or assessments I found one strange thing: it seems no one can agree about these gifts. It seems everyone has a different list of the gifts and even a different idea of how and when they are dispensed. One thing they all agree on is that these gifts are given by the Holy Spirit to believers after they become Christians and thus they are available only to believers. Some argue the gifts are given immediately upon conversion and others believe they are given at baptism. While the Bible lists only a few gifts (see 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 and 12:1-11), some assessments list far more. The following is a typical list of gifts:

Administration: the gift that enables a believer to formulate, direct, and carry out plans necessary to fulfill a purpose. Biblical References: I Corinthians 12:28, Acts 14:23.

Artistry: the gift that gives the believer the skill of creating artistic expressions that produce a spiritual response of strength and inspiration. Biblical References: Exodus 31:1-11, Psalm 149:3a.

Discernment: the gift that motivates a believer to seek God’s will and purpose and apply that understanding to individual and congregational situations. Biblical References: John 16:6-15, Romans 9:1, I Corinthians 2:9-16.

Evangelism: the gift that moves believers to reach nonbelievers in such a way that they are baptized and become active members of the Christian community. Biblical References: Matthew 28:16-20, Ephesians 4:11- 16, Acts 2:36-40.

Exhortation: the gift that moves the believer to reach out with Christian love and presence to people in personal conflict of facing a spiritual void. Biblical References: John 14:1, II Timothy 1:16-18, III John 5-8.

Faith: the gift that gives a believer the eyes to see the Spirit at work and the ability to trust the Spirit’s leading without indication of where it all might lead. Biblical References: Genesis 12:1-4a, Mark 5:25-34, I Thessalonians 1:8-10.

Giving: the gift that enables a believer to recognize God’s blessings and to respond to those blessings by generously and sacrificially giving of one’s resources (time, talent, and treasure). Biblical References: II Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 21:1-4.

Hospitality: the gift that causes a believer to joyfully welcome and receive guests and those in need of food and lodging. Biblical References: Romans 12:13, Romans 16:23a, Luke 10:38.

Intercession: the gift that enables a believer to pray with the certainty that prayer is heard and when requests are made, answers will come. Biblical References: Matthew 6:6-15, Luke 11:1-10, Ephesians 6:18.

Knowledge: the gift that drives a person to learn, analyze and uncover new insights with regard to the Bible and faith. Biblical References: I Corinthians 12:8; I Corinthians 14:6, Romans 12:2.

Leadership: the gift that gives a believer the confidence to step forward, give direction and provide motivation to fulfill a dream or complete a task. Biblical References: Romans 12:8, John 21:15-17, II Timothy 4:1-5.

Mercy: the gift that motivates a believer to feel deeply for those in physical, spiritual, or emotional need and then act to meet that need. Biblical References: Luke 7:12-15, Luke 10:30-37, Matthew 25:34-36.

Music—Vocal: the gift that gives a believer the capability and opportunity to present personal witness and inspiration to others through singing. Biblical References: Psalm 96:1-9, Psalm 100:1-2, Psalm 149:1-2.

Music—Instrumental: the gift that inspires a believer to express personal faith and provide inspiration and comfort through the playing of a musical instrument. Biblical References: Psalm 33:1-5, Psalm 150, I Samuel 16:14-23.

Pastoring (Shepherding): the gift that gives a believer the confidence, capability and compassion to provide spiritual leadership and direction for individuals or groups of believers. Biblical References: I Timothy 4:12-16, I Timothy 3:1-13, II Timothy 4:1-2.

Service (Helps): the gift that enables a believer to work gladly behind the scenes in order that God’s work is fulfilled. Biblical References: Luke 23:50-54, Romans 16:1-16, Philippians 2:19-23.

Skilled Craft: the gift that enables a believer to create, build, maintain or repair items used within the church. Biblical References: Exodus 30:1-6, Exodus 31:3-5, Ezekiel 27:4-11.

Teaching: the gift that enables a believer to communicate a personal understanding of the Bible and faith in such a way that it becomes clear and understood by others. Biblical References: I Corinthians 12:28, Matthew 5:1-12, Acts 18:24-48.

Wisdom: the gift that allows the believer to sort through opinions, facts and thoughts in order to determine what solution would be best for the individual believer or the community of believers. Biblical References: I Corinthians 2:6-13, James 3:13-18, II Chronicles 1:7-11.

Writing: the gift that gives a believer the ability to express truth in a written form; a form that can edify, instruct and strengthen the community of believers. Biblical References: I John 2:1-6, 12-14, I Timothy 3:14-15,
Jude 3.

I took a couple of the surveys that are available online and found them quite similar to ones I have taken in the past. The general format is between 30 to 50 multiple choice questions, most of which can be answered on a scale of 1 to 4 (1 meaning the description does not fit me at all and 4 meaning it is exactly like me). For example, I took a test at this site which tells me my primary spiritual gift is knowledge which it describes as follows:

The gift of knowledge allows people to automatically convert facts, data, and information into useful and important knowledge. People possessing this gift can learn in a variety of ways, retain what they learn, and understand how learning can be applied in meaningful and productive ways. Those gifted with knowledge have a voracious and insatiable desire to learn more, and they seek multiple avenues for deepening their understanding of God’s world, God’s will, and God’s people.

[For an example of this gift in popular media] See the good, the bad, and the ugly side of knowledge in Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting.

Though I digress, I noted what has to be a conflict between gifts of the Spirit (and the fruit of the Spirit) and a movie like Good Will Hunting which, because of much of its content, is hardly compatible with the Spirit! But getting back on topic, it occurred to me that the gift of knowledge is not so thoroughly described in the Bible as in this description. I don’t think anyone could find a passage in the Bible that supports the statement that “the gift of knowledge allows people to automatically convert facts, data, and information into useful and important knowledge.” This may be true, but it seems likely that these descriptions are a good bit more detailed than in the Bible.

In the end I returned to Scripture and studied the gifts outlined in the applicable passages of Scripture. Having examined the gifts of the Spirit, both those in the Bible and those in various assessments, I decided to search for references in the Scripture of people assessing themselves to discover their gifts. A question I had to ask myself is this: Is there any Biblical model for searching for spiritual gifts? Author James Sundquist researched this topic as well and discovered the following:

I can’t find one single Scripture that says finding our gift was EVER a problem for the Church.

I can’t find one single Scripture that instructs us how to find our gift.

I can’t find any historical account that finding our gift was a problem for the Church.

I can’t find any historical account that finding our gift was a problem for Church Fathers.

Anything we do in Christ is not through our strengths, but is perfected in weakness.

I can’t find one single Scripture which uses a subjective balance of weighing our strengths and weaknesses to determine our Gift(s) of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t find one single Scripture that uses personality or personality theory to determine our course in Christ or in the Church.

I can’t find one single Scripture that instructs us to come up with a numerical value or rating system for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I tend to agree with most of Sundquist’s observations. The Scripture tells Christians to exercise their gifts, but does not place a great deal of emphasis on searching for these gifts, especially through means of inventories or assessments.

I spent several years in the workforce and in that time was often dragged off to seminars to help me discover my personality type. One observation I made from some spiritual gift assessments (most notably the Saddleback SHAPE assessment) is that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator tests so common in schools and the workforce. The Myers-Briggs indicator is used for “Professionals like you [who] depend on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator when clients need to make important business, career, or personal decisions. Last year alone, two million people gained valuable insight about themselves and the people they interact with daily by taking the MBTI instrument. The MBTI describes an individuals preferences on four dimensions; Extraverted vs. Introverted, Sensing vs. Intuitive, Thinking vs. Feeling, Judging vs. Perceiving.” Not many know this, but the Myers-Briggs assessment is drawn from the teaching and research of the humanist Carl Jung, a man who despised Christianity. Jung apparently used the services of a spirit guide, Philemon, to help him develop four profiles to describe human nature. Myers-Briggs is based upon those personality types and many of these spiritual gift assessments draw directly from this teaching. This in itself should be cause for concern. Combined with the lack of Biblical model, this should be sufficient to raise a warning flag.

But perhaps the greatest cause for concern with these assessments, and the greatest strike against them, is that they can be successfully completed by both believers and non-believers. If a spiritual gift assessment is truly assessing gifts given by the Holy Spirit, someone who is not a Christian should necessarily achieve a score of 0. This is obvious, is it not? As mentioned earlier, all of these assessments are premised on the idea that gifts are dispensed by the Holy Spirit only after a person is converted. Hence a person who is unconverted should show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in his life. This is simply not the case with these tests. There may be questions related to spiritual matters that an unbeliever cannot legitimately answer, but many of the questions are generic in nature. For example “I enjoy pitching in on service projects in the church” could be as easily answered by an unbeliever as a believer. The same holds true for “People seem to respect me and follow my lead.” We might rightly ask if these tests are truly measuring the work or gifting of the Spirit, or if they are actually only measuring personality and preferences.

Let’s pause for a moment. If spiritual gifts are given only to believers and these assessments can convince an unbeliever that he or she possesses spiritual gifts, then the assessments must be deeply flawed. It seems clear that these tests are, in reality, measuring personality, and even then, they may be measuring personality by a humanistic standard. Is it possible that perhaps we are only given spiritual gifts that compliment our personalities so personality and gifts are one in the same? That would be unsatisfying, because I believe God can work through gifts that may contradict our personalities. Think of Moses and how God used him despite his obvious shyness and lack of eloquence. Had God only used Moses’ existing talents and personality He would not have had much to work with! The Bible is filled with examples of people who were used by God despite their natural talent or gifting. (Think, for example, of Solomon, crying out to God that he was only a little child and begging for God to give him the gifts he needed to rule successfully.)

A final cause for concern is that these assessments typically provide a finite list of possibilities. They list varying numbers of gifts, ranging from only those explicitly listed in the letters of Paul to a wide variety drawn from both the Old Testament and the New. Yet it seems to me that presenting a finite list of gifts and attempting to cast each person into one of those categories may be to overlook the stunning variety of gifts God gives. I find it instructive that when the Bible lists the gifts of the Spirit it lists different gifts each time. I don’t think God wants us to believe there are only a certain number of gifts, one of which must be ours. I believe the lesson in these verses is that there may be as many gifts as there are Christians. Grudem agrees, saying in his Systematic Theology, “Paul was not attempting to construct exhaustive lists of gifts when he specified the ones he did.” There may be classifications of gifts and some may be more important than others, but there is no reason to think that the list provided in the Bible is complete or exhaustive.

Am I ready to write-off all spiritual gift assessments as a waste of time? No, I think that might be a kneejerk reaction. I see little basis, though, to believe that these truly measure the gifts of the Spirit. I am sure these tests can sometimes be valuable in assessing talents and personality traits and can cause people to look more thoroughly at where they should use their talents to honor God. But unless gifts and personality are one and the same, I do not understand how these tests can measure spiritual gifts. It seems to me that church leaders should exercise great care in if and how they present these assessments to their congregations. To have people fill out an assessment and encourage them to pursue the gift arrived at as the result of a mathematical formula based on ticking checkboxes, may lead people to pursue gifts God has not given to them while ignoring those gifts He so wants them to exercise. I believe Grudem is wise in this regard. “Paul seems to assume that believers will know what their spiritual gifts are…. But what if many members in a church do not know what spiritual gift or gifts God has given to them? In such a case, the leaders of the church need to ask whether they are providing sufficient opportunities for varieties of gifts to be used.” As for individuals,

They can begin by asking what the needs and opportunities for ministry are in their church. Specifically, they can ask what gifts are most needed for the building up of the church at that point. In addition, each individual believer who does not know what his or her gifts are should do some self-examination. What interests and desires and abilities does he or she have? Can others give advice or encouragement pointing in the direction of specific gifts? Moreover, has there been blessing in the past in ministering in a particular kind of service? In all of this, the person seeking to discover his or her gifts should pray and ask God for wisdom, confident that it will be given according to his promise.

Beyond this, a person may simply attempt different ways of ministering, noting the ones in which God brings blessing.

If you want to learn what your spiritual gifts are, the best place to begin would be with reading the Bible and praying. Allow God to speak to you through His Word, showing you where He has gifted you. Ask Him to give you a passion for your gift and to provide desire and opportunity for you to exercise this gift. And having done that, ask your Christian friends and family, your pastor and elders, what they think your gifting is. I believe this may be a far more valuable means of assessment, and probably a more accurate means of assessment, than a spiritual gift inventory.

November 13, 2006

Last month, in an article entitled By Our Books Shall We Be Known, I discussed some commentary Al Mohler wrote based on an essay that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The purpose of the article was, quite simply, to show that there is a lot you can tell about a person by the books in his library. Mohler said, “To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister’s library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?”

In recent days I have several times been asked by friends or readers of this site for my opinion on various churches, leaders or organizations. More and more I find myself encouraging people to look for two things: a statement of beliefs and a list of recommending reading. But I am coming to believe that you can often tell more about a person through a reading list than a statement of beliefs. Many churches have wonderful statements of faith that they choose to ignore. Very few have lists of recommended books that betray their true beliefs.

Statements of Faith are usually static documents and are somehow integrated into the history of a church or a denomination. They are, in many cases, rarely read or revisited. While they may retain historical value and while they may always be meaningful to a church, they do not necessarily continue to reflect the beliefs of the members or leaders of a church body. Look, for example, to the Beliefs page for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists. Under Lord’s Day it says, “The first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. It is a Christian institution for regular observances. It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should be employed in exercises of worship and spiritual devotion both public and private and by refraining from worldly amusements and resting from secular employments work of necessity and mercy only being expected.” As someone who was once a member of one of these churches, I can attest that most Canadian Southern Baptists had no sense of Sunday being the Lord’s Day and that most did not refrain from either worldly amusements or secular employment! Whether or not this is a good thing is a whole different discussion. The point is that the statement of beliefs is far removed from the church’s actual practice and from the church’s enforcement of the document.

Now this is not to say that a statement of beliefs is a useless document. If a church continues to abide by the document, and continues to revisit it to ensure that their practice matches their profession, these documents are very useful. But too often they are of greater historical value than contemporary value. It is often equally or even more useful to look elsewhere to see what a church or leader really believes.

Let me give you an example. A short time ago I visited the web site of a Presbyterian church. This church is a member of the Presbyterian Church of America and would affirm the tenets of the Reformed faith and of Presbyterianism. According to the statement of beliefs, we would expect this to be a conservative church. Yet heading up the recommendations for books appropriate to seekers (a term that would be out-of-place in most Presbyterian lexicons!) was Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Try as I might, I cannot imagine John Knox or the Westminster Divines sitting placidly and reading this book. Nor can I imagine them discussing “seekers.” The books this church recommends are a dead giveaway that all is not right. I visited the site of a church planted by this one and noted that Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church heads their list of recommendations and that excerpts from this book are quoted throughout the web site. Again, a book that seems strangely out of place in a Reformed, Presbyterian context.

I went to the web site of a prominent Christian leader and read his biography. I know that if he and I were to draw up a statement of beliefs, they would be quite similar. And yet in his list of recommended books for living the Christian life, alongside titles by John MacArthur, John Piper, Francis Schaeffer and the like are titles by Philip Yancey, Sally Morgenthaler, Thomas Kempis and others. How are we to reconcile books that would, in many ways, contradict each other? What are we to think about a person who would, without explanation or caution, endorse such books?

I don’t think I would have to look far to find many more examples. Countless churches here in Canada, especially churches of the Presbyterian variety, would have wonderful statements of faith. Many of them were founded on Reformed principles and would, in theory, still adhere to them. And yet many of these churches have forsaken the gospel and have completely walked away from the principles of the Christian faith, even while their statements of belief have remained untouched.

As I researched my own book last week, I found an interesting quote in Richard Phillips new commentary on Hebrews. “In my pastoral work,” he writes, “I often find it to be a good diagnostic question to ask for the names of books a person has read in the previous six months. The point is not to promote my own approved reading list, but to see whether the person is fixated on himself, her own wants or search for experiences, or whether he is interested in the character of God, the treasures of the gospel, or the challenges of representing Jesus Christ in the world.” It seems to me that the same is true of a Christian leader. By finding out what a person is reading and willing to recommend, by finding out the books a church considers worthwhile reading, or by discovering what books are in a church’s library, you may find far more useful information than if you read a statement of beliefs.

November 08, 2006

Those who had the privilege of attending the Together for the Gospel Conference, or who listened to the audio recordings (available here in MP3 or CD format), no doubt remember C.J. Mahaney’s plenary session which was entitled “Watch Your Life and Doctrine.” He took as his text 1 Timothy 4:16 which reads: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” He taught that, through God-appointed means, the preservation of a pastor and his congregation is at stake in his obedience to this verse. Faithful, pastoral ministry could not be more important and the implications could not be more important, for they are eternal. I know of a great many pastors who were both challenged and encouraged by this session.

As you may know, the sessions from the conference are being compiled into Preaching the Cross, a book that will be published by Crossway in 2007. In the days following the scandal involving Ted Haggard, it seemed appropriate to provide this chapter to others. Though the book has not yet been edited and published, Crossway was kind enough to provide special permission to Justin Taylor and myself to post this chapter. It is Copyright © 2006 by Crossway (used by permission; all rights reserved) and will be available here for only a limited time. While you are free to link to this post from your web site or to download the document for personal use or, we ask that no one else upload the file to their own web server.

So here is your first glance at the forthcoming title Preaching the Cross. The chapter written by C.J. Mahaney is entitled “The Pastor’s Priorities: Watch Your Life and Doctrine.” We strongly urge you to consider making this chapter available to your pastor and leaders, either by forwarding the link or printing a copy. The wisdom of Paul, relayed through C.J., is timeless, but seems especially timely today.

The chapter headings include:

  • Our Two-Fold Task
  • Watch Your Life
  • Sound Doctrine Is Not Enough
  • The Consequences of Neglect
  • The War Within Never Ends
  • We Can’t Fight the War Alone
  • A Model for Your Consideration
  • Watch Your Doctrine
  • Watch the Savior Work

Here is a brief excerpt from the document:

The Consequences of Neglect

Sound doctrine is not enough, because according to Scripture, the fundamental qualification for pastoral ministry is godly character. Neither skill, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, nor reputation, nor personality, nor apparent fruitfulness of public ministry will suffice. Scan 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and you will encounter a profile of personal piety.

Yes, the pastor must be able to teach. Certainly, he must handle the Word of truth accurately and skillfully. But the foundational assumption of Scripture—both for appointment to or continuation in ministry—is that the pastor provide a godly example. Not a perfect example, but an authentic example. As Spurgeon exhorted his students in “The Minister’s Self-Watch,” “Our characters must be more persuasive than our speech.”

If we neglect the command of 1 Timothy 4:16—if we fail to watch our life closely, carefully, and uncompromisingly—negative consequences are inevitable, for ourselves, our family, our pastoral team, and our church. A marked or prolonged inattention to personal holiness in a pastor is a grave matter that must be addressed.

In Sovereign Grace Ministries, here is how we have sought to apply this passage in relation to the pastors of our local churches.

We believe that the biblical requirement for a pastor is not flawless character but mature character. We are all progressively growing in godliness. A pastor who recognizes an area of immaturity, and takes specific action towards change, demonstrates close attention to his life and doctrine. Likewise, if a particular instance of non-disqualifying sin occurs in a pastor’s life, but he genuinely repents before God and the appropriate individuals, this also honors the passage we are examining.

There are, of course, some sins that are particularly serious, both in the effect they have upon others and what they reveal about the condition of the heart. Even a single instance of such sins—sexual immorality, financial impropriety, violent behavior, etc.—would automatically disqualify a man from pastoral ministry. Beyond such grave instances of sin, however, a serious ongoing pattern of disobedient deviation from biblical requirements in the life of a pastor can also be disqualifying.

For example, a single lustful look, quickly confessed and repented of is part of growing maturity. However, a pattern of pornography could be disqualifying. Similarly, an isolated instance of lying speech, promptly brought into the light, is evidence of ongoing sanctification. Repeated examples of deceptive behavior, on the other hand, call into question a pastor’s trustworthiness. Likewise, an outburst of irritation, immediately regretted and repented of is proof the Holy Spirit is at work. But a reputation for anger is not consistent with the biblical requirements for a pastor.

Where such patterns of sin exist, we believe that genuine care for a pastor and church involves a corrective process. Of course, this must be administered with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Occasions requiring the loving confrontation of a pastor in sin have been among the most difficult and painful of my ministry experience. But in the end, the corrective process has normally produced God-glorifying and fruitful outcomes in a pastor’s life, family, and church.

The document is available is PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format. You can download it here.

November 07, 2006

As I read Marsden’s biography of Jonthan Edwards last week, I was stopped short several times by Edwards’ wisdom. Constantly surrounded by conflict, and often facing people who sought to undermine his ministry, Edwards had every opportunity to reflect on the task of a minister. During his ministry, one conflict involved whether sermons should primarily enlighten the mind or whether they should primarily stir the affections. Charles Chauncy, his opponent in this debate, believed that “an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.” Chauncy, as with many men of his day, believed that the affections were closely related to the passions of one’s animal nature and needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason.

Edwards disagreed, teaching that one could not neatly separate the affections from the will. Both the intellect and affections are fallible and unreliable, but both are given by God and ought to be exercised.

And then Marsden points out an application of this. “Critics of the awakenings alleged that when people heard many sermons in one week they would not be able to remember much of what they had heard. Edwards countered, ‘The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.’” Marsden concludes, “Preaching, in other words, must first of all touch the affections” (Page 282).

I found this a great encouragement. Like every other Christian, I have often sat enraptured in church, having my mind filled and my affections stirred. But sometimes after arriving home I can barely remember a word that was said. The same is sometimes true of books, Bible studies and conferences. What was so meaningful at the time may be nearly forgotten only a short time later, leaving me to question if it was really so important in the first place. This is not to say that nothing sticks in my mind. Certainly I do remember a lot of what I hear and what I read. But when I consider a 500-page book or a series of 8 speeches and compare what I read or what I heard to what I now remember, it can be awfully frustrating. It can be discouraging.

But, according to Edwards, if I were to worry in this way I would be placing too great an emphasis on intellect and downplaying the importance of affections. I independently reached a similar conclusion to this not so long ago, though unlike Edwards, my conclusions were based on necessity rather than being argued from Scripture. With the amount of conferences I attend and the number of books I read, I have had to have faith that God is working through them, even if I cannot remember the intimate details of a book or conference even only three short weeks after the fact. I’ve had to trust that the effort is not wasted, even if so much seems to fade away so quickly. I’ve had to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work behind the scenes, doing His work, even when I cannot easily measure any benefit. I’ve had to trust, and this has been a useful exercise to me.

The words of Edwards gave me confidence that the benefit of a book cannot be measured simply by how much I remember a week or two weeks or a month after reading it. The benefit of a sermon may be greater during the hearing of it than in the later reflections upon it. The benefit of a conference may be more in the hearing than in the recounting of it. God uses books, Bible studies, conferences and sermons not just to fill my mind, but also (and perhaps even primarily) to stir my affections, even if a frustrating amount of the benefit seems to fade away far too quickly.

I ran Edwards’ quote through Google and found that others have discussed these words as well. I found one article particularly beneficial. Paul at Expository Thoughts applies them to taking notes during church. He also quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wrote of Edwards, “The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently…. It is not primarily to impart information; and while you are writing your notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit.”

God was good to allow me to encounter these words. I trust that, at the very least, they will continue to resound in my heart so I may have confidence that the Spirit is at work when my affections are stirred and my heart longs for Him.