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January 07, 2008

As I mentioned recently, this week and the next will see me participating in a “blog tour” in support of my new book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. The owner of another blog will pose a question about discernment and my answer will be posted on his or her blog on an appointed day. I will follow the comments made on the blog, addressing them as they arise. It will be, I hope, a chance to facilitate a productive and God-glorifying conversation about the issue of discernment through a series of exchanges with others. It allows me to attempt to address questions other people may have about discernment and potentially to address questions that are of particular importance to readers of other blogs.

The first day of this blog tour takes me to Joe Carter’s Evangelical Outpost. Joe’s blog is one of the first ones I ever read and has been a daily stop for years. I’m thrilled, then, that he was willing and eager to participate. He asks What does discernment mean from a biblical perspective?

Read my answer here.

Here is how the tour will shape up over the next two weeks.

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Sharper Iron
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 04, 2008

Next week, to coincide with the recent release of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, I’ll be embarking on a blog tour. “What’s a blog tour?” you ask. Well, the process is fairly simple. The owner of a blog poses a question about discernment, my answer to which will be posted on his or her blog on an appointed day. I will follow the comments made on the blog, addressing them as they arise. It will be, I hope, a chance to facilitate a productive and God-glorifying conversation about the issue of discernment through a series of exchanges with others. It allows me to attempt to address questions other people may have about discernment and potentially to address questions that are of particular importance to readers of other blogs.

I’ve already seen a few of the questions that have been submitted and am sweating a bit as I consider how I’ll answer them. There are some tough ones! So I will be spending my weekend crafting answers and I hope you’ll check in next week as we discuss discernment across the blogosphere.

The schedule looks like this:

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Sharper Iron
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 02, 2008

The longer I live and the longer I walk through this Christian life, the more I come to understand what a gift it is to see the world through a Christian lens—through a Christian worldview. A worldview is simply the way we look at the world and the way we understand how life works. The predominant worldview in our day and our society is foundationally Darwinian. Built around an evolutionary framework, it teaches that we are all the result of an evolutionary process that allowed us, through chance and mutation, to evolve above the slime. We’ve come from nothing and have no idea where we’re going. We are in process—not the deliberate creation of a loving craftsman, but merely one result of chance mutations. This is, at heart, a hopeless worldview. It’s an awful worldview, really. I am thankful that, in granting me new life, God saved me from it.

For Christmas my wife gave me Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The War (a great series if you’re at all a World War II enthusiast) and, obviously, the series deals in part with the Holocaust. No matter how many times a person sees images of Jewish people being herded into train cars and sees German soldiers standing guard over emaciated, dying children, he cannot help but be affected. I have read about the war countless times and spent much of my time in college studying it. But those pictures still hit hard; they still hurt. A though that always occurs to me is this: those soldiers and I are not so different. I somehow like to think that, as part of a rational, ordered society like this one, we have developed far beyond such barbarity. Yet it was only sixty years ago and in a society not a lot unlike this one that men, who at any other time could have been authors and web designers, were happily shooting Jewish men, women and children and shamelessly plundering their homes. What happened? How did men sink so low?

As I watch this documentary and as I see Adolph Hitler, who for so many represents pure evil incarnate, I thank God that there is such a thing as justice. It would be easy to think that Hitler largely escaped justice. A person who utterly dominated and destroyed a nation while setting the world on fire, Hitler lived a life that was difficult in some ways, I suppose. But for many years he led Germany and was able to do nearly whatever he wanted. He was the cause of untold death and suffering. Not only did he orchestrate the systematic deaths of millions of Jews, but his actions also led to the deaths of millions (and probably tens of millions) of people from around the world as nations rallied to the cause of freedom and fought to curtail his power. Eventually, when his kingdom crumbled, he took his own life, suffering nothing as ended his life on his own terms. Justice was not served. It hardly seems that the self-inflicted death of an increasingly crazed and decrepit old man can serve as justice for so much death, destruction and suffering.

Without a Christian worldview, we would have no hope that justice would or could be served. If we deny that existence of God, or at least deny the existence of an active, present God, we deny that justice will ever be served to this man or to any other. What a distressing, depressing thought it would be that a man could live a life in which he caused so much death and then escape any meaningful consequences.

But when we look at the world through a biblical worldview, we see that justice will be served. Indeed, it must be served. And we want it to be served. Somehow God has built into us the desire to see justice served. This may be a natural desire some men suppress, but always it is there. We know that evil must be punished. We know that those who commit evil must be punished. Justice is “the quality of being just or fair;” it is “judgment involved in the determination of rights and the assignment of rewards and punishments.” But it is more. A Christian definition of justice goes further. Justice is the due reward or punishment for an act. God must punish evil. We know this. We tremble at this thought. Or we ought to.

God must punish evil. When we come to know Jesus Christ, we are shocked at the reality that He willingly paid the penalty for the sins of all who would believe in Him. When I believed in Him I saw that He suffered for me. I deserve to be punished for all those things I’ve done to forsake Him. But Jesus, through His great mercy, accepted this punishment on my behalf.

But those who do not turn to Him must be punished for their own sin. And it is here that we see how justice will be served. The sin of even a man as blatantly evil as Adolph Hitler differs from mine only in degree. He and I are both sinners through and through. We are both sinners in thought, word and deed. But, praise be to God, He has extended grace to restrain me from doing all of the evil I’d otherwise so love to do. And He has accepted Jesus’ work on the cross on my behalf. Justice has already been served on my behalf. But for those who do not turn to Christ, justice is still in the future. Justice hovers just over the horizon.

We do not look forward to the punishment of another person with a sick glee. We do not rejoice in what they must suffer. But we do look forward to the fact that justice will finally be served. God will not and cannot allow sin to be unpunished. And while we are humbled by the grace that is ours through Christ, we still thank God that there will be justice. We do not have unlimited license to sin knowing that death allows us to escape just punishment. Instead we see that death is just the beginning, just the entrance, to the courtroom where justice will be served.

December 26, 2007

Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace is one of those books that is worth reading slowly and meditatively, pausing often to reflect and, in my case, to write. I rarely dwell too long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

One of the areas of that book that has impacted in my life came when I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally. Since then I’ve sometimes had to add the appointment back to my calendar just to encourage me to once again encourage others, but it never takes all that much effort anymore to get myself back into the mindset of being an encourager.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

December 23, 2007

A couple of days ago, a skid’s worth of books showed up at my sister’s place. Two days later I showed up and finally got to meet my book. After almost two years from the time I first to pen to paper, I finally saw the results. It wasn’t nearly the moment I thought it might be. But it was still fun and it’s good to have something to hold in my hands.

So here I am starting out signing all those pre-ordered books.


And then, quite a long time later my brother-in-law snapped a shot of me signing the last one.


And here are the results.


Tomorrow we’ll put together an assembly line and stuff all of those books into envelopes. Then we’ll stamp them, put them in the back of my van, and get them to the post office. Good times!

For those wishing to order through Amazon or another retailer, I suspect you’ll have to wait until very early in the new year before they have stock available.

December 22, 2007

I have a particular interest in books that seek to give us categories through which we can understand this strange new world that is being built around us through the internet. The sheer pervasiveness of the internet has allowed it to impact our lives so deeply and so profoundly and I’m not sure that many of us really understand this. One person seeking to bring sense to it is David Weinberger, a writer, teacher and marketing consultant. In Everything is Miscellaneous he offers a tour of the new digital disorder that is happening as we move from a physical to a digital world.

December 17, 2007

I spent some time this weekend reading Al Mohler’s forthcoming book, Culture Shift (set for a mid-January release). In an endorsement of this book, John Piper writes, “Albert Mohler is a steady guide, unremittingly clear-headed.” This is a fair assessment. Anyone who reads and enjoys Mohler’s blog, will find this book is more of the same—commentary from the junction of faith and culture. In fact, many of the book’s twenty chapters are based upon Mohler’s previous commentary at his blog. It is a good book and one I benefited from reading. It has given me a lot to think about and, as you’ll see today, plenty to write about.

In June of 2005, Mohler wrote an article titled “Needed: An Exit Strategy” and discussed the issue of public education and the Southern Baptist Convention. At that time, for the second year in a row, a resolution was “submitted to the denomination’s Committee on Resolutions, calling for Christians to reconsider support for the nation’s public school system.” Dr. Mohler begins with this article and adapts it in the ninth chapter of Culture Shift. Here he says “Christians parents are increasingly aware that the public schools are prime battlegrounds for cultural conflict. Given the deep ideological chasm that separates the worldviews and expectations of many educators from those held by many parents, we should not be surprised by the vitriolic nature of this conflict.” He believes that the near future of public education will prove increasingly hostile to Christians and traditional values.

Examples of the downgrade of public education abound. He provides several examples. For example, he writes about King & King, a parable of homosexual marriage in which a young price decides he wishes to marry his true love, which in this case is another prince. This book has been read to seven year-olds in Massachusetts. He writes also of children who were sent home with “diversity book bags” to help teach that there is no such thing as a “normal” family and that all family structures are equal in value. And he writes of the national “Day of Silence” now supported in many high schools—a day organized by homosexual activists. These are not just extreme and isolated examples but are, more and more, becoming common.

The breakdown of the public-school system is a national tragedy,” he writes. “An honest assessment of any history of public education in America must acknowledge the success of the common school vision in breaking down ethnic, economic, and racial barriers. The schools have brought hundreds of millions of American children into a democracy of common citizenship. Tragically, that vision was displaced by an ideologically driven attempt to force a radically secular worldview.” What was once one of America’s great strengths is now beginning to lead to her moral breakdown.

Because of these factors, Mohler believes that it is time for Christians to leave the public school system and that homeschooling and Christian schooling are alternatives all Christian parents should consider. Those who are not yet ready to make the move should, at the very least, have an exit strategy in place. In his original article, Mohler writes this:

I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. This strategy would affirm the basic and ultimate responsibility of Christian parents to take charge of the education of their own children. The strategy would also affirm the responsibility of churches to equip parents, support families, and offer alternatives. At the same time, this strategy must acknowledge that Southern Baptist churches, families, and parents do not yet see the same realities, the same threats, and the same challenges in every context. Sadly, this is almost certainly just a matter of time.

In the book he changes the statement only to increase the scope from Southern Baptists to all Christians. It is time, he believes, to leave the schools. Or at the very least, it is time for parents to consider the alternatives and what factors would drive them to these alternatives.

As I’ve indicated in the past, Aileen and I choose to place our children in public schools. We do not do so lightly and certainly not without some trepidation. Yet, because of factors I’ve outlined elsewhere, we feel this is the best thing we can do right now. Every year we re-evaluate. While we do not have a firm exit strategy, one that says “precisely under these conditions we will withdraw from the public schools,” we do keep a close eye on what our children are being taught and do not take for granted that they will remain in the public system indefinitely. We benefit, I believe, from our province’s highly-regulated system where the curricula are consistent throughout the entire system. We benefit also from knowing teachers and from pressing them to understand what children are being taught and what ideology is behind it. We have been very pleased with almost all of the teachers we’ve met so far.

If the time comes that we feel it would be right to take our children out of the public education system, I will be left with two great and related concerns I would need to reconcile. The first is this. If all of the Christians withdraw from the public schooling system, it seems to me that we lose our ability and even our right to speak to that system and to influence it. Though the political system is terribly corrupt, Christians continue to be involved and continue to vote, knowing that only in this way will we have any influence. Yet in the schooling system many wish to withdraw. But when we do so, I fear, we lose any right we might have to correct or influence. As Christians we look to better not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. We look to be a transformative influence. If schools truly are “prime battlegrounds for cultural conflicts,” as Dr. Mohler states, why would we purposely remove ourselves from them? Why would we give up and retreat from this battleground? If this is where the hearts and minds of generations of citizens will be formed, why would we take no interest in it? If we retreat, we lose our voice.

And from there I think we will see as well that the downfall of the public education system becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I look at the examples Dr. Mohler provides—examples of all kinds of ugly things that happen in the public schools, I realize that things in Canada do not seem so bad. Canada is a very liberal nation and, by rights, it should be in worse shape than in America. Yet I do not see that this is the case. Yes, there are occasional stories that strike fear in this parent’s heart, but it seems that our education system is less corrupt than that of our neighbors to the south. And I can’t help but wonder if this owes to the fact that fewer Canadian Christians have exited the public schools. While the homeschool movement, following the American trend, is beginning to catch on in Canada, and while it seems that homeschooling is fast becoming the favored or even the default option for conservative Christians, this is largely a recent development. With Christian schools notoriously underfunded and overpriced, and with homeschooling not an option many believers have even considered, most Canadian Christians have kept their children in public schools. They have maintained their voice and their influence. When all the Christians leave, we would expect the schools to decline. And perhaps this is what we are seeing in the United States. Perhaps Christians are inadvertently contributing to the decline.

I wonder sometimes about a “Genesis 18” principle. In Genesis 18 we read of Abraham interceding for Sodom and for his people in that city. “Then Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’” Abraham asks God, pesters God even, whether God will preserve the city for the sake of the righteous. Will God preserve the city because His people are in it? God answers in the affirmative. And is it possible, I wonder, that the Canadian system has been preserved more than its American counterpart because God’s people have remained there? Perhaps this is a long shot; perhaps I am abusing the text and the principle it teaches; but I can’t help but wonder. Would we not expect God to preserve an institution where His people are present and are attempting to make inroads for His glory?

At any rate, Aileen and I continue to keep our children in public schools and continue to wonder if the day will come when this is no longer something we can do in good conscience. I believe that Dr. Mohler is right and that we will need to arrive at an exit strategy. Yet I hope this is never a strategy we need to put into action. I hope and pray that Canadian Christians will find that they can continue to place their children in public schools and that, as parents, they can continue to serve within the schools, to make their voices heard, and to positively influence this prime cultural battleground for the glory of God.

December 14, 2007

Every year, in the weeks before Christmas, we have my son and daughter compile a list of the gifts they most desired. Topping my son’s list a couple of years ago was a Playmobil castle—a huge, grey castle that looks like the kind of toy every boy dreams about. He asked for this with some hesitation, though, because he knew that it was expensive. We told him several times leading up to Christmas that we did not think we would be able to afford such a toy. Neither Aileen or I were raised in families that celebrated Christmas or birthdays with hundreds of dollars worth of presents, so the price tag of the castle would be quite a stretch for us. In the end, we settled on a smaller castle, still Playmobil, but one that was the “bad guy” castle instead of the “good guy” castle.

When my son opened this gift on Christmas morning we could tell that he was both thrilled and disappointed. He had so badly wanted that big castle but knew it was unlikely that he would receive it. When he saw a big box on Christmas morning he thought that maybe, just maybe, we had splurged and bought it for him. But when he opened it, he saw that it was almost what he had wanted, but not quite. Still, he was happy with the gift and put a brave face on it. If he was exceedingly disappointed, he masked it well for a young boy. We were proud of him.

When his birthday rolled around in March, the Playmobil castle was still at the top of his list. Knowing now that his desire for this castle was not just a passing fancy, we decided that we would break form and buy it for him. We shopped around a little bit, found the best price, and bought it. When the day of his birthday arrived we hid the box and had him open all his other gifts first. When he had opened a couple of gifts from us, and gifts from other family members, he seemed truly pleased. It was then that I went downstairs and returned with that huge box. His eyes went wide and he exclaimed, “You didn’t! No, you didn’t!” We put the box before him and he made short work of the wrapping paper. His eyes lit up and I think I saw a tear in his eye as he saw that long-awaited castle. I think it was made sweeter by the waiting. We built the castle for him that afternoon and it has given him countless hours of pleasure since then. It remains a favored toy.

One little event struck me later that afternoon. The castle had been built and my son had already been playing with it for a few hours. I went downstairs to watch him enjoying his toy. When he saw me watching him, he ran up to his room and returned clutching something in his hand. He walked up to me and handed me a loonie, a one dollar coin. He explained that he knew the castle was very expensive and that we could not really afford it. He wanted to give me a dollar to help with the expense. It was a touching moment, really, and one that showed a sweet innocence, for of course his one dollar coin could hardly repay the castle. I explained to him that it was my privilege to give him the castle as a gift and that he could show me gratitude not by attempting to pay me back, something he could not do despite his best efforts, but by playing with the castle and receiving from it a great deal of joy. That seemed to satisfy him, so he put his money in his pocket and continued to play with his new toys.

I think there is a lesson in my son’s behavior and it’s one I see time and time again. It’s a lesson about grace—free grace. As sinful humans grace is so foreign to us that we so often get it wrong. So often, I realize, I have been just like my son, attempting to repay God for His gifts. I attempt to provide good works as repayment for mercy. God gives us grace as a gift and does not expect us to repay Him for it. As with myself when looking at my son, God’s satisfaction is not in our attempts to repay Him, but in seeing our heartfelt delight as we rejoice in His free gift. The gift is cheapened when we attempt to repay it. In The Great Work of the Gospel John Ensor writes, “His reward as a gift giver is in the gladness of heart that we experience in receiving his gift as a gift.” Ensor points out another reason we cannot pay for our sins by doing good works as a trade off for God’s mercy. “Anything we do with a motive of adding to the work of Christ so as to win the forgiveness of God becomes the ground of self-satisfaction in our own goodness, rather than trust in God’s grace.” In receiving this gift from me, my son was unable to boast. Had he saved his money and paid me back, he could have led his friends to the playroom and said, “Here is a castle I earned.” But with the gift I gave him, all he can boast in is in having a father who loves him and who knows how to give him good gifts.

My son’s motives were pure, I’m sure. He felt some measure of guilt in receiving a gift he felt we could not afford. And so he tried to repay me, but in a way that was inadequate, impossible and in denial of the very fact that what I gave him was intended to be a gift. I expected no repayment and took my joy in my son’s delight. His delight was my reward. And there is the lesson for me. God wants me to receive mercy and grace as a gift. Even my best efforts at repaying Him merit me nothing. What God desires is that I receive His gift as a gift and that I return to Him all the praise and the glory through enjoying what He has so graciously given me. He delights in my delight.