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June 07, 2005

Last Friday I wrote an article I entitled Pronoun Predicaments and Gender Confusion. My readers will be happy to know, I’m sure, that I have not yet claimed my right (not a privilege, but a right!) to determine that I would like to be female. In that article I quoted Al Mohler who wrote about a bizarre relationship between a transexual and “her” wife. I could attempt to explain it, but I’m sure it is far easier for you to read the article yourself. Mohler said, “this case represents the convoluted complications that ensure when the Creator’s gift of gender becomes an experiment in self-expression rather than a focus of objective identity.”

In the news today was another story which grabbed my attention and reminded me of this. FoxNews is reporting a case in which a man received a life sentence for causing his girlfriend to miscarry her two fetuses. He was charged with two counts of murder. “Gerardo Flores received an automatic life sentence because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, which was available under the state’s 2003 fetus protection law.”

I am sure most of my readers would agree with me when I applaud the Texas court system for finding this man guilty and for imposing such a harsh sentence. He truly is a murderer and deserves to be punished as such.

But there is more to the story. “Erica Basoria, 17, acknowledged asking Flores to help end her pregnancy; she could not be prosecuted because of her legal right to abortion.” A woman in Texas cannot be charged for causing the deaths of her own unborn children for any reason. After about four months of pregnancy, this young girl decided she did not want to keep her babies and began trying to bring about a miscarriage. She started jogging, and when that did not work, began to beat on her stomach. Finally she asked her boyfriend for help and he stepped on her stomach on several occasions before she finally had a miscarriage. According to another article, “Testimony alleged both may have wanted a miscarriage so the babies wouldn’t infringe on college and social plans.”

The girl received no punishment and was, in fact, not even charged with a crime. The boyfriend will spend his life in prison.

This is a grave and shocking example of what has become of Truth in this postmodern society of ours. A woman has the right to destroy the lives of her unborn children and can even request help with impunity. But when she receives help, her boyfriend is locked away for the rest of his life and she walks away a free woman. Had she sought the help of a professional, there would have been no crime. “Texas law defines an embryo or fetus as an “individual” and allows criminal prosecution or civil action for a preventable injury or death of a fetus. The law exempts health care providers who perform a legal medical procedure, such as an abortion.”

So there we have it. Texas law has dictated what is legal murder and what is not. Where is the objective Truth that murder is murder, no matter who commits it? Clearly this Truth has been suppressed and has been made a matter of choice and preference.

Now I do not mean to say that the boyfriend’s sentence was too harsh. On the contrary, according to biblical standards, his sentence is too light! The Scriptures show that he forfeited his right to life when he took the lives of those unborn children. But what of the girl? She is as much responsible for this murder as he is! Had these children been murdered four months after birth instead of four months after conception, she would also be looking at a life behind bars. But instead she is free.

This case showcases “convoluted complications” much like those inherent in tampering with the Creator’s gift of gender. When our society willfully tampers with God’s gift of life, the law will (and indeed must) be filled with this type of irrationality and contradiction.

“The case was tragic, just two kids in love making mistakes,” said Flores’ defense attorney. The case is tragic indeed. While the two kids made a grave mistake, the greater mistake was made by the state of Texas.

You can read a local reporter’s take on the story here.

June 06, 2005

Today I’d like to reach into the Feedback Files and respond to a question I was asked quite some time ago but had filed away and forgotten about until quite recently (shame on me!). It is a good question and deserves an answer. I have removed some of the pre-amble, but the heart of the reader’s question is this: “A topic that I think would help to flesh out some of the non-Biblical responses that you’ve been getting … is to respond to this question: ‘When does our study of God become a god?”“

And that is a very good question, isn’t it? When does our study of God become idolatrous? This is a charge that is often levelled at Christians, and in particular, Conservative and/or Reformed Christians who may be known better for their knowledge than for their deeds.

Jesus gave us a solemn warning that we can know about God without knowing Him. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the last days there will be many who have accumulated vast knowledge of God, but who have never truly known Him. They will know about God without ever knowing Him. The Scripture also tells us that unless our knowledge of God is spurring us on to a holy life, we do not have true knowledge of Him. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6). We have come to know Him if we keep (or do) his commandments, not merely if we know them.

Near the beginning of 2004 I wrote a post I entitled “The Study of the Study of God.” I recently wrote about this a little bit more in my series that examined our tendency to put God in a box. In the first article I wrote, “Theology has become a bad word in Christian circles. It seems that theology is linked in people’s minds with cold, dead religion that cares more about principles and matters of the head than deeds and matters of the heart. It is associated with fundamentalism and with cold conservatism. Yet if we look at the meaning and etymology of the word we cannot help but conclude that God requires all Christians to be theologians.”

Theology is good. And not only is it good, but it is critical to the Christian walk and is an expectation of God. The word theology is derived from two Greek words. The root “theos” means God and the suffix “-ology” comes from the Greek word for speak. So what theology really means is “speaking of God” or as has become the more accurate definition, “the study of God.” It is impossible for us to grow closer to God (ie “sanctification”) if we do not learn more about Him. While all we need to know to be saved is our own depravity and God’s grace, to grow in that grace we need to learn more about God - about His character and attributes, about our place before Him, and about His will for our lives.

In previous articles I have spoken about this “study of the study of God” as being “theology-ology.” Theology-ology is what happens when we make theology and end in itself. God has not told us to make theology an end in itself. Instead, the knowledge of God is to be only the first link in a chain. Once we have discovered something new about God, we are to examine it in the light of other Scriptures, and if it is consistent with the rest of the Bible, we are to apply it to our lives. This is not always easy, but it is the requirement of God. Everything we can and should know about God can, in some way, be applied to our lives.

God places high value on knowing the Scripture, but much higher value still on doing it. It has become a cliche that “love is a verb,” but what about theology? Theology needs to be more than knowledge - it needs to be knowledge in practice. Of course it goes without saying that we cannot keep what we do not know. Thus we need to study God’s revelation of Himself through Scripture, but need to do so with humility. We need to examine our intent when we study Scripture.

When we study God we should always examine the intent of this study. Do we study to increase our knowledge or do we study to increase our holiness?

1 Corinthians 11 speaks about the necessity of women wearing head coverings while in church. My intent in approaching this passage will probably shape my conclusions. I can look at that section of the Bible in two different ways. I can approach it with the motive of wanting to show that women are subservient to men and that all the women in my church sin when they do not cover their heads as is appropriate according to biblical standards. I can begin this study with the intent of proving to my wife and the rest of the women in church that they need to wear a head covering next Sunday, lest they make a mockery of God. On the other hand, I can turn to this section with a motive of wanting to understand what principles the Bible is teaching and how those relate to people today. I can begin my study with the intent of learning something that I can humbly and prayerfully apply to my life. While it is possible that I will reach the same conclusion, the difference is that I will have allowed God to teach me through His Word instead of allowing myself to read my own meaning into the passage.

Perhaps we can best determine intent by looking at the results of our study of God. What is the result of your study? When you study theology are you brought to your knees in awe at the power and holiness of God? Do you feel righteous indignation at those who speak falsehood in the name of God? Or do you feel pride in your knowledge? Do you find yourself thinking about who you are going to use your newfound theology against, or do you find yourself anxious to turn that knowledge into practice in your own life? Are you seeking to apply theology to your life or to the lives of others?

Another question we need to ask is this: do you find yourself taking comfort in your knowledge of God rather than in the grace of God? You can be sure that your study of God has become idolatrous if you begin to believe that your knowledge of God is what earns you favor before Him - even the tiniest, most miniscule amount of favor.

And finally, the study of God can become idolatrous when we lose the balance between knowing and doing. When we spend the bulk our time studying God, but very little time applying that knowledge through encouraging others and sharing the Good News with our neighbours, we need to re-examine our hearts. Are we storing up knowledge with no intent of applying it? Or do we earnestly seek to take what we have learned and use it to further the word of God?

I will close with some words from my study on putting God in a box. “The warning for us is that we must continually seek the Spirit’s help in applying Scripture to our lives, so that it does not become empty knowledge and an end in itself. Our knowledge of God is useless if it remains only in our minds. All we know about Him should spur us on to worship Him in spirit and truth and to motivate us to take what we know to the world, that others can rejoice with us.”

June 04, 2005

I love television. I love to be able to turn my mind off at the end of a hard day’s work and just lie back on the couch with nothing more to think about than who will be the next person voted off the island. I love following the lives of fictional characters whose lives seem so much more interesting (and funny) than my own. I love a good whodunit, trying to determine which of the good guys is actually a bad guy. I love football, hockey and baseball – some of the best forms of entertainment available.

I hate television. I hate how it makes me turn my mind off, causing me to stop thinking about the important and interesting things I have learned during the day. I hate telling my kids to shush because I don’t want to miss the punch line of a great episode of a sitcom. I hate following the lives of people who don’t exist whose lives are so immoral and godless. I hate seeing my son watching an almost-naked body on television or having him see a dead child on the screen. I hate watching hours of football, hockey and baseball – some of the most mindless entertainment available.

I love what I hate. I love to watch television, though I know most of it has no redeeming value whatsoever. I profess to know that what goes into a mind comes out in a life, yet don’t think I can be affected by filling my mind with garbage. I want my son to be raised with a respect for what is right and wrong, yet continually justify what is wrong because I don’t want to turn off my show. I know that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, yet love to turn mine off. I am a hypocrite.

Why does television have such a hold on me? Why do I not have the self-control to just turn it off? To just walk away? All I can determine is that turning off my mind is addictive. I like to be amused. The word “amuse” comes from Greek words meaning “not thinking” and that is exactly what I seem to enjoy. I enjoy not having anything deep or exciting to think about. I enjoy mindlessness. And perhaps even worse, if I did open my mind I would see all sorts of behavior that contradicts my beliefs.

That is a sobering thought. Where God tells me to fill my mind with purity and holiness, I prefer either to turn it off altogether or fill it with trash.

I have invested a lot of time and consideration into the places where Christian’s lives disconnect from their faith. Or said differently, where the walk disconnects from the talk. For me, I know this is one of those areas. I say one thing but consistently contradict what I say with what I actually do.

Now please don’t think that I am against television altogether and am advocating putting a hammer through your (or my) TV. And don’t think that I watch ridiculous amounts of TV. I just know that this is an area in my life that I am holding back, unwilling to let God change me. I am stubbornly refusing to give up this addiction, denying God the right to use that time for His purposes.

June 03, 2005

Al Mohler recently blogged about Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transsexual who was a guest on the Larry King show. Jennifer began life as James, but went through a male-to-female sex change at the age of 43 and changed her name to Jennifer. Also appearing on the show was Dierdre Boylan, whom James married (when still a man) and to whom s/he is still married after having undergone the sex change.

As I read Mohler’s article and the transcript of the program, I was reminded of an article I wrote early last year. At that time I had been browsing through the newspaper and came across an article that caught my attention. It was a rather tragic story of a young man who hated who he was. At some point in his early teenage years he became convinced that he was actually a girl trapped in a boy’s body. He began to live like a girl; dressing in girl’s clothing and taking estrogen to try to combat his male hormones. As he grew older he began to become promiscuous, engaging in sexual behavior with boys, yet never revealing that he was actually male. Eventually some of the men with whom he had engaged in sexual acts became suspicious and began to think they had figured out his secret. They resolved to find out once and for all, so in a fit of rage tore off his clothes and learned that their behavior had not just promiscuous, but also homosexual. Enraged, they beat him to death and buried him in a shallow grave. One of them later confessed to the crime and they are now (justly) awaiting trial on charges of murder.

It was a terrible story of sin, misery and death. And while the story was tragic, what really stood out to me was that the journalist who wrote about it continually described the subject of the story as “she.” Because this boy had decided he wanted to be a girl, the journalist described him that way. And of course the same is true of Jennifer Boylan, though she, at least, has had her male genitals replaced with female counterparts, at least removing the external evidence of her masculinity.

I am experiencing a pronoun predicament as I write this. How do I determine who is a “he” and who is a “she?” This used to be a simple matter. When a child was born, the doctor would look at the child’s genitals and exclaim, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” based on the external, visual evidence. Of course this still happens. Some good friends of ours are going to visit a doctor in just a couple of weeks to determine if their unborn child is male and female. The ultrasonographer will look for the obvious, external evidence. But in our changing society it seems this is no longer the truest measure of gender. Today gender is something ultimately determined by mind and emotion. Body parts and chromosomes may point the way, at least through the early years of life, but if later in life I decide these have been bearing false witness to my gender, I am free to alter my male identity. When it comes to gender, mind trumps matter.

I see this is a perfect but shocking example of evidence that our society no longer believes in absolutes, for now even gender has become relative. The story I read in the newspaper was about a person who was born male – he had male anatomy, male chromosomes and grew up as a little boy – but at some point he allowed his mind to convince himself that he was female. Now common sense tells us that a human being who has male anatomy and male chromosomes in every cell of his body is male! But our confused, politically correct society seems to disagree. Just because every cell in his body cries out that he is male, we should not assume that he is, for his mind may tell him otherwise. And if a boy decides he is actually a girl, we certainly are not to judge him for that decision. We should assume that he is correct and give him full support.

Mohler rightly points out the difficulties faced when we experiement with God’s gift of gender. “For her part, Dierdre Boylan commented that she is a ‘straight’ woman who has no desire to have sexual relations with Jennifer, through they are still legally married. ‘I do miss having a husband, and being a husband and wife,’ she admitted. ‘I miss our physical relationship. In many ways, particularly now, sort of five years down the road, most of the things that I loved about Jim are still present in Jenny. The things that aren’t there are the most male things.’ That comment has multiple meanings, to be sure. In any event, this case represents the convoluted complications that ensure when the Creator’s gift of gender becomes an experiment in self-expression rather than a focus of objective identity.” Imagine the difficulties faced by their children, who apparently call Jennifer “Maddy” - a word which combines Mommy and Daddy.

Jennifer explains transexuality in this way: “A transsexual is a person like me, someone born in one body with a lifelong conviction that they are the other sex.” So it does seem that today even gender is a decision. If tomorrow I decide I want to be a woman, what is to stop me? I will expect and demand that you treat and address me accordingly!

June 02, 2005

It was a couple of weeks ago when I first heard that Petra had officially announced their retirement. One of the pioneering Christian rock bands, and for many years one of the most popular, Petra has decided to retire after 33 years of ministry. I am a little embarrassed to admit that the news hit me hard. To be honest, I had to hold back the tears. That may sound strange, I admit, but you must consider that Petra has played a pivotal role in my life and in my spiritual development.

It must have been 1991 when I first heard of Petra. At the time I was still (as far as I can tell) an unbeliever, though one who had been raised in a Christian home, but the Spirit was beginning to stir my heart. I visited a friend’s house one weekend and he played me some of Petra’s music from their latest album, Beyond Belief. I scoffed at it, laughing at the mere suggestion of Christian rock music. At the time I was attending a church that gave tacit approval to secular music, but would not hear of Christian rock, so my reaction flowed naturally from the beliefs that had been drilled into me. But at one point when my friend stepped out for a few hours, I copied one of the songs (piracy, I know) and took it home with me. I must have listed to that song, titled “Underground” at least 100 times. My family and friends joined me in scoffing at the suggestion of Christian rock music. But something about that song spoke to me. The words challenged me to develop a faith of my own and to take it seriously, rather than to simply live out the faith of my parents.

I won’t go underground
I won’t turn and flee
I won’t bow the knee
I won’t go underground
I won’t turn and hide from the rising tide
I won’t go underground
I won’t compromise what the world denies
I won’t go underground
And I’m not ashamed of the cross I’ve claimed

I remained skeptical, but the next time I visited my friend I went with him to the local Christian bookstore and bought two albums, Beyond Belief and Petrified (a best-of album). I was hooked. Shortly afterwards, Petra’s next album, Unseen Power was released, and I snatched it up.

These songs continued to stir my heart. They challenged me to find and develop a personal walk with Christ, a concept that was missing from the church I attended at the time. While I had spent countless hours in church, had been educated in Christian schools and had memorized the catechism, I had never been challenged with the idea that perhaps I was not a believer and that faith had to be personal. The song “Beyond Belief” was particularly challenging:

Leap of faith without a net
Makes us want to hedge our bet
Waters never part until our feet get wet
There’s a deeper place to go
Where the road seems hard to hoe
He who has begun this work won’t let it go

There’s a higher place to go, beyond belief, beyond belief
Where we reach the next plateau, beyond belief, beyond belief
And from faith to faith we grow
Towards the center of the flow
Where He beckons us to go, beyond belief, beyond belief

And eventually I did take that leap of faith, finding for myself that the waters did not part until my feet got wet. I remember one evening kneeling beside my bed and just crying out to God to make me His. I was tired of living a fake faith, a faith that was built around doing and being, not built on the firm foundation of grace. And God, in His mercy, heard my cry. I know that God did not need this music to bring me to this point. Yet I firmly believe that it was an instrument He used to show me the necessity of a personal walk with Him.

I am grateful that I have had opportunity to thank the band for their help in this. In 1998 I even hosted and promoted a Petra concert, and was able to sit with John Schlitt for a few minutes, shake his hand, and just thank him for his ministry to me. I have also shared this with Bob Hartman, who founded the band and who wrote the songs that meant so much to me in my spiritual awakening.

I will always be thankful to Petra for their years of selfless ministry. I am thankful that God chose to use them to help open the eyes of my heart, that I could see the wonder, joy and necessity of walking with and in Him.

Petra will be embarking on a farewell tour this Fall, and it appears that Toronto will be on their list of locations. You can be sure that I will be there (my fifth or sixth Petra concert) to thank them one last time for all they have meant to me. For more information, press releases, and so on, visit Petra Rocks My World.

Does anyone else have Petra memories? Favorite moments, concerts, albums or songs?

June 01, 2005

In four previous articles, I have discussed the tendency of Christians to put God in a box of our own imaginations. Allow me to briefly review each of those articles before moving forward in this discussion.

In the introduction we looked at the apparent conflict between God’s revelation of Himself and our tendency to put Him in a box. We saw that while God’s revelation of Himself is always true, it is not necessarily complete. We then turned to three different areas of life where we tend to box God. The first was in our doctrine and we saw that God’s Word is not given to us so that it might restrain or contain God. On the contrary, the Word is given to restrain and contain us! In the second article we looked at Christian piety and saw the importance of never placing limits on God’s ability to act in and through us. And finally we looked at transformationalism and saw that we can limit God in our pursuit of evangelizing the lost.

We need to realize that when we place God in a box, this box exists only in our minds, yet manifests itself in our beliefs, words and actions. When we believe “God is love” we may never take into account His wrath and will reflect this in what we do, say and believe.

Today I would like to conclude this series by suggesting the consequences we must face if we are to have too low a view of God - a view whereby we contain Him in a box.

There was a time in human history where men worshipped the moon. They saw the moon above them and considered it an awesome manifestation of the Divine. And so they worshipped it, paying homage to it as a god. But as civilization advanced, men constructed instruments through which they could study the moon. They came to realize that it was merely a moon orbiting the earth. They saw that it was a giant, dirt ball that had no light of its own, for it only reflected the light of the sun. In the name of science, men were sent to the moon and walked on its surface. Like so many others, I have stood in line at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to touch a piece of the moon, worn smooth under the pressure of millions of fingers. At this point we can say that the moon has been thoroughly demystified. We know what it is, what it is made of, and even know of its importance to the earth. When we gaze at the moon today, we do so with little of the awe and wonder of men thousands of years ago.

In this case it may be a good thing. The moon does not deserve our worship and it is important that we understand what it is and what it does. But this same pursuit of knowledge has driven us to demystify God. God is not a mere piece of the Creation that can be examined, understood and conquered. Yet this is what many of us have done in our pursuit of knowledge of God.

It is crucial that we maintain or rediscover our awe of God. Too many of us have reduced God to a predictable formula. People complain when their jobs are too routine or that each date with their spouse feels the same as the last. In the same way we can feel that God has become part of a boring routine. When we feel this way, it is probably true that we have, in our minds, placed limits on God’s character and His actions.

So allow me to encourage you to seek to recover a sense of awe before God.

The first step to recovering this sense of awe is to understand that awe begins with who God is - with His character - rather than what He does (His actions). We can only know who He is by knowing and believing His revelation of Himself. What God has told us in Scripture is Truth, Total Truth, and God desires and expects that we know it. There is no excuse for being ignorant of who He is. Yet we need to remember that this is not the complete picture. Rather it is the picture only so far as He saw fit to give it to us. There is much more to God than what the Bible tells us, but no more than we need to know at the present time. When we go to be with the Lord we will know and understand far more.

What I have come to understand is this: that we as humans we cannot be in awe of what we fully understand. We lose the mystery of what we master. It is easy to be impressed by watching wild animals in their natural habitat, but there is far less to appreciate about them when they have been caught, stuffed and mounted on the wall. To continue with the analogy we used earlier, we no longer worship the moon because we now understand it enough that we have removed its mystique. So when we place God in a box, we see Him as far less awesome than He really is. When we catch Him, stuff Him and mount Him on the wall, we reduce Him to the level of a creature that can be fully understood.

And here is something else I have come to understand: expectations run contrary to grace. When we feel that we know exactly how God will, can or even must act we no longer live from grace. Instead we live in expectancy of exactly how God must act in a given situation. Yet God is not as predictable as the path of the moon as it orbits the earth. Read the Gospels; read the Old Testament and you will find multitudes of examples where God did the exact opposite of what people expected of Him. We must not allow our expectations of God to overrule our awe of His grace.

Thus my challenge to myself and to those reading this article is to ensure we have a proper understanding of God. We always need to remember that He transcends any concept or category we can use to define or contain Him. God is infinite and simply cannot be contained. He cannot be boxed. He cannot be conquered. Set yourself free by setting Him free in your mind. Study His Word, and discover anew the awe of God.

May 31, 2005

It is the Lord’s delight to give us what we ask of Him in prayer. With David we all ought to cry out, “O God, hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth” (Psalm 54:2). If Christians did not believe this, there would be no reason for us to ask God of anything. He tells us that we can have this confidence. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14,15). While most Christian pay lip-service to the superlatives in that sentence (“whatever” and “anything”) very few really believe it.

The fact is that our prayers are often hindered. There are times when it feels like our prayers are reaching the ceiling and going no further. While we can be sure that God does hear our prayers, there are times when He chooses not to heed or answer them. What is especially tragic is that we are the only ones who can hinder our prayers. I cannot hinder your prayers anymore than you can hinder mine. And while we may have done much to hinder our prayers, we are not necessarily even aware of this. Allow me to present six ways we can hinder our prayers so that God will not answer them. This list is incomplete, for there may be other ways our prayers are hindered, but it contains the most likely and significant ways.

Selfish Motives

All humans are selfish. It is part of our human nature that we naturally regard our own interests ahead of the interests of others. And sadly, we often regard our own interests ahead of God’s. In the passage we read above, 1 John 5:14 and 15, the apostle tells us that our confidence comes from asking “according to his [God’s] will.” James similarly exhorts “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).

So the first hindrance to our prayer is our motives. We must ask in accordance with God’s will. We must ask only for things that are consistent with the character and nature of God. We must ask for things that are for the spiritual benefit of ourselves or the person we pray for.

Turning Away From Scripture

If we are not spending time immersing ourselves in Scripture and are not obeying what we have learned, we should not expect God to answer our prayers. Our defiance in ignoring the life-giving Words of the Bible may hinder us from having our prayers answered. Solomon goes so far as to suggest that prayers made from such a hardened heart are an abomination to God. “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

When we read the Words of Scripture, we ask and encourage God to speak to us. He provides the understanding we need to live lives that bring glory to Him - lives that are increasingly consistent with His standards of grace and holiness. If we thumb our nose at the importance of this discipline and if we disobey what He teaches, He will not answer our prayers.

Unforgiving Hearts

The Christian has been forgiven for the greatest of offenses. He has been forgiven for knowingly, purposely and unrepentantly transgressing the Law of God. And yet we are often slow to forgive our fellow man for the smallest of transgression, for even the biggest of the sins committed against us are as nothing compared to how we sinned against God. God does not honor this attitude. In Mark 11:25 Jesus says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Our ongoing assurance of pardon before the Father is in some way dependant on our willingness to forgive others. We must be attentive to our hearts, to ensure that we are not harboring hatred and resentment towards others. If we have this attitude we should expect our prayers to be hindered.

Family Discord

It is God’s will that families live together in peace and harmony. It is, of course, impossible for us to live in perfect peace, but God demands that we maintain close relationships and that we seek harmony in our family relationships. It is foremost the responsibility of the father, as the head of the household, to ensure that there is not discord within the family. When this discord exists, especially in the relationship of a husband to his wife, his prayers may well be hindered. The apostle Peter, a married man himself, exhorted husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, being sensitive to their needs, “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).

The relationship between a husband and a wife is to reflect that of Christ to His church. It is to be a relationship of absolute love, adoration and sacrifice. If Christ gave His life for the church, how can a husband do any less for his wife? This is, of course, impossible when the relationship is strained or broken. Thus a man should examine his relationship with his wife to ensure this is not a hindrance to his prayers.

Unconfessed Sin

Just as unforgiveness can hinder our prayers, so can sin in our lives that we have refused to confess before God. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Before we conclude that God has simply not heard or prayers or that it is not His will to give us what we ask, we need to examine our hearts to see if unconfessed sin stands as a barrier between ourselves and God.

While we need to continually examine our hearts, we need also to ask God to reveal our sin to us. We should ask those closest to us what they have observed in our lives. While God most often reveals sin through the reading of and meditating upon His Word, we should realize that if we do not learn our lesson from Scripture, He may have to resort to harsher tactics where our sin is revealed before others, even publically. While this may be difficult and humiliating, He does so because He loves us and does not wish for this sin to continue to corrupt us and to stand as a barrier between Himself and us.

Doubt

God wants us to have confidence in His ability and willingness to provide what is necessary for us to attain to godliness. He wants us to believe that He can and will do what He says. Thus when we doubt - when we ask expecting rejection and when we ask almost hoping for rejection - we will hinder our prayers. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:5-7).

Our prayer cannot be separated from our faith. If we are to ask God, we must ask with expectancy, believing in our heart of hearts that God can and will give what we want, provided that what we want is really what we need! We are to ask with confidence and expectancy.

Conclusion

The eighteenth chapter of Luke is premised with the following words: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus goes on to share the parable of the persistent widow. It is a parable designed to teach the importance of persisting in prayer. It is God’s desire that we persist in our petitions before Him. When we ask and do not receive, we need to examine ourselves and question why our prayers are being hindered. Are we asking selfishly? Have we turned away from God, harbored unforgiveness in our hearts or ignored sin in our lives? Or have we allowed discord to creep into our families? These questions can lead us back to the Word of God and guide us to an examination of our hearts.

May 30, 2005

Love him or hate him, George Barna often presents interesting information to the church. His latest study, dated May 30, 2005, asked pastors to identify “the three books that had been most helpful to them as a ministry leader during the past three years.” There were over 200 books listed, but only 9 that were listed by more than 2% of the 614 pastors surveyed. Similarly, there were only 10 authors that were listed by more than 2% of the respondants.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church, both by Rick Warren, were ranked as number 1 and number 2. Warren was also the author whose books were listed most often, and thus ranked as the most influential church leader.

Most Helpful Books

Twenty one percent of pastors said that The Purpose Driven Life was one of the three most helpful books they had read in the past three years and 15% said the same of The Purpose Driven Church.

“Only seven additional books gained recognition from at least 2% of pastors – and each of those seven publications was chosen by 2%. Those books were What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey; Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala; Wild At Heart by John Eldredge; Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels; Spiritual Leadership by Henry Blackaby; Next Generation Leader by Andy Stanley; and the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell.”

Most Influential Authors

After Rick Warren, John Maxwell was the runner-up, with books listed as among the most helpful by 5% of pastors. “Five writers were mentioned by 3% of the nation’s church leaders: Henry Blackaby, Jim Cymbala, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, and Phil Yancey. The other influential authors were George Barna, John Eldredge and John Piper, each of whom was mentioned by 2%…Another outcome of the research concerned the authors who had the greatest number of influential books listed by pastors. Six authors stood out as having multiple volumes that have helped large numbers of pastors. Researcher George Barna, who had ten influential books identified by pastors, headed the list. Following him were Max Lucado and John Maxwell, with nine books each; Charles Swindoll and John MacArthur, each with six books; and Phillip Yancey, with four acclaimed books.”

Most Useful Types of Books

Fifty four percent of the respondants listed at least one book regarding discipleship or personal spiritual growth. Books about church growth, congregational health or ministry dynamics were the next most prolific, listed by 23% of pastors. Leadership books were equally valued, identified by 22%. No other category was cited by at least 10% of the sample.

“Less influential types of books included those about theology (9%), evangelism and outreach (6%), pastoring (6%), and prayer (5%). Books regarding charismatic perspectives (5%), trends and cultural conditions (4%), and preaching (3%) also generated noteworthy interest.”

Commentary

What can I say? These results are not at all suprising, but yet somehow still seem alarming. How is it possible that only 9% of respondants listed a book about theology? If pastors don’t read theology, how does? What about preaching, pastoring and prayer? Now it does seem that the question asked in this survey was slanted towards this type of leadership book. After all, the question asked what books were “most helpful to them as a ministry leader during the past three years.”

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Pastors either read bestsellers or they make bestsellers. It is difficult to know if books become bestsellers because they appeal to pastors who then tell their congregations about these books, or if pastors are as influenced by the Christian marketing machine as the average Joe sitting in the pew. I suspect it is the latter.
  2. Rick Warren truly is the most influential pastor in North America at the present time. Of course we already knew this, but Barna’s survey provides evidence that his influence is not only among the laity, but among the leadership.
  3. The most popular books are those dealing with leadership. Leaders are influenced by the latest and greatest books on leadership. It is disheartening to see that only 9% of respondants listed a book that dealt with theology. I guess theological books are not helpful in leading a church! Then again, I will admit that some of the titles described as “Discipleship” or “Personal Spiritual Growth” could also be theological, though not if they are Wild at Heart and What’s So Amazing About Grace?.
  4. It seems obvious that the trend away from theology begins at the leadership level and filters down through the church. If only 9% of pastors have been influenced by a theological book in the past three years, how much less the average layperson?
  5. I would very much have liked to see where Brian McLaren rated in this list. I suspect he would have had very little influence with older pastors, but would have been listed prominently by younger men (and women).

I would be interested in other people’s thoughts on this survey, which you can read here.

And I would also like to know the three books that had been most helpful to you in your Christian walk during the past three years.

May 26, 2005

Since publishing this article new information has come to light. I’d encourage you to read this article also published on this site instead of this one as it contains more information and better information.

The Purpose Driven Life is a runaway bestseller. In truth, it is in a category all its own. It is closing in on 25 million copies sold and will eclipse this number soon enough. Incredibly enough, it is selling better now than when it first released. Where most titles sell quickly at first and then the sales slow, this book gained sales momentum for over a year following its release. There are those who are sufficiently naive to believe that this success owes to the value of the book. But truth be told, it is not nearly as good a book as the sales would indicate. Warren says little that has not been said before, and has been said better. I’m sure it has changed some lives and has brought encouragement to many people. But this doesn’t make a book sell 25 million copies and become the bestselling book of all-time in its genre.

So how does a book, especially a book written by a professed Christian and dealing with Christian topics become such a wild bestseller? Allow me to introduce you to Pyromarketing.

Pyromarketing is a term developed by Greg Stielstra who was part of Zondervan’s marketing team for The Purpose Driven Life, and was responsible for marketing various aspects of the book. It is a type of so-called “viral marketing” as it is based on passing information from one person to the next. This is in opposition to marketing that relies on mass media advertising such as television commercials. Think about it, and you’ll realize that in all likelihood you never saw a television commercial for The Purpose Driven Life. In fact, it is entirely possible that you never saw any media marketing for it whatsoever. The book did not receive any significant coverage in the press until very recently, long after it had established itself as a major success.

Greg Stielstra

Greg Stielstra is the head of the marketing team working within Zondervan, which published the book. He is obviously very good at what he does. He’s quoted as saying that if he promoted a book about quilting “to one-tenth of one percent of left-handed quilters,” he could land the title on the non-fiction bestseller list and prime it for even bigger success. I assume this quote is true because he posted a comment on that blog and did not deny it.

Here are some excerpts from his biography:

“I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the biggest names in publishing Philip Yancey, Lee Strobel, Jim Cymbala, Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Joni Eareckson Tada, Billy Graham, Dan Qualye, Oliver North, Dave Dravecky, Rick Warren, Kurt Warner, Mike Singletary, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Rosa Parks, Dr. Ben Carson, and others. My work for these authors has won many accolades for marketing excellence, and my track record includes 88 best sellers, 20 #1 bestsellers, and eight books that have sold more than a million copies. Five of these books made The New York Times bestsellers list, including a title that reached #1 and remained on the list for over two years.”

Stielstra, then, is a man who works within a Christian industry, marketing Christian books to Christians. I found the following endorsement interesting:

“When I first heard Greg Stielstra describe the PyroMarketing model, I knew instinctively that he had found a powerful metaphor that could help marketing leaders in any business transform their results. Greg’s secrets have worked in one of the most crowded markets - book publishing - and they can work for you. PyroMarketing will help your marketers focus on consumer understanding and insight, not the size of their budget. Properly applied, you’ll get the best marketing - the kind that builds margins!” (Denis Beausejour, former global vice-president of marketing, The Procter & Gamble Company)

Denis Beausejour, who worked for Proctor & Gamble cuts to the heart of the matter. This type of marketing builds profit margins. It is an interesting observation to make about a program developed to market Christian materials. Whether this approach can thrive outside of the church is, as yet, unknown.

Marketing As Fire

The key to successful Pyromarketing is to understand marketing as fire. Founded on the assumption (which is clearly and obviously true) that we are bombarded with advertising, Pyromarketing attempts a whole new approach. Interestingly, Stielstra compares the success of The Purpose Driven Life with another surprise hit, The Passion of the Christ. “The success of The Purpose-Driven Life or The Passion of the Christ, remains puzzling to many, but not to those who know their secret. What do these remarkable success stories have in common? They each used PyroMarketing.” The technique is well-described in a little song you may have sung while sitting beside a campfire:

It only takes a spark to get fire going
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
You spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.

Pyromarketing is built around this metaphor of fire. Stielstra says, “Every fire needs fuel, oxygen, heat and the heat from the comustion reaction itself. Heat excites the fuel, breaking its molecular bonds at the ignition point freeing the fuel’s electrons to abandon the fuel and join with oxygen in the surrounding air. Ignition temperatures vary significantly from one fuel to the next. The reaction gives off additional heat which excites neighboring fuel and causes the fire to spread.”

Just as fire depends on fuel, so does marketing. Just as ignition temperatures vary from one fuel to the next, so do the “ignition points” of consumers. And just as fire spreads, so excitement about products spreads. “In PyroMarketing consumers are the fuel and their ignition points also differ widely. There is money stored in their wallets, but there is a very strong bond between consumers and their money.” This approach attempts to create “consumer evangelists” who will do the most important and effective marketing on a product’s behalf. The four steps of this marketing approach mimic the steps of building a fire:

  1. Gather the driest tinder. In this first step, Zondervan sought out the people who were most likely to respond to their marketing campaign. They found 1200 pastors whose congregations totaled some 400,000 people. Rick Warren, using his existing credibility gained through his prior book The Purpose Driven Church and Purpose Driven seminars, convinced 1200 pastors to begin a “40 Days of Purpose” campaign in their churches. These people were gathered with the promise (or at least suggestion) of success - that by following this campaign they would have bigger, stronger, more successful churches. The tinder was ready to be struck by a match.
  2. Touch it with the match. This step includes reaching the market, which in this case is the church. Having found 1200 pastors who would lead their churches in this campaign, Zondervan produced commercial spots and had them played on Christian radio stations in target areas. This generated some excitement about the program and even provided a small amount of brand recognition. They did not actively promote the book, but the campaigns that were beginning in local churches. For six weeks, following a video introduction by Rick Warren, those churches taught messages prepared by him and studied his book in small groups. Zondervan discounted the book to just $7 (from the usual $20) to promote it to the 400,000 people attending these 1200 churches. The flame was now burning, if only in a small way.
  3. Fan the flames. Zondervan fanned the flames by promoting the book and the associated programs as evangelism. They told how this book had changed lives and grown churches within those 1200 congregations that formed the initial campaign. A company called Outreach marketing produced posters and door hangers and other items to assist churches as they spread the word. Zondervan provided retailers with marketing tools like postcards and emails along with a list of participating churches so they could sell them any additional copies they needed. The pastors and laypeople who had already completed the program, largely unknowingly, became consumer evangelists. The flames spread.
  4. Gather the coals. Zondervan gathered information on every church that had done the program, and wherever possible, on the individuals who had participated. They gathered email addresses through their web sites. As more Purpose Driven products become available, Zondervan can market them to a group that has already expressed interest in this type of product. According to Stielstra, saving the coals “is how your marketing budgets build equity and the only way to expand your business with marketing budgets that stubbornly refuse to grow. There is a great deal of scientific evidence for PyroMarketing from psychology, physiology, and sociology.” The coals are now gathered, prepared to heat up a fire that is dying down, or to begin a whole new one.

This four-part approach, which is cyclical in nature, reveals the secret behind the success of The Purpose Driven Life. It all comes down to a particularly brilliant marketing solution. It is brilliant, because while Stielstra does not say so, there are clearly three factors that he takes advantage of within the church:

  1. Naivety. This approach dupes Christians into becoming marketers, not for a book, but for a marketing approach, and ultimately for a profit-driven corporation. This marketing approach is supposed to work as easily with any product as with what is a supposedly-biblical book. There is nothing inherently Christian about the approach and it has no biblical basis.
  2. Ignorance. This approach also benefited from the ignorance of evangelical Christians, that they were not able to see beyond the marketing and see a book that was, in many places, clearly unbiblical and which said little that had not already been said before, either by Christian or secular writers. Were Christians properly-educated in the Scriptures, this approach would fall flat.
  3. Pragmatism. This approach is, at its heart, pragmatic. This is the charge that has long been levelled at the Church Growth Movement, that success becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth rather than the Word of God. In a sense all marketing is pragmatic, especially when it is designed to sell a product.

Pyromarketing, which was so successful with Warren’s book, was clearly at the heart of the success of The Passion of the Christ, where once more a movie was pushed onto the church by a secular organization which managed to convince well-meaning Christians that this movie was much more than the reality. And having done that, it turned these people into product evangelists, so that they did the marketing on behalf of the corporation. Mel Gibson earned hundreds of millions of dollars, as did the theatres and countless other companies. And they owe it all to the church which has received little or no benefit from it. The church did the marketing, while the corporation benefitted.

The fact is, this approach takes advantages of Christians, foisting on them products, books and services that we do not need! Yet the marketing gurus convince us that we do, and they are only too happy to reap the bountiful rewards. We can expect to see far more of this approach in the future. The naive, under-educated, pragmatic Christian world is only too happy to continually attain to the next big thing. Publishers like Zondervan are only too-willing to tell us what it is.

Resources

Business Week Article which first alerted me to Pyromarketing.

Stielstra has written a book detailing Pyromarketing (entitled, not suprisingly, Pyromarketing). This book is published by HarperBusiness and is due for release on June 15 of this year. Interestingly, HarperBusiness is also the home of Peter Drucker who shaped much of Warren’s thinking about church planting and growth. I am sure this book will be a fascinating look into the heart of the marketing approach that made The Purpose Driven Life such a great success.

Greg Stielstra’s site

PowerPoint Presentation and Associated Text from which I drew the majority of this information. What struck me more than anything else was the completely secular nature of this marketing. Purpose Driven Life was nothing but a product, and millions of Christians were nothing but consumers who didn’t know what they needed until Zondervan told them.

Since publishing this article new information has come to light. I’d encourage you to read this article also published on this site.

May 25, 2005

This is the fourth installment in a series of articles discussing the Christian tendency to put God in a box. In the first article we saw that we tend to feel insecure about God unless we have contained Him within a box in our minds and then saw that God has revealed Himself to us in a way that is incomplete, but which we can understand. God’s revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can understand Him. While incomplete, this framework is accurate and trustworthy. In the second article we examined how we can allow our doctrine to put God in a box through our ignorance, through our imaginations and by making theology and end in itself. In the third article we looked at ways we put God in a box through our attempts to live a life of Christian piety.

As I explained in previous articles, the Christian faith in general, and the Reformed faith in particular, can be divided into three main thrusts. These overlap, and thus are somewhat false distinctions, but serve to differentiate between diverse areas of the Christian life. They are the doctrinal, the pietist and the transformationalist. Today we will look at the Christian’s duty to the world to be a transformationalist and how it can lead us to put God in a box.

Defining Transformationalist

The transformationalist emphasis refers to the way Christians relate to the world and to the culture around us. It seeks to avoid isolationism, but to impact the culture in ways consistent with Christian doctrine and piety. It seeks to fulfill the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to respond to the exhortation of James that “faith without works is dead.” For some believers it includes the “cultural mandate” which is the job description God gave to man at the beginning of time: to rule the world with Him. Yet in doing these things we can unknowingly place God in a box of our own making.

When we emphasize God’s Sovereignty over Human Responsibility

There is always a tension in the Christian’s life between the sovereignty of God and our responsibility to act. We can never come to a full understanding of how God interacts with this world and with its inhabitants. This is a mystery too great for us to conquer. Thankfully God does not expect us to conquer it. Instead, He commands us to go forth in His power, to do His work. We should not concern ourselves with the “why” as much as the “how” and then just do it!

When we over-emphasize God’s sovereignty, we place Him in a box whereby we deny that He can or will act to save people. Many know this as hyper-Calvinism, and it is a dangerous belief to slip into. We must understand that God uses us to accomplish His work in the world, not out of necessity, but because it fits His plan.

When we emphasize Human Responsibility over God’s Sovereignty

Just as we can overemphasize God’s sovereignty, in the same way we can place too great an emphasis on human responsibility. When we do this, we deny that God is the one who is sovereign in the salvation of souls. When we lose sight of God’s right to act as He sees fit, and to act in accordance with His plans, we can place God in a box whereby we believe that He is helpless without us. We may then examine our words or actions in light of their results instead of in the light of God’s Truth. We may elevate results to the status of ultimate arbiter of right or wrong.

This is known as pragmatism. The truth is that God does not need you or me. And God expects us to act in accordance with His wisdom, as revealed in Scripture, instead of human wisdom which is based on human folly. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China in the nineteenth century, said, “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack for supplies.” They key to doing God’s work in a way that pleases Him is to do it in His way, acknowledging that He chooses to use us, despite not needing us.

When We Forget Where We Came From

When we have been justified and are beginning to be sanctified, conforming ever more to the image of Christ, we can become smug, forgetting that it was only the grace of God that saved us and made us new. We can begin to believe that we somehow merited His favor, or that the changes wrought in us have been made through our own power. It is shocking that we can so quickly lose sight of our past and lose sight of God’s grace, but this is common to believers.

We need to continually heed the words of Peter where he warns that we must, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). We need to maintain a humility born of knowledge of who we are. We need to realize that God did not choose us because of anything in us or anything we could offer Him. God chose us only through His sovereign free will.

When we forget the past, when we lose sight of our total and absolute depravity, we place God in a box whereby He chooses those who love Him most or those whom He can use best.

Conclusion

Through the last three articles we have seen that Christians can box God in any and every area of our lives. We are as likely to box Him, denying His power or right to act in our piety as we are in our doctrine. We are as likely to need to break boxes in our attempts to take the Gospel to the world as we are in our understanding of His character.

In our next article we will begin to put this all together and see what boxing God can do to us. We will see the wonders that can be ours when we let God be God.

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