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3 Quick Questions Before Quitting Your Church
October 03, 2016

We all know there are times and circumstances in which the only right course of action is to leave a church. If the church leadership has apostatized or proven themselves unqualified for ministry, if they are preaching a false gospel, if they have surrendered to the culture, we need to get out. We can leave these churches boldly and without looking back, shaking the dust from our feet.

But more often than not, we leave churches for what we might consider discretionary reasons. We don’t need to leave, but choose to leave. And we typically do this when we feel weary of the people, when we feel like they aren’t interested in us anymore, when relationships feel cool rather than warm, when we feel like we need a fresh start.

I wonder if you are in such a place right now—you are part of a church but feeling restless, ready to move on. Maybe you’ve attended another church a time or two and are finding yourself drawn to that congregation, to those people. It’s not always wrong to leave a church under such circumstances, but before you do, I would want to ask three important questions, all of which I’ve asked many times as an elder and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church:

Here’s the first question: Have you been praying for the people of this church? Your love for others grows in direction proportion to your prayer for them. As you pray for people, you find that you love them. You are called to pray for your enemies in the hope that they will become your brothers and sisters and for strangers in the hope that they will become your friends. How much more, then, are you to pray for your fellow church members? When you don’t pray for the people in your church you may soon find your heart cooling toward them. Once your love cools you may find yourself blaming them for your discontentment when really it began within you. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to pray—to pray for the people specifically and by name. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

Here’s the second question: Have you been serving the people of this church? Your love for others grows hand-in-hand with your service to them. As you do love toward others you naturally feel love toward others. Too many Christians prefer to be served rather than looking for every opportunity to serve. They gauge their emotional response to the church by the actions others have taken or not taken toward them. Yet God’s first call to us is not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45, Philippians 2:5-11). The more we imitate Christ in his selfless service, the more our love grows warm. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to serve that church—to creatively seek out opportunities to serve and surprise. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

And one last question: Have you been with the people of this church? Have you been there on Sunday morning, and if you have, have you been all-in, looking for people to speak to, new people to meet, coffee to brew, chairs to stack? Have you been at the Sunday evening or mid-week services, or the prayer meetings, or the small groups? If everyone else in the church is getting together three times a week while you parachute for a quick Sunday morning fix, you will necessarily feel like an outsider looking in. You need to embrace the whole life of a church, not just the one main gathering. Before you leave a church, first determine that for a time you will commit to it all the way. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

Under many circumstances we have freedom before God to move from one church to another. In some cases this is a necessary course of action while in others it is a sinful course of action. Most of the time, though it is discretionary, depending on the particulars, the circumstances, the heart. Before you make such a move, do consider the questions: Have you been praying for the people of the church? Have you been serving the people of the church? Have you been with the people of the church? Love grows cold where there is no prayer. Love grows cold where there is no service and no togetherness. In other words, love grows cold where there is no love—no expression of love through prayer, through deeds, through fellowship.

October 02, 2016

It has been nearly a year since I laid the comments section to rest and begin inviting letters to the editor in its stead. It has been a blessing to receive so many hundreds of letters over the past year and to be able to share the best of them. Here are a few from the past couple of weeks.

Comments on Are You Going to Hurt Me?

Tim, thank you for writing the “Are You Going to Hurt Me” article. It brings to light the tension I have long felt as a woman, runner, (recovering) feminist, and friend of many good men.

As a woman, I walk around knowing that 50% of the population could hurt me if they so choose. Although I am strong for a girl, I am weak compared to men. Yes, I work out regularly, I lift heavy weights, I run, I do everything “right,” but I am weak. At best, I hope to be able to defend myself long enough to survive, to get away, or to get help; that is all.

As a believer, I walk around knowing I am equal in worth to men. I have strong parents who loved me and taught me true self-confidence, I am a daughter of the King. I have unique skills and talents because I am a woman that neither diminish nor are greater than a man’s unique skills and talents.

As a (recovering) feminist, I fight the lie that I have to be the same as men to be valuable. I fight the temptation to turn a blind eye to the unique image bearing of men and women. I want to be the strong, unafraid, woman confidently striding down the street or running down the dark path, but I am not. My ears are pricked, I eyes are peeled, and I’m always a little afraid.

As a friend, daughter, sister-in-Christ to many good men, I walk around with the security of knowing there are good, godly men who desire to protect me – even when I don’t want it. They care for me emotionally and yes, even physically. I know men who go out of their way to make me feel secure when I am running alone—they step to the side, they speak, their eyes do not linger with a lustful hunger. These men speak kindly, they walk me to my car, they hold doors—not because I am incapable, not because I can never walk alone to my car, but because they care. They remind me that my hope is not in myself, it’s not even in them, my hope is in the God who they reflect—the one who cares for me when I am alone and afraid.

Thank you for bringing this simple issue to light. It is a reality for many women and we need good men in all areas of our life.
—Taylor B, Greenville, SC


Sometimes I hate this world we’ve made. My wife says that even in our quiet neighbourhood she sometimes thinks these thoughts as she’s going for a walk in broad daylight and sees an unknown man walking. May Christ come back quickly.
—Mark C, St. Thomas, ON


I’m currently in counseling after having an incident where a man followed me around in a Walmart and then out to my car. It left me shaken and unnerved, and now when I walk outside, I cross to the other side of the street or change my path if I see other men walking/running nearby in the same direction. There are nightmares and startled responses, and I am suffering PTSD because this actually called up two earlier events in which I’ve been sexually assaulted. I cried as I read this article and thank you for being a man who loves and cares deeply for the needs of women, the hurting and the broken. Thanks for your love and that you are a sensitive Christian leader for those whose trust has been violated. Thanks for being a good picture of Christ Jesus, who heals and binds up the brokenhearted, and calls all of us to care for one another, weep for one another, and reminds us that we can always trust in the Father. Let us overcome evil with good.
—Beth L, OK


Wow. Thank you writing this article. It brought tears to my eyes as I recalled all the times I have prayed in a desperate panic for safety when I suddenly found myself alone and in a remote or vacant area. There have been too many fear-laden instances to count in my 34 years of experiences—and I consider myself a very careful and mindful individual when it comes to safety. While out on a run, I have turned around and quickly sprinted away more than twice because a man driving a pick up truck suddenly pulled over right in front of me on a less-populated street. You’re right: The fear IS real. Thank you for encouraging our brothers to start with at least looking for and acknowledging it. It is always a huge comfort to me to know that the men in my life (husband, father, father and brother in laws, pastor) are looking out for my safety.
—Emily A, Roseville CA

Comments on Christian Men and Their Video Games

Thank you so much for providing a refreshing, clear and morally/theologically balanced view of video games. Rather than submit to the petty bashing and equivocations that many of your Reformed Brethren resort to, you have risen above and given a perspective both balanced and personal.
—Aaron S, Brisbane, Australia


I’m so glad I sold my PS4 system a few months ago. I know that if I owned it now, your article would be all the rationalization I would need to continue in a losing fight to idolatry. The problem isn’t in your article’s content. I agree with everything you wrote; however, I constantly struggled with playing too much. Thanks for your thoughts, but I’m even more thankful for the conviction of the Spirit and a community of fellow brothers-in-Christ that help me accountable to sell the system.
—Tyson B, Torrance, CA


I’m thankful that you’ve touched on the topic of video games. In my earliest years of being a part of the church, I faced much condemnation and didn’t feel like it was valid. It can be quite a difficult topic to wrestle with and explain, and often has been confusing to me how many people easily justify sports (playing or spectating) but are quick to dismiss video games as entertainment. Although you’ve written about casual gaming, the one extension which could be discussed is competitive gaming (many elements are identical to physical sports). I’m one who has previously aspired to the world of competitive e-sports for the glory of God and I’m certain that we are in a generation of gamers where there is no presence of Christian athletes. It’s my prayer often that more people would try to understand the beauty that video games can bring, and enjoy it, but not get consumed in this tempting realm.
—Andrew K, Toronto, ON

Comments on Is Seminary Necessary?

As one who did attend seminary (for an M.A. in Christian Counseling) I can attest to the fact that, without such preparation, my ministry may have been reduced to parroting what others have written/spoken/taught from the pulpit. It certainly helps to know one’s theology to confront questions which might prove harmful to a congregant, if left unanswered, from a biblical point of view. Also, there seems to be an abundance of “canned” sermons from which a pastor can choose to preach, however, each pastor should have an even rudimentary understanding of how to interpret Scripture in its proper context and with an eye towards understanding both the intent and spirit of the passage. I did attend a church in my former hometown for several years whose pastor was not seminary trained but, because of his upbringing and studiousness, knew the Bible and its context better than many seminary trained pastors I’ve heard or seen. Seminary, then, may not be necessary but, I believe, is advisable.
—Justin M, El Paso, TX

Why Does the Universe Look So Old
October 01, 2016

When it comes to the age of the universe, Christians find themselves in a bit of a conundrum. At least, those Christians do who hold to a traditional interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis—an interpretation that leads them to believe the universe is something less than the billions of years indicated by contemporary understandings of the scientific data. Those, like me, who hold to a six-day understanding of creation have to face this question: Why does the universe look so old? Why does it look older than it actually is? This is a question Dr. Albert Mohler took on at a Ligonier Ministries conference several years ago and his response was (and remains) helpful to me.

Before I comment on his answer, I want to point out that all Christians, no matter their interpretation of the opening chapters of Scripture, have difficult questions to face as they attempt to strike harmony between Scripture and science or, better, between God’s book of special revelation and God’s book of natural revelation. Those who believe the universe is ancient have to grapple with the existence of death before the fall, for example, or why the creation account is so clearly laid out as if it all takes place in six literal days. It is not only young earth creationists who have to admit the existence of difficult questions.

As Dr. Mohler considers the age of the universe he tells why he is drawn to the six-day view: “In our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel, an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems, and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.”

But why, then, if the universe is so young, does it look so old? His first answer is this: The universe looks old because the Creator made it whole. Accordingly to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, God did not create a universe that began in an infant or primordial state before maturing over billions of years, but a universe that actually began in a state of maturity. When it was still young it already looked mature because this was God’s design. Indeed, this was the case with the first human being. “When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man. By our understanding that would’ve required time for Adam to get old but not by the sovereign creative power of God.” Adam and Eve were created whole, mature, grown up, and were placed in a garden that was also whole, mature, and grown up. “The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole.” There is our first answer, that the universe looks old because God created it to look old. This was design, not deception, just as was the case for Adam, the human being who had no history, no parents, no infancy, no childhood.

The second answer is this: The universe looks old because it bears the effects of sin. Sin is an evil intruder into the world and one that brought about God’s judgment. This judgment was expressed in the catastrophe of the great worldwide flood and in a million lesser catastrophes since. These catastrophes have marked, stained, and scarred all that God created. We bear the effects of sin in our tired eyes, wrinkled skin, and aching bones, and in equivalent ways the earth is marked and marred by sin. Paul says in Romans 8 that the world is groaning, “And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin.” The universe looks old rather than young to display the evidence and consequences of sin, for once we see this we are but a short distance from considering the joy, necessity, and beauty of redemption. A suffering world is crying out for the deliverance that will come.

To my mind these are compelling answers, though they are admittedly somewhat speculative in that neither one can appeal directly to chapter or verse. I will give the final word to Dr. Mohler: “At the end of the day, if I’m asked the question ‘why does the universe look so old?’ I’m simply left with the reality that the universe is telling the story of the glory of God. Why does it look so old? Well that, in terms of any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days. And that is where we are left.”

Is It Time To Declare a Name Amnesty Sunday
September 30, 2016

It’s probably a silly idea. It’s probably the kind of thing we came up with late on a Friday afternoon and laughed about before realizing, “Actually, maybe there’s something to this.” Somehow it became a bit of a tradition for Grace Fellowship Church and, even better, one we rather enjoy. We call it “Name Amnesty Sunday” and we hold one every few months. Let me tell you how it works and how it might benefit your church.

You’ve had the experience. I know you have. You’ve seen new people at church and meant to meet them, but never got around to it. Now they’ve been attending for 3 or 4 months and you know it will be just plain awkward to march up to them to introduce yourself. After all, what kind of a church member, or church leader even, waits that long before making introductions?

Maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe you met them the week they first visited, you spent a few minutes chatting and getting to know them, then walked away and realized, “I’ve already forgotten their names.” Now you’re in that cringe-worthy spot where you nod or wave or say “hello” every Sunday while hoping they don’t figure out that you’ve forgotten who they are.

Or maybe you don’t even remember whether or not you’ve met them. You have a vague memory of meeting them or someone like them, but is it possible you’re remembering intention rather than reality? Now you find it easier just to keep your distance.

What can you do? You can declare a Name Amnesty Sunday.

A Name Amnesty Sunday begins with an announcement the week before so it doesn’t take everyone by surprise. “We have declared next Sunday a Name Amnesty Sunday.” On the day itself, every person who walks into the church is given a name tag the moment they arrive. It may be a little awkward for visitors, but it can be explained away easily enough: “This week we are having everyone wear a name tag so they can learn each other’s names.” We often have the teen girls in charge of writing out the “Hello My Name Is” tags.

An announcement early in the service explains it. “This is a Name Amnesty Sunday. This means you are free to ask anyone their name without shame or embarrassment. If you don’t know someone’s name even though you should, or if you’ve forgotten their name even though they told it to you, you are absolved from all blame and all awkwardness. If someone doesn’t know your name, you are not allowed to hold it against them. You must grant them amnesty. Now go and find someone whose name you don’t know and introduce yourself.”

And, sure enough, you soon hear the conversations. “Hi there. I know we’ve met but I’ve forgotten your name.” “I’m sorry. I’ve been meaning to come over and introduce myself but, you know how it goes…” 

Silly? Yeah, kind of. Effective? Yeah, that too. It’s an effective means of allowing people off the hook, of allowing people to connect who might otherwise find a convenient excuse not to. Maybe your church would benefit from declaring its own Name Amnesty Sunday.

Set An Example
September 29, 2016

Last week I kicked off a new series that I’m writing with younger Christians in mind—high schoolers, college students, people just getting started in the independent life. In the opening article I introduced our key verse: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). I explained that “set an example” is a term related to the world of art and that all through these articles I will be calling on you to make your life a work of art.

Today I want to press on to look at three keys to understanding our passage:

  • What does Paul mean when he refers to Timothy as a “youth?”
  • Why does Timothy need to be concerned with being despised?
  • What does it mean for Timothy to set an example?

After we’ve answered these questions we will be ready to discuss the character traits Timothy needs to exemplify: speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.

Don’t Surrender To Low Expectations

We need to back up just a little to set the context of our passage. We are reading a 2,000-year-old letter written by the Apostle Paul to Pastor Timothy. Paul is the older man, the mentor, while Timothy is the younger man, the disciple. Paul has traveled with Timothy, taught with him, suffered with him, planted and pastored with him. They’ve been together so long and through so much that later on Paul can remind him, “you have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings” (2 Timothy 3:10-11). Paul has modeled Christian living and Timothy has imitated him. Now Timothy is settling in as pastor to the church in Ephesus while Paul has moved on to take the gospel even farther, to plant even more churches.

But Paul is a good mentor, a good friend. Though he has moved on, he has not forgotten Timothy. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, his struggles and temptations. He also knows all about his calling as a pastor, a church leader. All of that comes into his mind as he sits down to write this letter of encouragement, of guidance and instruction. As we come to our verse we hear Paul tell Timothy “Let no one despise you for your youth.” That’s a command, an order. “Don’t allow it! Don’t allow anyone in that church to despise you for your youth.”

We read the word “youth” today and picture Timothy as a guy in his late teens or early twenties, a person in the youth group or maybe just starting in to college and careers. But as we read about the life of Paul and do a little basic math, we realize that Timothy was quite a bit older than that—probably closer to his mid-thirties. That is all grown up in our reckoning, but in that culture he may as well have been a fresh-faced young man who hadn’t even started shaving. In Timothy’s day, forty was considered the age of maturity and those who were older were not inclined to think well of anyone who was younger. They certainly were not likely to think that younger people could be a worthwhile example to follow. Even Christians would be tempted to believe that maturity of character demanded at least forty years of age. In that day, in that city, Timothy was young.

But still Paul tells him, “Let no one despise you for your youth.” If the word “despise” seems a bit strong, then maybe we can offer some synonyms like “look down on,” or “hold in contempt.” Now you see it, right? Paul doesn’t want Timothy to give people reason to look down on him because he is young. He doesn’t want Timothy to lack confidence that even at his age he can serve as a model of Christian maturity. He doesn’t want Timothy to surrender to their low expectations, to give them cause to say, “I knew it!”

Have you ever felt that? Have you felt the weight, the pain of these low expectations? Have you encountered older people who act like there is nothing they could learn from you, not when you’re only sixteen or eighteen or twenty-two? Have you felt like you have nothing to contribute, like anything you say will just generate awkward silences or rolling eyes? Have you become convinced that older people are looking down on you for no better reason than that you are young? You probably have at one time or another. So keep reading. Keep reading because what Paul says next is beautiful and counter-cultural. He doesn’t tell Timothy to demand the respect of those older Christians. He doesn’t allow Timothy to feel sorry for himself or to plead with those older people to respect him. No, Paul has a far better solution.

Set An Example

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example…” How is Timothy to head off the older people’s tendency toward disrespect? How is he to avoid getting into a position where he has messed up and everyone is now looking at him with that “I told you so” look in their eye? By setting an example. By serving as a model of godliness. He is to be the kind of person that older Christians will have to respect because they will see his humble, godly character and his pure, selfless conduct.

Timothy is to “set an example.” This is a term related to art. When you are in art class, the teacher may put a model in the middle of the room and tell you to paint it or sculpt it. That is the example and you, the artist, are to study it, to learn everything about it, and then to make your best reproduction. In this case, the work of art is Timothy’s life. He is to live a life of public godliness and to be such an example that others will see this work of art and imitate it. Even older people who are inclined to disrespect him will see his life and understand that he is modeling Christian thought and Christian living. They will be drawn to his example as he far exceeds their low expectations.

Timothy isn’t to worry about what other people think of him. He isn’t to demand respect by force of will or force of personality. He is to earn respect by the way he lives. John Stott says, “People would not despise his youth if they could admire his example.” And this is true of you, too. The people around you, old or young, will not be distracted by your youth if they can admire your example. And you, like Timothy, actually can be an example. In fact, God calls you to be an example. Your youth is no excuse for ungodliness or spiritual immaturity. Right now, today, God calls you to set an example—an example of godliness, of character, of maturity.

There are many ways you can serve your church. You can care for the children in the nursery, you can stack the chairs in the back of the room, you can direct cars in the parking lot. These are all good things, all good ways of serving others. Keep doing these things and keep looking for opportunities to serve. But the biggest way, the best way, the primary way to serve your church is to pursue godliness, to grow in wisdom and knowledge, in character and obedience. Set an example. Be an example. Make your life a beautiful work of art.

We will continue next week by beginning to look at the traits Timothy is to exemplify: speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.

Questions to Consider

  1. Can you think of times when you felt older Christians were looking down on you because of your age? Did they have good reason to? How did you respond?
  2. Read Philippians 2:1-11 and consider what Jesus models there. Did he demand respect or was he content to set an example? In what ways did Jesus serve the church?
  3. Paul invested so much time in Timothy that Timothy began to imitate Paul in his thought and behavior. Is there someone in your life you’d like to mentor you in that way? Is there someone in your life who may be wishing that you would offer to mentor them? What can you do about it?
  4. In what ways do you think you are setting a good example to the people of your church? Pray and thank God for each of them. In what ways do you think you are not setting a good example to the people of your church? Pray and ask God for his grace to change you.

What Is the Gift of Singleness
September 28, 2016

What is this gift of singleness that demands so much attention from Christian pastors and writers? And when some believers have such a strong desire to be married, is it right and considerate to refer to singleness as a gift? These are valid questions that stem from a desire to understand a tricky text. In 1 Corinthians 7:6-7 Paul says, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this, I wish that all were as I myself am. But each his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot express self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

Right there, in the context of marriage and singleness, Paul insists that each Christian has “his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” God gives to some people the good gift of marriage and he gives to others the good gift of singleness. But how can you know if you’ve been given that gift of singleness? You can know through a simple test: Are you married or are you single?

Vaughan Roberts writes about singleness and says, “As long as you have it, it’s a gift from God, just as marriage will be God’s gift if you ever receive it. We should receive our situation in life, whether it is singleness or marriage, as a gift of God’s grace to us.” John Stott concurs: “I have myself found help in 1 Corinthians 7:7. For here the apostle writes: ‘each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.’ ‘Gift’ translates charisma, which is a gift of God’s grace (charis). So whether we are single or married, we need to receive our situation from God as his own special grace-gift to us.” Singleness is a gift. Marriage is a gift. Each is a gift from a wise, kind Father.

How can you know if you have the gift of singleness? I don’t meant to be trite, but you can go about it this way: Look at your ring finger. No ring? You’ve got the gift of singleness. Ring? You’ve got the gift of marriage. Christopher Ash summarizes it this way: “I know which ‘gift’ I have by a simple test: if I am married, I have the gift of marriage; if I am not married, I have the gift of being unmarried.” That leaves us with an important implication and application: “My circumstances are God’s gracious gift to me, and I am to learn to accept them from his hand as such.”

God does not leave any of his people without a gift. If you are currently single, you have no reason to think you have been bypassed when God dispensed his gifts. No, your current circumstance is God’s gift to you, just as marriage will be your gift if and when he brings you a spouse. You do not need to feel guilty or rebellious if you desire marriage, provided you do not begrudge God the gift he has currently given you. While you ought to consider deliberately remaining single (see 1 Corinthians 7:7, 25-40) you are still free before God to desire marriage, to pray for it, and to pursue it.

It is crucial to understand that God’s gift provides you with special ability and responsibility to serve and honor him. Tim Keller points out that when Paul speaks of “gifts” he refers to “an ability God gives to build others up.” “The single calling Paul speaks of is neither a condition without a struggle nor on the other hand an experience of misery. It is fruitfulness in life and ministry through the single state. When you have this gift, there may indeed be struggles, but the main thing is that God is helping you grow spiritually and be fruitful in the lives of others despite them.”

God gives good gifts. God, the loving Father, loves to dispense good gifts to his children, one of one kind and one of another. To some he graciously gives the gift of marriage and all the abilities and responsibilities that attend it. To others he graciously gives the gift of singleness and all of its abilities and responsibilities. Some experience only the gift of singleness. Some experience a long gift of singleness followed by a short gift of marriage. Some experience a long gift of marriage followed by a short gift of singleness. All have the opportunity to use their gift for fruitfulness in life and ministry—the opportunity to serve the giver of such good gifts.

Christian Men and Their Video Games
September 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall From Grace
September 25, 2016

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

The Expression

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

The Origin

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

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

The Application

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

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

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

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

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