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Is It Right Deliberately Not To Have Children
September 07, 2016

Here’s a question I’ve heard a number of times in a number of different contexts: Is it okay deliberately not to have children? Is it okay for a married couple to deliberately determine that they will not at least attempt to have biological children? My immediate response has always been no, it is not okay. But I have never put a lot of thought into why or whether this response is correct. Thankfully, I got an assist from Christopher Ash in his book Married for God. He teaches, as Christians have always done, that one of the foremost purposes of marriage is procreation, then provides his answer to the common question.

While he admits that some Christians align a little differently on the subject, he says, “I think the deliberate choice not to have children is nearly always wrong.” While non-Christians tend to make the argument based on their rights—“I have the right not to have children!”—he points out that Christians tend to frame it in terms of “serving God rather than having children.” But this is a false choice and one God does not call us to make. “Having children and giving years of life to costly prayerful nurture of them is precisely the distinctive means by which most married people do serve God. We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.

There is a temptation to downplay the significance of parenthood when compared to the significance of, for example, foreign missions in the world’s outermost or most dangerous reaches—anyone can have kids but not everyone is willing to go to those distant places. Or perhaps we can downplay parenting when comparing it to a great career in an important field—law, medicine, politics. But, he says, “Never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially (dare I say it?) mothers, what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering career in the eyes of the world. This is a question of lining up our values with God’s values.”

Here is what all Christians need to ask: “Do we agree with the Bible and face children with arms open in gratitude for the blessing of God, or do we turn our face away from children and count as a curse what God calls a blessing?” There is the reality that “a child may be an inconvenient blessing. A child will usually be an expensive blessing. A child may and often will be a blessing that takes us well outside our comfort zones and into the arms of grace. A child is usually a blessing that will be accompanied by sleepless nights and many tears. But he or she is a blessing, and we must not forget this. Parents struggling with a demanding or wayward child need to remember to thank God for that son or daughter, even as they pray urgently for grace to care for them faithfully.”

But why? Why are children such a blessing? One unique blessing is that, “they force us to welcome into our circle strangers we have not chosen. Husband and wife have chosen one another. But, however much they may have wanted a baby, they did not choose this baby with these particular characteristics! This baby comes into the family circle as a stranger, to be welcomed whatever his or her character and future. And therefore in parenting we learn to welcome the stranger, the one chosen by God for us to love. And we learn to love these children out of love for the God who has entrusted them to us.” While we may choose to have a child, ultimately conception, birth, and the unique characteristics of a particular child are exclusively in the hands of God. As parents, we have the challenge and the honor of loving the little stranger God has given us, of extending godly hospitality to him or her. “Someone has commented that the only home it is safe to be born into is a hospitable home that welcomes outsiders into its circle. Children challenge our self-centeredness and do us good.”

This is not the only reason not to deliberately avoid having children. A simple, honest reading of the Bible will show how God so commonly associates children with blessing and childlessness with curses or punishment (e.g. Psalm 127:3-5). That same reading will show that children are fundamental to God’s mandate to human beings that we “be fruitful and multiply” so we can “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). It will show that of all God has created, none has greater significance or worth than human beings (Genesis 1:26-27). Together they build a solid case that those who marry ought to attempt to fulfill all of God’s purposes for marriage. That includes having children.

Are there exceptions? Certainly there may be medical exceptions that would need to be approached carefully and prayerfully, yet also confidently, knowing that our status with God is not dependent upon our ability to bear children. As Ash puts it, “there may … be rare exceptions on medical grounds, where a couple would welcome children if they could, but recognize that it would be irresponsible to do so.”

Finally, here is how Ash concludes his case: “It seems to me that the lifestyle choice of never having children is generally not open to a Christian couple.” Having read his case, and having considered it, I think I’m largely in agreement.

On this subject, consider reading Al Mohler on Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion With a New Face (“Christians must recognize that this rebellion against parenthood represents nothing less than an absolute revolt against God’s design”) and Russell Moore on Should We Stop Having Children to Save the Earth? (“When we welcome children among us, we are reminded that we are not self-creating gods, and that our generation is not the only one that matters.”). For a slightly different perspective, consider reading John Piper on Is It Okay to Not Have Children for the Sake of Ministry? (“I don’t think the Bible mandates having children” but “you should consider that, though it may be not multiplied in effectiveness on the same pattern, your ministry could be multiplied in effectiveness in a different way if you were to have children.”).

Simple Ways to Spark a Lukewarm Devotional Life
September 06, 2016

It happens to all of us at one time or another. There are times when we wake up eager to get into God’s Word, when our times in the Bible are an absolute joy and thrill. We hope, we wish, we pray that these times will never end. But they do. At times we wake up with no desire to open the Word. We find to our sorrow that the joy and thrill have given way to cold duty. I know this all too well. With September here and fall and winter laid out before us, perhaps this is the time to spark that lukewarm devotional life. Here are a few suggestions.

Ditch Your Plan

Bible-reading plans can be a tremendous aid in telling us what to read each day and in keeping us on track in actually reading it. The desire to finish the plan combined with the sense of personal failure that comes with abandoning it can be enough to keep us going. Yet often we fall behind in those plans and the discouragement of being a day, then a week, then a month behind paralyzes us into inaction. If that’s the case for you, why don’t you ditch your plan? Ditch it without shame, without that sense of failure, and do something different instead. Why not begin to read a Psalm a day, or a chapter of one of the gospels? Find a list of 100 key Scripture passages and focus on them. Pick a short book like Colossians or Titus and read it every day for a month. What and how much you read matters a lot less than the simple fact that you read something and meditate on it.

Start a Plan

Sometimes a plan is the problem and sometimes a plan is the solution. If your reading is infrequent and unstructured, why don’t you think about finding and following a plan? While we typically think of annual plans that begin in January, there are also great plans that run for weeks or months. A three- or four-month plan may be just the thing to get you through to the end of the year. If Bible-reading is an especially big struggle for you, try a 5-day-per-week plan that allows you a couple of catch-up days each week. Bible.com can get you started with a whole list of options. The ReadingPlan app has been my companion all year long and I’ve grown to love it!

Change the Medium

Sometimes a change of medium is in order. If you have been struggling to pick up the Bible and read it each day, why don’t you think about switching to an audio Bible. Bible.com will read you any passage you want in a variety of translations. ESVbible.org and the ESV app will read it for you as well. Get some headphones and go for a walk while you listen. On the other hand, if you have been listening and struggling to keep up, maybe you should switch back to reading. If you’ve been struggling to read your printed Bible, maybe try an app to see if that sparks some more interest: Logos handles daily reading beautifully, as do apps like Olive Tree and Accordance. If your app has made reading difficult, go back to the printed Bible, perhaps grabbing a reader’s edition that focuses on making the Bible look simple and typographically beautiful.

Get in Community

The phenomenon of daily, private devotions is relatively new to church history and there is something to be said for reading the Bible in community, perhaps as a married couple or as a group of friends. If you are struggling to read the Bible, why not allow yourself to feed off the habits and self-discipline of someone else? Ask your husband or wife if you can join in their devotions or ask your friends if you can get together with them to read and to pray. The biblical mandate is not to have a daily, personal quiet time, but to be steadily, consistently taking in the Word.

Find a Devotional

If getting in community won’t work or isn’t of interest, why don’t you consider allowing your devotions to be guided by a trusted daily devotional? Spurgeon’s Morning & Evening is a classic that just never grows old. You can find other great devotionals by Paul Tripp, John Piper, Tim Keller, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Randy Alcorn, and a host of others. Just be sure that the devotionals are focused on the Word of God and that you don’t rush over the Scripture readings. See how these authors love and trust God’s Word and allow that to feed your soul and elevate your enthusiasm.

Read a Good Book

One great way to spark greater interest in personal devotions is to read a good book on the spiritual disciplines: Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is a classic that will gently show you the joy and necessity of being disciplined in your pursuit of God and godliness. David Mathis’s Habits of Grace is another excellent choice that focuses on the importance of developing good habits in reading the Word, praying, and participating in Christian fellowship. Nancy Leigh DeMoss’ A Place of Quiet Rest is a good pick that is geared specifically for women.

Read & Pray

I leave this one for last even though it is of utmost importance. When your devotional life has grown cold you can do nothing better than pushing through it by not allowing yourself to stop. Reading and praying have their own way of sparking greater joy in reading and praying. Don’t allow your lack of interest to keep you from doing what you know is so good for your soul. Read and pray and trust that the warm desire will return.

Thank God For Your Job
September 05, 2016

Labor Day is one of only a few non-religious holidays that is celebrated on the same day in both Canada and the United States. Today all across North America we are taking a break from our normal labors in order to rest. And as we rest, we do well to remember and to thank. More than anyone else, John Flavel has taught me why and how I ought to express gratitude to God. Today I’m following in his footsteps as I explain why you ought to thank God for your job, whatever your job is.

It is God’s grace that you can be industrious instead of idle. Flavel says, “Sin brought in sweat, but now not to sweat increases sin. He that lives idly cannot live honestly.” The Bible’s warnings about laziness and idleness are many and stern. So when God puts you into a vocation that is legal and moral, he has done you a great benefit. He has given you the blessing of allowing you to earn your own living. Your hard work allows you to avoid the temptations of idleness and to care for your own needs rather than having to rely upon others. Further, through God’s provision to you, you have enough to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive.

It is God’s grace that you have a job that is lawful before God and men and especially suited to you. There are many people who are employed in jobs that are sinful or even illegal. “They do not only sin in their employments, but their very employments are sinful.” To have a job that dishonors neither God nor men is no small mercy. To have a job suited to your passions and skills is a double mercy. Then, if your job allows you to provide for yourself and others without working you to the bone, without consuming all of your waking hours, you have more reasons still to thank God for what he has given you.

It is God’s grace that he has directed you into the kind of job that neither you nor your parents may ever have expected. You may well be involved in a job that your parents did not plan for you to do, and perhaps one that even you did not plan to do. Just like a compass needle turns this way and that before settling on true north, so “a child is designed for this, then for that, but at last settles in that way of employment to which Providence designed him.” Many of us can attest that “Not what we or our parents, but what God designed shall take place.” This is certainly the case with me and I owe God great thanks and praise for his kindness and his wisdom in giving me a passion for writing and then allowing me to do it.

It is God’s grace that he secures what you have earned. God’s favor toward you is what has allowed you to earn what you have. That same favor is what has allowed you to keep what you have earned.

It is God’s grace that your vocation is sufficient for you. Some people have work, but not enough strength to complete it. Some have strength, but no work to commit it to. Some have both strength and work but even then not sufficient to provide for themselves or others. If God blesses your labors to give you enough or even more than enough to meet your needs, you ought to give him praise and thanks.

Are you still now discontent?

If any that fear God shall complain that, although they have a calling, yet it is a hard and laborious one, which takes up too much of their time which they would gladly employ in other and better work, I answer that it is likely that the wisdom of Providence foresaw this to be the most suitable and proper employment for you; and if you had more ease and rest, you might have more temptations than now you have. The strength and time which is now taken up in your daily labors, in which you serve God, might otherwise have been spent upon such [sins] in which you might have served the devil.

As you enjoy rest from your labors, why don’t you take a bit of time to thank God for your labors. No matter what they are, they are evidence of his kindness and mercy toward you.

Inspired by The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel. If you’d like to read more, try Timeless Cautions For Your Day-to-Day Work.

September 04, 2016

This was a banner week when it came to letters to the editor. I had a lot of letters to choose from on a lot of different subjects—something I found rather a joy. Here are some of the best of them.

Comments on War, Women, and Wealth

Thank you for your article on War, Women, and Wealth. That passage in Deuteronomy 17 is a nugget that can get lost. I have heard it preached several times, referring to the three things as money, sex, and power. It is interesting to see what follows the warning—while verses 16 and 17 give three things to avoid, verse 18 gives one thing to do as an act of protection—copy out Scripture. Verses 19 and 20 talk about using that copy with obedience to fear the Lord and not have his heart lifted up above his countrymen, pride certainly a huge component of abusing money, sex, and power. That has motivated and inspired many I know, including myself. Copying Scripture is now an appreciated tool that I use to slow down to meditate on and look at the text from more angles. My father is a pastor (he’s the one I’ve most often heard preach this), and he loves to do this; over several years he finished copying out his whole Bible.
—Katie S, Bozeman, MT
Tim: Quite right! I hope to return to those verses in a future article. We can look at the life of Solomon to see someone who violated all of God’s prohibitions about war, women, and wealth (or, if you prefer, military power). What would have protected him? Writing out the law (which we have no record of him doing) and keeping it with him all the days of his life. That is no less true of us.

Comments on Married for God

This is just a short comment to say that I’m delighted to see you recommend Christopher Ash’s book ‘Married for God’, and that it has made it’s way to your side of the Atlantic. For many years it has been our wedding gift of choice for couple’s getting married, and is now the textbook we use when giving pre-marital counselling. It is, quite simply, the most God-centred book on the subject I have ever read.
—Pete K, Woking, UK

Comments on How Petra Rocked My Soul

It was a joy to receive so many reminisces about Petra. Petra fans may enjoy this Facebook comment from Ronny Cates (bass player in the “Beyond Belief” era).

It’s really strange to see you write this article, as I have had “Beyond Belief” running through my head for the past two weeks. I used to listen only to Christian music in the 1990s, went to Christian school, youth group, and so forth—I remember seeing the music video for “Beyond Belief” at school. In my young zeal for God, I suppose I thought I would “optimize” my life so that everything had to do with Him. I’m not quite certain what to make of those days now. So many of those kids I grew up with have left the church in spite of the Christian sub-culture. I wonder to myself what went wrong—did the Baby Boomers fail to pray, did the subculture drown out the gospel, or something else?

Petra remains a great band and I love their music even more now that I am older. But I still feel a sadness listening to it because so many of my erstwhile companions seem to have abandoned the gospel (which they must have never held to in the first place). It’s difficult not to wish for a return to those days for they often seem brighter than the present.
—Matt R, Wilmington, DE


I couldn’t help but reminisce as I read your recent article about Petra. Growing up in the 80s, Christian music had a profound impact on the development of my faith—especially Petra. Looking back, I realize how much I appreciated that they always included Scripture in the liner notes. I remember looking up the references and learning to understand the biblical basis for the songs I loved and the truth I believed. Because of that biblical underpinning, I have often referred to Petra’s music as the hymnal of my teen years (I guess that was OK in an Assemblies of God church). Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.
—Rob C, Frostburg, MD


Thanks for the post! Me? 9th grade. Song? “It is Finished.” I still have the lyrics on a sheet of paper in my Bible. Between Mrs. Graham, my Sunday School teacher, and this weird Christian Rock band, the Almighty Creator of the Universe captured my soul.
—Sheila H, Spokane, WA


Thank you for highlighting Petra’s excellent witness. I took some women from our neighborhood Bible study to their On Fire concert in Greenville, SC in 1989 (or thereabouts). Bob Hartman said something that night I have never forgotten. He was speaking to those who believe but are complacent in sharing their faith or living openly for Christ. He said, “Being on fire for Christ is not a feeling you get; it is a decision you make.” It has been a good reminder over the years to believe and act on the truth in God’s Word, regardless of what I am feeling at the time.
—Eileen G, Albuquerque, NM

Comments on On “Stranger Things” and Being a Big Prude

You are going to find that all of these responses are in general agreement with what I wrote about sex in movies. That’s simply reflects the fact that I got all kinds of letters agreeing with me and not a single one disagreeing.

Tim, thank you so much for walking through some of your thoughts, temptations, and sins which give background and support for your visual entertainment standards which have been discussed on your blog before. I tend to think that many of the folks with ‘stronger’ (weaker?) consciences that you reference may have a similar path of thoughts and conviction when they watch scenes with some level of nudity or sex, but have seared their consciences over time and have adapted to our current North American culture. I’m grateful that you have been vulnerable to share your approach, and I think it is helpful and sets a strong example for your readers. May we all seek to honor God with what we set in front of our eyes!
—Bethany M, Denver, CO


I want to thank you and commend you for your article on Stranger Things. You were able to describe in great detail the battle you experienced with your conscience. I have very similar convictions about entertainment and have learned to be extremely careful in previewing movie or TV content. When I have not been careful, that content almost always gets stuck in my brain and I can’t keep it from polluting my thoughts and relationships in some way. Where I struggle and fall into pride is in thinking about how to react to Christians who feel free to watch this content. Doesn’t Ephesians 5 talk about this when it says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them.” Should we be entertained by something for which Christ died? Would we watch it in person in our living rooms? These are the questions I have and more often than not I am guilty of a critical and prideful spirit. But is it ever ok to approach someone about their entertainment choices?
—Meredith B, Marietta, GA


Thanks for the article—I’m always glad for another Christian reminding us of how obscene the entertainment world is, and pricking my conscience to re-evaluate what I’m watching. It’s too easy to lapse into a state of ambivalence that leads to major judgment errors and sin. It can be hard to always be the one saying ‘no, I haven’t seen that show/movie,’ etc, and I needed the reminder that my entertainment and ‘cultural savvy’ are never worth the sacrifice of a good conscience.
—Emilie L, Tacoma, WA


I wanted to express my deep appreciation for your article about “Stranger Things” and, more specifically, its relationship to one’s conscience. As a young pastor with a degree in video production and a love for all things cinematic, I have had a hard time balancing my love for quality production quality and storyline with a deep desire to not intentionally put any unclean thing before my eyes.

When I read your article, I felt as if I were reading my own thoughts. As you stated, I found the overall premise of the show to be fascinating. The characters were well-rounded, and the 80s intro had me hooked from the start. However, I soon found myself in a moral crisis. By the time the scene you mentioned in your article appeared on-screen, I was already hooked on the show.

I soon found myself in a moral crisis. I wanted to see what happened to the characters. I wanted to soak in more of the 80s-fest. And seriously, who is this creepy little girl? However, my conscience kept pulling on my heart. To my shame, I finished the episode. For the last two weeks, I have been struggling on whether or not to finish the series. The more I see my Christian friends posting about how incredible the season is and how excited they are for season two, the more I think to myself, “Am I too sensitive? Maybe I don’t understand my liberty in Christ.”

As you wrote in your piece, I am not yet decided on whether or not it is sinful for all Christians to watch the series. However, I do know that it would be sin for me to watch it. Thank you for stating this so clearly in your article. Thank you for giving a voice to my inward struggle.

This may very well be a “meat sacrificed to idols” issue in my life. This may very well be a sign of me misunderstanding my freedom in Christ. Nevertheless, I would rather never eat meat and lay down my freedom than risk sinning against the Lord who was wounded for my sins.
—Hayden H, Oklahoma City, OK

Why Marriage Is Better Than Cohabitation
September 03, 2016

Though Christians continue to affirm the uniqueness, the goodness, and the necessity of marriage, our society continues to legitimize cohabitation as either a common precursor to marriage or a complete alternative. This slide is troubling, for marriage offers a number of important benefits that are absent from cohabitation—benefits that extend to couples, to their children, to their families, and to society as a whole. Christopher Ash helpfully outlines these in his book Married for God.

1. Marriage Is Unambiguous

Unlike cohabitation, marriage is unambiguous. In fact, in most cases cohabitation is deliberately in its ambiguity. “When a man and woman begin sleeping together and perhaps move in together, the rest of us are left guessing as to what exactly is the basis of their relationship. Clearly they have agreed to sleep together, as otherwise it would be rape. But what have they promised one another, if anything? On what basis or shared understanding are they together?” The answers will vary from couple to couple and may range from a very minimal level of commitment to a very significant one. But there always remains a measure of uncertainty. Often each of the partners will have different levels of commitment or expectation—one thinking that moving in together marks the beginning of something permanent while the other regards it as a mere trial period. All the while the rest of us are uncertain how to relate to them as they live together and if and when they dissolve their relationship. The relational ambiguity is especially apparent when one of them dies. “Who is the next of kin? With whom should we grieve most deeply? The parents, or the live-in partner?” Marriage helpfully resolves this lack of clarity.

2. Marriage Is a Union of Families; Cohabitation Is Free-Floating

Marriage is a union of families rather than just of two free-floating individuals. Cohabitation is an attempt to keep a relationship private, not in the sense of secret, but “in the sense of an arrangement agreed to and confined to the two of them, with families only rather awkwardly and ambiguously involved.” But marriage joins together two families in a connection that is meant to be a responsibility and blessing to both. “It is better to be connected than to float ‘free’ but disconnected from wider family and society,” for biblically this kind of scattered freedom is regarded as a curse while gathering into a people and family is regarded as a blessing. “This is because God wants his world governed in an ordered way by connected people.” Marriage serves as a small but foundational expression of bringing order through connection.

3. Marriage Provides Protection for the Vulnerable at the Start

The public nature of marriage provides an important protection for the vulnerable at the start of the sexual relationship. “We sometimes think that we are autonomous free-floating individuals who make decisions for ourselves. The reality is that we are influenced in many ways in every decision we make. And in the area of sex, above all, we are open to manipulation and exploitation, even unwittingly, by passions that rage and desires that can overwhelm us.” We are all prone to making poor decisions that we will later regret, and this is especially true in those areas where we can be unduly influenced by strong passions and desires. The public and family aspects of marriage serve as a kind of protection against this. “Because marriage is a public union in which the families ought to be involved, and not just the two individuals, it offers the protection and wisdom of families in a way that can protect the vulnerable from being exploited or making foolish decisions under the pressure of passion.” Many couples resent the involvement of family; many families are sinfully manipulative and overbearing. But more often than not (and certainly when families are behaving according to God’s pattern), they provide an important measure of protection and affirmation.

4. Marriage Offers Some Hope of Justice to Those Wronged When It Ends

Marriage offers important measures of protection and justice for the one who is wronged when a marriage breaks up. “When a man or woman walks out of a sexual relationship, the other partner always suffers. In marriage, however, society recognizes that the abandoned party has rights that the other needs to honor. And in a healthy society the one who walks out is forced to honor these rights and is not able to walk away irresponsibly.” While these protective measures may be imperfect, they are at least designed to ensure that there is a framework to promote and ensure justice. Of course many countries are now acting to enforce similar obligations with cohabitation, but there is a strange irony here. “Perhaps before long no one will be able to walk out of a cohabitation without some obligation to fulfill responsibilities to the other (especially if there are children). We must welcome this. But we must also note that every move in this direction makes unmarried cohabitation less attractive to those who entered it precisely in order to avoid the obligations of marriage. Indeed, we could make a case for saying that society ought to treat cohabiting partners as if they were married, with all the obligations that entails. This would mean that to break a cohabitation, one party would have to sue for what would effectively be divorce! If that were to happen, then the mere action of moving in together would come to signify the commitment verbalized in the marriage vows, and then cohabitation would mean marriage.” Wouldn’t that be something.

5. Marriage Strengthens Private Intentions with Public Promises

The public promises of marriage are necessary because when we make public promises, we lay our reputation and integrity on the line behind those promises. While couples often make private promises to one another, there is a world of difference between those made in private and those declared in public before witnesses. “Private assurances are terribly easy to break; they evaporate like the morning dew. … But when all my wider family, my friends, my work colleagues, and my neighbors know I have publicly made this pledge, then I am much more inclined to keep it. I do not want them thinking I am a liar. And marriage begins precisely with those public promises.” Those public promises are made before witnesses—many or few—who stand in the place of the rest of society to affirm them and call upon a couple to honor them. “Our capacity for faithfulness makes marriage possible, but our capacity for unfaithfulness makes marriage necessary. We need the public promises to hold us to the faithfulness we pledge. When we struggle in difficult marriages, it is a great help to know that we have publicly promised to be faithful for life, and that everybody else expects us to keep that promise, and that if we don’t then we must expect to experience shame. All this strengthens and supports marriage, and helps us keep to the end the promises we made at the start.”

In each of these ways—and many more could be listed, marriage is far better than cohabitation.

For an alternate, entirely secular, but still interesting view, you may enjoy watching this video from The School of Life: Why Bother With Marriage?

No Mans Sky and 10,000 Bowls of Plain Oatmeal
September 02, 2016

No Man’s Sky was supposed to change gaming forever. It was pitched as offering players a vast world with nearly endless opportunities to explore and nearly infinite varieties of planets and life to discover. It promised an incredible 18 quintillion (that’s 18 billion billion) planets to find—far more than a million gamers on a million consoles could ever see and experience. Players imagined dedicating endless hours to exploring, communicating, fighting, and trading their way across its massive expanse. The game was delayed and delayed again until it finally released on August 9, 2016. It landed with a resounding thud. And in that thud we can find a fascinating lesson.

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky’s great claim is that its world is created through procedural generation, “a method of creating data algorithmically as opposed to manually.” Most computer games require a game designer to manually create almost every aspect of its world. They dream it, they plan it, they place each element within it. The sheer effort involved in such work necessarily limits the size of a game and gamers are familiar with running into the edge of playable areas. But procedural generation allows the designer to step aside in favor of algorithms, computer scripts essentially. In No Man’s Sky this algorithm is responsible for generating nearly everything: “star systems, planets and their ecosystems, flora, fauna and their behavioural patterns, artificial structures, and alien factions and their spacecraft.” Early screenshots and demos showed a beautiful world full of interesting planets, unique creatures, stunning vistas. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. Then the game launched.

No Man’s Sky’s early reviews were mixed. Gaming powerhouses IGN and Polygon each assigned it a 6 out of 10, Gamespot and Trusted Reviews a 7, The Guardian and The Telegraph an 8, and Time a 9. The user reviews were far tougher. Just 39% of 36,000 Steam reviews are positive while Amazon reviewers are assigning it an average rating of only 2.9 stars. Recent media reports have focused on the swell of disgruntled customers demanding a refund. A recent Forbes headline declares Gamers Have Every Right To Push For ‘No Man’s Sky’ Refunds.

10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal

What went wrong? While reviewers praise the game for its size and scope, its ambition and visuals, and its ability to provide an experience free from obnoxious loading screens, they critique it for being, well, boring. Procedural generation, the very aspect of the game that is meant to make it stand out, has proven to be its greatest weakness. A procedural universe may be technically impressive but it is also bland, empty, purposeless.

IGN says, “The few hand-crafted moments in No Man’s Sky stand out from the bland procedural universe” and “nothing of consequence ever happens in this vast universe. You’re the only one in it with any agenda or power to do anything of significance.” Likewise, Polygon says, “Before you decide whether or not No Man’s Sky is a game you’ll appreciate, you must ask yourself a single tough question: How much do you value technological wonder over everyday, solid, smart game design?” It laments that “these powerful universe creation algorithms have been grafted onto a game that is, beyond its initial hours, so light on imagination.”

Gamespot declares “The sheer number of possible variations of worlds and wild species is too large to fully comprehend, but because the variety is defined by a computer pulling from a restricted pool of options, animals appear more like slapdash creations than thoughtful constructions.” Other users pointed out that many of the algorithmically-generated animals were nonsensical, dumb, impossible. Clearly, the algorithms stand in stark contrast to the few parts of the game that have been carefully designed by human beings. Players find themselves longing for more design and fewer algorithms.

No Man’s Sky is a dud. In the minds of tens of thousands of disappointed gamers it does not live up to its promises. Indeed, it could not because its procedural generation has resulted in a drab world that is full of planets but empty of purpose. Writing for Motherboard, Emanuel Maiberg makes a crucial point. He quotes Kate Compton, an expert on procedural generation, who describes what she calls the problem of 10,000 bowls of oatmeal. Using procedural generation “I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique, but the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal.” Uniqueness does not necessarily equal interest or purpose and in this way No Man’s Sky’s users put too much hope, too much faith, in procedural generation. They ended up with those proverbial 10,000 bowls of bland oatmeal. Maiberg compares the game to another recent release, a smash hit.

When Sony came to New York to demo No Man’s Sky they also came with a demo for Uncharted 4, which is the exact opposite to No Man’s Sky in terms of design. Uncharted 4, which is made by another studio of about 300 people, is one of the most beautiful, rich virtual worlds I’ve ever seen. Every leaf and stone in it was hand crafted and placed at just the right spot to create the desired effect. It’s a highly directed experience, where the designers are trying to funnel me from point A to B in a way that feels like an exciting, unique experience, but that in reality is identical to the experience of every other player.

The Lesson For Us All

There’s something to learn here. A world that is procedurally generated is a world that is bland, repetitive, meaningless, boring. Purpose, meaning, interest, and even true beauty come by the mind and careful crafting of a designer. What is true of the virtual world of No Man’s Sky is equally true of the very real world that we inhabit. If there is evidence of purpose, meaning, and interest in this world—and there is in its every part—it stands as evidence, handiwork, of a designer.

Thanks to Dave Drabiuk for suggesting and requesting the article.

No Mans Sky

On Stranger Things and Being a Big Prude
September 01, 2016

Stranger Things is a smash hit, the talk of Twitter and the toast of the town. Its story is captivating, its characters well-formed, its acting first rate, its tributes to the 80’s priceless. With so much buzz and so many friends celebrating it, I figured I’d give it a go. But this isn’t an article about Stranger Things. Not really. It’s an article about being a prude.

I’ve been told I’m a prude when it comes to movies and television. Here’s what that means according to the Cambridge Dictionary: A prude is “a person who is easily shocked by rude things, especially those of a sexual type.” If that’s a prude then I guess the shoe fits because I have a very low tolerance for sex and nudity in movies and television. For that reason I carefully screen them against PluggedIn, Common Sense Media, or IMDB’s parents guides. When I see there will be sex or nudity, I don’t watch it. It’s that simple.

Why am I such a prude? It isn’t because I don’t like to watch movies and shows—I really do. It isn’t because I try to be holier than thou—at least I hope not. I am a prude because when I am exposed to sex and nudity on the screen my conscience immediately sends out signals. Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley say that conscience is an internal early-warning system, “your moral consciousness or your moral awareness turned back on yourself.” Conscience allows me to make moral judgments where I do not have clear revelation from God (“Thou must not watch movies with sex” or “Thou mayest watch movies with sex”) or where I lack the spiritual maturity to properly understand the revelation he has given. In this way conscience is a gift from God given so I can obey him, even in those areas where I don’t have complete clarity.

3 Important Rules

Naselli and Crowley offer three important, biblical rules regarding conscience: Don’t sin against your conscience. Listen to your conscience. Cultivate a good conscience. Those are rules to live by and I’ve attempted to do just that. I have attempted to cultivate a good conscience in the area of entertainment and hope it is consistent with God’s Word. I feel a deep fear of sinning against my conscience—I know that destructive and disqualifying acts of sin inevitably begin with what appear to be the smallest compromises against the warnings of conscience. And so I seek to heed my conscience, to listen for its alarms and to respond appropriately. “God didn’t give you a conscience so that you would disregard it or distrust it.”

I watched Stranger Things through to the end of episode 2. I’ll let IMDB describe what happens just before the credits roll: “A teenage main character is pressured into having sex with her boyfriend. The teen girl is shown undressing to her underwear while her boyfriend watches. Then the scene cuts to them in bed kissing frantically and pressing against each other.” It certainly isn’t the longest or steamiest scene in cinematic history, but it is exactly the kind of scene I have determined I won’t watch, that I shouldn’t watch. I hadn’t seen it coming because I had neglected to consult those sites. I didn’t think to with all the breathless endorsements I had seen in my mostly-Christian Twitter stream. That was my error.

1 Bad Moment

I want to tell you what went through my mind in that moment. My conscience was telling me, “Turn this off. You don’t watch stuff like this, remember?” But at the same time my mind was saying, “But maybe that’s just pride. Plus, that guy watched it. And that guy. And her, too. They all said it was great and they are way smarter and godlier than you. You don’t think you’re better than them, do you? You don’t need to be such a prude!” This internal dialog allowed me to silence the alarm for those few moments. Actually no, that’s not quite true. I didn’t silence my conscience, I ignored it. I ignored it long enough to finish up episode 2 and, later, to turn on episode 3. As it happens, episode 3 begins with that exact same scene. There she is again, there he is again, there they are again. This time my conscience was in full-blown klaxon mode. It wasn’t the explicitness of the scene that set off this alarm but my mere participation in it as the viewer. It was there and I was watching.

There was a potential workaround: Perhaps I could turn my head when those scenes came on or just fast-forward through them. But even here my conscience squawked as I was faced with the reality of what went into creating this production. To create Stranger Things a group of people filmed an actual eighteen-year-old girl actually taking off her shirt and actually simulating losing her virginity to an actual teenaged boy. They did that for our pleasure, for our entertainment, so we could see it. What on this side of hell could justify me, a nearly forty-year-old man, watching a production that involves an eighteen-year-old girl—someone’s daughter, someone’s future wife—disrobing and writhing her way through simulated sex with a manipulative, hormone-driven boyfriend?

1 Necessary Conclusion

I want to watch Stranger Things. It intrigues me. I want to know what happens and how it all resolves. But even more, I want to avoid sin (and do what is right), I want to avoid the very appearance of evil (and find delight in what is good), I want to keep a safe distance from every little compromise that paves the way to a big compromise (and pursue every little virtue that paves the way to godliness). I cannot discount the lingering thought that I am wrapped up in self-righteousness here or that I have messed up my conscience by calibrating it to be too sensitive. I cannot discount the thought that there is freedom of conscience available to me somehow and somewhere. How can’t there be when it seems to be available to so many men and women I love and admire?

But then I had this thought: Maybe God has given me a weak (or is it strong?) conscience here because he knows how prone I am to certain sins and that watching these scenes might provoke interest in them. This could be a special gift to me, and one for which I need to be grateful. And I find that I am grateful. If it is, indeed, God’s gift, it makes it even more important that I accept it, that I listen to my conscience, that I heed it, for in listening to it I am listening to him. Whether watching such scenes is objectively right or wrong, moral or immoral, is beside the point. Whether others can watch such scenes in freedom of conscience is, likewise, beside the point. The point is this: For me it was sin. I sinned when I continued to watch that show even after my conscience accused me. I repented of this. I had to. I repented and received God’s forgiveness.

Naselli and Crowley say “As a general rule, you should assume that your conscience is reliable, even if it isn’t perfect. And since conscience is usually right, the Bible says that we should do what our conscience says until we are convinced from Scripture that it needs adjusting.” Does my conscience need adjusting in this area? Perhaps it does. But until I am convinced from Scripture that I can or should watch such scenes, I have to keep on being a prude. For, as Luther said, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Stranger Things

War, Women, and Wealth
August 31, 2016

Have you ever noticed that some of our sorest temptations arise around God’s greatest gifts? Food, money, sex, ministry, authority—all of these can be used for such good, yet we consistently find they are attended by such difficulties. That is life in this sinful world, a world in which we turn blessings into curses, gifts into temptations. God’s gifts so quickly threaten to displace the One who gives them.

God does not appreciate competition. We find this all over the Bible, but I found some particularly interesting evidence of it while studying Deuteronomy 17 last week. God had saved his people from slavery and destroyed their archenemy, Egypt. He now reigned as their good and kind king. Yet though he loved his people, he knew his people. He knew that in the future they would demand a new king, a human king. And so hundreds of years before the people cried out for King Saul, God told them who and what their future king must be: He must be a man of God’s own choosing, he must be an Israelite, and he must abide by three important rules: “He must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).

Did you notice what God highlighted there? He highlighted war, women, and wealth. He prohibited the reckless accumulation of all three. Why? Of all the things that could concern God, why these? It’s not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with any of them. Rather, it’s because of what war, women, and wealth represented to a king and a kingdom in that day and that place. Each of them was a temptation for a king to find his reputation and his security apart from God. In that way they would threaten to displace God from a position that he rightfully claimed for himself. A full-out obsession with any or all of them would be a full-out rejection of God.

An obsession with war. A great army would encourage a king to be self-reliant, trusting that his security is dependent upon his ability to wage war. He would inevitably forget that his security is ultimately from God—God had promised his people that he would care for them, and he had already proven this time and again. A great army would also represent a great reputation since it would make a king look mighty in the eyes of other kings. Yet God’s people were to concern themselves with obedience to him, not conformity to the nations.

An obsession with women. God’s concern here was not first related to sexual lust but political power. In that day a powerful king would marry princesses from other nations as a means of establishing political treaties. These treaties would make the land more secure and strengthen the king’s reputation as a great statesman. Yet God did not want his people to find their security in political alliances, and he did not want his people to intermarry with foreigners, for those powerful and important women would inevitably bring their gods with them. With those gods would come the temptation to abandon the true God for idols.

An obsession with wealth. When it comes to wealth, a king would be tempted to trust in his money to keep him secure instead of trusting in his God. Money could be used to hire or sponsor a huge army, or it could be used to buy off attackers. As for reputation, a king would be deemed especially mighty if he used his wealth to build great palaces, temples, and monuments. But again, God wanted his people to find their security in him, in his covenant promises. God wanted his people to care far more for their reputation in his eyes than in anyone else’s.

No wonder, then, that God warned his kings about the three temptations of war, women, and wealth.

Where are you tempted to pursue reputation in the eyes of the world instead of the eyes of God? And where are you tempted to seek security in things you can accumulate rather than in the promises of God? Where are you tempted to compromise? Can I suggest just a couple of common ones?

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality. Today one big and growing temptation to that kind of compromise is in the area of sex, gender, and sexuality. We read in the Bible the plain truth that “male and female he created them.” But now we are told that sex and gender are fluid, that believing anything less is a terrible form of intolerance and discrimination. There is immense pressure on us to compromise, to allow just a little bit of what they believe into what we believe—just enough to be safe, just enough to be respectable. This is exactly why every politician is jumping on the bandwagon. We can face the same temptation, but that is nothing less than making a treaty with the world. That’s gaining the illusion of security and the wrong kind of reputation through compromise.

Finances. Another grave temptation is in the area of personal finance. We can look to money to establish and enhance our reputation. Big houses, nice cars, designer clothes are all worldly measures of success. They aren’t necessarily wrong, but they do call on us to be cautious, to be wise, to discern the state of our hearts. It is far better to have little while looking great in the eyes of God. And when it comes to security, many of us feel secure when we have lots of money and insecure when we have little. We know God promises to provide for our every need, but find those promises much easier to believe when we have heaps of money socked away in our savings and retirement accounts. If we only believe God’s promises when we already have what we need, we’re missing the point! Our security comes from our adoption by God into his family, not through the size of our bank account.

In the age of kings, wealth, war, women were each a challenger to God. God was content to have his kings weak and chaste and modest, for then they would have to rely on him for their reputation, for their protection. In our age we have challengers of our own. God, through his Word, calls us to find our reputation and protection in him, to be strong in him even if that makes us weak in the eyes of the world.

Note: With all this in mind, go ahead and read 1 Kings 10-11, the account of King Solomon’s reign and downfall. Do you think the author was attempting to highlight any particular obsessions of Solomon? War? Check. Women? Check. Wealth? Check. It’s all right there!