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5 Ways to Ruin a Perfectly Good Dating Relationship
September 14, 2015

Somewhere along the way dating became too hard. There must have been a time when it was easy—people knew what was expected of them and how to behave (even if too often they just went ahead and chose not to behave). But today I talk to an endless succession of young people who are trapped between dating and courting and some weird hybrid of the two. Dating has become the most difficult thing in the world, probably because they’ve got a million books and web pages telling them how. They can’t just do it—they’ve got to do it by the book. And along the way they are ruining their dating relationships.

Here are some ways I’ve seen people ruin what could have been a beautiful thing.

They start having sex. The first and most common way of ruining a perfectly good dating relationship is by adding sex to the mix. Sex is for marriage—you know that. God created sex for marriage, not for dating. God created sex to seal and celebrate the marriage relationship, not to serve as an exploratory part of it. Dating relationships just don’t have the seriousness, the level of commitment, or the divine sanction to support sex. So don’t ruin your relationship by adding even the least little bit of sexuality. There will be plenty of time for plenty of that later on. You will not regret the wait.

They stop having fun. Dating is not the time for sex, but it is the time for fun. It is time to simply enjoy spending time with another person, to learn who the other person is, to learn what makes the other person tick. This can be approached with complete deliberateness: Sit down and answer my list of questions; Let’s read 6 books on marriage together. But it can be better approached in the context of service (find a place to serve together!), fun (find something you both like to do and do it!), and informality (you don’t need to plan absolutely everything!). Once you completely take sex off the table, you are free to just have fun with the other person. In the context of that fun you will learn who he or she is, you will learn what he or she values, you will learn whether or not the two of you are compatible. Don’t lose the fun!

They succumb to morbid introspection. Next up is morbid introspection. Now, obviously dating is a good time for introspection. It is a good time to look within and to ask whether you are really ready to be a husband or wife, and ready to commit yourself completely to another person. Well and good. But what I see so often is a paralyzing level of introspection that drives a person to despair. The simple fact is that none of us is fully qualified to be a husband or wife. You will never be worthy of the honor of having another person commit his or her life to you. None of us is the top pick out of the 7 billion other people on the planet. Yet the wonder of marriage is that a messed up, sinful man actually can marry a messed up, sinful woman and somehow build a beautiful, life-long relationship that shines a spotlight on God and his gospel. If you wait until you are worthy of marriage, you will never get married. If you wait until you’re perfectly suitable, you will be waiting forever. You can’t wait until you’re all grown up before you get married; sometimes you need to get married to really grow up.

They have unrealistic expectations. If people are prone to paralysis when they look inward, they are equally prone to paralysis when they look at a potential spouse. I see too many people who have unrealistic expectations of the person they would choose as a spouse. You know what? She isn’t perfect. She isn’t the best or godliest or most beautiful person on the planet. But who are you to think you deserve all of that, or that you need it? Who are you to think, “I deserve better than this”? And that guy, he isn’t going to be completely gentle and sweet and selfless all the time. But again, who are you to deserve a perfect man? We all marry as sinners. We all marry sinners. While you ought to expect a lot of your future spouse, it’s unfair to expect perfection.

They live in fear. If we look for a common thread in all of these other ways to ruin a perfectly good dating relationship, I think we come to fear. A lot of people are full of fear. They make major decisions out of fear. But dating is a very good time to remember that we serve a God who is sovereign and relentlessly committed to our good. His instructions on marriage are basic: Marry a Christian, live and die for one another, and remain married for life. He doesn’t lay down the long lists of criteria you’ll find in all of those books. He doesn’t describe technique or methodology. He just tells us of the good and glory of marriage and expects that those who wish to be married will figure out how to make it happen. And then, one way or another, through joys and through trials, he pours out his blessings.

The Greatest Wall
September 09, 2015

The Great Wall of China is one of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. Its sheer size is almost incomprehensible. Extending across what was once the northern frontier of China, the wall stretches for over 5,000 miles—so long and so prominent that it is visible from space. And yet, for all its magnificence, today it serves no purpose beyond attracting tourists. In fact, many portions of the wall have been almost levelled by townspeople salvaging its bricks to build their homes.

From 1961 to 1989 the Berlin Wall divided East Germany from West Germany, communism from freedom. The wall stretched for more than 100 miles, reached twelve feet in height, and featured terrifying guard towers and dangerous no-man’s lands. For decades it stood as a symbol of a great divide in Europe and the world. But, over a period of just 2 years, it was dismantled and destroyed as Germany reunited.

The Mexico–United States barrier stands today as an attempt to keep people from illegally crossing into the United States of America. It covers 670 of the nearly 2,000 miles of shared border and is meant to prohibit illegal immigration from Mexico and the nations beyond it. In some places the wall is fifteen feet high, topped with barbed wire, regularly patrolled, and made of material strong enough to stop not only people, but also vehicles.

From Hadrian’s Wall to the Maginot Line, we could almost tell the tale of human history by mankind’s attempts to protect themselves from other people, from other nations. Each of these barriers was intended to separate one group from another group.

There is one barrier, though, that was much stronger and much greater than any of the others. This barrier, the most powerful divider of all, was a simple curtain.

The curtain in the great temple of Jerusalem separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. It separated holy God from unholy humanity. And that curtain, with all that it was meant to display, was impenetrable. While other walls rose and fell, this one remained unbreached, at least in what it represented. Generation after generation, from the wilderness tabernacle to the first-century temple, that barrier remained, sealing and signifying the separation between God and man.

And then, in a moment, at the uttering of a single word, at the death of a single man, that barrier was obliterated. The greatest wall called for the greatest man to complete the greatest act. And he did. The barrier was ripped apart, not from bottom to top as if by the hand of man, but from top to bottom by the hand of God. It was rendered completely unnecessary, utterly obsolete.

The barrier fell, and it fell forever. It took with it all of the hostility that had made it necessary. God and man could now, at last, be reunited. Man and man could now, at least, be reunited. The fall of the greatest wall brought the greatest peace, the greatest unity—eternal unity. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Curse of a Godly Wife
September 08, 2015

I have seen him far too often. He is the man who rarely takes the lead in his home. He is the man who almost never calls the family together for devotions. He is the man who feels dumb when asking his wife if he can pray for her, or when asking if she would like to sit and read the Bible with him. He is the one who seems almost afraid of being godly.

Why is he like this? In many cases it is because his wife is godlier—godlier than he is. She may have been a Christian for longer. She may have a deeper knowledge of the Bible. She may have read more books and listened to more sermons. She may be the one who loves to study the Bible and whose heart goes pitter-pat when she adds a new term to her theological lexicon. And when he compares himself to her, he feels inadequate. He feels like a poser. He feels embarrassed to do those things he knows he should do. He finds it easier to do nothing.

Do you see what he has done? Somewhere along the way he has made his wife’s spiritual maturity a problem. He has entered into a kind of competition with her that has made her love for the Lord a liability. He has come to see her godliness as a curse rather than a blessing, as if he has been cursed with a godly wife.

My friend, if this is you, you need to know that you’ve got it all wrong. No husband or father leads because he is worthy of it. No one is adequate to the task. Each one of us falls short in a million ways. Each one of us goes beyond the edge of our abilities every single day. We can’t do it. But we must do it anyway.

The solution is not to give up. The solution is not to do nothing. The solution is to do—to do what God calls you to do despite your fears and despite your misgivings. The solution is always simple obedience.

Rejoice in your wife’s godliness, and thank God for such a precious gift. Celebrate it by pursuing godliness of your own. You don’t need to be a brilliant theologian or a renowned Bible scholar. You don’t need to read The Institutes. You don’t need to be godlier than your wife. You just need to own your sin and inadequacy, and to do those things God calls you to do. And it all begins with admitting your complete inability to do even the least of it apart from his strength.

Image credit: Shutterstock

September 07, 2015

It is a theme I have been thinking about quite a lot. It is a theme I have known in my own life at various times and in certain circumstances. I have pondered guilt and shame, and today I want to return to some reflections on them.

So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian?

We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.

When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.

When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!

But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.

Think about this. The sin is no longer my own, which means the guilt is no longer my own, which means the shame is no longer my own. The guilt and the shame of that sin now belong to Christ. If anyone ought to be feeling shame for that sin, it is not me but Christ! Do you think Christ is at the Father’s side today racked with shame because of the adultery and murder and envy that he took upon himself? Of course not! Christ knows that those sins have been dealt with, that they have been forgiven, that they have been removed as far as east is from west. There is no shame left for him to feel.

So why, then, do I feel shame for sins I committed so long ago? Why do I get all wrapped up in guilt and shame? Because Satan wants me to be incapacitated by that shame, to doubt that it has been dealt with, to convince me that I still need to carry the weight of it. He wants to destroy my joy, to cripple my usefulness to the church, and he can do this by wrapping me up in guilt and shame.

The hymn “Before the Throne of God Above” speaks powerfully about forgiveness for guilt and shame.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,

Here is Satan, actively drawing old sins to mind, and convincing me that I still bear the guilt and shame of each one of them. But…

Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

The guilt of my sin, the shame of it, cannot withstand just that one glance at the cross, for there I see the death of Christ and with it, the death of sin, guilt, and shame.

Christian, when you commit sin and feel shame, embrace it as an opportunity to turn again to the Lord, to repent of that sin, to preach the gospel to yourself, to assure yourself once more of the Lord’s grace for those who put their faith in Christ. And then embrace the freedom of forgiveness and let Jesus feel the shame.

Got the Wrong Guy
September 02, 2015

So much of what life brings is beyond my skills, beyond my experience, beyond my comfort zone. In many ways I could tell the story of my life through the times I have been forced into action, forced to confront my fears, forced to do things that make my natural disposition scream out in fear. Left on my own and living by my own preferences, my life would look very different than it does today. This is true in my character, my home, my church, and pretty well everywhere else.

One of my great comforts and challenges has been a funny, often-overlooked little passage from the book of Exodus. God has told Moses that he will lead the people out of Egypt. God has told Moses that he, Moses, is to serve as God’s voice to both Israel and Egypt. And Moses is none too pleased. Moses takes it upon himself to remind God why he obviously isn’t the man for the job. “But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue’.” You’ve got the wrong guy, can’t you see that?

But God has not made a mistake. God hasn’t chosen Moses because of his abilities, but for reasons that are all his own. Far more likely, God has chosen Moses precisely because he has no natural abilities. God looks for people who are so weak that they will have to depend fully upon him. “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’ ” (Exodus 4:10-12).

God’s answer is simple: That mouth you’re worried about—just think for one moment about who made it. It’s not your mouth, it’s my mouth. It may be on your face, but I made it and it belongs to me. If I made it, I can use it. Just trust me with it, and you’ll be amazed at what I can do. Moses had it all wrong. Moses wanted to serve God out of his strength, but God wanted Moses to serve out of his weakness.

At so many times and in so many ways—from the dinner table to the elders’ meeting to the conference podium—I have wanted to run away from opportunities and responsibilities. Many times I have, in one way or another. I have wanted to remind God that he’s got the wrong guy—I’m not able to lead this family, I’m not able to make decisions on behalf of this church, I’m not able to speak truth into this situation, I’m not able to stand up there and speak. I am quite certain that you have found yourself battling similar fears.

But think of Moses, and think of God’s patient response, and believe that the God who calls is the God who equips. Right there you will find your comfort and your confidence.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Writing Tips
September 01, 2015

I love to write, I write often, and I share my writing publicly. For those reasons I am often asked to share tips. How can I write more? How can I write better? More than once I have compiled tips on writing, and several times I have recommended books and resources on the craft. But today I want to offer a handful of new tips that are a little bit different from the kind I have offered before.

In the past, I have focused on the craft and practice of writing. Those are important elements. But today I want to consider a different aspect of writing: the context and the tools.

Select Good Tools

Most people do their writing in Microsoft Word because, well, that’s what you do, right? Word does a thousand things, and it does some of them well. But, honestly, it isn’t a great tool for writing books or articles. It has too many options, too many buttons, too many abilities. Apple’s Pages isn’t a whole lot better.

The best tools are the ones designed specifically for writing, for getting words out of your mind and onto a screen. In recent years we’ve been given a whole collection of such minimalist tools, apps that do one thing and do it very well. My current favorite is Ulysses, though there are many alternatives. (See Byword, iA Writer, or even Scrivener.) Most of these tools eschew all the fancy formatting options for the ultra-simple Markdown, an easy and seamless way of adding bold, italics, and other elements. They reduce as much friction as possible so you can simply sit and type. And really, isn’t that what this is all about?

Make It Beautiful

There’s more to words than mere words. Words on a screen take form. They take shape. They take the shape of whatever font you work in. And some fonts are superior to others. This may seem a petty point, but I actually consider it quite significant.

Every computer and every program uses a default font. In most cases, that default font is not particularly good. (This is especially true if you use Word. Die, Calibri!) More often than not, it is an old and tired font that predates the high-quality screens we have access to today.

There is a simple solution: Try some different fonts. You can experiment with the ones that come with your computer or you can visit font sites to download a selection of free options. (See Google Fonts or Font Squirrel.) You can even go all-out and buy some fonts if you like, though you will probably find them pretty expensive. Look around and find a font that you deem beautiful. Combine that font with a minimalistic writing tool, and you may well find that it transforms the whole experience of writing.

Ulysses

Find a Good Environment

By now you have found a great writing tool and begun to write in a great font. There’s just one tip left to go: Find a great writing environment. Where and when you write has a significant impact on how you write.

When and where do you like to write? When and where do the words just flow? Find those places and establish habits in them. You can do the coffee-shop-hop, working for a couple of hours in one coffee joint, then moving down the road to another one. (Make sure you buy something every couple of hours; that’s just common courtesy.) You can work in the quiet room at the public library. You can work with people all around you, or find a place where you can be absolutely alone. You can write on the back deck or while sprawled out on the couch. Find your place, find your time, and just enjoy yourself.

Speaking Personally

The fact is, the context and the tools of our writing deeply impact the ease and the quality of our writing. Find the contexts and the tools that work best for you.

On a personal note, I love Ulysses for my day-to-day writing, though I eventually port book-length projects to Scrivener. I typically write on my iMac using Adobe Caslon Pro as my font, though on some days I need an Avenir fix. I set Ulysses to full-screen, dark mode, turn off notifications, set the font to a large size, and make sure nothing else is on my screen. If I am on the road, I use iCloud to sync my documents to my iPad where, again, I use Ulysses, but with Lato as my font. My favorite and most creative places to write are my little basement office, the quiet room at Oakville Public Library, and, strangely enough, aboard airplanes.

But Then I Had Hope
August 31, 2015

Over the weekend I could see that Aileen had something on her mind. We spoke and she told me about reading the news, about seeing more Christian men fall into scandal, and, in the face of it all, her confusion, her despair, the crumbling of her hope. I asked if she would write about it. Here is what she said.


How long ago was it now? Was it ten years? Twelve? How long has it been since I faced it for the first time? It was a whispered rumor here, a shaded suggestion there. Then it was the devastated wife weeping in my basement as I tried desperately to draw on some wisdom, some biblical truth, that would help her. Little did I know, all those years ago, that this was simply the tip of the iceberg. But I had hope.

Six years ago, Tim wrote Sexual Detox, and I followed up with False Messages. The number of letters we received shocked us—heart-breaking, soul-crushing emails from guilty men and women married to unfaithful husbands. I wrestled and fought to understand it all from a biblical perspective. Why do so many men, and even so many Christian men, have such weakness when it comes to sexual sin? But even then I still had hope: hope in the truth of the gospel, hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the years since, I have listened to more stories of more Christian men falling, wept with more women, and prayed a whole lot. I have tried to explain to women how their husbands think about sex: Your husband doesn’t just want it, he wants you. I’ve tried to tell them that sex is a good gift that God gives as a means of grace in marriage, a means of bonding a husband and wife together. I have counseled single young women to pursue purity. I have been teaching all the right stuff. And I have believed it all. I had hope.

Then came Ashley Madison and the suggestion that hundreds of pastors would have to resign after being caught with accounts on this website that glorifies adultery. And it’s not just pastors—hundreds of other Christian men, both single and married, have been caught up in the scandal. Now there are more broken homes, more devastated churches, more weeping wives, more mocking of God. And I have to tell you, this week, today, I am struggling to find hope.

I have fought to understand the struggle men face. I have fought to have compassion. I have encouraged wives to extend forgiveness, to willingly and joyfully give themselves to their husbands. But you know what? I just don’t know how I can keep doing it. Not when so many husbands are deceptively defiling the marriage bed. Not when so many young, single men are recklessly defiling the future marriage bed. Not when so many men seem just plain unwilling to change.

Men, you are supposed to be modeling holiness before the world (Titus 2:6-8). You are supposed to be cherishing your wives as Christ cherishes his church (Ephesians 5:25). You are supposed to be abstaining from all sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3). You are supposed to be fleeing youthful passions (2 Timothy 2:22). Why are so many of you failing at these basic tasks? Is it really that difficult? You would almost think that this one sin is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit.

You who keep choosing to sin, you who keep visiting those websites, you who have secret lives you keep hidden from your friends and your wives: Why won’t you stop? You know that God loves to give victory over every sin. You know that God calls you to pursue sanctification. You know that the Holy Spirit equips you to succeed. God has given you everything you need in the gospel. So why do you keep failing? The only conclusion I can come to is that you are so consumed with self-gratification that you are not willing to fight, and I mean really willing to fight, this sin. If it’s not that you can’t, it must be that you won’t.

I plead with you. I plead with you on behalf of your wives, on behalf of your future wives, on behalf of Christian women everywhere: Stop. Just stop.

Stop believing that this is a special sin that women just can’t understand—we do understand sin. This isn’t a special sin, it is just sin: God-belittling, Christ-mocking, Spirit-despising sin. Stop pretending like there are no future consequences to your actions. Stop putting your selfish desires first. Stop engaging in activities that bring shame on the gospel. Stop doing things that leave us picking up the pieces of your devastated wife. Stop indulging in your sin, and start thinking and acting like a God-honoring, Christ-praising, Spirit-glorifying man. For the love of God and his church, stop.

Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix
August 30, 2015

Crucifixes have long been a fixture in Roman Catholic worship. But in the past few years I have begun to see more and more Protestants wearing them as well, exchanging their empty cross for one that contains an image of the suffering Savior. J.I. Packer once addressed the issue of the crucifix, and addressed it well.

What harm is there, we ask, in the worshipper surrounding himself with statues and pictures, if they help him to lift his heart to God?

We are accustomed to treat the question of whether these things should be used or not as a matter of temperament and personal taste. We know that some people have crucifixes and pictures of Christ in their rooms, and they tell us that looking at these objects helps them to focus their thoughts on Christ when they pray. We know that many claim to be able to worship more freely and easily in churches that are filled with such ornaments than they can in churches that are bare of them. Well, we say, what is wrong with that? What harm can these things do? If people really do find them helpful, what more is there to be said? What point can there be in prohibiting them? In the face of this perplexity, some would suggest that the second commandment only applies to immoral and degrading representations of God, borrowed from pagan cults, and to nothing more.

But the very wording of the [second] commandment rules out such a limiting exposition. God says quite categorically, “you shall not make an idol in the form of anything” for use in worship. This categorical statement rules out, not simply the use of pictures and statues which depict God as an animal, but also the use of pictures and statues which depict him as the highest created thing we know—a human. It also rules out the use of pictures and statues of Jesus Christ as a man, although Jesus himself was and remains man; for all pictures and statues are necessarily made after the “likeness” of ideal manhood as we conceive it, and therefore come under the ban which the commandment imposes.

Packer goes on to say that whatever else the second commandment teaches “there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to disassociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than from pictures and statues of his Father.”

Why? Why is this prohibition in place and why is it so important that we heed it? He offers two reasons.

1. Images dishonour God, for they obscure his glory. The likeness of things in heaven (sun, moon, stars), and in earth (people, animals, birds, insects), and in the sea (fishes, mammals, crustaceans), is precisely not a likeness of their Creator. “A true image of God,” wrote Calvin, “is not to be found in all the world; and hence … his glory is defiled, and his truth corrupted by the lie, whenever he is set before our eyes in a visible form … Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption his majesty is adulterated, and he is figured to be other than he is.” … The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent.

…The pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity.

2. Images mislead us. They convey false ideas about God. The very inadequacy with which they represent him perverts our thoughts of him, and plants in our minds errors of all sorts about his character and will. … It is a matter of historical fact that the use of the crucifix as an aid to prayer has encouraged people to equate devotion with brooding over Christ’s bodily sufferings; it has made them morbid about the spiritual value of physical pain, and it has kept them from knowledge of the risen Savior.

These examples show how images will falsify the truth of God in the minds of men. Psychologically, it is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus, you will in this sense “bow down” and “worship” your image; and to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent will you fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship.

Image credit: Shutterstock. Quote drawn from Knowing God, chapter 4.