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May 27, 2015

I sometimes wonder what it was like for Sarah as she watched Abraham and Hagar walk into that tent together—what she thought, what she felt (Genesis 16). What was it like for the wife to watch her husband seek privacy with that other woman, knowing exactly what they were about to do? Where did her mind go in those moments when they were out of sight? How far had Sarah fallen to not only permit this, but to suggest and even demand it? What has to happen in a wife for her to give her husband to another woman’s embrace?

Idolatry has to happen, that’s what. Sarah had become an idolater. She had not begun to worship idols of wood or stone, but she was an idolater nonetheless. There was one thing she was convinced she had to have in order to experience joy and in order to live a fulfilled life, and that was the one thing God had held back. She had a husband, she had honor, she had beauty, she had fantastic wealth, but she had no child, no son. And it very nearly destroyed her. It caused her to act in the most outrageous way, and to draw others into her sin.

Sarah believed in the existence of God. Sarah even believed in the power and authority of God, I am certain. This God had called her and Abraham to leave their home and to move to a distant promised land. This God had established his covenant with Abraham. This God had protected and preserved them, enriched them, and given them great honor. But despite it all, Sarah had lost faith in the promises of this God. She had stopped believing in the goodness of this God.

God had made one promise that he seemed slow to fulfill. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would number more than the stars in the sky. He had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. He had promised, but had not yet delivered. Never mind those many nations—he had not yet given them a single child! And in all the waiting, Sarah had stopped believing. Through all the many years of childlessness, she had lost her faith. And when her faith fizzled, she began to take action on her own. If God would not fulfill the promise, then Sarah would. “Abraham, take my servant Hagar and give me children by her” (Genesis 16:2).

Sarah gained that child, but, as always, sin over-promised and under-delivered. The first thrill of joy soon turned to jealousy, then rage, then conflict, then open warfare.

Finally, just as he had said, God did fulfill his promise. He gave Abraham and Sarah the child he had promised all along. His answer to them had never been “no,” but simply “wait.” All he had asked of them was to wait and trust. There are echoes here of God’s great promise of salvation: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). God is slow only from our too-limited human perspective.

Where is God asking you to simply wait and trust? Where have you lost faith, or where is your faith wavering? Where is God slow to fulfill his promises to you, slow to answer prayer, slow to grant you the gift of understanding? Look right there and you may see displaced and then misplaced faith. Look right there and you may see how you have begun to come up with your own devious plans, even plans that directly contradict the clear, revealed will of God. Look right there and you may just see an idol taking root. Look right there and plead with God to restore your faith in him and his promises.



May 20, 2015

Imagine if you could go back. Imagine if you could race back through time and see all of your Google searches plotted out with the date and location of each one. In that unusual way, you would have compiled a short biography of your life. You would have compiled a short narrative of your marriage and parenting.

You would see the time your child was going through those temper tantrums and you searched for ideas on how to make it stop. You would see the time you and your spouse were struggling with satisfaction and you went looking for some tips to spice things up. You would see the time you decided to start paying your children an allowance and you headed to the blogs to see what others do. There would be all these searches, and countless thousands more; assembled together they would form a fascinating portrait of your life. Google may know you better than you know yourself. Google remembers things about you that you’ve long since forgotten.

Google has become such a part of our lives that we tend to forget its newness and its historical uniqueness. Just a generation ago parents and spouses had to find answers in an entirely different way. And I wonder what we’ve lost along the way.

God has got his own version of Google and, until recently, it was the one Christians relied on. God’s version of Google is called the local church. When we have questions about life and marriage and parenting and so much else, there is rarely a better place to go than the local church. When we want to see marriage and parenting modeled for us, there is no more natural place to turn. “I want kids like your kids, so let me spend time with you. I want a marriage like your marriage, so let me observe and ask you questions.”

The beauty of the local church is that it allows us to receive truth filtered through people we actually know. We know the people giving us counsel and are able to gauge their skill and credibility. We get to see real marriages and real parenting, and we learn who is worthy of imitation. And then we simply observe and ask questions. Why do you do things that way? How do you deal with this situation? Where do you go when struggling? What are some of your most formative books?

There is something so deeply and helpfully humbling about having to approach another person rather than simply typing a few sentences into the search engine. But there is something so rewarding about telling the other person, about meeting together, about receiving counsel, about being prayed for. The relationship is so much deeper, the reward so much greater.

On the other hand, there can be something concerningly proud about going online first. You head straight to Google and go looking for answers to your questions and problems. You collect information that sounds so correct and so fresh. (It’s from the Internet, after all, and from a pretty site plastered with well-composed photos of a happy family) What you learn from a peer on the Web may seem like the new thing, whereas it is easy to write off what you learn from that grandmother in the church as hopelessly outdated. But here’s what you forget: It is not just the answers you are looking for, but the wisdom, the relationship, and the prayer.

Now look, the Internet is awesome. Google is awesome. There are many reasons to use them every day. But only one of these things is God’s ordained means for our sanctification and only one of these things will last forever. Go ahead and Google, but don’t neglect the beauty and wisdom of the people who worship right beside you each Sunday.

It is so easy and so natural to go online to look for answers, that we may just pass over the most obvious means of help. It is here, in the local church, that we have people who are deeply invested in us and specifically called and gifted to assist us. Church first, Google later.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 19, 2015

When I was a kid I loved to collect things, though, in retrospect, rarely for very long. For a while it was stamps, then coins, then model airplanes, then this, then that, then the other thing. Somehow, though, I always had some little collection on the go.

I have long since given up collecting much of anything except for this: quotes. I am a collector of quotes. I am not as organized as I would like to be, and not as committed as I ought to be, but I am still building a pretty good collection. Every week I send a batch of favorites to a graphic designer so that 6 days a week I can share one of them through various social channels. (You can find the definitive collection of these quote graphics at Pinterest.)

Now it all sounds very simple, and it really should be. But I have found, rather to my surprise, that many people do not know how to enjoy a quote. To the contrary, too many people ruin a perfectly good quote because they just don’t know how to make the most of it. Within 10 minutes of posting a quote, no matter what it says or who said it, someone will object. It is inevitable. No sooner do I post the quote than someone replies to tell me why they disagree with it (and, very possibly, why I am a rank heretic for ever sharing it in the first place).

The most common objection is that the quote does not contain the entire truth. The quote may be true, but not always true or not wholly true. John Flavel says, “A twig is brought to any form, but grown trees will not bow. How few are converted in old age!” But someone objects to say that his grandmother was saved at the age of 72. “The true test of our worldview is what we find entertaining,” says Al Mohler. But that person’s conscience is clear and she says she can thank God for the entertainment another person might find objectionable.

The very thing these people are objecting to is the beauty and value of the quotes: They provide a dimension of truth and give us the opportunity to reflect on what is true. Few single sentences contain exhaustive truth—that is too great a burden for 20 words or 140 characters. I can say, “Christ died for our sins and was raised” as a summary of the gospel, or I can write a 10-volume series exploring every nuance of the gospel. Both are true, but one far more completely true. In that way the quotes I share are much like Solomon’s Proverbs—rarely exhaustively true, but always true to at least some degree. This is why Solomon could share contradictory proverbs, because neither one is true all the time and in every situation (see Proverbs 26:4-5). The benefit of a good quote is in pondering it, in considering the extent to which it is true and the situations in which it is true. The joy of a quote is in thinking about it, yet without over-thinking it.

Quotes are like lozenges, great for savoring but terrible for just straight-out swallowing. Learn how to savor good quotes.





Image credit: Shutterstock

May 18, 2015

We learned last week that William Zinnser has died. He was known primarily as the author of On Writing Well, a classic guide to composing non-fiction. It is a book that has meant a lot to me as I have attempted to mature as a writer. This weekend I breezed back through all my notes and highlights and found that the ideas that most impacted me can be distilled into 5 simple headings. I also found that the ideas are applicable not only to professional writers like Zinnser, but to anyone who wants to grow in communication skills. Here are 5 things Zinnser taught me:

Be Diligent

There is really no such thing as that fabled “natural writer.” What actually distinguishes the good authors from the great ones is simply their diligence. Good authors humble themselves with the knowledge of how poor they are, and then they commit themselves to endless practice.

  • “Few people realize how badly they write.”
  • “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
  • “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
  • “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
  • “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

Be Ruthless

While Zinsser believes that writing is an act of ego (see below), he also calls for a kind of humility that manifests itself in ruthless editing. If he is known for anything, it is for his constant calls to cut the clutter that marks too much writing (my own included).

  • “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
  • “Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
  • “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
  • “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”

Be Yourself

Zinsser hates writing that sounds unnatural and cannot tolerate people who have a writing voice that is completely separate from their speaking voice. His advice to the writer is simple: Be yourself. His basic assumption is that if your writing appeals to you, it will appeal to others. If you wouldn’t read it, then don’t write it!

  • “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”
  • “You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”
  • “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
  • “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (‘he’s a fine individual’), please don’t write it.”
  • “The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing ‘I.’ Remember: ‘I’ is the most interesting element in any story.”
  • “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.”

Be Good

He also advocates a growing knowledge of the form and craft of writing.

  • “Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.”
  • “Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
  • “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
  • “Quality is its own reward.”
  • “The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter–a reminder of all the choices–and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.”

Be Practical

Then, of course, he also provides a lot of very practical advice.

  • “If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step of the winding trail.” (This is a particularly brilliant sentence that perfectly models his instruction.)
  • “The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
  • E.B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…”
  • “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.”
  • “You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”

Much more could be said, of course. Zinner’s book remains a classic and one that bears repeated readings. I will be reading it again this summer with my interns, and am already looking forward to it.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 15, 2015

I will eat just about anything. I’m an adventurous omnivore and often walk into restaurants hoping to try something new and different. But there is at least one exception: I simply cannot tolerate shrimp. I hate those bottom-feeding sea bugs and I will do everything I can to avoid them. Sometimes people try to convince me to try shrimp by saying, “But you’ve never had them fried in garlic butter” or “You’ve got to just try them in the grits.” It’s useless. I am beyond temptation there.

Temptation is a common theme in the Bible, but I wonder how often you actually think about the nature of temptation. What does it mean to be tempted? A temptation is anything that promises satisfaction at the cost of obedience. Temptation is when circumstances work together so that you have the ability and maybe even the desire to do something that God forbids. It is money but without work (so you steal), popularity but without kindness (so you gossip), sexual fulfillment but without marriage (so you commit adultery)—it is the satisfaction you want but through disobedience rather than obedience.

We can gain some important insights into temptation from two poignant illustrations in the book of James.

The Fishing Illustration

Here is what he says in James 1:14: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” We have good desires and bad desires. What James is referring to here are the bad desires, the longings we have for things that God has prohibited. James uses a fishing metaphor and says something like this: You have inner desires that are evil, a product of your sinful nature. Temptation comes when a circumstance engages one of those desires. Here’s the simple formula: Desire + circumstance = temptation.

Your sinful desires give you a hunger, an appetite, for something forbidden, something you think you need, something you think you can’t be satisfied without. Then a circumstance comes along and acts like bait, like a lure. That circumstance dangles the opportunity before you, and you are tempted to take a bite. But what you never seem to see is that buried in that bait is a sharp, nasty hook. First it lures you, and then if you succumb to the temptation it hooks you and drags you away.

What James wants you to know is that you are not an unwilling victim of temptation. Temptation is not a kidnapper who drags you into his van kicking and screaming and takes you where you don’t want to go. You climb in all on your own! You are a willing participant in your own kidnapping, in your own temptation. As John MacArthur says, “The problem is not a tempter from without, but the traitor within.”

The Birth & Death Metaphor

James continues in the next verse: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” He switches from the hunting and fishing metaphor to a birth and death metaphor and says something like this: When you jump in the back seat with evil Desire, Desire will inevitably conceive and give birth to a child named sin, and sin will eventually give birth to a child named death. This is an earthy metaphor he uses here. You can’t fool around with your girlfriend and then act shocked when you find she’s pregnant; you can’t fool around with evil desire and then act surprised when you sin.

Again, your temptations always involve your desires. Temptation dangles a circumstance before you, and because you have a sinful nature you will engage in a battle over whether or not to act on your inner evil desires. If you act on that desire it leads you to sin. You go from inner stirrings of desire to outward actions of sin. Those sinful actions always result in death. That’s the life cycle of sin. Temptation engages your desires, acting on those desires lead to sin, and sin leads to death.

You might ask, What about Satan? Isn’t he the tempter? Aren’t you warned about the world, the flesh, and the devil? Yes, of course you are. But that isn’t James’ point here. He’ll talk about Satan later on, but for now he wants you to consider your own inner disposition to sin. When you do something the Bible forbids, or when you want to do something the Bible forbids, you’ve got to look inside and admit your love of sin, your attraction to sin. Temptation is only attractive because of the evil desire that dwells within you.*

How do you stop the cycle of sin leading to temptation leading to death? It is remarkably simple. You do all you can to avoid the circumstances that lead to temptation, and you work at the level of the desires, putting those evil desires to death, so temptation can no longer dangle that seductive bait in front of you. When the desire is dead, the temptation is no longer attractive.

So go ahead and dangle shrimp in front of me. I won’t be tempted. Why? I hate them. I am dead to shrimp! They simply do not entice me. And this is exactly what needs to be true of sin as well. Go after the evil desires, and replace them with good desires, and those temptation will no longer be appealing. 

* Jesus was tempted but without sin. He was truly tempted, but he had no evil desires, no appetite for evil. This means that there was nothing for the temptation to hook onto, and he was never caught. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 12, 2015

I find it almost hard to believe now, but there was a time in my life that I hated coffee. At least I thought I did. I wanted to be a grownup like everyone else, so had tried to drink it on a number of occasions. But every time I did, I found it more disgusting than the time before. I just couldn’t figure out what everyone else loved about it.

It turns out, though, that my friends had unintentionally led me astray. Knowing that I had never drunk it before, they had always tried to make it more palatable by giving me some mixed-up hybrid of coffee, sugar, and cream. They thought it would be best for me to begin with a little coffee and a lot of other stuff that would cut the bitterness. And every time I tried it I hated it.

But then one day it occurred to me that I had never actually just tried straight-up coffee. I poured myself a cup of the real deal, and from the first sip found that I loved it. It wasn’t the coffee I had hated, but the combination of coffee, sugar, and cream! In fact, the joy of drinking coffee was in the full-out flavor, bitterness and all. The problem all along was that people had diluted the coffee, or added something to it, thinking that this would make it more enjoyable. When they added to it, they changed it entirely, so that it wasn’t really coffee anymore.

I thought about this on Sunday morning as I meditated on the text I was about to preach, the final verses of 2 Timothy 3, where Paul tells Timothy about the origin and purpose of the Bible. I knew that I wanted to preach the text in such a way that everything I said flowed naturally and legitimately right out of it. I prayed that I would bring to bear the full weight and urgency of the text, that I would be able to get out of the way so the text could speak.

My mind drifted back to the days when Aileen and I were in churches where the preachers had treated the Bible kind of like my friends had treated coffee. Somewhere they must have lost their confidence in the Bible just a little bit, and they began to believe that it was unpalatable or distasteful to those who hadn’t encountered it before, to those who weren’t used to its flavor. Their solution was to try to change or cut the full flavor. So instead of allowing the text to speak by just preaching it book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, and verse-by-verse, they approached it through the lens of topics or felt needs. Instead of preaching what it said, no matter how difficult or controversial, they neglected the tough texts in favor of the easy ones. Verses were preached in isolation, not unity, and the Bible was made out to be little more than a means of learning how to live a better and more successful life.

After a few years of that, Aileen and I began to have these disquieting stirrings, these deep concerns that something was missing, that something had gone wrong. But we didn’t know exactly what it was. Then one day we visited another church in the area and an amazing thing happened: The pastor simply preached a text. He opened the Bible, he told us what it said, and he told us why it mattered. It was a tough text, but he did not water it down or run from it. He felt no need to add to it or adapt it. He just preached it. And it was amazing. Once we had tasted that undiluted Word, we realized how delicious it really was. We were ruined to anything less. We still are.

It has been many years since that first cup of coffee and I love it more than ever. I still drink it straight-up black. And more than ever I am committed to the straight-up Word of God, to never diluting it, and to never adding anything to it. It’s absolutely perfect and downright delicious just the way it is.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 08, 2015

I am not a crier. I’m the kind of person who naturally keeps that stiff upper lip, and there isn’t much that causes my emotions to ride too high or to sink too low. It’s probably the Canadian in me. And yet there is this one thing I do on a regular basis that almost always overwhelms me with a deep sadness. If it doesn’t actually bring me to tears, it brings me awfully close.

A few months ago I downloaded an app called Carousel; this app pokes through all the thousands of photographs I keep on my computer and once a week it packages up a collection of highlights from this week in years past. My phone buzzes, I open up the app, and suddenly I am staring into the past. And it just about breaks my heart every time.

This week there is a photo of my son that was taken on May 11, 2008. He is wearing his brand-new Athletics jersey, ready for another season of little league baseball. He is making a goofy face, masking his discomfort in front of a camera by hamming it up. He looks so young. So young! He was 8 back then, but is 15 today. What happened? Where did the 7 years ago?

The next photo goes back 10 years to 2005, and my daughter is at a princess party, looking so tiny and looking as cute as a button. She was 3 then, and is 12 (going on 19) today. How is that even possible?

Princess Party

And then, right between the two, is May 4, 2006. My two oldest children are in our living room, meeting their little sister for the very first time. Could that really have been 9 years ago? 9 years! 3,285 days!


There are thousands of these photos, each one a little link to days gone by and to time that has already passed. While there is joy in looking at those old shots and losing myself in memories, there is also a deep sadness. Why? Because every photo looks like an opportunity lost. Wasn’t it just yesterday that the kids were toddling around, barely able to walk? Wasn’t it just last summer that they ran in circles outside trying desperately to get some dollar-store kites to soar into the air. No, according to the timestamp on the photos that was in 2008. I will never see those 7 years again. They are gone. And what did I do with them? How did I love and serve my children with them? Where did all that time disappear to? Why wasn’t I outside with them, trying to get those kites in the air instead of just snapping a few photos of the action?

This is the tragedy of time. Time is one of the few resources in this world that is given in finite measure. I can always make more money—I just need to work harder or work longer or invest better, and more money will come. But there is not a single thing I can do to gain more time. It ticks by and is gone forever. Every one of those photos shows a moment that has come and gone and will never be repeated. Every one of those photos shows opportunities taken, but also opportunities lost. When I stare into the past I am faced to grapple with all the things I have done and all the things I have left undone. It is nearly impossible to look at those photos and not feel the sorrow of failure.

And yet I know that the photos are just a few snapshots of a few moments, and that our lives are much more than these pictures. They captured some moments, but not the most important moments. No one took photos of me reading Bible stories to the children. No one took photos of Aileen cuddling the girls while talking about life and eternity. No one took photos of our family sitting together in church, singing together, praying together. We don’t have a single picture of the family devotions we do just about every day. No one took photos of my son when he suddenly came to the realization that Christ had died for his sins. These photos record reality, but only the smallest sliver of it. Few of life’s most important moments can be so easily captured.

Note: Watch picture courtesy Shutterstock

May 04, 2015

The Bible is a book full of metaphors—word pictures that God uses to explain who he is and what he requires of us. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. We are treasonous prodigals and God is a forgiving Father. We are trees, able to bear good fruit or bad fruit. Jesus is water, able to refresh the driest, thirstiest soul. From beginning to end, the Bible teaches us using vivid pictures.

One of my favorite metaphors is one we find in Paul’s epistles—the picture of Christians, of the church, as a body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” A human body is made up of many parts, each of which has its own function, and each of which is integral to the functioning of the whole. And in the same way, each local church is made up of a great variety of people. Each of us is given special gifts by God, meant to bless and encourage other Christians. This makes each person indispensable to the functioning of the whole church. Just as there are no superfluous body parts, there are no redundant Christians. We are all gifted so that we can be a blessing to others.

As a pastor, I have the opportunity to meet many people as they come to our church for the first time. Many of them are looking for a new church—they have just moved to Toronto or have just left a church that has crumbled. I meet with these people and tell them about our congregation, and I invite them to participate in the life of the church.

It does not take long to learn which of them are burdened with the desire to participate fully in the life of the church and to use their God-given gifts to serve others. And it does not take long to learn which of them are coming to the church with the intention of remaining at the fringes. The sad fact is that there are many Christians who want to be served but do not want to serve. They mean to take advantage of the gifts God has given others, but without serving their brothers and sisters with the gifts God has given them.

Ed Welch offers a challenge here:

Persons searching for their gifts think that they can “find” their gifts in isolation from the body. They have forgotten that the orientation of God’s people is outward rather than inward. The question should be this: How can I grow in love for and service to the body of Christ? Gifts are the way we naturally love and serve.

Christian, God has gifted you in such a way that you are a necessary part of a body, a local church. Those gifts are the way you are to love and serve others as you love and serve Christ. Will you use your gifts for their good and his glory?

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