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May 18, 2008

Since I committed to daily blogging I’ve often joked that the day I don’t post, lots of people will presume I’m dead. This is one of those days that saw me hurry through the morning and then head to church. After the service we enjoyed an afternoon of fellowship with a family in our church and we then went to the evening service. Suddenly it’s 7:30 and I haven’t blogged. We came home to a flashing light on the phone and a message checking to make sure we were still alive. “You haven’t posted yet so I just wanted to check in and make sure everything’s okay.”

As I’ve been using Sundays to lately to post prayers, I thought it appropriate today to post a prayer for the Lord’s Day Evening. Once again this is drawn from The Valley of Vision.

May the close of an earthly sabbath remind me that the last of them will one day end.
Animate me with joy that in heaven praise will never cease,
that adoration will continue forever,
that no flesh will grow weary,
no congregations disperse,
no affections flag,
no thoughts wander,
no will droop,
but all will be adoring love.
Guard my mind from making ordinances my stay or trust,
from hewing out broken cisterns,
from resting on outward helps.
Wing me though earthly forms to thy immediate presence;
May my feeble prayers show me the emptiness and vanity of my sins;
Deepen in me the conviction that my most fervent prayers,
and my lowly confessions, need to be repented of.
May my best services bring me nearer to the cross,
and prompt me to cry, ‘None but Jesus!’
By thy Spirit give abiding life to the lessons of this day:
May the seed sown take deep root and yield a full harvest.
Let all who see me take knowledge that I have been with thee
that thou has taught me my need as a sinner
hast revealed a finished salvation to me,
hast enriched me with all spiritual blessings,
hast chosen me to show forth Jesus to others,
hast helped me to dispel the mists of unbelief.
O great Creator, mighty Protector, gracious Preserver,
thou dost load me with loving kindnesses,
and hast made me thy purchased possession,
and redeemed me from all guilt;
I praise and bless thee for
my sabbath rest,
my calm conscience,
my peace of heart.

May 07, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about sin, asking if sin is primarily something we do or something we are. Some questions arose in light of that article and I wanted to carry on a bit of discussion by looking further at the doctrine of human depravity. I have shared most of this in the past but felt it was well worth covering again. It is easy to see this doctrine as one that is terribly depressing and deflating, but when we properly understand depravity I think we can also find it very liberating. It gives us cause to praise God for His grace.

Total Depravity

The doctrine of total depravity be defined something like this: “Total Depravity is a theological term primarily associated with Calvinism, which interprets the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. In other words, a person is not by nature inclined to love God with his heart or mind or strength, rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor. Put another way, even with all circumstances in his favor a man without God can do nothing but work for his own destruction; and even his religion and philanthropy are destructive, to the extent that these originate from his own imagination, passions and will” (I don’t recommend Wikipedia for theological precision, but in this case they offer quite a good definition). Because the purpose of this article is not to defend Total Depravity I will not offer biblical support for it. I hope to write such a series of articles in the future.

When we say that mankind fell in Adam, we affirm that as our federal or representative head, Adam’s sin was passed on to each of us. Adam represented the human race, and when he decided to forsake God, he did so on behalf of every one of us. This is similar to a head of state declaring war on another nation - his declaration means that each person within his nation, each person that he represents, is now at war with the foreign country. Job laments “Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) No one who has been born of man can escape this radically sinful nature. Nature tells us that like begets like; a dog can only give birth to dogs, not to cats or frogs or birds. Similarly a sinful person can only bring forth other sinful people (which helps us understand why Jesus needed to be conceived of the Holy Spirit).

Another affirmation we make in the Christian view of the fall is that there is a sense in which the first sin is ours in the same way in which it was Adam’s. While we did not actually take the piece of fruit and eat it, God foreordained our relationship to Adam long before Adam fell so that from the moment of our conception we are sinful. We are not innocent until we commit our first sin, but are condemned, sinful people from the moment our lives begin. Psalm 58:3 tells us that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” Before we are even born we are already sinful, and deliberately go astray as soon as we are able.

How Sinful Are We?

And so it is that humans are sinful from the moment life begins. But how sinful are they? Like many Calvinists today, I am convinced that a term such as Radical Depravity or Radical Corruption is superior to “Total Depravity.” I believe these terms contribute to clarifying the matter, for by total depravity we do not mean that people are as depraved as they could possibly be—they are totally corrupt in some ways but not in others. It is here that it is helpful to distinguish between extent and degree.

When we say humans are totally depraved in extent, we mean that their depravity has reached every part of their being. It extends to every part of them - their mind, body and spirit are all corrupt. When we speak of a total degree of depravity, we indicate that something is exactly as bad as it could possibly be so that there is not even a tiny bit of good left. The doctrine of total depravity speaks to extent, not to degree.

Consider an illustration of three glasses of water. The first glass contains clean, pure water and represents Adam in his perfect state before the Fall. Now consider a second glass which contains this same clean, pure water. We can put one drop of deadly poison in that glass and it renders that entire glass poisonous so that if you were to drink it, you would quickly drop dead. That one drop extended to every part of the glass even though the entire vessel is not filled with poison. This represents humans after the Fall. While they are not wholly corrupt, the corruption they do have extends to every part. And finally consider a third glass which is filled entirely with poison. From top to bottom there is nothing but deadly poison. This represents Satan, who the Bible portrays as being absolutely corrupt so there is no good left whatsoever, but this does not represent humans here on earth. Humans are not as depraved as they could possibly be.

The Equalizer

Total Depravity is the great equalizer of humans before God. Even when we compare the most sinful man to the young boy who was saved long before he even knew how to get into serious trouble, we see that all men are equal before God. The Bible teaches that we are not sinners because of the degree of our depravity, but because of the extent. The degree exists only because of the extent.

The extent of my depravity is just as great as that of the worst sinner the world has ever known. The thoughts of his heart were continually evil, and so were mine. He hated God, and so did I. As one who came to trust Christ as only a child I had little opportunity to express this hatred and resentment, yet the Bible teaches that it was there all along. Titus 3:3 tells us that “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” These words are as true of a child as they are of an adult. Even my sweet little two-year-old redhead downstairs passes her days in foolishness, disobedience and malice towards both God and men. There are none who are truly innocent before God. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us as much where it says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Were it not for Scripture’s clear teaching on Total Depravity, I may have cause to boast or to consider myself somehow more innocent than a person who instigated and endured much pain and suffering before being drawn to the Lord. Yet the Bible teaches me that my depravity, even as a child, was as great in extent as anyone’s. It was only His grace that kept me from being as corrupt in degree. If God delights in saving us, who are depraved in extent, we know also that God can save anyone despite the degree of his sin. If I compare myself to another and find him more in need of a Savior than I, I have made the mistake of comparing my sin to his, instead of comparing my sin to God’s perfection. God does not judge us by comparing one to the other, but against His perfect Law.

Total Depravity is not “mere” doctrine, but is truth that should and must impact every believer’s life. This truth is the great equalizer, for it shows that the best and worst of men are all equally corrupt in light of God’s perfect standard. “The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23) God had to stoop just as far to grab me as He did the lowliest criminal, for we were equally dead, equally depraved and equally in need of His grace, His life. The miracle that brought me to life is the same miracle that must bring every sinful man or woman to life. We are equal as we fall to our faces before the cross. An old song by the French Canadian band The Kry says it well:

Down at the cross come and leave your pride
Lay everything at His feet
For all of us He was willing to die
Even when we were weak
When we were still without strength
When we were set in our ways
When we were filled with hatred for Him
Still He was willing to die for you and I

Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom
Let not the strong man boast in his strength
Let not the rich man boast in his riches
For all men are equal down at the cross

This is the biblical teaching on depravity. All humans are corrupt in extent—every part of us testifies to our imperfection, but thanks be to God, not in degree. And before us lies a decision. God tells us that when we die we can anticipate either becoming perfected, so once again we will be like that glass of water that is crystal clear, free from any poison of corruption or being cast out of His presence where we will become like that glass of poison, as corrupt and evil and filled with hate as we could possibly be.

May 07, 2008

You have probably heard about the Evangelical Manifesto—a document that has received some attention in the press over the past few days. This manifesto was made public for the first time just a few minutes ago and is now publicly available at anevangelicalmanifesto.com. According to those who drafted the document, “The two-fold purpose of this declaration is first to address the confusions and corruptions that attend the term Evangelical in the United States and much of the Western world today, and second to clarify where we stand on issues that have caused consternation over Evangelicals in public life.”

An Evangelical Manifesto is an open declaration of who Evangelicals are and what they stand for. It has been drafted and published by a representative group of Evangelical leaders who do not claim to speak for all Evangelicals, but who invite all other Evangelicals to stand with them and help clarify what Evangelical means in light of “confusions within and the consternation without” the movement. As the Manifesto states, the signers are not out to attack or exclude anyone, but to rally and to call for reform.

As an open declaration, An Evangelical Manifesto addresses not only Evangelicals and other Christians but other American citizens and people of all other faiths in America, including those who say they have no faith. It therefore stands as an example of how different faith communities may address each other in public life, without any compromise of their own faith but with a clear commitment to the common good of the societies in which we all live together.

For those who are Evangelicals, the deepest purpose of the Manifesto is a serious call to reform—an urgent challenge to reaffirm Evangelical identity, to reform Evangelical behavior, to reposition Evangelicals in public life, and so rededicate ourselves to the high calling of being Evangelical followers of Jesus Christ.

The document was drafted by a Steering Committee comprised of Timothy George, Os Guinness, John Huffman, Rich Mouw, Jesse Miranda, David Neff, Richard Ohman, Larry Ross and Dallas Willard. Among the Charter Signatories are such diverse notables as Leith Anderson, Kay Arthur, Darrell Bock, Jack Hayford, Max Lucado, Erwin Lutzer, J. P. Moreland, Mark Noll, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Jim Wallis.

I look forward to reading through it as soon as I’ve got a few minutes to do so!

May 06, 2008

As anyone knows who has studied the life of Jonathan Edwards, he dedicated a large portion of his ministry to thinking, writing and teaching about the freedom of the will. And, of course, he eventually published a classic work dealing with the subject. In writing the book he thought back to the days when revival had swept his church, his community and the area around it. And as he reflected on the individuals who had been swept up in the revival, or those who had made professions of faith in the years following, he became aware of a fundamental flaw in many of these professions. “Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts.”

Little has changed. I have met countless people who consider themselves Christians and who admit to sin in their lives and feel guilt and remorse for individual sins, but who seem unable or unwilling to admit the incontrovertible fact that their hearts are in rebellion against God. The Bible tells us in plain terms that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. And I don’t think we can overstate what a fundamental difference this is! We do not need to seek forgiveness merely for the sins we commit, but for our fundamentally evil and rebellious hearts—hearts that, in their natural state, hate God and are fully and completely and gleefully and willingly opposed to Him.

In his must-read biography of Edwards, George Marsden summarizes Edwards’ assessment of this problem. “Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control.” When sin has been defined merely as individual acts of the will, it is possible for humans, even devoid of God’s help, to overcome those evil acts and deeds. A man who explodes in anger or a woman who grumbles against her husband can overcome those sins in their own power. Unbelievers can throw off addiction and poor behavior through an act of the will. But they can never address the heart of the issue. While they may make cosmetic changes, they can never overcome the deeper issues because they can never change their hearts.

Those who profess Christ can do the same thing; Christians are also capable of overcoming the appearance of sin and the outward manifestations of sin in their own power. Over the past week Aileen has dedicated a lot of her time to helping a neighbor who is preparing to sell her house. They have been painting the house and it is amazing to see what a fresh coat of paint can do to “clean up” a house. But it is merely a cosmetic change. Underlying issues, structural issues, can be masked for a time, but will show up again if they are not properly dealt with. Similarly, Christians can dedicate great effort and go to great pains to remove traces of sin from their lives. But all the time they may have done this without the aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit. They may never have owned up to their fundamental sinfulness, their natural enmity towards God. They may never feel or acknowledge guilt not only for what they do but for who they are.

The evidence proves that many Christians, and most likely the vast majority of those who identify themselves as Christians, have a worldview that is functionally secular. Many people who go to church every Sunday, who read Christian books and who read their Bibles and pray every day, still think like unbelievers. Their worldview—their way of seeing and understanding the world—is no different from before they claimed to be Christians. Jonathan Edwards, looking to the refusal of the people of his day to own up to their guilt, realized that “the liberal Christianity of the new republic would be built around such moral principles.” Modern day evangelicalism is likewise founded on such lax moral principles.

A couple of years ago I spoke to the administrator of a church in the area. This person had been a Christian for several years and was active as a leader in the church. Discussing a recent and high-profile crime that had been covered by the media, this person told me, “I just don’t understand how anyone could do that. I don’t understand how anyone could be that bad. I could never be that evil!” As we spoke, I realized that this was a person who knew that he committed sins, and yet one who clearly did not understand his inherently sinful nature. He knew he sinned but refused to believe he was a sinner. Sin is what he did, not what he was. Recently my thoughts turned to a couple we know who seemed to become believers, but whose lives did not seem to show much evidence of true life change. They were quickly drafted into service in their church and were soon actively involved in leadership and service. They were baptized despite highly-visible and unrepentant sin in their lives. They became members. And yet their lives, including this one very obviously and blatantly sinful aspect of their lives, did not change at all. Neither did the church seem to require or expect them to change. They modified aspects of their lives, I suppose, but that fundamental change of heart just never seemed to happen. As of the last time we saw them, they still did not seem to think, act, talk and, in many ways, live like Christians. They knew they sinned but didn’t seem to know that they were and still are sinners.

Here is how Marsden concludes this short section of the book:

Even the most popular evangelicalism of the next two centuries tended to emphasize guilt for and victory over known sins. Although the submission of one’s will to God and a subsequent infilling or baptism of the Holy Spirit typically would be urged as necessary to achieve moral purity, God’s power was most often seen as cooperating with or working through the native powers of the sovereign individual will. While American Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular came in too many varieties to allow easy generalization, we can at least say that Edwards was correct in identifying a trend toward what he called “Arminianism” in what would become “the land of the free.”

The foundational problem that led to this low view of sin and God’s expectation of holiness was a wrong view of the freedom of the will. People did not realize that the will is wholly bound by the sinful nature. They felt that they were able, in their own power and through their own freedom, to change their behavior. They did not understand or care to understand the depth of their depravity. They may have sought God’s assistance in doing this, but did not rely on His grace and power. God merely cooperated with man’s inherent ability. And sadly, even centuries later, little has changed across a large spectrum of Christianity. Take a book from the shelf of your local Christian bookstore and you should not be surprised to read that your fundamental problem is not your sinful nature but your individual self-destructive acts.

The solution today is the same as it was in Edwards’ day. “People needed to be properly convinced of their real guilt and sinfulness, in the sight of God, and their deserving of his wrath.” Every Christian needs not only to own up to his sin and guilt, but to admit that he is deserving of God’s wrath. No one has properly apprehended God’s grace until he has understood his own sinfulness and knows that he fully deserves God’s just and holy punishment. The evangelical church of our day is a wrathless church—a church that speaks often of God’s love and grace, but rarely of the deepest necessity of this love and grace. The church today needs an infusion of the gospel, the whole gospel, which speaks not only of God’s love, but first of our desperate need of reconciliation. The gospel portrays us as we really are—as sinners who sin because of our fundamental guilt, our fundamental hatred of God. Only when we see ourselves as sinners can we truly see Christ as Savior. Only when we have identified ourselves as fallen in Adam can we truly and properly identify ourselves as raised up and set apart in Christ.

May 04, 2008

On a couple of occasions I’ve posted short stories by Stephen Leacock. Well, one of my favorite Leacock tales is this one that he tells about Mother’s Day. It seemed appropriate today since we’re just a week away from the occasion. I plan to make sure that my family treats Aileen at least this well next Sunday. You’ll want to do same.

One year our family decided to have a special celebration of Mother’s Day, as a token of appreciation for all the sacrifices that Mother had made for us. After breakfast we had arranged, as a surprise, to hire a car and take her for a beautiful drive in the country. Mother was rarely able to have a treat like that, because she was busy in the house nearly all the time.

But on the very morning of the day, we changed the plan a little, because it occurred to Father that it would be even better to take Mother fishing. As the car was hired and paid for, we might as well use it to drive up into the hills where the streams are. As Father said, if you just go driving you have a sense of aimlessness, but if you are going to fish there is a definite purpose that heightens the enjoyment.

So we all felt it would be nicer for Mother to have a definite purpose; and anyway, Father had just got a new fishing rod the day before, which he said Mother could use if she wanted to; only Mother said she would much rather watch him fish than try to fish herself.

So we got her to make up a sandwich lunch in case we got hungry, though of course we were to come home again to a big festive dinner.

Well, when the car came to the door, it turned out that there wasn’t as much room in it as we had supposed, because we hadn’t reckoned on Father’s fishing gear and the lunch, and it was plain that we couldn’t all get in.

Father said not to mind him, that he could just as well stay home and put in the time working in the garden. He said that we were not to let the fact that he had not had a real holiday for three years stand in our way. He wanted us to go right ahead and not to mind him.

But of course we all felt that it would never do to let Father stay home. The two girls, Anna and Mary, would have stayed and gotten dinner, only it seemed such a pity to, on a lovely day like this, having their new hats. But they said that Mother had only to say the word and they’d gladly stay home and work. Will and I would have dropped out, but we wouldn’t have been any use in getting the dinner.

So in the end it was decided that Mother would stay home and just have a lovely restful day around the house, and get the dinner. Also it turned out to be just a bit raw out-of-doors, and Father said he would never forgive himself if he dragged Mother round the country and let her take a severe cold. He said it was our duty to let Mother get all the rest and quiet she could, after all she had done for all of us, and that young people seldom realize how much quiet means to people who are getting old. He could still stand the racket, but he was glad to shelter Mother from it.

Well, we had the loveliest day up among the hills, and Father caught such big fish that he felt sure that Mother couldn’t have landed them anyway, if she had been fishing for them. Will and I fished too, and the two girls met some young men friends along the stream, and so we all had a splendid time.

We sat down to a roast turkey dinner when we got back. Mother had to get up a good bit during the meal fetching things, but at the end Father said she simply mustn’t do it, that he wanted her to relax, and he got up and got the walnuts from the buffet himself.

The dinner was great fun, and when it was over all of us wanted to help clear the things up and wash the dishes, only Mother said that she would do it, and so we let her, because we wanted to humor her.

It was late when it was all over, and when we kissed Mother before going to bed, she said it had been the most wonderful day in her life. Funny that there were tears in her eyes.

April 29, 2008

Mark was determined to die. And in retrospect there was really nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

His first attempt came when he was 18 and it left him with scars running the length of his arms. His sister found him sitting calmly in the bathtub, a razor blade lying in the pool of blood. Help arrived in time to save him. When he was released from hospital his parents took him to the finest psychiatrists in the city. Each one of them diagnosed him with something different: one said he had a personality disorder and another schizophrenia. One even told him that he was “just a punk” who was bent on defying his parents and making their lives miserable. I think this one may have been on to something.

Mark overdosed on pills on his sister’s birthday. She had invited a few friends to spend the night and they were in the family room watching a movie when he came down to the basement, delirious from the medication cocktail he had consumed. Another call to 9-1-1 and another stay in the hospital once again saved his life. This time he was admitted to a psychiatric institution where he spent several months resting and recovering. Upon his release, ominously, he told his parents that if he wanted to kill himself there was nothing they would be able to do to stop him.

So what was the family to do? Sure, his family could have tried to ensure that someone was with him every hour of every day, but that would have left his entire family in a state of bondage. They hoped against hope that he had, indeed, recovered, and that he had found some reason to live. They prayed that he would find something worth living for. They grew to trust him, believing at last that he had found reason to go on living. Perhaps his artwork or even his writing could give him the inspiration to face life.

But his artwork was dark as death. His room was filled with dolls, covered in blood and in various states of torture and dismemberment. It sends chills down my spine just to think of it.

One Sunday in July Mark finally won his battle. No one knew he was still so determined to die. His plan was elaborate. It was cruel.

Sunday morning his mother climbed into her car, planning to go to the store. On the steering wheel was a note from Mark saying that he had taken his life, that it was too late to save him, and that he had left clues about his suicide in places they did not expect. His mother, hysterical, ran into the house. After quickly skimming the note, his father ran upstairs and into Mark’s room. Mark lay on the floor, already stiff and cold. A mask ran from a tank of helium to his face. A block of wood had held the valve open as he breathed in the poisonous gas. Mark was dead.

I was asked to come and be with the family just hours after Mark’s death. The coroner had just left when I arrived. The phone was ringing as neighbors called to ask why there had been police cars and an ambulance outside the house. My wife and I sat with the family as they poured out their grief and their guilt. Shouldn’t they have known that he was going to try this again? Shouldn’t they have been able to prevent it? If only they had decided to walk into his room the night before! Mark’s father, searching for meaning in the face of tragedy, spoke of Mark’s death as a gift to the family. Maybe, he said, just maybe, Mark had seen how his problems had contributed to the troubles the family had experienced recently. Maybe Mark took his life so that the family could put aside their differences and renew their commitment to remaining together. Maybe, in some bizarre way, Mark sacrificed himself for the good of others. Maybe this was Mark’s gift. Maybe there was just a little bit of light amidst all the darkness.

Mark gave his family another gift. He left little notes in unexpected places. After his death the family would open a book and find a cruel note he had left there just before he died. His sister opened her Bible and found many passages highlighted. Mark had asked to borrow it and had highlighted passages throughout the Gospels and through Romans that outlined the way of salvation. I’ve often wondered if he understood the passages he had highlighted. I hope he did.

Aileen and I and the members of the church we attended gathered around the family, which has no relatives in North America, providing them with food and taking care of the funeral planning. One of the strangest experiences of my life was returning that helium tank to the store Mark had rented it from. The clerk was quite upset that I did not have the receipt for the tank and told me I could not return the tank until I found it. He finally relented when I told him that there had been a tragedy within the family and he was not going to get a receipt, ever.

In the days following Mark’s death, his parents did reconcile, at least for a time. His mother, who had been living a few minutes away, moved back in with his father. His sister moved home from school, and for the first time in many months the family was truly together.

The funeral was a study in opposites. Or perhaps it was a study in unity. Mark’s friends mostly occupied one side of the church. They dressed in jeans and t-shirts, mostly black. Many of them wore the distinctive makeup of so-called Goths. Many wore pentagrams. Yet these people, so obsessed with death, seemed unable to deal with death’s stark reality. As they stared at his body, lying at peace in the coffin, they broke down. Many of them felt the need to touch him, tousling his hair or touching his shoulder. One or two of them pushed little baggies of marijuana into his coffin.

The friends of Mark’s sister occupied the other side of the church. These seemed mostly to be clean-cut businessmen and churchgoers. His parent’s colleagues, largely professors and scientists, were mixed among them. An overflow room was needed to hold the members of his sister’s church (my church at the time) who came to show their support for her.

These two groups, so different from each other, were united in their grief. Some grieved for the loss of a friend. Others grieved for the grief their friends were feeling. Two of them grieved for a son they were unable to help. One grieved for her only sibling. Throwing herself on her brother’s body, Mark’s sister wept as she poured out her grief that she would never be an aunt. She was now an only-child.

I love her as a sister. She spent countless hours with my family when she was younger and seemed to become another sibling. I told her then that if she ever needs a big brother I am only a phone call away. But I know I’m a cheap substitute for the God-given gift of a flesh-and-blood brother.

The family asked me to read from the Bible and pray at the funeral. What could I say about a young man who hated God and did all he could do to defy Him? What could I say that would provide some comfort to the family and help them through this terrible time? The answer, obviously, was absolutely nothing. So I prayed that God would comfort them. I prayed that God would make Himself real to them and provide them with the strength to go on.

I carried Mark’s coffin to the grave. We laid it down beside the little patch of plastic grass, placed there to cover the stark reality of freshly-dug soil, and solemnly stepped back. His friends soon surrounded the coffin, pulling out their cigarettes as if to share one last smoke with their friend. While they tossed their cigarette butts to the ground beside his coffin one or two placed a flower on top. The pastor led us in a prayer. And then we turned and walked away.

Years have passed since Mark’s body was laid to rest on a hill in a quiet cemetery. Mark’s gift has been forgotten. His parents have gone their separate ways. His sister has moved to Australia where she is involved in ministry, rescuing girls from a life of prostitution. Her mother was baptized about a year after Mark’s death, having been led to the Lord by the simple love of the Christians who surrounded them during those dark days. His father has moved away and remarried.

Mark left pleasant memories of his childhood, but little more than heartbreaking memories of his teenage years. The family has fractured, unable to find grounds for reconciliation. His death was senseless; purposeless. Mark left his family no gift.

But the light still shone even when all seemed so dark. God, who specializes in working good from evil, was able to take what was senseless and purposeless and use it to build His kingdom. All credit goes not to the person who caused the pain, but to the One who used it for good.

Yes, I did post an article awfully similar to this several years ago. Somehow it just seemed timely to post one like it again…

April 23, 2008

Some time ago, no doubt while I was awake in the middle of the night with one of the children, I saw a documentary about some weird disease that causes a patient’s skin to harden. This disease often sets in during childhood and causes the skin to become hard and shiny. I searched around today looking for the name of this condition and I think it must be “systemic sclerosis.” “Dermatology Online Journal” describes it this way: “Systemic sclerosis is a clinically heterogeneous, systemic disorder which affects the connective tissue of the skin, internal organs and the walls of blood vessels. It is characterized by alterations of the microvasculature, disturbances of the immune system and by massive deposition of collagen and other matrix substances in the connective tissue.” That doesn’t mean anything to me, but I guess it all adds up to “hard and shiny.” Though most people experience the disease only moderately (these people see hardening of the skin mostly on their hands and forearms) there are some who see the disease progress so that the skin hardens all over their bodies, leaving even their faces set in hard “masks.” Sometimes it will progress to the organs, hardening them and leading to an early death. It is a horrifying illness when it progresses past the point where it can be easily and successfully treated.

I thought of this yesterday while reading Gum, Geckos and God by James Spiegel. In this book (to borrow a line or two from Publishers Weekly) “Spiegel, philosophy professor at Indiana’s Taylor University, takes deep issues of the Christian faith and dumps them smack into real life with a little help from his children… Spiegel ponders the great issues of the faith with a light touch, thanks to the innate comedy of kids, but also to his own brand of humor.” In a chapter entitled “How Can God Fix Us” he looks at how God can overcome our sin—how He can fix what we have done to ourselves through our sinful natures. He uses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to springboard into this conversation, explaining how his son, at only four years of age, was able to draw the connection between the death of Aslan and the death of Jesus Christ. He mentions that, when teaching a faith and culture course at Taylor University, he often asks students to raise their hands if they became Christians at the age of four or younger. Almost invariably at least a few of the hands go up. This is amazing, he says, “considering that comprehension of the gospel demands that one understand such weighty moral concepts as duty, sin, punishment, love, and forgiveness.”

I am sure,” he says, “there are many parents who are mistaken in thinking that their kids comprehend the gospel. But the point is that many do. And given their stage of cognitive development, this suggests something supernatural is going on.” And truly something supernatural must be going on for children to understand what too often escapes many adults. A child can sometimes grasp deep spiritual truths that are lost on adults who are, in any other wise, far more wise and far more intelligent. Those who hate the Christian faith and who hate religion in general will insist that children believe because they have been indoctrinated. But we know better; we know that God can work his supernatural work of regeneration even in a child.

Here is why it is more difficult for adults than for children to come to know the Lord. “Sin causes cognitive malfunction, and this is especially so when it comes to moral-spiritual matters. The older we grow without being redeemed, the more polluted we are by our sin and the more entrenched we become in our corrupt patterns of thinking. Though by no means pure, children are less corrupted in their thinking and less hardened in faulty thinking patterns simply by virtue of their being younger. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the overwhelming majority of Christians come to faith by the time they are eighteen years old.”

Of course there is a second barrier to coming to Christ and it is a spiritual one. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:14, without the Spirit’s prior work, no one can grasp the gospel. The spiritual nature of the gospel, that part of the gospel message that transcends natural cognitive abilities, must be overcome by the Holy Spirit. “So there are two major barriers when it comes to grasping and accepting the gospel,” says Spiegel. “One is the spiritual nature of the gospel, which transcends natural reason. The other is our sin, which corrupts cognitive function. The Holy Spirit must graciously overcome both of these obstacles in order to work redemption in any human heart. This implies that all Christian conversions are doubly miraculous and doubly gracious. And given that even after conversion Christians continue to struggle with sin, the Spirit must constantly work to keep us faithful. Job really nailed it when he said that God, ‘performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted’ (Job 5:9).”

And this takes us back to systemic sclerosis. A person’s spiritual condition, it seems, is much like the condition of a patient with systemic sclerosis. While all humans are born sinful, children have less of the pollution and less of the hardening of adults. While the extent of our depravity cannot change, for from the moment of conception it encompasses all that we are, the degree will and must change. Life without God progresses much like the disease. It causes increased hardening. What was once soft becomes hard; what was once supple becomes stiff and stretched. The longer a person denies God and the more his internal pollution increases, the more hardened he becomes against God and against His gracious offer of salvation. No wonder the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations that as parents we dedicate ourselves to teaching our children what God requires of them. And what impetus this should give us to obey Him! “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…”

April 21, 2008

Raising children isn’t nearly as easy as my parents made it look. Somehow, when I was a kid, I never really considered that my parents had a tough job to do. Though they had five children, and though we kept them pretty active, I guess it never occurred to me that it was a difficult and demanding task to raise us—not only to keep us fed and clothed, but to train us to be productive members of society, to train us to love one another and, more importantly, to teach us to love the Lord. They succeeded admirably in all of those tasks. They made it look easy, at least from my perspective as one of the kids. But eight years of parenting has shown me that it really is not easy at all. Raising children is a trial; it is a constant battle. It has its moments of great joy, of course. But it is a task that requires constant vigilance and great consistency.

One trial we’ve encountered again and again is in having our children obey us obediently. We want our children to obey us well. We do not want to have children to huff and puff and roll their eyes and stamp their feet even when they do what we ask of them. We do not want children who obey in body while their hearts are filled with rebellion and hatred of authority. Yet somehow this seems to be their natural tendency.

The issue of authority is a tough one even for adults. A few weeks ago my friend, my son and I went to the home opener for the Toronto Blue Jays. It turned out to be kind of a rowdy game with people running onto the field and others getting dragged out of the stands due to poor behavior. At one point, just a section over from us, a man was hauled out by the police. As soon as an officer showed up the crowd started chanting, “Let him stay! Let him stay!” They jeered at the officer and at the security guards. They laughed at the authorities, threw things at them, and did all they could to mock and belittle them. Their hatred of authority was tangible; it was alarming for those of us who remained sober and who, with our senses about us, knew that only authority holds off the utter breakdown of society. Our human sinfulness causes our hearts to rebel at the first sign of authority. So often we obey only with great reluctance and with our hearts in utter rebellion.

After yet another episode yesterday, where one of my children obeyed with great reluctance and a great show of disgust, I began to think about this heart of rebellion. I began to think about my own sin and about whether I really do any better than they do. My mind skipped around from sin to sin—those sins that continue to plague my life. I thought of one in particular and quickly saw my own reluctance to obey God in what He says I need to do about it. His commands are clear. I need to repent of that sin, I need to forsake that sin, and I need to love obedience more than that sin. It is only when I learn to love God and His commands more than I love that sin that I will be freed from it.

But I’m like a kid. I like that sin and I hate the authority that places itself over me and tells me to let that sin go. I roll my eyes, I grind my teeth, and I feel my heart rebel. In my heart I tell God that I’d rather sin than obey Him; I effectively tell Him that right now I’d rather have my sin than have Him. This sin is more important to me than my relationship with the Creator of the universe. Oh, I love that sin so much.

So I guess I’m not too different from my children. The remedy they need is the same one I need. Like me, they need to see that authority is given to us as a gracious gift from God. They need to learn to honor authority and to see it as something given to restrain us rather than annoy us. And they need to honor that authority and to obey it joyfully, willingly, immediately and with a joyful heart. This is what I need to do with my sin—I need to hear and heed God’s Word. And this is what they need to do with their sin—hear and heed my words as I seek to teach them what God would have them do.

It seems that God’s job in training me is at least as difficult as mine in training my children.