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February 12, 2016

There is a lot about parenting I expected. I had been tipped off to many of the joys and many of the sorrows. I knew it would require long days and late nights; I knew it would draw out both strengths and weaknesses in my character; I knew it would expose a part of my heart that would love with a unique tenacity and fierceness; I knew it would help me better understand why God relates to us as Father; I knew it would deliver a special kind of satisfaction that I could be involved in something as incredible as forming and training a person made in the image of God.

Lately, though, I have been reflecting on one blessing of parenting that I had not anticipated. It took some time to experience simply because it depends upon having children who have grown past the toddler stage, past the little kid stage, and into the older kid or teen stage. An unexpected blessing of parenting is that eventually your children become your friends. You wake up one day and realize that you enjoy your son not only as a child but as a friend. You look over at the passenger seat and see someone sitting there who is as much a friend as a daughter.

This has been a sweet realization. It has been a joy to see that, in time, the parenting distance increases and the peer distance decreases. It has been a joy to learn to relate to my children not only as their father but as their friend. It has been a joy to add to the relationship that has always existed—father/child—one that has been forged out of our shared time and experiences. We no longer want to do only those things that fathers and sons or fathers and daughters do. Now we want to do the things that friends do, to relate in the ways that friends relate. We enjoy one another so much that we would spend time together even if we weren’t related.

What I am learning is this: Ultimately, the great joy of parenting is to come to love and enjoy your children not only for what they are (your children) but for who they are (your friends).

The Character of the Christian
February 11, 2016

Today we continue our series on the character of the Christian. We are exploring how the various character qualifications of elders are actually God’s calling on all Christians. While elders are meant to exemplify these traits, all Christians are to exhibit them. I want us to consider whether we are displaying these traits and to learn together how we can pray to have them in greater measure. Today we will look at what it means for an elder—and for every Christian—to be hospitable. We will also see why God elevates this trait to such high importance.

Paul tells Timothy, “an overseer must be…hospitable” (1 Timothy 3:2) and echoes this in his letter to Titus (Titus 1:8). The Greek word for “hospitable” (philoxenon) indicates a love for strangers. In the day before the Holiday Inn, Christians were expected to extend hospitality to other traveling believers or itinerant preachers. They were to feed them and to provide them a place to sleep apart from dirty, dangerous, and unsavory inns. The word is naturally expanded to include other forms of hospitality. But at heart, it indicates a willingness to invite others into your home for a short or extended stay.

Why is there such emphasis on this trait? Alexander Strauch explains by saying, “Hospitality is a concrete expression of Christian love and family life. It is an important biblical virtue. … Giving oneself to the care of God’s people means sharing one’s life and home with others. An open home is a sign of an open heart and a loving, sacrificial, serving spirit. A lack of hospitality is a sure sign of selfish, lifeless, loveless Christianity.” Hospitality is a tangible, outward display of godly character.

An open home displays Christian love but it also enables it. Hospitality creates opportunities for relationship, for discipleship, and for evangelism. It creates a natural context for modeling marriage, parenting, and a host of Christian virtues. While we are to teach others what the Bible says, we are also to demonstrate what it says, and we do that by inviting people into our homes and into our lives.

Is it only elders who are called to share their lives and their resources by opening their homes? No, this call goes to all Christians. While the Old Testament law places great emphasis on caring for and protecting the sojourner, this care for strangers is made even more explicit in the New Testament. Peter writes to all Christians when he says “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9) and Paul tells the whole congregation in Rome that they must “Seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13). The author of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2 ). Paul instructed Timothy to extend the church’s benevolence to a widow if she “has shown hospitality” (1 Timothy 5:9–10). Jesus taught that we will be judged on the basis of our hospitality, for when we love and welcome others we in fact love and welcome him (Matthew 25:35–40).

Strauch concludes, “Hardly anything is more characteristic of Christian love than hospitality. Through the ministry of hospitality we share the things we value most: family, home, financial resources, food, privacy, and time. In other words, we share our lives.”

Self-Evaluation

So, how about you? Would others say that you are hospitable? Engage with these questions and be honest with yourself and with God:

  • How many people from your church have you invited into your home for a meal? When was the last time someone stayed the night?
  • Do others come to you when they need help, or do you give the impression that you don’t want to be bothered?
  • Is your family intentional about welcoming others into your home, even if they are different from you or if they make you feel awkward and uncomfortable?
  • Why do you fear welcoming others into your life and your home? What promises has God given you that you can cling to for hope, peace, and assurance?

Prayer Points

Take heart in the truth that the God of the weak and the outcast welcomes you—and pray to him for his help in these ways:

  • I pray that you would fill me with your Spirit so that my life bears fruit through loving deeds for others.
  • I pray that I would hold loosely to all that you have given me and to know that my home, my food, my time and everything else belong to you. Help me to be a faithful steward of all of them.
  • I pray that you would give me boldness to welcome others as you have welcomed me.
  • I pray that the motivation of my heart would be that, through loving others, I might express my love for Christ. Please give me great joy and freedom in hospitality.

Next week we will consider what it means for elders and Christians to be sober, gentle, and peacemaking.

5 Things You Can Give to God Every Day
February 10, 2016

We hear endless talk about productivity. It is the major focus of many of the most popular blogs out there. The bestseller lists may as well have a category dedicated to it. But what if we’ve gotten productivity wrong? What if it isn’t quite what we’ve made it out to be? What if it’s actually far better and far more compelling than we imagined?

As you know, I recently published Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity, and one of the burdens that led me to write on the subject was a desire to redeem productivity from lesser definitions that focus entirely on tasks, projects, and money-making. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but they aren’t the heart of productivity.

The heart of productivity is glorifying God by serving others. It is carefully and deliberately considering the things God calls us to do, and deploying all that we’ve got for his glory and the good of people made in his image. It is giving back to him what he has entrusted to each one of us

To that end, here are five things you can give to God every day.

1. Give Your Gifts

The Bible teaches that God gives each one of his children supernatural gifts. These are gifts given by the Spirit to empower us to be a blessing to others. Do you know how God has gifted you? Maybe he has given you a gift of encouragement so you are able to speak refreshing and life-giving words to others. Or maybe it is the gift of teaching, and you are especially adept at simply opening up the Bible, explaining what it means, and telling others how to live like it’s true.

The gifts are diverse, given for the benefit of others, and especially for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are a Christian, God has necessarily given you some of his gifts. Find those gifts and use them for his glory and others’ good.

2. Give Your Talents

God has not only given you spiritual gifts, but he’s also given you talents—areas in which you are naturally skilled. Perhaps you are a talented musician, or a talented writer or artist or host or leader. Do you know where God has given you this kind of skill? He has given these talents so you can return them to him, using them for his glory. No matter who you are and what you do, you can commit these to him and look for creative ways to use them for the good of others and the glory of God.

3. Give Your Time

Time may be that rarest and most precious of commodities. God gives you just 168 hours each week, and he gives them in trust, asking you to use them wisely and to steward them faithfully. Do you surrender your time to God? Do you commit your time to him? Do you plan your time as well as you can to ensure you are putting it to the best use? Begin every day by prayerfully giving your time to God, asking him to help you make each hour count.

4. Give Your Energy

Are you a morning person? A night owl? An afternoon warrior? You may be like me and find that your mind is sharpest and most active first thing in the morning. Or maybe you’re one of those rare people who’s at your best long after the sun goes down. Do you know when your energy is at its peak? Plan your day so that, whenever possible, you can give your best times to the highest purposes. Consider how you can use your best moments to accomplish your most important tasks. Plan to give God the best of your energy.

5. Give Your Enthusiasm

God gives us gifts, talents, time, and energy. He also gives us enthusiasm. He makes each of us feel passionately about certain issues or ideas. Where has God given you enthusiasm? Where do your passions lie? Are they toward teaching or mentoring? Are they toward issues of charity or justice? Find ways to deliberately use your God-given enthusiasm to bless others and glorify God.

What is productivity? Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. This is productivity at its highest and best. This is what God calls you to every day.

Image credit Shutterstock; this article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

Capturing Weak Women
February 08, 2016

It can be a dangerous thing to walk into a Christian bookstore. It can be a dangerous thing to listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television or attend that big conference. It can be dangerous because the Christian world is polluted by so much bad teaching. There are so many leaders who claim to be teaching truth when they are, in fact, teaching error. The healthy, growing Christian must learn to tell the difference.

This is not a new phenomenon. Wherever there have been good teachers, there have also been bad ones. We see an important example in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus. We do not know all the particulars of the situation, but from what we can reconstruct we can draw important warnings and applications for our day.

Paul has just described the depravity of humanity and warned about enemies to the church that will inevitably arise in these “last days.” He then focuses in on a certain group of enemies and their willing victims. “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6–7). Paul describes both enemies and victims here—false teachers and the women they corrupt. He offers five characteristics of these women.

They are weak. Paul is not suggesting that there is an intellectual inferiority among all women but that there is a moral weakness displayed within this group of women. They are not mental simpletons but spiritual weaklings. They are people who have had opportunity to grow in the faith but have neglected to do so. Instead, they have allowed themselves to become the disciples, the captives, of untrustworthy teachers.

They are burdened by guilt. The false teachers are able to gain access to the hearts and minds of these women through the gateway of guilt. Perhaps it is guilt for sin the women committed before or since conversion, or perhaps it is guilt they feel for their inadequacy as wives, as mothers, as women, as Christians. Either way, they have never been set free from the guilt of their sin and now accept the solution offered by these false teachers.

They are led astray by evil desires. Some see these words as indicating that the false teachers are leading the women into sexual immorality, but it is more likely that Paul simply means to indicate that they are being controlled by sin rather than being led by the Holy Spirit. They are giving free rein to their evil desires. Combined with their guilty consciences, this leaves them in a vulnerable condition.

They are always learning. These women are constantly learning from the false teachers. The desire to learn and to keep learning is a good one, of course. But their kind of learning is unhealthy because it eschews firm answers and focuses instead upon unbiblical answers or no answers at all. It denies what is clear and focuses on what is speculative. It leads to grave instability.

They are never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Because these teachers do not teach what is consistent with God’s revelation, the women never arrive at the truth. Even though they are always learning, they never come to firm, settled convictions. They never appropriate the truth that can set them free from their guilt and never submit to the Spirit who can destroy their evil desires. They are weak or backslidden or perhaps lost altogether.

These women have fallen victim to false teachers. The teachers are creeping into their homes, sneaking past pastors and husbands, most likely by doing their work during the day when the women are available and others are occupied. Once in, they take these women captive, enslaving them to sin and error and despair. They promise they are teaching truth when in reality they oppose the truth. They insist they are being godly when in reality they are utterly disqualified to open their mouths.

This is a sad picture of women who have neglected God’s means of grace and protection and instead allow themselves to be victimized by false teachers. They feel the weight of sin and guilt, they feel the burden of their inadequacy before man and God, and they are, in that way, easy marks for someone who arrives with a cheap and easy gospel. These teachers are no doubt assuring them they aren’t so bad after all, that the solution is just to do more, to do better, to try harder, to follow the program.

In that way, these first-century false teachers prove themselves close relatives to twenty-first-century false teachers. If in that day the false teachers were men, today they are men and women. If in that day the teachers went from door-to-door, today they go on the printed page or the digital screen. If in that day they crept into houses when no one was looking, today they slip unseen between the covers of books or through slick videos and popular conferences. Still they seek out weak women who are burdened by guilt and led astray by evil desires, and through constant teaching—another book, another program, another conference—they promise cheap solutions. Yet somehow all that learning never leads to a knowledge of the truth, to a settled reliance upon God’s sure revelation. Somehow joy still eludes them. And, lest we think this applies to only women, we do no damage to the text to extend it to men for we, too, are vulnerable.

The harsh reality is that the greatest danger to the church usually comes from within the church. More harm is done by “Christian” books than by non-Christian ones. More harm is done by “Christian” teachers than by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or atheists. Those false teachers are always nearby and always looking for new ways to creep in unawares. Even today they prey upon the weak and vulnerable.

The Hidden Beauty of a Bad Sermon
February 05, 2016

There have been times in the life of Grace Fellowship Church when we have endured some bad sermons. You could even say that in these seasons we purposely endured bad sermons. We heard men preach texts that were clearly beyond their ability to understand and explain. We heard men preach with all the fire of Paul Washer but with none of his depth or pastoral concern. We heard men preach who had neglected to ensure the sermon actually had a main point and an outline. There were other men we tried to hear while desperately fighting the distraction of their tics and idiosyncrasies. We sat through some pretty awful sermons, some of which were undoubtedly mine. But we considered it a privilege. We counted it joy.

We counted it joy because these bad sermons came from unseasoned men who were learning to preach. A man can read a hundred books on preaching and watch a thousand sermons on YouTube, but the only way he will really learn to preach is to preach. Sooner or later he will simply need to stand behind a pulpit, open his Bible, and launch into his introduction (assuming he remembers to actually prepare one). There are not many preachers who get away without preaching a few stinkers along the way. There are not many preachers who can become skilled without first being novices, who can grow into excellence without first being mediocre or average.

A little while ago I saw a video of young barnacle geese leaving their nests for the first time. This sounds simple enough except that to escape predators these geese nest along sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above the ground. The only way down is to take the plunge. Sure enough, these tiny three-day-old geese dutifully jump off the cliff and go plummeting, down, hitting every rock, branch, and outcropping along the way. They eventually crash to the ground stunned. Somehow, miraculously, most of them seem to survive. The jump actually contributes to the hardiness of the species since it ensures that only the strongest survive.

Sooner or later every aspiring preacher needs to take the plunge. Knowing he is inadequate to the task, knowing he is unseasoned, knowing that the congregation is accustomed to hearing a skillful preacher, he goes to the pulpit and preaches his very first sermon, and then his second and his third. He inevitably hits a few bumps and branches along the way. But he also learns the art, the craft, of preaching. He becomes confident, he becomes skilled.

Today, many of those young men who preached bad sermons at Grace Fellowship Church continue to minister in the Toronto area. They are among my favorite preachers and I eagerly anticipate every opportunity to hear them exposit Scripture. They survived and they thrived. We survived too and were able to gladly commend them to other churches as men who can skillfully handle the Word of God.

Young preachers, new preachers, preach bad sermons. They preach bad sermons as they learn to preach good sermons. And in some ways, those bad sermons serve as a mark of a church’s health and strength because they prove that the church is fulfilling its mandate to raise up the next generation of preachers and the one after that. They prove that the church refuses to be so driven by a desire to display excellence that they will not risk the occasional dud. They prove that the congregation is mature enough to endure and even appreciate these first, messy attempts. There is hidden beauty, hidden value, in these bad sermons.

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Character of the Christian
February 04, 2016

Today we continue our series on the character of the Christian. We are exploring how the various character qualifications of elders are actually God’s calling on all Christians. While elders are meant to exemplify these traits, all Christians are to exhibit them. I want us to consider whether we are displaying these traits and to learn together how we can pray to have them in greater measure. Today we will look at a set of three traits that are closely related to one another.

First Timothy 3:2 (which is paralleled in Titus 1:8) says that elders must be “sober-minded, self-controlled, [and] respectable.” We can group these words together because of a shared emphasis on self-mastery that leads to sound judgment.

Sober-minded is a word that relates primarily to the mind. The sober-minded man is clear-headed and watchful, free from excesses and wild fluctuations in thinking and ideas. This trait allows him to keep alert so he can protect himself and others from any kind of spiritual danger. He is not rash, but thoughtful.

Where “sober-minded” relates to the mind, self-controlled relates to decisions that lead to action. The self-controlled elder is free from excesses and wild fluctuations in actions and behavior. He willingly submits his emotions and passions to the control of the Holy Spirit and, with his wisdom, makes wise, thoughtful judgments. He shows restraint and moderation in all areas of life. Thabiti Anyabwile says those who exhibit this trait are “sensible, discreet, and wise.” They do not live for the moment, but consider the future consequences of their actions.

Those who are sober-minded and self-controlled are also respectable. They live orderly lives and are wise and prudent in their dealings so that others have respect for them, both in their character and their behavior. They know how to make wise decisions and live out the kind of practical wisdom described in the book of Proverbs. They are people for whom others have high esteem.

When we put these traits together we see a person who has mastered his thinking and behavior so he is now capable of making wise judgments. His own life is a showcase of such wisdom. Anyabwile aptly summarizes the importance of this trait: “The ministry and the church are always being watched by people inside and outside, and the church’s enemies continually look for opportunities to condemn it and slander it. Churches are greatly helped to withstand this onslaught when its leaders are respectable in their conduct and are men of sound judgment.”

Of course, God does not call only elders or prospective elders to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, and respectable”—He calls every Christian to pursue these traits. Let’s start with sober-minded. In Romans 12:3, Paul writes, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Later, in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, he says, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”

When it comes to self-control, Solomon warns, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). Paul lists self-control as part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and warns that those without self-control fall prey to Satan’s temptations (1 Corinthians 7:5). He explicitly commands it of all believers in Titus 2:2-6. What Alexander Strauch says of elders is true of every believer: He must be “characterized by self-control and self-discipline in every aspect of life, particularly in his physical desires (Acts 24:25; 1 Cor. 7:9; 9:25). An undisciplined man has little resistance to sexual lust, anger, slothfulness, a critical spirit, or other base desires. He is easy prey for the devil.”

As for respectability, Peter says, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16). Paul writes, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7).

The Bible is clear that while these traits must be exemplified in elders, they are to be present in all believers. The character of the elder describes the character we should all pursue and exhibit.

Self-Evaluation

Would others say of you that you are “sober-minded, self-controlled, and respectable”? I encourage you to evaluate yourself in light of questions like these:

  • When things do not go your way or when someone points out sin in your life, do you tend to respond with patient humility or with fits of anger? Would your spouse, children, or parents agree?
  • Do you have any unrestrained or unhealthy habits in what you eat or drink or in your entertainment? Or in all of these things are you joyfully submitted to the Holy Spirit?
  • Do you exhibit consistency and discipline in the spiritual, devotional, relational, and bodily aspects of your life?
  • Do you maintain a schedule? Do you generally bring your tasks to completion and do so with excellence?
  • Are you confident in what you believe, or are you easily swayed by new books, new teachers, or new ideas? Do people seek your counsel when they are uncertain or facing a difficult decision?

Prayer Points

Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5), so we need his strength if we are to grow in holiness. Let me encourage you to pray in these ways:

  • I pray that you would fill me with your Spirit so that self-control reigns in my heart and life. (Galatians 5:23)
  • I pray that you would help me to put others first so that I do not think of myself more highly than I ought to think. Help me to think with appropriately sober judgment. (Philippians 2:3; Romans 12:3)
  • I pray that you would help me to be slow to anger so that I might have mastery over my temper. (Proverbs 16:32)
  • I pray that others would ask me about the hope within me because of my joyful, respectful life. (1 Peter 3:14–17)

Next week we will consider what it means to be hospitable.

Boys Need Their Moms
February 03, 2016

Thinking back, I wonder if people thought I was a bit of a mama’s boy. I grew up in a stable home and loved and respected both of my parents. I regularly spent time with each of them. But I was always closer to my mother. If this was true when I was young, it was even more pronounced when I was a teenager. In those years I was a boy, a young man, who needed his mom.

Boys need their dads, we know that. Boys need their dads to model masculinity, to model the love and affection they ought to have for a woman, to teach them the kind of life skills they will need. Girls need their dads too. They need their dads to protect them, to be affectionate with them and in that way to display healthy physical boundaries. They need their dads to hold the boys at bay and, eventually, to give their blessing to that special one. Girls need their moms. They need their moms to model femininity, to teach and train them to be women, to model patience and wisdom. Books, blogs, and sermon illustrations abound for each of these relationships. But what about boys and their moms?

Boys need their moms—I am convinced of it. Even teenaged boys, boys who are nearly men. I see this when I look back at my own life. It wouldn’t be overstating it to say that my mother was my primary counselor and most trusted companion through those turbulent teenage years. It’s not that I didn’t have peer friendships, but that none of those friends influenced me as much as she did. I would often spend that time between school and dinner chatting with her while she prepared our meal. I would come along with her on errands just so we could talk. I confided in her and depended on her wisdom and her interpretation of my thoughts and feelings. We talked about girls and God and pretty well everything else I was thinking and experiencing. I relied on her for physical affection. In so many ways I wanted to be like her, to model much of my life and character after hers. It was really only when Aileen entered my life that this friendship, this dependency, began to diminish. The relationship I enjoyed with the most important woman in my childhood slowly declined as the relationship with the most important woman in my adulthood increased. The first had in some way prepared me for the second.

The relationship between a boy and his mother is a unique and precious one. Sadly, it is one we often look upon with suspicion, as if closeness between a boy and his mother is a warning sign, as if it may indicate a latent femininity or perhaps even homosexuality. We have names for boys who are close or too close to their moms—they are mama’s boys or sissies or pansies. A boy who is close to his mom is a boy we believe to be weak, not strong.

Yet James Dobson, in his book Bringing Up Boys, dedicates a whole chapter to mothers and sons and says this: “The quality of early relationships between boys and their mothers is a powerful predictor of lifelong psychological and physical health.” Writing to mothers, Kevin Leman says, “Although it might be natural to think that the man in your son’s life … would have the most influence on him since they’re both males, the opposite is true. You influence your son directly and have a much greater impact on the man he will become.” In the Bible we see Timothy mentored and discipled by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5), we see Solomon warning his son not to depart from his mother’s teaching (Proverbs 1:8), we see Jacob’s closeness to Rebekah (Genesis 27). In history and church history we encounter many great men who were shaped by their mothers as much as by their fathers, many great men who ascribe who they became to the influence of their mothers.

And yet even in Christian circles there is little attention given to the relationship of boys and their mothers, at least once they pass the toddler stage. It is rarely mentioned and rarely celebrated. We still look askance at a boy who spends a lot of time with his mom or a mom who is close to her boy. There is still that suspicion—that irrational and unfair suspicion. There is still that fear that a boy necessarily ought to be closer to his father than his mother.

Today I have a teenaged boy of my own. He and I are close, but I suspect that he and Aileen are closer. I see and celebrate the unique relationship between them. He shares with her, he confides in her, he depends upon her, he receives affection from her. And this is good, this brings me joy. He is a boy who needs his mom, just like I was. I trust that she will help guide him through these formative years with a perspective I simply do not have. I trust that in some way the relationship he enjoys with his mother is in some way preparing him for the relationship he will someday enjoy with his wife. Perhaps, like me, he will be able to echo John Wesley and say, “I learned more about Christianity [and life] from my mother than from all the theologians of England.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

Run! Run Away!
February 01, 2016

Maybe you’ve seen that hilarious news footage of a man unexpectedly coming face to face with a bear. He is on his own property, distracted by his phone, when he looks up right into the face of a marauding bear. The man’s reaction is exactly what we would expect—he turns tail and runs away as quickly as he can. A news helicopter captured it all for our amusement.

There are several places in the Bible where you, Christian, are commanded to flee, to turn tail and run from an enemy far more vicious than any bear. You are told to flee from sin. Some sins are so strong and so dangerous that you simply cannot mess around with them. Just like you can’t fight a bear and expect to win, you can’t tangle with these sins and hope to emerge unscathed. Yes, you are to put sin to death and yes, you can have confidence in the inward work of the Holy Spirit. But you always need to respect the power and deceptiveness of sin, and you always need to acknowledge your weakness and proneness to depravity. For your soul to survive and thrive in this world, you need to learn to flee.

“Flee” is a strong word. The Bible does not tell you to amble, meander, lope, or trot from your sin. It tells you to flee. Fleeing involves effort. It involves straining. It involves speed. You flee when you need to find and experience safety from a threat—a threat like a bear. You flee when it is too dangerous to remain where you are, when standing still would put you in mortal peril. What are we to flee? George Knight points out that “Paul always uses ‘flee’ in relation to particular sins, not sins in general.” His concern, then, is to warn you about those sins that are especially attractive and deadly.

“Flee from sexual immorality,” he says to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:18). You are to flee at the first hint of sexual sin. “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). You are to flee idolatry too, which is so often expressed in the kind of sexual immorality that plagued the church in Corinth, but which may appear in other forms.

He returns to this theme in his letters to young Timothy. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things” (1 Timothy 6:9–11). You are to flee materialism, the desire to be rich and to be known and respected for what you have accumulated. And, more generally, “flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22). Paul warns Timothy of the danger of self-indulgence and selfish ambition and the other passions and excesses of youth.

Stott provides crucial application: “True, we are also told to withstand the devil, so that he may flee from us. But we are to recognize sin as something dangerous to the soul. We are not to come to terms with it, or even negotiate with it. We are not to linger in its presence like Lot in Sodom. On the contrary we are to get as far away from it as possible as quickly as possible. Like Joseph, when Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him, we are to take to our heels and run.” This kind of fleeing is not a mark of weakness, but of strength, not of spiritual infancy but maturity. The mature Christian knows when to turn tail and run.

Interestingly, the command to flee is sometimes accompanied by an opposite command—the command to pursue. This, too, is a word that implies effort. If fleeing is fast and purposeful, so is pursuing—it is moving quickly and purposefully toward instead of away from. If fleeing involves determination and effort in sprinting away from a vice, pursuing involves determination and effort in racing toward a virtue.

“But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). These are four crucial marks of every true Christian. “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). Here, too, Paul tells you, through Timothy, to strive for the key Christian virtues. “Pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1), that greatest of all virtues. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). Peace and mutual upbuilding come through the very virtues Paul elsewhere commands you to pursue.

Because I can say it no better than Stott, I will give him the concluding remarks:

So, then … we are both to run away from spiritual danger and to run after spiritual good, both to flee from the one in order to escape it and to pursue the other in order to attain it. This double duty of Christians—negative and positive—is the consistent, reiterated teaching of Scripture. Thus, we are to deny ourselves and to follow Christ. We are to put off what belongs to our old life and to put on what belongs to our new life. We are to put to death our earthly members and to set our minds on heavenly things. We are to crucify the flesh and to walk in the Spirit. It is the ruthless rejection of the one in combination with the relentless pursuit of the other which Scripture enjoins upon us as the secret of holiness. Only so can we hope to be fit for the Master’s use.

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