Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

christian living

4 months 2 weeks ago

Rick Warren is one of the bestselling Christian authors of our time. While he has written too few books to compete with the likes of Max Lucado for the greatest number of books sold, the few books he has written have uniformly made their way to the bestseller lists. Where most successful Christian authors have their books sell in the thousands or maybe the tens of thousands, Warren’s sell in the millions or even the tens of millions.

I have often wondered about why Warren’s books are so successful and here is what I understand as a key factor: He does not simply write books; he creates programs. His books reflect a mountain of ambition. The Purpose Driven Church was not merely a description of what the New Testament says about church, but a complete program for how to view church and do church. The Purpose Driven Life was not merely a Christian living book, but a church-wide program meant to impact every member, every attender, and every sermon and small group over a period of time. Rick Warren’s latest book is titled The Daniel Plan and, like its predecessors, it is part of a much wider program—a program meant to revolutionize the lives of those who participate in it. (Do note that this is not The Daniel Diet. Warren does not take the description of Daniel’s diet and make it prescriptive as others have done.)

The Daniel Plan had its genesis in a baptism service. In one afternoon, Warren baptized over 800 people, and as he did that, he came face-to-face with his own obesity and the obesity of the people who attend his church. He told his congregation he intended to lose weight and invited them to join him. Where he thought a couple hundred might sign up, he instead saw 15,000 people shed 260,000 pounds in the first year alone. With assistance from experts in medicine and fitness, he led these church members to a transformed life.

He calls this program The Daniel Plan and now, through this book and its supporting resources, he is offering it to you and to your church as a forty-day journey to better health.

In The Daniel Plan you will learn the power of prayer, the power of faith, the power of letting God’s Spirit refocus your thoughts, the power of fellowship and community in a supportive small group, and most of all, the power of God’s Spirit inside you, help you to make the changes God wants you to make and you want to make.

The Plan depends upon five essentials: faith, food, fitness, focus, friends.

The Essentials are a pathway to much more than improved physical health. Each of the Essentials holds up your life, enlivens your body, enriches your mind, and fills your heart. Integrating these can lead to a whole, healthy life that helps you love fully, serve joyfully, and ultimately live out your calling at your best. We want to wake up and be able to give our highest gifts. And we want that for you too.

The word “we” is important, as this book is written by a group of contributors. Rick Warren looks at spiritual health; Dr. Mark Hyman writes about the power of food to affect your mind and body; Dr. Daniel Amen helps you “turn your brain into the powerful tool God made it to be by showing you how to boost its physical health, renew your mind, and fulfill your purpose;” and exercise physiologist Sean Foy “removes the roadblocks that keep you from exercising.” The well-known Dr. Mehmet Oz is involved as well, though I am not so clear on his contribution.

Two of the essentials, faith and friends, are what Warren calls “the secret sauce” that make this program unique in the midst of a crowded field of books and programs that make roughly the same promises. Warren makes health—a holistic view of health—an important matter of service and sanctification and provides a strong and helpful call to understand physical health as a means to pursuing God’s purpose for us. The simple fact is that too many Christians do too little for the Lord because our bodies, minds and lives are in such poor shape. This is an issue of some urgency.

Warren begins with a discussion of Faith. Knowing that many who read the book will not be Christians, he provides a sound description of the Christian faith and a call to turn to Jesus. While I would have appreciated a stronger explanation of sin and its eternal consequences, Warren does offer his reader a helpful explanation of why the Christian faith matters. Those who were disappointed at the weak gospel call and response in The Purpose Driven Life will be more satisfied with what Warren provides here.

The second section is dedicated to Food. The eating portion of The Daniel Plan is rooted in a very simple principle: Take the junk out and let the abundance in. Said simply, when thinking about food, here’s what you need to do: if it was grown on a plant, eat it, but if it was made in a plant, leave it on the shelf. The authors distinguish between food that harms and food that heals, and they advocate all those healthy foods we all love to hate. An appendix contains all the recipes you will need for forty days of healthy eating.

After Food comes Fitness and here the authors show how our sedentary lifestyles, our constant sitting, is having a detrimental impact on our health. They call on the reader to become “Daniel Strong” which they define as “a pursuit of excellence in body, mind, and spirit for God’s glory.” They explain: “Daniel demonstrated his pursuit of excellence in his faithfulness in doing the little things when no one was watching … and that’s exactly what is required to experience becoming Daniel Strong. … over time, pursuing excellence will lead to strength of character, confidence, and courage forged by God.” They advocate choosing one word and focusing on that word as a means to change your life; that word essentially becomes your goal and mission, the measure of your temptations or opportunities.

Several chapters on Focus comprises what I believe is the weakest section in the book. Here brain renewal is conflated with Romans 12:2 mind renewal, weakening both emphases and doing little to convince. Two chapters focus on Friends and the importance of doing this program in community. The book concludes with plans for exercise and healthy eating.

There is much to commend in The Daniel Plan. There are also a few points worthy of critique.

My first critique of The Daniel Plan relates to the issue I have pointed out for as long as I have been reading Rick Warren’s books. He continues to use a long list of Bible translations, seemingly choosing translations not on the basis of which is most accurate, but on the basis of which best suits his purpose. And, once again, promises made in specific contexts (Jeremiah 29:11 being a prime example) are made universally applicable and texts are applied flippantly (so the three-fold cord of Ecclesiastes necessarily refers to you, a friend, and the Lord; the honoring of God in your bodies from 1 Corinthians 6 makes no reference to sexual holiness). These critiques have been made since Warren first begin to write books and it seems that he is not going to change now.

There are times where a thin and unconvincing Christian veneer is placed over parts of the Plan, and especially as it relates to fitness and focus. Doing small exercises throughout an otherwise sedentary day is sanctified by suggesting these be called “prayer movements” so that as you do your stretches you think about the Lord and as you touch your toes, you meditate.

Of greatest concern is the wider teaching of the experts. I have not looked deeply into what Dr. Oz teaches, but his wider teaching can hardly accord with biblical truth if he is featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show and television network. I am quite sure Dr. Hyman has advocated an eastern-style meditation that is fundamentally opposed to biblical meditation. While The Daniel Plan does not advocate these things, neither does it refute them. In fact, it may open the door to them by elevating the expertise of such men. Those who read beyond The Daniel Plan may find themselves introduced to very dangerous teaching.

Those critiques aside, The Daniel Plan has every appearance of a program that deliver what it promises, and especially so in the area of physical health. I agree completely when Warren expresses that too few people are faithfully guarding their health and shaping their bodies in order to live in a healthy way, and I appreciate that he makes this a matter of sanctification. I am glad that he is willing to lead this charge and hope that others follow his lead in addressing an area in which Christians show too little distance from the world around us.

6 months 1 week ago

I do not read a lot of fiction. It’s not that I have anything against a good novel, but more that there is just so much I want to know and so many facts I want to learn, that time dedicated to story feels like it is taking me away from a more urgent pursuit. Or, to hear my wife tell it, I’m just a big snob. Regardless, all the experts say I need to read in a well-rounded way, so I do make way for at least the occasional novel.

Speaking broadly, I see two different kinds of Christian novel. The first begins when an author has a great idea for a story, and, in a desire to make it “Christian,” adds Christian elements to it. In this way the story is primary and doctrine is secondary. The other kind of Christian novel begins when the author has doctrine he wants to teach, and he creates a story as a means of conveying it. Here the doctrine is primary and the story is secondary. In the hands of an especially skilled author, Marilynne Robinson for example, a story can do both of these with excellence.

Trevin Wax has published several books in the past and has just made his first foray into fiction with Clear Winter Nights, a novel that falls into the second category: doctrine taught through narrative. The back cover says this:

What happens when a young Christian dealing with disillusionment and doubt spends a weekend with an elderly, retired pastor? They talk. And no subject is off limits. Clear Winter Nights is a stirring story about faith, forgiveness, and the distinctiveness of Christianity. Through a powerful narrative and engaging dialogue, Trevin Wax shows the relevance of unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.

This is the story of Chris Walker, a young man entering into a dark night of the soul where he finds himself questioning the Christian faith he had once so joyfully professed. As he descends into doubt, he grows hard and skeptical and wanders from all he once held dear. Then he and his grandfather Gil are thrust together for a couple of days and he finds someone who will patiently listen and lovingly provide good answers. Chris’ questions are the questions so many people are asking today, and Gil’s responses are wise, winsome and biblical.

Interestingly, the publisher classifies Clear Winter Nights as Christian living rather than fiction, which shows that this is essentially theology in story, doctrine wrapped in narrative. It succeeds well on both accounts.

Wax is a good thinker and in writing this novel aptly plays both parts—the skeptic and the man of confident faith. He is able to take his readers into sound Christian doctrine but without depending upon answers that are just too neat and too easy. Readers will encounter the basics of Christian worldview and apologetics while learning how to defend Christianity against some contemporary charges. They will also come to understand some of the most important implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and learn what it means to rely on Jesus through all of life’s peaks and valleys. Wax accomplishes this without being heavy-handed and without ever abandoning his story in order to hammer home a pet doctrine.

Wax is also a skilled storyteller. While he writes compelling narrative, but I found him at his best when creating an atmosphere. He has a knack for simile and comparisons and other elements of writing that work together to create intriguing settings. He made me care about the characters, their stories, their beliefs, and their development. Though this is hardly a tale of intrigue or heart-pounding suspense, it contains a story compelling enough that it easily carries through 160 pages. I cared about the characters enough to be just a little bit sad to have to leave them when the story drew to a close.

Theology in story is a genre that comes and goes in Christian writing and one that, in the past, has been used for good and for ill. I am grateful to see Wax both attempting it and succeeding well at it. Clear Winter Nights is a book, a story, that will encourage the Christian and provide answers to the skeptic. I highly recommend it.

6 months 2 weeks ago

Jefferson Bethke is a YouTube sensation who exploded onto the scene in January 2012 when he released a spoken word poem titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Within three days it had been viewed 6 million times and as of today it has been viewed 25 million times. He went from unknown to celebrity in the blink of an eye. Now, nearly two years later, he has added “author” to his portfolio with Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough.

Bethke’s concern, then and now, is with what passes for Christianity in so many Evangelical contexts. While he does not use the term, he describes what Christian Smith labeled moralistic therapeutic deism, and he holds up Jesus—the Jesus of the Bible, rather than the Jesus of our imaginations—as a far better alternative. “We’ve lost the real Jesus—or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized, ineffectual one. We’ve created a Christian subculture that comes with its own set of customs, rules, rituals, paradigms, and products that are nowhere near the rugged, revolutionary faith of biblical Christianity. In our subculture Jesus would never have been crucified—he’s too nice.

Two years ago, a handful of notable Christians, Kevin DeYoung among them, expressed legitimate concerns with some of the content and the emphases of Bethke’s video, and it was an encouragement then to see Bethke respond with consideration and genuine humility. Since that time he has sharpened his ideas a fair bit. Yes, he still makes a forced contrast between Christianity and religion, as if the two are incompatible, but this time he carefully explains what he means. When he calls people away from religion, he calls them away from a system of thought or belief about “what one must do, or behave like, in order to gain right standing with God.” Where this kind of religion centers on our own attempts to prove our righteousness, Christianity centers on Jesus’ righteousness, offered to us. Where this kind of religion generates apathy, Bethke points to Jesus as a radical and a revolutionary whose message is scandalous and outrageous.

All through the book, then, Bethke contrasts this counterfeit Christianity with the real deal. He calls his readers away from the trappings of gospel-free Christianity and shows them that what Jesus offers is so much greater. Where religion makes enemies, Jesus makes friends; where with religion there are good and bad people, with Jesus there are only bad people who need grace; where religion is the means to get things from God, if we seek Jesus, we get God himself; where with religion if you are suffering, God must be punishing you, the biblical truth is that God has already punished Jesus on your behalf, so suffering cannot be separated from God’s mercy. In every chapter he sets up a contrast between religion and true Christianity and answers it with Scripture. All throughout he relates his own story of growing up in that moralistic culture, of abandoning this kind of religion in order to walk away from the church, and of finally being saved by the grace of God.

This is hardly the first book to contrast Christianity with religion, but of all the ones I have read, this is the first where the author understands and affirms the gospel of Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and his atoning work. He offers many excellent insights into the joy and freedom of Christianity. He identifies sin as treason against God, he marvels at grace, he celebrates forgiveness, he anticipates future glory.

By way of critique, I would point out that Jesus > Religion grows notably weaker in the last couple of chapters, leaving it to end with more of a pop than a bang. I am glad Bethke calls his readers to love the church just like Jesus loves the church, but the appeal and the examples are not as strong as they could be. The book culminates in a appeal to trust in Jesus that could also have been significantly stronger (though certainly it contains the gospel). The book’s final words are taken from The Message and its translation of Matthew 11:28-30; this serves Bethke’s purpose in the book far better than it accurately translates the words or the meaning of that passage.

In his videos and in this book, Bethke is a popularizer of ideas. If you have read widely, you will quickly recognize the authors and pastors who have influenced him and whose ideas he is conveying. In this book, and in the other opportunities he has been given, he is choosing to popularize good ideas, and biblically-sound ones. And for this I am grateful. He is bringing these ideas to a very different demographic than most other writers. He is a leader within that restless YouTube generation, he has written a book for them, and I am convinced it will serve them well.

7 months 23 hours ago

Busyness is a funny thing. We have a love/hate relationship with it, so that when we are not boasting in it we are apologizing for it, and when we are not overwhelmed by it we are wanting more of it. We hate what busyness does to us, how it keeps us from friends and families and how it skews our priorities. On the other hand, we love that it validates us, as if the fact that we are busy someone proves our significance.

Kevin DeYoung’s Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About A (Really) Big Problem attempts to diagnose our busyness and to help us find a better, more satisfying, and more sustainable way to get through life. He begins by warning of three serious dangers that busyness can cause: Busyness can ruin our joy, it can rob our hearts, and it can cover up the rot in our souls.

The heart of the book is seven short chapters which offer seven diagnoses for our busyness. He shows how pride can make and keep us busy, and how pride can manifest itself in people-pleasing and in an inordinate desire for possessions. He suggests that many people do not properly order their priorities and, therefore, spend their lives busily doing things they should not be doing at all. He shows that many parents franticly run their children from one activity to the next, believing that unless they satisfy their children’s every demand, they will lose them. He goes to Scripture to show the importance of both rest and rhythm, pointing out that we were created weak, we are meant to accept our weakness and, having done that, we are to make a priority of building times of rest into our lives.

I especially appreciated the second-to-last chapter where DeYoung points out that life is not meant to be easy. We have many things to do and a limited amount of time to do it in. We are hampered by sin and the effects of sin on every side which means that for much of life, and perhaps even for most of life, we will be busier than we would like to be. It is one more reason to look forward to heaven. The more we expect or demand a life of ease here and now, the more difficult our busyness will become. Put simply, “The reason we are busy is because we are supposed to be busy.”

When the diagnosis is complete, just one chapter remains, and this is exactly where many readers will, I suspect, find themselves disappointed. When I speak to an author about a new book, I often like to ask him, “Is this a book you’ve lived?” In this case DeYoung gives his answer in the opening pages where he admits that he may be the best person to write the book, or the worst. “Some books are written because the author knows something people need to know. Others because the other has seen something people should see. I’m writing this book to figure out things I don’t know and to work on change I have not yet seen.”

That theme of “join me in the journey” prevails and it ends up being both a strength and a weakness. As DeYoung looks at his own life, he does a good and helpful job of diagnosing the heart of busyness since he is living in the midst of it, just like you and me. He gives a clear call to see busyness as a choice, or an accumulation of choices, and to see it as a choice full of spiritual significance. In the final chapter he calls for Christians to maintain their relationship with Christ—to sit at Jesus’ feet—primarily through times of personal devotion. He regards this as the one absolutely critical discipline in the midst of a busy life.

And then the book ends. While Crazy Busy is very useful in diagnostics, it is very light in practical application, presumably because he himself has not yet lived out such applications enough to speak with authority. Now, I think there are times when it is good to allow the reader to make his own application; after all, many readers, myself among them, are prone to be lazy and want to skip all the heart work and get straight to the part that makes their lives easier. My fear here, though, is that it is usually the author (of all people!) who can say with authority, “This theory leads to meaningful changes because I have seen this in my life and home.” In this case, DeYoung does not and cannot do that. We receive no assurance that all his research and writing has changed his own life. And if it hasn’t helped the author, how can it help us? At the end, it seems he is just as busy as when he began, and this is rather a disheartening conclusion.

Still, Crazy Busy is a good book for what it is. DeYoung is a talented writer and his books are always a joy to read. In this one he gives us words for what we already know—that we are busier than we ought to be and want to be. He gives us tools for diagnosing the specific heart issues that have led us here. And he gives us encouragement to begin to make the changes necessary to live a life focused on the highest and best priorities.

7 months 1 week ago

Don’t you just love a good bit of gossip? There is nothing quite like it, though perhaps a good comparison is to a juicy and succulent bit of food. The last mouthful of steak perhaps. You put it in your mouth. You let it sit there for a few moments. You celebrate the flavor. You savor it. You chew it slowly. You enjoy it to the very last chew. Then you swallow it and go your way, content and satisfied.

Gossip is like that. Gossip is every bit as enjoyable, at least in the immediate. It is only later you find that gossip bites back in feelings hurt, relationships wrecked, churches undermined.

Gossip has always been a problem (didn’t that serpent in the garden gossip about God?) so it is no surprise that the Bible has a lot to say about it. Solomon warned against it, James compared it to a raging forest fire, Paul admonished those who engage in it. Today we face all kinds of new ways to encounter and to spread gossip. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and endless electronic media simply add to the many ways we can speak wisely or speak foolishly, the ways we can relate to others in love or in spite.

Gossip is the subject of Matthew Mitchell’s new book Resisting Gossip. It is a subject that has been begging a book and Mitchell covers the subject well. He says, “This book is an attempt to arm followers of Christ with the biblical weapons we need to resist gossip in all its forms.” Yes, all its forms. Gossip is a wider and trickier problem than we may suspect as indicated by the definition he provides: “the sin of gossip is bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.” A bad heart takes bad news and spreads it behind another person’s back: it is a familiar story, isn’t it?

The author goes about his task in a helpful way. After a chapter explaining why we are so drawn to gossip, he lays out five different types of gossip and gossip-er, each of which stems from a slightly different sinful heart desire. Over three chapters he offers Bible-based strategies for resisting gossip, overcoming the desire to gossip, and replacing it with something so much better. As the book works toward its conclusion, he offers help on how to respond when you have been the victim of gossip and how to respond when you have been the offender and have sinfully gossiped about someone else. An excellent appendix suggests ten ways pastors can cultivate gossip-resistance in the local church.

Through it all he remains firmly grounded in Scripture and rigidly opposed to easy or moralistic or legalistic solutions. The fact is that gossip has no easy solution—it took the death and resurrection of Jesus to forgive it and it takes continually returning to the death and resurrection of Jesus to overcome it.

I do not consider myself particularly prone to gossip. At least, I didn’t. But this book showed me that I may be more susceptible than I like to think. I tend to be comfortably legalistic by keeping my definitions so narrow that they exclude me. But by widening the definition of gossip—and doing so biblically, I believe—Mitchell showed me that I may be more of a gossip than I care to admit. And isn’t it interesting that I kept trying to rewrite that sentence to keep from labelling myself a gossip. I will own being drawn to it or prone to it, but I resist owning it.

I enjoyed Resisting Gossip in the most lasting sense, because there were several areas in which it challenged and criticized me and then offered me hope. I was sorry to have to come face-to-face with my proneness to gossip, but in the end, grateful for the rebuke. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”

7 months 3 weeks ago

For some time now people have been telling me, “You need to read Larry Osborne’s Accidental Pharisees.” Based on the title I was not sure whether they meant this as a compliment or insult; now that I have read it, I am still not sure. But I sure am grateful they encouraged me to read it and glad I finally did.

We who consider ourselves “gospel-centered” or “Young, Restless, Reformed” (or whatever monickers we prefer) tend to focus on reading books that come from within our little movement and that share its perspective. I suppose this is true of any group of like-minded people, because it’s safer and less complicated this way. Accidental Pharisees speaks to us, it speaks to me, but it does so from the outside. It was not written specifically for us or against us, but it may as well have been. Osborne offers a helpful, and at times painful, perspective, on what we are doing and what we are building. Sometimes other people can see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Osborne is concerned that a new kind of legalism is creeping up within Christianity—even Christianity that focuses on being theologically-correct and gospel-centered. He hears these constant calls for zeal and sees behind it all a subtle pride that will inevitably work itself out in legalistic ways.

It’s easy to see the scriptural misalignment in the crazy guy on the street corner with the “Turn or Burn” sign. The same with the cut-and-paste theology of people who toss out the Scriptures they don’t like. It’s also easy to spot it in the pompous coworker with a big Bible on his desk, a chip on his shoulder, and a tiny heart in his chest—the self-proclaimed great witness for the Lord—whom everyone tries to avoid and no one wants to eat lunch with. But we seldom see it in the mirror.

If there is any sin we can spot in others from a thousand paces but cannot see in ourselves even when staring in the mirror, it is pride. Sure, we own it in the macro sense and admit that pride lies at the root of so much sin, but we rarely see how it works out in our lives, in our relationships with other Christians, and especially in our relationships with Christians who have different emphases from our own.

The fact is, we all have areas of unaligned faith and incomplete understanding. We all have blind spots, and we all have sin spots; when the two mix, it’s a dangerous combination. It’s hard to get everything right. That’s why I call those of us who step over the line into overzealous and unaligned faith accidental Pharisees. We’ve stumbled into a place we never wanted to go.

Osborne identifies various affinity groups within Christianity today, each with their own emphasis and each not far from creating Pharisees. Here are the four that most likely describe you:

  • Radical Christians “tend to see generosity as the leading indicator of what it means to follow Jesus. The required metric is a generous and simple lifestyle — with the caveat that if you don’t live simply enough, you aren’t generous enough.”
  • Crazy in love with Jesus Christians are another group. “Their litmus test of a true disciple is costly personal sacrifices, financial or otherwise. Evidence that you’ve been persecuted for your faith is highly valued; so are a few wild leaps of faith that all of your friends thought were nutso.”
  • Missional Christians “want to know what you’re doing to help fulfill the mission of God. If you start up a soup kitchen, volunteer to tutor at-risk kids, or move your family from the suburbs to the inner city, you’ll have no problem earning the badge.”
  • Gospel-centered Christians “like to determine spiritual maturity by means of their theological grid. If you like big words, careful distinctions, and nuanced debates, you’ll fit right in. It also helps if you’ve read something by Jonathan Edwards recently.”

Sure, he generalizes a little bit, but there is truth in his descriptions. What he identifies, and what concerns him, is that we like to build movements around the implications of the gospel that fill us with passion. But this can be a problem because “the moment my personal application of the implications of Scripture becomes the lens through which I judge others, something has gone terribly wrong.”

We don’t have freedom to lie, steal, slander, turn a deaf ear to the poor, hoard the gospel, worship idols, or fornicate. But we do have freedom in many other areas. And it’s this freedom that can drive the fledgling legalist within all of us crazy. Once the Holy Spirit places a clear call on our life to do something (or not do it), it’s hard for most of us to fathom why everyone else didn’t get the same memo.

The simple fact is that once we have found our passion, once we have found that implication of the gospel that stirs our hearts, we find it inconceivable that anyone else would have a different passion, that they can’t see things the way we do. And it is not long before we begin to criticize or exclude them.

And this is where Osborne’s book is so helpful. He speaks to me and warns me that my passion or emphasis is good, that I am free before the Lord to hold it and pursue it, but that I cannot demand it of others. I cannot make it the litmus test of committed Christianity. And the same is true of you, even if your passion is very different from my own. He does not criticize being gospel-centered or being radical or being crazy in love with Jesus. Rather, he warns that any of these things can be done legalistically when we demand it as the defining mark of committed Christianity. “The problem is not spiritual zeal. That’s a good thing. We’re all called to be zealous for the Lord. The problem is unaligned spiritual passion, a zeal for the Lord that fails to line up with the totality of Scripture.”

There is a sense in which Accidental Pharisees could be accused of being an anti-Radical or anti-Crazy Love or anti Gospel-Centered. Though he doesn’t mention by name the books or the authors, it is clear he has read them and clear he is concerned about them. But I don’t quite see his book as a full-out critique. I see it as a fair warning to those of us who read and enjoy them.

The key to enjoying Accidental Pharisees and benefiting from it is this: look for yourself in it before looking for other people. Let the book challenge you before you begin to think about all those other groups and their misplaced passion. If you only see applications for others, you are either reading it wrong or you are Jesus.

Some will inevitably accuse Osborne of writing a call for complacency. I don’t see it that way as all. Some will dislike his tone. I don’t blame them since in certain places he tips over into anger or sarcasm. He overstates his case, deliberately I’m sure, and doesn’t always say things the way you might want him to. At times he seems to fall into the very thing he hates—allowing the Bible’s black letters to speak louder than the red, or the red to speak louder than the black. He is not as quick to appreciate radical Christianity as he is to critique it. He is better at diagnosing the problem than proposing the cure.

But you should read Accidental Pharisees anyway. Take a deep breath, be humble, and listen. I guarantee you will find at least one or two things that apply to you, to your church, to your passion. It will do you good.

10 months 1 week ago
Sometimes I read a book and can later point to a page or a chapter and a specific idea I drew from it. When I later write a review of these books I can usually point to that idea and say, “Here is what I learned; here is what the author taught me.” I love those books and in many ways can chart my spiritual growth through them. But these are not the only books that are valuable to me. There are also the books that that evoke wonder or worship even when I cannot later go back and point to that specific truth that resonated in my mind and heart. Such is the case with Jon Bloom’s Not By Sight.

Not By Sight is a book about walking by faith. It is a fresh look at familiar old stories drawn mostly from the New Testament but occasionally from the Old as well. Bloom says, “The purpose of this little book is to imaginatively reflect on the real experiences of real people in the Bible in order to help you grasp and live what it means to ‘trust in the LORD with all your heart, and … not lean on your own understanding’ (Prov. 3:5). Its goal is to help you believe in Jesus while living in a very confusing and painful world.”

In thirty-five short chapters he goes to stories like Jesus calming the storm-tossed seas, Joseph receiving the news of his fiancee’s pregnancy, the leper being healed, the disabled woman made to stand straight, and he tells them again. Sometimes he speculates a little bit, wondering how Pilate and his wife received the news that the innocent man who had been condemned was now alive again or what it was like for Andrew to live in the shadow of his brother Simon Peter. He tells of David’s regret over his affair with Bathsheba and Joseph’s prayer and praise during those long years locked away in an Egyptian prison. And always he looks for faith. When he spots that faith he calls on the reader to identify with it and to emulate it.

Chapters seventeen and eighteen were highlights for me. Though sequential they are unrelated except for the common thread of faith. One tells of the humility of the Apostle Paul. This was a humility he was forced to learn when he prayed not once, not twice, but three times to have the Lord remove that thorn from his flesh, only to learn that it was to be a continual reminder to him to trust in the Lord. This thorn in the flesh, this messenger of Satan, was actually a gift of God. Will I have faith to see the weaknesses God has assigned to me as blessings? Or will I resent them? The second tells of a leper who wanted what only God could give—deliverance from his disfiguring disease. He asked and he received. Do I have the faith, the confidence, to ask God for the things he wishes for me to ask him? How might he display his power to me or through me if only I would ask?

This is a book to savor, and I read far too quickly. I enjoyed it so much I just couldn’t help it! I couldn’t read it as slowly as it deserves, and for that reason will need to read again. It is a book I will ask my son to read this summer along with his devotions; he, at thirteen, will be able to read and understand it and will certainly benefit from it. It is a book you should consider reading as well; I have every confidence that you will enjoy it too.

10 months 3 weeks ago
I am sure that almost every homemaker, every mother, every woman, has experienced the disconnect between what she knows and what she feels, between knowing that her calling is good and the reality that it can be exasperating and so often feels unfulfilling. In Glimpses of Grace Gloria Furman brings the gospel to bear on a woman’s distinct calling and calls her to treasure the gospel in her home. Speaking on behalf of Christian women she says,
We need to know: What does the gospel have to do with our everyday lives in the home? How does the gospel impact our dish washing, floor mopping, bill paying, friend making, guest hosting, and dinner cooking? How does the fact that Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness make a difference in my mundane life today?

The big question she explores is simply this: How does the gospel change the way a woman lives out her calling as a homemaker?

In the first section of the book she looks at the gospel, saying “Theology is for homemakers who need to know who God is, who they are, and what this mundane life is all about.” My favorite chapter here is “Don’t Smurf the Gospel.” Furman is both amusing and convicting as she writes about the importance of properly defining the gospel and properly distinguishing between the gospel itself and its many implications and applications. If “smurf” is a word the Smurfs used when they didn’t know what else to say, “gospel” is a word many Christians use whether they really meant it or not. It’s a word that may mean very different things to different people, so Furman calls for clarity and precision in its use.

The second section, the bulk of the book, looks at a homemaker’s many callings and shows how the gospel speaks to each of them. The chapter titles give a sense of the subjects and the tone: “Divine Power and Precious Promises for the 2 a.m. Feeding,” “All Grace and All Sufficiency for Every Dinner Guest,” “Treasures In Jars of Clay, Not in Fine Bone China.” One of the stronger chapters in this section is “The Idol of a Picture-Perfect Home.” I appreciated this chapter because there is such a clear gospel remedy and gospel application to the kind of heart idolatry that desires and demands the illusion of a picture-perfect home.

I will turn it over to Kristie Anyabwile to provide her perspective on the book since she writes as a member of the core audience:

We need gospel fuel to joyfully serve our families, and that’s what Glimpses of Grace provides. Many days I unload a barrage of law upon my family, when what they need from me is grace, encouragement, and reminders of God’s faithfulness. I thank the Lord for using Gloria to point me to the glorious gospel of his grace so that I might extend the same grace to my husband and children. As homemakers we can be smothered by the ordinary, blinded by the mundane, living in a fog of routine and fatigue, unable to see how to clean messy noses or break up sibling squabbles for the glory of God. In Glimpses of Grace Gloria helps to lift the fog by showing us how the gospel can change our perspective as we serve and love our families.

Aileen and I both read this book and both enjoyed it a lot. We saw that Gloria uses both precision and grace as she shows that the good news, when properly understood and carefully applied, must transform the way a woman carries out the task the Lord has given her.

11 months 21 hours ago
I didn’t know what The Circle Maker was about until I began to read it. Neither did I know anything about Mark Batterson, its author. I knew the book only as a Christian bestseller and its author only as a name that often appears in my inbox as people ask if I know anything about him or have read his books. “My pastor gave everyone in the church a copy of this book. Have you reviewed it?” Finally I read it.

Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., a church regarded as one of the most innovative and influential in the country. He made his debut in Christian publishing with In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day and followed that up with several other titles, including The Circle Maker.

The Circle Maker finds its title and inspiration in Honi Ha-Ma’agel, a Jewish scholar who lived in the first century B.C. and who is described in the Talmud. He is remembered as a miracle-worker in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. Wikipedia provides a condensed version of his most famous miracle:

On one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.

Batterson says, “The prayer that saved a generation was deemed one of the most significant prayers in the history of Israel. The circle he drew in the sand became a sacred symbol. And the legend of Honi the circle maker stands forever as a testament to the power of a single prayer to change the course of history.” From Honi he has learned the value of big, bold, audacious prayers. On a very practical level, he has learned the value of drawing figurative (and sometimes literal) circles. The promise of his book is that it “will show you how to claim God-given promises, pursue God-sized dreams, and seize God-ordained opportunities. You’ll learn how to draw prayer circles around your family, your job, your problems, and your goals.”

The book has been widely-praised and has received hundreds of positive reviews, but surely people have simply failed to understand that Batterson has committed a grave error. He begins with Honi, an character who appears in books that are not (and have never been) regarded as inspired by God. He takes Honi as an authentic character who performed an authentic, God-ordained miracle indistinguishable from the characters and miracles of the Bible, and then reads what he learned from Honi back into the Bible. Rather than interpreting Honi through the lens of Scripture, he interprets Scripture through Honi so that from drawing circles he inevitably moves to marching circles and goes to Jericho, asking questions like “What is your Jericho? What promise are you praying around? What miracle are you marching around? What dream does your life revolve around?” He even reads Honi back into church history, looking to Christians of days past and saying that they were drawing Honi-like prayer circles.

The book’s examples and illustrations are largely drawn from his own life, from the dreams, goals and desires that he has seen fulfilled. He speaks of drawing a large circle around an area of Washington by walking around it while praying; before long he had a successful and growing church within that circle. He writes about circling a building he wanted for his church, marching around it, laying hands on it, even going barefoot on its holy ground, until it was his. Occasionally he shares examples from others so that he speaks of a friend who desperately wanted to be general manager at a certain golf course; he describes how his friend marched around the club house with his family seven times and then received the desire of his heart.

He anticipates the critique that what he advocates is a kind of “name it, claim it” theology and insists it is not. He says, for example, “Before you write this off as some ‘name it, claim it’ scheme, let me remind you that God cannot be bribed or blackmailed. God doesn’t do miracles to satisfy our selfish whims. God does miracles for one reason and one reason alone: to spell His glory. We just happen to be the beneficiaries.” I think he doth protest too much for what he teaches is very nearly indistinguishable. While he may not suggest praying for a bundle of cash or a fancy new car, there is no reason in the book why we would not do this. “I have no idea what your financial situation is, but I do know this. If you give beyond your ability, God will bless you beyond your ability. God wants to bless you thirty-, sixty-, hundredfold.” That sounds just too familiar.

When I had finished reading The Circle Maker I found myself reflecting on why a book like this one is so attractive. Why do people love it so much more than a more realistic, biblical book on prayer? What makes it resonate so deeply? Let me share a few suggestions.

First, Batterson describes the Christian life as one of constantly witnessing miracles. He must use the word “miracle” hundreds of times and writes often of all the miracles he has witnessed. I think there are times when every Christian longs to see God work in miraculous ways, yet the challenge for the Christian is simply this: Will you believe God at his Word or will you demand more?  atterson promises miracles, yet as he does this he defines down miracles, making a miracle any answer to prayer. We prayed for a building and got it. Miracle! I needed a bill paid and found money. Miracle! In this way every answer to prayer is a miracle.

Second, he makes direct communication from God the normative experience for the Christian. He speaks often of God whispering to our spirits and encourages Christians to follow inner impressions, what he describes as “the promptings of the Spirit.” “Let me spell it out: If you want to see crazy miracles, obey the crazy promptings of the Holy Spirit.” I believe that every Christian longs for that unmediated, face-to-face contact with God; and yet again, the challenge for the Christian is whether we will be content with being indwelled by the Holy Spirit who illumines the words of Scripture so that God speaks to us through his Word.

Third, he often takes Scripture far beyond its context which allows him to make promises the Bible does not actually make. He regularly claims Old Testament promises that were clearly meant for a particular people at a particular time as if they were written specifically for him. He looks to Revelation 3:8 and uses it to speak of opened and closed doors as they relate to knowing and doing the will of God. He writes about the spiritual value of the Daniel diet. To be frank, he utterly and consistently butchers Scripture; the Christian reading with an open Bible will soon have to see that so many of Batterson’s claims cannot be supported.

Finally, he speaks confidently of things the Bible simply does not say and again, this allows him to claim more than the Bible allows. For example he says, “Sometimes physical contact creates a spiritual conduit. Proximity creates intimacy. Proximity proclaims authority. Drawing a prayer circle is one way of marking territory — God’s territory.” He trumpets the value of visualizing what you want as a means to obtaining it: “When you dream, your mind forms a mental image that becomes both a picture of and a map to your destiny. That picture of the future is one dimension of faith, and the way you frame it is by circling it in prayer.” The Bible gives us no reason to believe that God consistently relates proximity to power or that there is value in visualization (though you may note that New Age teachers often make both of those claims).

The Circle Maker is a mess. I admire Batterson’s desire to pray boldly and love his call to more prayer, better prayer, more audacious prayer. Yet so much of what he teaches is sub-biblical, extra-biblical or just plain unbiblical. With hundreds of good books on prayer available to us there is absolutely no reason to spend as much as one minute or one dime on this one.

Note: If you are looking for good, Bible-based books on prayer, here are some suggestions: 5 Great Books on Prayer.

11 months 6 days ago
You may be one of those Christians who serves. And serves. And serves some more. When you head to church on Sunday you are preparing yourself to serve and when you return home you are exhausted. And if you are one of those servant-hearted Christians it may just be that the more you serve, the more you see how so many other Christians serve sparingly and half-heartedly. You may find that it is a challenge to serve Christ and to keep your joy.

Enter Serving Without Sinking by John Hindley. This is a book about happens inside our minds and hearts as we do our acts of Christian service. It is a call away from weariness, discouragement, bitterness and joylessness as we serve. And it does that by pointing us to the greatest Servant of all—the one who came to us not to be served but to serve. “This book isn’t primarily about our service. It’s mainly about Jesus Christ, and about His service. … Jesus does not want you to measure your life by your service of Him. He does not want your service to get in the way of your love for Him. He did not come to be served by you—He came to serve you.” This one truth is remarkably freeing. It frees us from service done to earn or impress or compare and instead allows us to enjoy the ways in which he serves us. But, of course, when we are so loved and so served, we will long to joyfully serve in return.

“When it comes to Christian service, the first place to look is at what is going on in our hearts, not what we are doing with our hands.” For this reason Hindley invests some time in exploring heart motivations that guide our service. He encourages the reader to see that God cares far more about the love behind our deeds than the deeds themselves. And yet we can so often serve out of a wrong view of God or a wrong view of people. We can serve to win God’s favor or we can serve to be seen and praised by men.

Perhaps the book’s most unusual but most helpful application is for the servant-hearted Christian to consider serving less. Some of us serve as if our service is a pillar that holds up the church and as if God’s kingdom is dependent upon our shift in the nursery or our crock pot full of meatballs.

As he explains service, Hindley sets our relationship to God in three contexts: we are friends of the Boss, we are the bride of the King and we are sons of the Father. Each of these relationships helps us understand how we relate to God and how we ought to relate to him through our means of service.

This book is not a call away from service, but a call to the best kind of service—service done with the best of our abilities for the highest of motives.

If your service of Christ has grown grudging (or stopped happening), you don’t need to try to obey more. You need to love more. This means that you don’t need to try harder; you need to ask your Father to send His Spirit to work in your heart to make you more loving. You need Him to work in you so that you can increasingly enjoy the goodness of Jesus, appreciate the service of Jesus, and let Jesus recapture your heart with His love.

As I was reading Serving Without Sinking I found myself in conversations with some of the very people it addresses—people who serve their church and who love to serve, but who are also growing weary. It was a joy to recommend the book to them and I anticipate that it will be a great blessing to them. And to you.

Pages