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Christian Living

March 23, 2015

We Christians put on a good face, don’t we? Each of us shows up on Sunday morning looking like we are doing just fine, like our lives are on cruise control, like we have had the best week ever. But ask a couple of leading questions, and probe just beneath the surface, and it soon falls apart. Each of us comes to church feeling the weight and the difficulty of this life. God has something he wants us to do in these situations. There is something he calls us to—something beautifully surprising and uncomfortable. Track with me for a couple of minutes here, and I’ll show you what it is.

The Reality: You are Dust

One of my favorite passages in the whole Bible is Psalm 103. I pray it often, and focus on these words: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” These words tell us that even while we pray to the all-knowing and all-powerful God, we do so as created beings who were formed out of the dust of the ground. If we learn anything from our dusty origins, we learn that God did not intend for us to be superhuman and he did not intend for us to be God-like. He made us dust, not divine, and this was his good will. He made us weak.

The Difficulty: You Are Burdened

Meanwhile, the Bible tells us that this life is full of trials and tribulations. Experience backs this up. This world is so sinful, we are so sinful, and the people around us are so sinful, that trials are inevitable. Each of us has burdens we carry through life. Sometimes these are burdens of our own making, sometimes these are burdens that come through sickness, sometimes these are burdens that come through other forms of suffering. But whatever the case, we dusty humans inevitably face burdens that seem crushingly and insurmountably heavy. Jesus speaks to the reality of life in this world when he says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We are weak and we are burdened.

The Promise: Help

God knows that we are weak. God knows each one of the trials we face, and he makes the sure promise that he can and will sustain us through each of them. In Psalm 55:22 he says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” In times of temptation toward sin he promises, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). There are many more promises we could turn to, but the theme would be the same: God acknowledges our weakness and promises to meet them with his strength. We are weak and we are burdened, but God promises to help.

The Temptation: Self-Reliance

We dusty, sinful human beings face a ridiculous temptation: self-reliance. Despite our weaknesses and despite our track-record of sin, we find ourselves constantly tempted to look to ourselves for help. Listen to what John Piper says: “Pride, or self-exaltation, or self-reliance is the one virus that causes all the moral diseases of the world. This has been the case ever since Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because they wanted to be God instead of trust God. And it will be true until the final outburst of human pride is crushed at the battle of Armageddon. There is only one basic moral issue: how to overcome the relentless urge of the human heart to assert itself against the authority and grace of God.” We may see this self-reliance manifest itself in our lives in at least two ways: When we will not bring our burdens to the Lord in prayer, and when we will not bring those burdens to other Christians. In both cases we like to convince ourselves that we can bear this weight on our own, that we are strong enough to carry it.

The Solution: Community

When we are ready to let go of our self-sufficiency, we find that God offers an amazing solution. He offers a way that we can be relieved of the burdens we carry. Very often, the way God fulfills his promises and answers our prayers is through other Christians right there in our local churches. God expects that we will tell others about our burdens and that we will respond to them together, in community. This is why Paul told the church in Galatia to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Our church communities are to be marked by the sharing and bearing of burdens. If this is to happen, our churches need to be marked by humility, as each of us admits that we cannot make it through life on our own; they need to be marked by vulnerability, as we open up to others and seek their counsel and their help; they need to be marked by awareness, as we pursue the people around us, asking them how we can assist in life’s trials. God’s solutions always come from outside ourselves.

The Vocation: Burden-Bearing

All of this leads us to the joyful vocation of burden-bearing. Piper says, “Here is a vocation that will bring you more satisfaction than if you became a millionaire ten times over: Develop the extraordinary skill for detecting the burdens of others and devote yourself daily to making them lighter.” Make them lighter through prayer, make them lighter by skillfully bringing and applying the Word of God, and make them lighter by the comfort of your presence. In every case, make it your sacred calling to seek out and to share the burdens of your brothers and sisters. There is no higher calling than this. (For more on burden-bearing read An Extraordinary Skill for Ordinary Christians.) But there is more: You also owe it to yourself and to your church community to share your burdens with them, to humble yourself by asking for their help.

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March 06, 2015

I spend a lot of time with people. At least, judged by an introvert’s standards I do. Recently, after attending a couple of major conferences, I’ve spoken to more than ever. I count that a blessing, as I love talking to people and getting to know them. I love hearing about their lives and their experiences. People are endlessly fascinating.

But today, I think back to some of those conversations with a measure of regret, a measure of shame. I think back and realize how quickly so many of those conversations turned to people—to people who were not there.

It’s not that the conversations were all full of gossip. Not quite. It’s not that the purpose of our conversation was to tear apart other people. Not quite. But so often other people’s names came up, and so many times I walked away thinking a little bit worse of another person rather than a little bit better—someone who was not even there. And so many times I fear the person I was speaking to also walked away thinking worse of another person, another brother or sister in Christ. If we didn’t actually gossip, we at least tiptoed along that line.

I am responsible, to be sure. But it’s not only me. Wherever I go I hear people talking about people, people joking about people, people muttering about people. That’s true at conferences, it’s true at church, it’s true in my own living room. We are so harsh with others and so forgiving with ourselves. We are so quick to speak ill of others and so convinced that no one would ever speak ill of us.

I know it is not the perfect standard by which to judge, but I often find myself thinking it: If others speak of me the way I speak of them, I would be devastated. If I could hear what people say about me, and if they could hear what I say about them, I don’t know that I would have a friend left on earth. Why do we do this? Why are we so endlessly cruel?

On my flight home yesterday I read Iain Murray’s short biography of Amy Carmichael, and he quoted one of her little sayings: “Let nothing be said about anyone unless it passes through the three sieves: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” (These questions sound like they come right out of Ephesians 4:29 and a whole collection of Proverbs.)

Do I speak the truth about others? Yes. But do I speak the whole truth, and I do speak in kindness and out of necessity? No, not all the time. And I rarely ask others to stop when they are spekaing ill of others.

What is true, what is kind, what is necessary: This needs to be my standard. This needs to be every Christian’s standard. If it sounds so easy, why is it so incredibly tough?

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February 23, 2015

I want to be good at good. In fact, I want to be an expert in good. At least, I do when I’m at my best. But in moments of introspection I see a real interest in evil as well. These desires battle within me, the desire to fill my mind with good and the desire to fill my mind with evil.

As Paul came to the end of his great letter to the church in Rome, he gave some final instructions and warnings about false teachers and their ability to deceive believers with their flattery and smooth words. And then he warned the Christians “to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19b). J.B. Phillips paraphrases it well: “I want to see you experts in good, and not even beginners in evil.”

I guess Paul knew there might be a temptation for those Christians to grow so concerned about evil, that they would spend all their time studying it. They would assume that the best way to guard their faith would be to obsess about false, evil doctrine. But inevitably, their study of evil would lead them to think evil thoughts and even do evil deeds. Evil is powerful that way—too powerful to be immersed in for any length of time. And so Paul warned them, in the face of waves of false teaching and other dangers, to focus the best of their attention on what is good and pure and lovely. They should study the truth and then allow what is false to stand out in contrast.

We can take Paul’s instruction at face value: as a plea to avoid obsessing about false doctrine. John MacArthur applies the text in this way: “Don’t study false doctrine, don’t study sin, don’t study error, stick with the truth and godly obedience.” It is well and good, I think, to have some familiarity with some of the most common false teachings and false teachers. We do well to know why we are not Mormons or Roman Catholics or why we believe same-sex marriage is wrong. But it can be dangerous to immerse ourselves in false teachings and false teachers. It can be dangerous to assume that we need to have a deep understanding of error in order to hold fast to what is true.

I think we can expand Paul’s instruction as well, to think about the way we live. Are you an expert in good? Or are you an expert in evil? Are you known for your interest in what is good? Or are you known for your interest in what is evil? Think of what you read when you’re browsing online. Think of the books and television you enjoy. Think of your last 100 Facebook posts. Do you love good, or are you mesmerized by evil?

John Stott says this: “To be wise in regard to good is to recognize it, love it and follow it.” Do you recognize what is good, and find that it stirs your heart, and motivates you to pursue it? Do you love to tell others about the good you have seen, the good you have learned, the good you have done? Stott continues: “With regard to evil, however, he wants them to be unsophisticated, even guileless, so completely should they shy away from any experience of it.”

Enjoy what is good, not evil. Watch what is good, not evil. Ponder what is good, not evil. Dream of what is good not evil. Read what is good, not evil. Use social media to celebrate what is good instead of bemoan what is evil. Most of all, do what is good, not evil. And consider John Piper’s plea: “O how many pangs you young people will spare yourselves if you don’t make any beginning in evil. There is evil enough in your own heart for Christ to deal with. You don’t need to burden him with more.”

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February 19, 2015

Sin. I can’t live with it, but time and time again I have proven that I’m just not able to live without it. I know that I have been freed from sin—freed from the power of sin—and yet I still sin. The Bible tells me not to let sin reign, it tells me that if I am truly a child of God I will not go on sinning (Romans 6:12, 1 John 3:9). And still I sin. Even in those times that I focus my efforts on one particular sin I find that I am unable to stop, unable to put it entirely to death. My mind can’t do it, my heart can’t do it, my will can’t do it, my hands can’t do it. It may not reign as sovereign, but it continues to exist as a trial and a steady temptation.

In The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction Sinclair Ferguson writes about this tricky relationship of sin to the Christian and offers these words of assurance: “We are no longer what we once were; we are no longer related to sin the way we once were.” This is important for me to understand and to keep in the forefront of my mind as I battle sin—any sin. I am not what I once was. I am not who I once was. I was once a slave to sin, owned by it, inexorably drawn to it. But now I am the slave to a different master. I am owned by God and subject to him. My relationship to sin has been radically transformed.

And yet I still get angry. I still lash out in anger. I still simmer in anger. I still have desires that stem from anger and suffer the consequences of my anger. And that is just one sin. I still lust and am still jealous and am still thankless and still sin in so many ways. I have died to sin but sin has not yet died within. But here is the difference; here is the change: Sin no longer has dominion. And practically I cannot relate to it as if it has dominion. I have to ensure that my experience of sin is consistent with my theology of sin.

Anger does not own me. Christ owns me. Lust does not motivate me. Christ motivates me. Jealousy does not get the final victory. Christ gets the final victory. The cross stands there as assurance that I have been saved from its power and will some day be fully and finally delivered from its presence. Sin is in me but I am in Christ. And what is in me was put upon him on the cross. He triumphed over it then. He broke its power. And now I just wait, battling all the while, for him to speak the word and bring it to an end once and for all.

Adapted from an article I wrote in 2011.

February 16, 2015

Have you ever dreamed of being rich? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to know that money poses no barrier between you and your dreams? I think we all have at one time or another, haven’t we? And most of us are convinced that we would use our wealth for good, to serve others rather than ourselves. We imagine handing over the keys to a new home, or donating the full-ride scholarship to that person who could never afford it. We dream of using extravagant wealth to do extravagant good.

We attach great significance to great deeds, don’t we? And we attach little significance to little deeds. And yet so few of us ever have the chance to do those exceptional things. But what if we are measuring it all wrong? John Stott says it so well as he comments on Galatians 6:2: “To love one another as Christ loved us may lead us not to some heroic, spectacular deed of self-sacrifice, but to the much more mundane and unspectacular ministry of burden-bearing.”

I think the reason we dream of helping others through extravagant wealth is that it feels like those extravagant deeds count for more. So many of our good deeds are so small. They seem paltry. Instead of handing over the keys to a brand new car, we hand over a slightly over-cooked casserole. Instead of funding an extreme makeover for that person’s home, we show up on Saturday morning to help apply a new coat of paint. Instead of giving them a check to pay off their mortgage, we give them a few hours of our time to listen and counsel. Instead of funding a wonderful vacation, we take their children for a couple of hours so they can escape for a date. It is hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

But I love what John Piper says: “Here is a vocation that will bring you more satisfaction than if you became a millionaire ten times over: Develop the extraordinary skill for detecting the burdens of others and devote yourself daily to making them lighter.” This is the extraordinary ministry for every ordinary Christian—bearing the burdens of others. What seems so mundane and so unspectacular, is actually bringing great glory and honor to God.

You know the passage in Matthew 25 that describes the sheep being separated from the goats at the final judgment (verses 31-46). You have read it a hundred times, but have you ever paused to considered the criteria? The believers are not separated from the unbelievers on the basis of extravagant and spectacular deeds that were seen and fêted by others. Far from it. At the final accounting, when we stand before the Lord, we will be shocked to realize that the most significant things are the smallest things—things so small we have forgotten all about them: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” But these small things stand as proof of our salvation, proof of our commitment to the good of others and the glory of God.

This is the ministry of burden-bearing. It is a vocation that will earn you very few accolades. It will gain you very few awards. The majority of what you do will be unnoticed by others and forgotten even by those who benefit most. You yourself will forget most of it. But every bit of it will matter. Every bit of it will do good to others and bring glory to God.

So look for those who are burdened. Develop the habit and the skill of spotting those burdens, and determine that you will meet them, one casserole or one hug or one visit or one prayer at a time.

I will give the final word to Stott: “To be a burden-bearer is a great ministry. It is something that every Christian should and can do. It is a natural consequence of walking by the Spirit. It fulfils the law of Christ. ‘Therefore’, wrote Martin Luther, ‘Christians must have strong shoulders and mighty bones’—sturdy enough, that is, to carry heavy burdens.”

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December 11, 2014

God promises grace to battle sin and to overcome sin. We believe that God gives that kind of grace to his people. This is not something we deserve; it is not something he owes us, but he gives it anyway. It is undeserved, the overflow of his love for us.

And we long for that grace—the grace to put sin to death, the grace to bring righteousness to life, the grace to be who and what God calls us to be.

God gives that grace, but for some reason—his good reasons—it rarely comes in the form we would prefer. God gives it not in the form we want but in the form we need. We want God to zap away our sin, to instantly and permanently remove it. Those desires, those addictions, those idolatries—we want them to be lifted and to be gone that very moment. 

God could do this. He has the strength and the power. And occasionally he does do this, he removes the sin and the temptation to sin in an instant, and it never comes back with the same strength and the same force.

But more commonly God’s grace is not manifested in the instant obliteration of a sin. Instead, his grace is manifested in a newfound desire to destroy that sin. God does not zap away our sin, but gives us a new hatred for it and a new desire to do the hard work of battling it. He does not sovereignly remove it in a moment, but extends grace so we can battle it for a lifetime. He extends grace so we can see continuous, incremental success, knowing our weakness and crying out for his strength. He gives what we need, even if it isn’t quite what we want.

And this, too, is grace. This, too, is undeserved favor from a loving God. This, somehow, must be far better for us than the alternative. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

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December 03, 2014

It’s the easiest thing in the world to say: “Yes, I’ll pray about that.” And it’s the easiest thing to neglect. The list of all the things I’ve said I’d pray for but then forgotten about would stretch from here to next year. So I’ve started to say, “No, I won’t pray for you.” I am still not entirely comfortable with it, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

We recently had someone—a stranger—call the church to ask for prayer. She called out of the blue one morning, from a phone number far away. She said she was feeling sick and needed people to pray for her. Every day for the next six months. “Can I count on you to pray for me?”

For one of the first times in my life I felt total freedom. I said, “I am going to pray for you once, but I will not pray for you every day. I will not pray for you for six months.” I explained that I have my own church to care for, and that I need to pray for those people. I asked about her church and she told me where she attends. I recognized it as a good church, full of people who pray, and pastors who care. I explained that God expects her church to care for her, and her church to pray for her, and that calling all the churches in Toronto and asking them to heap up prayers for someone they don’t know may be little more than superstition.

I thought I got through to her. But a week later the phone rang again and it was the same woman. She had obviously forgotten to scratch the name of our church off her list. I reminded her of what I said last time and told her that I was not praying for her anymore. She hung up on me.

I once spent a couple of hours with a small group of people and a well-known pastor whose voice goes out on the radio and who has listeners around the world. He is a man of prayer, and one who battles against the easy “Pray for me!” He understands that some people think his prayers are especially powerful because he is a celebrity; he understands that some people have disobediently distanced themselves from the local church and are now looking for someone, anyone, to pray for them; he understands that some people are superstitious toward prayer. So he told how he learned to say “No.” Even better, he learned to say, “I will pray for you right now but then I expect you to go to your local church and ask them to pray for you.” He prays immediately and prays once, but no more.

I learned from him, and feel the freedom not to pray. I feel the freedom not to pray because I cannot pray for everyone and everything. God has given me spheres of responsibility and a finite amount of time. I have to use the best and the bulk of my time to care for those people who are closest to me—my family, my friends, my neighbors, my church. One of the ways I care for them is by praying for them. But since there is much more to my life than prayer, I have to use that prayer time well, giving it to those matters and those people I am most responsible for. And that is what I attempt to do—to pray earnestly and repeatedly for the people I am responsible for, and to allow others to pray for the people they are responsible for.

I am quite sure it is better this way. It gives me an opportunity to teach people about prayer, it gives me an opportunity to model prayer, and it keeps me from saying I will do what I will not and cannot do.

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November 24, 2014

I overheard an interesting discussion the other day. I was out-and-about and caught just a fragment of a discussion about money and the sheer joy of having it. I couldn’t eavesdrop for more than a few words, but that was enough to get my mind working. I thought about the way I use my money, and the way we, as Christians, use our money. And I want to ask you the question: When was the last time you just enjoyed your money?

It’s okay, you know. You are allowed to enjoy your money. Let’s think it through.

I firmly believe that every thing we have is actually God’s. We are not the owners of our money, but the stewards of God’s money. Most of us believe this and we try to live it. And there are many, many ways to faithfully steward God’s money.

We serve as faithful stewards when we live within our means. We serve as faithful stewards when we save for the days to come. We serve as faithful stewards when we focus on paying down debt. We serve as faithful stewards when we pay our bills and when we expend effort in attempting to reduce our bills. We serve as faithful stewards when we avoid all those deep-debt, high-interest, I-need-more-stuff ways to live. We serve as faithful stewards when we give generously to the Lord’s work, or help a friend in need. Ultimately, we serve as faithful stewards when we live with an awareness that money is a terrible god but a beautiful means of serving God.

Along the way we can develop a very formal and professional relationship with money, where money becomes little more than a tool. Every dollar has a job—paying the bills and paying down the mortgage, and saving for retirement, and supporting the missionaries. Every dollar has a job, but not many of those jobs are fun. We use our money dutifully, but rarely have fun with it.

There are so many good things we can do with our money. But I think one of the good things we may be prone to miss along the way is just plain enjoying it.

When was the last time you gave each of your kids $20 and set them free in the toy store or book store? When was the last time you enjoyed a truly relaxing vacation? When was the last time you went to the specialty store and bought some amazing crackers and cheese? When was the last time you sat and savored a slightly-too-expensive but almost-too-delicious cup of coffee? When was the last time you bought a new book just because? When was the last time you bought an extravagent bouquet of flowers for your wife? When was the last time you allowed yourself to really enjoy your money?

It is good to exercise self-control with your money, and good to put it to good work. But it is good to enjoy it too. Because money is more than a tool; it is also a means of pleasure.

And here’s the neat thing: The better you manage your money as God’s money, the greater your enjoyment of these little pleasures. When all you want to do with your money is seek indulgence, it will deliver ever-diminishing pleasures. But when you faithfully steward it, those small pleasures are far richer and far sweeter.

So use your money, and use it wisely, and use it for God’s glory. But don’t forget to enjoy it as well.

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