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Christian Living

August 22, 2014

I love to discover what I call “faith hacks”—practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life. As I read, as I listen to sermons, as I speak to people, I am always looking for insights on how other Christians live out their faith in practical ways. I recently shared an ultra-practical way to display servant leadership. Today I am shifting to prayer.

The Bible tells us not only that we can pray, but that we should and must pray. Prayer is one of the great responsibilities and the great privileges of being a Christian. Yet prayer is also difficult. It is difficult to pray effectively and it is difficult to pray systematically.

Christians have created many patterns and systems to help them as they pray. One of my favorites is John Piper’s model of praying in concentric circles. In a January, 2000 sermon on Paul’s call to prayer in Colossians 4:2 he gave a description of how he organizes his prayers.

Consider praying in concentric circles from your own soul outward to the whole world. This is my regular practice. I pray for my own soul first. Not because I am more deserving than others, but because if God doesn’t awaken and strengthen and humble and fill my own soul, then I can’t pray for anybody else’s. So I plead with the Lord every morning for my own soul’s perseverance and purification and power.

Then I go to the next concentric circle, my family, and I pray for each of them by name: Noel, Karsten/Shelly/Millie, Benjamin, Abraham, Barnabas, Talitha and some of my extended family.

Then I go to the next concentric circle, the staff and elders of Bethlehem. I name them all by name.

Then I pray for you, Bethlehem Baptist Church. And then I go out from there to different concerns and groups at different times: our missionaries, our denomination and its schools, the Baptist General Conference, Evangelicalism in general and the church around the world, especially the suffering church. The wider circles include the city and the state and the nation and the cultural and social issues of the world.

You can’t pray for everything every time. So there need to be differences. And your heart will dictate much of your burden. Some days one family member or one staff member or one crisis in the church or the world will consume most of your time. But if you have a pattern—like the concentric circles—you won’t spin your wheels wondering where to start.

It is that simple and that practical: Begin close and pray in widening circles.

See: Devote Yourselves to Prayer at Desiring God.

Circle image credit: Shutterstock

August 18, 2014

I have been thinking about this one a lot, lately. I was thinking about it long before I read Manage Your Day-to-Day, but that book helpfully distilled it to a single sentence: “We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently.”

This is our temptation in all areas of life: to look for the quick fix, to look for the one or the few great moments that will accomplish more than the hundreds or thousands of smaller moments. “Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, ‘A small daily task, if it be daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules’. Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.”

The spasmodic Hercules: this is how many of us behave. We behave as if one moment of great activity can overcome a thousand moments of inactivity, as if one moment of taking hold of opportunity will overcome all those moments wasted. The unglamorous habit of frequency is what makes up so much of life’s progress. Yet we are constantly tempted to put our hope in the brief and the glamorous.

I see this in work. We are prone to believe that unless we can block off a significant piece of time to work on that book or project or task, we may as well not even bother. So instead of doing a little work, and advancing a step or two, we let it lie dormant and perhaps waste that time instead. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently.

I see this in parenting. We invest great hope in the big moments, the weekend away with the child or the special night out. But we may neglect those hundreds of evenings where we could simply talk while doing the dishes or where we could pray for just a few moments before bed. We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in their lives in a short period, and underestimate what we can accomplish over a long period, provided we are willing to advance slowly and with consistency.

But most of all, I see this in spiritual growth. We are often tempted to believe that one moment of great spiritual intensity will bring about greater and more lasting change than the oh-so-ordinary means of grace. We can have more confidence in the single three-day conference than in the day-by-day discipline of Scripture reading and prayer, the week-by-week commitment to the preaching of the Word and public worship. We tend to overestimate how much we can grow in a short period, and underestimate how much we will grow over a long period, provided we simply take hold of God’s ordinary means.

This is where so many Christians lose their confidence—they want quick growth and measurable results, and give up far too soon. Their confidence is not in God working through his Word as they open it each morning and hear it preached each Sunday, but in the big conference later in the year, or in that new devotional, or in that new study method. They are distracted and spasmodic rather than consistent and disciplined. They look this way and that, instead of than simply persisting in the means God prescribes.

The fact is, most growth in life—and spiritual growth is no exception—is measured in inches, not miles. The ground an army gains by a slow march is often safer than the ground it gains by charging over it. Spiritual growth is no less real simply because it comes slowly and is difficult to measure. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Christian, persist. Persist in the ordinary means of grace. Persist even, and especially, when the growth seems to slow. Persist in your confidence that these are the means God gives for your good, for your growth, for his glory.

Snail image credit: Shutterstock

August 17, 2014

The Internet is awash in “life hacks”—methods and techniques for increasing efficiency or productivity. They are meant to be simple and ultra-practical ways of doing those everyday tasks that make up so much of life. Though many life hacks are novel and ridiculous, there are some that prove themselves both meaningful and helpful, and I have applied many of them to my own life.

I also love to discover new “faith hacks”—practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life. It is not that I want to live the Christian life with great ease and efficiency, but that I love to discover fresh insights from others as they tell how they live as Christians. Over the next while I plan to share some of these with you.

I will begin with this: a simple way to humbly display servant leadership. Though it is directed at church leaders, it is equally applicable to any Christian.

Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, wants his church to be a community of servant-leaders. After all, “servanthood is the essence of leadership and the heart of what it means to be an apprentice of Jesus.” He believes “leadership is embodying what you want others to become.” To have a church of servant-leaders, he and the other pastors must lead the way.

How does Gray display what he wants other people to become? Simple. He and all his staff members park farthest away from the church building. Instead of taking the best spots, they leave those for others, and take the worst spots. The walk from their cars to the church, and from the church to their cars, is a straightforward, tangible display of what they want their congregation to become.

And I guess there is a bonus: They get to meet more people than if they were hustled out the side door and into reserved parking spots.

Do you want to practice servant-heartedness and meet more people at the same time? Consider parking in the farthest spot.

See: Why I Park the Furthest from the Church at Ministry Grid.

Parking lot image credit: Shutterstock

July 28, 2014

I saw it the other day. I saw that thing I want, that thing I am sure I need, that thing that holds the key to my happiness. With it I will be complete. Without it I will always be lacking.

And there it was, right before me. I saw it. I longed for it. I felt that longing, that desire, in my chest, or was it my stomach? Did my heart really skip a beat? There it was, so close, but it wasn’t mine. It was there, yet just out of reach.

In that very moment the thought flashed through my mind: If God really loved me, he would give it to me. God doesn’t love me enough to let me have it. And in the wake of the thought, a question: What can I do to make him love me enough? What can I do to make him love me enough to give it to me?

The insanity lasted all of a minute. Probably not even a minute. And then I knew. It’s not that God loves me too little to give it to me. He loves me too much. He loves me too much to give me that thing I am convinced I need. He loves me too much to give me something that will compete with him. He loves me too much to give me anything I may love more than I love him.

Whatever it is—an object, a person, a position, a recognition, an award—God expresses his love in withholding it from me. He knows me far better than I know myself. He knows what I need, and he knows what I don’t need. He knows what would soon step into that place he reserves for himself.

I can go my way content. I can go my way knowing that God has given all I need and withheld all I cannot handle. I am content with what God has given—it is for my good and his glory. I am content with what God has withheld—it, too, is for my good and his glory.

Crybaby image credit: Shutterstock

July 17, 2014

I am a sinner. And as a sinner I exhibit all kinds of behaviors both odd and ugly. The more I come to know myself, the more I see the ways in which I am a product of my sin, in which I view the world through the lens of my sin. When I look outward, and when I look at others, I see them through sinful eyes and interpret them through a sinful mind. As I do that, I fall into the trap of sin projection.

Sin projection is when I project my sin upon others, assuming that they are prone to the very same sin and, therefore, falling into it as much as I am. I am not the only one who does this, either.

The adulterous husband wonders if his wife is committing adultery. The lying child assumes that he has been lied to by his teacher. The angry mother is quick to accuse her children of being angry toward her. The power-obsessed pastor believes the associate pastor is maneuvering to displace him. The young man with the lustful eye has trouble trusting that his girlfriend’s eyes are not equally prone to wander. The thief can’t trust others because he assumes they will steal from him just as he will steal from them. The envious musician assumes that others are being competitive toward him.

And on it goes. I see the world through my own sin and project my sin upon others. I see my sin in them, even where it doesn’t exist. I unfairly and sinfully accuse them of my sin.

I am a sinner. And as a sinner this is just one more of those odd and ugly behaviors.

July 09, 2014

I have written about envy before and have referred to it as “the lost sin.” Envy is a sin I am prone to, though I feel like it is one of those sins I have battled hard against and, as I’ve battled, experienced a lot of God’s grace. It is not nearly as prevalent in my life as it once was. Recently, though, I felt it threatening to rear its ugly head again and spent a bit of time reflecting on it. Here are three brief observations about envy.

Envy is Competitive

I am a competitive person and I believe it is this competitive streak that allows envy to make its presence felt in my life. Envy is a sin that makes me feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that I want for myself. Envy makes me aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that I want for myself. And there’s more: Envy makes me want that other person not to have it. This means that there are at least three evil components to envy: the deep discontent that comes when I see that another person has what I want; the desire to have it for myself; and the desire for it to be taken from him.

Do you see it? Envy always competes. Envy demands that there is always a winner and a loser. And envy almost always suggests that I, the envious person, am the loser.

Envy Always Wins

Envy always wins, and if envy wins, I lose. Here’s the thing about envy: If I get that thing I want, I lose, because it will only generate pride and idolatry within me. I will win that competition I have created, and become proud of myself. Envy promises that if I only get that thing I want, I will finally be satisfied, I will finally be content. But that is a lie. If I get that thing, I will only grow proud. I lose.

On the other hand, if I do not get what I want, if I lose that competition, I am prone to sink into depression or despair. Envy promises that if I do not get that thing I want, my life is not worth living because I am a failure. Again, I lose.

In both cases, I lose and envy wins. Envy always wins, unless I put that sin to death.

Envy Divides

Envy divides people who ought to be allies. Envy drives people apart who ought to be able to work closely together. Envy is clever in that it will cause me to compare myself to people who are a lot like me, not people who are unlike me. I am unlikely to envy the sports superstar or the famous musician because the distance between them and me is too great. Instead, I am likely to envy the pastor who is right down the street from me but who has a bigger congregation or nicer building; I am likely to envy the writer whose books or blog are more popular than mine. Where I should be able to work with these people based on similar interests and similar desires, envy will instead drive me away from them. Envy will make them my competitors and my enemies rather than my allies and co-laborers.

What’s the cure for envy? I can’t say it better than Charles Spurgeon: “The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.”

July 02, 2014

I don’t know how much I’ve driven in the twenty years since I got my license, but I do know it’s a lot, what with all those drives down to the South to visit my family. Here is one thing that has never varied across the hundreds of thousands of miles: When I take my foot off the pedal, the car does not speed up. It doesn’t even maintain the same speed. Instead, from the very moment I take my foot off the accelerator, the car begins to slow. Allowing the car to coast is inviting the car to stop. It may take some time, but left on its own, it will stop eventually. It is inevitable.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I see in my own life a tendency to coast—to coast in my relationships, to coast in my pursuit of godliness, to coast in my pursuit of God himself. And here are some things I’ve observed:

I do not coast toward godliness, but selfishness.

I do not coast toward self-control, but rashness.

I do not coast toward a love for others, but agitation.

I do not coast toward patience, but irritability.

I do not coast toward purity, but lust.

I do not coast toward self-denial, but self-obsession.

I do not coast toward the gospel, but self-sufficiency.

In short, I do not coast toward Christ, but toward self. When I stop caring, when I stop expending effort, when I allow myself to coast, I inevitably coast away from God and godliness. And this is exactly why I am so deeply dependent upon those ordinary means of grace, those oh-so-ordinary ways of growing in godliness—Scripture and prayer, preaching and fellowship, worship and sacrament. The moment those sweet means no longer appeal is the moment I begin to slow.

June 23, 2014

Making decisions is one of the most difficult things we do.  If it is that hard to choose between the mint chocolate chip and the rocky road, how much more do we agonize over this church or that church, this school or that school, this job or that job, this person or that person? We pray, we sweat, we weep, we read, we toss, we turn.

Why this fear? Why this agony? Why these sleepless nights? It is the uncertainty of it, I’m sure. It is the uncertainty of where our choices may lead.

When it comes to making decisions, we have this desire to protect ourselves from the wrong decisions or, more properly, from the consequences of the wrong decisions. I don’t want to make an educational choice that imperils my child’s soul; I don’t want to make a dating choice that leads me to marital misery; I don’t want to make a vocational choice that leads me to unemployment. I don’t…I don’t want to be unhappy, and want to ensure that my choices don’t lead me there.

What I really want when I make a decision is to see the future. I don’t only want to see the options before me, but the result of each of those options. If I could gaze into the future and see my child as a growing, thriving, Christ-honoring adult, it would make choosing this school that much easier. If I could gaze into the future and see myself hand-in-hand with that woman sixty years from now, I would know that she will make a fine choice for a wife. If I could only see the end, I would know. If only I had access to the future.

But the thing we want is a thing God does not give us. He is far too wise for that, and does not give us that view of the finish line, that sneak peak of the future. He could, of course. After all, he is the one who declares, “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…’ (Isaiah 46:10).” As the one who declares it and will bring it to pass, he is also the one who could display it in advance. But he doesn’t.

Instead, he does something far better: He gives us a view of himself. We don’t need to know the future when we know the one who holds the future. God does not want us to put our hope in a future outcome, but in him. We don’t ground our faith in a result, but in a Person. If we could see the future we would take our eyes off him. If we could see the future, our faith would be in the future. But when all we see is God, our trust must be in him.

June 19, 2014

It is going to take time—decades at least—before we are able to accurately tally the cost of our cultural addiction to pornography. But as Christians we know what it means to tamper with God’s clear and unambiguous design for sexuality: The cost will be high. It must be high.

We all know the cost will be high in fractured families and heartbroken parents, husbands and wives. Already we are seeing far too many of these and each one is its own tragedy. We know the cost will be high in the countless thousands of women who are used and abused in front of cameras so they can be violated for other people’s pleasure. That is a sickening tragedy as well. But an overlooked cost, and one that will only become clear in time, is that porn is stealing the best years from a million young Christian men and women. Porn is dominating their lives during their teens and twenties. It is controlling their lives during those years when energy is high and responsibility is low, when the world lies open before them and the possibilities are endless, when they are charting the trajectories for the rest of their lives. Their dreams and their abilities are being hampered and squelched by a reckless commitment to sin.

So many young Christians have stunted their spiritual growth through what I call pornolesence. Pornolescence is that period when a person is old enough and mature enough to know that pornography is wrong and that it exacts a heavy price, but too immature or too apathetic to do anything about it. Pornolescence is that period where he feels the guilt of his sin, but still enjoys it too much to give it up. He may make the occasional plea for help, or install Covenant Eyes (but keep a workaround for when he’s really burning up), or ask for an accountability partner. But he doesn’t really want to stop. Not yet. She may phone a friend on occasion or plan to speak to one of the older women in the church, but in the end her internal shame weighs heavier than her desire for holiness. So she continues on, night after night.

This is pornolesence, that period between seeing the sin for what it is and actually putting it to death, that period between the deep soul conviction of immorality and the stubborn commitment to purity. For some people it lasts days, but for many more it lasts for years. A lot of young people—too many young people—are growing up too slowly today. Their sexual awakening is coming far too early and amidst all the wrong circumstances, and it is delaying every other kind of awakening and maturing. It is especially delaying their spiritual maturation.

1 Thessalonians 4:3 makes it as clear as day: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” A Christian’s growth in holiness and his development in Christian maturity is directly and inextricably tied to sexual purity. A person cannot full-out pursue God while also full-out pursuing porn. It’s either/or, not both/and. God will not be mocked. God will not allow you to soar to spiritual mountain tops while you stoop in pornographic filth. God will not allow you to grow in Christian maturity while you wallow in your incessant pornolesence.

And I think time will prove that this is one of the gravest costs of pornography: It is stealing the best years from so many young Christians. It is stunting their spiritual growth and delaying their entrance into Christian ministry and service. These are the people who represent the future of the church—future elders, future deacons, future women’s ministry leaders, future youth leaders, future children’s workers, future mentors, future missionaries, future seminary professors, future defenders of the faith, future denominational heads, and on and on. But with each click, with each video, with each unblushing exposure to what God deems abhorrent, they choose to worship a god in place of the God. And all the while they delay their entrance into maturity, into leadership, into who and what God calls them to be.

If this is you, hear my plea: For the sake of Christ’s church, and out of love for Christ’s church, put that sin to death. Do it for Him, and do it for us.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

June 13, 2014

It’s not the best morning. Yesterday was election day here in Ontario and the results did not go the way I had hoped. We have the same government as the day before, but with a much clearer and stronger mandate. I find it a particularly troubling and even threatening mandate. In the aftermath I find my faith being tested. Can I find joy today? Am I going to believe Romans 13:2 today? “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” God knew this. God saw this. God allowed this. God instituted even these authorities. Will I believe it? Will I find joy in it?

Today is a good day to consider the nature of my faith and, even more so, the object of my faith. Last week I was reflecting on the faith of Abraham and observed this: True faith does not demand answers. We don’t need faith when we have all the answers. We need faith when we don’t have all the answers. We need faith when the way ahead seems unclear or intimidating, when answers are hard to find. Faith is trusting in someone who has the answers we lack. Faith is trusting in the goodness, in the character, of God.

This is the faith I see in Abraham when he assented to God’s demand that he offer his son as a sacrifice to God. God asked Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited son through whom God had guaranteed a multitude of nations and, even better, a Messiah. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The promise was made, the promise was fulfilled, and now God threatened to take it all away. But still Abraham obeyed. Why? Because of this: Ultimately, faith is not in an outcome, but in a person. Abraham’s faith was not in Isaac’s survival; his faith was in God. This means he could lose Isaac without losing his faith. He was so convinced of the goodness and faithfulness of God that he was willing to do what looked impossible. He would hold back nothing.

Later, in the book of Hebrews, we read more about Abraham. The author is boasting in God’s people, bragging about their faith, and he says this: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Quite simply, Abraham believed the promises of God because he trusted the character of God. He trusted God even when the way seemed so strange, so unclear, so contradictory. The Christian faith is sometimes lampooned as being a blind faith, but that is all wrong. The Christian faith is not a blind faith but a seeing faith. We have seen God and love God and trust him to such a degree that we do not need or demand all the answers. We trust and obey, even when we do not understand and even when we cannot see the finish line.

And today I find myself wondering this: Will I trust God even when the way is unclear and even when I do not understand? Will I joyfully submit to God’s will, knowing and trusting that he is good? Is my faith deep enough to say, “I don’t understand, but I know God is good.” Is my faith in an outcome, or is my faith in God?

I should take a cue from Abraham. God gave Abraham three days to walk from his home to that mountain where he was to offer up his son. But on that long and sorrowful walk where he must have been tempted to despair, Abraham was not brooding. He was not complaining. He was not lamenting. Instead, he was considering how God would use this for good. We are told in Hebrews that Abraham made up his mind that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead. When Abraham was being tested, he chose not to focus on the pain, but on the triumph, and spent his time imagining how God was going to work even this “for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I should do no less.

God remains. God’s promises remain. My trust in God remains.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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