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Christian Living

January 15, 2013

Last week I was captivated by a sunrise. I am one of those people who is “early to bed, early to rise” and have watched many sunrises. I love the dawning of a new day because every day is so full of promise and possibility. Every sunrise lays a new day before us and asks, “What will you do with this day? What will this day be?”

The sunrise that so gripped me is described in the book of Ecclesiastes where the author, a man who identifies himself only as The Preacher, writes “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” This man is a poet and he looks at that sunrise and sees it as a picture of youth. The brightness of the sun as it cuts through the darkness and ushers in a new day is like the radiance of youth with all its excitement and energy and possibilities. Youth lays a whole lifetime before us and asks, “What will you do with this life? Who will you be?”

The Preacher’s great concern is that youth does not go to waste. He wants us and commands us to enjoy the days of youth—not just the days of childhood, but all of the days before old age comes. “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all … Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-9). He speaks to each of us and tells us to take advantage of this time to do what makes us happy, what brings us joy, what we are passionate about. These are the days when we are young and strong, energetic and optimistic. These are the days when the possibilities are limitless, when the whole world lies open before us. He wants us to do what we love and to love what we do, and he wants us to do it now, in the days of youth. He knows that a day will come when joy will be far more difficult to find. If we are going to be joyful in old age, we will need to be joyful now and carry joy with us into those days.

This Preacher has been speaking on behalf of God and teaches us that the Lord wants us to enjoy life and to acknowledge all the good things life brings. Isn’t that amazing? God wants us to enjoy life! God wants us to linger over a good cup of coffee and walk hand-in-hand with the person we love and savor that delicious meal and enjoy making love and appreciate the beauty in a rainbow. These are his gifts and he wants us to enjoy them. Life is a gift and he wants us to enjoy it.

The Preacher is so concerned with our joy that he gives us three joy-enhancers—three things that will help us get every bit of joy we can from these years. These are things each of us would do well to keep in mind.

#1. Acknowledge Youth Will End

The Preacher says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” He wants us to savor life as we live it. If we are granted many years, we are free before the Lord to live them all without sadness and without regret. But even as we take joy in life, even as we live with youthful exuberance, our Preacher calls us to have an awareness that the light of day will eventually give way to the dark of night. The sun that rises will need to set again and darkness will come. The joy of youth will be followed by all the difficulties of old age and the difficulties of old age will be followed by death. It is right and good to really live, to live all the way, but we live best when we keep one eye on eternity, when we keep in mind that these good days will come to an end.

Acknowledging the end helps us. It reinforces that we only get one chance, one opportunity. This life cannot be lived well in retrospect. It can only be lived well in the moment. None of us will get a second chance to do life well; none of us will get a second chance to live today well. So don’t waste your day, don’t waste your youth, and don’t waste your life!

January 10, 2013

We are a family that is surrounded by digital technologies. Each of us has our own Kindle, devices that have already more than paid for themselves in all we’ve saved buying ebooks in place of printed books. My two oldest kids each have an iPod Touch, one they earned and purchased themselves with their paper route money. Of course I’ve got a cell phone and have recently transitioned to preaching from an iPad. And so on. It’s ridiculous, really. But I don’t think we are much different than most families today, surrounded by generations of devices.

There is an obvious financial cost to being a wired family, but there is also a more subtle cost—the cost of distraction. As much as I love and appreciate these devices, they are distracting. Sometimes they distract by beeping and flashing and vibrating, and other times they distract just by their ease, their fun, their availability. Paul Graham says, “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” Ain’t that the truth. It’s like these devices are constantly beckoning to us, calling us away from what we are doing and toward what they think we ought to be doing. You would almost think they were made to be distracting.

When I sit and read a book, I have to battle against running to a computer to check email; when I am talking with the family, I have to battle against reaching for my phone to see why it just vibrated; when my children are bored, their instinct is to grab their iPod and lose themselves in a mindless game. Those devices are always so close by and so compelling.

I am glad to have access to these devices but want to ensure that we are using them well, that we own them instead of allowing them to own us. It is important for the children, but equally important for me and for Aileen. The only real remedy I’ve been able to find is carving out times that are deliberately digital-free. I now take one day a week and one week a year away from the digital buzz. And then I fight the daily battle.

One Week a Year

Over the past few summers I’ve been exploring the idea of deliberately carving out times that are digital-free, away from the Internet and all digital devices. I addressed the first attempt in my book The Next Story:

January 07, 2013

John Newton was a slave-trader turned hymn-writer, a man who underwent a miraculous transformation that saw him leave behind a life of immorality and depravity to pursue the calling of a minister of the gospel. The amazing grace that had unexpectedly but permanently “saved a wretch like me” was his joy and meditation for the rest of his days, the topic of a thousand sermons, hymns, prayers and letters.

Newton was an insightful pastor who was adept at peering deep into the human soul. As he reflected on his life before that encounter with the Lord’s saving grace, he penned a poem or hymn titled In Evil Long I Took Delight. In that song he confesses “In evil long I took delight / Unawed by shame or fear.” For so many years of his life he had been wild and dissolute, living only for his own pleasure, at least “Till a new object struck my sight/ And stopp’d my wild career.” The object that arrested his gaze was “One hanging on a Tree / In agonies and blood.” This hymn describes all that he came to see and learn about the Son of God—that Newton’s own sins had hung him there, that Christ was suffering for the sins of this wretched sinner. And then Newton identifies something every Christian has experienced when meditating on the cross, that in the Christian life there are times off “pleasing grief, and mournful joy.”

With pleasing grief, and mournful joy,
My spirit now is fill’d,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by Him I kill’d!

There, with his eyes transfixed on Jesus Christ, Newton weeps with both joy and sorrow—sorrow that his sin had led this man to suffer such great pain, and joy that this man was willing to die so that he, Newton, might live. This is the wonder of the cross, that place where in one act we weep and rejoice and wonder and worship.

This year I had the privilege of attending a Memorial Service at Toronto’s Pregnancy Care Centre—an organization I have come to know and love—and found myself, through tears, reflecting on the pleasing grief and the mournful joy of those who have found the freedom of forgiveness. This memorial service is a time to own past sins and, in confessing them, to proclaim and experience forgiveness. It is a time for mothers and fathers to confess that they had knowingly taken the life of their own child, and yet to proclaim that the grace of the Lord is sufficient to cover even this sin. In obedience to James 5:16, it takes the shame of private sin to a public setting: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Each of the participants was given an opportunity to speak in front of the group gathered that evening. There were some who named their child, who read that child a letter or poem, who asked or begged that child’s forgiveness, who proclaimed their trust that they had found forgiveness through the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they spoke they were given a flower, a rose, a small and symbolic token of God’s love for them. There were some who could say nothing, who could only stand silently and weep for what they had done and what they had lost. These women, too, were given a flower. Many of them placed a sealed letter in a basket, a letter they had written to their child but could not bear to read. Those letters remain sealed today, a private interaction between a woman, her child, and the Lord.

Yet even among all the tears and even in the expressions of such pain and regret, still there was joy. It was the joy of freedom, for these women were not only confessing sin, but proclaiming and accepting forgiveness. The tears of shame were mixed in equal parts with tears of joy, for these women did not mourn as those who have no hope, but as those who have been filled with hope—a new hope that has come through new life.

Abortion holds out the promise of freedom. It offers freedom from the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, the responsibility of raising a child, the burden of providing for an infant. But like all sin, it over-promises and under-delivers. Where it promises freedom, it delivers captivity—captivity to shame and regret and the knowledge of having done what is wrong. Abortion is a lie, a sin that could only be birthed by the father of lies (John 8:44).

But all the shame of abortion, all the evil and weight of it, is broken before the cross. Before the cross we are all invited to kneel, to trust, to confess, to weep with that pleasing grief and mournful joy, and there to find the freedom of forgiveness. 

Most Pregnancy Help Centers across North America offer post-abortion support, most often through group and individual Bible studies. If that would be helpful to you, you can visit OptionLine to find a center near you.

January 03, 2013

As 2012 came to a close, blogs and media outlets were quickly dominated by round-ups of the year’s best books. One of the books I saw on many of those lists was Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It is a book I had been meaning to read all year long, so I finally downloaded it from Audible and listened to it over the holidays. It was an interesting experience for me and gave many opportunities for reflection and self-examination. What I write today is not a review of the book as much as it is a reflection on its content—a reflection on the introverted Christian.

There is no doubt that I am an introvert. If we place introversion and extroversion on opposite sides of a line and say that each one of us falls somewhere between the two extremes, I would be pretty far from center along the introvert side of the scale. I may not be as far along as some people, and I still enjoy some exposure to crowds of people, but at heart I gain energy and perspective in solitude and then expend it in a crowd. My default reaction to a crowd is to run away to find a place of quiet. I love and enjoy people, but do better with small groups than large ones. Even after several years of public speaking, it still takes a lot of effort and self-denial to stand in front of a crowd. I walk to the front of a room slowly and, when finished, sprint to the back.

Quiet allowed me to better understand myself. In some ways Cain introduced me to me. I had all kinds of those “Aha!” moments where things I’ve long thought or felt suddenly made sense. It was refreshing. Yet as I progressed through the book, I found it doing something unexpected deep inside. I began to feel a kind of peace with my introversion that may have gone a little too far. Even Aileen noticed it in me and pointed it out. She noticed that I began to feel justified in fleeing crowds and being by myself. She said I was becoming selfish.

I believe that God made me introverted. It seems clear that some of us are naturally more outgoing while others are naturally inclined to be quiet. I am naturally quiet and this is part of God’s good design. Neither one is inherently wrong and neither one is intrinsically better than the other. But what Cain does not acknowledge, writing as she does from a secular perspective, is that we inhabit a world of sin where any trait or quality can be used for God-glorifying ends or for self-glorifying ends. Not only that, but God calls us to be always willing to deny our desires in order to serve others. Both introverts and extroverts will face particular temptations to sin. My temptation as an introvert is to run away from people instead of serve people. It is to be selfish instead of giving.

December 26, 2012

Some time ago a reader of this site asked if I could address a concern in his life. He had been pursuing a young lady and beginning to think about marriage, but rather suddenly found that he was no longer attracted to her. She was a godly person and just the kind of woman he could see himself settling down with. But then he looked at her and saw that the physical attracted had just plain disappeared. What could he do? What had gone wrong? Michael McKinley recently addressed a question much like this over at the 9Marks blog, so I will begin with his thoughts and add my own.

I want to encourage this young man to do three things:

Look in the Mirror. Start by taking a look in the mirror. “It’s unlikely that the paunch hanging over the waistband of your cargo shorts represents her idea of masculine perfection. And even if women are less hung up on physical appearances, you’re probably not the romantic and emotional connection she’s been dreaming of her whole life either.” Exactly so. It smacks of pride to look at this woman, created by God in his image, and to determine that she is not up to your standards. Men are often looking for an ideal of physical perfection even though they are far from the male equivalent. Why begin with a mirror? Because, as Michael points out, we’re all making compromises. That complete package who is perfect in every way—from the physical to the spiritual to the realm of character—that person doesn’t exist; and if she did, you’d drag her down in no time.

Look at Your Character. I have written regularly and as forthrightly as I know about young men and their dedication to pornography. Porn is giving young men a completely unrealistic view of women, elevating the physical and completely ignoring all matters of character. Have you ever watched a pornographic video that emphasized beautiful character? Exactly. It’s ridiculous to even imagine it. Five or ten or twenty years of dedication to pornography will go a long way to convincing you that only beauty and sexiness will maintain your interest in the long run. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Need proof? Just look to Hollywood and these ugly old men who marry the beautiful starlets, only to grow tired of them a few months later. No amount of beauty can overcome sour character.

December 20, 2012

I don’t know that even the greatest theologian could ever plumb the depths of all it means that humanity was created in the image of God. But whatever else it means, we know that because we are made in God’s image, we are like God in certain ways and for a certain purpose. John Piper gets at the heart of it when he says “the image of God in man is man’s ineffably profound fitness to image forth Christ’s glory through everlasting joy in God.” We were made in God’s image in order to glorify God by finding our highest joy in him.

Just one small facet of our being made in God’s image is that we have an innate sense of justice. Because God is just, we too have a sense of justice. Somewhere deep inside us we long for and demand justice; somewhere deep inside we hate it when someone makes a mockery of justice, and especially so when we are the ones who feel victimized. It might not offend my conscience too much for me to cut you off in traffic, but woe to you if you inconvenience me and make me tap my brakes.

Why this great variance? Because we disrupted God’s image in us when we sinned. Where we were at one time exactly the image God wanted us to be, functioning in exactly the way he wanted, we soon chose to disregard his good will. When that happened, we distorted the image. It is not broken or destroyed altogether; but it is now a picture that is all out of focus, a picture that is sometimes accurate and sometimes completely deceptive.

I was thinking about the difference this twisted sense of justice makes in our relationship to God, even as Christians. Our relationship to God is now one of grace; we could not satisfy the demands of justice, so Christ satisfied them on our behalf, making us the joyful recipients of this amazing grace. Yet we find ourselves wanting to repay God for this grace. We want to earn that grace. At least, I see this temptation in my own life. I want to live a holy life not to glorify God, but to satisfy myself that I’m now a worthy recipient of his gift. I want to do good things to pay him back for all he did for me.

But in order for me to do this, there must be at least two gaps in my theological understanding.

December 18, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was able to dedicate quite a lot of time to studying Zechariah’s song. This is the song Zechariah sang at the birth of his son John (who would, of course, soon be known as John the Baptist), the song he sang after nine months of being mute. At the heart of the song is his joy and wonder that God will visit his people. This was my big takeaway—the wonder of the visitation.

There are many occasions in the Old Testament where God visits his people. These are not bodily visits, but God making himself known in some way. They are not always occasions of joy.

In Exodus 32 the Israelites have made a golden calf and have worshiped it in place of God. God extends mercy to his people but he solemnly warns them that if the people choose sin in place of God and if they refuse to turn away from that sin, God will “visit their sin upon them.” God will visit them in judgment.

Other times he visits in grace. God has promised Abraham a son through Sarah and yet year after year passes with no child. But then at last we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said … and Sarah conceived.” God visits Sarah in mercy and grace and in consequence she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child. This does not mean that God somehow visits and impregnates her, but that he visits his mercy upon her so that she can conceive with her husband.

A visit from God can be an occasion of terror or an occasion of mercy. Zechariah knows that the birth of his son portends God visiting his people with the greatest mercy. The amazing thing is, this visit of God’s mercy will be a literal visit. God will take on flesh and live among his people.

I am quite convinced that we visit one another less today than ever before. There are so many different ways we can communicate today—email, telephone, letter, Facebook. In the midst of all of this communication, visits may seem outmoded and inconvenient. All of these other forms of communication have displaced visiting one another. And yet it is still an honor to have a person visit, to come into your home and to share your space.

December 13, 2012

LucyLast year we added a dog to our lives—a dog we named Lucy. Lucy is a chocolate Labrador Retriever (And yes, I know that all of the dog people just shook their heads in compassionate pity). Some people think that Labs are dogs who are loyal and kind and loving toward their owners. These people are hopelessly naive. Labs have only one loyalty and it is to themselves; more precisely, it is to their stomachs. Paul must have been looking out the window and watching canine behavior when he wrote Philippians 3:19: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

Lucy is a glutton and a thief among other vices, and I am increasingly convinced that her controlling instinct in any given situation is simply this: What is most likely to get something resembling food down my throat? Her mind, such that it is, is permanently fixed on the most earthly of things. Several times our children have been careless and have left the basement door open. Lucy has quietly tip-pawed downstairs to have a few quiet moments alone with a fifty pound bag of dog food. When we finally catch her in the act, her sides are bloated, her tongue is hanging out in the canine equivalent of the meat sweats, and she immediately collapses into a luxurious six-hour food coma. If she can’t get to her dog food, she will eat socks (whole!) or anything else that has a faintly organic smell. Her god is her belly and she glories in the shame of it all.

Aside: She and my youngest daughter are fast friends and I’m starting to wonder how Proverbs 13:20 will play into their relationship: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” What about the companion of an inveterate glutton (and pillow thief)?

Yet Lucy kind of reminds me of me. She kind of reminds me of us. Her desire to glut herself with food isn’t so different from our desire to glut ourselves with information. Her complete naivety toward the ramifications of gluttony isn’t so different from our complete naivety toward the consequences of information gluttony. 

Lucy’s instincts are toward gorging herself with food because dogs have long been faced with food scarcity. Because a wild dog never knows where its next meal will come from, it will gorge itself out of sheer survival. Our domesticated dogs get fed a cup-and-a-half of kibble twice every day and never have to be concerned about the next meal. Not only that, but a dog might be eating food that had only the barest nutritional value so that fifty pounds was required to gain any real value from it. Today her food emerges from laboratories and is densely packed with every bit of nutrition she needs. Still, those instincts control her and the vast majority of that poppy-seed-sized brain is consumed with a highly-developed sense of smell; little wonder, then, that she just can’t help herself. Where there is food to be had, she will have it all.

We developed instincts—or at least ways of thinking about information and processing it—in eras of information scarcity, when information was hard to come by. In those eras we regarded every bit as precious and valuable. But over the decades we have been adding and multiplying the information available to us, and our instincts are slow to catch up. We’ve gone from scarcity to overabundance. Our instincts are still to gorge ourselves. And we do.

December 12, 2012

It is one of my clearest memories of the whole hullabaloo surrounding The Passion of the Christ. I met a man who had just returned from a screening of the movie and with eyes wide he exclaimed, “It changed my life!” It is a phrase we hear all the time. It is a phrase that may express something true. But it was far too early.

It is not unusual to go to Amazon and find a book review that says something like, “I finished this book last night and it changed my life!” It is not unusual to hear the words used in the immediate aftermath of a powerful conference. Yet I always feel a measure of caution when I hear these exclamations. Books and movies and conferences truly can change lives, but we don’t usually know what has shaped us until much later on. Deep and lasting life change is rarely something that is measured in minutes or even hours.

Of course there are exceptions. There are some moments that really do change lives. This is true in salvation, the transformational moment in the life of every Christian where he is saved from death to life. There are others. A wife who suddenly loses her husband can legitimately and immediately say “this has changed my life!”

But when it comes to the Christian life and the long, hard work of sanctification, the influences that shape us most tend to be visible more in hindsight than in the moment, and they tend to be measured long rather than short. This has been my observation from reading biographies of great Christians and from witnessing the lives of very ordinary, godly Christians. It has been the experience of my own life. I am convinced that I have been shaped more by one thousand regular sermons than by any one spectacular conference message; I have been shaped by five hundred very ordinary Lord’s Suppers more than any one powerful moment of worship. Meanwhile, a million little moments that seemed so important at the time, so transformational, have been forgotten.

Have I had life-changing moments? Absolutely! Have I read life-changing books? Yes! How do I know? Because months or years later I can look back on those as defining moments that gave me a new level of understanding or helped change a specific aspect of my character. At the time I rarely realized the impact they were having. It is only in time that they have become clear. That just seems to be the way the Lord works in us in this very ordinary, but very awesome, Christian life.

December 11, 2012

There is a stubbornness to sin that surprises and disappoints. The Christian life is one of increasing triumph over sin, and yet even with the rejoicing there is so much disappointment, even with the victory there is so much failure, even while so much sin is put to death, so much remains.

One area of sin that continues to baffle and disappoint is my inability to consistently think rightly about other people’s motives. Perhaps it isn’t thinking about their motives as much as it is assuming them. I am amazed at my own proclivity to assume the worst of others, and especially those who have done the most for me.

I’ve been married to Aileen for more than fourteen years now. In that time she has been loving and loyal and kind and everything else a husband could desire in a wife. She has borne me three children, supported me through career changes, tolerated my sin, prayed me through difficulty, helped me be a man whose church can call him to be their pastor. And yet in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when she in some way displeases me, I can act as if she has never loved me at all, as if she has only ever treated me with contempt. In a moment I can throw out all those years of love and sacrifice and assume that she is now opposed to me, looking out for her interests instead of mine, interested in harming me rather than helping me. In a moment I throw away all these evidences of her love and behave as if she hates me.

It is the simplest things that do this. It is not grave sins or the gross immorality that call her into question in my mind. It’s the smallest things, the things that may not be sin at all. It’s being a little bit late when I want to be early, it’s asking a clarifying question when I want to plow ahead, it’s having a priority that is different from my own. And in those moments I forget our history, I forget her character, I forget that she is fundamentally for me, I believe that she and I are enemies. She displeases me and therefore she must hate me. I respond by acting hateful in return. Sometimes this works itself out in harsh words or harsh attitudes; other times it works itself out in sulking and complaining.

I know that I am not the only one who struggles in this way and, to be frank, I saw this sin first in others and only later in myself. Every pastor will attest that there are people in his church he has labored for and prayed for and sacrificed for who will turn on him when they are displeased (and meanwhile, he may be equally quick to turn on them when he feels threatened). Every parent will attest that children are equally quick to forget the years of love and sacrifice and to turn on their parents.

I hate this behavior in myself. I hate this sin. I’ve come to see that it is primarily related to love—or to lack of love. I’m sure pride is involved somewhere, and there must be other sins in the mix, but this is foremost about love. Here’s how I know: 1 Corinthians 13:7 tells me that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is how love is meant to work itself out in relationship. It transforms me so that I can now assume good motives instead of poor ones, I can now react with hope rather than suspicion. Yet my reactions show that love has not yet worked itself out in my character to this extent.

I love my wife. I love my wife more than I would have thought possible, and yet this sin proves that I love her a lot less than I ought to and maybe less than I think I do. If I loved her more and better, I would believe all things and hope all things. In that moment of displeasure I would not assume ill motives, but assume the best. In that moment of questioning, hope would resound instead of hate, trust would be displayed instead of anger. But this kind of love is too often lacking.

This is one of those times where thinking about the gospel is so helpful. As I think about Jesus Christ, I see the greatest example of love in the greatest act of love. As I look at this love, as I ponder it, as I meditate upon it, as I take its benefits upon myself, I necessarily grow in love as well. The love of Christ becomes my love, the benefits of Christ’s love become my benefits. I am transformed.

When I ponder the cross I see that I don’t love because I don’t yet understand how much I have been loved. So I look to the cross again. And again.