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Christian Living

July 12, 2012

A few weeks ago I linked to an article from Nathan Bingham titled Fathers, Stop Stealing From Your Children. Nathan was writing to fathers who are raising families in this busy and distracting world and telling them to give their children the time they need and deserve. He said that many fathers are guilty of stealing from their children: “You’re guilty when you skip breakfast with the family to prepare for that early morning meeting, when you’re distant at the dinner table because you’re resolving an issue at work in a long email conversation on your smartphone, and when you forfeit a healthy family night-time ritual because you’ve got something important to do—like write a blog post.”

This article generated some interesting and thoughtful responses and, because I had linked to it, some of them were sent my way. Some expressed frustration that Christian pastors or leaders were constantly telling them they were negligent fathers if they were not home every day on time to enjoy dinner with the family or, even better, breakfast and dinner. Another commented on the long hours many employers demand and asked, “Is that just a love of success and money? And is that feasible for a Christian to be working long hours, let’s say 50 hours week, without compromising on their faith?”

These are good questions and helpful comments. Let me sketch out just a few of my thoughts on the matter.

This Is Not a New Issue

When we look at the issue of long working hours, we can take too narrow a view of it, assuming that it is uniquely twenty-first century and first-world. However, if you look back through history you will find that it has always been the case that fathers have had to work long hours outside of the home. A man who farmed would have to give just about every waking hour, every daylight hour, to his crops and his animals. The shepherds and farmers and fishermen of Jesus’ day were not working 9-to-5 jobs. Most of them would have been working extremely long hours just to scratch out an existence. Few of these people would have had to concern themselves with an hour-long or two hour-long commute from the suburbs into the downtown core, bookending their actual work day with two or three hours of travel time.

This means that the biblical writers could have addressed this issue head-on. Paul could have written to one of the churches and said, “Fathers, you need to prioritize being home for dinner every night.” He did not. He could have mandated a forty hour work week. Again, he did not. There are commands that pertain to fathers, but none that get anywhere near this explicit. This tells us that the instructions we find in Scripture are sufficient to guide us even here and it also tells us that we have freedom in these matters—freedom to determine what is right and best in our context.

Work, Work, Work, Die

One consequence of Adam’s sin was a curse on his vocation to earn a living by tending and keeping the ground.

 And to Adam he said,
 “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
  and have eaten of the tree
 of which I commanded you,
  ‘You shall not eat of it,’
 cursed is the ground because of you;
  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
  and you shall eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your face
  you shall eat bread,
 till you return to the ground,
  for out of it you were taken;
 for you are dust,
  and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:17-19)

In other words, because of your sin, the land will now be opposed to you, it will fight against you. You will spend your whole life toiling to beat back thorns and thistles from off the soil and then at the end of it all, you’ll return to the soil. There is a kind of inevitability to it, and a kind of hopelessness. A man’s lot is to work in this world, knowing that he can never beat the system. He will eventually work himself to death.

That curse has extended far beyond farming and reaches to every vocation. The farmer faces the weeds, the pastor faces tired eyes and dead hearts, the lawyer faces long commutes and traffic jams (and that before he even gets to the office). None of us will have a life free from backbreaking (or mindbreaking or heartbreaking) labor. Work is long and hard because work is meant to be long and hard on this side of the curse. There are very few who escape it.

July 10, 2012

Once again I would like to take an opportunity to answer a question from a reader, and in this case, a question that deals with the frequency with which a husband and wife ought to engage in sexual relations with one another. Here’s the question, followed by my response.

In a recent book review you said that it’s not wise for a husband and wife to tell anyone else how often they have sex together. Can you explain this a bit more and maybe explain how a husband and wife can figure out how often they should have sex?

I believe it is generally unwise and unhelpful for a husband and wife to share details of their sexual intimacy or to read the details of another couple’s sexual intimacy. Of course there may be times and contexts in which a certain level of detail is genuinely helpful, such as when an older couple provides counsel to a younger couple who is struggling in an area. But to share details publicly and to share very intimate details, is usually unwise and unhelpful.  I am not saying that it is necessarily sinful, just that there is a better way to achieve the end result.

One of the details that is best kept between a husband and wife is the frequency with which they have sex. There are many places you can go to find statistics on this, and there are even many Christian authors who include such numbers in their books about sexuality. I have several concerns with the appeal to statistics.

In the first place, statistics necessarily provoke comparison. In this case, comparison may well generate either pride or discontentment, either a sense of superiority that you and your spouse have sex more often than the average couple, or discontentment that everyone else is enjoying sex more often than you.

Second, statistics of this kind do very little to take into account context and life stage and even the natural variances in desire between individuals and couples. What is clear about the sexual relationship is that it is always in flux, it is always changing, and every couple needs to give it regular attention if it is to keep from slipping into dysfunction or disregard.

Third, and most significantly, appealing to statistics short circuits the difficult but important process through which a couple can work out just the right frequency in their own relationship. An appeal to statistics may allow a couple to bypass the important matters of heart and character.

With that being said, let me share my thinking on one way a couple may go about finding the frequency that is best for them.

The general rule according to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 seems to be that the person with the lesser desire should express love to the one with the greater desire by participating in the sexual relationship more often. The reasoning is simple: more sexual desire with less sexual fulfillment can lead to temptation. However, there is more to the equation than simply determining which spouse has the greater desire and encouraging the other to have sex that often.

Let’s consider a couple named Rob and Kelly (randomly-chosen names, I assure you). As with most couples, there is a significant variance in sexual desire between the two. As is typical, but certainly not universal, Rob, the husband, is the one who tends to initiate sexual intimacy and who does so significantly more often than Kelly. However you want to measure relative sexual desires, Rob’s is the greater of the two. Kelly is generally willing to respond to Rob when he initiates, though she needs more time to prepare, more time to warm up to the idea. She finds it easier to participate and to enjoy herself when a longer period of time has elapsed between their lovemaking. The two could easily find themselves at an impasse—an impasse most married couples have encountered at one time or another.

July 03, 2012

A reader of this site recently asked me to explain how I determine whether a book is good and worthy of recommendation or whether it is not. That is a fair question and I was surprised to find that I had not addressed it in the past. I will take on that challenge today. It will be helpful to assume that the book in question is meant to address the Christian life, falling under the broad categories of Christian Living or Spiritual Growth or something similar (I would have very different questions to ask of a general market book or of a Christian biography).

Here are five questions, plus a bonus, that I ask myself as I read.

Does It Draw Its Truth from Scripture?

First and foremost, a good book will have a heavy dependency upon Scripture. Whatever truth it seeks to teach will be ultimately drawn from God through the Bible rather than from any kind of human wisdom or experience. In the Bible God gives us the great privilege of seeing the world through his eyes and seeing life from his perspective. Therefore, whatever we teach about living the Christian life ought to depend heavily upon his wisdom.

This is the key difference between Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven—the first is utterly dependent upon Scripture while the second ignores Scripture in favor of experience. It is the great difference between Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart—the first teaches manhood from Scripture while the other teaches it from human wisdom and experience. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing right or good in 90 Minutes in Heaven and Wild at Heart; however, they are innately inferior because they do not consistent lead the reader back to God as he reveals himself in the Bible.

Is It Faithful to the Bible?

Of course not all books that attempt to draw truth from Scripture do it well, so the second criteria is that the books are consistently faithful to Scripture. There are many books that attempt to show what the Bible teaches but do a poor job of it. The authors do not handle the Bible faithfully or they look too narrowly, depending upon isolated verses rather than the grand sweep of Scripture. Consider The Purpose Driven Life, a book that contains a good deal of wisdom but which draws from Scripture haphazardly, and compare it to Sinclair Ferguson’s Taking the Christian Life Seriously. Both are guidebooks to life, but one is far more consistently faithful to Scripture than the other.

Does It Have a Gospel Focus?

Many books written by and for Christians teach how to live the Christian life under law instead of under grace. Instead of teaching true Christian living, they teach law and moralisms. A good book will be dependent upon the joy and freedom of living as those who have been set free from law and will ultimately point people to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from which we gain the desire and ability and power to live this Christian life. Stephen Artberburn’s Every Man’s Battle is grounded in morality, not gospel; it may be that following rules may help a man overcome an addiction to lust and pornography, but it is far better to point to the gospel, which is exactly what I attempted to do in Sexual Detox.

June 28, 2012

J.C. Ryle defines sanctification as “an inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when He calls him to be a true believer.” In his classic work Holiness, he lays out twelve propositions concerning sanctification.

  • It is a result of your union with Christ. “The branch which bears no fruit is no living branch of the vine. The faith which has not a sanctifying influence on the character is no better than the faith of devils.”
  • It is a necessary consequence of your regeneration. “Where there is no sanctification there is no regeneration.”
  • It is the only certain evidence that you have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. “The seal that the Spirit stamps on Christ’s people is sanctification.”
  • It is the only sure mark that you have been elected by God. “Elect men and women may be known and distinguished by holy lives.”
  • It is a reality that will always be visible. Your “sanctification will be something felt and seen, though [you yourself] may not understand it.”
  • It is a reality for which every believer is responsible. “Believers are eminently and peculiarly responsible and under a special obligation to live holy lives.”
  • It requires growth and is present in differing degrees. “A man may climb from one step to another in holiness and be far more sanctified at one period of his life than another.”
  • It depends greatly on your diligent use of the ordinary means of grace. “He will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without [the means of grace].”
  • It does not necessarily prevent you from having a great deal of inward spiritual conflict. “A true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within.”
  • It cannot justify you, yet it genuinely pleases God. “The Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God.”
  • It will be found absolutely necessary as a witness to your character on the great Day of Judgment. “It will be utterly useless to plead that we believed in Christ unless our faith has had some sanctifying effect and been seen in our lives.”
  • It is necessary in order to train and prepare you for heaven. “We must be saints before we die if we are to be saints afterwards in glory.”

June 27, 2012

A few days ago I received an email from a reader of this site and I found that much of it has universal application. Each one of us struggles with these questions at times. For that reason, and with his permission, I will make my response public. Here is a part of what he sent me:

Personal situation with universal question: My wife and I are adopting 2 kiddos from Africa that have HIV. That’s all planned, no surprise, grace given to us to do so, praise be to God. Throughout this, I continuously pray for my kiddos over there. Yelling, crying, heart wrenching (I’m tearing up right now thinking about it) kind of prayers. They are very sick, and I want my babies home with me. They’re dying of starvation and little medication over there. I don’t feel like I keep praying the same prayers because I don’t believe God cares or can take care of it, I pray because it’s breaking my heart, I badly want by children home, and I want it to stay as a “top-shelf issue” in front of God. Am I wrong in my theology and practice by continuing to pray for the same thing? I sometimes feel that it’s blasphemous to re-pray something, as if I’m insinuating that God is not listening, doesn’t care, doesn’t remember, or needs to re-prioritize His to-do list.

And now my answer.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading a book by David McIntyre called The Hidden Life of Prayer and just yesterday I read a section that looks at petitioning God in prayer. McIntyre offers up some thoughts that are directly applicable to your situation. He says that the foundational reason we ought to ask God for the things that are important to us is that God commands us to. It is as simple as that. All through the Bible we are told things like “make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). And so we pray to God in obedience to God.

But a question remains: why? Why would the Lord choose to do things in this way, to have us ask him and even repeatedly plead with him for his blessings. McIntyre offers four reasons and I think these reasons come into sharper focus the longer and the more fervently we pray.

June 25, 2012

I woke up in the wee hours this morning and found myself thinking about sleep. Mostly I was thinking that I would much rather experience sleep than think about it, but since that wasn’t happening, I found myself wondering about the purpose of sleep. I’ve been fighting insomnia for a couple of years now and it has been an uphill battle. I have been told that you don’t appreciate all your big toes do for you until you misplace one of them and suddenly find that you can barely walk. I guess the same is true of sleep—having it taken away generates a new level of appreciation. It also generates questions.

This morning I found myself wondering why we sleep. What’s the point of it? Obviously there are physical reasons, but there must be an underlying spiritual reason that God has made us beings who need sleep. We spend nearly a third of our lives sleeping, or, at least, we should spend that much of our lives sleeping. That is remarkable. God must have a purpose behind any activity that consumes so much of our time. I am sure that God could have created us as sleepless beings who could be productive all day and all night, but he chose not to. He created us and he created sleep and he created a relationship between the two.

It came to me that the fundamental reality of sleep is that it assures us that we are not God. Apparently we all need the ongoing reminder. Psalm 127:2 says “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” We need sleep, and peaceful sleep is a good gift of a good God. Meanwhile, Psalm 121 says “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” We need sleep; God does not. Rather, the unsleeping God grants sleep to the people he loves, the people who need it so badly.

I find myself in good company here. Here is what John Piper says in an article from all the way back in 1982:

June 14, 2012

J.C. Ryle’s Holiness is a classic work that bears repeated readings. Recently I returned to his chapter on sanctification, a term that he defines as “an inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when He calls him to be a true believer.” After defining the term, he lays out the differences between true and false sanctification, first saying what it is not and then saying what it is.

Sanctification Is Not

True sanctification is not:

  1. Talk about religion. “People hear so much of Gospel truth that they contract an unholy familiarity with its words and phrases, and sometimes talk so fluently about its doctrines that you might think them true Christians. … [But] the tongue is not the only member that Christ bids us give to his service.”
  2. Temporary religious feelings. “Reaction, after false religious excitement, is a most deadly disease of soul. When the devil is only temporarily cast out of a man in the heat of a revival, and by and by returns to his house, the last state becomes worse than the first.”
  3. Outward formalism and external devoutness. “In many cases, this external religiousness is made a substitute for inward holiness; and I am quite certain that it falls utterly short of sanctification of heart!”
  4. Retirement from our place in life or renunciation of social duties. “It is not the man who hides himself in a cave, but the man who glorifies God as master or servant, parent or child, in the family and in the street, in business and in trade, who is the Scriptural type of a sanctified man.”
  5. Occasional performance of right actions. “[Sanctification] is not like a pump, which only sends forth water when worked upon from without, but like a perpetual fountain, from which a stream is ever flowing spontaneously and naturally.”

Sanctification Is

True sanctification shows itself in:

June 13, 2012

Mark Altrogge had the nerve to mess with “Come Thou Fount.” He lodges a complaint that I’ve heard from many others (including our Aussie intern): “There’s a line in the hymn that bothers me. In our church we sing an updated version that dropped ‘Here I raise mine Ebenezer.’ Basically nobody in our church knows what that means anyway (probably because of my poor instruction). We think it has something to do with Ebenezer Scrooge but we don’t know exactly what.”

But he has a more serious, theological beef with the song. One of the lines says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Altrogge responds, “Though I know believers are tempted to wander and tempted to be unfaithful to Christ at times, I don’t see that Scripture says we are still ‘prone’ to sin and wander.” Rather, “The Bible says believers are ‘prone’ to obey the God they love. Prone to follow Jesus.”

He goes to Ezekiel and these powerful words:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

He explains that although indwelling sin remains, it no longer dominates. Rather, the Holy Spirit causes us to obey God’s statutes and motivates us to obey the Lord. “Yes we once were prone to wander. But Jesus’ death on the cross cured us of that tendency.”

The comments are interesting and Ricky Alcantar nails it in his defense of the hymn as he looks to the context of that verse, showing that the hymnwriter is pointing to a genuine tendency to wander. Within our lives are these opposing desires to honor God and to honor self, to flee from sin and to flee to it. This is the simul justus et peccator of Martin Luther (and the “wretched man that I am” of Romans 7), the fact that we are simultaneously righteous and sinful, sinful in our actions and yet righteous in our standing before God. In good conscience I can continue to sing that I am prone to wander.

Yet I don’t want to take away from Altrogge’s application. As a Calvinist, whose theology of the doctrine of God’s grace begins with Total Depravity, I know that I am prone to tacitly discount God’s grace in my life in favor of declarations of my own wretchedness. I can almost find a strange and ugly kind of delight in my sin, thinking that the more sinful I am, the more my life displays God’s grace. “If he can save a sinner even this awful, then he must be a great God.” And, of course, there is some truth to this. But God also displays his power, his sovereignty, in destroying the grip sin once had on me. God’s grace is shown not only in salvation but also in sanctification. My mother has often remarked that one of the most powerful evidences of God’s grace in a life is when holiness begins to be the natural response to adversity or to being sinned against. I am sure that every Christian can attest to seeing some of this in his own life.

May 25, 2012

Gospel-centeredness is all the rage today. We want the gospel at the center of our lives, our churches, our families. I love it. Gospel-centeredness is simply a new phrase that expresses the age-old practice of recounting the gospel and living all of life in light of what Christ has done. The fact is that the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is relevant to every part of life. When we say that we are gospel-centered, this is all we mean—that we are committed to continually bringing the gospel to our minds, so it can be brought to our hearts, so it can be brought to our lives.

I awoke this morning pondering one component of the gospel: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In his death Christ atoned for my sin and after he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, he sent his Spirit—the Holy Spirit—to live within me. There is a powerful, life-altering consequence: I have been freed from the power of sin. It is stunning to consider that I never need to sin. I never have an excuse to sin. Now that I have the Holy Spirit dwelling within me, there is no power in all the universe so strong that it can force me to sin. Satan may parade temptation in front of me, people around me may demand that I sin, but none of them can compel me.

If I sin today—when I sin today—it is not because I had to or because anyone forced me to, but only because I chose to. The sins I commit between the moment I pen these words and the time I fall asleep will be nothing less than acts of willful rebellion against God. They are not mistakes, they are not blunders, they are not nothing; they are acts of rebellion against my Creator and King.

It is so helpful to know that, to admit that, to own that. When I own it, I can confess it. When I confess it, I can bring to mind the gospel, which brings to my heart the gospel, which transforms my life, which brings glory to God.

I’ve often returned to Jerry Bridge’s description of how he goes about the practice of preaching the gospel to himself. It is just one way of reminding himself of truth, of reminding himself of who he is in Christ. It never loses its power, because it is the power of God. Here is how he does this:

Since the gospel is only for sinners, I begin each day with the realization that despite my being a saint, I still sin every day in thought, word, deed, and motive. If I am aware of any subtle, or not so subtle, sins in my life, I acknowledge those to God. Even if my conscience is not indicting me for conscious sins, I still acknowledge to God that I have not even come close to loving Him with all my being or loving my neighbor as myself. I repent of those sins, and then I apply specific Scriptures that assure me of God’s forgiveness to those sins I have just confessed.

I then generalize the Scripture’s promises of God’s forgiveness to all my life and say to God words to the effect that my only hope of a right standing with Him that day is Jesus’ blood shed for my sins, and His righteous life lived on my behalf. This reliance on the twofold work of Christ for me is beautifully captured by Edward Mote in his hymn “The Solid Rock” with his words, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Almost every day, I find myself going to those words in addition to reflecting on the promises of forgiveness in the Bible.

What Scriptures do I use to preach the gospel to myself? Here are just a few I choose from each day:
As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25)

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

There are many others, including Psalm 130:3-4; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 38:17; Micah 7:19; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:12; and 10:17-18.

Whatever Scriptures we use to assure us of God’s forgiveness, we must realize that whether the passage explicitly states it or not, the only basis for God’s forgiveness is the blood of Christ shed on the cross for us. As the writer of Hebrews said, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (9:22), and the context makes it clear that it is Christ’s blood that provides the objective basis on which God forgives our sins.

May 21, 2012

We are quite the competitive bunch, we humans, and really, given the opportunity, there isn’t much that we won’t or can’t turn into some kind of a competition. I don’t know if this is innate in our humanity or something bequeathed to us in the Fall into sin, but what is certain is its certainty—we just plain love to compete with one another. Or maybe it’s better to say that we hate to compete, but we do it anyway.

One of the greatest, most common, and most bloodthirsty contemporary competitions is motherhood. Yes, motherhood. It may be that motherhood has always been competitive, but the Internet in general, and social media in particular, have widened the field. You are no longer competing against only neighbors and sisters-in-law and fellow church members, but the professional moms, the ones who are reinventing motherhood. It’s always a losing battle.

Today you open up Facebook or blogs and you see daily updates from the moms who lead the way, who set the standards. They keep the house spotless every day, even while homeschooling six kids. They never miss a day of devotions and love every minute of working their way through Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. They go thrifting and put together a magazine-worthy home on a budget of very nearly nothing. They dress beautifully or eclectically or whatever their style is, without spending any money. Their husbands are that perfect combination of handsome and harmless, good-looking but not demanding. Their children are mischievous but not rebellious, they make funny messes in the home, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a hug and a few homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Of course these moms also chart and photograph every one of their triumphs. Julian says it well:

And whatever you do, if you are a good mom, you must make sure you get it all on camera so you can post the pictures on Facebook and the ideas on Pinterest to let everyone know you’re keeping up. Plus, you should probably earn some income (at the very least, open an Etsy shop) to prove you’re not inferior to the women around you who hold down jobs.

Most moms consider themselves to be in the little leagues, just barely learning the rules of the game, but through the Internet they’re now directly comparing themselves to the big leaguers. Not surprisingly, they find themselves falling woefully short.

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