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Christian Living

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.

May 16, 2012

In wisdom and love God does not leave his people to live this life alone, but rather calls us into community. One of the sad inevitabilities of living in community is that we will sin against one another. The invitation to Christian community is an invitation to be tested by other people’s sin and weakness.

There are many ways to react badly when sinned against by another Christian. Some of us tend to react with sulking and feeling sorry for ourselves. Some go big and blow up while others give in to the slow, brooding kind of anger. Some just walk away. There are as many ways to react badly to sin as there are ways to sin against one another. There are not nearly as many ways to react well to being sinned against. The Bible gives us two: lovingly overlook that sin or lovingly address that sin. The question is, when are we to overlook and when are we to address?

The well-known eighteenth chapter of Matthew provides a detailed roadmap for addressing sin, but before a person follows that route, he first needs to determine whether or not this is the kind of sin he can simply overlook. Overlooking a sin is held high in Scripture. Proverbs 19:11  says “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Proverbs 12:16 says that “the prudent ignores an insult” and on the other side of the cross, in 1 Peter 4:8, we are commanded, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”

Love covers a multitude of sins, but love does not always cover a multitude of sins. There are situations in which the most loving action is to address a sin, to make known to the other person that you have been offended by his words or deeds, and to give him the opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness.

Here is how you can go about determining whether this is an offense you should overlook, or an offense you should address.

May 10, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short series of articles on The Lost Sin of Envy, saying that envy is a sin that few of us still have a category for and, therefore, a sin that many of us have unwittingly fallen prey to. As I studied envy, I saw mounting evidence of it in my life and as I shared what I had learned, I guess quite a few of you saw its presence in yourself as well. It’s strange how sin can sit like that, hidden in plain sight.

The heart of envy is the feeling that comes over a person when he sees another person’s success or advantage. When I see a person succeeding in an area where I long to be admired and acknowledged, that person’s success somehow calls me into question. His success makes me feel like a failure; the love people have for him makes me feel hated. Eventually the feeling begins to take action, usually in grumbling against God and in gossiping against the person. Eventually, of course, it proceeds into deeper and darker territory.

Through my study of envy I came to see that I am prone to this sin and that I will need to be constantly vigilant against it. While writing those articles brought me face-to-face with the sin, it certainly did not destroy its power in my life. Envy remains, and I continue to fight against it.

Those articles generated a lot of discussion, including one between myself and some of the men of my church. As we discussed envy I found myself challenged by a thought which became a prayer. It was something like this: Do not allow me success that exceeds my sanctification. In retrospect it sounds a little bit odd, but what I came to see is that I may well lack the character to handle a great wave of success. In any area of life or vocation in which I am prone to envy, an area that will be all tangled up in my pride, great success might just crush me. And so I ask God, please don’t give me success that exceeds my sanctification.

I guess this thought come out of the knowledge that envy calls me to lose faith in God’s goodness and sovereignty, and to deny that God expresses his goodness through his sovereignty. My envy is a declaration that I believe that I can be a better god than God, and that if God is truly good and wise, he will give me the success or the advantage that he has given someone else. There is a very dark and anti-God element to all envy.

May 07, 2012

This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. I have been going through his book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate.

So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Then we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death and What It Is to Put Sin to Death. He now moves on to the actual directions for how to put sin to death; first he deals with a couple of foundational issues and then with dangerous sin symptoms.

Today he moves to the first of his practical instructions on putting sin to death and the first action you need to take when you identify a sin in your life. It is this: You need to ponder the guilt, the danger and the evil of that sin and let it rest in both your mind and heart. Or as he says it, “Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of your sin.” He will discuss each of these three things in turn.

The Guilt of It

First, you need to consider the guilt of your sin. Your sin will try to convince you that it isn’t very serious and that it is not worth worrying about. “It is one of the deceits of a prevailing lust to extenuate its own guilt. ‘Is it not a little one? Though this be bad, yet it is not so bad as such and such an evil; others of the people of God have had such a frame; yea, what dreadful actual sins have some of them fallen into!’ Innumerable ways there are whereby sin diverts the mind from a right and due apprehension of its guilt. … This is the proper issue of lust in the heart—it darkens the mind that it shall not judge aright of its own guilt.”

There is more. The Christian who sins needs to be aware that he does so in spite of God’s grace in his life. Reflecting on Romans 6:1-2 Owen says, “How shall we do it, who, as he afterward describes it, have received grace from Christ to the contrary? We, doubtless, are more evil than any, if we do it.”

May 02, 2012

Today I want to wrap up my short series on the sin of Envy. Yesterday I looked at How Envy Behaves and this morning I want to show what Envy wants from you and then to give some instruction on putting him to death. There are at least four things Envy wants from you.

Envy Wants to Destroy Your Joy

Envy is unique among the sins in that you never, ever enjoy it. Envy never brings any satisfaction. If you commit the sin of adultery, you enjoy the fleeting pleasures of the flesh; if you commit the sin of gluttony you get to enjoy the taste of food while it slides down your throat. These are very fleeting and fleshly pleasures, but they are pleasures still. Envy only, ever makes you more miserable than you were before.

Envy also bring misery by making you unwilling or even unable to confess the sin. He cuts so deep, he exposes so much of what you really want that confessing that he exists requires a true baring of the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul. You may not know just how ugly and dark your sin is until you look into your soul and see Envy and then go digging around to try to get him out of there, to find the source and to uproot it.

When I am walking with Envy and allowing him to influence me, I cannot enjoy anything in itself because I only see what I have and what I am in comparison to someone else. I am not popular, I am less popular than he is. I don’t sell books, I sell fewer books than he does. In every case, I can never be joyful, because everything the other person has calls me into question.

Proverbs says that Envy is rottenness to the bones (14:30). Envy makes you sick with grief and dissatisfaction, rotting you from the inside out.

Envy Wants to Destroy Your Love

Envy is anti-love. 1 Corinthians 13 says it plainly: “Love does not envy.” Why? Because love cannot envy. They cannot co-exist. You cannot be envious and loving at the same time toward the same person and this means that you have the choice before you: will I love this person or will I be envious toward him? To love is to rejoice in who he is and in what he has been given. To be envious is to hate who he is and to want to watch him lose what he has been given.

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