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Christian Living

January 24, 2013

It is a question every pastor faces on a regular basis. It is a question every conference speaker faces in panel discussions or Q&A sessions: How much of my money do I give to the church? How much should I give to the church?

My answer is short: Enough that it matters. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

In Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the church to take a weekly collection in which each person is to give “as he may prosper.” This tells us that there will be different levels of giving. Some will give more and some will give less. God has prospered us differently—he has given us all different levels of income and wealth and with it different amounts to give back to him.

(Aside: For various reasons I do not believe that we are instructed or obligated to give the tithe, the flat 10% that was a minimal expectation in the Old Testament. Those who demand tithing today usually fail to understand the Old Testament context where the tithe was a tax as much as a donation; it was a means of providing for the civil and religious structures in that society. Since we are no longer a theocracy, the tithe is no longer operational. It may be a helpful bit of information to include in a discussion but it’s not the place to begin.)

When I say we are to give enough that it matters, I mean that we should give enough that it makes a difference to our lives, to our lifestyles. Erwin Lutzer says it well: “Those who give much without sacrifice are reckoned as having given little.” We are meant to give enough that there are things we cannot do and cannot have because of our dedication to the Lord’s work. Let me be clear that I do not mean that we should do without food or we should do without paying our bills. The sacrifice is to be ours and not the bank’s or the landlord’s. Giving “as he may prosper” is not calling us to give beyond the ways the Lord has prospered us. There are theological traditions that insist that going into debt in order to “plant a seed” will ensure God’s provision in return. God may choose to do that, but wisdom dictates that we ensure that we are able to pay our bills and feed our children. We are to be generous, but we are to be wise as well.

For some people, giving away 10% may mean they are giving enough that it matters. Maybe they cannot have quite the vacation they would otherwise have; maybe they are buying a used car instead of a new one; maybe they are saving for an extra couple of years before fixing up the kitchen or putting the down payment on that home. For other people this may come when they are giving 2% of their income. For others it may come when they are giving 75%. My encouragement is to keep raising the amount you give until you feel it, until it matters.

Giving that does not impact our lives at all is not sacrificial and, therefore, not enough. C.S. Lewis expresses this in a helpful way: “If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

How much am I to give? Enough that it matters. Enough that I am sacrificing some comforts and some experiences I would otherwise enjoy. What the Lord teaches those who give this way is that the joy of giving, both now and eternally, for outweighs what we could have had instead. We don’t give because God needs our money; we give to show our gratitude and our dependence, and in return he returns joy. So many Christians can attest that there is a powerful, humbling kind of delight in tallying up the giving for a previous year and thanking the Lord for allowing so much to be given away. That car or kitchen or house pales in comparison to the joy of making so small a sacrifice to the One who sacrificed all for us.

January 16, 2013

Few words in the Bible have sparked as many battles as helper. Whole books and doctoral theses have been written on the word, its meaning, and its implications. It’s too bad, this, because helper is a word meant to generate praise and humility.

You know the words of Genesis 2:18. God has completed his work of Creation and has declared that it is all excellent, it is all exactly as it ought to be. Yet still he declares “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Something interesting happens here. God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs a helper and yet doesn’t just go ahead and create this helper. Not yet. As far as we know, he doesn’t say anything to Adam about a helper. Instead, he tasks Adam with naming all of the animals. As Adam does this, as every living creature parades before him, he sees that none of them are like him—none have been created in the image of God. Adam isn’t lonely. How could he be lonely in a perfect world? But he realizes that in order to carry out his God-given mandate he will need help. Only now does God cause man to fall asleep and create for him a woman. When Adam opens his eyes and sees what God has created for him that he bursts into praise. He looks upon this woman and immediately sees that she is like him.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.

It is only after he comes to understand his incompleteness that Adam is able to offer God the deepest and most heartfelt praise for such lavish provision. Having experienced need even in perfection, he knows the value of this gift.

The text emphasizes that even in a perfect world something was not good. It shows us that God’s intention for Adam included marriage, companionship and, of course, the sexual relationship and procreation. God does not exist in isolation but in a tri-unity, and man, too, is to live in relationship. To address this need God created a helper for him—a helper corresponding to him and complementing him. This helper is suitable for Adam, meaning that she too is made in God’s image, she is equal to him in dignity and worth, and she is exactly the kind of helper he needs.

There are two dimensions to the word helper that we need to see and understand—the explicit and the implied.

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.