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Christian Living

October 15, 2012

One of the interesting and significant new realities of life in a digital world is that we are finding new and original ways of building community. There was a time when community was largely related to and dependent upon geography. Community was based on shared space, so our sense of belonging was tied to the people who were closest to us; our deepest commitments were to the local community.

The Internet has allowed us to expand our understanding of community so that we can have significant and ongoing interaction with people regardless of their location. Today my sense of belonging, my sense of identity, may be tied most closely to a community of people who share an interest but who relate only online. I may feel closer affinity with these people than with anyone in my own zip code or my own local church. Many of us have custom-built a community for ourselves based around a common interest.

This weekend a nearby church asked me to speak on “Missions in a Changing World.” They wanted me to focus on how we can be faithful in mission in a world that has been transformed by our new technologies. I found myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). There we see a lawyer who goes to Jesus to ask, “What is the most important commandment.” I suppose this man knows that he is meant to live a life that is different from the lives of people around him, and he is wondering how he is to do that.

Jesus gives him the opportunity to answer his own question. He correctly identifies that he is to love God first and, having done that, to love his neighbor as himself. But he immediately looks for a loophole, asking Jesus, “But who is my neighbor.” He wants to know who it is that he is primarily responsible to love.

September 17, 2012

As Christians we are adept at looking at the culture around us and seeing how it is violating God’s good standards when it comes to sexuality. Not too long ago, though, I was asked to reflect on the ways in which Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality—some of those hidden or sanctified sins in which we allow compromise in our lives, our marriages, our churches. I came up with five ways that Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality.

We compromise God’s standard for sexuality when we leave the gospel out of the marriage bed

Christians consistently have trouble extending the reach of the gospel from salvation all the way to sex. Yet the gospel isn’t just about that one-time commitment; it’s about how we live today and every day. It extends through every part of life.

The gospel says, Whatever my marriage is to be and whatever our sexual relationship is to be, it is to be a part of that portrait of Christ and the church. When I am considering sex in this way, I’m first asking, Would this look like an accurate portrait of Christ and the church? What reflects Christ giving up his life for his bride? What reflects the church joyfully submitting to Christ? This completely reorients us away from self, from self-love and self-service, and orients me toward my spouse. This portrait of marriage does not come to an end when we close the bedroom door.

When we compromise this standard we become bound by law instead of freed by the gospel; we have become self-focused instead of other-focused. Law is always focused toward self, gospel is always focused toward the other and, ultimately, toward God. If we allow ourselves to fall back into that age-old temptation of law, we will inevitably harm our relationship with the one we love most.

We compromise when we disobey the clear biblical command that in marriage we are to have sex, and that we are to have it frequently, willingly and joyfully

There is a difference between understanding the Bible and obeying the Bible. There is a difference between believing the gospel and living out the implications of the gospel. This is why so many of Paul’s letters fall into two parts; in the first part he talks theology and in the second part he talks application. There is a reason for this: he knows that good theology needs to be worked out in life and he knows that we can’t do this without the right gospel foundation.

There are many couples that fully believe what the Bible teaches about marriage, and they may even believe what the Bible teaches about sex within marriage, but they do not have sex together. One has refused for so long that the other has stopped even asking or trying. One has given up and let himself go and the other has lost interest. Together they have become disobedient and their compromise grieves the Lord. They claim to believe what’s true, but they refuse to practice it.

God places stipulations on the sexual relationship. You are allowed to stop having sex, but only for a limited time and only if that limited time will be devoted to prayer. That’s it! And yet every marriage goes through seasons of sexlessness and too many marriages just abandon the sexual relationship altogether. There is something in 1 Corinthians 7:3 that has always jumped out at me. Paul talks about “conjugal rights.” The Bible says very, very little about our rights. In most cases talk of rights is opposed to gospel. But in the marriage relationship we are told that a husband and wife have the right to one another, the right to one another’s bodies. Sex is not a suggestion, it is not just a good idea or a nice gift to give. Sex is a right because in God’s economy of marriage, it is a necessity.

What happens when we compromise God’s standards here? Well right from 1 Corinthians 7 we see that we allow the possibility of sexual sin in our spouse. A husband who denies his wife is not protecting her from sexual sin. A wife who denies her husband is not protecting him from sexual sin. Abstaining from sex is selfish and unloving and compromising. Yes, it will be your spouses’ fault if he or she falls into sexual sin because you have stopped having sex; but you will bear part of the responsibility. Have you ever considered that Satan’s great plan for you is that you would have as much sex outside of marriage as possible and as little sex within marriage as possible? God’s plan, of course, is just opposite to that—to have no sex outside of marriage and a whole lot of it within marriage.

There is another consequence: we are blatantly disobeying a clear command of the Lord and a command that flows from what is true of the gospel. The sexual relationship is not a little isolated pocket of Christian obedience, but something that flows right out of the gospel. Too many of us isolate sexuality from everything else in life.

And finally, when you compromise in this area you are denying your marriage a great means of grace. It can be helpful to look at sex as something like a marriage sacrament, something deeply symbolic that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s far deeper than the physical, far more than just the act. We trust that in this act God extends grace to our marriage. We obey him and are right to expect his blessing. The marriage that forgets sex is like the church that forgets Lord’s Supper—it is weakening itself and denying itself one of the strange and unexpected ways that the Lord blesses it.

Shame Fear Guilt
September 05, 2012

So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian? I want to take a shot at answering that question today.

We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.

When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.

When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!

But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.

Inconvenienced by Inconvenience
September 03, 2012

It is Labor Day today, and we anticipate spending the day with friends. We will be spending the day with these particular friends because a few weeks ago they emailed and said, “We want to do something on Labor Day. With you. At your house.” They just went ahead and invited themselves over and invited some mutual friends to come with them. I love it.

Many years ago I wrote about this subject of inviting yourself over and was rather surprised to hear how many Christians find this an objectionable practice. I found myself thinking about inviting yourself into another person’s home while reading Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. She writes about the open door policy in their home and it reminded me of my younger days in my parents’ home: “Anything worth doing will take time and cost you something. We notice, as our attention focused more on families and children, that many people in our community protect themselves from inconvenience as though inconvenience is deadly. We decided that we are not inconvenienced by inconvenience. We are sure that the Good Samaritan had other plans that fateful day.”

Let me offer a few reasons that you ought to be willing, eager even, for people to invite themselves into your home.

Your house is not your own. We all know this in theory, but we have difficulty putting it into practice. Everything you have, everything you own, is a gift of God that is meant to be used for his purposes. This applies not only to money (that’s too easy!) but also to possessions. Your car is God’s car, your house is God’s house. Just as you are expected to be a faithful, generous steward of your finances, you are to be a faithful, generous steward of your house. I would suggest that people cannot feel welcome in your house until they are convinced that they can invite themselves into it. And I would suggest that you have not fully reconciled yourself to the fact that it is not your house until you are willing to have others invite themselves in. Do people feel welcome in your house? Do they feel that they can invite themselves to your house for counsel, fellowship or to “borrow” a couple of eggs they need to finish a birthday cake?

One of the highest purposes of Christians is to extend hospitality and friendship to others. In a culture where individuals are becoming ever more individualistic and families are ever-more retreating into their own lives, Christians can be known as people who graciously and cheerfully extend hospitality to others, who refuse to be inconvenienced by inconvenience. Christian houses will be known as the ones with open doors, where invitations are extended and expected. This is the type of house I grew up in. It is the type of house I have grown to love.

Your time is not your own. In the same way God gives us money and expects us to use it faithfully and wisely, he gives us time and expects us to use it in a way that honors him. Yet we all constantly battle against becoming selfish with our time, we battle grumbling against others when they use our precious time. As Butterfield says, we protect ourselves against inconvenience, and one way we do that is by keeping our doors closed. Do people feel that they can presume upon your time? Do they feel that you are available to them if they have questions or concerns or if they need to learn how to use those eggs to bake that birthday cake? Or do they feel that to use your time is to cause you inconvenience and that you are hesitant to make time in your schedule for them?

Your home is not your own. I’ve often differentiated between a house and a home to show what a thrill and what an honor it is that the Holy Spirit makes his home within us. It is an important distinction. A newly constructed neighborhood not far from me advertises “homes beginning in the low 300’s.” But they aren’t really selling homes, are they? They are selling houses. A house only becomes a home when a person lives in it and when it begins to take on the personality of the inhabitants. An empty house is just a shell. It is much like a dead human body, which is a body, but not a person. A home is also a gracious gift of God. The gifts, personalities and talents of the various inhabitants combine to make a home what it is. All of these are given by God and he expects us to be faithful stewards of them.

Is your home open to others? Do you allow people not only past the door of your house but also in your home, into the life of your family? Do you invite people into your living room, the formal room immediately beside the front door, or do you invite them into the kitchen where you can be less formal and extend more intimate hospitality? Do people feel they can come to your home only for formal Bible studies or can they come to your home for a personal chat or simply companionship? Do people feel they can drop by at a moment’s notice or do they wait to receive a formal invitation?

When I’ve discussed this subject in the past, I’ve seen many Christians display an attitude that tacitly suggests that their home is their domain and that others do not have a right to presume upon it. But that is simply not a biblical-informed attitude. Your house, your time and your home are not yours. They belong to God and need to be fully surrendered to him and to his better, higher purposes.

It is my hope that people feel they can invite themselves over to my home. I hope they feel that I am willing and eager to use my gifts and talents and time to bless them in whatever way I can. I hope people see that my house and my home and my life have an open door.

August 24, 2012

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That may be true as it pertains to friends and family, but it was not my experience this summer when I abandoned the Internet and digital technologies for a week. In early August we headed south and spent a week holed up in a cabin in a Virginia state park (Lake Anna, if you need to know). As we did two summers ago, we decided to declare this a digital-free vacation, leaving all computers and iPads and iPods and other gear out of the equation. The only electronic gear we allowed was Kindles, since that is the primary means through which Aileen and the kids read books, and a GPS, since I’ve forgotten how to read a map. I can’t say that I missed much of what we left behind.

Now let’s be clear—there are certain ways in which I’ve learned to put boundaries on my use of electronic and Internet-connected devices. If I learned anything from writing The Next Story it’s that our technologies are always threatening to form us in their image; if we do not take them captive, they will take us captive. With varying degrees of success, I’ve found ways of taking my devices and technologies under my control. Still, I often grow lazy and complacent and in such times I find myself checking email a hundred times a day or haphazardly googling any little question that may come to mind. In such times I use my devices without reflection or restriction and I use them at the expense of other things that ought to maintain a higher priority.

What surprised me in my time away this summer was how easy it was to give up all online access for eight or nine days. Not only was it easy, it was also pleasurable. I enjoyed being offline and enjoyed not feeling the need to keep tabs on the ebb and flow of online ranting and raving. I realized anew that for a vacation to be an experience in which I vacate not only a geographic location but also whatever makes life fast-paced and stressful, I will need to vacate the Internet.

Getting off the Internet slowed the pace of life which, in turn, slowed down my mind. As soon as we left the house, which is to say, as soon as we left the Internet behind, the pace of life slowed in a noticeable way. We were no longer living from email-to-email or Facebook update-to-Facebook update. Really, there was nothing to keep up with at all, except the car ahead of us on the highway. My mind immediately slowed down, engaging with one thing instead of half thinking about it before moving on to whatever came next. In quiet moments I had no choice but to be quiet and to think where I usually dive into my pocket and pull out my phone to do something, anything.

50 People 1 Question
August 20, 2012

People often ask me how I find so many topics to write about. The answer is simple: Wherever I go, I am looking for something—anything—to think about. Whether I am in sitting in church or listening to music or reading a book or attending a conference, I am keeping an ear open for things I want to think more about. I jot those things down on my phone or on a scrap of paper. Later on I choose one to think about it, and as I think, I write.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference and heard Mike Bullmore speak. There were a couple of things he mentioned in passing that I jotted down so I could think about them later. One of them was this: “The true measure of spiritual growth is not how much knowledge you’ve gained in the past year, but how much you’ve grown in holiness.” Every Christian knows that it is difficult to measure sanctification—to measure progress in the Christian life. It is easy to confuse knowledge with growth, to think that a grasp of facts necessarily translates to growth in sanctification. But, as Bullmore says, this is not the case. The Christian life is not measured in knowledge but in conformity. The purpose of the Christian life is not to accumulate the greatest number of facts, but to be increasingly transformed to the image of Christ.

There’s another thing Bullmore said that I’ve been thinking about. It’s a simple phrase, a tweetable phrase: “Sin doesn’t do well in the light.” The way to put sin to death is to draw it out of the hidden darkness of the human heart and to expose it to the light—the light of visibility and the light of God’s Word.

To summarize, the measure of the Christian life is growth in holiness. We grow in holiness, at least in part, by putting sin to death. We put sin to death by exposing it to the light.

This all helped crystallize something I have been considering for some time now—the corporate nature of holiness. Sanctification is a community project. There are many reasons that the Lord puts us in Christian community in the form of the local church. We are in community for mutual encouragement, mutual labor, mutual support, and so much else. But we are also in community because holiness is a community project.

This has been the challenge for me: I need to grow in holiness not just for my own sake but out of love and concern for those around me. If I love the people in my church, I will grow in holiness for their sake. I am prone to think that holiness is an individual pursuit, but when I see sanctification as a community project, now it is more of a team pursuit. I am growing in holiness so that I can help others grow in holiness, I am putting sin to death so I can help others put sin to death. My church needs me and I need my church, and this is exactly how God has designed it.

August 03, 2012

A friend of mine has been leading a class based on my book The Next Story. He emailed me a couple of days ago to say that he was preparing to teach on “Privacy and Visibility,” two areas where the digital world has brought a great transformation to our lives. Right before he went to teach the class, he came across a sad story of yet another pastor who has destroyed his ministry for the sake of following his lust. It was a pointed illustration of new realities in this new world. It was also an illustration of something that transcends the digital world.

Until Tuesday, Jack Schaap was pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, outside Chicago. First Baptist is the largest church in the state with something like 15,000 people attending each Sunday. Schapp’s pastorate came to an abrupt and shameful end on Tuesday.

Jack Schaap had left his cell phone on the pulpit and a deacon had seen it on the pulpit and had picked it up to bring it back to him,” Trisha Kee, who maintains a Facebook group for ex-congregants, told the station. “From what we understand, the deacon then saw a text come through from a teenage girl in the church, and it was a picture of Jack Schaap and this girl making out.

Church officials announced that he had been fired for “a sin that has caused him to forfeit his right to be our pastor.” Schapp has since confessed that he was involved in an affair with a girl of sixteen who had come to him for counseling. 

What stood out to me in this story was not so much that Schapp took advantage of a young girl, that he abused his position of authority, or that he has risked his marriage by committing adultery. All of these things are horrendous but, sadly, sickeningly, all too common. There is a long and growing history of men who use the pastorate as a means to fulfill their sinful, selfish desires. What stood out to me in this case was the manner in which the pastor’s sin found him out.

August 02, 2012

What makes you angry? We all have triggers, don’t we? We all have certain contexts and situations, certain affronts to our dignity or pride that stoke the anger within. I know a lot about anger, as Aileen can no doubt attest. When she and I talk about God’s grace in our lives, and evidence of it, she will often point this out—that God has mellowed me, taken away that anger that often bubbled within and occasionally boiled over. When I moved out of my parents’ home on the day I got married, I left behind a hole in the wall that I had punched in a fit of anger a few months before. At one of the first homes Aileen and I lived in I cracked a door frame when I tried to smash it shut, once more in a fit of stupid anger. My immature anger just sometimes boiled over and got me into trouble. I always felt like an idiot after acting out, but in the moment my anger got the better of me; I often surrendered to it. I am profoundly grateful that God, in his mercy, has blessed me and blessed my family by taking away much of the immaturity, the irrationality, the lack of self-control that caused me to lash out like an angry toddler. I still known what it is to be angry, but no longer tend toward violent reaction.

According to one dictionary, anger is a strong feeling of displeasure, a kind of belligerence aroused by a wrong. And from experience I can say it is equally likely that it is anger aroused by a perceived wrong. If someone truly wrongs me, I may well express anger and do so with some justification. If someone slights me or otherwise damages my pride, it may also cause me to act angry but with no justification at all. Anger is inherently reactive, awaiting a trigger and then waiting to react in accordance with my nature.

We have all met angry people, haven’t we? People who react to tough situations with anger and people who often act out in this anger. Such people may react in surprising, unexpected and terrifying ways. They act as they do out of emotion. Anger is not one of those enjoyable emotions. It may channel a strange, sick kind of pleasure for a moment or two, but like all sin, it very quickly loses its luster. There is something scary about seeing a person act out in anger. And the bigger that person, the more powerful his position, the greater the fear. If my three year-old gets angry and lashes out, I am bothered but not afraid. But if I were to become angry and act out in anger, she would rightly be terrified because of what I could, I might, do to her in my rage.