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Christian Living

May 18, 2011

Open BibleAileen and I have never been too good at date nights. We know that, according to all the experts, we are supposed to go out on a date, at minimum, every couple of weeks. Those experts must all have lots of money or access to free babysitters because there’s just no way we can afford to pay someone the going rate to watch the kids every 2 weeks. What we do instead is wait until all the kids are at school on a Monday or a Wednesday and we set out on a midday date.

This has worked well for us. And i think we’re good at dating. We both know that the main point of spending this kind of time together is to return home with a lot of new knowledge about one another. We like to head to a favorite restaurant and split a sandwich and an order of 4-cheese spinach dip. We just sit and talk. And when we head home we know we’ve had a good date if we’ve learned things about the other that we didn’t know before. If we haven’t learned anything new we know that our date hasn’t been so good and we swear that we’ll do better next time. Because this is the point of dating—to accumulate knowledge about the person you love.

I’m lying. Well, only partially. That is exactly how we date these days. But it’s not at all how we gauge the success of our dates. We know we’ve had a good date when we’ve enjoyed spending time together. We don’t need to learn anything new. We don’t need to gain facts. We just need to be together, enjoying one another’s presence. We can go shopping and sit in a bookstore and consider it a great date. We return home refreshed, renewed and loving one another more than when we set out. And that’s a great date.

But isn’t it funny that when it comes to personal devotions, when it comes to our relationship to the Lord, we change the rules. We judge the success of our time with the Lord by what we get out of it, by what we remember, by what we’ve learned. We consider our devotions a success when we learn some new fact about God or about the Bible. We admire those who have great biblical knowledge or a great memory for the facts of what they’ve read. We get discouraged and want to give up when we feel like we have learned nothing through that day’s devotions.

May 11, 2011

The introduction of a new communications technology tends to bring with it an inevitable challenge of grappling with new rules of etiquette. This was true in the time of the telegraph when, for example, business owners had to decide whether or not they would receive work-related telegraphs at their homes after business hours. This was true in the early days of the telephone when people eventually decided upon the polite habit of answering the phone with “Hello” instead of “What do you want?” or “Who is it?” What seems natural to us was actually a rule society decided upon only after some conflict and some negotiation.

We are currently in the early years of another communications revolution and just like our forebears, we are negotiating etiquette. We find ourselves in that tricky space where many of us are applying old rules to new media. But we may also be excusing sinful or rude habits by our thoughtless dedication to these new media. In some cases we will look back in a few years and marvel that we could ever have been so rude. By that time society will have caught up and negotiated new etiquette. But for the time being many of us behave like barbarians (albeit barbarians with high-tech devices and Internet connections).

Let me give you just a few examples.

Present, But Absent

Many of our new devices, perhaps our smart phones most prominently, allow us to be present in body but absent in mind. While we may be standing before a friend or sitting beside a spouse, our minds are engaged elsewhere and with other people. I will grant that this disengagement is possible with a book, too (just ask my wife), but society has largely already figured out that we are to favor a person in favor of a book. My iPhone is just so convenient and so small and so alluring that I try to make myself believe that I can keep half my mind on my phone (Angry Birds or email or a text message) even while keeping the other half on a conversation. But we are quickly learning that if I give even a sliver of my mind to that phone, I am giving none of myself to the person trying to speak with me. I am present in body, but my mind is in cyberspace. Be present or be absent! Make your choice and make it clear.

Don’t Keep Me Waiting

Society has not yet fully negotiated the etiquette of call waiting, even though it’s been around for a while now. Personally, I consider it perfectly acceptable to hang up and allow a person to call me back if he feels the need to answer another call while he is speaking with me. Some may disagree. Text messaging is a new and digital equivalent to call waiting. While I am conversing with one person, another seeks to interrupt us. And the question is, is it polite for me to interrupt my conversation to begin another? Too many of us think we can. In fact, most of us cannot tolerate not knowing who has texted us and so, even in the midst of a conversation, we’ll rummage through purse or pocket to steal a glance at the phone to see who has sent us a message. And the moment we begin to engage with that remote person or his message, we have become present but absent (see above). Do not respond to your devices unless it suits you to do so at that moment.

Digital Courage

There are some things we do in life that are just plain difficult. They require courage; they cannot be easily avoided or delegated. A constant temptation we face, especially in an age of pervasive mediated communication, is to do in mediated form what ought to be done face to face (or to do by text message what ought to be done by phone). We can probably all think of times that we have chosen to communicate via email or text message what we should have said directly. We do not need to look far to find someone who has broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend through Facebook or through a text message. We gain courage when we do not need to look a person in the eye. But we lose presence, we lose empathy, we lose the holistic nature of face to face, real-world communication. Even the courage we gain may be too much courage, a courage that is really characterless bravado. Be wary of those times that fear or intimidation compel you toward mediation!

Putting On an Exhibition

Many of our new media bring with them the ability to make an exhibition of ourselves. And where they give us the ability, they also seem to give the desire. They may even impose a little bit of pressure to do so. And so we tweet everything we do and upload inappropriate photos to Facebook (or photos that a few years ago would have been inappropriate). What used to be private is now made public, what used to be shameful is now entertaining. Consider whether it needs to be said or needs to be shown.

These are just a few ways in which we would do well to use our minds, to use wisdom, to use common sense, to learn how to stop excusing rudeness, to fast-forward the construction of some kind of etiquette to govern the use of these new media available to us.

May 09, 2011

Shrinking WorldI suppose it will not surprise you to learn that I maintain a list of future topics I hope to write about on this blog. Near the top of that list is one I titled simply, “Matthew 18 and the Internet.” That is an issue near and dear to me. Let me explain.

Through my years of blogging (I’m coming up on 8 years of it now) I’ve often written critiques of books and even some people or the things they’ve done or the words they’ve said. In many ways this blog simply reflects the thinking I’ve done about issues that arise within the church. I do not really know what I think or what I believe until I write about it, and I tend to share my thinking through the blog. And when I write about people or their books, it is nearly inevitable that someone sends me an email or leaves a comment saying, “Did you follow the procedure laid out in Matthew 18?” This is sometimes a kind suggestion and sometimes a harsh rebuke. But either way, it almost always seems to come. This was true when I wrote critical reviews of 90 Minutes in Heaven and The Shack. It was true when I shared some concerns about men whose ministry I respect. In each case, people suggested that I ought to follow Matthew 18 and speak to the men themselves before publicly critiquing them.

The Internet has made the Christian world much smaller, allowing more Christians to have a voice that extends across the globe. And with this new ability to communicate comes new questions about how we are to deal with conflict, how we are to deal with questions and concerns. Matthew 18 is a text most of us know well, and one we quickly turn to when grappling with such issues.

In the most recent edition of Themelios, a theological journal, D.A. Carson addresses what he calls abuse of Matthew 18. Because Themelios is not standard reading for most of us, I thought I’d share some of Carson’s perspectives on this issue. I found it very helpful and feel that it offers a lot of biblical wisdom.

Carson forms his arguments around 3 points: the context, the offense and the motives.

The Context

Whatever the sin is that is in Jesus’ mind as he speaks the words of Matthew 18:15-17, what is clear is that it takes place in the context of a local church—a local gathering of believers. If we are going to extend this passage to a much wider context, such as a book that has been widely distributed and a blogger who has written a review of it, the text will need to support this. I believe we have a lot of trouble allowing an honest and accurate reading of Matthew 18 to extend so far. It seems clear that the sin of Matthew 18 is a private and quiet kind of sin, the kind that only a very few people have noticed. Perhaps you have spoken to a friend and heard from him that he is cheating on his taxes. You would then be following Jesus’ teaching to follow the pattern he laid out. As Carson says, “The impression one derives from reading Matt 18 is that the sin in question is not, at first, publicly noticed (unlike the publication of a foolish but influential book). It is relatively private, noticed by one or two believers, yet serious enough to be brought to the attention of the church if the offender refuses to turn away from it.”

May 03, 2011

TSAMuch has been said about the TSA and their growing freedom to do pretty much whatever they want to us once we enter an airport. I don’t like those backscatter x-ray machines and refuse to go through, which means that I have had to get that full and invasive patdown a few times now. While it’s not the kind of thing I get too outraged about, I do find it frustrating. We all know that it is largely a charade—that giving invasive patdowns to those who refuse to go through the backscatter machines really does nothing to make the skies safer. It is security theater, designed not to stop terrorism but to make us feel like it is stopping terrorism. Patting down toddlers is the price we pay to feel safer.

Patrick Smith, who writes the column “Ask the Pilot” for Salon.com, writes about an absurd situation he encountered recently. He was snagged for not putting all of his liquids and gels in a little zippered baggy. No problem; though having to put your little travel-sized liquids in a baggy is another silly and largely pointless exercise, Smith complies. But here’s where it gets funny—the TSA guy doesn’t then scan those liquids or do anything else with them; he just wants them in the baggy. As if having them in a plastic bag makes the skies safer. As soon as he is past the checkpoint, Smith takes them out of the bag (as it is his right to do). But at the checkpoint, even after they went through the machine, the agent insisted on having them in a bag. It’s utterly pointless.

At the end of his column Smith writes about an infamous situation in which TSA agents missed the forest for the trees—or something like that.

Are we looking for liquids, or are we looking for explosives? A search for the former is not a de facto search for the latter. Not the way we’ve been doing it. Steve Elson tells the story of a test in which TSA screeners are presented with a suitcase containing a mock explosive device with a water bottle nestled next to it. They ferret out the water, of course, while the bomb goes sailing through.

This is not to say that we do not need the TSA and that airports and airplanes need no security. Quite the opposite. The fact is, though, that most of the public measures are designed to elicit a feeling of security rather than to actually make anyone or anything secure.

Blah blah blah. I could rant about this for a long time. When it comes right down to it, Romans 13 compels me to submit and obey (though technically the TSA has no connection to my government). So I submit to their rules, ridiculous as they are.

Now let me draw an application I’ve had to make to myself.

May 02, 2011

Social media: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Or that’s how it feels. Facebook, Twitter, blogs—I think most of us have a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. While we enjoy the benefits they bring to us, we also see how they seek to dominate our lives. Many of us now live much of life through the lens of our social media, as if we haven’t actually experienced something until we’ve tweeted it or blogged about it or posted pictures of it on Facebook. It’s a strange phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that can quickly and easily dominate our lives.

The big question I ask in my book The Next Story is this: do you own your technology or does your technology own you? It’s an important question and one we would all do well to wrestle with when it comes to our social media. So let’s talk about how we can own our social media habits.

Quantify It

One very helpful place to begin is with quantifying your social media usage. It is far more likely that you are underestimating than overestimating the scope of your social media usage. For some reason we seem to have a kind of blindness to the reality of how much we actually use our devices and browse our favorite web sites. It is difficult to accurately measure it, but it is good to at least make the attempt. All of those 15 minute visits to Facebook may add up to several hours a day and many hours a week. When people begin to quantify their television habits they typically underestimate by a couple of hours per day. I’m convinced the same is true of social media time.

It’s also useful to ask your spouse or your children or your parents. “Am I using my computer too much? Am I on Facebook too much?” Ask them to help you quantify your usage. Even if their assessment is subjective, it is still useful. If your wife says you are using the computer too much, you probably are.

There is no objective answer to the question “How much is too much?” But simply looking at the data can be shocking and revealing—perhaps even humbling and humiliating. So quantify it and ask if you are faithfully redeeming the time given to you.

Understand It

One of the main reasons I wrote The Next Story is that I realized I had a woefully underdeveloped understanding of media and technology. I was not thinking about these things in a distinctly Christian way. It was my own search to remedy this that led me to begin writing a book. The research I did gave me a very helpful understanding of why technology is the way it is. Suddenly a lot of things made a lot of sense. I began to understand why every good technological gift seems to come with an opposite problem. I began to see how even something like a blog or a Facebook account could subtly change me.

So invest the time in seeking to gain a little bit of theoretical knowledge of technology and invest the time in beginning to form a theology of technology. Both of these will pay dividends.

(I know may be a bit of a pitch for my book, but I do think you’ll get some benefit. Plus, for the next month you can get the audiobook for free)

Create Some Boundaries

April 28, 2011

Forgiven
I was thinking today about being a people pleaser—a tendency all of us having to varying degrees. Lou Priolo has written a book on the subject and one that made quite an impression on me when I read it several years ago. In one of the chapters, Priolo looks at clothing ourselves in humility and he offers some wisdom on the subject of forgiveness.

As the father of three young children, and as the owner of a proud and sinful heart, I have endless opportunities to teach about forgiveness and to practice both forgiveness and repentance in my own life. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t involve the word “but” (“I’m sorry I smacked you but you shouldn’t have said that to me…”). But then I’ve seen that I can fall into the same sin. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t drag up the past and use forgiven sin against others. But then I’ve seen that I can do the same thing. Though I’m many years older than they are, I’m still learning lessons about forgiveness.

In Pleasing People Priolo portrays the heart of forgiveness as being a promise. Here is what he says: “Forgiveness is fundamentally a promise. As God promises to not hold our sins against us, so we also must promise not to hold the sins of those we’ve forgiven against them.” This is, of course, the foundation of the forgiveness God promises to us: that he will never hold our sins against us. On the day of judgment we can have confidence that he will not suddenly charge us with sins that have been forgiven us through the blood of Jesus. We have faith in God and trust in this promise. Without this promise our faith is hopeless. Praise God that he offers us this manner of forgiveness! And I mean that. Praise him!

The promise of forgiveness, says Priolo, can be broken into three parts. First, you promise not to bring up the offense to the forgiven person so as to use it against him. Second, you promise not to discuss with others the sin you have forgiven. Third, you promise not to dwell on the forgiven offense but to remind yourself that you have forgiven the offender in the same way that God has forgiven you for a multitude of far greater sins. Thus when you ask forgiveness you secure these promises for yourself.

Seeking forgiveness cannot be confused with apologizing. An apology is not the means to reconciliation (which is to say that “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me” are not the same thing). If I apologize to a person I’ve offended and he subsequently apologizes to me, we still have not taken responsibility and truly humbled ourselves. We haven’t tied up loose ends and, to use Priolo’s term, the ball is still up in the air. Apologies are not enough. We must seek forgiveness and its fruit—reconciliation.

According to Priolo, true forgiveness looks something like this:

April 20, 2011

The sentiment that Jesus has unconditional love for all of us has become standard fare in many evangelical churches. The speaker assures the congregation that Jesus loves them to such an extent that he died for them. He assures the audience that Jesus is just waiting for them to turn to him and to reciprocate the love he already has for them. Some people go even further in their claims to unbelievers. I remember once reading an article by Rick Warren printed in Ladies Home Journal. In this article, titled “Learn to Love Yourself!,” Warren wrote the following: “God accepts us unconditionally, and in His view we are all precious and priceless.” The article closes with these words: “You can believe what others say about you, or you can believe in yourself as God does, who says you are truly acceptable, lovable, valuable and capable.” Nowhere does he qualify these statements. Instead they are offered as blanket statements, encompassing all of humanity.

Is this how the Bible portrays God’s feelings towards those who do not believe? It’s worth a glance at just a few of the many passages that speak of God’s position towards the unregenerate.

Psalm 5:5 says that “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” The NIV translates this as “you hate all who do wrong.” Psalm 11:5 tells us that “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” And turning to the New Testament, John 3:36 reads “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The Bible clearly portrays God as one whose wrath burns against both sin and sinner. His righteous anger burns against all unrighteousness, and against all who are unrighteous.

In The God Who Justifies, James White writes the following. “Theologians should be those enraptured by the beauty of the unchanging object of their study: the eternal, immutable God. But theologians are people, and they are influenced, to greater or lesser extents, by the society and era in which they live. The cultural decay of modern times has inspired many a theological denial of biblical truth, most often when that biblical truth speaks to something that is unfashionable. One such issue…is the oft-repeated biblical phrase ‘the wrath of God.’” White goes on to say that while we most often associate God’s wrath with the Old Testament, where he commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the pagan nations, in reality his wrath is most clearly shown in the New Testament. Were you to ask where in the Bible we see the clearest picture of God’s wrath, I would have to point to Jesus’ final hours, from the Garden of Gethsemane to his death on the cross. After all, what but the need for satisfaction of God’s wrath, could compel the Father to send his Son to such a horrible, painful, death?

April 19, 2011

Sometimes I struggle with motives. I struggle with the idea that we are to be motivated to obedience in this world by the promise of reward in the next. This is particularly true when it comes to money. We are to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth; we are to obey God not just out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase our reward in heaven. That has always struck me as wrong, as something that is just a little bit less than noble. A truly God-honoring Christian would take obedience as his only motive, wouldn’t he?

Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? This has often confused me. Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience. The fact that I would seek an eternal reward for a temporal good deed concerns me. Shouldn’t I want to give out of the joy of obedience? Shouldn’t I want to give simply because I love the God who commands me to give generously?

Randy Alcorn has helped correct my thinking. In his book Managing God’s Money, he calls the doctrine of God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the negelcted key to unlocking our motivation.” He offers Hebrews 11:26 as a simple example: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” And, of course, we know that the Apostle Paul was also running with his eye on the prize—the crown that would last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Even Christ endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He humbled himself knowing that he would soon be exalted. He, too, found his motivation in the eternal reward that would await him—in this case the glory of his Father as he is worshiped by a church washed and redeemed.

If we maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, we bring an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. We also essentially say that Christ is wrongly tempting us when he holds out a reward for our obedience.

April 18, 2011

There was a time when God walked and talked with the people he created. This must have been an amazing experience for Adam and Eve. But alas, it was a short-lived experience. One evening God came to the garden for his evening stroll and Adam and the woman were nowhere to be found. They had heard the sound of him and they had been terrified. They heard that sound and instead of rushing to him they ran away from him. Clutching fig leaves to themselves, they got among the thickest trees and hid away, trying to get away from God. Their joy had turned to terror, their anticipation to dread.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.  And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

As a child there were days when I looked forward to my father coming home. He would have been away on a business trip and I knew he would have something for me—a new toy or something good to eat. “Dad’s home!” And I’d rush out and hug him and get whisker burn as he rubbed my cheeks with his stubbly face. Then he’d pull something out of his pocket and give it to me. That is a great memory of days long past.

And then there were days when I was terrified when dad came home. Those were the days I had sinned against my mother and she had sent me to my room; she had banished me. “You go to your room and wait until your father gets home!” I remember lying in bed and trying desperately to fall asleep, hoping dad would have pity on his poor, sweet sleeping child. I remember hiding in the closet one time, shrinking to the back of the closet and hiding, knowing that I deserved to be punished for lying to my mother yet again. This is what we do when we sin, when we are afraid of the consequence of our sin. This is what Adam did.

April 11, 2011

God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The knowledge that there is more to this world than what we see seems to be innate in human nature. it seems God has so wired us that we know there is life beyond the here and now. Every religion acknowledges something beyond, something outside of ourselves. There is something to come. But far more people acknowledge heaven than hell. Though the majority of people believe there is a heaven, very few believe in hell. Even fewer believe they will ever be in hell.

Yet our hearts continue to tell us that there is life and death beyond the grave. Life offers us many hints of what is to come. John Blanchard says, “The judgments of God fall often enough in this world to let us know that God judges, but seldom enough to let us know that there must be a judgment to come.” We see God’s judgments in this world often enough to know that God does judge sin and that he is provoked against evil. Yet the scarcity of judgment shows us that there must be more. If God is a judge he must judge all sin, not just some sin. And so we know that more judgment is coming. It must come. And really, we want it to come—we just don’t want it to come against us. None of us want Hitler to escape some sort of greater judgment, some kind of greater consequence for what he did before taking his own life. Surely a man cannot do all that Hitler did and then escape judgment. What kind of world would that be?

In the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins there has been a lot of discussion about hell. I believe in hell—a hell of judgment and torment. But through all of this discussion I have been convicted that I do not believe in this hell strongly enough. It seems unavoidable to me that if I truly believe in this hell, it will have a greater impact on my life and faith. A hell of conscious eternal torment is not the kind of doctrine I can believe in and then just go on my way unaffected. Either I genuinely believe it and it will deeply affect my life, or I pay lip service to it and allow it to make very little difference to me. I don’t see how I can believe it deeply and not have it radically impact my life.

I have been helped in understanding life after death by reading Edward Donnelly’s aptly-titled book Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. The first half of the book discusses hell in all its horror; the second part turns to heaven with all its glory. The first half is difficult to read and weighs heavily on the soul; the second is like a sip of cool water on a hot day. The first terrifies; the second elevates. Donnelly is not given to hyperbole or imagination. He does not present a fictionalized vision of hell that owes more to horror movies or medieval art and imaginings than to the Bible. Rather, he simply relates what the Bible tells us, both explicitly and implicitly, about this awful place. He does so under four alliterated headings: Absolute Poverty, Agonizing Pain, Angry Presence and Appalling Prospect.

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