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Christian Living

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.

April 04, 2011

Christians read a lot of books. This is a good thing. Christians read a lot of Christian books. This is another good thing. But it’s also an easy thing, a safe thing. Though I am glad to see many Christians reading many books, I believe there is value in reading not only deeply but also widely. And this means that Christians should read more than just Christian books—we should read books that are in the cultural mainstream.

Let me offer you a few reasons that you should consider reading regularly in the mainstream:

Common Grace

Christians have long understood that God gives a measure of grace to all human beings and not just to Christians. We know this as common grace, grace given in common to all people. The great theologian Charles Hodge summarizes it in this way: “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good.” Common grace tells us that Christians do not have the market cornered when it comes to what is true and what is wise.

What this means is that we are wise to read all kinds of books, and not just those that have been sanctified by association with a Christian publisher or Christian author. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16 is one of Jesus’ stranger parables, but its purpose should not be lost on us: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Jesus knew of God’s common grace. He would tell us that truth and wisdom are waiting to be mined in every genre of books.

Cultural Engagement

March 30, 2011

Have you ever noticed that the sins you hate most may just be the sins closest to your heart? I hate the sin of envy, and I think I hate it so much because it is so often very near to me, just waiting to strike, to cause me to mourn when I ought to rejoice, or to rejoice when I ought to mourn. “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Scripture tells me. It is rarely that easy. I wish it was that easy.

I recently began reading Assist Me To Proclaim, John Tyson’s biography of Charles Wesley, and was challenged with these words:

Charles had a meekness and unfeigned humility about him that was remarkable and attractive. His sermon editor observed, “His most striking excellence was humility; it extended to his talents as well as virtues; he not only acknowledged and pointed out but delighted in the superiority of another.”

To delight in the superiority of another. There is humility. There is envy slaughtered and laid to rest. I think I envy this lack of envy.

In his book The Call Os Guinness says this:

Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh, and thus a “cold” and highly “respectable” sin, in contrast to the “warm” and openly “disreputable” sins of the flesh, such as gluttony. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.

It was Aquinas who provided a famous definition of envy when he suggested it is “sorrow at another’s good.” Guinness says:

Envy enters when, seeing someone else’s happiness or success, we feel ourselves called into question. Then, out of the hurt of our wounded self-esteem, we seek to bring the other person down to our level by word or deed. They belittle us by their success, we feel; we should bring them down to their deserved level, envy helps us feel. Full-blown envy, in short, is dejection plus disparagement plus destruction.

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