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Christian Living

March 08, 2010

As anyone knows who has studied the life of Jonathan Edwards, he dedicated a large portion of his ministry to thinking, writing and teaching about the freedom of the will. And, of course, he eventually published a classic work dealing with the subject. In writing the book he thought back to the days when revival had swept his church, his community and the area around it. And as he reflected on the individuals who had been swept up in the revival, or those who had made professions of faith in the years following, he became aware of a fundamental flaw in many of these professions. “Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts.”

Little has changed. I have met countless people who consider themselves Christians and who admit to sin in their lives and feel guilt and remorse for individual sins, but who seem unable or unwilling to admit the incontrovertible fact that their hearts are in rebellion against God. The Bible tells us in plain terms that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. And I don’t think we can overstate what a fundamental difference this is! We do not need to seek forgiveness merely for the sins we commit, but for our fundamentally evil and rebellious hearts—hearts that, in their natural state, hate God and are fully and completely and gleefully and willingly opposed to Him.

In his oh-so-good biography of Edwards, George Marsden summarizes Edwards’ assessment of this problem. “Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control.” When sin has been defined merely as individual acts of the will, it is possible for humans, even devoid of God’s help, to overcome those evil acts and deeds. An unbelieving man who explodes in anger or a woman who grumbles against her husband can overcome those sins in their own power. Unbelievers can throw off addiction and poor behavior through an act of the will. But they can never address the heart of the issue. While they may make cosmetic changes, they can never overcome the deeper issues because they can never change their hearts.

February 25, 2010

Aileen and I were once members of a church that, after a few years of existence, began to de-emphasize doctrine. Some of the pastors seemed to reach the conclusion that “doctrine divides” and that the church really just needed to focus on evangelism and on “action.” They seemed to determine that a sound theological foundation held in common was unattainable and unrealistic. Therefore, doctrine should be laid aside and the church should rally around the things we had in common—a desire to reach others with the gospel and a desire to serve other people. It was a bit of a naive strategy, of course, and one that was bound to cause problems.

February 23, 2010

In 2006, AOL made an epic misjudgment. As part of a research project headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, AOL made available to the public a massive amount of search data, releasing the search history of 650,000 users over a 3-month period. That totaled some twenty one million searches. Before releasing the data they anonymized it, stripping away user names and replacing them with numbers. Yet because of the nature of the data, people very quickly linked real people to abstract numbers—a massive violation of privacy and confidentiality. Within days AOL realized its mistake and withdrew the data. But already it had been copied and posted elsewhere on the internet where today it lives on in infamy.

Some searches were dark and disturbing, others unremarkable in every way, and still others strangely amusing. Often you could reconstruct a person’s life, at least in part, from what they searched for over a period of time. Consider this user:

February 17, 2010

Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace is one of those books that is worth reading slowly and meditatively, pausing often to reflect and journal. I rarely dwell too long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

One of the areas of that book that has impacted in my life came when I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a few years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that he would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that he did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my calendar. Since then I’ve sometimes had to add the appointment back to my calendar just to encourage me to once again encourage others, but it never takes all that much effort anymore to get myself back into the mindset of being an encourager.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But maybe it’s not quite so simple. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us his holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

February 15, 2010

Today is Family Day here in Canada (or in Ontario at least—each province celebrates the day a little differently), so I’ll be mixing my time between work and hanging out with the family. A La Carte will return tomorrow. For now, here’s a short reflection on the nature of temptation.

In Bruce Walke’s Old Testament Theology he writes about man’s fall into sin and discusses the way Satan’s first temptation took shape. He suggests that this original act of temptation is an archetype of sorts. All of the temptation that would follow through the long line of human experience would mimic this one. Satan tempted the second human being in the same way he tempts the 20 billionth (or whatever I happen to be). It is not just Satan who works in this way, though, but all human beings. We are prone to following Satan in luring others into sin in the same way.

Here are five steps to leading another person into sin.

Be a theologian. There is little doubt that Satan is a theologian, and a skilled and outspoken one at that. He has had a very long time to study God and, as a leader among angels, once enjoyed free access to him and close communion with him. Satan knows God and knows about the character of God. But unlike the theologians we seek to be, Satan is a theologian who despises God with every bit of his being. When he turns to Eve and says, “Did God really say…?” he brings Eve into a dialogue that opens her mind to a new realm of possibility, one she would not have thought of on her own. He knows God well enough to know what God has said and done.

But there is more. Satan is not only a student of God but also of men. From the moment God first spoke of man, Satan must have been watching and observing. Knowing that man was the crown of creation, Satan was surely looking for an opening, a way to destroy this jewel. He became a student of the ways of men. As a theologian, a psychologist and an anthropologist, Satan has unique skill at leading men astray.

Turn commands into questions. Satan takes the command of God and rephrases it as a question. “Did God really say?” What was a clear statement suddenly becomes hazy. Posing as a theologian he asks, “Are you sure about this, or is this only Adam’s testimony as to what God said? Are you sure? How do you know? Is this really a command? Can we discuss this a little bit? Is it possible that you misinterpreted what God said? Is it possible that there is some context here we’ve ignored?” Waltke says, “Within the framework of faith, these questions are proper and necessary, but when they are designed to lead us away from the simplicity of childlike obedience, they are wrong.” And so we see Satan raising questions of interpretation and authority necessarily designed to create doubt and confusion and to lead away from the simplicity of a childlike obedience.

Emphasize prohibition over freedom. Satan carefully and deliberately distorts, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” into “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” He overlooks the great freedom God gave Adam and Eve and instead overstates the one prohibition. He gets Eve to focus on the prohibition rather than the gift and the freedom. Instead of focusing on the Tree of Life, from which she was free to eat, and on the millions of other trees available to her, Satan got her to focus her heart on that one tree from which she was not allowed to eat. And Eve began to focus not on what she had been given, but on what had been forbidden. And suddenly nothing but what was forbidden could satisfy her.

Doubt God’s sincerity and motives. Satan casts God’s motives as self-regard rather than love. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” He convinces Eve that God is limiting her, that he is not giving her the full measure of humanity. He is holding back, reserving for himself things that she deserves to know and to experience. As Waltke says, we hear this message all around us today. “Be liberated! Be free! Self-actualize! Unleash your inner potential! The Serpent’s message even echoes in the church. Instead of sanctification, the church seeks self-improvement. Instead of holiness, the church seeks happiness.” When you hear such things, you can rest assured that the Serpent is once again at work seeking to convince you that you need to be something other than what you were created to be.

Deny what God says is true. In the final step, Satan flatly denies what is true. “You will not surely die.” The fruit of all of the doubt and the resentment is unbelief. If God’s words happen to hinder us from becoming what we want to be or from doing what we want to do, Satan convinces us that we can safely ignore them. In the church today many people de-emphasize sin because it may hinder the quest for self-actualization or it may make people feel guilty or damage their self-esteem. “Sadly many evangelical churches are in the process of buying into a guilt-free, pain-free, judgment-free gospel.”

In the face of such temptation, the woman yields to Satan’s denials and half-truths. “Having stripped Eve of her spiritual defenses, Satan’s work is done.” Without God, the decision will be made purely on the basis of pragmatism, of what works best to bring about the desired end, on the basis of aesthetics, of what is beautiful, and on the basis of self-improvement, of what will bring her supposed wisdom. It is only one short step from here to outright disobedience.

And so Satan works through questioning, doubt, focusing on what is forbidden and finally on outright denial of the truth. And Eve is only the first to be drawn in and to succumb to the temptation. Every one of us has fallen for the same old trap. If you think of your own life, I’m sure you will think of examples where this pattern was used against you, perhaps just in your own thoughts or perhaps in a book you have read (and there are many books in the bookstores, both Christian and non- where this same pattern is used). Satan’s first tactic worked so well that I don’t think he has ever felt it necessary to modify it too much. The shape of temptation has not changed.

February 03, 2010

It seems that as human beings we are naturally drawn to underdog stories. Recently I watched a couple of episodes of Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, a six-part series that aired as part of the “American Experience” program. As with any biography of Lincoln, it contrasts his early years with those of his wife. Where Mary Todd was raised in a huge home filled with servants and slaves, Abraham Lincoln was raised in a one-room cabin far from civilization; where Mary enjoyed many years of formal education, Abraham studied what he could when he could and in the end had less than a single year of formal education from only the lowliest of teachers; where Mary was cultured and proper, Abraham was rough around the edges. They are in so many ways a study in opposites and that makes their romance and their love for one another all the more interesting. Where many would have seen in Mary the kind of person who would marry well and become the wife of a President, few would have predicted Abraham’s rise to the highest office. When he ran for office, he was the rail splitter President, the one who came from the backwoods to make a bid for the highest office. Lincoln stands as proof that in America people can rise beyond their circumstances and play formative roles in the nation. America is the land of opportunity for the Lincoln’s of the world.

After watching the episodes of American Experience I wandered into my office and noticed a little piece of paper, a Post-It Note, that had fallen beside my desk. Occasionally I have a thought that I figure I should record for one reason or another, usually because it is something I want to reflect on when I’ve got some time. Sometimes these get jotted down on little bits of paper and eventually thrown away. I don’t remember when I wrote this one, but in light of what I had just watched, it seemed appropriate. I had written two lines, the first of which was the following: “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory.” That seemed appropriate in light of what I had just watched. Here is the reverse of the Lincoln story—the reverse of the underdog story. Though Jesus Christ was “in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6,7). Jesus had been exalted far beyond the office of President. He was in the form of God; he was God. And yet he humbled himself far lower than a rail splitter living in a squalid little cabin miles from nowhere. “[B]eing found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Lincoln worked hard—extremely hard—to rise above his circumstances. In fact, after he left his childhood home and struck out on his own, it would take him years to return, as if just being near his father would somehow interfere with his desire to become more than his father was. He was driven by a desire to succeed and to make more of himself than anyone could hope to expect for a man with such humble origins. As a young adult he may not have known what he wanted to be, but there is no doubt that he knew what he did not want to be. And with hard work and incredible drive, he become a lawyer and politician and President. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can see that he became exactly the President America needed in her greatest hour of need.

Which of these is the greatest story? Which of these strikes deepest? Here is where the second line of my little note comes in. After writing “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory” I had written “Why do I find it hard to put on?” It’s a fair question, I think. Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham Lincoln to rise from rail splitter to President. There would have been difficulties, for sure, but such a rise is the stuff of dreams. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, dreamed of rising from obscurity to fame? Which underdog hasn’t sought to speak of his lowly origins as he tries to build bridges to the common man? Who hasn’t cheered on an underdog as he claims a political office or a gold medal?

But now imagine what it must have been like for Jesus Christ to put aside infinitely greater glory in order to become merely human. This is the stuff of scandal. Who cheers when a famous person falls into obscurity? Who lauds the politician who leaves office to sweep the hallways of a local school? We feel pity, not honor, for such a man. How can we even begin to understand the infinite difference between God and man? The Bible turns to superlatives, saying that Christ made that step, putting aside everything to become nothing. He came not as a king or a President, but as a servant. And this was only the beginning. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He died under the verse curse of God.

Surely it must have been exceedingly difficult, infinitely difficult, for Jesus Christ to lay aside all that he was in order to become one of his created beings. But he did it and in this way was able to offer the gift of salvation to all men. And to those who believe, he offers the holiness that is his. He offers us far more than the difference in position, in status, between rail splitter and President. He offers us the privilege of being remade, reborn, in his image. And yet so often we accept this gift hesitantly. At least, I know that I do. I look at the Bible, the guide to living a holy life, and accept it with great reluctance. I turn to it with hesitation and wrestle with its words, hoping it is not demanding of me what I know it is demanding of me. The glory that Christ found so hard to put aside is the very holiness I find so hard to accept. As it must have torn Jesus apart to take off that garment, there is a part of me that is torn apart at having to put it on.

And yet Christ died for even this sin, this sin of reluctantly accepting his free gift of grace—his free gift of sanctification. Despite my sin, I know that Christ has been working in me a desire for holiness. Being God, his power is far greater than mine and he is able to overcome even my ungodly reluctance. He is able to erase my nothing and to give me everything. And, by His grace, he will.

January 13, 2010
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (David Hume).

That quote, taken from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, would summarize what the average person believes about miracles. Miracles are impossible because they violate laws of nature, and the very nature of these laws dictates that they are inviolable. Certainly in discussing the Christian faith with unbelievers the Christian evangelist often encounters this roadblock. A person may seem willing to believe in God and in the person of Jesus Christ, but he is unwilling to believe in miracles. But it is not only philosophers and unbelievers that struggle with this concept of miracles. Many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s providence which in turn leads them to misunderstand what exactly a miracle is. Many Christians believe that miracles are an intervention of God whereby he violates one or more of the laws of nature. The Christian might state his belief that since God created the laws of nature he is able to violate them when and if he sees fit. In this way we see that what Christians and non-Christians believe about miracles may be remarkably similar.

Here are a few definitions of miracle:

  • According to many religions, a miracle is an intervention by God in the universe.
  • An event in the natural world, but out of its established order, possible only by the intervention of divine power.
  • An event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to a supernatural or divine power.
  • A marvellous event manifesting a supernatural act of God.
  • An event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God, operating without the use of means capable of being…It shows the intervention of a power that is not limited by the laws either of matter or of mind, a power interrupting the fixed laws which govern their movements, a supernatural power.
  • Miracle is a 2004 concept album credited to singer Celine Dion and photographer Anne Geddes.

Consistent in these definitions is the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that a miracle requires an intervention of God in which he interrupts the fixed laws of nature to accomplish his will. But this understanding is not entirely correct in that it presupposes such a thing as fixed, inviolable, laws of nature.

A biblical understanding of God’s providence requires us to understand that God upholds the world from moment-to-moment. God’s creative activity did not end his involvement with the world; rather, God has been sustaining the world since the very moment he called it into existence. God is as fully involved in the world today as he was during the initial act of creation. Said otherwise, God’s act of creation continues even today. Conservation and creation are near synonymous terms when we examine God’s involvement with our world.

God tends to govern the world in a way that is predictable. We often refer to the predictability of nature by discussing “laws of nature.” We saw this clearly in the definitions of the world “miracle.” But is it right for Christians to understand that there are laws of nature? I believe that there is a sense in which we can, for nature is clearly governed in predictable ways. If I were to reach my arm out and drop my bottle of water from the window beside me it would fall and land on the door step two floors below. If I were to repeat this experiment tomorrow, I have every reason to believe that gravity will play the same role and will once again pull the bottle of water to roughly the same spot. There is a consistency in our world. But is this consistency based on laws?

It seems to me that Christians would do better to understand the laws of nature in terms of regularities rather than laws. When we speak of laws, we understand something that is inviolable. We might even think that God Himself cannot violate these laws, once again, because they are by their very nature inviolable. With this understanding a miracle is a violation of a law—a violation of the inviolable. When Moses, through the power of God, parted the Red Sea, he must have violated any number of laws. God intervened with the law of gravity and violated it, holding back water and piling it in a great wall.

The danger of this view is that we may come to believe (in practice if not in theory) that God’s involvement in the world and in our lives is sporadic rather than consistent; exceptional rather than normative. We may feel that it is the laws of nature that keep the world running while God watches over it all, allowing the world to work like a machine. And we may feel that a miracle is an activity of God’s intervention in our lives, after which he retreats once more into being a bystander or member of a cosmic, divine audience.

The alternative, I believe, is to understand “the laws of nature” as regularities rather than laws. In this way a miracle is no longer a violation of the laws of nature but an exception or an anomaly. A miracle is merely a break from or exception to divine routine. In this sense God did not violate laws of nature when he used Moses to hold back the waters of the Red Sea. Instead, God governed that part of His Creation just a little bit differently for just a little while. As an exception to the routine, God allowed waters to part and allowed water to defy gravity by rising into a wall on either side of a channel.

There is a very real sense, then, in which a miracle differs from what we consider normal only because it is an exception to the routine. In either way God is upholding and governing. We would do well not to see miracles as a greater display of God’s power or involvement than the routine, for doing something exceptional is no more difficult to the creator and sustainer of the universe than maintaining regularity. In fact, we may do well to see divine routine as being more impressive than the performance of miracles, if for no other reason than the fact that while a miracle benefits only a small number of people, the consistency of God’s providence benefits all men all the time.

Of course, as flawed human beings, we are more easily impressed by the exception than the rule. It is here that I would like to quote James Spiegel from his book The Benefits of Divine Providence. “Ironically, because the majority of people take for granted God’s faithful governance, his occasional deviations from cosmic routine are necessary to shake them out of their doldrums. Miracles, then, are uniquely impressive to us more because of the peculiarities of human psychology than because of any additional divine power they display (which is objectively no greater than when things run as usual). We are wowed by the miraculous only because we have been spoiled by God’s awesome regular providence (which, I should add, is our fault, not his).”

What difference does it make when we have a proper view of God’s providence? Spiegel answers as follows. “God is always working directly in the world in the most fundamental metaphysical sense, actively sustaining it, in the sense of constant creation, from moment to moment. Therefore, a miracle claim does not disturb belief about the underlying cause of nature’s uniformity. God is no more or less at work in the world when turning water into wine than when grapes ferment during the normal process of making wine. What makes the former sorts of events special and deserving the term miracle is, of course, the absence of certain secondary causes. But the supernatural cause behind it all remains constant…and consequently the strain to believe is significantly less than in [a low view of providence].”

So what we come to understand is that concepts like “miracle” and “laws of nature” are really just means we use to describe the metaphysics of the actual phenomenology of God’s providence, which is to say, the difference between how it appears that God works to us and how He actually works. A biblical understanding in this matter can and should have a profound impact on both life and faith.

January 11, 2010

I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people who read this site do not read the content of the “Reading Classics Together” posts. While I don’t blame you for that (it’s difficult to be interested in a project in which you are not participating), you are missing out on some great content. I can say that with confidence and with some humility because I am not the one creating the content. I am simply providing a summary of what older, wiser, more godly men have said in days gone by.

I want to share with you just one quote that jumped out at me last week as we read a chapter of John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This week’s subject was justification and, really, if you are going to discuss justification, there are few better guides than Murray. While he said many great things (see my summary post for some of them) this is the one that will remain with me this week and beyond:

“No one has entrusted himself to Christ for deliverance from the guilt of sin who has not also entrusted himself to him for deliverance from the power of sin.”

Pause just briefly to ponder that. If you have been saved by the blood of Christ, he has not delivered you not only from the guilt of sin, though that itself is an infinite expression of grace. He has also delivered you also from the power of sin. Consider for a moment what that means.

Before Christ saved you, you were necessarily mastered by your sin. Sin owned you; it controlled you. You may have been able to put aside or escape certain sins for a time, but you were never truly able to master them or to put them to death. You could not put sin to death because sin still owned and controlled you. You had a sin nature and no ability to do anything about it. You were enslaved.

But then God did his work of sovereign grace within you. He saved you from the guilt of your sin, reconciling you to himself. He accepted Christ’s work on your behalf and gave you the sure promise of eternity in his presence. But he has done more than even that. He has also given you the Holy Spirit to indwell you so, for the first time, you can overcome sin. You have been given mastery over it.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a gift this is? Do you understand that you are now able to defeat sin? The same power that saved you is now available for you to put sin to death, not just suppressing it or hiding it or masking it, but rooting it out, destroying it, killing it. What an amazing thing God has done. I am no longer a slave to sin but am now a slave to Christ.

That thought was resounding in my heart this weekend and it resounds in my heart as I begin a new week. Because of the work of Christ, because of the grace of God, because of the power of the Holy Spirit, I can defeat sin. “No one has entrusted himself to Christ for deliverance from the guilt of sin who has not also entrusted himself to him for deliverance from the power of sin.”

December 29, 2009

Do you remember learning to do long division back when you were in grade school? It was probably fourth or fifth grade when we learned to do it. It was a long and laborious process and one that, even in my day, seemed irrelevant. After all, we all had calculators and we knew that they could do it quickly and easily. With the tapping of a few buttons we could get our solution and it would be correct every time. Kids today can probably make an even better argument that division is best handled by computers or calculators. I’ve little doubt that once most of them are out of school they never do long division again.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a good step-by-step example of long division in operation (drawn from Wikipedia).

950 divided by 4:

1. The dividend and divisor are written in the long division tableau:

Now instead of dividing the whole dividend (950) by the divisor (4) we will simply divide each digit of the dividend by the divisor, one at a time, starting from the most significant (leftmost) digit:

2.The first number to be divided by the divisor (4) is the leftmost digit (9) of the dividend. Ignoring any remainder, we write the integer part of the result (2) above the division bar over the leftmost digit of the dividend.

Since we ignored the remainder, though, we have not accounted for the leftmost place entirely. That is to say: 4 × 2 is merely 8, and the relevant digit of the dividend was 9. Thus we subtract 8 from 9, yielding the remainder 1, to tell us how much of the leftmost place remains unaccounted for.

3. We “bring down” this unaccounted-for remainder from the leftmost place (1) then bring down the next digit of the dividend (5) and place it to the right of the remainder to create a new bottom number (15).

4. Next we repeat steps 2 and 3, using the newly created bottom number (15) as the active part of the dividend, dividing it by the divisor (4) and writing the results as before above and under the next digit of the dividend.

5. We repeat step 4 until there are no digits remaining in the dividend. The number written above the bar (237) is the quotient, and the result of the last subtraction is the remainder for the entire problem (2).

The answer to the above example is expressed as 237 with remainder 2. Alternatively, one can continue the above procedure to produce a decimal answer. We continue the process by adding a decimal and zeroes as necessary to the right of the dividend, treating each zero as another digit of the dividend. Thus the next step in such a calculation would give the following:

I’m sure you remember this kind of problem and solution. You probably remember hating having to go through all the bother. You probably remember, as I do, trying to get out of it. The argument my teachers made, and the argument I’m sure teachers continue to make today, is that doing the onerous task of long division not only teaches us how to do it on our own for those rare occasions that a computer or calculator or cell phone isn’t handy, but it also teaches how division works. By going through each step we see how it works—we learn not only the solution, but we also learn the process of solving it. It isn’t fun, but neither is it meant to be. It’s an educational process.

Since the release of my book I’ve done all kinds of written and radio interviews and I’ve spoken to many people about the book face-to-face. A question that gets asked often is what I hope people will take from the book—what are one or two things that I really want people to learn. And this is where the parallel to long division comes in. If there is just one thing I want people to take away from the book it’s the categories of discernment. If Christians can read the book and begin to think in the black and white terms of discernment, I’ll be well pleased. Just knowing that discernment is an expectation for all of us is valuable knowledge and something many Christians really do not understand.

And second to that, I want people to realize that discernment is something we are responsible for as individuals. We cannot simply leave discernment to the experts. Rather, we each need to learn to discern and we each need to grow in the skill of discernment. Like using a calculator for division, we can rely on others to give us the bottom line. But like doing long division, it is far better to do the work ourselves and to ensure we understand how to discern. The theological equivalent of using a calculator may be just Googling what John Piper or John MacArthur says about a certain topic and taking that word as law. It may be asking a parent or pastor and accepting what they say without further thought. We are all prone to want to get to the final tally without going through the intervening steps.

But like the kid who cheats by using a calculator, we cheat ourselves if we do not do the difficult work of discernment. As we discern what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, we train ourselves to think as Christians and we train ourselves to really understand what discernment is. We make sure that we understand the difficult business of discernment—not only the end result but the process of getting there.

December 16, 2009

It was quite a while ago now that a little article on an obscure web site caught my eye. It was one I had to file away. For some reason, that now escapes my mind, I found myself at the web site of The Peninsula, which describes itself as “Qatar’s Leading English Daily.” I hadn’t been there before and I haven’t been there since, except to read this little article.

The title is, “400 sheep fall off cliff in Turkey.” Perhaps it was just a slow day for news, or perhaps something about the story tickled the fancy of an editor. Or maybe sheep are critical to the economy of Qatar so this is big news. Who knows. But for some reason the publication decided to provide a small snippet about something that had happened in Istanbul. Here is the complete text of the article:

ISTANBUL: Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 metres to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived, newspaper reports said yesterday. Shepherds from Ikizler village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free, the Radikal daily said. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000.

I laughed as I read the story. We have all heard of lemmings and their renowned but apparently mythological plunges into the sea. As I child, and especially as a teenager, I was often exhorted not to be a lemming. “If your friends all jumped off of a cliff, would you?,” my parents or teachers would ask. At times I did (and I’m still sorry, Mr. Weirsma, honest). But lemmings don’t really plunge into the sea in suicidal droves. That legend was created and supported by a Walt Disney movie filmed in 1958. Even lemmings are too intelligent to kill themselves en masse.

Sheep don’t commit suicide, or not knowingly at any rate. They don’t deal with despair by leaping to their deaths. The problem with sheep is that they are dumb. Really dumb. Far more dumb than lemmings. They are committed to a leader, and so committed that they will follow this leader even at the cost of their safety. When the leader wanders off a cliff, so do the rest of the sheep. This is both sad and slightly comical (unless you’re the guy who decided to have a hearty breakfast while he should have been keeping his eye on that $74,000 flock of sheep). And in this little article we see this kind of leader. He led his entire flock over a cliff. When he fell to his death he was quickly followed by hundreds and then thousands of the flock. They were soon piled so deep that the ones at the bottom were crushed and the ones on top were able to survive, their fall cushioned by the mass of bodies below. After a while it must have been like jumping onto a giant pile of wool.

Can’t you picture the shepherds, their eyes bulging as sheep after sheep disappears in the distance, careening off the edge of the cliff? Can’t you see them running towards the flock, yelling, shouting, drying desperately to distract the sheep from following their leader? Can’t you picture their shame as they look at the mass of writhing, broken bodies, and then look back at their breakfast, now forgotten?

This isn’t really the fault of the sheep is it? It was the fault of the shepherds who had neglected their flock in order to indulge in a meal. They knew their sheep and they knew that sheep are not intelligent creatures. While these men filled their stomachs, they neglected their sheep and hundreds of them were killed, falling to their deaths in a mad, blind rush off the edge of a cliff. It brings to mind Matthew 9:36 where we read that Jesus, going from town to town and village to village looked at the people and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A sheep without a shepherd is helpless and pathetic. It is pitiable. I know a pastor who moved to the countryside and bought himself a small flock of sheep. He later told me that he learned as much about being a pastor from owning sheep as he had from all the books he had ever read on pastoral theology.

This story could almost be a parable, couldn’t it? I can almost picture Jesus standing on the side of a hill in Galilee sharing this story with his disciples as they sat before him. “A man had a flock of sheep and entrusted them to shepherds. The shepherds, growing weary, allowed the sheep to wander as they ate their meal…”

I sometimes wonder if God allows things like this to happen just to provide us with something to chew on, to mull over in our minds. I thought of concluding this article with some exhortations or applications, but I don’t think I even need to. I will say only this: Jesus calls us sheep. Reading a story like this, I am not so sure that he means this as a compliment. But he also calls us his sheep, and I know that he means this as a tremendous encouragement, for he is the good shepherd, the one who never faints or grows weary or ignores his flock to fill his stomach (Isaiah 40:28). To us he says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14,15).

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