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Christian Living

May 30, 2011

Desert
Every soul thirsts. This thirst may not be obvious in every moment, but at some point and to some degree every soul thirsts after something, something it does not have. We are rarely content in our current condition, rarely content just the way we are. But while we all thirst, we do not all thirst in the same way. Donald Whitney’s book Ten Questions To Diagnose Your Spiritual Health has much to say about this. Whitney identifies 3 ways in which our souls thirst.

The Thirst of the Empty Soul

The soul of the unbeliever is empty toward the things of God. Until the Spirit fills the soul with his presence, it is devoid of any love for God. Without God, the unbeliever is constantly looking for something, anything. But he is unable to fill the emptiness. This is something many people do not understand, but something the Bible teaches clearly: While the believer’s soul is empty because he does not know God, he does not and cannot seek to fill it with God. Many people believe that unbelievers are truly seeking after God but unable to find him. The Bible tells us, though, that the empty soul is unable to understand or satisfy this thirst. Not only that, but the empty soul does not want to understand this thirst, and would not, even if it were possible. The empty soul is completely and fully opposed to God; it is deceitful and desperately wicked. As Paul writes in Romans 3:11, quoting David, “no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Psalm 14:2).

Thus the empty soul is left seeking to be satisfied by other things, fleeting things, good things and bad things. It seeks satisfaction in work, family, love, sex, money and everything else the world has to offer. It may seek satisfaction in religion and even the Christian faith, but it never truly seeks God and thus never truly finds him. Until the Holy Spirit enables that soul to understand the source of his thirst and enables him to see the One who can satisfy, he will continue to look in vain. “Just because a man longs for something that can be found in God alone doesn’t mean he’s looking for God,” says Whitney, “Many who claim they are questing for God are not thirsting for God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, but only for God as they want him to be, or a God who will give them what they want.”

The Thirst of the Dry Soul

May 26, 2011

Beauty?A short time ago blogger and author Rachel Held Evans wrote an article she titled “Thou Shalt Not Let Thyself Go?” She began it this way: “In my quest for biblical womanhood, I’ve found that sometimes there’s as much to learn from what the Bible doesn’t say as there is to learn from what it does say.” Her article, she suggested, reflected something the Bible doesn’t say. She looked to Mark Driscoll, Dorothy Patterson and Martha Peace and pointed out how each one of them has at one time suggested that a woman has to be careful that she does not “let herself go” after having children or after being married for some time.

“The message is as clear as it is ominous,” she concludes. “Stay beautiful or your husband might leave you. And if he does, it’s partially your fault.” She spent a month “studying everything the Bible says about women and beauty.” She “turned the Bible inside out, combed through dozens of commentaries, conducted word searches and topic studies and extensive research” and at the end of it all “found nothing in the Bible to suggest that God requires women to be beautiful.”

It is an interesting question: Does God want a woman to seek to remain attractive to her husband even while she grows older? Is there any significance to her doing this, or not doing this? Evans believes that emphasizing physical beauty, even as a woman ages (or perhaps especially as a woman ages) points to a new kind of misogyny. But after long reflection, I am not convinced. Hear me out here.

The Inner and the Outer

I agree that when the Bible speaks of beauty it largely downplays physical beauty in favor of inner beauty. According to the Bible, a beautiful woman is not one who is perfectly proportioned (by whatever society determines to be perfect) or one whose face is stunning. Rather, a beautiful woman is one who is genuinely godly, who reflects “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” The beauty the Bible commends is a beauty of character more than a beauty of appearance.

But. You knew there had to be a but. I think Evans may draw something of a false distinction between the inner and the outer as if these things are entirely disconnected. I would suggest that these two things are actually inexorably connected: the outer is a reflection of the inner. And this means that the outer person matters too. What a person wears has spiritual significance because what a person wears or how a person treats her body reflects her heart. This is contra the Gnostics who believe that what is spirit is inherently superior to what is physical. The Bible allows no such tension. Though only one is immortal, both were created by God and deemed very good. Our responsibility extends to both.

The Man I Am
May 24, 2011

On Wednesday night I headed home from our mid-week service, just like I always do. Around halfway home, while cruising down the highway at, well, highway speeds, I suddenly hit a powerful rain storm—one of those storms that hits like a wall of wind and water. Rain was dishing down and already the roads were beginning to flood a little bit. Passing cars were throwing up great sheets of water in their wake. I immediately flicked on my windshield wipers. They went up and back; up and back. And then they just stopped.

I didn’t panic, but I knew I was in some trouble. With the wipers out of commission, I couldn’t see anything ahead of me but the distant glow of another car’s lights. I turned the wipers off and on but all I saw was a weak little attempt to rise. Then they fell again and that was that. They were dead.

So there I was, traveling at 100 kilometers per hour, in the passing lane of a 6-lane highway, and I couldn’t see a thing. I had my 2 daughters with me, so I told them to pray while I tried to get over to the shoulder (the left shoulder was too narrow to pull over onto). I put on the 4-way flashers and gingerly started moving into the middle lane. One car had to swerve around me, but we made it. Then I eased myself into the slow lane. And from there I was able to get onto the shoulder and stop. To do this I had to drive with my head out the driver’s side window, but that was okay by me. I stopped the car and breathed a sigh of relief. Of course now we were on the shoulder in the lashing rain—not exactly a safe place to be. But we were okay. The wipers were well and truly shot, but I found that by driving slowly I could see enough to inch forward. I got off the highway at the next exit and carefully made my way home by side streets, occasionally stopping to cycle the wipers manually.

I returned home a little bit shaken. Everything had gone as well as could be hoped. But I knew how easily it could have been far, far worse. I was so grateful to God for preserving me, and for allowing me to be the one who went through it rather than Aileen. And then I went to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that I now needed to get those wipers fixed. It has been an extraordinarily wet spring around here and I knew we would need the wipers soon. And immediately I began grumbling about how expensive this was going to be. I even opened up Twitter and started typing something about what it was going to cost. But I stopped. Right before I hit that “tweet” button I paused. And I felt ashamed.

The night before I had been filled with gratitude that even while near-completely blind at high speed and in driving rain I had been preserved. I didn’t deserve that. I could as easily have been left in pieces all over the highway. I could have hit the guard rail or run into the car ahead of me. There are all kinds of ways that it could have ended badly. But I got home safely. I got to sleep in my own bed. I woke up healthy. But I woke up grumbling.

By the next morning my safety, and the safety of my daughters, was deemed to be worth less than whatever I imagined the new wiper motors would cost. Was God’s grace suddenly paling in comparison to $200? $300? Was his grace diminished by the cost of the fix?

It was a moment that lasted only a short time. But it was a moment of shame. It was a moment in which I got a little glimpse of the man I am. At least, it gave me a glimpse of the man I am when I do not think and live as a Christian. I am in the midst of an extensive study on the subject of money, and I was saddened to see how tightly I still hold to it, how I still regard it as mine, how I refuse to default to seeing myself as a steward rather than an owner. This teaches me that as I learn what the Bible says about money, about possessions, about stuff, I will first and foremost have to teach myself.

In the end it cost me $198 to have the wiper fixed. Apparently there’s a transmission that coordinates the wipers, and that transmission spontaneously combusted or something. Add the part to the labor and the sales tax, and that’s what it cost. So I paid for the car to get fixed, but I also paid for a lesson in God’s grace despite my lack of gratitude. At $198 the cost is more than fair.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 23, 2011

Open Bible Devotions
I recently wrote about Date Nights & Devotions or what the Lord has taught me about my relationship with him through dating my wife. In that brief article I simply sought to show that the purpose of our personal devotions does not need to be learning about God as much as just spending time with him. The great joy of personal devotions is not gaining facts about God but the joy of time spent together.

This leaves a question: How do we get to know someone better? How do we get to know God better? When pursuing God we tend to act differently than if we are pursuing another person. But I think we need to see that we should not break the rules of relationship just because we are attempting to relate to God.

Here are a few of the ways we relate to people which in turn point us to the ways in which we can relate to God.

We Spend Time

The way I came to know the woman who was to become my wife was by spending time with her. There was no trick to it and no shortcut. We sat in church services together, we went on dates together, we enjoyed one another’s company. We did this for 3 years before being married and we have continued to do so for almost 13 years since then. Any deep and healthy relationship will depend upon time spent together. This is true of human relationships and is certainly no less true when befriending God.

We spend time with God in personal devotions. Personal devotions need not be Bible study. They do not need to be a time where you depend upon commentaries and dictionaries, though these are wonderful resources. Personal devotions are simply a time to be with God, to enjoy communing with him. This is done by speaking and by listening, by saying words to God in prayer and receiving words from God through his Word. It may involve a long time of listening followed by a long time of speaking, or it may be far more conversational, far more back-and-forth. The purpose of it all is not to learn about God, but to know God, to grow in relationship with him.

We spend time with God in church. Jonathan Edwards was exactly right when he said, “The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.” When we sit under the preaching of the Word we meet with God. We may not remember a whole lot afterwards, but that does not mean that we have not met with God. We can commune with God in prayer, in singing to him, in the Lord’s Supper. Free yourself to make each of these situations relational as much as intellectual (though I will grant that this is a bit of a false distinction).

We Tell Stories

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.