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Christian Living

Responding to Criticism
March 05, 2014

Criticism is inevitable. At certain times we will all face another person’s analysis or rebuke of our behavior. The best kind of criticism comes from friends, from those who know us and love us best. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5-6). In his little book True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts offers three tips for responding to criticism, and especially this kind of criticism—the kind that comes in the context of friendship, of iron sharpening iron.

Expect It

We should expect criticism. We should expect criticism because we are sinful, so far from the holiness God requires and so far from the holiness we desire. If anything we ought to be surprised that we receive so little criticism. We should also expect criticism because friendships—especially close friendships—invite it. Criticism may arise from a negative spirit, but it can also arise from love. Our best friends must have an open invitation to offer criticism of our lives. Is there no one in your life who offers you critical feedback? Then it may be that you have chased off your friends by responding poorly and pridefully in the past. Expect to be criticized from time to time, and give your friends an open invitation to do so.

Examine It

When we receive criticism, and especially when that criticism stings or seems outrageous, we need to examine it to see if it is true. It may be that our friends have a faulty perspective, but it may be that they have a better perspective that we do. George Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Humility admits that others may see what we cannot or will not see ourselves. Roberts says, “We should resist the instinctive temptation to defend ourselves or attack the critic, but rather consider whether there is truth in what is being said.” Prayerfully examine that criticism to see if it is true and fair.

Endure It

There will be times the criticism will be painful but true. In such times, we will need to endure that criticism as we respond to it by making changes to our lives. There are times the criticism will sting because we come to believe the criticism is unfair. In either case, we need to keep ourselves from responding in kind or lashing out at the one who criticized us. We must resist the temptation to gossip about that person or to sever the friendship. Far better, we must endure criticism just as Christ Jesus patiently endured all the criticism that was heaped upon him. As always, as ever, he is our model.

March 04, 2014

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. These Christians held, among other things, that the Old Testament Sabbath commands—given to observe the fourth commandment—carry into the New Testament Lord’s Day. This meant that the whole day was consecrated to the Lord. A whole twenty-four hours out of every week was to be protected from interference from life’s workaday responsibilities.

Though I continue to have a great deal of respect for those churches and that tradition, my views have changed a little bit. I no longer believe that observing the fourth commandment requires refraining from all work on Sunday. But I haven’t abandoned sabbath altogether. Life as a Baptist has forced me to see this: It’s not just sabbatarians who need sabbath. It’s not just sabbatarians who need a day set apart.

It has always fascinated me that God chose to rest. He worked six days, creating the heavens and the earth and everything that would fill them. And then he, the God who never grows weary, chose to rest. He took sabbath. Why would he do this? Why would the all-powerful God rest? He rested to established a pattern, to establish a flow. There would be times for labor and times for rest. Six days you could earn a living and carry out your day-to-day responsibilities, and on the seventh you were to rest. Six years you could harvest your crops, but on the seventh the fields were to lie fallow. There would be ebb and flow, there would be work and rest. God did not intend all work and no rest; he did not intend all rest and no work. He intended both to flow in a pattern, a dance.

I still believe in the importance of a pattern of work and rest. Sometimes I think my fellow Baptists may have been just a little too reckless in abandoning the pattern of six days followed by one day.

Though we are not sabbatarians in my home, we have found ourselves following and valuing the pattern. We adopted it naturally, as a natural consequence of growing up with it. On Sunday we break from our regular work: the children do no homework, we avoid leagues and activities, Aileen does not schedule her regular activities. (As a pastor my schedule is slightly more complicated, so I take a break on a different day.)

Looking at it now, I see three great lessons we learn from a day set apart.

March 03, 2014

Family is under attack. As Christians we are accustomed to hearing about divorce and pornography and gay marriage and so many other moral issues. Have you ever considered how many of these moral issues relate directly to family? If you look, you will see that the very notion of family—family as the Bible describes it—is under sustained and heavy attack. This means that your family is under attack.

We know that a distinctly Christian notion of family is crucial to raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. But there is more at stake than raising the next generation of Christians. Family is crucial in at least two other ways: It teaches us fundamental truths of the Christian faith and it serves as an important kind of ministry. Allow me to explain.

God Teaches Us Through Family

God uses family to teach us. There are several areas of Christian life and doctrine that God chooses to explain to us through metaphor, and one common metaphor is family. There are parts of Christian life and doctrine we can only rightly understand if we first understand family as God creates and intends it.

God Uses Family to Teach About His Nature. The relationship between parents and children is a distant glimpse of the relationships within the godhead, and, in particular, the relationship of the first person of the Trinity to the second—God the Father to God the Son. We can only describe and understand the relationship of God the Father to God the Son if we understand the relationship of earthly fathers to earthly sons. If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our ability to understand God’s triune nature.

God Uses Family to Teach Us about His Gospel. God tells us that when he justifies us through faith in Jesus Christ, he adopts us as his sons and daughters. Therefore we know that the relationship of parents to their children is not incidental or unimportant—no mere fragment of God’s plan for his people. Rather, the relationship of children being brought into their parents’ family is designed to teach us about our relationship to God and to teach us about the intimacy of our relationship to him. If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our understanding of the gospel.

God Uses Family To Teach Us about His Church. Peter calls the church “the family of God” (1 Pet. 4:17) and Paul refers to it as “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15). As Christians, we belong to the same family because we have been united to one another through our adoption as sons and daughters of the same Father. It is because we are sons and daughters of the same Father that Christians refer to one another as “brothers” and “sisters.” If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our understanding of the church.

Do you see it? To understand God’s nature, God’s gospel, and God’s church, we first need to understand family. When a father abandons his family, the metaphors grow distorted. When a family has two fathers and no mothers, the metaphors grow distorted. Even when a Christian couple determines for selfish reasons not to have children, the metaphors grow distorted. But a strong family, built upon the Scriptures, serves as a powerful image of all of these truths.

How Family Ministers

Your family is under attack because of all it represents. Your family is also under attack because of what it does. God designed your family to serve as a kind of ministry to the church and to the world.

We All Feel Like Frauds
February 24, 2014

Sometimes we all feel like frauds. At times we feel like everyone else is experiencing something so wonderful while we are just putting on a show. Their relationships are so deep, their friendships are so real, their faith is so strong, their worship is so heartfelt, their marriage is so satisfying. But our relationships are so shallow, our friendships are so fake, our faith is so weak, our worship is so distracted, our marriage is so difficult.

That’s life under this sun. It’s a life of inadequacy, a life where we are never as fulfilled and satisfied as we want to be. For all the genuine joys this life brings, there is still and always the lingering sorrow of all that life is not and will never be.

Sometimes I like to sit and think about the books that push their way onto the lists of bestsellers. Almost by definition, each of the books that sells a half million or a million copies is addressing some kind of deep felt need. After all, why else would you buy it and why else would you recommend it to a friend except that it meets you where you’re at—it promises help in an area in which you feel incomplete or inadequate.

  • The Purpose Driven Life promised to answer the ultimate question of life by helping us find our purpose. And who hasn’t felt unmoored, adrift, and purposeless in this world?
  • Jesus Calling promised us more than hearing from God through the Bible. It held out the promise, or the possibility, that Jesus might speak to us in a new and fresh way and, perhaps even better, in a personal way.
  • The Five Love Languages promised that it would give us better and longer-lasting relationships as we figured out how to relate in healthier ways.
  • The Shack promised a new way to understand God and a much more personal way to relate to him than any we have known this side of Eden.
  • 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is For Real—and all the other entries in the “I Went to Heaven” genre—promised answers to what we can only take by faith: that there is hope and life beyond the grave.
  • Radical promised to help us shake off the unfulfilling dullness of the American Dream and to pursue something so much bigger and nobler than the accumulation of possessions and a savings account.
  • Your Best Life Now promised that our lives could be better and happier, more fulfilling and more positive.

And on it goes. Every time a book hits the list of bestsellers, it is worth asking why it is there and what need it promises to address. There is the occasional exception, the occasional book that sells a million copies based on the popularity of the author (see anything related to Duck Dynasty) or because of brilliant marketing, but most books make the list because we put them there as we try to find answers to our deepest needs. Some of the most popular authors are adept at writing to our needs, even if they don’t answer them in a compelling and satisfying way.

A year ago I wrote about this very topic and suggested that the solution is found in Ecclesiastes and the single word Vapor. This was the refuge of Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

February 19, 2014

When I was a child my family owned a cottage—a beautiful cottage where I spent every summer of my childhood. On those long, warm, summer evenings, we would sometimes have friends and neighbors from up and down the road converge on our property for giant games of capture the flag. Those were grand nights—the kind of nights that form indelible memories.

One of the things I loved to do when we played capture the flag was to set trip lines. I would string a rope between two trees and wait in the dusk for some unsuspecting person to stumble across it and go down. Looking at it through adult eyes it sounds like a recipe for a cracked skull or broken ankle, but it seemed like good, clean fun back then.

The memory of stringing trip lines flashed into my mind recently, because something I read in a book took me out at the knees, so to speak. And down I went.

Vaughan Robert’s little book True Friendship has a lot to commend it, but there is one thing that stood out more than any other. Before I get to it, though, allow me a brief aside. I’ve thought often about this old blog post from Bob Kauflin:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people - sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

I read for the same reasons. Like Bob, I forget almost everything I read. But I don’t mind, because I don’t want or need to remember everything, so long as I find those two or three sentences that will be resounding in my heart and mind a week or month or year from now.

February 05, 2014

The earliest messages are often the longest-lasting messages. Charles Spurgeon said that the voices of childhood echo throughout life so that “The first learned is generally the last forgotten.” This can be a tremendous blessing when truth is taught early and when it sinks in deep. It is for this reason that Christians have valued catechizing their children, teaching them the foundational truths of the faith while they are young. But this same principle can prove troublesome when the first lessons learned are poor ones, because those lessons are hard to correct and harder still to erase.

From a young age boys invariably receive one very unhelpful message: that men can be friends, but that there are strict, though unwritten, limits on how close a friendship they can have. Boys are taught that friendships are good, but that friendships can only grow to such an extent before they are good no longer.

From my youngest days I knew that it was good to have a friend, but that a friendship could only be so close before our closeness would “out” us. If that happened, I would be called “Sissy!” at best, “Queer!” or a host of other degrading synonyms at worst. We could play rough and tumble games together. We could play with the approved toys together. But we had to be very careful with relational closeness or dependency, because the other boys were watching with suspicion and judgment. The fathers may even have been watching with a wary eye, wondering if relational intimacy might just portend sexual intimacy. We had to be strong, independent, and self-reliant, knowing that every close friendship walked near a cliff and there would be fearful consequences if we came to close to its edge. We could be pals, we could be buddies, but we couldn’t love one another.

In his excellent little book True Friendship (just $2.99 on Kindle!), Vaughan Roberts quotes James Wagenvoord who describes the messages men absorb:

He shall not cry. He shall not display weakness. He shall not need affection or gentleness or warmth. He shall comfort but not desire comforting. He shall be needed but not need. He shall touch but not be touched. He shall be steel not flesh. He shall be inviolate in his manhood. He shall stand alone.

This is the idea of manhood we assimilate before we are old enough to think for ourselves, before we are able to evaluate for ourselves. This is the idea of manhood we absorb before we are capable of going to the Bible to learn for ourselves that it teaches something very different and so much better.

It is not difficult to see Satan’s hand in it, is it? He sees that if he can keep men from forming close friendships, he can keep men from forming close spiritual friendships. If Satan can keep men from acting like friends, he can keep them from acting like brothers.

I have been thinking a lot about friendship recently and realizing the truth of Spurgeon’s statement. Those early lessons really are hard to forget. They are difficult to overcome.

But I’m trying.

January 30, 2014

I once had a job I hated. Day after day I sat in a windowless basement office surrounded by hot, noisy computers. Day after day nothing happened. I had no major projects to inspire me, no big goals to work toward, no clear mission to fulfill. It was a bland and boring existence down there, just waiting for something interesting to happen. But nothing ever did, at least until the day came when they laid me off. I hated that job. I hated going to that office. The eventual pink slip, though intimidating and humiliating, was also something of a relief because at least it promised an end to those days.

I have thought about that job many times as the years have passed. Sometimes it is in the context of periods when the job I do now, a job I love, seems dull and insignificant, when pastoring involves more paperwork than people. Sometimes it is in talking to Aileen who often struggles with the humdrum nature of the work she does in keeping house and raising family. Sometimes it is in talking to other people who feel their skills exceed their opportunities, or who believe their training ought to take them beyond the tasks that consume their working hours.

And then I think back to that job in network administration, to the grumbling and discouragement, and in retrospect, and upon further reflection, I have to own my guilt in it. What I see more than anything, and what concerns me more than anything, was my utter lack of joy in what I was doing. I fully believe that job was my calling, my vocation, at that time in life, and yet I did it without any passion, any drive. I did it without any joy. I failed at my calling in that time and in that place. I deserved to be laid off!

But the job wasn’t the problem. I was the problem because I refused to attach any significance to the work I was doing. The work was boring and mundane, dull and tedious, because I allowed it to be that way. I wasn’t thinking Christianly about that job or the work I was meant to do there. My lack of joy in doing my job was a direct result of the lack of significance I attached to it.

Here’s the thing I had to see, and the thing I still need to call to mind: Work is not significant only when it utilizes my full capacity or full capabilities. Work is not significant only when it offers unusual challenge or special opportunity. Work is not significant only when it is measurable in dollars and cents or praise and compliments. Work has intrinsic significance because it gives me the opportunity to do something with joy—with joy in the Lord. I can do my work in such a way that it glorifies God, or I can do it in such a way that it dishonors him. Anything I can do to God’s glory has significance. It has great significance!

January 22, 2014

My children are growing up fast and, between you and me, they’re growing up a little bit faster than I had expected. My son is thirteen now, just a half school year away from being in high school. I sometimes find myself remembering when I was thirteen, and the kinds of things I awakened to and became interested in. Though I see now that I was only a kid, I was sure that I was all grown up. It’s disquieting at best. Meanwhile my oldest daughter is 11, going on 16. I love her to death, but she too is getting far too old for her own good. There are three kids in our home, but only one of them is still a child.

As my kids grow up, I find that I need to have important but uncomfortable discussions with them. They are unfortunate discussions, but the kind you’ve got to have in a world like ours. I suppose the only thing worse than having those discussions is not having them.

Some time ago we implemented a plan in our home to protect the kids from some of what lurks out there on the Internet. We removed Internet access from some devices, limited it on others, and applied filters that keep tabs on what we are doing online. It has been very smooth from a technological perspective, but a little less so on the interpersonal level.

Recently my son said, “Dad, you’re treating me like I’m addicted to pornography. But I haven’t ever seen it and don’t want to see it!” And he’s right, to some degree. If I’m not treating him like an addict, I am at least treating him like a pre-addict, someone who has the inclination, or who may well have it before long. In this way I think I understand him a little better than he understands himself. Of course our Internet plan is not designed only to protect the children from exposure to pornography, but that is still one of its major purposes.

But his exasperation and hurt feelings gave us opportunity to talk about one of the principles I have found helpful in my own life: When you are at your best, plan for when you are at your worst. I see this as an application of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

January 15, 2014

Every pastor, and I suppose every Christian as well, has a kind of theological toolbox, a means of dealing with the questions and concerns that appear throughout life. I was thinking recently about the tools I use most often and narrowed it down to two. There are two grids I’ve found especially helpful, and ones I return to again and again, not only in my own life, but also as I interact with others.

What Is of Primary Importance?

How do we know which of the Christian doctrines are most important? How do we know where we must stand firm without wavering and where we may be able to work with others despite differences? While no truth is insignificant, there are clearly some doctrinal foundations that, if disrupted, will force the whole structure to collapse.

I have been helped here by Al Mohler who borrowed from the medical world to describe theological triage. Theological triage is a means of sorting doctrine into three levels of theological urgency.

First-level doctrines are those that are those that are most central and essential to the Christian faith. They are doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. These are the doctrines that demanded councils and creeds. These are the doctrines that if you deny, you will soon deny the Christian faith altogether.

Second-level doctrines are significant issues, but ones for which there is still disagreement among gospel-believing Christians. We can still affirm the faith of those who believe the opposite of what we believe, but we may not be able to enjoy denominational or local-church fellowship with them. These are issues such as the meaning and mode of baptism, and whether or not women are permitted to serve as pastors.

Third-level doctrines are those for which Christians may disagree, even while maintaining the closest kind of fellowship. You and I may believe different things here, but it will not diminish our fellowship and we can easily participate in the same local church. Eschatology is an example of this kind of doctrine, where as long as we affirm the bodily and victorious return of Jesus Christ, we may disagree on exactly what sequence of events will lead to it.

Theological triage sorts doctrines into one of these three categories and helps us see which issues are the most urgent and important and which issues ought to receive the most thorough and vigorous defense. This is a tool I find myself pulling out of my toolbox again and again.

How Can I Know God’s Will?

How do we know what God desires from us? How can we know God’s will for our lives? This is a question we all ask at various points in life and it is a question we all need to help others with from time to time. The tool I use here simply requires asking three questions.

January 13, 2014

Marriage is under attack. Marriage has always been under attack. The world, the flesh and the devil are all adamantly opposed to marriage, and especially to marriages that are distinctly Christian. Marriage, after all, is given by God to strengthen his people and to glorify himself; little wonder, then, that it is constantly a great battleground.

I have been thinking recently about some of the foremost foes of Christian marriage and, really, the foremost foes I see creeping up to assault my own marriage. Here are 6 deadly enemies of marriage, and Christian marriage in particular.

Neglect of Foundation

The enemy of marriage that deserves to be at the very top of the list is this one: neglecting the foundation—neglecting the biblical foundation. The Bible makes it clear that marriage is an institution decreed by God and an institution meant to glorify God by displaying something about him. The great mystery of marriage is that the covenantal relationship of husband and wife is a portrait of the covenantal relationship of Christ and his church. Marriage is from God, about God, to God, and for God, so we neglect God at our peril. It is only when the biblical foundation is in place that we are able to rightly understand how a husband and wife are to relate, how they are to take up their separate roles, and how they are to seek to bring glory to God both individually and as a couple. To build marriage on any other foundation is to neglect the rock in favor of building upon the sand.

Neglect of Prayer

Prayer is our lifeline, the means through which we praise God, express our gratitude, confess our sin, and plead for help. The couple that prays together is confessing before God that they are dependent upon him, that they are unable to thrive without him. Private prayer is essential to the Christian life, and prayer as a couple is essential to the Christian marriage. Here, kneeling at the bedside or sitting by the fire, the husband and the wife meet with the Lord together, praising him for his goodness and grace, confessing their sin against him and against one another, and pleading for his wisdom and help. When prayer ceases, the couple is tacitly proclaiming that they can survive and thrive on their own, that they do not need God’s ongoing, moment-by-moment assistance. Prayerlessness is a great foe of marriage.

Neglect of Fellowship

Another great enemy of marriage is a lack of fellowship—local church fellowship. Satan loves it when he can compel an individual to withdraw from the church; how much better when he can draw away a couple or a whole family. When a married couple leaves the church, or even pulls back to just doing the bare minimum, they are leaving the place where they are meant to see healthy marriage modeled, where they are able to worship together side-by-side, where they will find friends before whom they can open up their marriage so others can see and diagnose their struggles. Marriage thrives in the context of the local church and withers outside it.

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