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Christian Living

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.

January 10, 2014

Praying in circles is fast becoming a thing in some Evangelical churches. People have been taught to draw circles around the things they want, or even to walk in circles around the things they are sure the Lord ought to grant them. In either case, they are to pray around those things and in that way to claim them for the Lord.

The inspiration, I suppose, is Mark Batterson and his book The Circle Maker (my review). Batterson bases his prayer technique on a story from the life of Honi Ha-Ma’agel, a Jewish scholar who lived in the first century B.C. Jewish history records him as being a miracle-worker in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. Here is a brief account of his greatest miracle:

On one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.

Batterson explains, “The prayer that saved a generation was deemed one of the most significant prayers in the history of Israel. The circle he drew in the sand became a sacred symbol. And the legend of Honi the circle maker stands forever as a testament to the power of a single prayer to change the course of history.”

And it is from Honi that Batterson found the inspiration to begin praying in circles. In his book he describes many occasions in which he has prayed in circles and seen the Lord grant what he asked. The promise of his book is that it “will show you how to claim God-given promises, pursue God-sized dreams, and seize God-ordained opportunities. You’ll learn how to draw prayer circles around your family, your job, your problems, and your goals.”

I want to give you three reasons not to pray in circles in the manner Batterson prescribes.

It’s Extra-Biblical

What I consider most notable about Batterson’s approach to prayer is that it is extra-biblical. It is not drawn from the New Testament or the Old Testament but from the Talmud. To the Jew the Talmud is the authoritative, binding body of religious tradition; to the Christian it is nothing, no more binding and no more prescriptive than Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be of historical and academic interest, but it does not represent the voice of God to his people. When Batterson prays in circles, he begins with a tradition outside the Bible and then looks within the Scripture to build a shaky support structure.

January 08, 2014

You have heard the distinction as often as I have—the distinction between head knowledge and heart knowledge. We learn facts about God, about his character, about his Word, but it is not until those facts reach the heart that they become spiritually beneficial. They say the journey from the head to the heart is the longest journey of all.

I’ve never been too comfortable with this distinction between head knowledge and heart knowledge, and recently Andrew Davis helped me sharpen my thinking a little bit. In his book An Infinite Journey (see my review) he tells about a testimony he once heard.

“I grew up in a Christian home, said the young lady who was sharing her testimony at an evening church service, “and I learned a lot about the Bible. But it was all head knowledge, not heart knowledge. It wasn’t until all that head knowledge moved down to my heart that my life began to change.” I watched as she pointed from her head to the center of her chest, to represent the movement of this knowledge, almost like the journey food travels through the esophagus to the stomach.

We have all heard people speak like this and we know what they are getting at. Yet here’s my concern: When we speak in this way, we pit the two kinds of knowledge against one another, with head being the enemy and heart being the friend. It’s like we need to battle the head in order to reach the heart, or like head knowledge is the necessarily evil we need to endure to reach the heart.

Now obviously there is a genuine concern that is being addressed in language like this. I was once much like this young lady. I grew up in a Christian home and knew facts about God and the Bible and the Christian faith, but without actually being saved. I think of a man like Bart Ehrman who, though an ardent enemy of Christianity, has a vast knowledge of the Bible. In God’s Word we encounter demons who know that God exists. We encounter apostates who once professed the Christian faith and knew a great deal about it before they wandered away and eventually revoked the faith.

December 30, 2013

I like to be strong. At least I like to appear strong. You do too, I think. Most of us value strength and look down on weakness. We honor those who have their lives together and regard with suspicion those who do not.

Strength = good, weakness = bad. That is our functional formula. But it is not the Lord’s. 2 Corinthians 12 says it very differently: “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you,” said the Lord, “ ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul saw that weakness, not strength, was key to his ministry. He had to own his weakness so the Lord could fill him with strength. The stronger he was, the weaker the power of God would be; the weaker he was, the greater the power of God would be.

Kent Hughes says it well:

But what we most need to see is that power in weakness is shorthand for the cross of Christ. In God’s plan of redemption, there had to be weakness (crucifixion) before there was power (resurrection). And this power-in-weakness connection is what Paul reflected on when he contemplated Christ’s praying three times amidst his weakness and powerlessness in Gethsemane before his death on the cross, which was followed by the power of the resurrection! Paul came to understand and embrace the fact that his thorn in the flesh was essential to his ongoing weakness and the experience of Christ’s ongoing power.

Paul knew of Jesus, who was not afraid to let other people see his weakness. When he became weary and overwhelmed he would just up and disappear, heading into the wilderness to get some time with his Father. When he was in the garden he took some of his friends with him and asked if they would watch and pray. He knew weakness and he did not try to bluster his way through it.

December 16, 2013

We all have some familiarity with that deep, gnawing, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety, that stubborn worry that refuses to abate. The cause and effect may be a little different for each one of us, but we all have a time and a place and set of circumstances that causes us to be anxious.

In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch makes 4 fascinating observations about worriers and their brand of vision-casting.

Worriers Live in the Future

Worriers live in the future. We are all people of the past, present and future, and worry has a way of spanning all three time zones. Fear is often triggered by past events, then reacts to crises in the present, and anticipates their consequences in the future. Fear’s preference, though, is to point you to the future, and to do this it relies upon the power of imagination.

We tend to think that imagination is the realm of the child, but it is equally the realm of the worrier. We have imaginations so we can consider things that do not yet exist. We admire people with expansive imaginations as visionaries, people who are able to look ahead and anticipate the trajectory of the nation, of the church, of the business, or of the individual. The worrier is a visionary too, in that he sees, or thinks he sees, the future, and what it will bring. He lives in the future. He creates a vision of the future, he transplants himself there in his mind, and he feels all the traumatic emotions associated with it.

Worriers See the Future in Minute, Gory Detail

Worriers live in the future, and they see that future in minute, gory detail. I cannot say it better than Welch: “Worriers are visionaries minus the optimism.” That stings. Where a visionary has an optimistic view of the future based on his ability to see current patterns and predict a better alternative, a worrier sees the future in great detail, but always in gory detail. When she anticipates tomorrow’s medical appointment, she is already living in a future where her child is battling cancer and succumbing to it. When she sees her child pulling out of the driveway, she catches a vision of twisted metal and broken bodies. She sees the future, but she sees it as bleak and disappointing.

December 12, 2013

Keith Green told us, “Jesus commands us to go. It should be the exception if we stay. It’s no wonder we’re moving so slow, When His church refuse to obey.” I used to think that if Green had been allotted a few more years, he probably would have walked away from his career as a musician to be a missionary. He had such passion for missions that it seemed inevitable. But that was when I was young and idealistic, before I realized this is not the way these things things work. Not usually, anyway.

One of the unexpectedly difficult things about preaching, at least in my experience, is when I encounter one of those commands or applications in which I am far from exemplary. I need to preach that passage and I need to preach it as it is, yet all the while I carry this deep awareness of my own failings. But I still have to preach it. If I could only preach those areas in which I am excelling, well, an awful lot of the Bible would remain out-of-bounds.

I both love and hate to preach passages that speak to evangelism, and especially mission, to taking the gospel to the nations. When I preach those passages I come up against one of my observations and one of my frustrations in the Christian world. It used to be a frustration with others. Now it’s a frustration with myself.

You’ve probably heard it said that when it comes to missions, there are the goers and the senders. There are the few who go, and there are the many who send them. We can’t all go, or we would have no one to resource the work that needs to be done. Well and good. I am fully aware that even while the New Testament tells us to take the gospel to the farthest reaches of the world, it also commends a quiet life right where we are. God does not require all of us to be foreign missionaries.

What jumps out at me as I look at the Evangelical world, is that the voices screaming “Go!” the loudest are not people who have gone, but people who have stayed. It’s not the missionaries telling us to go, but the mission-trippers. They have gone for a week here or there. Maybe they even went for a month. But they issue their commands from safe pulpits in safe countries, from mega-conferences where they stay in suites, from comfortable lives in comfortable parts of the world. The Go! seems to lose a little bit of its weight when the one giving it is earning a good living in a safe suburb or when he has never gone for more than a week at a time.

December 09, 2013

It may be one of the most difficult imperatives in all of the Bible: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). This verse assures us there are times we ought to be angry, but with one all-important caveat: we must not sin in our anger. Any honest person will need to acknowledge the sheer difficulty in doing this. Anger comes easily; righteous anger does not.

In his book Uprooting Anger, Robert Jones offers help. He gives three distinguishing marks of righteous anger.

Actual Sin

The first mark of righteous anger is that it reacts against actual sin. It arises from an accurate perception of what is actually evil. The Shorter Catechism helpfully summarizes sin as any “want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” This is what ought to arouse our anger.

This means that for anger to be righteous, it cannot arise in response to a violation of my preferences. It cannot arise because I have been inconvenienced or I feel that my rights and freedoms have been trampled upon. Righteous anger reacts against what is really sin.

I love it when Aileen greets me when I get home from work. It makes me feel good because it makes me feel loved. But here’s the thing: Running to the front door to greet me isn’t always the first thing on her list of priorities. She gets busy with life, and often when I get home there is no welcoming committee with signs and balloons and a brass band. It’s right in this moment that I can find myself getting angry. I don’t blow up and yell and scream and throw my computer bag across the room. Instead, I sulk. I get angry, but try to pretty it up by letting it be that brooding anger instead of that explosive anger. When Aileen does see me and does come to give me that hug, I tighten up or move away. Now I don’t want anything to do with her.

Has she sinned? Did she sin against God? Of course not. She hasn’t sinned, she just hasn’t accounted for one of my petty preferences. In that moment, I am making a moral judgment as if I am God, as if I am the one who makes the rules that govern this world. Aileen has not conformed to the law of Tim, and this is the source of my displeasure. I’ve elevated myself to God’s place so that against me, me only, has she sinned, and done what is evil in my sight.

December 05, 2013

Gossip is a serious problem. It is a problem in the home, in the workplace, in the local church and in broader evangelicalism. It is a problem in the blogosphere, in social media, and beyond. In his book Resisting Gossip, Matthew Mitchell defines gossip as “bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart” and shows that when the book of Proverbs uses the word “gossip,” it does so in the noun form, not the verb form. In other words, the Bible is concerned less with the words that are spoken and more with the heart and mouth that generate such destruction. Words matter, but they are simply the overflow of the heart. As always, the heart is the heart of the matter.

Here, drawn from Mitchell’s book, is a gallery of gossips, five different gossiping people you will meet in life.

Gossip #1: The Spy

The first kind of gossip, and I know you’ve run across this person before, is The Spy. Solomon describes him in Proverbs 11:13: “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.” The Spy is an informer, a person who gathers secrets so he can use them to his personal advantage. This is the person who is always listening for rumors and who always seems to know everyone else’s business. His ear is always to the ground. The Spy’s main motivation is power. It may be the thrill of knowing something before everyone else, or it may be the power that comes when threatening others by revealing their secrets. He uses information to elevate himself and to destroy others.

Gossip #2: The Grumbler

The second gossip is The Grumbler and we find him in Proverbs 16:28: “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” The Grumbler complains and criticizes. She criticizes other people and complains about them behind their backs. She spreads all their secrets, describes exactly how she feels about them, and then excuses it all by saying, “I just needed to vent for a while.” Because she is miserable, and because misery loves company, she drags other people into her grumbling. Her motive is often jealously or envy. She wants what another person has and grumbles because she does not have it herself.

Gossip #3: The Backstabber

We all know The Backstabber, don’t we? The Backstabber is a complainer, but he is more than that. He is also angry and malicious and is out destroy others. He may bring full-out lies in order to bring down another person, or he may engage in a smear campaign. He looks for something, anything, everything wrong with his enemies and makes sure everyone knows about those things; if he can’t find them, he makes them up. The Backstabber is often motivated by revenge for some deep offense, some opportunity lost, or some hardship gained. This offense or perceived offense has led to bitterness which has taken root and motivated this desire for revenge. Today, many of these people begin web sites and do their work as loudly and publicly as possible.

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