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Christian Living

July 10, 2013

For a long time now I’ve had a fascination with what we might refer to as ordinary Christianity, Christian living for the rest of us. This kind of a life stands in contrast to the demands of so many of today’s bestselling Christian books, books that tell us we ought to live extraordinary lives, crazy and above-and-beyond lives. Some of these authors tacitly (or even blatantly) suggest that ordinary must be synonymous with apathetic and that all these comparative and superlative terms—this-er, that-er—are synonymous with godly. But when I look to the Bible I just don’t see it.

The Bible gives us those well-known big-picture commands, the meta commands for the time between Christ’s resurrection and return. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That Great Commission tells us the what but does not give us a lot of instruction on the how. How do we do that in our daily lives? How does this look in the home and in the office and in the church? Can normal people living normal lives do all of this?

Answers come all through the New Testament and I find it fascinating that concern of the biblical writers is how to be ordinary, how to be normal. In their minds being ordinary offers challenge enough and to be normal is to honor God. Ordinary Christians carry out a Great Commission in ordinary ways through their ordinary lives.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul addresses a group of Christians he loves. He had received an encouraging report about them and sends them a letter to address some of their specific concerns. Many of these concerns are related to daily life. This is a mature church, Christians who had embraced the gospel with enthusiasm and who had preserved that gospel, growing in maturity, growing in strength. And when Paul tells them how to live a satisfying, God-honoring, Great Commission-fulfilling life, he writes about things that may seem so mundane: sexual purity, love between believers, diligence in all of life.

It is this final command that jumps out at me. Paul tells them, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” When he tells them to aspire to live quietly, he is essentially telling them, “work hard to live quietly” or “make it your ambition to be without ambition.” At our guilty worst we might want to hear him say, “Sell everything you own, move to the most difficult of all mission fields, give up your life for the gospel’s sake—that is Christian living.” But he does not. He tells them to live a quiet and unremarkable life, to be content to be unnoticed, to avoid meddling in other people’s affairs, and to settle into a life of hard work. To do all this is to please and honor God.

July 03, 2013

She just seems so much easier to live with than my wife.” It was a conversation over dinner between sessions at a conference, a conversation in a state far from home. The man felt his heart drawn away from his wife or, perhaps more accurately, toward another woman, a woman who was not his wife, a woman in his church, a woman who was another man’s wife. He believed these thoughts were involuntary, that the ideas were extrinsic to him, that Satan was tempting him with a sin perfectly suited to his weaknesses, to his heart idolatries. He was battling hard to keep the temptation from turning into fantasy, and from there to action.

“My wife is difficult to live with at times. She is needy. She is complicated. And this other woman seems so easy to figure out, so simple to live with.” He saw it not as a judgment of his wife as much as a simple statement of fact: it is difficult to make a life with another person. On the one side he had a woman who needed so much from him and on the other side he had a woman who looked like she would only give without taking. He knew it was a lie, he hated every thought that drew his heart toward her, and yet day after day it crept up and presented him with what promised to be an easier path.

We shifted the conversation away from his wife, away from the other woman, and toward Christ. Sometimes it is difficult to see how the gospel applies to life; sometimes it is not difficult at all.

The Bible tells us that a man is to love his wife in such a way that he imitates the love Christ has for his church, for his people. And if there is anything at all we know about Christ’s love for his people it is this: it is a love that will never end. Though we may stray for a time, he will draw us back. Though we may give up on Christ, he will never give up on us. His love will endure. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Christ’s love for the church provides the model of a husband’s love for his wife. This is the deepest kind of challenge for the Christian husband. Christ will never grow so worn out that he will shift his attention toward someone else instead. His heart will never stray. His affections will never waver. He will never grow so weary of us that he moves on.

I could hardly blame him if he did. There must be people out there who would prove a lot easier to deal with than me. There must be people out there whose hearts are less sinful than mine, who would progress in holiness faster than I would, who would worship more wholeheartedly and who would live with greater gratitude. And yet he has chosen me, he has set his love on me, and nothing will cause him to abandon me. He will never give up.

This husband is called to love with that same endurance. He is called to love with the same hope, the same dedication. The security he has in Christ is the security his wife must have in him.

This is the gospel. This is the display of the gospel in marriage.

July 02, 2013

One of the great promises of heaven, a promise that I long to see fulfilled, is that what becomes old and tired in this world will always remain new and fresh and exciting in the world to come. The declining joys of this world will be ever-increasing joys in the world to come. Niagara Falls will send chills down my spine every time I see it; the Grand Canyon will cause me to gasp in delight, not just once but for all of eternity; the night sky will move me to praise God for his greatness each and every time I look up. Nothing will get tiring, nothing will get old, nothing will be just the same time after time after time.

What is it that causes me to grow weary of things that are good and even things that are so very good? How could I build up such hardness, such spiritual resistance to God’s greatest gifts?

God called Adam to name each of the animals, and paraded them in front of him one by one. He saw two of this animal, two of that, two of another, and through it all realized that there was no helper fit for him. He could not possibly have been lonely, living there in that perfect world. And yet he realized that he was incomplete. God caused him to fall into a deep sleep and there, when he awoke, standing before him, was the perfect complement to him, the perfect mate. In wonder he exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He praised God for his marvelous provision.

But then Adam sinned. He fell for the deception of the devil. And when God called out to him he turned on that woman, he turned on that gift and said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.

Jesus called Peter to be one of his disciples. Jesus simply said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And Peter followed. For several years he followed, walking in the steps of the man who claimed to be the Messiah. He followed him all the way to Jerusalem, even proclaiming, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

But then danger came. Suddenly that Savior did not seem so mighty. And when the people said to Peter, “You were with Jesus of Nazareth,” he cursed and swore “I do not know the man!” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.

Why are we like this? Why am I like this? Why do I marvel at something for a time and then grow weary of it, grow complacent toward it and even come to despise it? How do good gifts become old and tired gifts?

June 26, 2013

I think it is a question every Christian would all like to ask God, given the opportunity. It is an honest question. A humble one, I hope. If you have the ability to immediately destroy and remove all of a Christian’s sin the very moment he puts his faith in Jesus Christ, why don’t you? Why didn’t you?

There is always a good bit of debate in the Christian world about exactly how God sanctifies us and how human effort relates to divine work. Whatever we believe about sanctification, we know it is a lifelong battle and we know it is a difficult one. The difficulty is related to the extent of our depravity, the fact that the effects of sin extend to our every part, to our minds, our hearts, our wills, even our bodies. We could give every moment of every day to the battle against sin and still die as deeply sinful people. Every Christian will die much more holy than he was when he first put his faith in Jesus Christ, but a lot less holy than he would like and probably a lot less holy than he would have imagined.

The Bible is indispensable in sanctification. Literally. You cannot and will not grow in holiness without reading God’s Word without submitting yourself to God’s Word, without applying its truths to your life. And yet the Bible does not zap away sin any more than my salvation does. I have discovered in my own life that there are not a lot of texts in the Bible that instantly obliterate a particular sin. Rarely do I hear a text preached and see an instant, substantial advance against a sin. Never do I read a text and see my sin immediately and irreversibly melt away.

Rather, the Bible provides the categories for my sin, it displays my sin in all its ugliness, it displays holiness in all its beauty, it exposes me as a sinner, it convicts me of my need to do battle against this sin, it gives me the desire to destroy it, it arms me to do so, and gives me hope through the gospel that this sin—even this sin with such a grip on me—is powerless before the indwelling Holy Spirit. And then begins the long and difficult task, the moment-by-moment battle, of killing it, of going back to the Bible again and again and preaching its truths to myself, of relying on the Spirit, of calling out for his help, of waging war against my own flesh, my own desires, my deep-rooted habits, my mind, eyes, ears, heart, hands, feet, and everything else I am.

June 24, 2013

But he hasn’t got anything on!” This is the cry of the child at the end of Hans Christian Anderson’s little tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The vain emperor believed he was wearing the finest garments ever created, garments woven of the finest silk and the purest gold thread. He believed he was wearing clothing so beautiful that only the best and brightest in the land could see it. These garments could distinguish the great and mighty from the ignorant and troublesome, for only worst of the hoi polloi would be unable to marvel at their magnificence. The emperor had been bamboozled, but he would not admit his ignorance, he could not admit it, and instead forced himself to believe he was wearing clothes; his noblemen did the same, for to state the plain truth would be to admit unworthiness. The emperor paraded through the city, showing off his finery before the adoring masses until finally a child cried out, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

I have been thinking about this old tale and seeing how in many ways it is applicable to living as a Christian in this world. This is a world of naked emperors and their adoring, deluded fans.

It took a child to call it all a ruse. It took a child because only he had nothing to gain from playing along with the fiction that the emperor was wearing the finest clothing ever woven and the greater fiction that the emperor was wearing anything at all. Where his parents and the noblemen had so much to gain from playing along and so much to lose from speaking the truth, the child did not. He could speak freely and declare the truth without guile.

The Bible is that child. The Bible describes things as they really are, free from fear, free from sin. As the emperor marches, the Bible evaluates him, discerns him, describes him, and tells the truth about him. Christians are the crowd. We are easily beguiled so that as the crowds swarm and cheer, we begin to see the form of clothes, the color, the patterns. But then we look to the Bible. The Bible is like a pair of glasses that allow the Christian to see the world from God’s perspective. We look at the world through the Bible, and are forced to cry out with it, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

June 05, 2013

I love to talk about the sovereignty of God. I love to write about it and preach about it. The sovereignty of God in creation, the sovereignty of God in salvation, the sovereignty of God in evangelism, the sovereignty of God in everything. I love God’s sovereignty, and I’m convinced this is good, because it reflects and describes who God is. He is a sovereign God.

In his sovereignty God has decreed that to this point I will have quite an easy life. I live in a first-world nation and have freedom to be a Christian without fear of persecution. I have never missed a meal or a bill payment, my children are healthy and my marriage is solid. I have a job I love and a hobby that has given me some rare privileges. God’s sovereignty toward me has been expressed in ways that are undeniably good.

I recently preached through the book of Jonah, a book that is meant to be a clear display of God’s sovereignty. “Appoint” is a key word in Jonah. God appoints things that delight the prophet—a giant fish to swallow him when he has very nearly drowned and a plant to shade him when he is hot. God appoints things that infuriate Jonah—a hot wind to scorch him, a worm to destroy the plant that makes him comfortable, and above all, the great awakening in the city of Nineveh. Jonah delighted in God’s sovereignty when he liked the way it impacted him and hated God’s sovereignty when he did not like the way it impacted him. The book ends with a question and I’m convinced that a facet of that question was this: Jonah, will you love my sovereignty even when you don’t see it as good? Or will you trust my sovereignty only when it gives you what you would have chosen anyway?

And as I have been reading the Bible and considering my own life, I think God has been asking me the same kinds of questions. He and I have been conversing in and through the Bible and having a conversation kind of like this:

You’re one of those Reformed people, one of those Calvinists. You say you love my sovereignty. That’s great! But I want to ask you a few things…

May 22, 2013

Just about every Christian has memorized the closing verses of Galatians and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This is the character of the man or woman who has been justified by grace through faith.

Yet as we review the list, and especially as we review it slowly and prayerfully, we may find ourselves growing weary and discouraged by how little of that fruit we see. We are still angry at times, still struggling with self-control, still not nearly as gentle as Jesus Christ was and is.

Paul’s metaphor of the “fruit” of the Spirit can help us, though. Here are five things that are true of fruit trees and, therefore, true of the fruit of the Spirit.

1. Growth is Gradual. We are an impatient people accustomed to instant gratification. But fruit grows slowly. A fruit tree grows gradually and over many years of careful and deliberate cultivation. If you purchase a sapling apple tree today, a sapling which is already more than a year old and well established, and if you plant it in the right climate zone and in fertile soil, and if there are other trees nearby that can help pollinate it, and if you care for it exactly as you should, it will probably be close to 5 years before you see the first apple dangling from the end of a branch and many years beyond that before it is at its top production, bearing the most and best fruit. Trees are tended carefully, pruned deliberately, and loved patiently until they bear the best fruit. Our growth in character is also far more gradual than we may like but the patience that is to mark our lives first marks God himself; he is patient with us as we grow toward maturity.

2. Growth is Inevitable. A healthy fruit tree that has been lovingly tended will bear fruit. It is inevitable. It is equally inevitable that the Christian indwelled by the Holy Spirit will and must bear fruit. No matter what the Christian’s life is like when he is first saved, that fruit will grow and display itself. The inevitability of fruit challenges every person who professes faith to examine his life to ask whether the Spirit’s fruit is present there. While we are saved by faith and not fruit, the fact remains that faith necessarily produces fruit. The growth is inevitable where there is life.

May 16, 2013

Everyone has had to ask or answer the question at one time or another: When it comes to the physical component of a dating relationship, how far is too far? Can we hold hands? Can we kiss? Can we do a little bit more than kiss? Should we even explore the physical relationship a little bit to ensure we are compatible?

I am accustomed to giving the easy answer: “It’s not about how far can we go, but how holy we can be. You are asking all the wrong questions!” That may make me feel smart and a little bit godly, but it’s not exactly a satisfying or helpful answer.

In their book Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach, Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas offer an answer. They are aware of the long history of legalistic answers and the many slippery slope or fear-based approaches that have more to do with avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies than pursuing holiness. They do not want to create a new law, but draw out an implication of the deepest meaning of marriage. They are convinced that the Bible offers us exactly the answer we are looking for. How far is too far? “Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does speak with clarity—objective clarity—about what is physically appropriate between an unmarried man and woman in a pre-marriage relationship.”

They premise their answer on the fact that the marriage relationship, and hence the sexual relationship, is meant to be a portrait of the relationship of Christ and his church. (Click here to read about the gospel and marriage.) In that way they begin not with law but with gospel.

The authors say there are three God-ordained categories of male-female relationships and believe “understanding these distinct categories is the key to overcoming much of the subjectivity surrounding sexual propriety, helping us to build proper boundaries of sexual expression.”

The Family Relationship. God’s guidelines for sexual expression between blood relatives evolved over time. Adam’s children had no choice but to have a sexual relationship with a sibling, but when God gave the Old Testament law he forbade any kind of incestuous relationship. While the reasons for God’s ban are not made clear to us, the command is: “no sexual activity is to occur between blood relatives.”

May 13, 2013

I have said it often and said it recently, that prayer has always been a struggle for me. It’s not that I don’t pray—I do!—but that I find it a battle to put my theology into action day-by-day and to live out my deepest convictions about prayer by actually praying. I experience little of the joy and sense of fulfillment that so many of the great pray-ers speak of. As often as not, I have to rely on the objective facts of what I believe about prayer more than any subjective feeling or sense of satisfaction.

Last week I received a jolt when I read H.B. Charles Jr.’s It Happens After Prayer. If I can read a whole book and hang on to one big application or one big challenge, I consider it a book that has been well worth the time I’ve invested in it. There were several helpful takeaways from Charles’ book, but the one I expect to stick with me is this: “The things you pray about are the things you trust God to handle. The things you neglect to pray about are the things you trust you can handle on your own.” On one level it’s an obvious insight, but then again, the best insights usually are. I should have known it, and, in fact, I think I did know it. But I needed it clearly spelled out to me at this time in my life.

As I prayed last week, and as I gave attention to preparing a sermon, I was struck by a related thought: Prayerlessness is selfishness. I had been spending time praying as per Mike McKinley’s oh-so-helpful guidelines and found myself praying that I would grow in love for those who would hear the sermon, that I would have wisdom to apply the text to their lives, that I would see how the passage confronts the unbelief of those who would hear it, and so on. And it struck me that for me not to pray, and not to pray fervently, during the process of sermon preparation would be the height of selfishness. I would be trusting that I could handle crafting the sermon and coming up with just the right applications all on my own. I would be effectively denying the Lord the opportunity to do his work through this sermon. “You go do something else; I’ve got this one!”

The text itself gave me an illustration. I was preaching the first chapter of Jonah and there we see Jonah aboard a ship in the middle of a storm so powerful that it threatens to destroy the boat and all aboard it. There is only one man on that ship who fears God, only one man who has the ability to cry out to a God who actually exists and who actually has the power to calm the storm. And he is the one man who refuses to cry out to his God, the one man who goes below and falls asleep. Even when the captain wakes him and rebukes him for his prayerlessness we get no indication that he prays. His prayerlessness is selfishness and further threatens the crew of that little ship.

If I believe that prayer works, if I believe that prayer is a means through which the Lord acts, if I believe that God chooses to work through prayer in powerful ways and in ways he may not work without prayer, then it is selfish of me not to pray. To pray is to love; not to pray is to be complacent, to be unloving, to be selfish.

May 10, 2013

Not every idea becomes a book. Not even every good idea becomes a book. Between the author and the bookstore stand agents, editors and publication committees tasked with deciding on the few books worthy of time, effort, advances and marketing dollars. I have had far more ideas rejected than accepted. Books on simplicity, the environment, evangelism, pornography and probably many more besides have received the trademark “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is one that haunts me: Ordinary: Christian Living for the Rest of Us.

Yesterday I did some maintenance in Evernote, an application I use to store ideas. I came across the files for Ordinary and my finger hovered over the “delete” button for a moment. It was tempting, but something compelled me instead to open my word processor and begin to write. I couldn’t kill the idea because it is just too near to me. It has been on my mind for three years, at least, and in the back of my mind for far longer than that.

I believe there is an intangible kind of value in living a book before writing a book. The best books are the ones that flow not out of theory but out of experience. Better still are the ones that combine proven theory with actual experience, the ones the author writes in that sweet spot, that point of overlap between the two. Theory is easy to come by; experience is hard won. Theory comes quickly—you need only read a book or two; experience comes only with the slow march of the time that challenges and so often obliterates the theory. I can almost always tell a book that is all theory and no experience. It is a book of head instead of heart, law instead of grace, impossibility instead of practicality.

Ordinary is a book I have lived. I live it every day. I live an ordinary life, pastor an ordinary church full of ordinary people, and head home each night to my ordinary little home in an oh-so-ordinary suburb. I preach very ordinary sermons—John Piper or Steve Lawson I am not and never will be—and as I sit with the people I love I am sure I give them very ordinary counsel. A friend recently confessed his initial disappointment the first time he visited my home and got a glimpse of my life. “Your house is so small and your life is so boring.” Indeed. It’s barely 1,100 square feet of house and forty hours every week sitting at a desk.

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