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Christian Living

April 24, 2013

Stuff Christians Say” obviously struck a nerve; it has racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands on GodTube. Two guys hop between various locations while offering a long list of “stuff Christians say,” those words and phrases distinct to Christianity. “God thing,” “secular music,” “my testimony,” “traveling mercies”—they are all here. It’s appropriate satire because it rings true. As Christians we can become oblivious to the fact that we have developed a lexicon all our own.

“Stuff Christians Say” got me thinking about not only the little words we use, but the big ones, the theological descriptors. I have often encountered articles telling us that we should avoid using big and unusual words to describe what we believe. The “-ologies” should be avoided—soteriology, eschatology and Christology. So too should the words that are used almost exclusively by Christians—propitiation, sanctification, hermeneutics. After all, what could be more seeker-unfriendly than inviting a person to church and then using words that have no meaning to him? Won’t this make that visitor feel like an outsider?

It seems to me that there are at least two varieties of words in the Christian lexicon, those that are trite and those that are specific. “God thing” is a trite phrase that has no objective meaning and there is not much to lose if we never use it again. “Propitiation” is a very precise term that has a distinct meaning. It is this second category that I believe we need to hold on to and we need to hold on to such words without shame. We impoverish ourselves when we lose these words. We impoverish ourselves if we never learn and teach these words.

I cannot think of any other field or area in which the use of unique and difficult words and phrases is deemed inappropriate or less than ideal. Instead, we educate people to understand what those words mean and then to use them appropriately. Any doctor will testify that a large part of his education was learning the precise terms for the various parts and functions of the body and the very precise ways of referring to conditions and diseases. It would not inspire confidence in your doctor to hear him say, “Well, it looks like you’ve got an owie on that dangly thing in the back of your mouth.” You would not want to turn your fridge over to an appliance repairman who pulled the fridge out, took a look, and said, “I think it’s leaking and you need some more of the cold-making stuff.” Or the radio play-by-play man who had no idea how to describe a play and who had no knowledge of the appropriate statistics. Or the professor of philosophy who had never heard nor used the word “epistemology.” We could dig up examples all day long.

April 19, 2013

You have probably already seen Dove’s viral video campaign called “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” Released to YouTube on April 14, it has already been viewed more than 10 million times (between the three-minute and six-minute versions). The video includes a simple description: “Women are their own worst beauty critics. Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. So, we decided to conduct a compelling social experiment that explores how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.”

It is a fascinating experiment. A police sketch artist and a woman sit in a room together, separated by a sheet, so they cannot see one another. He asks the woman to describe her own appearance while he draws a sketch based on her description. Then, before she can see the artist’s work, the woman leaves and a second person enters the room; the artist asks this person to describe that same woman. Then the two sketches are put side-by-side. The results are uniform: the woman describes herself as plainer than she is, heavier than she is, less attractive than she is. The second sketch is always more beautiful and more accurate.

The point is clear: When it comes to beauty, women are their own worst critics. Where others are drawn to what makes them attractive, left to themselves they focus more on their flaws. While granting that “Real Dove Beauty Sketches” is ultimately a commercial for Dove products and hardly an unbiased experiment, it has resonated because there is something in it that we can all identify with.

In all of life there is a conflict between who we believe we are and who other people believe we are, and in this conflict we tend to believe that we are the ones with the better and more accurate assessment. What is true of the outer man is equally true of the inner man. In fact, it may be even more pronounced.

April 15, 2013

If you hold to a traditional marriage, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, wants you to know that he is not interested in your business. On the other side of America pastor Tim Keller says, no problem, you can be a Christian and believe that gay marriage is perfectly acceptable. These are two things you may have read in the news or in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks. Both made headlines, but both were based on at least some misinformation and on ignoring crucial context. Both illustrate an urgent concern.

We can all agree that in this digital age we are inundated with news and information. We live in a constant flow of facts, figures and headlines. For most of human history information has been a scarce resource, but today it has become abundant and over-abundant. We no longer have to go looking for information; rather, we have to find ways of better filtering and prioritizing the unending glut of information we are subjected to day-by-day.

One of the ways we are adapting to the glut of information at our disposal is to skim, to glance at the thousands of pieces of information to look for the very few bits that are most urgent and relevant. It is a necessary skill if we are to avoid drowning. Yet there is a cost to our skimming. The more we skim, the more we become people who prefer to skim, people who would rather skim than read patiently and deeply. As we continue down this path, we become increasingly comfortable looking no further than a headline and comfortable drawing our conclusions from just a few words. Instead of looking to sources and verifying facts, we skim, draw our conclusions, and move on. Or worse, we skim, draw our conclusions, and then hit one of the ever-present “share” buttons, using social media to share a lie or to “like” a lie. This is exactly what many Christians did with Howard Schultz and Tim Keller.

We can go all the way back to 1563 to find a corrective. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks brilliantly to the ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness. It challenges us not only to avoid lying, but to be people who speak the truth and who are as horrified by deceit and misinformation as we are with outright lying. It gives us no leeway when we speak (or blog or tweet) rashly. Here is its answer to the question, What is required in the ninth commandment?

That I bear false witness against no man,
nor falsify any man’s words;
that I be no backbiter, nor slanderer;
that I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly, or unheard;
but that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit, as the proper works of the devil,
unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God;
likewise, that in judgment and all other dealings 
I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it;
also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able,
the honor and good character of my neighbor.

Whatever Howard Schultz said, and no matter how much we may disagree with what he said, we do nothing for our cause when we “condemn him rashly, or unheard,” to use the Catechism’s phrasing.

April 01, 2013

Toronto is home to a significant Jewish population—over 160,000 according to the census of 2001. A significant part of the population is Orthodox Jews who attempt to live in close conformity to the laws and precepts of the Torah as it is explained in the Talmud. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the heart of the community has been along Bathurst street and if you were to drive through that area today you would see Jewish schools and synagogues, kosher supermarkets and many distinctly Jewish businesses. The yarmulke is as common there as the baseball cap is in the suburbs and as you visit offices in the area you will frequently spot a mezuzah affixed to the door frame. I enjoy the area, especially its bakeries, and find myself there often.

Murray is a friend and a fellow elder at Grace Fellowship Church. For the past twenty-nine years, he has been a paramedic and over the course of his career has often found himself working right in the center of Toronto’s Jewish community. His job has taken him into many homes, businesses and synagogues and along the way he has developed relationships and friendships. Over the years he has shared with me several interesting little glimpses of his work in that community—a community that attempts to adhere to every part of the Old Testament law. It is fascinating to hear how these attempts manifest themselves in the twenty-first century.

Elevator Sabbath ServiceJewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, but the question that has always plagued law-keepers is this: what actually constitutes work? Many modern interpretations of the law state that using an electrical button on the Sabbath constitutes work. Pressing a button closes an electrical switch and the closing of the switch is interpreted as “building” a circuit. Any kind of building on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden by the law. For that reason, many of the apartment buildings in this area use a feature in their elevators known as “Shabbat [Sabbath] service.” Sabbath service removes the need to press buttons. When the service is engaged, the elevator will either stop at every floor on both the way up and the way down, or it will rise to the top and then stop at every floor on the way down. In either case, the sanctity of the Sabbath is maintained. (Wikipedia’s article on Shabbat service is fascinating in its explanation of the variations of interpretation).

As is the case in many large cities, Toronto’s Jews have access to Hatzoloh, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to respond rapidly to emergency medical situations in Toronto’s Jewish community. Though they cannot transport patients to hospital, they are able to respond to calls and to assist paramedics in providing emergency services and language translation. Though they are on-call and available 24 hours a day, there is one small change in their operations on the Sabbath when driving a vehicle is forbidden. Their job is to extend mercy and prolong life and, according to Talmudic interpretation, responding to calls does not violate the Sabbath. However, once a call is complete, they are no longer on a mission of mercy and would be in violation of the Sabbath if they were to drive. What they do instead is employ a service run by non-Jews who will drive both their vehicles and the emergency personnel back to their homes.

The glimpse of the community that fascinates me most is the one which begins with Murray responding to a call on a hot, summer Saturday afternoon. After he completed the call and was walking back to his ambulance, he saw a man outside a neighboring home waving him over. This man led Murray into a very hot home and explained that his mentally disabled son had inadvertently turned off the air conditioning and they could not turn it back on without violating the Sabbath laws. He pointed to the thermostat and asked Murray, “Could you please turn it back on?” Murray flipped the little plastic switch and the air conditioner immediately came back to life. The man and his family were exuberant in their gratitude.

As Murray spoke to this man, and as he speaks to other members of the community, he sometimes asks whether he should become Jewish. Wouldn’t this be the path for him to live in obedience to God and to experience divine blessing? The answer is, “No! Don’t become Jewish! If you become Jewish you will have to obey the law—the whole law.” And the law is a heavy burden.

March 27, 2013

For several years of blogging I had it all wrong, and I wasn’t wrong only in blogging, but in all of life. I believed that the way to measure success with this blog was to keep an eye on statistics, to measure growth in readership over a period of weeks or months or years, and to do the things that were necessary to stimulate that kind of growth. Where I saw growth in the number of readers I believed I had succeeded and where I saw a drop in the number of readers I believed that I had failed.

But somewhere along the way I came to understand and to reflect on a much bigger and wider principle that applies not only to blogging but to all of life. It is the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive (see Acts 20:35). This is hardly an obscure passage or a verse that Christians have forgotten about, but it was one that was demanding application in my life. Once I began to ponder and apply it, it completely re-adjusted my evaluation of blogging and called me to re-assess any measure of success. It re-adjusted my evaluation of a lot of life.

For a long time I was stingy in linking to other sites, thinking that in some strange way affirming another person’s success or contribution was lowering my own, as if a vote for them was a vote against me. I suppose this intersects what I have written about in The Lost Sin of Envy. But then I came to see that the most exciting part of having a growing blog is not the growing number of readers but the increased sending capacity. Deeper joy is found in blessing others with readers, in drawing attention to other people’s efforts, than in drawing attention to my own. Where I had once been deliberate in not pointing to other sites and other articles, suddenly I found great joy in it. Buried in a dashboard that collects important statistics related to my site’s health is a little meter that keeps track of how many people have clicked from my site to someone else’s—it is a number that can reach into tens of thousands a day. Few metrics are more encouraging.

Once I saw this principle in effect in something as mundane as a web site, I began to see it elsewhere in my life.

I saw it in my finances when I realized that the joy of a big or overflowing savings account completely pales in comparison to the joy of giving money to those who need it more urgently and who can use it more profitably. If I want to experience joy I will find it more in obedience to God’s commands regarding generosity than in the illusion of financial security or over-abundance. It is far more blessed to give than to receive or to hoard.

March 25, 2013

When I speak at a conference, or at a church that is not my own, I often have the opportunity to meet people for just a brief period of time. At a church or conference I am typically asked to speak on a specific topic—sometimes I speak to men about pornography and about building a healthy, Bible-based view of sexuality. Sometimes I speak to a mixed audience about technology and how few of us are thinking about our digital technologies and using our digital technologies in distinctly Christian ways. Other times I speak about spiritual discernment or spiritual maturity.

Whatever the case, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the discussions I have after I speak or preach. I thought about this yesterday as I continued to read through Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace with the young adults at my church. Bridges speaks at conferences all the time and has noticed this very same phenomenon. 

When people come up to me after I speak they often ask about how they can stop committing a sin that they find especially offensive. The Holy Spirit has convicted them of a sin and they are looking for a little bit of guidance in how to approach putting that sin to death. Men will come up and ask specific questions about how to stop giving in to the temptation to look at pornography or the temptation to allow their eyes and minds to wander. Women may come up and ask about how to stop being so responsive to their cell phone every time it beeps or vibrates or about their apathy toward spiritual maturity. These are good questions and I am always glad to talk about them.

But here is something interesting I’ve noticed: While it is common for someone to ask how to put off a particular sin, it is rare for someone to ask for guidance in putting on a particular godly trait. We are ashamed of our sin and bothered by it. This is good. But we are less ashamed of our lack of Christian character and less bothered by it. This is not good.

And I think this is where so many of us fail in our attempts to grow in godliness. This Christian life is one of continually putting off the old man with all its traits and putting on the new man. But our ultimate desire is not to be not-sinful but to be truly godly. We are not to aim at being not-sinful but to aim at being marked by Christian character. We experience the greatest success in battling sin when our desire is not only to stop sinning but to have our lives marked by the opposite character trait. The thief needs to do more than stop stealing; he needs to learn to be generous. The porn-addicted young man needs to do more than stop looking at pornography; he needs to learn to love and honor younger women as sisters. The angry mom needs to do more than stop lashing out at her children; she needs to learn to display patience and kindness. In each case the aim is not to stop sinning, but to be a display of Christ-like character.

The challenge for each one of us who desires to be godly is not only to identify the sin in our lives, but to identify the better and holier trait. And this, this fruit of the Spirit, this evidence of God’s grace, is what we aim for in our desires, in our prayers, in our labors.

March 13, 2013

The blogosphere in general and the Christian blogosphere in particular has had its share of successes, but also its share of failures. Many of its most egregious and public failures have been in the realm of polemics—discussing or debating controversial topics. Many bloggers have mastered all the practical rules of blogging, the short paragraphs, the use of subheadings, the best times and dates to post their articles. But these same bloggers, myself included, would do well to work toward mastering the spiritual rules of blogging.

I recently found help in an unusual place, Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism. He says

We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.

Indeed, and this applies to discussions far beyond baptism. In a recent article Tony Payne turns to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man. “As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.” 

You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller. It bears regular and repeated readings. Keller looks to D.A. Carson and several other theologians and arrives at seven rules that should guide our discussions, our polemics, our controveries, our words.

#1. Carson’s Rule

The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. ”[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.”

March 06, 2013

I recently finished reading Peggy Noonan’s When Character Was King, a life of Ronald Reagan. Noonan is a former speech writer for Reagan and an unabashed admirer of her former employer. While her account of his life is hardly objective, it is nonetheless fascinating, at least in part because Reagan himself was a fascinating individual who led the world’s most powerful nation during a pivotal period of history.

I believe that if you read a whole book and take away one or two ideas, one or two points of reflection, it has been well worth the effort. Reagan’s life offers far more lessons and encouragements than that, though I will want to read another, longer, more objective biography before I make a determination of how I feel about his policies and his presidency. When Character Was King was a place to begin, but not the final word.

There is one quote from Reagan that, more than any other, stands out in my mind. Like so many other of America’s presidents, Reagan was a man who honored the Bible, though I am not convinced that he truly understood the gospel (Noonan never makes it clear). Washington, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower and Bush, among others, had a commitment to the Bible and read it through their lives and presidencies—often quoting it and often showing evidence that it made some impact on their lives—though few of them appeared to be genuine Christians. Likewise, Reagan read the Bible and held it in esteem. Inevitably he absorbed at least some of its lessons and some of its way of interpreting life and reality. This seemed to form the basis of some of Reagan’s humility, a character trait many have pointed to.

Noonan, like many others, considers Reagan one of the great men of modern history, yet in a response to one of her questions Reagan said about himself,

I never thought of myself as a great man, just a man committed to great ideas.

I love these words and I love what they convey! The men (and women) of history that we consider great are those who are committed to great ideas, remembered not for who they were in the abstract, but for what they did in pursuing those ideas and the goals beyond them. There are no great men except those who pursue great ideas.

May the same be said of—and said by—the Christian leaders we look up to and admire. May it be said of them that they were great not because of who they were, but because of the ideas they were committed to and, even more so, the Savior who was the end and goal of those ideas.

March 04, 2013

This weekend I spoke to a group of men down here in Nashville, Tennessee. The pastor asked me to speak to the men about reading and, specifically, why Christian men need to be readers. While what I prepared was directed specifically to men, it is applicable to both men and women. Here are four good reasons to read good books: To know, to grow, to lead, and to love.

Read to Know

The best reason to read books is to know God. We believe, of course, that each of us can and will meet God in his Word, but this does not mean that he reveals himself to each of us in equal measure. We can and should benefit from what others have learned and we do that through books. Books are an important part of our lifelong task of coming to know the person and works of God.

There are many people who are intimidated by reading theological works. However, we are well-served with entry-level and mid-range books. It doesn’t matter who you are, there is a book written at your level. One of the problems with allowing ourselves to be intimidated away from difficult books, books that are just a bit beyond us, is that we can begin to believe we’ve got God pretty much figured out. But here’s the thing: You may capture and box up the God of Joel Osteen, but then you read John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards and are utterly humbled by just how little you know of this God.

If you do not read, you deny yourself a great way to learn who God is and how he acts in this world. There is no study more satisfying and more enlarging than this.

Read to Grow

Reading is a means through which we initiate and maintain personal growth. We read to know God and we read to grow in our ability to honor him in every area of our lives. There are three kinds of growth I want to point you toward: Growth in areas of weakness, in areas of strength, and in areas of responsibility.

Identify areas of weakness and read books to strengthen yourself there. This may be weakness of knowledge, weakness of character, or weakness of understanding. If you have too low a view of God, read The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. If you are struggling with parenting, read Gospel-Powered Parenting by William Farley. If you struggle with making decisions, read Decisions, Decisions by Dave Swavely. If you don’t know where you are weak, read a book on humility. Whatever your weakness, there is almost definitely a book that answers it specifically and well.

Identify areas of strength and read to grow all the more. Here is where you push yourself to grow beyond the basic principles and move to advanced works. If you are comfortable with Gospel-Powered Parenting and all its principles, then move on to God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger. Move to books on the fatherhood of God or books on the Trinity that allow you to study the relationship between the Father and Son. If you are very comfortable with Decisions, Decisions or Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, go to Decision Making and the Will of God which is about five times longer.

Identify areas of responsibility and read books to strengthen you there. Wherever your responsibilities are, find books that will allow you to fulfill them with greater skill and greater understanding of biblical principles. Pastors need to make books on preaching and pastoral ministry a regular part of their reading diet. Parents ought to read books on parenting, bosses or owners ought to read books on leadership, and so on. If you are the one who manages your family’s finances, read the occasional book that provides a biblical perspective on money (perhaps Randy Alcorn’s Managing God’s Money). If you are a member of a church, read Thabiti Anyabwile’s What Is a Healthy Church Member?.

Tip: Biographies can be very helpful in each of these areas. A biography of a great leader will allow you to be a better leader; a biography of a great leader who was a terrible father will teach you how to avoid succeeding in one area but failing in another.

There are many ways the Lord shapes us and causes us to grow. I do not mean to downplay the value of sermons, personal Bible study and even circumstances. Still, books are a very significant means of the Lord’s grace to us.

Read to Lead

Every man is called to lead in some area of life, whether that is leadership in the home, in the workplace, in the church or elsewhere. Good leaders are good readers. There is, of course, lots of anecdotal evidence to prove that the great men of history were readers—find me a great man whose mind was shaped by television and I’ll find you a thousand who were shaped by books—but we need more than anecdotal evidence. Help came from Al Mohler and a chapter in The Conviction to Lead titled “Leaders are Readers.”

February 26, 2013

I have been reflecting a lot on Ecclesiastes’ concept of vanity or meaninglessness. As every one of us can testify, this life can grow tiresome and we often wonder if anything we do really has any real significance. I came across a good little illustration in Gordon Cheng’s Encouragement: How Words Change Lives as he describes an occasion where work, futile though it may have seemed, really did make a difference.

First, let me share a little glimpse of my own life. When I was a child my father would occasionally take me to work with him. Dad did not work in an office so this was not a typical “take your child to work” situation. Dad was a landscaper and a day with dad was a day in the hot sun. It was a day of hard work, hauling, digging, planting, watering, tending. As a child I would grow discouraged at how little I could do in comparison to dad. By the time I had hauled a couple of flats of plants from the truck to the garden, he would have hauled a hundred. By the time I had dug a hole big enough to fit a rose, he would have finished a dozen. Even when I did get something done quickly, he would almost inevitably tell me that I had done it poorly and would tell me to go back and do it properly. After a while I would wonder if there was any reason at all to even help him. What could I really accomplish in comparison?

And yet at the end of the day dad would thank me for my help and would stop and buy me an ice cream or another treat. And he would give me a few dollars as payment for what I had done. Despite false starts, despite carelessness, despite weakness, I really was able to help dad out. Together we got the job done, even if my half of the work was, well, a lot less than half.

A few days ago I was reflecting on how good God is to allow us to work with him and to sometimes do his work on his behalf. When we share the gospel with unbelievers or when we preach the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to see our own inadequacy, our own shortcomings. It is easy to grow discouraged, knowing how little we can accomplish. Why bother with our fractional percent when God is the one who must provide all of the power?

And now to Gordon Cheng.

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