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Christian Living

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.

February 25, 2013

Have you ever seen a bloodhound at work, tracking down a fugitive? Bloodhounds are absolutely remarkable creatures that are able to distinguish smells a thousand times more effectively than human beings. An article at PBS tells how they get on a trail and how they stay on it:

When a bloodhound sniffs a scent article (a piece of clothing or item touched only by the subject), air rushes through its nasal cavity and chemical vapors — or odors — lodge in the mucus and bombard the dog’s scent receptors. Chemical signals are then sent to the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that analyzes smells, and an “odor image” is created. For the dog, this image is far more detailed than a photograph is for a human. Using the odor image as a reference, the bloodhound is able to locate a subject’s trail, which is made up of a chemical cocktail of scents including breath, sweat vapor, and skin rafts. Once the bloodhound identifies the trail, it will not divert its attention despite being assailed by a multitude of other odors. Only when the dog finds the source of the scent or reaches the end of the trail will it relent. So potent is the drive to track, bloodhounds have been known to stick to a trail for more than 130 miles.

When a fugitive is on the run, he leaves behind a trail. This trail of breath and sweat and dropped skin cells is invisible to the human eye and undetectable to the human nose, but it contains all the information a bloodhound needs to stay on the trail, to distinguish that one scent from thousands of others.

One of the remarkable facts about life in this digital world is that we leave trails behind us wherever we go and whatever we do. I am writing today from Huntsville, Alabama; Rogers, my cell phone company, knows I am here. They know the route I took to get here—from my home to Toronto’s airport, a layover in Chicago, then my route from Huntsville’s airport to this home. It has all been recorded as my phone has checked in with a variety of cell phone towers. In the same way Google has a record of searches I’ve made today, and yesterday and the day before. 

Facebook keeps track of the name of every person you’ve searched for, every status update, every comment on another person’s status, every photo you’ve liked, every friend you’ve made. Taking a look at this list makes for a helpful social media heart-check.

I’d encourage you to take just a few moments to do this heart-check. Here’s how to begin. Go to Facebook and then click on your name to see your profile:

Facebook 1

Then click on “Activity Log.”

Facebook 2

Then make sure this box is selected (click it so a checkmark appears):

Facebook 3

Now you will see something like this:

Facebook 4

Here is a list of just about everything you’ve done on Facebook. It will go on and on and on, showing all of your activity. Let me suggest a few questions you may want to ask yourself as you look at it.

Would you be comfortable having your husband or wife sitting beside you and seeing this activity log? How about your pastor or a good friend?

February 20, 2013

I’m not a grumbler, a complainer, and it’s a good thing, too, because complaining is one of those sins that I find especially offensive. Jerry Bridges counts it as one of Evangelicalism’s “respectable sin,” one that falls under our collective radar. He is probably right. But I’m onto it. I can spot it blindfolded at a hundred yards.

You must know what it’s like to be around those people who always find something to grumble about. Good news comes in and they somehow manage to find the negative spin. Bad news comes and they nod knowingly because this is exactly what they expected to happen. When a leader makes a decision, it is the complainers who begin to murmur, who begin to talk to everyone else, to ask the leading questions. You see them huddled together in the church foyer, you see them whispering together in the cafeteria after the meeting. They’ve got an opinion about everyone and everything and feel justified in being heard far and wide. They are complainers. They are grumblers.

My understanding of complaining is that it typically manifests pride. There is a pride that assumes that you know what others do not, that they have ignored information you believe is obvious, that the church, the world, the business, the family would work so much better, go so much more smoothly, if the leaders stepped back and allowed you to take the reigns. You may not say it quite like that, but isn’t that at the heart of most complaining—that your way is the best way? Do it your way and it will succeed, do it another way and it will fail. That’s at the heart of most grumbling. I hate that sin.

Now, to be fair, I guess I occasionally do some of this. I’ve got an opinion on most things and tend to believe that my way will work better than your way if you will just give it a chance. But that’s not pride, that’s selfless realism. After all, I’ve read lots of books and have experienced quite a bit of what life offers. Here’s the difference between me and you: I’m not complaining; I’m just humbly expressing what is true—that you should give me a hearing and then do things the way I suggest. Even though I may have an incomplete grasp of the facts, I definitely have the most important ones at my disposal and know beyond doubt that you’re wrong and I’m right. I’m not a complainer; I’m a servant! I’m not grumbling to others, I’m just sharing my thoughts and asking them to verify that it’s better than what you’ve suggested.

I’m no complainer! It’s just that I am especially gifted at seeing the facts, putting the pieces together, and charting a forward course. It’s a gift. When you do it you’re sinning, we all know that. But when I do it, I’m expressing love. It’s a spiritual gift in action. When you do it it’s proud grumbling; when I do it it’s humble service. That’s the difference between you and me. And that’s why I find your complaining so offensive. Yeah, that must be it.

Matthew 7:3-5

February 18, 2013

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Since the dawn of time humans have looked to the sky and marveled at its immensity, its vastness, the sheer unfathomable number of stars dotting the dark night. The heavens declare God’s glory in all of these ways, but also in this: the heavens provoke wonder. The heavens provoke wonder and that wonder calls us to worship. The sky declares God’s glory through the fact that it exists and the sky declares God’s glory in calling us to that reaction of worship.

For millennia the heavens have provoked wonder. It is only in recent times that we have been able to begin to see God’s creation on the micro scale as much as on the macro, and here too we feel wonder.

I recently read Moonwalking with Einstein, a fascinating bestselling book that recounts author Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory. He came into contact with competitive memorization and what was at first simply another story for another magazine article became an obsession. Soon he was competing in the World Memory Championships, memorizing the order of a deck of cards in less than two minutes, performing feats of memory almost too amazing to believe. This quest to improve his memory took him deep into studies of the human brain.

The brain must be God’s creative masterpiece. The brain has been the subject of intense study for many years now. Modern technologies are able to peer deeper into the brain than ever before; imaging technologies allow us to see the brain in action; experiments are able to temporarily disable parts of the brain; yet all of this study has provided only the smallest glimpse of how the brain actually works. For everything we know with certainty, there are many more things about which we can do little more than speculate. 

Consider memory, as just one example. We know that memories are stored in the brain, but we don’t really know how the brain stores them, how it recalls them, how it forgets them.

All of our memories are … bound together in a web of associations. This is not merely a metaphor, but a reflection of the brain’s physical structure. The three-pound mass balanced atop our spines is made up of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of five to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed.

Wonder. Worship. That is what the brain calls us to do.

For all the amazing technologies mankind has been able to fabricate, none of them come even close to duplicating the brain’s power. We like to speak of computers as if they are a form of synthetic brain, but a computer is to the brain what a picket fence is to the Great Wall of China—just the barest, dimmest, most unworthy reflection.

February 13, 2013

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It’s the day when every seat in every fancy restaurant will be full and when couples who don’t care for restaurants will be preparing nice meals for one another. Flowers will be delivered to offices, gifts will show up in mailboxes, cards will be exchanged. 

I am something of a skeptic when it comes to Hallmark holidays, but I do enjoy Valentine’s Day. I have been married to Aileen for fourteen years now and don’t ever resent an excuse to focus on the love we share. When it comes to Valentine’s Day there is really just one thing I want—to spend time with my wife. It’s not the gifts or the fancy meals, but the company that I long for.

I love Aileen and for that reason I love to spend time with her. What’s amazing is that the more time I spend with her, the more I love her. And the more I love her, the more time I want to spend with her. And the more time I spend with her, the more my love grows. And the more my love grows, well, you get the idea. Our delight in one another grows and compounds with the time we invest in each other. That’s the way the Lord has structured relationships. To love is to spend time and to spend time is to love.

As in any marriage, there are times when I find that my love has lost some of its fervor. There are times when the flame does not burn as brightly as it has in times past. When this happens the solution is so simple: I just need to spend time with her. As we spend time together, that love regains its heat. When I stop spending time with her, love grows cold, and when love grows cold I stop spending time with her. The way our relationship weakens is exactly opposite to the way it strengthens.

God has structured our relationship to him in much the same way. I’ve always loved Psalm 1, the perfect preface to the perfect collection of songs. Here David writes about the blessed man, the happy man, and describes him as the man who delights in God’s law and who meditates on it day and night. There are these two expressions of love: delight and meditation, joy and time.

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