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Christian Living

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.

May 06, 2013

Paul Miller got paid to stay off the Internet. For a whole year he drew a salary to remain offline and to record the experience of living disconnected. For a whole year he abandoned email and Twitter, blogs and Google Maps, Skype and Facebook, and all the other digital destinations that have become so much a part of our lives. 365 days later he sat down to record his experiences in what has become one of those articles everyone is talking about.

As his journey began, he forecasted that at the end of the year he would be telling us his year away had refreshed and recharged him, it had proven our new technologies are destroying our lives and our communities, disconnecting had give him the peace he was looking for, the enlightenment he longed for.

But such lessons were not easy to come by. At first he enjoyed his break from modern life. He got more active and lost weight and found ways of connecting and reconnecting with family and friends. Without the Internet to distract him he found renewed vigor to visit people in their homes and to get out into the community. For a while the experience seemed to deliver what it had promised.

But not for a long. Soon he had to admit, “I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.” The good habits he formed after unplugging soon fell by the wayside and he realized they had been attractive for a time more for their contrast with the digital life than for their intrinsic value. Soon these things, too, lost their luster. He was right back where he began, albeit offline.

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

He thought that real life was to be found offline but discovered that the lines are not quite so clear. There is value in connecting face-to-face and in being present offline. But much of the Internet is also relational. The Internet is people. He was as lonely offline as he had been online. Unplugging alone was not a remedy to relationship, to productivity, or to much of anything else.

The big lesson he draws from all of this feels awfully unsatisfying.

May 01, 2013

Socially AwkwardAwkwardness is a cultural phenomenon. Jump over to Google and begin to search for “awkward” and you’ll soon find lists, photos and videos of awkward everything—awkward family photos, awkward celebrity moments, awkward missed high-fives, awkward moments in history, and pretty much anything else that could possibly be considered awkward.

Even my kids know what it is to be awkward. It is not unusual for them to blurt out in one of those moments, “AW-kward!” They don’t know a whole lot about how life and relationships work, but they do know that it’s uncomfortable when things have gone wrong. Awkwardness comes about, after all, when social situations do not go quite as we intended; it is that feeling of discomfort or embarrassment that arises when social desires and expectations are missed.

So where did this cultural obsession with awkwardness come from? Why are we suddenly so concerned with it? Adam Kotsko makes a compelling argument that much of it stems from our entertainment. It is no doubt enhanced by our dedication to social media through which our awkwardness can go viral. He says, “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” Shows like The Office, especially the original British series, delight in it; shows and movies starring Sacha Baron Cohen revel in it; Curb Your Enthusiasm has been to awkwardness what Seinfeld was to irony. Comedies, especially those R-rated comedies targeted at teens and the immature, champion it.

As our awareness of awkwardness has grown, so too has our concern it so that, as Kotsko says, “We are masters at diagnosing it, if not avoiding it.” Now that we have a cultural awareness of its presence, power and difficulty, we find ourselves wallowing in it.

Our middle-class whites are absolutely hopeless when it comes to dealing with those of other cultures, wondering whether and how to note the difference, what kinds of questions to ask and not to ask—chafing at the supposed constraints of ‘political correctness’ yet feeling very acutely the pressure to differentiate themselves from their low-class and presumably racist Caucasian confreres. And when we all come home at night exhausted from a long day of awkwardness, what do we do but watch yet another cavalcade of awkwardness.

Awkwardness is like watching a car accident. You don’t really want to see it, but you also can’t look away. “The participants in an awkward situation might flee the scene, but in the moment of awkwardness, they are strangely exposed, forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness and indeed even drawing innocent bystanders into their impromptu circle. The experience of awkwardness, then, is an intrinsically social one.” There is joy in the horror of awkwardness, perverse appeal in its agony.

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.

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