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Christian Living

January 03, 2013

As 2012 came to a close, blogs and media outlets were quickly dominated by round-ups of the year’s best books. One of the books I saw on many of those lists was Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It is a book I had been meaning to read all year long, so I finally downloaded it from Audible and listened to it over the holidays. It was an interesting experience for me and gave many opportunities for reflection and self-examination. What I write today is not a review of the book as much as it is a reflection on its content—a reflection on the introverted Christian.

There is no doubt that I am an introvert. If we place introversion and extroversion on opposite sides of a line and say that each one of us falls somewhere between the two extremes, I would be pretty far from center along the introvert side of the scale. I may not be as far along as some people, and I still enjoy some exposure to crowds of people, but at heart I gain energy and perspective in solitude and then expend it in a crowd. My default reaction to a crowd is to run away to find a place of quiet. I love and enjoy people, but do better with small groups than large ones. Even after several years of public speaking, it still takes a lot of effort and self-denial to stand in front of a crowd. I walk to the front of a room slowly and, when finished, sprint to the back.

Quiet allowed me to better understand myself. In some ways Cain introduced me to me. I had all kinds of those “Aha!” moments where things I’ve long thought or felt suddenly made sense. It was refreshing. Yet as I progressed through the book, I found it doing something unexpected deep inside. I began to feel a kind of peace with my introversion that may have gone a little too far. Even Aileen noticed it in me and pointed it out. She noticed that I began to feel justified in fleeing crowds and being by myself. She said I was becoming selfish.

I believe that God made me introverted. It seems clear that some of us are naturally more outgoing while others are naturally inclined to be quiet. I am naturally quiet and this is part of God’s good design. Neither one is inherently wrong and neither one is intrinsically better than the other. But what Cain does not acknowledge, writing as she does from a secular perspective, is that we inhabit a world of sin where any trait or quality can be used for God-glorifying ends or for self-glorifying ends. Not only that, but God calls us to be always willing to deny our desires in order to serve others. Both introverts and extroverts will face particular temptations to sin. My temptation as an introvert is to run away from people instead of serve people. It is to be selfish instead of giving.

December 26, 2012

Some time ago a reader of this site asked if I could address a concern in his life. He had been pursuing a young lady and beginning to think about marriage, but rather suddenly found that he was no longer attracted to her. She was a godly person and just the kind of woman he could see himself settling down with. But then he looked at her and saw that the physical attracted had just plain disappeared. What could he do? What had gone wrong? Michael McKinley recently addressed a question much like this over at the 9Marks blog, so I will begin with his thoughts and add my own.

I want to encourage this young man to do three things:

Look in the Mirror. Start by taking a look in the mirror. “It’s unlikely that the paunch hanging over the waistband of your cargo shorts represents her idea of masculine perfection. And even if women are less hung up on physical appearances, you’re probably not the romantic and emotional connection she’s been dreaming of her whole life either.” Exactly so. It smacks of pride to look at this woman, created by God in his image, and to determine that she is not up to your standards. Men are often looking for an ideal of physical perfection even though they are far from the male equivalent. Why begin with a mirror? Because, as Michael points out, we’re all making compromises. That complete package who is perfect in every way—from the physical to the spiritual to the realm of character—that person doesn’t exist; and if she did, you’d drag her down in no time.

Look at Your Character. I have written regularly and as forthrightly as I know about young men and their dedication to pornography. Porn is giving young men a completely unrealistic view of women, elevating the physical and completely ignoring all matters of character. Have you ever watched a pornographic video that emphasized beautiful character? Exactly. It’s ridiculous to even imagine it. Five or ten or twenty years of dedication to pornography will go a long way to convincing you that only beauty and sexiness will maintain your interest in the long run. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Need proof? Just look to Hollywood and these ugly old men who marry the beautiful starlets, only to grow tired of them a few months later. No amount of beauty can overcome sour character.

December 20, 2012

I don’t know that even the greatest theologian could ever plumb the depths of all it means that humanity was created in the image of God. But whatever else it means, we know that because we are made in God’s image, we are like God in certain ways and for a certain purpose. John Piper gets at the heart of it when he says “the image of God in man is man’s ineffably profound fitness to image forth Christ’s glory through everlasting joy in God.” We were made in God’s image in order to glorify God by finding our highest joy in him.

Just one small facet of our being made in God’s image is that we have an innate sense of justice. Because God is just, we too have a sense of justice. Somewhere deep inside us we long for and demand justice; somewhere deep inside we hate it when someone makes a mockery of justice, and especially so when we are the ones who feel victimized. It might not offend my conscience too much for me to cut you off in traffic, but woe to you if you inconvenience me and make me tap my brakes.

Why this great variance? Because we disrupted God’s image in us when we sinned. Where we were at one time exactly the image God wanted us to be, functioning in exactly the way he wanted, we soon chose to disregard his good will. When that happened, we distorted the image. It is not broken or destroyed altogether; but it is now a picture that is all out of focus, a picture that is sometimes accurate and sometimes completely deceptive.

I was thinking about the difference this twisted sense of justice makes in our relationship to God, even as Christians. Our relationship to God is now one of grace; we could not satisfy the demands of justice, so Christ satisfied them on our behalf, making us the joyful recipients of this amazing grace. Yet we find ourselves wanting to repay God for this grace. We want to earn that grace. At least, I see this temptation in my own life. I want to live a holy life not to glorify God, but to satisfy myself that I’m now a worthy recipient of his gift. I want to do good things to pay him back for all he did for me.

But in order for me to do this, there must be at least two gaps in my theological understanding.

December 18, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was able to dedicate quite a lot of time to studying Zechariah’s song. This is the song Zechariah sang at the birth of his son John (who would, of course, soon be known as John the Baptist), the song he sang after nine months of being mute. At the heart of the song is his joy and wonder that God will visit his people. This was my big takeaway—the wonder of the visitation.

There are many occasions in the Old Testament where God visits his people. These are not bodily visits, but God making himself known in some way. They are not always occasions of joy.

In Exodus 32 the Israelites have made a golden calf and have worshiped it in place of God. God extends mercy to his people but he solemnly warns them that if the people choose sin in place of God and if they refuse to turn away from that sin, God will “visit their sin upon them.” God will visit them in judgment.

Other times he visits in grace. God has promised Abraham a son through Sarah and yet year after year passes with no child. But then at last we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said … and Sarah conceived.” God visits Sarah in mercy and grace and in consequence she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child. This does not mean that God somehow visits and impregnates her, but that he visits his mercy upon her so that she can conceive with her husband.

A visit from God can be an occasion of terror or an occasion of mercy. Zechariah knows that the birth of his son portends God visiting his people with the greatest mercy. The amazing thing is, this visit of God’s mercy will be a literal visit. God will take on flesh and live among his people.

I am quite convinced that we visit one another less today than ever before. There are so many different ways we can communicate today—email, telephone, letter, Facebook. In the midst of all of this communication, visits may seem outmoded and inconvenient. All of these other forms of communication have displaced visiting one another. And yet it is still an honor to have a person visit, to come into your home and to share your space.

December 13, 2012

LucyLast year we added a dog to our lives—a dog we named Lucy. Lucy is a chocolate Labrador Retriever (And yes, I know that all of the dog people just shook their heads in compassionate pity). Some people think that Labs are dogs who are loyal and kind and loving toward their owners. These people are hopelessly naive. Labs have only one loyalty and it is to themselves; more precisely, it is to their stomachs. Paul must have been looking out the window and watching canine behavior when he wrote Philippians 3:19: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

Lucy is a glutton and a thief among other vices, and I am increasingly convinced that her controlling instinct in any given situation is simply this: What is most likely to get something resembling food down my throat? Her mind, such that it is, is permanently fixed on the most earthly of things. Several times our children have been careless and have left the basement door open. Lucy has quietly tip-pawed downstairs to have a few quiet moments alone with a fifty pound bag of dog food. When we finally catch her in the act, her sides are bloated, her tongue is hanging out in the canine equivalent of the meat sweats, and she immediately collapses into a luxurious six-hour food coma. If she can’t get to her dog food, she will eat socks (whole!) or anything else that has a faintly organic smell. Her god is her belly and she glories in the shame of it all.

Aside: She and my youngest daughter are fast friends and I’m starting to wonder how Proverbs 13:20 will play into their relationship: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” What about the companion of an inveterate glutton (and pillow thief)?

Yet Lucy kind of reminds me of me. She kind of reminds me of us. Her desire to glut herself with food isn’t so different from our desire to glut ourselves with information. Her complete naivety toward the ramifications of gluttony isn’t so different from our complete naivety toward the consequences of information gluttony. 

Lucy’s instincts are toward gorging herself with food because dogs have long been faced with food scarcity. Because a wild dog never knows where its next meal will come from, it will gorge itself out of sheer survival. Our domesticated dogs get fed a cup-and-a-half of kibble twice every day and never have to be concerned about the next meal. Not only that, but a dog might be eating food that had only the barest nutritional value so that fifty pounds was required to gain any real value from it. Today her food emerges from laboratories and is densely packed with every bit of nutrition she needs. Still, those instincts control her and the vast majority of that poppy-seed-sized brain is consumed with a highly-developed sense of smell; little wonder, then, that she just can’t help herself. Where there is food to be had, she will have it all.

We developed instincts—or at least ways of thinking about information and processing it—in eras of information scarcity, when information was hard to come by. In those eras we regarded every bit as precious and valuable. But over the decades we have been adding and multiplying the information available to us, and our instincts are slow to catch up. We’ve gone from scarcity to overabundance. Our instincts are still to gorge ourselves. And we do.

December 12, 2012

It is one of my clearest memories of the whole hullabaloo surrounding The Passion of the Christ. I met a man who had just returned from a screening of the movie and with eyes wide he exclaimed, “It changed my life!” It is a phrase we hear all the time. It is a phrase that may express something true. But it was far too early.

It is not unusual to go to Amazon and find a book review that says something like, “I finished this book last night and it changed my life!” It is not unusual to hear the words used in the immediate aftermath of a powerful conference. Yet I always feel a measure of caution when I hear these exclamations. Books and movies and conferences truly can change lives, but we don’t usually know what has shaped us until much later on. Deep and lasting life change is rarely something that is measured in minutes or even hours.

Of course there are exceptions. There are some moments that really do change lives. This is true in salvation, the transformational moment in the life of every Christian where he is saved from death to life. There are others. A wife who suddenly loses her husband can legitimately and immediately say “this has changed my life!”

But when it comes to the Christian life and the long, hard work of sanctification, the influences that shape us most tend to be visible more in hindsight than in the moment, and they tend to be measured long rather than short. This has been my observation from reading biographies of great Christians and from witnessing the lives of very ordinary, godly Christians. It has been the experience of my own life. I am convinced that I have been shaped more by one thousand regular sermons than by any one spectacular conference message; I have been shaped by five hundred very ordinary Lord’s Suppers more than any one powerful moment of worship. Meanwhile, a million little moments that seemed so important at the time, so transformational, have been forgotten.

Have I had life-changing moments? Absolutely! Have I read life-changing books? Yes! How do I know? Because months or years later I can look back on those as defining moments that gave me a new level of understanding or helped change a specific aspect of my character. At the time I rarely realized the impact they were having. It is only in time that they have become clear. That just seems to be the way the Lord works in us in this very ordinary, but very awesome, Christian life.

December 11, 2012

There is a stubbornness to sin that surprises and disappoints. The Christian life is one of increasing triumph over sin, and yet even with the rejoicing there is so much disappointment, even with the victory there is so much failure, even while so much sin is put to death, so much remains.

One area of sin that continues to baffle and disappoint is my inability to consistently think rightly about other people’s motives. Perhaps it isn’t thinking about their motives as much as it is assuming them. I am amazed at my own proclivity to assume the worst of others, and especially those who have done the most for me.

I’ve been married to Aileen for more than fourteen years now. In that time she has been loving and loyal and kind and everything else a husband could desire in a wife. She has borne me three children, supported me through career changes, tolerated my sin, prayed me through difficulty, helped me be a man whose church can call him to be their pastor. And yet in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when she in some way displeases me, I can act as if she has never loved me at all, as if she has only ever treated me with contempt. In a moment I can throw out all those years of love and sacrifice and assume that she is now opposed to me, looking out for her interests instead of mine, interested in harming me rather than helping me. In a moment I throw away all these evidences of her love and behave as if she hates me.

It is the simplest things that do this. It is not grave sins or the gross immorality that call her into question in my mind. It’s the smallest things, the things that may not be sin at all. It’s being a little bit late when I want to be early, it’s asking a clarifying question when I want to plow ahead, it’s having a priority that is different from my own. And in those moments I forget our history, I forget her character, I forget that she is fundamentally for me, I believe that she and I are enemies. She displeases me and therefore she must hate me. I respond by acting hateful in return. Sometimes this works itself out in harsh words or harsh attitudes; other times it works itself out in sulking and complaining.

I know that I am not the only one who struggles in this way and, to be frank, I saw this sin first in others and only later in myself. Every pastor will attest that there are people in his church he has labored for and prayed for and sacrificed for who will turn on him when they are displeased (and meanwhile, he may be equally quick to turn on them when he feels threatened). Every parent will attest that children are equally quick to forget the years of love and sacrifice and to turn on their parents.

I hate this behavior in myself. I hate this sin. I’ve come to see that it is primarily related to love—or to lack of love. I’m sure pride is involved somewhere, and there must be other sins in the mix, but this is foremost about love. Here’s how I know: 1 Corinthians 13:7 tells me that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is how love is meant to work itself out in relationship. It transforms me so that I can now assume good motives instead of poor ones, I can now react with hope rather than suspicion. Yet my reactions show that love has not yet worked itself out in my character to this extent.

I love my wife. I love my wife more than I would have thought possible, and yet this sin proves that I love her a lot less than I ought to and maybe less than I think I do. If I loved her more and better, I would believe all things and hope all things. In that moment of displeasure I would not assume ill motives, but assume the best. In that moment of questioning, hope would resound instead of hate, trust would be displayed instead of anger. But this kind of love is too often lacking.

This is one of those times where thinking about the gospel is so helpful. As I think about Jesus Christ, I see the greatest example of love in the greatest act of love. As I look at this love, as I ponder it, as I meditate upon it, as I take its benefits upon myself, I necessarily grow in love as well. The love of Christ becomes my love, the benefits of Christ’s love become my benefits. I am transformed.

When I ponder the cross I see that I don’t love because I don’t yet understand how much I have been loved. So I look to the cross again. And again.

December 10, 2012

Just about every blogger can identify with the frustration. You write an article that is kind and well-reasoned and, at least in your estimation, displays the fruit of the Spirit’s work in your life. With some excitement you share this article with the world and, yet, within minutes, you face a barrage of comments that immediately turn it into a battlefield. The entire tone changes from kindness to all-out warfare. While bloggers have rightly been criticized for being too negative at times, blog commenters can be equally ruthless. You don’t have to keep a blog to be a large part of the problem.

A reader recently sent an email in which he identified just this issue in Christian blogs.

While the content of the articles of the blogs I read is usually discerning, gracious, loving, and “seasoned with salt, giving grace to those who hear”, the comment threads are commonly not NEARLY marked by the same Christlike characteristics, but are rather characterized by sarcasm, anger, backbiting, and sometimes, what even appears to be out and out hatred. 

I’d like to address this briefly today in the hope that I can help us all think well about how we interact online.

One of the strange realities of the Internet is that it gives us the illusion of being somewhere together, and yet at the same time it dehumanizes us. We speak of the Internet as “cyberspace“—a space or place where we go and gather. We tacitly understand that the Internet provides a level of interactivity that was not present in many of our previous means of communication. And yet even as we believe that we are actually somewhere together, we ignore the rules that govern the way we communicate when we are face-to-face. In this relationship mediated by computers and blogs, kindess, gentleness and self-control seem irrelevant.

Do you see the tension here? We feel like we are together in a real relationship, and yet we dehumanize the person we communicate with. This leads to exactly the kind of ugliness that reader identified.

There is one part of the problem. The second part of the problem is much older than the Internet: We underestimate the power and importance of our words.

December 06, 2012

Mayday is one of the few television shows that I really enjoy (I believe it may be called Air Disasters in the United States and Air Crash Investigations elsewhere in the world). It is a docudrama series about plane crashes, of all things. It sounds morbid, I admit, but I find it fascinating.

One of the episodes unravels the story of a plane that only narrowly averted disaster. The airliner had been flying along with everything appearing normal when suddenly it began to experience all kinds of strange problems. It gyrated across the sky, plummeting thousands of feet at a time and turning violently to one side. One and then two of the four engines stalled and failed, leaving the plane without the power it needed to maintain level flight. The pilot and copilot responded instinctually, doing their best to right the course of the aircraft. Meanwhile hundreds of passengers waited in abject terror, not knowing if they would live or die. The pilots fought valiantly and eventually found they were able to control the plane. Mysteriously, the engines restarted and were again able to provide sufficient power. The pilots directed the plane to a nearby airport and landed safely. Only a handful of passengers experienced serious injury, though the plane sustained heavy damage from the immense loads placed on it during the erratic flight.

In the aftermath, investigators found that almost everything that had gone wrong had been the fault of the pilots. When the plane encountered significant turbulence the pilots should have responded according to their flight training and according to the plane’s manual. Instead, they relied on instinct. And then, when the plane began to experience further complications, the pilots ignored the instruments that should have directed them to the source of the problem and the straightforward solution. They swung the plane violently from side to side attempting to right it because they ignored the aircraft’s instrument that told them where the horizon was and how to keep the plane level. They ignored the instruments that told them that their engine problem was not as serious as they thought. Blinded by the stress of the situation, they ignored the manual and did things their own way. It very nearly cost them their lives and the lives of hundreds of passengers.

Those pilots refused to trust their instruments, relying instead on their flawed assessment of the situation. Even though they thought they saw the situation clearly, they were in fact flying blind because they refused to heed the information conveyed to them by their instruments. In the book Polishing God’s Monuments Jim Andrews makes a similar connection when he reflects on a similar disaster.

What made this even a double calamity was the lethal convergence of two factors: bad weather and pilot error. The investigative report of the incident indicated the unfortunate pilot was flying in heavy fog. It went on to explain that when a pilot is flying in those conditions, it is vital that he rely solely on his instruments as opposed to flying “by the seat of his pants.” This is because without a visual point of reference, one’s senses can be easily fooled into thinking the plane is doing the exact opposite.

Though the pilot in this story was apparently quite experienced, he was notorious among his peers for having one fatal flaw: he tended to rely predominantly on the feel of the plane and his visual reference, rather than to trust the guidance of his instruments. In the report, his colleagues remarked that they could never understand why such a well-trained pilot was so disposed to this grievous error, though they warned that for new pilots, it’s not an easy skill to master.

Neither is it an easy spiritual lesson to learn.

We are prone to this same foolishness in our spiritual lives. Rather than trusting in the “instruments” given to us in the Word of God, we too often trust in our instincts and our internal guidance. Rather than relying on what is given to guide us and what is far more trustworthy, we rely on things that are always changing, always imperfect. As Andrews says, there is a difference “between walking by faith and walking by feelings—trusting our instruments rather than our sight or instincts. In the fog of life our feelings will mock our faith and fairly scream at us that God has walked out on us, but our instruments will always reassure us that he is still there, walking right beside us.”

This is not to say that our feelings are useless or that we should never heed them. God gave us feelings and emotion and even instincts for a reason; they often serve as useful guides to what is happening in our hearts. It sometimes seems that those who place the greatest emphasis on revealed truth are those who place the least emphasis on feelings; this should not be so. But we must always realize that only one of these is a standard. Only one is firm and unchanging. Only one is perfect.

The Word provides that fixed, unchanging, flawless standard. The Word is the instrument that will guide us and reassure is, even when the fog is heavy, when the engines have stopped and when we don’t know whether we’re going up or down.

November 28, 2012

Last summer I traveled to Prince Edward Island on Canada’s east coast to speak at a Gospel Coalition event. I was there with Mike Bullmore and Kevin DeYoung for the “Magnificent Holiness” conference. Mike spoke three times on the gospel and sanctification and used Romans 6 as his text. Of all he said, there is one line, one sentence, that I immediately wrote down and have been pondering ever since. It is this: “Trusting God for what he has done positions our hearts to trust God for what he has promised to do.”

I have written often of those authors and pastors who encourage Christians to preach the gospel to themselves every day. I see some of the value of doing this, though my practice of it is too sporadic. What such teachers want us to see is that the gospel is not merely the gateway to the Christian life, but the fuel of the Christian life. What they want us to understand is that the gospel is not simply defensive, the thing we turn to when we have sinned and are eager for some assurance of pardon. Rather, the gospel puts us on the offensive against sin and toward holiness. We ought to continually bring the gospel into our hearts and minds as a means of spurring ourselves to greater love for God which in turn generates a greater desire for obedience to him.

I do not remember all of the context surrounding Mike’s statement and I am sure it can be accepted and applied in many different ways. But as I ponder it and think about its application to my own life, I take it as a yet another challenge to be continually meditating on the gospel, to make the gospel my joy and delight. As I turn to the Bible to read the predictions and prophecies of the coming Messiah, as I consider the narratives of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, as I ponder the epistles where all of these things are explained and illuminated, as I consider the day of Christ’s return, my love for God and my trust in him must necessarily increase and thrive. As my love swells, so will my desire to do those things that honor him and bring him glory.

When I am fully trusting God for what he has done, trusting that Christ really did take my sin upon himself, that he really did pay the penalty for it, that I really have been forgiven, that I really am fully and finally reconciled to God—when I trust God in all of this, my heart is now positioned to trust God for what he has promised he will do today and in the future. And what has he promised to do? He has promised to make me holy. He has promised to sanctify me, to help me put sin to death and to replace it with joyful obedience. He has promised that the Holy Spirit is operating within my life to bring me into closer conformity with Jesus Christ. He has promised that the very same power that has saved me is now sanctifying me. Now I have hope and confidence that this really is happening and that this really can happen. I really can put sin to death, I really can grow in holiness, I really can grow in Christ-like character and look more and more like the One who saved me.

I simply cannot trust that all of this is happening and that all of this will continue to happen if I have no ability to trust in what has already been accomplished. However, when I trust God for what he has done, now my heart is properly positioned to trust God for all that he has promised to do. And, therefore, the gospel must be my joy and meditation every day.

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