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Christian Living

February 06, 2013

Is there any area of the Christian life in which we feel more inadequate than in prayer? Is there any area of the Christian life that exposes greater feelings of helplessness and shame? I know some true prayer warriors, people who dedicate themselves to hours and hours of prayer, yet even they confess to knowing so little about it and having so little confidence in what they do and what they pray.

It should come as no surprise that the Christian market is flooded with books on prayer, books that try to teach the how’s and the why’s of prayer. There are hundreds of good options and thousands of terrible ones. I’ve read many of them and often recommend some of my favorites.

I love reading books on prayer, but sometimes I wonder if I like reading books on prayer more than I like praying. Reading comes naturally to me, prayer does not. Reading is easy to understand, prayer is not. Finishing a good book and looking back on all the parts I have highlighted gives a sense of accomplishment that prayer does not. Reading books on prayer too easily becomes a substitute for praying.

I do not mean to knock the books themselves. They are a blessing and have often proven helpful to me. But ultimately I have learned far more by putting the books aside and just praying—praying on my own and praying with others. For all the good things the books have taught me, I have learned more when praying quietly by myself, praying out loud by myself, praying with Aileen, praying with my fellow elders, praying at church-wide prayer meetings, just plain praying.

If I want to learn to pray for my family, and if I want to pray for them well and effectively, I need to get on my knees and pray for them and I need to persevere in those prayers.

If I want to learn to pray for the people in my church, I need to pray with them and pray for them.

If I want to learn how to confess sin in prayer, I need to pray and confess sin, trusting that the more I do it, the more natural it will become.

If I want to learn to better express gratitude in prayer, I need to pray and thank the Lord for his good gifts, and then do it again. And again.

If I want to more naturally pray with my Bible open, praying Scripture, I need to start praying Scripture and trust that in time it will become easier.

If I want to know how to pray, I just need to pray.

No book, no classroom, no course, no instructor can teach me so much about prayer that I can avoid the the hard work of learning on my knees. Ultimately prayer itself is the classroom.

February 04, 2013

It must have been six months or a year ago that I watched my iPhone—my brand new iPhone—sliding, then flipping, down a flight of stairs. I had just pulled it from my pocket and somehow lost my grip on it. It clattered down one step, then the next, then the next, all the way to bottom.

Idolatry has been much on my mind lately, idolatry ancient and modern. In the Old Testament there must be a hundred stories of the Israelites raising idols and then cutting them down again. The story repeats itself all through their history. Time and again they abandon God in favor of idols of wood and stone, violating the terms of the covenant they have made with him. The Lord is patient and through priests and judges and prophets calls his people to repent, to return. Eventually they do, and as a sign of their repentance they cut down those idols.

Have you ever considered what it would have been like to actually cut down an idol? To take an axe to a wooden god must have been a very tangible expression of repentance. Beverly Chao Berrus writes about this very thing:

There’s a memory seared into my mind from when I was twelve years old. I was watching from the backdoor of our home as my father brought out an axe.

Laying prostrate on the ground was a 3-foot-tall intricately designed statue of Buddha carved from wood. The axe went flying through the air from over my father’s shoulder landing with a loud thwack! The first stroke severed the statue’s head. Another thwack! Then another. Pieces of red wood went flying all over the yard. Finally, all that was left were indiscernible remnants of what was once our family idol. This scene also gave me a lasting impression that life for my dad and our family would never be the same.

We are idolaters still, though few of us bow down before wood and stone. Most of our idols are not so easily destroyed; we cannot take an axe to an idol of reputation or significance or sex. But these are idols, too, that draw the attention of our hearts and minds and demand our allegiance.

My iPhone threatens to be an iDol in my life. It represents so many of the things I value. It represents significance (every email, every retweet, every text message somehow tells me that I am valuable); it represents productivity (I can use it to get more done in less time, at least in theory); it represents reputation (I’m an Apple guy, not one of those Android or Blackberry guys). Watching it fall down the stairs gave me a glimpse of the folly of idolatry. After all, if my idol can be destroyed by falling down a flight of stairs, I probably ought to aim a little bit higher.

January 31, 2013

It is the theme of so many movies, so many novels, so many classroom presentations and political discourses: Freedom comes in pursuing your deepest desires, whatever those desires may be. Be true to yourself, be unashamed in who you are, and you will find joy and fulfillment.

Not too long ago I read the bestselling book Anticancer, written by David Servan-Schreiber. In this book he talks about the importance of a healthy immune system for battling against disease and lists several factors that may cause an immune system to decrease rather than strengthen. One of those factors, he insists, is denying or ignoring one’s natural homosexuality. If you are homosexual, the best thing for your body and soul is to pursue your homosexuality. True freedom, he implies, freedom of both body and spirit, will be found in pursuing homosexuality; captivity will come by ignoring what he believes to be natural and good.

And yet the Bible tells us a very different story. True freedom, the Bible insists, comes when we obey God. We do not find freedom outside of the revealed will of God but within it. It is within the boundaries he gives us that we find freedom and joy and fulfillment. What looks like captivity is freedom, and what looks like freedom is captivity. We are terrible assessors of what brings the truest joy. It is a daily battle to take God at his word.

Think of a child who is told by his parents not to touch the glass in front of the fireplace. He finds freedom in obeying the boundaries his parents set for him and he ignores those boundaries at his own peril. His parents are not being arbitrary or cruel. Rather, they are using their superior knowledge and their love for him to tell him what is in his own best interests. Their love for him compels them to create rules, to create boundaries.

Similarly, God gives us boundaries and he does so out of love and mercy. He tells us that we will find joy and freedom not outside of such boundaries but within them. Within the limits he gives us, we are able to find much greater joy and pleasure and fulfillment. Adam and Eve, living within the simple boundary God gave them (do not eat the fruit of that one tree) were able to live a sinless existence fully in the presence of God. But they were also able to choose not to obey and as soon as they did that, they found that their disobedience made them slaves. No longer free to serve God in every moment of every day, they became slaves to their sinful natures. The promise of freedom brought them only the pain of captivity.

January 28, 2013

It may be the most common feature of the bestselling Christian books. “We all want to be great for God and do things that would be impossible without his presence and help. So live a life that’s Greater.” “You are living a life of comfort, ease and complacency, so step out and do something Radical.” “Your life is just passing you by as you sit on the sidelines, so God is calling you to be a follower, Not a Fan.” “You want more Jesus and are bored with what Christianity offers you. You need to rediscover God’s Crazy Love.” It goes on nearly ad infinitum. Some are awful, some are brilliant, but the theme is largely the same: There must be more to life than this! Please tell me there is more to life than this!

Christians live with this deep-rooted dissatisfaction. Authors have written of it, poets have reflected on it, songwriters have sung of it. We read what the Bible calls us to, we feel what our hearts demand of us, then we look at our lives and are disappointed, discontent. There has to be more than this. The Lord must expect more than this.

Vapor. There’s the answer, I’m convinced. Vapor. This was the refuge, the unavoidable reality of The Preacher—of Solomon in the character of The Preacher—in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Has anyone ever written words than ring truer?

We are dissatisfied because we must be dissatisfied. God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) but we locked ourselves in a temporal world. God created us to find our highest joy and delight in him, but we chose to seek delight in the things he made. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. Even those of us who have been drawn back to the Creator still turn to this side and that, to this idol and that.

We can cry out that we were made for more, that we were meant for more, from now until eternity. We will cry out from now until eternity. We will simply be expressing what Solomon told us so much more pointedly so many years ago. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This world cannot deliver all we want from it. This life cannot deliver all the satisfaction we long for. Switchfoot said it well: “Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open / Maybe we’re bent and broken / We want more than this world’s got to offer / We were meant to live for so much more.” The most contented Christian will still long for so much more.

January 24, 2013

It is a question every pastor faces on a regular basis. It is a question every conference speaker faces in panel discussions or Q&A sessions: How much of my money do I give to the church? How much should I give to the church?

My answer is short: Enough that it matters. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

In Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the church to take a weekly collection in which each person is to give “as he may prosper.” This tells us that there will be different levels of giving. Some will give more and some will give less. God has prospered us differently—he has given us all different levels of income and wealth and with it different amounts to give back to him.

(Aside: For various reasons I do not believe that we are instructed or obligated to give the tithe, the flat 10% that was a minimal expectation in the Old Testament. Those who demand tithing today usually fail to understand the Old Testament context where the tithe was a tax as much as a donation; it was a means of providing for the civil and religious structures in that society. Since we are no longer a theocracy, the tithe is no longer operational. It may be a helpful bit of information to include in a discussion but it’s not the place to begin.)

When I say we are to give enough that it matters, I mean that we should give enough that it makes a difference to our lives, to our lifestyles. Erwin Lutzer says it well: “Those who give much without sacrifice are reckoned as having given little.” We are meant to give enough that there are things we cannot do and cannot have because of our dedication to the Lord’s work. Let me be clear that I do not mean that we should do without food or we should do without paying our bills. The sacrifice is to be ours and not the bank’s or the landlord’s. Giving “as he may prosper” is not calling us to give beyond the ways the Lord has prospered us. There are theological traditions that insist that going into debt in order to “plant a seed” will ensure God’s provision in return. God may choose to do that, but wisdom dictates that we ensure that we are able to pay our bills and feed our children. We are to be generous, but we are to be wise as well.

For some people, giving away 10% may mean they are giving enough that it matters. Maybe they cannot have quite the vacation they would otherwise have; maybe they are buying a used car instead of a new one; maybe they are saving for an extra couple of years before fixing up the kitchen or putting the down payment on that home. For other people this may come when they are giving 2% of their income. For others it may come when they are giving 75%. My encouragement is to keep raising the amount you give until you feel it, until it matters.

Giving that does not impact our lives at all is not sacrificial and, therefore, not enough. C.S. Lewis expresses this in a helpful way: “If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

How much am I to give? Enough that it matters. Enough that I am sacrificing some comforts and some experiences I would otherwise enjoy. What the Lord teaches those who give this way is that the joy of giving, both now and eternally, for outweighs what we could have had instead. We don’t give because God needs our money; we give to show our gratitude and our dependence, and in return he returns joy. So many Christians can attest that there is a powerful, humbling kind of delight in tallying up the giving for a previous year and thanking the Lord for allowing so much to be given away. That car or kitchen or house pales in comparison to the joy of making so small a sacrifice to the One who sacrificed all for us.

January 16, 2013

Few words in the Bible have sparked as many battles as helper. Whole books and doctoral theses have been written on the word, its meaning, and its implications. It’s too bad, this, because helper is a word meant to generate praise and humility.

You know the words of Genesis 2:18. God has completed his work of Creation and has declared that it is all excellent, it is all exactly as it ought to be. Yet still he declares “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Something interesting happens here. God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs a helper and yet doesn’t just go ahead and create this helper. Not yet. As far as we know, he doesn’t say anything to Adam about a helper. Instead, he tasks Adam with naming all of the animals. As Adam does this, as every living creature parades before him, he sees that none of them are like him—none have been created in the image of God. Adam isn’t lonely. How could he be lonely in a perfect world? But he realizes that in order to carry out his God-given mandate he will need help. Only now does God cause man to fall asleep and create for him a woman. When Adam opens his eyes and sees what God has created for him that he bursts into praise. He looks upon this woman and immediately sees that she is like him.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.

It is only after he comes to understand his incompleteness that Adam is able to offer God the deepest and most heartfelt praise for such lavish provision. Having experienced need even in perfection, he knows the value of this gift.

The text emphasizes that even in a perfect world something was not good. It shows us that God’s intention for Adam included marriage, companionship and, of course, the sexual relationship and procreation. God does not exist in isolation but in a tri-unity, and man, too, is to live in relationship. To address this need God created a helper for him—a helper corresponding to him and complementing him. This helper is suitable for Adam, meaning that she too is made in God’s image, she is equal to him in dignity and worth, and she is exactly the kind of helper he needs.

There are two dimensions to the word helper that we need to see and understand—the explicit and the implied.

January 15, 2013

Last week I was captivated by a sunrise. I am one of those people who is “early to bed, early to rise” and have watched many sunrises. I love the dawning of a new day because every day is so full of promise and possibility. Every sunrise lays a new day before us and asks, “What will you do with this day? What will this day be?”

The sunrise that so gripped me is described in the book of Ecclesiastes where the author, a man who identifies himself only as The Preacher, writes “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” This man is a poet and he looks at that sunrise and sees it as a picture of youth. The brightness of the sun as it cuts through the darkness and ushers in a new day is like the radiance of youth with all its excitement and energy and possibilities. Youth lays a whole lifetime before us and asks, “What will you do with this life? Who will you be?”

The Preacher’s great concern is that youth does not go to waste. He wants us and commands us to enjoy the days of youth—not just the days of childhood, but all of the days before old age comes. “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all … Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-9). He speaks to each of us and tells us to take advantage of this time to do what makes us happy, what brings us joy, what we are passionate about. These are the days when we are young and strong, energetic and optimistic. These are the days when the possibilities are limitless, when the whole world lies open before us. He wants us to do what we love and to love what we do, and he wants us to do it now, in the days of youth. He knows that a day will come when joy will be far more difficult to find. If we are going to be joyful in old age, we will need to be joyful now and carry joy with us into those days.

This Preacher has been speaking on behalf of God and teaches us that the Lord wants us to enjoy life and to acknowledge all the good things life brings. Isn’t that amazing? God wants us to enjoy life! God wants us to linger over a good cup of coffee and walk hand-in-hand with the person we love and savor that delicious meal and enjoy making love and appreciate the beauty in a rainbow. These are his gifts and he wants us to enjoy them. Life is a gift and he wants us to enjoy it.

The Preacher is so concerned with our joy that he gives us three joy-enhancers—three things that will help us get every bit of joy we can from these years. These are things each of us would do well to keep in mind.

#1. Acknowledge Youth Will End

The Preacher says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” He wants us to savor life as we live it. If we are granted many years, we are free before the Lord to live them all without sadness and without regret. But even as we take joy in life, even as we live with youthful exuberance, our Preacher calls us to have an awareness that the light of day will eventually give way to the dark of night. The sun that rises will need to set again and darkness will come. The joy of youth will be followed by all the difficulties of old age and the difficulties of old age will be followed by death. It is right and good to really live, to live all the way, but we live best when we keep one eye on eternity, when we keep in mind that these good days will come to an end.

Acknowledging the end helps us. It reinforces that we only get one chance, one opportunity. This life cannot be lived well in retrospect. It can only be lived well in the moment. None of us will get a second chance to do life well; none of us will get a second chance to live today well. So don’t waste your day, don’t waste your youth, and don’t waste your life!

January 10, 2013

We are a family that is surrounded by digital technologies. Each of us has our own Kindle, devices that have already more than paid for themselves in all we’ve saved buying ebooks in place of printed books. My two oldest kids each have an iPod Touch, one they earned and purchased themselves with their paper route money. Of course I’ve got a cell phone and have recently transitioned to preaching from an iPad. And so on. It’s ridiculous, really. But I don’t think we are much different than most families today, surrounded by generations of devices.

There is an obvious financial cost to being a wired family, but there is also a more subtle cost—the cost of distraction. As much as I love and appreciate these devices, they are distracting. Sometimes they distract by beeping and flashing and vibrating, and other times they distract just by their ease, their fun, their availability. Paul Graham says, “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” Ain’t that the truth. It’s like these devices are constantly beckoning to us, calling us away from what we are doing and toward what they think we ought to be doing. You would almost think they were made to be distracting.

When I sit and read a book, I have to battle against running to a computer to check email; when I am talking with the family, I have to battle against reaching for my phone to see why it just vibrated; when my children are bored, their instinct is to grab their iPod and lose themselves in a mindless game. Those devices are always so close by and so compelling.

I am glad to have access to these devices but want to ensure that we are using them well, that we own them instead of allowing them to own us. It is important for the children, but equally important for me and for Aileen. The only real remedy I’ve been able to find is carving out times that are deliberately digital-free. I now take one day a week and one week a year away from the digital buzz. And then I fight the daily battle.

One Week a Year

Over the past few summers I’ve been exploring the idea of deliberately carving out times that are digital-free, away from the Internet and all digital devices. I addressed the first attempt in my book The Next Story:

January 07, 2013

John Newton was a slave-trader turned hymn-writer, a man who underwent a miraculous transformation that saw him leave behind a life of immorality and depravity to pursue the calling of a minister of the gospel. The amazing grace that had unexpectedly but permanently “saved a wretch like me” was his joy and meditation for the rest of his days, the topic of a thousand sermons, hymns, prayers and letters.

Newton was an insightful pastor who was adept at peering deep into the human soul. As he reflected on his life before that encounter with the Lord’s saving grace, he penned a poem or hymn titled In Evil Long I Took Delight. In that song he confesses “In evil long I took delight / Unawed by shame or fear.” For so many years of his life he had been wild and dissolute, living only for his own pleasure, at least “Till a new object struck my sight/ And stopp’d my wild career.” The object that arrested his gaze was “One hanging on a Tree / In agonies and blood.” This hymn describes all that he came to see and learn about the Son of God—that Newton’s own sins had hung him there, that Christ was suffering for the sins of this wretched sinner. And then Newton identifies something every Christian has experienced when meditating on the cross, that in the Christian life there are times off “pleasing grief, and mournful joy.”

With pleasing grief, and mournful joy,
My spirit now is fill’d,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by Him I kill’d!

There, with his eyes transfixed on Jesus Christ, Newton weeps with both joy and sorrow—sorrow that his sin had led this man to suffer such great pain, and joy that this man was willing to die so that he, Newton, might live. This is the wonder of the cross, that place where in one act we weep and rejoice and wonder and worship.

This year I had the privilege of attending a Memorial Service at Toronto’s Pregnancy Care Centre—an organization I have come to know and love—and found myself, through tears, reflecting on the pleasing grief and the mournful joy of those who have found the freedom of forgiveness. This memorial service is a time to own past sins and, in confessing them, to proclaim and experience forgiveness. It is a time for mothers and fathers to confess that they had knowingly taken the life of their own child, and yet to proclaim that the grace of the Lord is sufficient to cover even this sin. In obedience to James 5:16, it takes the shame of private sin to a public setting: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Each of the participants was given an opportunity to speak in front of the group gathered that evening. There were some who named their child, who read that child a letter or poem, who asked or begged that child’s forgiveness, who proclaimed their trust that they had found forgiveness through the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they spoke they were given a flower, a rose, a small and symbolic token of God’s love for them. There were some who could say nothing, who could only stand silently and weep for what they had done and what they had lost. These women, too, were given a flower. Many of them placed a sealed letter in a basket, a letter they had written to their child but could not bear to read. Those letters remain sealed today, a private interaction between a woman, her child, and the Lord.

Yet even among all the tears and even in the expressions of such pain and regret, still there was joy. It was the joy of freedom, for these women were not only confessing sin, but proclaiming and accepting forgiveness. The tears of shame were mixed in equal parts with tears of joy, for these women did not mourn as those who have no hope, but as those who have been filled with hope—a new hope that has come through new life.

Abortion holds out the promise of freedom. It offers freedom from the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, the responsibility of raising a child, the burden of providing for an infant. But like all sin, it over-promises and under-delivers. Where it promises freedom, it delivers captivity—captivity to shame and regret and the knowledge of having done what is wrong. Abortion is a lie, a sin that could only be birthed by the father of lies (John 8:44).

But all the shame of abortion, all the evil and weight of it, is broken before the cross. Before the cross we are all invited to kneel, to trust, to confess, to weep with that pleasing grief and mournful joy, and there to find the freedom of forgiveness. 


Most Pregnancy Help Centers across North America offer post-abortion support, most often through group and individual Bible studies. If that would be helpful to you, you can visit OptionLine to find a center near you.

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.

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