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Christian Living

July 13, 2015

I am a believer in family devotions. So are most of you, I’m sure. But when I talk to other Christians, and especially to men, I find that this little family tradition is the source of a lot of regret and frustration. Many Christians feel that familiar sense of guilt whenever they stop to think about it. For something so simple family devotions sure are hard.

I think the best way to learn family devotions is by example: Find out what other people do, and imitate them as your starting point. So let me tell you how we do family devotions and, if you have not yet developed the habit, at least consider beginning here.

There are 2 stories to be told: How we imagined we would do family devotions and how we actually do them.

We imagined that family devotions would be a significant time set apart each day where we would gather as a family to enjoy each other and to enjoy God together. Maybe we would ring a little chime or something, and then everyone would come downstairs, gather in the living room, and we’d sit and soak in the Word, we’d enjoy deep conversation, we’d learn catechism questions and answers, we’d pray together. Maybe we would even find that one of us could sing well enough to lead a psalm or hymn. It all sounds so wonderful.

The reality has been just a little bit different.

For the first few years of marriage we did nothing at all. I wasn’t much of a leader back then and somehow almost never got around to calling the two of us together for devotions. I regret that a lot today. I had been raised in a Christian home, so I knew better than to let it slide. (Aileen had not been raised in a Christian home so did not know the habit.) It was probably a couple of years after our first child was born that I finally got serious about devotions and decided that it was time.

Since that day we have done quite well. We have varied our timing and structure a little bit based on the season of life and the external circumstances. But generally this is what we do:

We wake the kids at 6:55 AM (since they need to be out the door by 7:45). They come stumbling downstairs and by 7:00 or 7:05 we are all in the living room. I have been up for a couple of hours already and am feeling good. They have been up for a couple of minutes and are feeling not-so-good. They are either curled up on the furniture or draped over it in some strange fashion. But they are awake and are able to be attentive. Mostly. Most of the time.

I read a section of the Bible, usually working through narrative passages but, increasingly as the kids get older, epistles as well. I rarely read more than 15 or 20 verses. I read slowly and expressively with just enough drama to cut through their early-morning fog. I pause to tell my daughter to remove her hands from around her sister’s neck, and keep reading. When I have come to the end of our passage I briefly explain something from the passage (and by “briefly” I mean a minute or less). Sometimes I have to cheat by quickly consulting the study Bible notes so I’ll have something worth saying. Then I try to come up with a question or two I can ask the kids—a question of comprehension or of application. And I explain why calling your brother “a stupid idiot” is inappropriate during a reading of 1 Corinthians 13. And that’s our Bible reading.

Then I pray. Hopefully I remember to ask the kids how I can pray for them in the day ahead. I pray simply and briefly, thanking God for another day of his care and provision and asking him to bless us through the day ahead. It’s not unusual to have my prayer interrupted by one kid slapping another or by the dog going into some kind of “Oh my gosh there are actually people near me” fit. Then I snap at someone and have to add an extra prayer of confession.

And then we are done. It’s 5 or 10 minutes. That’s a lot less than it could be, but it is something. It forces us to start our day together and it allows us to start our day together with the Lord.

Some days I go into work early and am gone well before the family is up. On those days we do the same format, but after dinner instead of before breakfast. Some days we just plain forget to do family devotions all together. Some days we have great intentions but life throws a bit of a curveball and we get distracted. On a few occasions we have had unbelievers in the home and I have allowed shame to keep me from doing our devotions. On a few more occasions I just haven’t felt like it so have made some flimsy excuse. For some reason we never do them on Sunday.

But by and large, on most days, under most circumstances, we begin our days together with the Word and prayer. It’s the simplest family habit, but I believe it is the most beautiful as well.

I think family devotions is like a lot of things in the Christian life: We have made it bigger than it needs to be, and therefore live with a sense of failure, a sense that we are not measuring up. Through many years of success and failure Aileen and I have realized that there is no good way to measure the success of family devotions except by this: Did we do it? The thing is, we are building for the long-term here, not the short-term. A single episode of family devotions can so easily seem like a complete waste. But I am confident that when we measure by the hundreds spread over the 20 years the children are in our care, we will see that God worked powerfully in the hearts of our children and their parents. And I am confident we will see that he worked through the commitment we made to such a simple, wonderful tradition.

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June 30, 2015

A couple of days ago Aileen and I were at the gym, alternating between lifting heavy stuff off the floor and then putting it right back down again (with a bit of running to nowhere in the mix as well). This kind of activity often leaves us rather sore, and, as it happens, there was a chiropractor working the floor that day, offering to show how she could soothe some of that soreness. It was a free sampling of sorts, the health club equivalent to Costco’s little samples of crackers or pizza.

I tell you what: This place has it figured out. They work you hard so you get hungry and, wouldn’t you know it, they’ve got a nice little café to feed you. They push you to your limits so you get sore and, once again, they’ve got a chiropractic and physiotherapy clinic to serve you. It’s a perfect little cycle. But I digress.

Aileen was particularly sore that day, and is a little bit less self-conscious than I am about getting professionally twisted and kneaded in a public space. So she told the chiropractor about her sore knee and lay face-down on the table. The chiropractor pretty much ignored Aileen’s knee and instead began to work her hamstring. She protested a little, explaining again that it was not her hamstring but her knee that was bothering her. But the doctor kept on working the hamstring while explaining that the knee was not the problem. In reality, the hamstring was tight and this was putting abnormal strain on the knee, causing it to get inflamed. The problem with the knee was not actually with the knee at all. And, sure enough, after a few minutes of work the pain eased and disappeared.

As I watched the chiropractor doing what chiropractors do, I realized that I invariably become a better pastor when I observe doctors and other medical professionals. Physicians of the soul are not too different from physicians of the body. And in some ways these doctors are more adept than pastors at seeking problems and in solving them.

The chiropractor that day reminded me of the importance of careful observation. Her temptation might be to go straight to the knee—to hear the words “knee pain” and to immediately start work right there. But instead, she asked Aileen to do a few simple tasks, to move in certain ways, to describe the kind of pain she was experiencing. As Aileen did this, the doctor was feeling her muscles, feeling her ligaments, and observing it all. That careful observation led to a surprising but accurate diagnosis. And as a pastor, I know that I am tempted to neglect scrutinizing a spiritual issue and to make a quick and trite diagnosis of the problem. When I see someone believing what is wrong or living in a way that dishonors God, I need to resist the temptation to offer the quick fix and instead to talk, to pray, to observe, and to trace that sin to its root.

The chiropractor that day reminded me of a second and related issue. She reminded me that the presenting problems—the marital disputes, the explosive anger, the addictions, the deep sadness—are not always the thing. We can go right after that problem, find some Bible verses that speak to it, and try to memorize them together. But a careful examination through good conversation will often lead us to see that these sins are actually only symptoms of a much deeper problem. It may expose a deeper sin, it may expose the pain of past victimization, it may expose simple immaturity. But sometimes sin’s causes are much harder to discover than sin’s symptoms.

It is not just pastors who are to be adept at seeing and diagnosing spiritual problems. This is true of every Christian, to all of us who are called “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:12). We are all responsible before God to be involved, to observe carefully, to diagnose accurately, and to treat patiently. Are you caring for the souls of others?

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June 23, 2015

You have probably seen him or known him—He is the hypocritical husband. He is the man who speaks or writes or preaches about marriage, who proclaims his enduring affection for his bride, but who treats her dreadfully. Or maybe he just treats her apathetically. He is glad to tell others about his love, but his actions contradict his words.

As someone who both writes and preaches, I have been struck by my tendency toward hypocrisy in this way. I know that I am capable of teaching what the Bible says about marriage (or anything else, for that matter) even when I don’t act what the Bible says about it. I am capable of writing “8 Ways to Guarantee the Flame Lasts Forever” while acting as if I don’t care if it lasts another 5 minutes.

But I don’t mean to write about marriage today, I mean to write about the Bible. This article actually began over a friendly discussion of inerrancy. A friend and I were discussing a proper understanding of the Bible’s claims about itself and I found myself thinking about the people of Grace Fellowship Church. I found myself wondering about their understanding of the Bible, and whether or not they would affirm inerrancy.

I think they would—I think they would all agree with the claim that the Bible is without error and that it does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. And I think this is true whether or not they have ever heard the word inerrant. Here’s why: The most effective way of teaching inerrancy is not to teach inerrancy, but to teach the Bible. Inerrancy can (and sometimes should) be defined. But more often it should simply be displayed. And I am convinced that it is best displayed in the normal week-by-week expositional preaching of the Word.

It is here, in the preaching of the Word, that we show what we really believe. It is here that we show our theology in action. We open the Bible, say what it says, believe what it proclaims, and do what it commands. We open it up, allow God to speak, and then live out what he has spoken. There is nothing fancy about it. But there is something extraordinary and downright supernatural.

As people sit under this kind of preaching week after week, year after year, and book after book, they see inerrancy, they experience inerrancy, they believe inerrancy, and they consider anything less unthinkable. The most important lessons on inerrancy are not the ones in the systematic theology text but in the pulpit.

I have learned far more about marriage by seeing marriage than by reading definitions or descriptions of it. That is both right and good. And as important as it is to know and define the word inerrancy, it is far more important to see it. When we preach the Bible as inerrant, we teach people to understand that it is inerrant.

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May 11, 2015

I suppose we all know that as Christians we are meant to grow up, to mature. We begin as infants in the faith and need to develop into adults. The New Testament writers insist that we must all make this transition from milk to meat, from the children’s table to the grown-up’s feast. And yet even though we are aware that we must go through this maturing process, many of us are prone to measure maturity in the wrong ways. We are easily fooled. This is especially true, I think, in a tradition like the Reformed one which (rightly) places a heavy emphasis on learning and on the facts of the faith.

When Paul writes to Timothy, he talks to him about the nature and purpose of the Bible and says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). That word complete is related to maturity. Paul says that Timothy, and by extension me and you and all of us, is incomplete, unfinished, and immature. The Bible is the means God uses to complete us, to finish us, to bring us to maturity.

But what does it mean to be a mature Christian? I think we tend to believe that mature Christians are the ones who know a lot of facts about the Bible. Mature Christians are the ones who have their theology down cold. But look what Paul says: “That the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul does not say, “That the man of God may be complete, knowing the books of the Bible in reverse order,” or “That the man of God may be complete, able to explain and define supralapsarianism against infralapsarianism.” He does not say, “That the man of God may be complete, able to provide a structural outline of each of Paul’s epistles.” Those are all good things, but they are not Paul’s emphasis. They may be signs of maturity, but they may also be masks that cover up immaturity.

When Paul talks about completion and maturity, he points to actions, to deeds, to “every good work.” The Bible has the power to mature us, and as we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, and obeying it, we necessarily grow up in the faith. That maturity is displayed in the good works we do more than in the knowledge we recite. And this is exactly what God wants for us—he wants us to be mature and maturing doers of good who delight to do good for others. This emphasis on good deeds is a significant theme in the New Testament (see Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14, etc) and the very reason why God saved us.

This means that spiritual maturity is better displayed in acts than in facts. You can know everything there is to know about theology, you can be a walking systematic theology, you can spend a lifetime training others in seminary, and still be desperately immature. You will remain immature if that knowledge you accumulate does not motivate you to do good for others. The mature Christians are the ones who glorify God by doing good for others, who externalize their knowledge in good deeds.

Of course facts and acts are not entirely unrelated, so this is not a call to grow lax in reading, studying, and understanding the Bible. Not at all! The more you know of the Bible the more it can teach, reprove, correct and train you, and in that way shape your actions and cause you to do the best deeds in the best way for the best reason. More knowledge of God through his Word ought to lead to more and better service to others.

But in the final analysis, Christ lived and died so he could “redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Knowledge of God and his Word is good. Knowledge of God and his Word that works itself out in doing what benefits others—there is nothing that glorifies God more than that.

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May 06, 2015

Never mind all that stuff about “words will never hurt me.” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…words hurt worse. Somehow a full-out beating hurts less than a tongue-lashing. After the bruises have faded, the words remain dug in like daggers. I know people who are still deeply wounded by brutal words launched at them years or even decades before.

No wonder, then, that the Bible so often warns us against angry words. And no wonder, then, that the Bible warns against an angry or bitter heart. Our words are, after all, merely the overflow of the heart so that what the heart believes, the mouth speaks.

But the Bible does not warn only about the words we speak; it also counsels about the words we hear. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes says this: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21-22).

As always, The Preacher speaks a deep truth. I know well that too much of what I say about others is merely idle and inappropriate, and that my words say far more about me than they do about the other person. I speak too often, too freely, and too harshly of others—even of people I love. I don’t even mean a lot of what I say, but somehow I still say it. Jim Winter says “Many of us would be ashamed if others knew of the things we said about them when they were not there. If we had to explain our action, we would say that we either spoke in a fit of anger; or we did not really mean what we said; or we were simply having a bad day and did not have a good word to say about anyone. This may well have been true, but the damage will have been done.” I always have a handy excuse that can explain it all away.

When I look at my own words, I can easily discern what I really meant and what was just the bitter overflow of a discontent spirit. But, as usual, my self-focused view of the world causes me to miss the obvious. “The thing we must bear in mind is that when people speak ill of us, their explanation would probably be the same! If we are over-sensitive, we will dwell on every word. If we have received the information through a third party, we will dwell on every misquotation.” Even though I know how many idle words I speak, I assume that other people mean every word. I allow myself far greater leeway than I allow others. I excuse myself while condemning them.

The Preacher offers wisdom. He tells me to treat other people’s words just the way I would want them to treat mine—to know that they sin just like I sin, to know that they don’t mean every word anymore than I mean every word. The notes in the MacArthur Study Bible say it well: “Since you have many offensive words to be forgiven, don’t keep strict accounts of other’s offensive words against you.” Or as Spurgeon counsels, “You cannot stop people’s tongues, and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken. There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do.” There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and a world of idle chichat within.

The simple fact is this: I have cursed you, and you have cursed me. We have both sinned and both desperately need to receive and extend the grace of the God who cursed his own Son so we could have forgiveness through him.

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April 16, 2015

I recently sat with a group of young adults, men and women in their late teens and early twenties, and we spoke about singleness, dating, and courtship. Eventually the conversation advanced to marriage and to both the joys and the difficulties of marriage. We realized together that as these young adults are considering relationships and begin to pursue marriage, they are wondering how they can divorce-proof their marriages. Many of them have grown up surrounded by divorce and its effects. Some are afraid of commitment because they are afraid they may not be able to keep that commitment.

One young man asked how to ensure that a couple does not bring into their marriage a seed that could bloom into divorce. And it did not take me more than a moment to realize that in my marriage and in your marriage and in every marriage, there is already the seed of divorce. In every marriage is an issue, a belief, a habit, a heart idolatry—indeed, many of them—that can lead easily and naturally to the complete destruction of the union. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all committed to the destruction of marriage, and each of those enemies brings its own evil seeds. The question is not whether those seeds are or will be present in a marriage, but what we will do with them.

It may be that in your marriage, you have allowed the seed of divorce to grow. Perhaps it has already put down roots and is digging in. Maybe it has already poked its head through the soil and begun to grow to full bloom. Do not despair. There is still hope for your marriage. A marriage is not ruined by the presence of such seeds but by accepting, ignoring, or embracing them.

The very same seeds that may lead to destruction may also lead to increased strength and growth. Though powerful forces are arrayed against marriage, God is the creator of marriage, and He is far more committed to its growth than Satan is to its destruction.

Each of those seeds that may lead to divorce represents an opportunity for health. Each is an opportunity for a couple to have open and honest discussion, to identify these seeds, to talk about them, and to commit to stand firmly against them. Each represents a matter to take to the Lord together in prayer, to seek God’s strength and protection. And, of course, each represents an area in which the Bible can and must speak. Those seeds of error are countered and overcome by the truth of Scripture.

Stuart Scott says it well: “The more each mind is renewed (changed) by the Scripture, the more similarly a couple will think (Rom. 12:2). One of the worst things a couple can do is work to change one another into each other’s likeness. They are to be changed, rather, into Christ’s likeness.” And they are changed by going together to God’s Word day by day, week by week, and year after year.

April 15, 2015

Sometimes pride looks an awful lot like humility. There are times that our pride convinces us to put on a great show of what looks to all the world like humility so that we will be seen and acknowledged by others. We swell with pride when we hear, “He is humble.” It is a tricky thing, the human heart—prone to deceive both ourselves and others.

The Apostle Paul was a genuinely humble man. He had a deep awareness of his own sin and a profound sense of his own unworthiness before God. When he wrote to the church at Philippi, he went to great lengths to explain that he knew himself to be the chief of sinners. He remembered with shame that by persecuting the Lord’s church, he had persecuted the Lord Himself (Phil. 3:6; Acts 9:4). He had much to humble him.

Yet when he wrote to that church, Paul also told them, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). These might have been the proudest words he ever spoke. He might have been verbalizing the inclination of every heart, that the world would be a better place if everyone was just a little bit more like us. “Imitate me! I have this Christian life all figured out. Do things my way and you’ll be OK.” But was it pride that spoke? I don’t think so.

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” These might have been the humblest words Paul ever spoke. When Paul looked at his life, he saw undeniable evidence of God’s grace, and all he could do was marvel. Once a Pharisee, he now saw the beauty of grace; once a persecutor, he was now willing to be persecuted; once proud of his lineage as a Jew of all Jews, he now knew that this gave him no advantage. His life gave evidence of God’s grace in its every part. Paul knew it, and Paul rejoiced.

As he looked at God’s transforming grace, he could humbly say, “Be like me.” He was not calling attention to his own innate skill or his own zeal. He was simply looking at what he had become through the mercy of God and telling the people he loved that they should display that same grace.

And how about you? What keeps you from calling upon that new Christian to use your life as an example in following Christ? What keeps you from speaking to that person you love and saying, “Follow my example here”? Could it be humility? It is possible, but unlikely. It is far more likely that pride is holding you back, that you are too proud to see grace where it exists, to acknowledge that grace as a work of God, and to call others to imitate it.

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April 09, 2015

I grew up in a church culture, a catechizing culture, and a family worship culture. Each of these was a tremendous, immeasurable blessing, I am sure. I am convinced that twice-each-Sunday services, and memorizing the catechisms, and worshipping as a family marked me deeply. I doubt I will ever forget that my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, or that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I can still sing many of the psalms and hymns of my youth, and I have precious memories of my family bowing our heads around the kitchen table.

What was true of my family was true of many of my friends’ families. They, too, grew up around churches and catechisms and rigid family devotions. In fact, in all the times I visited their homes, I don’t think I ever witnessed a family skip over their devotions. It was the custom, it was the expectation, and it was good. Our church had near 100% attendance on Sunday morning and near 100% attendance on Sunday evening. It was just what we did.

But despite all of the advantages, many of the people I befriended as a child have since left the faith. Some have sprinted away, but many more have simply meandered away, so that an occasionally missed Sunday eventually became a missed month and a missed year. Not all of them, of course. Many are now fine believers, who are serving in their churches and even leading them. But a lot—too many—are gone.

Why? I ask the question from time-to-time. Why are all five of my parents’ kids following the Lord, while so many of our friends and their families are not? Obviously I have no ability to peer into God’s sovereignty and come to any firm conclusions. But as I think back, I can think of one great difference between my home and my friends’ homes—at least the homes of my friends who have since walked away from the Lord and his church. Though it is not universally true, it is generally true. Here’s the difference: I saw my parents living out their faith even when I wasn’t supposed to be watching.

When I tiptoed down the stairs in the morning, I would find my dad in the family room with his Bible open on his lap. Every time I picked up my mom’s old NIV Study Bible it was a little more wrecked than the time before, I would find a little more ink on the pages, and a few more pieces of tape trying desperately to hold together the worn binding. When life was tough, I heard my parents reason from the Bible and I saw them pray together. They weren’t doing these things for us. They weren’t doing them to be seen. They were doing these things because they loved the Lord and loved to spend time with him, and that spoke volumes to me. I had the rock-solid assurance that my parents believed and practiced what they preached. I knew they actually considered God’s Word trustworthy, because they began every day with it. I knew that they believed God was really there and really listening, because they got alone with him each morning to pray for themselves and for their kids. I saw that their faith was not only formal and public, but also intimate and private.

Here is one thing I learned from my parents: Nothing can take the place of simply living as a Christian in view of my children. No amount of formal theological training, church attendance, or family devotions will make up for a general apathy about the things of the Lord. I can catechize my children all day and every day, but if I have no joy and no delight in the Lord, and if I am not living out my faith, my children will see it and know it.

For all the good things my parents did for me, I believe that the most important was simply living as Christians before me. I don’t think anything shaped or challenged me more than that.