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Personal Reflections

December 16, 2007

A couple of days ago I posted a short reflection on grace and how foreign a concept this is to sinful humans. I wrote about my son and how, at a time he had received a gift he valued a great deal, he attempted to repay this gift with all the money he had (which was, it turns out, only one dollar). His offer was a kind one and even a generous one, but one that showed a misunderstanding and a misappreciation of a gift. Gifts, after all, are not repaid. They are given in grace.

My wife runs a small eBay-based business where she sells storage products (CD racks, DVD towers, and so on) along with fireplaces—electric and gel fuel. The nature of the business is such that all of the these products are drop-shipped and the addition of an extra one or two cogs to the wheel leads to the occasional difficult customer service situation. Yesterday she described to me one of these situations. A woman who had purchased some gel fuel from her had received only a partial order. It was the fault of the company that shipped the product but, of course, since my wife was the one it was purchased from, it was her responsibility to deal with. She did her best to make it right, attempting to get the full order sent right away. But this woman wanted more—she felt that she had been inconvenienced and she demanded compensation for this inconvenience. At first she asked for a discount on her purchase and then upped the ante asking for a whole case of this fuel gel to be added to her order. All of this because she only received a partial order.

I thought about this and wondered if I would do things the same way. If someone inconvenienced me by failing to provide the level of service I expected, would I demand to be compensated? Is it my right to have a perfect shopping experience every time? To be honest, I don’t know. But as I thought about this situation, I thought about grace and realized that just as it is foreign to us to accept grace, it is also foreign to us to extend grace. Why couldn’t this woman have simply extended grace? Was this issue so serious that she could not simply generously extend grace, seeking to build bridges rather than grasping for more? Would I have done any differently? What is it about grace that makes it seem strange to us?

I guess this may be the point of the parable of The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). Those who have been forgiven are expected to forgive. Those who have been given grace are expected to extend grace.

But do we?

December 10, 2007

I’m going to be in the Atlanta and Chattanooga areas over the holidays this year, hanging out with my family and then attending the Reality Check Conference (where I’ll be blogging, book signing, and having fun). So that means a couple of days in Adairsville, GA, a couple of days in Woodstock, GA (which, I hear, is a ‘burb of Atlanta) and a few days in Chattanooga, TN. Looks like it’s going to be a busy week or ten days!

While down south I have been asked to speak at a couple of churches and thought I’d let you know in case anyone out there in cyberspace is interested in attending. On December 23rd I’ll be speaking at Grace Community Church which meets in Dawsonville, Georgia. I believe the worship service begins at 6 PM and will be followed by a Christmas candle-light service. Then, the next Sunday, December 30th, I’ll be speaking at Lyndon Avenue Baptist Church in Chattanooga. The service begins at 6 PM.

At both services I’ll be speaking on Hebrews 5 and teaching on the Bible’s call for us to be men and women of discernment. On the 30th I believe I’ll also speak a little bit on my experiences working in the blogosphere and in new media.

So if you live in the area and if you’re itching for something to do on a Sunday evening over the holidays, feel free to visit either of those churches.

December 10, 2007

Have you ever considered what it must have been like for Adam and Eve to walk and talk with God in the Garden of Eden? Have you thought of the things you would say to God if you were to hear His footsteps today? What Christian hasn’t experienced a pang of jealousy when he reads “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” And what Christian hasn’t experienced a pang of remorse when he reads how Adam and Eve squandered that unique privilege. There was God, walking in the garden as He had done before. Adam and Eve recognized the sound of his footsteps. But this time, instead of rushing to Him and rejoicing in His presence, they fled and they hid from Him. They had sinned and they knew that there were consequences for such tyranny. They feared their Maker.

Ever since this fall into sin, the history of God’s people has been a history of mediation. Mediation is a concept we encounter quite often today. We hear of sports contracts being settled by mediation; we hear of lawyers becoming involved in mediation between divorcing couples; we hear of strikes being settled by a mediator who stands between the workers and the corporation and handles communications between them. These hint at mediation as we understand it from the Bible. In rejecting God’s goodness and benevolence and in putting himself in place of God, Adam erected a barrier between himself and God. The close communion that had once existed was ruptured and destroyed. No longer would God come walking to them in the cool of the day; no longer would He allow them to stay in His Garden. He forced them out and barred the way so they could not return. The very next passage of Scripture relates the first murder. Human history had taken a drastic, horrifying turn for the worse. The lines of communication were shattered.

From that time, God no longer allowed people to commune with Him in the same way. From that point on, man could no longer approach God as they had in the Garden. They had to approach God through a mediator. When we think of mediators we may think first of Moses, a man to whom God revealed Himself and a man whose task it was to then make the will of God known to the Israelites. After Moses was Joshua, and after Joshua were judges and prophets. There were priests to stand between God and man, offering to God sacrifices on behalf of the people and bestowing God’s blessings and curses on His behalf. Always there were mediators, always there were people standing between God and man. Always people must have realized their inability to approach God as they were. Always they must have wondered, “how can we approach God directly?”

There are some words whose meaning we understand without difficulty and some that seem to require a little more work. When we think of the word immature we understand that the prefix -im is equivalent to -un or not. A person who is immature is a person who is not mature—he displays a lack of maturity. But a similar word, immediate does not often strike us in the same way. If we break off the prefix it begins to make sense. Im-mediate harkens back to an older and perhaps less common understanding of that word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines immediate as “acting or occurring without the interposition of another agency or object; direct.” Immediate indicates access that does not require mediation. It is immediate access to God that we so wish to have, but that we cannot have.

Since man’s fall into sin, we have longed to be able to approach God directly. And well we should, for God made us to enjoy this unbroken communion with Him. We were made in the image of God and were made to know God. We long to enjoy an unmediated relationship. But even today, even in this New Testament era, we still rely on mediated revelation. God has been gracious in giving us His Word and His Spirit to communicate truth to us. But even this is mediated truth, truth mediated through the Spirit.

God sent a better mediator in Jesus Christ—a mediator that was better than Moses and better than the priesthood, judges and prophets. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the mediator of a new and better covenant.

Jonathan Edwards says this about this great mediator:

The redeemed are dependent on God for all. All that we have—wisdom, the pardon of sin, deliverance, acceptance in God’s favor, grace, holiness, true comfort and happiness, eternal life and glory—we have from God by a Mediator; and this Mediator is God. God not only gives us the Mediator, and accepts His mediation, and of His power and grace bestows the things purchased by the Mediator, but He is the Mediator. Our blessings are what we have by purchase; and the purchase is made of God; the blessings are purchased of Him; and not only so, but God is the purchaser. Yes, God is both the purchaser and the price; for Christ, who is God, purchased these blessings by offering Himself as the price of our salvation.

We rejoice that God has accepted the mediation of His Son. We rejoice that we can approach the throne of God. But still we realize that there is a mediator. To speak to the Father, we speak through the Son. To hear from the Father, we rely on the Spirit. Still we need someone to stand between. Still we long for the im-mediate. We long to see God as He is. We long to approach Him directly. We long to have the relationship fully and finally restored. We look in that dim mirror, always wishing we might see face-to-face.

December 09, 2007

On Friday evening the menfolk and womenfolk of this household went separate ways. I took my son upstairs and he and I continued playing a computer game he enjoys, saving the world from tyranny. We were sure that this was much more important than what the ladies were doing. Aileen and the girls stayed downstairs and began getting the house into the Christmas spirit. A couple of hours later, with the threat of evil worldwide domination thoroughly vanquished, my son and I returned downstairs to find the house transformed. The Christmas tree was decorated and popcorn strings were almost finished being strung together. Christmas lights and garlands were wrapped around the handrail from upstairs to downstairs. I was pleased. I know how much it means to Aileen to keep the house “seasonal.”

It was not until later that night, as I was turning out lights and locking doors right before heading to bed, that I noticed that Aileen had put a Christmas tablecloth on the kitchen table. I don’t know why, but for some reason seeing that just made my night (and, by Aileen’s own admission, it’s not even a very nice tablecloth). I went to bed that night, just praising God for my wife. As she lay beside me, fast asleep and breathing softly, I was filled with gratitude that God has given her such a desire to tend to our home.

If I were a single guy, I’m quite sure that it would not occur to me to decorate the house for Christmas. I definitely would not have a Christmas tablecloth for my kitchen table. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have or need a table since I’d likely just eat takeout at my desk every day while working 16-hour days. I wouldn’t decorate for Christmas because Christmas decorations don’t mean anything to me.

Or that’s what I thought. But that silly tablecloth told me that they do mean something to me. In that tablecloth and in those decorations I see my wife’s desire and her ability to make this season special. I see her God-given ability to do something I cannot do—make this house a home.

November 23, 2007

Every now and again I get concerned that people are going to think this blog is getting too commercialized—that I keep trying to sell you things. I’m not into blogging for that. But sometimes it’s fun to talk about things like this, so bear with me. Today I’m going to talk about Christmas music and offer up some suggestions.

A few of my favorite blogs have been offering Christmas music suggestions. I don’t think lists of favorites get much more eclectic than those for Christmas music. After all, there are so many available that people can search far and wide and far across genres to make their picks. David’s picks range from The Master’s College Choral to Nat King Cole. Zach’s picks are surprisingly mainstream for Zach (and include, to my great surprise, selections by both Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant). He also goes with Harry Connick Jr., Charlie Brown, and Kevin Max.

I am not a big fan of Sufjan Stevens and his rather weird music, but I do think his Christmas set Songs for Christmas (42 songs across 5 EPs) is an amazing set and one you probably haven’t heard before. He sings plenty of the traditional songs interspersed with some of his own. Songs like “I Saw Three Ships” (disc 2), “Once in David’s Royal City” (disc 2) and “The Friendly Beasts” (disc 3) are done very, very well. With five albums recorded over five years, there is something for everyone on these CDs. I love ‘em! The set comes with “a 42-page booklet with an original Christmas essay by acclaimed American novelist Ricky Moody, two essays, a short story by Stevens, a holiday sticker, chord charts, lyrics, comic strip, family portrait poster, photos, and an animated video.”

Christmas Songs is the latest album by Jars of Clay and one that showed up just in time for Christmas. The guys, who are among the most talented musicians in all of Christian music, provide fourteen songs, some of which are classics and some of which are originals.

Savior: Celebrating the Mystery of God Become Man was released last year by Sovereign Grace Ministries. You’ve probably seen ads for it running on this site. It offers twelve original songs by Bob Kauflin, Mark Altrogge, and the other Sovereign Grace musicians.

City on a Hill: It’s Christmas is an entry in the City on a Hill series and one that brings some Christmas favorites and a few originals by bands like Caedmon’s Call, Jars Of Clay, Third Day and Sixpence None The Richer.

If you’re in the mood for some lighter fare, Relient K’s Let it Snow Baby, Let it Reindeer is kind of fun. It has seventeen songs, some of which are the typical holiday favorites and some of which are Matt Theissen’s typical Relient K tunes. At the very least, it’s a fun album to listen to! If you bought 2003’s Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand you’ve already got half the songs. If you like that, you may also enjoy the Gloria EP by Hawk Nelson.

Of course it’s not Christmas if you don’t listen to at least one Trans-Siberian Orchestra album at least once. I’m kind of partial towards The Lost Christmas Eve. And you’ll need to listen to Handel’s Messiah at least one time as well. Better yet, read it and keep a Bible handy as you do so.

Those are my picks. What are your favorite Christmas albums?

November 19, 2007

Aileen and I were once members of a church that, after a few years of existence, began to de-emphasize doctrine. Some of the pastors seemed to reach the conclusion that “doctrine divides” and that the church really just needed to focus on evangelism and on “action.” They seemed to determine that a sound theological foundation held in common was unattainable and unrealistic. Therefore, doctrine should be laid aside and the church should rally around the things we had in common—a desire to reach others with the gospel and a desire to serve other people. It was a bit of a naive strategy, of course, and one that was bound to cause problems. Soon the church began to fracture into camps—those with backgrounds in one Christian tradition began doing things in one way while people from a different Christian background began doing them a different way. For a time chaos reigned. In some small groups members of the church would serve the Lord’s Supper, in others they wouldn’t; in some small groups people were baptizing each other and serving Lord’s Supper to children. There was no standard and eventually the pastors had to step in and intervene. By then, though, it was too late and many of these small groups “defected.” Having created their own theological identity and one that was at odds with that of the pastors, some of these groups left en masse. It was an inevitable result, I think, and one that proved to me that critical importance of doctrine being held in common by members of a church.

I found myself thinking about that church this weekend. I spent a good bit of my time reading the manuscript for Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, a book that is set to released sometime in the spring. The book discusses some of the resurgence of Reformed theology in our day and does so, in large part, through interviews with some of the pivotal figures in this resurgence. There was one quote by Josh Harris that caught my attention: “Once you’re exposed to [doctrine], you see the richness in it for your own soul, and you’re ruined for anything else.”

This is something I’ve experienced in my own life and something I’ve seen in the lives of other Christians. I once went on a weekend men’s retreat that featured teaching from several local pastors. We heard some interesting messages about serving our wives, about being men of integrity and so on. We had joyful times of worship and lots of time to blow each other away with paintball guns. The thing that has remained in my mind, though, was one of the sermons delivered that weekend. While we had received a steady diet of fairly typical evangelical sermons, one of the pastors stood and delivered what was, in effect, a biblically-grounded expository message. He simply opened up the Bible and explained to us what it meant and how we could apply it to our lives. He gave us real doctrine—true meat instead of mere milk. As we walked from the meeting room to our cabins I could tell there was a buzz running through the crowd of men. They had enjoyed the sermon and had been electrified by it. But they had no category for it. I heard comments like, “I don’t know what that was, but it was amazing! I wish we could hear more teaching like that!” I sat with a small group of men a few minutes later and introduced to them the concept of expositional preaching. Most had never heard of any such thing; neither had they ever enjoyed a sermon like it.

It was a pivotal moment for me. I drove home to me something that the Bible teaches but something I had never really seen before—that true believers want and eventually need to move from milk to meat. Though they may not have a category to describe what is missing from their lives they will feel a restlessness. The Spirit works in them to give them a craving for solid food. And when they take a bite of that food, their eyes light up and they know that they are experiencing something that they were meant to enjoy.

I saw this time and time again. The church was so good at bringing people in through the front doors. They would come in and very often would be saved. Many people were drawn in, became believers, and were baptized. But often they would not last at the church too long. Within a few months or a couple of years they would often step right out the back door. Few left the church and left the faith altogether. Rather, they would leave and head for churches where there was teaching that was more biblical. They would head for churches where the Word was the main thing. They would be drawn to stronger, more biblical teaching, even when they did not know how to express what they needed or what they longed for. Eventually they would find it. Needless to say, Aileen and I felt the same call. Though we stayed some time for the sake of our friends, eventually we, too, had to leave to find a place where the Word was central. And we could never go back.

This takes me back to Josh Harris. Once you’ve been exposed to doctrine you see the richness in it for your own soul and you truly are ruined for anything else. Just as a young child craves solid food, Christians will and must crave the meat of the Word. And once you’ve tasted it, there is no going back.

November 18, 2007

A question I am asked quite often goes something like this: “Do you ever have a day where you just do not want to write anything?” Are there ever days when the absolute last thing I want to do is to sit down and write? I can answer, quite honestly I think, that this happens only very rarely. There are definitely times where I don’t feel like I have much to say (and some would argue more than others, I suppose, about how often this happens) but there are very few days where I don’t care to write at all. The reasons is simple, really, and is something I’ve expressed often. Writing has become a critical part of my spiritual development. I write about things I’ve learned, and the desire to keep having things to write continually motivates me to seek to learn more. I think Saint Augustine said this best: “I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing.”

I love those words. They inspire me to see writing not only as a way of gaining more knowledge, but as a way of marking the progress of applying any knowledge I’ve acquired. I do not want to be a person who knows a lot but who has little ability to apply what I’ve learned or to use it to draw closer to God. Intellectual development may be important and may be gratifying, but it is a lousy end in itself. Rather, I see the pursuit of knowledge as the means to a greater end—glorifying and enjoying God. I write when I learn and learn by writing. There isn’t much I know that I haven’t written about.

So no, there are few days when I just can’t consider writing…

(A person who argues that everything I wrote here was just an excuse to share the quote from Augustine would probably be pretty well correct.)

November 16, 2007

One of the unexpected blessings of writing this blog is that it sets in stone (so to speak—it’s actually more like pixels) things that I’ve believed and things that I’ve felt. I use the blog, in some ways, as a record of spiritual development. I return quite often to articles I’ve written in the past to challenge myself anew or to recount God’s grace in my life.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who was a former co-worker and manager, succumbed to leukemia. It had actually been a few years since Mike and I had worked together and we had seen each other only occasionally since the company we had both worked for shut down. I found out about the leukemia through his wife who included me in the updates she would send out every week or two in order to keep friends and family appraised of his condition. I read these with increasing delight as he began to show positive signs of recovery, and with horror as the disease rallied and began to destroy him. I went to his home once to fix his wife’s computer. Mike was in the hospital at that time and his wife was nearly overwhelmed. “You know God, right? Tim, you’ve got to pray for us!” she cried out at one point. And I did.

I got in to the hospital to see Mike just once. Because of his weakened condition only visitors who were very healthy were allowed to visit him. We sat and talked and recounted old times. I wanted to know about Mike’s spiritual condition. It was obvious by that point that he was unlikely to survive his illness and I was concerned to know about his standing with the Lord. But before I could really ask him, a nurse swept into the room and told me the visit was over—Mike had to have some kind of awful but all-too-regular procedure. Mike soon took a turn for the worse and, after ten days in the palliative ward, he died. The day after I received the notice from his wife that he had been admitted to the palliative ward I sat down and wrote an article that continues to haunt me. It went like this:


How does a man say goodbye to his little girls, knowing that he will never see them again? And how does he do so without letting them know that this is the last time they will see their daddy? Does he look them straight in the eyes and affirm his undying love for them, or do words fail him so that he can do little more than hug and kiss them for the last time and then send them on their way? Does he still hold out hope that he will see them again? Or does he know in his heart of hearts that this is the end? Maybe he is so worn down from his long fight with cancer that he can barely feel or express emotion anymore. Maybe he just wants to be gone.

Yesterday I heard from the wife of my friend Mike that he has been accepted into the Palliative ward of a local hospital. It was almost exactly one year ago that he was diagnosed with leukemia and since that time all treatments have failed. At this point all they can do is attempt to relieve his suffering as he succumbs to the disease. His body will probably not hold out for another week. Soon he will leave his wife and his little girls on their own.

Those little girls are five and three - the same as my children. Mike has been married as long as I’ve been married and is around the same age. A couple of years older, I guess. But he isn’t all that much different than me. I guess that’s why his approaching death is so real; so vivid.

I wonder if the girls knew. Sometimes we do not give children enough credit. Maybe their intuition told them that something was happening. Probably not. Hopefully not. I hope all they know is that daddy is going back to the hospital and that they are going to spend a week with grandma. How are they supposed to guess, after the hundreds of times daddy has gone to the hospital, that this is his last time? How can they know that they have given daddy their final kiss? Will they even remember him when they are all grown up? Or will daddy be only a face in photographs who brings a lump to the throat, even after so many years?

As far as I know, Mike does not know the Lord. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about spiritual matters when we worked for the same company and I don’t think Mike ever understood the value of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If anything I’d say Mike was more a follower of Dr. Phil than of Jesus. There is not much I wouldn’t give at this point to be able to go and and ask him exactly what he believes. The imminence of death would surely give me the boldness I lacked even a couple of months ago when I last sat with him.

So now I sit here at the time when it is too late, wondering why I did not do more. Sure I told the family that I was praying for them and asked if I could pray with them. And sure I tried to get Mike to think about preparing for eternity. But I did so in such a pathetic way. Such a half-hearted way. I burn with shame as I write these words thinking of all I didn’t do and didn’t say. I feel burdened with guilt that Mike is days or maybe even hours away from standing before God, and that I did not make one clear, strong presentation of the gospel. I failed him. And I failed God.

Do you know what may be even worse? The likelihood that I’ll get over it. Two days from now I probably won’t even think of Mike. I’ll get busy with my life and the guilt will ease away. In a week or two I guess I’ll attend his funeral and feel this guilt again, but a few days after that I’ll conveniently put Mike out of my mind and go back to life. But you know what? I don’t want to get over it!

Truly I don’t.

This burden I feel right now - why can’t I feel this same burden for the lost all the time? Why is it a burden birthed from guilt rather than from a desire to see the lost be saved? I’ve asked God to tell me why. The only answer I find is the hardness of my own heart.

Still, with hope in my heart I pray for Mike, that maybe, just maybe, there will be someone in that hospital who can reach out to him with the message I failed to bring. Maybe God will bring to Mike’s mind some fragment of Scripture he heard as a child, or some words I shared with him years ago. Maybe. Hopefully.

With hopeful sadness I pray for Mike’s family, that somehow God would use this awful situation to draw them to Himself. That somehow God would make His presence felt and provide meaning through the pain.

And then with tears I pray for myself, that God would not allow this burden to disappear, but that he would use my shortcomings to teach me how I can do better next time, not simply to avoid this crushing, burning guilt, but to use the opportunities He provides.

Because I just don’t want to get over it. Oh God, please don’t let me get over it!


As I indicated, I return to this article fairly frequently. It stands as a reminder to me. It stands as a pillar of sorts, a reminder of a time that I did not take an opportunity that was given to me and a time that I feared men more than God. It allows me to remember the crushing guilt and the burning shame. It allows me to remember that I cried out to God not to let me commit the same sin again.

But it is also an opportunity to cast myself at the foot of the cross and to remember that Christ died to forgive even a sin like this. It is an opportunity to hope that someone, anyone, reached Mike with the gospel before he was called to account. And it is an opportunity to reaffirm that God is sovereign and that if Mike was to be counted among the people of God, the Lord would have used any means to reach out to one of His children. Despite my faithlessness, He is faithful.

November 12, 2007

As seems to be the case with most children, my friends and I went through a stage where we found great joy in tying people to things. In second or third grade we would take turns being the guys who would grab the skipping ropes and twist endless knots, fastening one of our friends to a tree or fence or flag pole. And, of course, we would take turns being the unfortunate one who was on the receiving end of the action. I remember one time when I was, thankfully, not the one being tied. It was recess, and we had only a few minutes to have our fun. We had tied a friend to a tree and it was now his time to play Houdini and escape from the ties. But something went wrong—we had tied him up too well. He struggled to get undone but could make little progress. And then, from across the school yard, the bell rang. We were torn. Should we help our friend and risk detention for being late to class? Or should we forsake our friend and look out first for ourselves? Typical children that we were, we left our friend struggling with the ropes and dashed for the door. A few minutes later he walked meekly into class, late and knowing there would be consequences.

I thought of this incident yesterday in what was a rather unlikely context. In our church’s evening service, a service that culminated in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we sang Stuart Townend’s hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Like all good hymns, this one gives a lot to think about; it contains deep and biblical content. As we sang it, I was struck by the words “It was my sin that held him there.” As we sang those words I found my mind bouncing to some of the other occasions in Jesus’ life, times when He escaped pain or death.

There were several occasions in Jesus’ life when He escaped the wrath of His enemies. For example, in John 8:56-59 Jesus called Himself by the name “I am,” utter blasphemy to the Jewish nation, and cause for death. Though they picked up stones with which to execute Him (in the temple, no less), he managed to hide Himself and to make His way out of the temple. Just a short time later, in John 10:31-39 we read that people picked up rocks and sought to stone Him. But Jesus escaped their attempts to arrest Him and to put Him to death. This was the pattern, for a while. The people would misinterpret Jesus, accusing Him of blasphemy one time and seeking to make Him king the next. Jesus would escape or rebuke to ensure that His mission did not get derailed.

But then came the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, drawing his sword and swinging at one of the men, clearly thought this was going to be another chance for Jesus to slip away from His accusers. But Jesus knew that this time would be different. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). With only a single word, Jesus could have summoned to his defense more than twelve legions of angels. Look to the Old Testament and you will see the kind of devastation that could be brought about by twelve legions of angels. With a single word Jesus could have caused the heavenly host that sang of His birth spring to His defense. But He did not. This was true in the Garden, in the court, and on the hill. This was true as the spikes were nailed into His body and as the cross was raised to the sky.

Some words that I first pondered a few years and that have continued to be deeply affecting to me are found in Matthew 27:50: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” The amazing thing about these words is that they show us that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. Though the nails had pierced His hands and feet, and though He had been beaten to be point of being almost unrecognizable, He died only when He decided to yield up His spirit. In his account of the crucifixion, John says Jesus “gave up His spirit.” This was an active, not a passive act. The significance of this wording is that it shows that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. He did not die because His body could take no more punishment or because of blood loss. He died because He decided it was time to die. His work was accomplished and there was no reason for Him to linger. And so he gave up His spirit and returned to His Father.

All of this tells me that Townend is right—it was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross. He could so easily have escaped the cross and, even if He decided to go there, could just as easily have escaped from the cross. He could have stepped down and watched as His angels gained vengeance on the heartless men who had nailed Him to that tree. But He did not. Jesus remained there until the work was accomplished. He stayed there until He had done the work His Father had assigned Him. He stayed there until He had secured the redemption of all of His people. It was not the nails that held Him, but His love for the Father and His love for us. It was my sin that held Him there in the deepest expression of love the world could ever know. It was death by love.

The key to it all comes from John 10:17-18. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” No one took Jesus’ life from Him. He did not lose it, He gave it.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

November 07, 2007

Of all the questions that find their way into my inbox, I don’t know that any topic receives more attention than reading. I get a lot of questions from people asking if I’ve read or can recommend certain titles, but also a lot of questions just about reading—how to do it and how to do it more. A couple of days ago, a friend and long-time reader of this site (one of this site’s very first readers, in fact) asked me a few questions about my “excessive reading”—why and how I read and asked if I would address these questions in an article. Having nothing better to write about today, I thought I would do just that. His questions will be in italics and will be followed by my replies. I hope you are able to find this interesting and perhaps even helpful.

I don’t really know how much I read. I suppose it would probably amount to roughly two to three books per week when averaged over the course of a year. By the end of the calendar year I typically find myself burning out a little bit and may not pick up a book for even a few weeks at a time. I write reviews of the majority of the books I read, though there are some I choose not to review. Sometimes I simply do not understand a book enough to adequately review it or sometimes I can think of nothing particularly interesting to say about it. Some books I do not review because I doubt that anyone else would be interested in those titles. I do most of my reading in the morning and the evening. After I wake up and spend some time in personal devotions, I either hit the couch or my exercise bike and try to read for half an hour to an hour. In the evenings I tend to open up a book after I’ve put the children to bed and try to get in an hour or two of good reading.

Do you feel that your foundational convictions have been changed any or much by your reading? Do you think you have become more relaxed on certain doctrines than you once were or more dogmatic?

I do not think that my foundational convictions have changed much by reading, if by foundational convictions we mean the theology that lies closest to the gospel. I would certainly say that much of that theology has been clarified and strengthened in my mind as I’ve come to understand things better, but I have not had any huge epiphanies where I’ve laid aside any foundational theology. I am reasonably certain that my foundational theology is largely biblical. It is not nearly as deep or as solidly-formed as I might like, but I do believe it is biblical and is simply the doctrine that has been handed down to me as a person who grew up in sound churches.

To answer the second part of this question, there are some doctrines about which I’ve become more relaxed and others about which I’ve become more dogmatic. I’m not sure how much this owes to my reading and how much it owes to my times of Bible study, research and writing. But I’ve definitely come to see that there are some areas where I need to relax a little bit and to rejoice that people are following their biblically-informed consciences; there are some areas that I’ve found just do not merit a great deal of attention. People who have read this site for a long time will probably be able to see a difference between what I was writing in 2004 and what I’m writing now. The flavor has changed, the tone has changed, and I believe a lot of that is because of what I’ve learned through the books I’ve read. At the same time, I’ve learned more about the “hills to die on” and am more dogmatic than ever about the doctrines that lie at the heart of the faith.

My father-in-law once wrote a paper, when he was working on his MDiv., on the topic of “Wine in the Bible”. He came to the conclusion that every instance of the word “wine” in the Bible referred to non-fermented grape juice and insisted that total abstinence was the only Biblical position a Christian should take. I have a book by Kenneth Gentry entitled “The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages” that presents a different view. My father-in-law based his convictions on books that he had read and he refused to read anything that presented another position. I’m using this example to ask this: How much should we read of alternate points of view? Is it right to simply seek those books that present what we already believe in or should we read other works? Should we approach these books with an “Open Mind” or have our mind made up?

I believe there is great value in reading books that may not align with what a person already believes. Of course one rarely knows whether he will agree with a book until he has read it, but usually by looking at endorsements and researching the author we can have a pretty good idea of what an author will teach. I make a point of reading books I am quite certainly I will disagree with. I do this for several reasons. First, I think my convictions are strengthened when I read alternative points of view. In fact, sometimes reading alternative points of view really helps me understand what I believe in a way I did not before. There’s nothing like reading that penal substitutionary atonement is “cosmic child abuse” to make me sharpen my understanding of that doctrine. Second, I believe it is important to keep growing and to keep sharpening my beliefs. I am under no illusion that all I believe is entirely correct, so I am eager to read how other people interpret Scripture so I can test it and see if what I believe does adhere to the Word of God. And finally, I think it is important to know what other people believe.The books that I tend to agree with are books that represent the beliefs of only a small percentage of Christians and only the tiniest fraction of humanity. If I want to understand what others believe and to understand why they believe these things, I’m going to need to read the books they are reading.

I should note that, while all reading requires discernment, reading books that come from a theological perspective far different from my own requires an extra measure. I believe we should major on good books, but do not feel there is anything wrong with minoring on not-so-good books.

And, if you’re interested, I disagree with your father-in-law’s conclusion.

How much of a book do think you retain? Are they like episodes of “Little House on the Prairie?” You remember seeing them and you remember being moved by them but you can’t remember a single one of them now!

The amount I retain varies a great deal from book-to-book. If I am reading a book out of desire, because it is a book whose subject matter greatly interests me, I will tend to enjoy reading it more and will tend to remember more. When the book is one I am reading more out of necessity, feeling that this is a title that needs to be reviewed for one reason or another, I am less likely to remember a lot about it. I find reading with pen and pencil in hand and writing a review are both great ways of reinforcing what the book teaches and helping me file it away in my mind. I can always return to the review to refresh my memory.

I should say that my goal in reading a book is not necessarily to remember everything. I’m quite aware that I’m no Al Mohler and work within the limitations of my mind and memory. My goals are more modest and probably more realistic for someone who can only just manage to remember my own first name most days without first having to read the label on my underwear. I often read books in order to know what that book contains so that if I need to focus on a particular area, I can return to it as a resource. While I may not often remember the complete structure and content of a book, I’ll often remember the more important points within the book and can often quickly flip to the part of the book I want to reference, even months later. For some reason my brain often works in such a way that I can remember the place on the page that I read something. Thus I can skim a book looking only at the bottom right corners or the odd pages, knowing that I saw something down there.

I’ll shamefully admit that there are a few books (a very few) that I’ve noticed in my list of reviews of which I have no memory whatsoever. I’ve apparently read and reviewed them, but remember absolutely nothing of them. But this is definitely the exception far more than the rule.

Is reading a Hobby, a Pacifier, both or neither?

I still read primarily for my own benefit. It sounds selfish, I’m sure, but I tend to read mostly because I know there is so much to learn and I’m eager to learn it. Just last night my wife said to me (and not in a bad way), “You’re one of those people who always feels you need to improve yourself. No matter what you learn, you think you need to learn more.” And I guess that’s about it. The more I learn, the more I see that I need to still learn. This is not a burden to me, but a challenge. Reading and learning is a joy. It is a hobby of sorts and perhaps even a bit of a calling. I enjoy it more than I enjoy most other things I could do with the time. I enjoy the process of reading and love to see in my life the benefits of reading good books.

As I’ve become a book reviewer I’ve also had to begin reading books simply because they need to be reviewed. This has stretched me and has introduced me to some great books I might otherwise have overlooked. But it has also led me to some books that were terribly boring and which I did not enjoy at all. There are always a few books on my shelf that are “need to read” books. Some of these have been pleasurable, but some have been a fight from cover-to-cover. For some reason I enjoyed reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion but utterly despised reading Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. They are similar in their assumptions and similar in what they teach, but one was a chore while the other was a strange pleasure of sorts.

What is your ultimate aim in reading so much?

I suppose I’ve touched on this already. But my ultimate aim in reading is to bring glory to God. I do this first by delighting in reading—a gift from God. I do this also by reading good books and applying to my life what I’ve learned. And I try to do this as well by making other people aware of good books. This is an unexpected ministry God has given me and one I take seriously. I know that most people do not have the time to read as many books as I do, and neither do they have interest in doing so. So I make it a point to read a lot of books so I can recommend to other people a handful of books they may like to read. If a person is only going to read three or four books a year, I’d be delighted if he read my reviews and chose four good, solid, biblical books as the ones he is going to read that year. I am happy to do the screening work and to serve as a filter, separating the mountains of chaff from the few kernels of wheat.

I find that as I read a lot my praise becomes more sparse, but the praise I do give out becomes more meaningful. After all, when I had read just two books, I had only one way of seeing them—one was better than the other. As I’ve read more and more, the relationships have compounded and I become more and more difficult to impress. So now when I do come across a book that blows my socks off, I find that my recommendations mean more as they are made in the light of hundreds of other “competitors.” I believe that a positive review today means more than a positive review three or four years ago. And well it should. So if you read my reviews, keep an eye out for superlatives as they are becoming increasingly meaningful.

Read it and remains a pleasure. I hope and pray it remains that way to me.

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