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Personal Reflections

August 27, 2007

It strikes me often how life is cyclical; how things I wrestle with and ponder and pray about will come to the forefront of my life and faith a month or a year or two years later. One of the biggest blessings of having a journal (which is often how this site functions for me) is that I can go back and see how I dealt with these things in the past. It is good to see how situations repeat themselves but how my responses may vary with time and Christian experience.

In the past couple of years I’ve often given a lot of thought to the nature and strength of my faith: the things of God in which I have great faith, and those in which I have little faith or even no faith at all. These times of reflection has been both a delight and a sorrow; a joy and an embarrassment.

I have seen that my faith can be pictured as something like a line graph. Certain points along the x-axis are very high along the y-axis and, I trust, almost unshakable. I believe, for example, that God exists. This is a faith that God has placed in my heart and I do not believe that it can be shaken, or at least surely not destroyed. I never struggle with whether or not God exists. Beside that there are other high points in my faith: the Bible is God’s Word to us and is inerrant; God has saved me and adopted me into His family; God loves me; there is a heaven; Jesus Christ died to take the penalty of my sin. These are all areas in which I have a good deal of faith and I praise God for this.

As we travel down the x-axis, down towards the long tail (that portion of the graph which skirts the 0 on the x-axis, but doesn’t quite reach it), we come to areas where my faith is not quite so strong. Here we will find my belief that God truly does desire to bring me the best through adversity. Here we will find my belief that God does hear and answer prayer. These are things I believe, but without the strength of conviction of those I listed earlier. They are areas where I tend to see emotion come into conflict with knowledge—with what I know to be true but often don’t accept as truth.

This gentle slope continues almost until the line almost touches against the x-axis, the place where my faith seems to just run out. It just stops. Just like that we come to the edge of my faith and are left with those areas where my faith is vague and distant and shows little conviction. I know certain things are true in my head, but my heart rebels. And what is lurking down here? The one thing I’ve found through all my heart-searching is the faith that God will take care of my family if I cannot; that He can do far better at taking care of them than I can. You see, I desire heaven. I truly do want to be in heaven and to see an end to this life which is so filled with pain and discomfort and all manner of things that will be absent in heaven. I do desire to be with the Lord and know that this desire is healthy. Yet I must desire it just a little less than I desire to stay right here. And the principle reason for this, I’m convinced, is that I don’t trust God with my family.

I know that if I were to go to heaven I would leave my family here without me. Aileen would be left without a husband and my children would be left without their daddy. And who would take care of them? Who would support the family financially, bringing in the money to buy food and clothing? Who would put a roof over their heads? Who would continue my work in teaching my son to play baseball and who would tell my daughter she looks beautiful when she puts on her favorite pink dress and spins across the room? Who would cuddle and tickle the baby every morning? Who would make sure the doors are locked and quietly assure the children that “daddy is here, everything will be alright?”

I have given my family to God. I have said to God that He is free to do what He wills with them and I will accept His decision. And I’ve meant it, as much as I can. Of course I know that God is not dependent on me in this way, but it was a faith-building exercise for me. Likewise I have given Him my life, begging Him to live in and through me and to use me however He sees fit, even if that means bringing me home to Himself. But despite my pleas and despite my apparent faith in His goodness, I am still not ready to leave my family. Maybe in my head I am, but certainly not in my heart.

I guess what it comes down to is the harsh truth that I trust God with my life, but not with theirs. I trust that He will provide for them, but only through me. The hypocrisy in my heart is terrible, I know. Somehow I believe that God needs me to take care of my family. Somehow I believe that He will provide for them, but yet I don’t believe He can or will do it apart from me. Somehow I must believe that I am the one taking care of them.

But there must be a second factor at work here. I must also have too low a view of heaven. If all that God has revealed about heaven is true, and I believe it is, I ought to desire it more than anything. I should feel the same anticipation as the apostles who spoke continually about their hope being not in this life, but in the life to come. It is clear to me that I am basking in temporary, fleeting pleasures that are merely a shadow of what is to come, and enjoying these so much I am not looking forward to the real thing. I am licking my lips in anticipation of the crumbs that will fall under the table rather than anticipating the great feast that is to come.

And I guess the third factor is that I do not, in my heart of hearts, trust the church to fulfill its role in caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure they would be there initially and for a few weeks the freezer would be stuffed full of macaroni casseroles, but my faith does not extend to six or eight months down the road when I have long since been forgotten and the deepest loneliness sets in to the family.

So this is my confession based on much reflection. It is almost embarrassing to write about this. It is humiliating to come to the edge of my faith. Yet I trust that with His help He and I will be able to push the edge of my faith further up that slope. And God is good to reassure me, even through the very people I am so hesitant to leave. Just yesterday afternoon my daughter turned to me, completely out of the blue, and said, “Daddy, I don’t have to be scared if I wake up at night because God is holding my hand. It says in the Bible that God holds us in the palm of His hand. God will always take care of me.” What joy it brought to my heart to hear that simple expression of my daughter’s fledgling faith that there is a God and that He cares. And somewhere, somehow, despite the rebellion of my heart, I know that He will protect them no matter what, with or without my help.

August 21, 2007

Reflecting on the sin of envy.

It is healthy, I think, to reflect at times upon the evil of my heart. This seems like a terribly negative thing to do, but I believe it is an important discipline of my spiritual life that I seek to discover where evil lurks within my heart. There are some areas in my heart where, through God’s grace, sin has been routed, pushed back. There are certain temptations that are no longer temptations and certain sins that no longer stir my soul. But there are others, always others, that like a volcano are sometimes dormant, sometimes active. It is in times of reflection and meditation upon God’s Word that I am able to see and understand those places that I have allowed sin to make its awful presence known.

I often see the evil of my heart most clearly when I become aware that I have begrudged another person a blessing. Perhaps another man has been given a salary increase or a generous bonus and now has money that I do not. Perhaps another man has been given a position of responsibility at work or at church. This man has been given a blessing and I resent it. I see that he has been blessed and I react with envy and resentment. If pride is the most common, insidious sin (and one that has justly received a lot of attention in the church of late), surely envy follows soon after. I went looking for resources on envy recently and, to my surprise, found an article I had written a few years ago that dealt with the very topic. It was inspired by some words I had read from the pen of Os Guinness.

In his book The Call he says this:

Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh, and thus a “cold” and highly “respectable” sin, in contrast to the “warm” and openly “disreputable” sins of the flesh, such as gluttony. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.

Without pride and without envy, many other sins would not exist. Would there be adultery without pride or envy? Would there be gluttony? It is for good reason that the Ten Commandments conclude with a prohibition against coveting, for it is the desire of our hearts that leads us into sin. Envy is a deeply private but destructive form of covetousness. It was Aquinas who provided a famous definition of envy when he suggested it is “sorrow at another’s good.” Guinness says:

Envy enters when, seeing someone else’s happiness or success, we feel ourselves called into question. Then, out of the hurt of our wounded self-esteem, we seek to bring the other person down to our level by word or deed. They belittle us by their success, we feel; we should bring them down to their deserved level, envy helps us feel. Full-blown envy, in short, is dejection plus disparagement plus destruction.

Dorothy Sayers said, “Envy begins by asking plausibly: ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ and it ends by demanding: ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’” Guinness provides a clear example of the truth of this statement, using the words of Sir John Gielgud, “When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet in 1948, and the critics raved, I wept.” These are startling words but ones with which I can identify. While others have raved I have often wept or have often wanted to weep. While I should have been offering congratulations or encouragement, too often I have been muttering and grinding my teeth, begrudging another man a blessing. What an indictment this is of my sinful heart.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the fact that pride is essentially competitive. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”

And this envy, so dark and so evil, so competitive and so selfish, lives in my heart. It lives in yours. One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most resent. Guinness reminds his readers of Thomas Mann who showed that “we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings. Musicians generally envy musicians, not politicians; politicians other politicians; sportspeople other sportspeople; professors other professors; ministers other ministers.” Those whom we should help and support are those against whom we set ourselves, driven mad by their success.

Thankfully, there is a cure for envy. The cure comes in a contentment found in comparing ourselves not to mere men, but to Christ. It comes in setting our minds on heavenly matters. The task of each believer is to do all he can with what God has given him. He is not to resent what has been given to another and is not to feel he needs to accomplish the task of another. He is to be a faithful steward of the gifts, blessings and resources that have been provided to him. We are not all called to the same task and we will not all experience the same blessings on earth. And when it is time to receive our reward, each of us will be rewarded not on the basis of the quantity of the blessings we received, but on the quality of our response to these blessings, no matter how abundant.

I will close with the words of Charles Spurgeon.

The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.
August 11, 2007

Chaos reigns. I’m down here just a little ways out of Chattanooga where, in just a few hours, my little sister Grace is going to get married. It is hot. Deathly hot. Even the Atlantans seem to be reeling from it. People have gathered from far and wide. Members of our family have travelled in from Ottawa, Toronto and even as far afield as Vancouver. Many of us have rented a series of cabins in Cloudland Canyon National Park—a stunningly beautiful area of north-western Georgia just a few minutes from the Tennessee border. So this is a family reunion of sorts and it is just wonderful to see family members I haven’t seen for a year or two. Grace will be married in a church about a half hour from here and the reception will be held at Covenant College where she and my other sisters went to school.

Aileen was put in charge of making up the bridesmaids bouquets along with the bouquets for the flower girls. With two flower girls and ten bridesmaids it was no small task. She finished that just a few minutes ago and, for the first time today, we have just a few moments of downtime. In ten minutes we’ll have to call the kids in and get them dressed up. My son is the ringbearer and my daughter is one of the bridesmaids, so they have to dressed and ready to go on time for photos which will take place before the ceremony.

And now duty is calling and I have to get going. In just a couple of hours my third (and final!) sister will be married.

August 09, 2007

The value of inviting and pursuing correction.

A couple of days ago I wrote a short article called Her Good or Mine. The purpose of the article was simple: to ask whether I really try to help my wife seek after godliness or whether instead I try to help her seek after my own selfish goals. Do I try to help her become ever more conformed to the image of Christ or do I selfishly try to help her become conformed to some standard I have set. I must not have made this point very clear because a few people used the article to accuse me of being a domineering husband who scolds my wife like a naughty child.

Now I’m certainly not the husband I could be and am not the husband I’d like to be, but I don’t treat my wife like a child (and checked with her to make sure I’m not blinded to my own faults in this way). However, I do take sin seriously not only in my own life but in the life of those who are near to me. I seek to help my wife grow in godliness and sometimes this can only be done by occasional loving confrontation—I confront her with evidence of sin in her life and, if necessary, seek to show her why this is sin and why she should address it. I try hard not to play the role of the Holy Spirit, the one who convicts us of sin, but only the one who makes her aware of a sin and potentially its outworkings and effects on those of us who are closest to her. I agree with those who said that it is the role of God to bring about change. I agree entirely. Yet I also know that God often uses people as the agent of change or, at the very least, to be the one who makes another person aware of a sin.

I’ve often heard C.J. Mahaney share a story about being in a restaurant and spotting a well-dressed businessman heading out of the store. He was wearing a suit and tie and was dressed to make the big sale. But he walked into the business world with a big splotch of cream cheese on the side of his face. C.J. uses this as a metaphor for sin in a person’s life, showing that sometimes a certain sin may be apparent to everyone but the person who commits it. And from there he teaches on the need for inviting and pursuing correction. It is not enough to desire to be corrected when there is sin in your life. Sometimes you need to deliberately seek correction.

After I read some of the comments about my first article both on this site and on other sites, I spoke to Aileen and said, “You do know that it is always open season on my life, right?” And what I mean by that is that I am always open to her coming to me to confront me with sin. Again, this is not shouting, screaming, accusing, vindictive confrontation, but loving, compassionate, biblical confrontation that seeks to draw the other person closer to Christ. I want to reaffirm to her that if there is sin in my life, she is uniquely placed to see it before anyone else and I want her to address it before anyone else. I would far rather have her address my sin than to head out into life with a big old chunk of cream cheese hanging from my beard. I know that she feels the same. My close friends will attest that I also seek correction from them. They know me well and I want them to make me aware of sin they see in my life. I try not to be only reactive when it comes to sin, but to invite correction. And I don’t think anyone has taught me more about this than Mahaney. In his books and blogs and sermons and sessions at conferences I’ve often been challenged with his understanding of the need and value of this kind of correction. And in my own life I’ve seen its value.

And this is what I was discussing the other day. I was simply suggesting that I have had to be careful when addressing sin in the life of my wife that I am addressing sin from God’s perspective and not from my own—that I am addressing behavior that offends God and not just me.

Let me end with some valuable advice I’ve heard C.J. dispense a few times. Gentlemen: set aside two or three hours when you can be alone with your wife and free from interruption (if you are not married, do the same with a close friend or your pastor and ask questions that will probe deeply into your behavior). Then ask her two very specific questions. Where do I need to grow in serving and leading you? Where do I need to grow in serving and leading the children? And without anger or defensiveness, allow her to speak to you about your sin and about your life. Invite correction, pursue correction, and let the Spirit convict you of sin, knowing that He will provide the power to overcome it.

August 08, 2007

Nine years ago, on this very day, my best friend got married. It was one of the first weddings I had ever been to and I remember it well. It was a beautiful wedding, I thought, exactly the kind I might have planned. It was simple but dignified, homespun but not cheap. The mother of the bride had not only arranged all of the arrangements and bouquets, but had even grown the flowers, having planned for this day since the spring. A small greenhouse in the backyard, specially constructed by the bride’s father, had made it possible to grow some beautiful flowers. The cake was wonderful and also a creation of the mother of the bride.

The bride was beautiful, of course, and was glowing with joy from the moment we first saw her as she walked into the church. Not one to want to be the center of attention, she was shy but happy to have her turn being the bride. It was her day more than anyone else’s.

The day was hot. In fact, talking to people who had been at my best friend’s wedding, the heat is one of the things they remember most. The ceremony had taken place in a beautiful, historic Anglican church with a grand pipe organ that had been played by a very skillful organist. The wedding began in the morning so it was not too hot in shelter of the great stones that made up the church. The couple was married in a traditional Christian ceremony and then moved to a nearby old town hall, another historic building, though one without air conditioning. The photos for the day show the groomsmen wearing tuxedos to begin the reception, and then only vests, and then only shirts. Faces got redder and redder as morning turned into afternoon. But no one seemed to mind. The speeches were fun and dignified, the reception short but meaningful. And then the bride and groom were gone, off to begin their new lives together. It truly was a great day.

It’s been nine years and my best friend is still happy, and in fact, happier than on that day. Life has thrown that couple a few curves but they love each other more today than they did even on a day as memorable as that one. God has been good to them. God has blessed my best friend and, in fact, has blessed me through my best friend. He has been at the very center of that relationship since the first day, binding the two together.

I remember my best friend’s wedding like it was yesterday. And really it sometimes almost seems that it was just a few days ago that they walked up that aisle; that we walked up the aisle and into a new life. Because on this day, nine short years ago, my best friend married me.

Happy nine, my love.

August 06, 2007

Asking myself why I want her to change…

I have been thinking about this subject for a while now. I’ve even tried to write about it once or twice with decidedly poor results, causing me to give up and put it aside for another day. I’m going to give it another shot today and hope it works out better.

It was probably a month ago, or sometime around then, that I found myself faced with what should be a simple question. I had been talking to Aileen about some things in her life and character just the way husbands and wives do. I was trying to be a good husband, helping her work through a couple of areas where I thought she should examine her heart to see if she needed to make some changes. She would be the first to admit that there are areas where she can and should change to better reflect the Christ-like character she wants to have. And, as her husband, I have a better view than anyone else. And so I occasionally raise such issues. But it turns out that I’m sinful too. There are many areas in my life where I know I need to commit to change—areas that still have not been brought under the Lordship of Christ. As I spoke to her I began to ask myself, “Why do I want her to change?” Again, this should be a simple question, but as I began to unravel my heart, and as I began to try to get to the bottom of my motives, I was rather surprised at what I found.

Yesterday our pastor opened his sermon by talking about the many young men who have come to him of the course of his pastoral ministry asking him, “How do I know if I really love a girl?” He suggested this as a useful response: You know you love someone when you feel profoundly committed to them and to their good. And it does seem like a good response. This response helped me tie together some of the thoughts that have been trying to coalesce in my mind these past weeks.

I am committed to Aileen. There is no doubt about it. She is the one for me and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do to make her happy. I love her to death. This Wednesday we’ll celebrate our ninth anniversary and I love her now more than ever. I am committed to her good as well. But this is where things get tricky; this is where the lines seem to blur. What is her good? It seems clear to me that what is best for her is to have her character conformed more and more to the image of Jesus Christ. Her good is Christ-likeness. And thus when I challenge her on areas in her life, when I seek after her good, the ultimate goal should be to help her see where she is falling short of the example of Christ and to help her strive towards the character of a Christian. I hope she holds this out as the goal as well when she feels that she needs to challenge or confront me.

The problem is that often I confuse her good with my good. And this is what I’ve been thinking about and trying to write about all this time: how often do my concerns for change in her life really center around me? How often, when I address an area in her life am I really just trying to make my own life easier? How often do my exhortations, which I strive to make gentle and loving, revolve around how she has fallen short of my standards rather than God’s?

It turns out, I think, that my motives are often far from pure. Far too often I hold out my needs, my desires, myself as the standard. I’m trying to invoke change, not to lead her closer to the Savior, but to conform her to standards I’ve set for her. It turns out that in supposedly seeking her good, I’m actually seeking my own. How utterly self-centered of me.

So this has been my challenge. Am I really committed to my wife being a more godly woman, or am I content with trying to just make her a better wife (with better being defined by me)? It’s been an interesting process and I think and I hope that I am beginning to see it all through new eyes.

(I don’t often add this kind of note to the end of my posts, but I want to clarify that I don’t scold my wife constantly. Neither does she have an abnormal number of areas in her life where she is in desperate need of change. I think I’m discussing here the kind of conversations that happen in any marriage and between any husband and wife…)

July 11, 2007

Here’s something a little bit different. I’ve been asked to guest on a radio program for today, so rather than typing out an article today, I’ll simply refer you to the program. It will go out live this afternoon from 1-2 PM EST. If you’re in the area of Greenville, South Carolina, you should be able to listen on your radio. Everyone else can pick it up over the Net through the audio stream. We’ll be talking about the book, the blog, Discerning Reader and whatever else comes up. I believe the phones will be open for at least some of the time, so if you feel the need to make fun of a Canadian today, here’s your chance.

You can read details of the program, “Calling For Truth,” right here.

Calling for Truth

June 17, 2007

Today is Father’s Day and I thought I’d share something I posted here before—an article I wrote for my dad three years ago on this day.

Like most boys I idolized my father. When I was a child you would have had a difficult time convincing me that there was anyone smarter, faster or stronger than my dad. I really did believe it when I told my friends that “my dad can beat up your dad!” And it may well have been true. Dad was a landscaper, and for eight months of every year he spent just about every waking hour hauling loads of soil from his truck to the gardens and manipulating enormous rocks to make sure they looked just right. Though this took a physical toll on him, it left him stronger than an ox. When he and I used to wrestle, I could make absolutely no headway against him. I would run at him and hit him with all that I had, but even with a full head of steam I could not knock him off-balance. He would just grab me with his rough, leathery hands and toss me aside like I was barely even there.

Dad had working man hands. I’ll never forget those hands; they were hard as rock. Holding dad’s hand was like holding a sanding block and just about as uncomfortable. As he labored day-in and day-out, his hands built up so many rough calluses that they soon became as hard as dried leather. They were scarred with the evidence of so many bumps and bruises inflicted on job sites. I saw in his hands an ideal, for to me they represented a hard-working man who labored diligently to support his family. I felt pride when I compared his hands to those of men who spent their lives at desks - there really was no comparison - and looked forward to the day when my hands would be hard and callused like dads’. I believe there is something inside each of us that really wants nothing more than to carry out God’s original command to humans which was to till the soil and to care for the earth. Dad had the privilege of doing that every day and the even greater privilege of loving nothing more.

Yet behind his love for working with plants and rocks and soil, I think dad always felt a twinge of shame and regret. He grew up in an affluent family, one which had a long history of politicians and lawyers. My grandfather was a Supreme Court judge, and dad’s uncles were members of parliament. Surely, dad felt deep inside, landscaping was not a profession suitable for a man from such lineage. Finally succumbing to the pressure he had created in himself, he returned to school, upgrading his two Bachelor’s degrees to a Master’s. For several years he worked diligently, studying languages, history and theology. A strange thing happened. As the months turned into years I noticed that his hands no longer felt like leather. The longer he labored in school, the softer his hands became. Before long his hands were much like mine - soft and free from calluses.

Dad graduated with a Master’s degree and tried so hard to be happy in an office job. He tried his hand at a few things and it wasn’t so much that he wasn’t good at them as that he just did not enjoy what he was doing. He found himself thinking nostalgically of burying his hands in fresh topsoil and sculpting beautiful gardens where there had been nothing but weeds and chaos. Finally it became too much and one day dad went and bought himself a great, big pickup truck. He returned to sculpting the soil he had left behind.

Now whenever I see dad he has dirt under his fingernails. His hands are once again as hard as dried leather and I can’t imagine my son feels any more comfortable holding his hand than I did so many years ago. As he returns shamelessly to the task for which God created Him, his hands again bear evidence of his labor.

It occurs to me as I write this that one day we are all going to stand before God and it’s as if He is going to reach down to each of us and feel our hands. He has assigned to all of His children the same task, and it is a difficult one. We need to take His message into all the world, diligently and shamelessly proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. If our hands are not as rough as sandpaper and do not feel like old leather, perhaps we are not being diligent in that labor. If our hands bear no scars, perhaps we have not received the cuts and bruises that are bound to come to those who go forth on His behalf. Our hands must bear the evidence of our labor.